One of the most acclaimed musicians on the worldwide New Age music scene for decades, Austria’s gifted multi-instrumentalist Gandalf returned in 2020 with a new masterpiece called Secret Sarai. Up until recently, Gandalf's albums were distributed via California-based Real Music but, following the disappointing sale of the original label to new owners, Gandalf departed the sadly now-defunct Real Music so Secret Sarai was released in Europe on his Seagull label, distributed via Prudence. Several musicians assist Gandalf on Secret Sarai, including vocalist Eva Novak, who appears on several tracks, notably the lead-off single from the album called “Bound To Live Free”, yet for the most part, the mainly all-instrumental album features Gandalf writing all the music and performing all keyboards, guitars, and percussion. Perhaps the true beauty of Gandalf’s music is its versatility, shifting from an acoustic-based, New Age backdrop to a highly developed, progressive, electric rock-influenced sound, heard prominently on the three-part title suite. Progressive fans have often compared Gandalf’s music to icons like Mike Oldfield and Steve Hackett, yet, now with 30+ albums released since the late 1970s, Gandalf’s music remains iconic and important in its own right. A good example of the progressive element, especially Gandalf's electric guitar work, can be heard on the multi-part “Road To Awareness”, while another highlight is the album-closer "Oceans So Wide" / "Setting Sails For Unknown Shores", which spotlights Gandalf's keyboard expertise. Timeless, yet modern sounding at the same time, Secret Sarai is Gandalf's masterpiece, creating an elegant addition to his extensive catalog of album classics.
a new interview with
mwe3: How have you been during this sadly still-ongoing pandemic? Seems like there’s a lot of politics and finger-pointing going on all over the world. But I don’t know if that will solve the ongoing problem. How has the down time impacted your music and how has the music scene in Austria been affected?
Gandalf: At some point I stopped watching news, they were all basically spreading fear and confusing people. I am very grateful to live in rather green place outside of Vienna, surrounded by woods. The situation was kind of strange, a silence I used to know when I was a child - no noise from cars or airplanes, just the sound of birds and the wind in the trees. We were not allowed to go anywhere and meet other people, so I spent much time with my wife in the garden or walking through the woods and I started to enjoy this extraordinary peaceful atmosphere and just being on my own.
I found it a good chance to think more critically about our way of living and find out what is really important. The music scene was completely shut down and still is to a wide extent. I am lucky that I make my living mostly from composing and producing records, so it did not affect me that much not being able to perform live. There is so much damage caused and many people are pushed to the edge of their existence by the decisions of politicians, difficult to judge what is really going on behind the scenes of this pandemic. Hopefully the world will at least be able to learn from all of this.
mwe3: Secret Sarai is your 2020 album and it’s a true masterpiece. Can you tell us how you went about recording it, when it was written and where it was recorded and can you tell us something about the very cool looking CD cover art and packaging?
Gandalf: I already started writing and recording in 2018 and absolutely had no idea where it was going to lead me. I tried out some new instruments like the Mandola (a bigger sort of a Mandolin with 10 strings) and a Hungarian Zither and invited a couple of musicians to jam along with my basic tracks. Some really great things happened during the recording sessions on first take and built my final arrangements around it. A different way of working compared to other of my works, giving more space to the musicians for their creative input.
mwe3: Real Music was sold to another company that doesn’t release physical CD anymore. I really miss Terrence and Sylvia, they were so great to work with and they so supported the music and the whole industry. It’s a great loss for the music world in my opinion. How many albums did you release on Real Music and were they also released in Europe on another label or did Real Music do a global release? You must have around 33 albums out by now right?
Gandalf: The times they are a-changing! I cooperated with Terence and his team for more than 15 years and released seven albums, all exclusively on Real Music, except for “Earthsong & Stardance”, which was released in Europe on the Prudence label.
Working with Real Music was on a basis of mutual respect and appreciation and they did a good job to make my music more popular, especially on the US market.
But anyway, during 40 years of my career I saw a lot of people come and go in the record-industry and I am still here!
mwe3: What is your take on the current state of the music business and its lack of direction, at least from a record label perspective? Your record label contact Yvonne Worthman told me it’s been difficult to get the Secret Sarai album heard in North America because of the pandemic and also the stark politics of this era.
Gandalf: There’s always two sides of the story. On one hand it has become very difficult for musicians to start a career and find a record label who invests in producing their music. There’s very little chance to make money by selling records because most of the music is basically being streamed these days -income 0,1-0,4 Cents per click.
