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Issue 61 Extended Interview: Susanne Sundfør

New Music Editor Bronya Francis was won over by Susanne Sundfør when she went over to Norway to spend a day with the major label-signed songstress. Her dry humour, knowledge of music, passion, talent and strong appearance make her – well – the total opposite of boring, media-trained pop stars. So we thought we’d publish the full version of our interview with her from Issue 61 – because she had way too many interesting things to say for just one page of a magazine… 

Susanne Sundfør is a world-class musician. Her youthful yet classically trained voice has the sharp-toned naivety of Joanna Newsom yet retains the forceful melancholy of Martha Wainwright. Yet she is not universally known – and that’s utterly baffling, after you as a listener have explored her landscape of impossibly, increasingly imposing music.

Her latest album, The Silicone Veil, has the fairytale fantasy themes of Newsom’s Ys. Sundfør’s siren vocals cry “I’m a larva wrapped in silk / I’m dying in burning flesh / Let me out, let me ache,” over a lone fluttering harp line in its title track. And in lead single, ‘White Foxes’, her vocals moan moodily à la Ms Wainwright  (“I have wept and I have stumbled / I fought and I craved / for the gravy of your soul”) over brash, broken electro chords.

These comparisons, though, do Susanne no justice. Her music is incredibly witty, clever, and complex – an entity that does not copy or adhere to trends, an original oeuvre. It grows and tells you something new with every listen. There are many hidden pleasures in The Silicone Veil. The poetic lyricism of opening track ‘Diamonds’ (“The sea is hungry / all the waves / the sea is hungry / slip away”) weaves in between layers upon layers of acoustic and synthesised instrumental accompaniment. The same applies to the rest of the album, immaculately produced by Jaga Jazzist’s Lars Horntveth.

In her studio, Susanne tells me about her time working with the experimental musician. 

When did you start out in music?
I started taking piano lessons when I was nine and did that for like seven years, but I never really practised that much. I did have a lot of singing lessons, from when I was twelve until I was nineteen.

You went to music school, didn’t you?
Yeah, you have music high school in Norway where you have regular subjects but you also have music history and you learn instruments and put on concerts.

Did you change the way you sung when you started making your own music?
I learnt to sing classically and at the same time, when I was younger, I listened to all the divas like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion – I would try to sing like them. And then I started taking singing lessons because I wanted to do it better, but I found out they were classical singing lessons. I figured, why not do that too? So I listened to pop and classical music at the same time; hopefully I haven’t ended up like Mika.

What sort of classical music do you listen to? The broken chord piano accompaniment in ‘White Foxes’ sounds very baroque era.
I like Handel – I listen to The Messiah a lot. I used to sing Rejoice, but it’s so difficult. Handel has such good melodies – no one can write melodies like him. I always found Bach to be not so interesting because the melodies are a bit boring. ‘Lascia Ch’io Pianga‘ from Rinaldo is the main song from the film about Farinelli – it’s a really good film.

Are there elements of classical music that you’ve used when you’re writing pop music or do you not really notice?
I don’t really notice, but because I’ve been trained classically there must be elements of it in the music that I write. When I want to make a song, I want it to be a perfect balance between what you expect and what you don’t expect, because all of the best songs that I know have a perfect combination of the two – for example, ‘Mad World‘ by Tears For Fears has a simple melody but the harmonies don’t exactly go the way in which you expect them to. I read this book – this sounds very scientific, in a way – but it was a book about music and emotion, that said if people are moved by a song where you have a pattern that you instinctively expect and an element that’s unexpected is like taking a journey from somewhere safe, into somewhere unknown, and then coming back somewhere safe again. So I try to write my songs in that way.

Do you worry that some people who listen to music have a different way of listening to music and aren’t able to take in more of the elements of surprise?
It depends on what kind of music you have been listening to. Most people have a relation to pop music, because it’s everywhere. But to me, music is about harmonies – that’s the most important part for me. Most pop songs have the same pattern, so that’s what I mean by what you expect.

Like I IV V I?
This is a standard pop song [plays a standard chord progression on the piano]. But then you can take it in another direction [plays unconventional chord progression on the piano]. So you experiment with the safe part of it, and put in other elements to make it more interesting, or distinct.

Is there a song that you’ve written and been really proud of, one that’s really original structurally?
Probably ‘Torn To Pieces’ on my first album. I didn’t write the lyrics to it, so I’m happy with them too!

 

Your lyrics are quite abstract and poetic, so what do you take your inspiration from? Do you place a lot of importance on the lyrics?
I do, but I don’t think I do it well. I think that’s something I have to work on a bit more, because it’s much easier to make a good song than to write good lyrics. I do like to use images a lot; even though they’re vague in a way, they are quite personal. They are all based on experiences – I create images to try to explain experiences that I’ve had.

I read you once saying about the literature you read in an interview, and like to read more classic literature as it has more history and builds a basis. Do you transpose that view to music, in that the classical sort builds a foundation for your knowledge?
Not really. I’m fascinated with pop music, and that’s the most classical music you have in a way. There’s so much history in it, and it’s a lot like folk music. Classical music has always been there for the elite, but pop and folk are for the whole of society – they’re the music of the people. Pop and folk are rooted at the core of society, whereas classical music is intellectual, and I think intellectual can be a bit boring. That’s why I really like pop, and interesting kitschy stuff because it’s very human.

