Danes in New York: Kristian Leth
Author. Musician. Actor. Documentarian. The Danish Renaissance Man Kristian Leth calls Brooklyn his home and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Among the neat rows of characteristic brownstones and quiet tree-lined streets in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, there is a Danish household: Kristian Leth, his wife Tea Lindeburg and their three kids moved to New York City over half a decade ago, settling in the genteel neighborhood and making it their home. Today, Park Slope is where Tea refines her work on her upcoming Netflix series Equinox and Kristian composes the series’ soundtrack. The Brooklyn neighborhood is, after all, a creative’s dream-space: leafy, inhabited by writers (Paul Auster), actors (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a coterie of journalists, academics, and progressive thinkers.
But Kristian is an unusual artist and is particularly difficult to characterize. He has acting credits. He is a musician. He composes scores for films. And he is an author of non-fiction and fiction works, with a successful fantasy-fiction novel Mithos released in 2017. He has also tackled the role of Christianity in Danish cultural heritage in a documentary series for Danmarks Radio. “I am always trying to explore something but there is no strategy to it for me,” Kristian Leth explains. “I never saw one line of work as the limit to the other.”
The truth is that Leth’s work is driven by exploration and storytelling — a tireless engine that has produced a broad-ranging and diversified repertoire aimed at satisfying his own curiosity rather than pleasing the crowd. He isn’t afraid to put himself out there; he isn’t afraid to limit his creativity.
Denmark in New York met up with Kristian Leth at his Park Slope home in mid-October to get his take on being a Dane in New York, surviving the global COVID-19 epicenter, and his complicated process as an artist.
Denmark In New York: You and your wife are both Denmark natives living in Brooklyn. Can you explain to us your motivation behind the big move across the Atlantic?
Kristian Leth: It was definitely a personal decision. When I met my wife, she was living in the East Village. She’s Danish but had never planned on going back to Denmark. That’s 19 years ago. It didn’t go like that. She moved back to Denmark, we had a lot of kids, and then we made a plan to move back to New York at some point. There was a certain time where the kids were of a certain age and we thought: “It is now or it’s just going to get harder.”
We moved here with 10 suitcases and the jobs we brought with us. She makes films and I write and make music so I can — in theory — do that everywhere. We moved here without any sort of savings or long-term security. We moved here because we want to live in New York. That was our main and only reason to move here.
Do you still travel a lot back and forth to Denmark?
Kristian Leth: It changes. Right now I am doing a lot of work that I can do here. My wife is traveling quite a bit back-and-forth. She just directed a film in Denmark called “Høst” — it’s going to be out sometime next year. She just finished directing it and now they’re going to edit it. She is also writing a Netflix show that is being filmed in Denmark right now, so she has a lot of travel.
But my job — writing and making music — I can do here. I haven’t been in Denmark for work in more than a year.
Calling you a ‘versatile artist’ is obviously an understatement. You’ve done acting, TV, writing and music. Tell us about your creative process — how do you usually decide on your next project? Is there a thread connecting your work? What inspires you to do what you do?
Kristian Leth: I am the thread connecting the things I do but I think I’m basically motivated by fascination and ideas that I can’t get out of my head. Most of the work I do is based on stuff that I feel greatly about. Some books take years to write, some work takes less — but it is all being produced at the same time on and off in a patchwork kind of fashion. I don’t finish one project and then go on to the next one. I think the key words for me is storytelling and curiosity. That’s what drives me.
I am always trying to explore something but there is no strategy to it for me. Some people have told me that I have to choose what I want to do and questioned why I keep trying different things. I don’t have a good answer to that. I never saw one line of work as the limit to the other. There is a simplemindedness to doing what you feel like. I never sat down and made a long term career plan. I let my creativity drive me but also necessity. I also have to survive and make a living.
I’ve always wanted to take the jobs I wasn’t sure I could do. If something felt too “big” for me, I told myself to do it anyway. That’s how I learn. I am always trying to find work that allows me to discover new territory. The William Blakes albums have progressed in a way that makes them all very different. Why would I go back to a sound I’ve already done? I have my routines in normal life, but creatively I am driven by the discovery.
Living in New York, does ‘being Danish’ mean something special to you and the way you approach your work?
Kristian Leth: For sure. In ways that I know and ways that I don’t. We are so formed by our culture. The series I did on Denmark’s Christian heritage is about how we are formed by our culture in ways we don’t even understand ourselves. I fully believe that but I can’t say how.
In New York, everybody is from somewhere else. As soon as you land in New York, you can call yourself a New Yorker. If you have been here 2 months, you are a New Yorker. But then you have people who have been here three generations who are still calling themselves Italian or Chinese or Irish. I meet people on the street recognizing my language: “Isn’t that Danish? My grandmother was Danish,” and yet they don’t even speak a word of Danish. There’s a totally different way of looking at nationality. You can ride with an Uber driver who has been here less time than you! Here, people don’t care where you are from, what you eat or what religion you believe in, as long as you behave and pay your taxes. No one is trying to keep track of all the different cultures and make them conform.
Most Danes haven’t studied how their own culture was formed. Danes tend to think that Denmark isn’t a cultural place — and that culture is something we decide to do with each other when we visit a museum or a theatre. We — as Danes — like to think that we make up our own minds but even that is very Danish. That way of thinking itself is a product of our history and culture. We are just not aware of it.
COVID-19 hit New York and the Tristate Area very hard. How has the crisis affected your daily life in the city? And how do you see the city going forward?
Kristian Leth: New York and Denmark locked down the same weekend. Schools closed at the exact same time. But then a month went by and Denmark was back to normal. Over here we didn’t open up stores until late July, I think. And even now, it’s still affecting the city on every level. It has been extremely hard on New Yorkers with small businesses and jobs depending on the city being open. Unemployment is rising and people are sliding into poverty.
For me, the story of COVID-19 in New York can be told in two acts. Firstly, New York was hit harder than any other place on the planet. Because it’s New York. The two other states were hit hard because they’re close to New York. NYC is the hub between the US and Europe. New York is the place where everybody travels to.
The second part is how New York dealt with it. New York was a ghost town for a while. I took pictures of the empty streets. It was like that for months. But now New York has the best numbers in the country. The second part of the story is about the level of care and civic consciousness that has been going on in this city. It’s hard for people to understand. People have shown solidarity. I don’t know if Denmark could’ve done this. Here people have been acting. The schools were half empty already one week before the lockdown because New Yorkers act even if they are not being told to do so. The engagement from ordinary people has been impressive. On the long term, I can’t see the recovery being more than 2 or 3 years. People are still going to want to move to New York. None of the factors of which people move here for have been altered. You don’t move here to have it easy.
Lastly, what is your next project? What are you working on these days?
Kristian Leth: I am working on a few different things. I just finished a book for young people on the future. About believing in the future. About being hopeful about the future. I have three kids myself and I think it is necessary for adults to formulate why these are incredible times to live in and we need to keep making the world better with the challenges we have instead of focusing on the idea that everything is going to hell because it isn’t.
I am working on a solo record in Danish. I started writing during COVID isolation. I planned on going to my usual studio down in Gowanus but I have a home studio as well. So, I contacted musicians back home and over here. They were happy to contribute as they were in lockdown, too. It started as an isolation activity but it turned into a record that I am really proud of. I think it has some of my best songs. I don’t know when it’s going to be finished. And then I am scoring my wife’s Netflix series. Also, we are finishing a William Blakes record soon. And then I have some other small projects that aren’t big enough to talk about yet.
Frederik Tronier Kapper is the Strategic Communications and Press Intern at Denmark In New York.