Words by:
Photography: Marina Coenen
Dress: Piero d'Angelo

This is Signing Off, our year-end series with the artists who defined 2023

Marina Herlop creates expansive, uncanny compositions that stretch your imagination. Her classical training as a pianist fuels her intricate digital productions, while her lush, multilayered vocals sound both earthy and alien. But when the Catalan musician released her long-delayed third album, Pripyat, in 2022, she never expected it to receive such impassioned critical acclaim, earn her a fan in Björk, or send her on a two-year tour stretching between Canada, Latin America and Europe.

Her fourth record Nekkuja only arrived in November, although she wrote it just after finishing Pripyat, before her career took that dramatic upward turn. A wild, surprising album loosely themed around gardening as a creative metaphor, its peaks and valleys demand active listening. Herlop’s songs could never be background music. From the gentle, grounded Karada, a track celebrating the musicality of birdsong and rushing water, to the total grandeur of Reina Mora, with its dizzying piano interrupted by half-spoken words and sharp handclaps, Nekkuja is ornate and adventurous, and sounds like little else.

When we speak, Herlop is at home in Barcelona, preparing for another stint on the road with her band. She tells us what she’s learned about herself this year, and how Nekkuja is no more, and no less, than a testament to her devotion to music. As she puts it, she simply “has no choice”.

Crack: You’ve had a milestone year. Can you share any reflections?

2022 felt like when you’re falling in love and everything’s great, everything’s fresh. All the adrenaline can hide other emotions. 2023 has felt more solid. It’s my second year touring, and I finally feel like, ‘OK, I’m running this project!’ I’m learning how to be assertive. This year has also made me reflect on where I want my career to go. Should I perform a lot and make my business successful? Or should I cultivate my piano skills? Maybe success is having enough income to live, and then being able to go deep into the music. These are the sorts of questions this year has brought to me.

Which song have you most enjoyed performing this year?

Cosset, especially when we perform it with the band. It’s a very upbeat song that sets a more loosened-up, light and lively climate in the performance that stays for the rest of the show.

You wrote Nekkuja while you waited several years for Pripyat to be released. Then you had to wait again for Nekkuja to be released. How has constant waiting shaped these songs?

I think it proves that I make music because I have no choice. A sane person, I think, would have stopped. It makes sense now because all this good stuff has happened, but I was here at home thinking, “Why do I put in so much effort? Oh my god, I’m a loser!” So, in a way, Nekkuja is a statement. Everything was a disaster, career-wise, but I was just like: OK, another album. Let’s see.

Surely that drive to create, and the ability to take your music seriously no matter what, is already a form of success.

Totally. Now, the thoughts I’m having are, ‘OK, this is going well, but I need to go back to the piano. I need to train, I need to write.’ Music has saved me at points in my life; from breakups, from the un-success of my career. That bond is something that not everyone has with anything at all. I’m very lucky for that.

Some tracks on Nekkuja are sung in Catalan – La Alhambra, for instance – but on all four of your albums you use non-verbal vocals, emphasising sound over meaning. What do you find interesting about using your voice in this way?

You know, it’s more that nothing drives me to write lyrics. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve listened to music in English and other languages, even in Spanish, and I’ve never cared about the lyrics. I thought no one cared about lyrics! I’ve never understood music as a story.

On Karada you also use organic sounds. What can you say with birdsong that you can’t with (human) lyrics?

It’s all just sound. Birdsong is beautiful in itself – the frequencies. For me, vocals are the same. If I tell a story with words, it feels like the human drama is polluting the aura of the song. I don’t want to evoke an image for the listener. It’s all purely musical. It’s a game of frequencies and elements which appear and disappear; it’s structure, rhythm, texture, speed.

When Nekkuja was released, you wrote on Instagram: “In the same way cats bring dead animals, I see a music album as an offering you bring to the gods.” How does music feel like giving?

Well, the creative process is draining! You’re demanding yourself to give the best that you can give. But if you’re able to finish that process, knowing that you did your best, then you’re at peace. I feel happy, but it’s not related to pleasure. It’s happiness, as in, I have a direction in life. It [almost feels] like those famous people’s cars, where even if someone shoots at them they’re protected?

An armoured car? Like the Pope’s?

Yes! That’s how protected I feel by this album. I know that I did my best, and that feels honest to me. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I do think that the music you make, you give it. To whom, I don’t know.

I heard that you visited a medium before releasing Pripyat. Did you seek similar advice for Nekkuja?

I’ve been chasing that woman for ages! Maybe it proves she was a real one, because clearly she’s not interested in making money. The older I get, instead of becoming more rational and less dreamy, it’s the opposite. I would love to have direct contact with… those guys [up there].

Is there any pressure for a fifth album?

Yes, but from myself. I have to satisfy my own demands, and they come from hell! I’m such a bitch, so if I’m happy with the results, I think other people are going to be happy, too.

How would you describe 2023 through the lens of your art?

It feels like my career is just starting to take off. This portal is opening up, with the relationship that you create with listeners, and with the people who come to the shows. It’s a big deal, emotionally. This all feels very intimate and profound.

This year in one word?