On the other side many musicians are able to produce their music on their computers at home and release it digitally on their own labels, and the new media like Youtube, Spotify etc. make it possible that the music can be heard by people all over the planet. Their songs are being suggested by algorithms to listeners who otherwise would have never discovered it.
I really can’t tell whether my music is being less heard because of the pandemic, I even fancy that because of the fact that people could not go out, they spent much more time on their computers than usual listening to music.
Being an artist was not an easy job at any time and you always needed to have a big piece of luck along with your talents. There was music on this planet long before the record business and hopefully will be ever after.
mwe3: Tell us something about the album title “Secret Sarai”. It has a very cryptic sound to it, also, the cover art and packaging of Secret Sarai is excellent. Who did the artwork? The artwork and packaging of is truly a masterpiece presentation fitting of the music within.
Gandalf: The word “Sarai” originates from the Arabic language and means something like “palace” or a blessed house. This is where the music is meant to take the listener’s mind. One may also recognize some oriental influences in the music.
The good thing about the lockdown was to have plenty of time for being creative and work on different things, so I decided to create the artwork for cover and booklet myself, as well as the design of my new website and a video for the title-track of the album.
mwe3: You have assembled a great band of musicians for Secret Sarai. Have you played with these musicians before on your earlier albums? Tell us about the singer Eva Novak. Even though the album is mainly instrumental, Eva does a great job singing on several tracks. As she’s mostly singing wordless vocals, do you use her voice mainly as another color in the music? Was the music recorded with the artists in the studio or were their parts overdubbed?
Gandalf: I am so lucky and grateful having been able to work with those wonderful musicians. Some of them have been my companions for many years, like my son, Christian Strobl, on percussion, Merke Hilmar on cello and Peter Aschenbrenner on Irish whistles and Bodhran (an Irish frame-drum). With Nicky Eggl (whistles and nyckel harpa) and Theologos Michellis, a fantastic violinist from Athens as well as Eva Novak I worked for the first time.
Eva is singing in a special language which originates from her soul at the very moment while is singing. She is a very intuitive person and has the gift to let her mind be totally carried by the music and sing along with it. She had not heard any of the tracks we recorded before and most of what you hear on the album came out completely spontaneous.
The whole album was recorded and mixed with some assistance from my son - he is a very talented sound-engineer - in my own studio.
mwe3: Are you playing more guitar on Secret Sarai compared to your earlier recent releases? What guitars are you playing on Secret Sarai? You mentioned the PRS, Les Paul and Strat guitars in other interviews. Also, I think there’s no sitar on this new one?
Gandalf: It happened that the piano moved a bit into the background on this album. Finding that it developed more into a World Music direction, I played a few more string-instruments. The Mandola, and the Hungarian zither, as I mentioned earlier, were very inspiring, they normally appear in a rather folkloristic context. Then I played my old Ibanez Acoustic 12-string which I already used on my first album back in 1981. From the electrics, I played the PRS and my Les Paul which used to be very characteristic for the “solo-sound” on quite a few of my works throughout the years.
mwe3: What else have you been doing on the music front in Austria these days? You said you played a concert recently and last time we spoke you mentioned you were working on a new soundtrack about the Stoneage. Seems like we have gone back to that era with all the craziness in the world of 2020!
Gandalf: My stage projects in the recent years became mainly acoustic music, myself performing on Concert-Grand pianos and acoustic guitars. In 2016, I played a 35th-Anniversary Show at the Wiener Konzerthaus, one of the world’s most famous places for classical music with a tiny orchestra-lineup and, the whole concert can now be watched on Youtube, with the link on my website. Last year and also just recently, one of the first musical events after the lockdown, I played at the Thalheim-Castle, an excellent venue for classical concerts in Lower Austria, with a string-quintet, flutes & percussion. So, it appears that these days I am rather busy writing orchestral arrangements programming synthesizers, which is also great fun. The soundtrack-music I was writing for the Stoneage and other projects was released in 2014 as an album with the title Frame by Frame.
mwe3: Do you feel the music on Secret Sarai brings a much-needed touch of sanity to the world? What are you hoping people will feel and think after hearing your new album?
Gandalf: This is and has ever been a dual world with lots of possibilities for all kinds of things. If I am able to spread just a little peace, love and harmony with my music, I feel lucky.