Three Great Things: Dustin O’Halloran

The acclaimed musician and film composer, whose new album Silfur is out this week, shares some of the things that give his life meaning.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the upcoming release on Deutsche Grammophon of Dustin O’Halloran’s new record, Silfur, which “explores the shifting perspective of music through time and place in new pieces and reimagined earlier works,” the Oscar-nominated composer and pianist shared some of the things that bring him joy in life. — N.D

I love cooking – it’s such an essential part of life. I got really into it when I lived in Italy, which is an amazing place to learn how to cook, because there’s access to so much great food there. I was living in a small town and had a studio in an old farmhouse on a working farm, so I got to know the farmers and understand how they grew their food. I find cooking incredibly calming and spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I love learning different ways of preparing food from all over the world. I’ve spent time in India and some friends taught me how to cook some crazy complex recipes.

Cooking is the thing I love to do most outside of making music and it puts me into a similar place as music does. There are also so many parallels to making music. You can make a solo piece, a chamber piece, or you can make something for an orchestra. There are so many levels of how complicated and refined it can be, and the way your palate grows is like the way your ear changes. You might not like Schoenberg in your early years, but after listening to a lot of music, you might grow to appreciate it in the same way something that initially tasted horrible to you eventually becomes your favorite thing.

The way I prepare food is similar to the way that I make music. The main thing is starting with really good ingredients – it’s like having a great instrument, a great room or great microphones. That’s always the base. I cook with a bit more of a jazz instinct; I like learning things and then I always mix it up. I create my own recipes. I learn what I like and then I riff off that, but I don’t get scientific. It’s all instinct and using my palate, and I love the challenge of having to use whatever ingredients I have on hand to make the best meal possible. That’s happened to me so many times making music; so much of my life has been working with what I have around me.

My Daughter
Having my daughter, who’s now almost two-and-a-half, has been the biggest, most life-changing experience for me. Getting to see the world through a child’s eyes is such a beautiful thing, to see how someone comes into the world with such a strong personality of their own from the beginning and then how it develops. That’s been really inspiring.

Parenthood forces you to be present, and that’s something that I really appreciate, especially in the present moment when everyone is distracted by their phones and computers. Another thing about having a child is that you are not the most important person anymore; it’s very important to let go of that, especially for artists, who are inherently selfish. We are always worried about our work, and that shift in perspective is really important for an artist to grow. Stepping back from your ego and from only thinking about your needs is a great way to continue to evolve creatively.

All artists can get into a feedback loop, and it’s a gift to be able to break out of that. The more I create, the more I’m interested in how I can take the ego out of my art and create something that is universal and isn’t just about me all the time. As a father, I also no longer have the indulgence of time that I did previously, so I have to just grab whatever moments I can and be completely focused.

Photography is something I’ve always played around with, but recently I’ve been doing only analog photography and am really getting into it. Everything that I’m interested in creatively is about time, and photography is so much about time and capturing time. I really love working in analog formats where you have the limitations and you’re forced to use the limitations in the best way.

Self-portrait with volcano. (Photo via Dustin O’Halloran.)

I have a Nikon F1 from 1969 and my engineer Francesco Donadello, who recorded my new album, Silfur, has been my photography mentor. Photography is his other passion; he’s got a dark room in his studio where he does his own printing. Francesco is a master of all things analog. He’s been giving me a lot of tips and we nerd out on both photography and recording. There’s a lot of parallels for me between those two creative processes. We mixed Silfur completely analog and mastered the vinyl to tape.

I got my camera before I moved to Iceland about 18 months ago. Iceland is a photographer’s dream; it has the most incredible light. During the summer, you get hours of golden light, and being here was a big inspiration for me to get into photography. The golden hour isn’t 30 minutes, it goes on for hours, so it affords you an incredible opportunity to learn. Especially when you’re shooting analog, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but being in Iceland gives you the time to make adjustments.

Even though the scenery here is incredible, I like capturing people rather than doing landscape photography. Nature hasn’t changed here, so if you see old photographs, it looks exactly the same. But with people, you really feel that sense of time. You capture the moment. I like the feeling of capturing time.

Dustin O’Halloran is an American pianist and composer with four acclaimed solo albums under his own name, and is a member of the band A Winged Victory for the Sullen with Adam Wiltzie. His latest record, Silfur, is out June 11 through Deutsche Grammophon. O’Halloran’s film career began with Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette, and since then he’s worked on multiple films, including Like Crazy, Breathe In, Puzzle and The Hate U Give. He won a 2015 Emmy Award for his main title theme to Transparent, and was nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and a Critics Choice Award for his score to Lion (2016), written in collaboration with Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka). He also collaborated with Bertelmann on scores for A Christmas Carol, Ammonite and The Old Guard. O’Halloran lives in Los Angeles and Reykjavik.