I am staring into the black of a FaceTime window when ML Buch materializes. She’s scrunched up in the driver’s seat of a stationary SUV, facing the phone on her dashboard. Through her rear window is a postcard-perfect view of rolling hills interrupted, in her enormous luggage compartment, by a mysterious jumble of dining chairs. “I’m moving stuff around right now,” she says in her half-asleep way, twisting her shirt collar with an air of vague apology. Her outline glints in the sunlight like an unresolved green screen transfer—a dissonance befitting this Danish art-pop composer, virtually unknown to the world beyond the digital wilderness of her music.
The songwriter has driven to the outskirts of Copenhagen to discuss Skinned, her luminous debut LP. The album, released without much fanfare this July, is at once surreal and hyperreal, set in an interzone between online ephemera and the human subconscious. Buch casts yearning melodies, vaporous guitars, and nostalgic keyboard sounds into the songs’ wide-open spaces, letting them sit uneasily in her not-quite-synthpop productions. At their best, these tracks make the listener feel as if they’re processing each individual instrument from the perspective of a computer’s software.
“It’s exciting to peek into the skeleton of the song, especially if it’s an efficient pop song,” says Buch of “Touching Screens,” a power-pop devotional to technology’s glossy sheen. Still, she never lets her aesthetics smother the music’s emotive heartbeat. On “Can’t Get Over You With You,” a breakup anthem for the somewhat-too-online, she offsets baroque keyboard flourishes with elegiac vocals. “I need to quit lurking on your profile,” she sings with a cosmic loneliness. “I’m OK, but you need to back off for a while.”
Buch reaches familiar conclusions about the ways digital communication exhausts and alienates us, but she takes the scenic route. Beneath her skepticism is a fascination with tech’s influence on romance and the human body. After receiving a government grant, she once swallowed a pill containing a camera that filmed her digestive tract and then broadcast the result during a live show. (The footage doubles as surreal visual accompaniment to Skinned on YouTube.) The gesture was “pretty intimate, but then again not, because everyone’s insides look like that,” she reasons. By exposing something banally universal as if it were an act of radical vulnerability, she drew a wry parallel with our social-media habits. The stunt, she adds, was “a very literal way of internalizing technology.”
Raised in the Copenhagen suburbs by a pub-rocker dad and fiddler/accordionist mom, Marie Louise Buch moved into the city in her teens. Suddenly surrounded by the buzz of a metropolis, she sought out tranquility in nature and songwriting. While studying visual culture at college, she made straightforward folk music under the alias Kolors, self-releasing an album of love songs that now embarrasses her. In her late 20s, she advanced to Copenhagen’s Rhythmic Music Conservatory and released 2017’s Fleshy, her debut EP as ML Buch.
These days, when inspiration strikes, she drives to a coastline or rural trail, sequesters herself in the back of her Peugeot, and, to the bewilderment of passers-by, belts out spry melodies over MIDI keyboard sketches. (She once did this for so long that her car sank into a hilltop trench, leaving her to scramble for help before nightfall; a nearby farmer hoisted her out with his tractor.) Once finished, she blasts her creations—sometimes loosening up with some Joni Mitchell—while cruising around the city.
The transitory state of an aimless drive reflects her dislocated music, where Auto-Tuned vocals, sheened power chords, choral chants, synthetic harpsichords, and acute sound design evoke so many musical eras that the songs bypass retrofuturism and sound ripped from another timeline altogether. But they are, fundamentally, “love songs, right?” she says, peering into her phone camera, as if the answer might be hidden inside. “I have so much to give another person. And making music is a way of figuring out how I can.”
While conceiving Skinned, Buch was working 24-hour shifts each weekend as a care worker for a young woman with muscular dystrophy. (“A nice way of getting out of your own ass,” she says.) At the music conservatory during the week, classmates would dissect her song sketches. “It’s brutal, but you learn a lot,” she reflects. “It was about making music in a more abstract way, as a universe where hooks and riffs and textures weave in and out, moving through intimate spaces. Like Joni Mitchell says, seeing music as fluid architecture.”
