WORDS : MALVIKA PADIN
Newcastle-born, London-based multi-instrumentalist AJIMAL has the ability to blend haunting and bold lyricism with intimate vocals that weave an otherworldly soundscape of unconventional yet natural textures. On his latest album As It Grows Dark / Light, AJIMAL aka Fran O’Hanlon– who is a doctor by day roots his music in real but abstract stories drawn from the lives and experiences of people he has met.
The title of the album came to me as I was falling asleep, I was inspired by the point between night and day, summer and winter ; it’s about transitions and change
Speaking of the album, he says, “It’s been in the pipeline for a few years. I worked with Guy Massey, we started working together after we were putting together for a competition five years ago and we made a track together. We clicked really well and we began sending each other bits of music and going to gigs together. It grew into a friendship and during the time the project As It Grows Dark/Light also took on its own directions. It’s quite an organic sound with some elements of electronica and folk. It’s been finished for a few years but it’s been a long time building up to the release.”
About the concept, he adds, “ They deal with two distinct elements ; fear, which is an idea that’s very present at the moment. The opening track ‘ANIMALS’ was written after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, I wanted look at blind hatred driven by fear. I wanted to peer into the different ways fear makes people behave. On the flip side, I also wanted to look into ideas encompassed by hope , revelry, awe , mystery and spiritual. I didn’t set out to write about these themes, it came naturally. The title of the album came to me as I was falling asleep, I was inspired by the point between night and day, summer and winter ; it’s about transitions and change.”
Fear and hope are aspects that O’Hanlon deals with both in his musical headspace as well as his work in medicine. Talking about how these two seemingly vastly different worlds meet he explains, “ I think my work as a doctor and a singer overlap and complement each other quite well. In the medical profession there’s very set ways and protocols to follow, but in music it’s all open. But I feel in some ways both involve an element of performance. I am lucky that I work in a part time basis, so I am able to focus on music as well. They do flow into one another. A lot of things I encounter in medicine inspires my music; it gives me a perspective that not a lot of people have. The conversations I have and people I meet evolves into creativity. However, I try to remove myself from a situation when I write music, I like things being more abstract. I like poetic lyricism rather than direct storytelling.”
It’s rarely a conscious process, you have to remove yourself from it and channel your ideas into it. I personally feel like the best songs are always the one where you’re moved to write about things and it threads itself together
One such moment in recent times when brought his two worlds together was on the video for track ‘Above All Else, Be Kind’ which he put together while in quarantine recovering from COVID-19 symptoms. He says,” At the time I felt symptoms of coronavirus there were no test so I self-isolated. It was the first time I’d spent a week at home, so the video helped me keep busy. Both the industries I worked in was affected so it felt like a nice time to unite both sides of my life and bring it together. I contacted people through social media and the videos started coming in one by one, it was a really exciting moment putting together the video.”
Back on the topic of what inspires his storytelling, his unique exposure to these two worlds makes another appearance. Giving examples of the kind of stories he finds himself drawn to write about, he says, “ I try to write externally instead of always taking from personal experiences, it’s much more interesting to open yourself up to other people’s stories. A lot of folk music has a storytelling element which is still abstract enough that people can relate to it and draw parallels with their own stories. The second song on the album is called ‘Alive, Awake!’, it was inspired by a book written by a nurse in Australia who looked after people when they were at the end of their life, I’ve also had experience working in a hospice and with palliative care. There is nothing more profound than the experience of spending time with people during this time. It’s probably the song on the album I have the most worries about. It’s other people’s stories so you think if you’ve intruded on it and if it’s justified.”
He continues, “ There’s another song ‘Who Gives Me What I Want?, it’s about the debate surrounding medically assisted suicide in end of life care. There was an interesting story that came out from Belgium of someone who was convicted of serial murder and rape who petitioned to the right to die by lethal injection because he struggled with violent thoughts as a result of childhood trauma and abuse. He initially won but then it was overruled. I followed that debate quite closely, and while it’s difficult to condense such topics into a song these are topics I’m interested in covering.
Adding, “Certain songs flow without effort, for example the track ‘Above All Else, Be Kind’ was everything I wanted to say and it came very easily. On the other hand, with ‘Alive Awake’ I wrestled with what I wanted to say for a long time and I still don’t know if I got it right. It’s rarely a conscious process, you have to remove yourself from it and channel your ideas into it. I personally feel like the best songs are always the one where you’re moved to write about things and it threads itself together. “
Despite preferring when his music comes together effortlessly, he admits that this often easier said than done. AJIMAL is currently working on his album and is yet to narrow down on what he wants to write about next. He says, “ I find it challenging to know what I want to write about. As a creative there’s time to be working and another time to be gathering ideas and inspiration, at the moment in that second phase.” However he also reveals what ideas his mind is pulled towards, saying “I’m quite interested in voice and breath both in terms of music and medically in terms of people having problems with their voice. I’m also fascinated by languages as well.”
Having started his journey as AJIMAL in 2015, to having performed at his dream venue of Union Chapel last year, ALIMAL has come a long way in music. But he makes it a point to let music be simply an outlet without letting himself feel obligated to write and make music, saying “I like having a balance of music and medicine, it allows me to enjoy music without feeling too pressured.”
Asked what message he’d love people to take away from his music, AJIMAL stresses that he doesn’t have all the answers, but the answer he does give ; Every song doesn’t have to be hopeful and it doesn’t need to have all the answers. Open your eyes, look at the world for yourself, be kind and look after each other in the world,” is one that everyone needs right now. Intriguing and inspirational in more ways than one, a conversation with AJIMAL is really all the medicine you need for your heart to heal.