Arno Carstens talks changing times, and how the Covid-19 pandemic might be opening more doors for musicians than we think

“As we find ourselves in a state of surreal melancholy, I am hopeful that in a small way my musical offerings can bring some kind of relief and escape from these uncharted circumstances that we find ourselves in.”

After the release of his two new singles “Erupt” & “Midnight Screams”, Arno Carstens got on the phone with me to ponder the promise of his music in these otherwise sombre times.

The Covid-19 pandemic will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on the music industry, but Carstens seems to see a warm glow at the end of all this. “If I had put these tracks out two weeks ago in the midst of the panic no one would have cared, but now people are bored at home and they would love to listen to something new. I’m not concerned about the response – it’s times like these when it’s good just to give.”

The tracks are incredibly delicate – “Erupt” is something completely unexpected, as Carstens sings the whole way through with these high-pitched, gasping vocals. It almost reminded me of Bon Iver, to which Arno’s response was, “man I was just trying out something new and I think it really worked.” It did, and when matched with the tender acoustics and vocal hush of “Midnight Screams”, the two singles work hand in hand to embrace us all.  

Arno was one of the first musicians in SA to respond to the lockdown, streaming an entire concert with Webtickets last week Saturday. “Like everything new the first song was shaky, but then we got into it like any other gig. It’s kind of like a tense rehearsal because you can’t see the audience but you know they’re there.” Arno has been in the industry for over 25 years, rising to fame with rock legends Springbok Nude Girls, so it’s no surprise that the show was such a success. “I think I’ll make it a weekly thing for each album. It would be great to get the Nude Girls in on it as well.” He adds that, “this pandemic really has opened up new avenues of performance for us musicians, and it’s refreshing. I don’t know if live shows will ever feel normal again, but maybe that’s a good thing.”

Arno’s decision to release singles rather than one full album was largely influenced by the work that Tame Impala has been doing in recent years. “He’s bringing out crappy singles every three months, and that’s amazing because usually people don’t listen to the crappy ones. An album comes out and everyone focuses on three or four tracks but not the rest. Even in my own experience I’ve seen how I’ll put out an album and six months later I’ll think to myself, ‘how could I have included this track, it’s shit’, but it’s because you fall in love with all of your children, if you know what I mean.”

More and more musicians have been breaking from traditional album cycles in recent times, with the likes of Coldplay, Foals and The 1975 putting out split-release albums in 2019, and it’s a sign of a changing industry. “This new approach is much more liberating. I get to be in the studio, constantly invigorated, there’s no record company telling me what to do – it’s fantastic. Before I’d cry fucking crocodile tears when my songs didn’t get played on radio but now it doesn’t matter if no one likes my stuff because in three months’ time I’ll put something new out, and maybe they’ll like that.”

Talking to Arno was as liberating as making music itself, but I painfully had to bring things to a close. I told him that I grew up with the Springbok Nude Girls, and that “Blue Eyes” is maybe the first song I remember listening to. I ask if there’s a musician he wishes he could have collaborated with and he fires back with Jim Morrison, but then, “actually, if the Nude Girls could have done ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ that would have been awesome, but I don’t think anyone could have done it better than Nirvana.”

He ends of with advice for young artists trying to navigate these difficult times, saying; “Be relevant to yourself, let other people’s work inspire you and just totally embrace your sound. It was weird for me at the beginning of my career, I was always trying to imitate Nick Cave, but as much as you try to sound like someone else you never will. It’s always you man, always you.”

With that we say goodbye and I’m left thinking one thing. Everything is going to be ok, and it’s because we’ve got musicians like him to get us through.