The day we speak, Buch is preparing to move out of the city altogether, which explains the dining chairs strewn around the back of her car. Her new home will be a commune an hour’s drive from Copenhagen, in a 19th-century manor built for nobility and now populated by ragtag carpenters, mechanics, writers, sculptors, and a horde of livestock. “I’ve been feeling misplaced in the city, going to clubs,” she explains, pouring coffee from a Thermos. “And there are so many stores everywhere, encouraging you to buy stuff. I don’t need to buy stuff all the time!”
The manor is situated among acres of forest dotted with megalithic tombs and stone trenches, though it’s not quite off the grid. The move promises freedom from the arts-world bubble, and time, she says, to “connect with people in different ways.” She fiddles with her collar again, picturing this new life. “Building a shed,” she adds, shrugging. “There’s a way of feeling lonely in the city, surrounded by people. But I’m ready to try loneliness in the countryside.”
Pitchfork: How did your musician parents influence you, growing up?
ML Buch: When I visited my father every other weekend, we learned Beatles and Kris Kristofferson songs. And every year we went to an old hippy summer camp on an island. Huge tents, 40 persons each. We started when I was 3 and went every summer until I was a teenager. We would sing at the bonfire—that was the tradition.
When I was about 5, my father played me a VHS tape with a Bo Diddley concert from Stockholm in the ’80s. I remember [Diddley bandmate] Lady Bo—her real name was Peggy Jones—standing there in her Stars and Stripes bikini top and this mean-looking synthesizer guitar. That was the first woman I saw play guitar. But the bands at school were boy kind of bands. Being a girl was not the coolest thing.
Was that disheartening?
It made me make my own thing. I was 29 when Fleshy came out, and I think that’s perfectly fine. It just took some years to make music I’m proud of. The same year, I came to the conservatory, which felt like the right place for me. I started to believe in myself and my ideas.
One of my favorite songs on Skinned is “Touching Screens,” which is dreamy but also has these fist-pumping melodies…
That’s inspired by dad rock—can you say ‘dad pop’? I listened to some Dire Straits, the Police, and stuff like that, to see how it would sound in a very synthetic universe.
The lyrics are sensual like a love song—“Fingers gliding/Touching screens/More than skin”—but instead of a person, it’s about—
A fetishized object.
Right. It brings to mind those glossy smartphone ads: curves, light catching the glass, the covert sexualization.
I like working with these different objects that contrast or connect with the words I’m singing: fetishizing things [in the “I Feel Like Giving You Things” video] like grapes or a chainmail dress, or a glossy Y2K hair brush that looks like a weapon. There can be tenderness and brutality in the same object. The objects together might act as tableaus that echo the digital era and how it weaves into our intimate lives. They all encourage or protect against our sense of air, heat, touch, smell, taste.
Some musicians would take a more ironic view of tech and consumerism, but you seem very sincere. There is heartbreak, too. What prompted you to start combining these ideas?
It can be so confusing to have feelings for another person. Chatting on Messenger or whatever is one way, and being with them can be a different thing. It’s lovely when you exchange bursts of thoughts or feelings with those small communications, but for longer conversations I prefer face-to-face interactions. I guess the whole love theme is about how confusing it is to balance those two ways of being together.
There are so many textures across the album. How do you find sounds to build from?
It has a lot to do with intuition: listening to a million different keyboard sounds and suddenly one has inspired you to write a hook. I’ve been trying to play guitar in a synthetic way, feeding the computer a small riff or some audio, and then have it translate that material [into MIDI notes]—like a conversation with the computer.
Skinned starts mostly vocal-led, but your presence fades as the album goes on, and the second half is largely instrumental. Is there a concept?
“Can You Hear My Heart Leave,” the first song, ends very suddenly—it’s almost like it’s an open wound. I can see the first half as one chapter, and the sixth song, “Stone Bridge,” moving into another. I’m really curious about the falling apart, the fragility. I’m drawn to artists who dare to let their music disintegrate.
Music and songs for me are not real—they are dreamlike. They’re trying to reach you, but they can’t. Mystery is wonderful. At least, it’s nice for me not to know what I’m doing. When I make music, I try to give space for you as a listener: What do you see when you come in here? It’s all part of it, to be unsure of your own language. It’s like: You can’t catch me. And I don’t wanna catch myself.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork