Story by Emma Kalka / Photos by Daniel Kim
Hungarian duo seeks to create music with passion and empathy
“We are funny! We are playing sad songs, but we are really funny and cheerful guys!” insists Oliver Szendrey-Nagy and Barnabas Nagy of Hungarian group Papaver Cousins.
The two sit chuckling on the terrace of a coffee shop in Hongdae, slightly hungover from the previous night, but still in good humor. The singer-songwriter duo have just performed in their first-ever overseas gig, rounding out the first day of shows for Zandari Festa 2017.
Both from the Hungarian countryside, the two friends are now based in Budapest and have been performing together as Papaver Cousins for three years. Their releases up to this point have consisted mostly of sad songs, they admit. But they swear that they have written happy songs.
“They will be like happy-sad songs,” Oliver jokes.
Sad is one way to describe their first full-length album, Lack of Lightness, which they released just a few months ago. A sense of melancholy permeates the entire album. The lyrics are poetic. The melodies sometimes soft and touching, sometimes loud and overwhelming. Often it is just the two men singing while playing their guitars.
Light of Lightness is 47 minutes of non-stop storytelling, with each track based on specific personal life experiences.
“We were writing songs for a long time – for three years. And I think when we started to record, we could see the full picture of what we had,” Oliver says. “Lack of Lightness is the title because at the time, that’s what compresses… what happened to us in that three-year time.”
Two tracks speak to episodes from Oliver’s life – “Won’t You Bring Your Boy Back Home Tonight” and “Unintended Epilogue.” He also claims that the title track is actually a love song, though not in the classic way.
He says he wrote “Won’t You Bring Your Boy Back Home Tonight” after his father visited him at an ice cream shop he was working at in Budapest.
“We were sitting on a terrace just like this – together. And I felt like, ‘Father, I want you to bring me home. I just want to be that little boy I was a few years ago,’” he says.
“Unintended Epilogue” details how Oliver felt after his uncle died. He says his uncle had a strange relationship with his father’s family and didn’t speak to Oliver’s grandmother for about 10 years. While they had reconciled by the time his uncle passed, Oliver believes that they never really understood each other. He goes on to tell the story of how, when he was young, he would often draw pictures of thick-stemmed tulips, finding them beautiful, but stopped when his grandfather criticized them.
“In the case of my uncle dying, I’ve seen how they accepted the fact that even he – a thick-stemmed tulip – was beautiful,” he says.
Oliver admits that from January to May this year, he was in a bad place. But when the LP came out, a trying period of his life closed and he started to feel good again.
“And, you know, a lightness came. What I was lacking. I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to feel depressed anymore.’ And I think that I can find passion in being okay,” he says. Since the album’s release, the two have written about 25 songs that they’ve yet to release. Oliver adds that he’s trying to write meaningful lyrics and though he isn’t sure how it will work out, he believes that you don’t have to always be depressed to write good stuff.
Oliver and Barnabas met through mutual friends at a New Year’s Eve party. “We had common friends from the town I’m from,” Barnabas recalls. “And he just showed up there and then he played some bluesy tunes for me on a crappy guitar-”
“That was actually the only thing I knew on the guitar,” Oliver admits with a laugh.
“And I didn’t know,” Barnabas says.
Oliver confesses that he was putting on a cool act at the time. Barnabas asked him what he was playing and if he could show him how to play it. Oliver responded by asking how he didn’t know the song. The two became friends. And then one fateful day, Oliver invited Barnabas over to listen to an LP he had just gotten from his grandmother.
“I called Barney because I know he loves to come over and listen to music together,” Oliver says. “And then I was like, alright, ‘You know, Barney, I never told you, but I write lyrics-’”
“And he sent me two or three sets of lyrics. And then I just sent back the song,” Barnabas continues.
From that, Papaver Cousins were born, though Barnabas says at first it was more about friendship and having a great time writing songs.
“And now it’s just about business,” Oliver quips, causing the two to start laughing.
The name is derived from Oliver’s childhood. “Papaver” is Hungarian for poppy flowers. In the small town where he was born and raised, there was a poppy field near his home that he would always stop by with his mother as poppies were her favorite flower.
“She said one time that the beauty of the poppy flower lays in its fragility. Because the stem is very thin, you cannot take it home because it will fall apart on the way. You have to savor the beauty there.”
While Hungarian, all of Papaver Cousins’ songs are in English, with Oliver calling it the musical mother tongue. “Both of us grew up in… music-lover families and I think…”
“This [English] is the language when it comes to music,” Barnabas finishes.
Oliver says that Hungarian – while beautiful for poems – is difficult for writing lyrics. “I don’t think it has the lightness for lyrics,” he argues.
For the first year or so, the two didn’t perform live, instead focusing more on writing as they didn’t want to have to resort to doing cover songs to fill a set. But over the last two years, they’ve begun performing at gigs, with Seoul’s Zandari Festa being their first overseas concert. They performed at the showcase festival, at Club Bbang prior to Zandari’s open, and afterwards at Strange Fruit.
Oliver says they hope to return to Korea in the future and possibly do an entire Asia tour covering South Korea, China, Japan and possibly even North Korea. The duo plans to release another LP next year, though before that they intend to release a single at the end of this year.
More than that, Oliver says they long for what every indie artist longs for – being a full-time musician.
“If we could make a living out of it….playing nice venues for people who care about what we’re doing. For me, that’s it,” he said.
He later adds that, in Hungary, it is at times difficult for the two, with people telling them that they should do more music like their track “No God Can Cage My Love,” which is loud and aggressive.
“They don’t really pay attention in Hungary to our quiet stuff,” Oliver says. “I’m not sure if we’re not good enough to do quiet stuff or if they just don’t understand it.”
“They don’t understand it,” Barnabas is quick to interject.
Oliver then explains that most people just want to have fun and listen to fun music, and it’s a matter of having different musical languages and interpretations.
“It’s all about interpretation. The same stories are happening to everybody. And everybody sings about those. So it’s about how you sing it and how you sell it. If you have enough empathy, it will touch a lot of people,” he says. “I think empathy is the key thing. Empathy, passion and compassion.”