When I say classical literature, I mean books that have meant a lot to a lot of people, to art and to culture. I like to read something that has influenced a lot that has followed it, and that’s the same with a pop piece.

In another interview you recommended Norwegian folk – do you like it?
That was a funny interview. A lot of people ask me whether coming from Norway makes you have a certain sound, but many journalists feel that way when they aren’t from Norway.

Anyway, I don’t listen to a lot of folk music but it’s very nice because they have a very distinct way of singing here [FYI it doesn’t sound too dissimilar to Celtic vocal music – Ed]. They have a very unique way of ornamenting and colouring the melody.

Like melisma?
Yeah exactly.

And that features quite a lot in your music.
Yeah. I took some folk music lessons some years ago, so that may be where it comes from.

You say that people inspire you, but how? People can be inspirational in different ways.
People who have an impact on me, like boyfriends, friends and family. I think experiences with other people can be just as inspiring as reading a book or listening to a piece of music.

Because it’s first-hand experience.
Yeah, exactly.

And you said you like films inspire you as well.
I really like spy movies, action movies and fairytales, fantasy. I saw Game Of Thrones, which was really good. But I also like more realistic art films; there’s this Swedish director who’s really good called Roy Andersson – my favourite films of his are Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living. They’re very bizarre, with a dark sense of humour – very misanthropic, and I like that.

The guy who made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is another Swedish director [Tomas Alfredson] who has a film that you should see called Four Shades Of Brown – it has that same dark sense of humour. It starts with a guy who has a job at a crematorium for animals, and has a dysfunctional family where his son is really depressed. His son’s teacher suggests that he and his son should hang out more, so he brings his son to the crematorium and then he falls into the oven. The rest of the film is how he copes with being handicapped afterwards.

Seeing as you’re pretty into films, I was surprised to find out that you let the directors of your videos take over and control what happens in them.
It doesn’t really make sense to get someone to make art based on your art and  then for you to try and control it – that would minimalise it in a way. Instead, I think it’s important to find people who are really good at what they do and to create whatever they want. I think it’s proved to be a really good way of doing it. Mats Udd, who made my ‘White Foxes’ video, did a great job. Luke Gilford, who made ‘The Silicone Veil’, is a really special guy.

 

And for the new album, you worked with Jaga Jazzist’s Lars Horntveth. What did he bring to the album?
I started working with Lars on the second album, and I wasn’t there when we mixed it because I hadn’t been part of that process at all – and that’s partly because I didn’t have a lot of confidence and experience in the studio before. We’d shape the music together in the studio, and he’d have a very open mind about what to do and try out different stuff. I’m the opposite because I like to think through everything and then record it. It was a new way of thinking for me, and everything he did on the record made it so much better than what I could have done. I wanted The Brothel to be fully electronic – I didn’t want any acoustic parts, except the voice – and he was like ‘nah, we’ll have some strings’, which turned out to be a really good decision.

How do you feel you’ve changed since you started writing music?
I think I’m much more dedicated to what I do now; when I released the first two albums, I wasn’t really sure if that was what I wanted to do; I wouldn’t take it seriously and get into it enough, do it thoroughly enough. I wouldn’t care that much about the sound or the arrangement, but now I pay attention to those things as well. When me and Lars worked on the last two albums, we would argue every time we worked; I wouldn’t just be like ‘Yeah, yeah, do whatever you want ,’ and I’d have a strong opinion about everything. I care a lot more; I go into every detail and think about how I want it to be.

And also I just think I’m more grown up so I have a more reflective view on my profession and what it takes to be a musician. When you start out, everything is new – you aren’t used to doing interviews and you don’t know what’s comfortable for you and what’s not comfortable – so you can get caught in a few traps. I can’t do TV shows, but I would do them at the start and get total blackouts – luckily they cut them out of the programme. But I didn’t know I would get that way, and now I know that’s an uncomfortable situation for me. You get to know what you do well and what you can’t do well. It’s a strange profession, because you have a year where everything is happening, where you release the record, do shows and interviews, and you have a year when you’re supposed to be working on the next record when it’s quiet and nothing really happens and you don’t have any money. You do get used to it because you always know something better is coming.

A lot of chart music in the UK and US is very similar and formulaic. Your albums have done really well in the charts here, so do you think the Norwegian listening public is more eager to listen to something more challenging?
I think that story is slightly exaggerated – I mean, it’s going well here but I’m not topping lists all the time. The album has done well and I’m doing a lot of shows, which is great. There is a lot of straight pop music here as well. But I think that people would probably say the same thing about motown in the fifties – they made it so that it would sell music, but it’s great music, so maybe in twenty years we’ll be saying that Carly Rae Jepson made brilliant pop songs. I think that there are a lot of different things happening at the same time – you get tired of the most popular music in the end, and new music like Skrillex, who is an example, because everyone hates him but it’s a new genre made mainstream. You have all these genres of music that can start on the underground and hit the charts. My point is that it’s very easy to say that it’s one kind of music that’s pop and one kind that’s alternative, but it always changes because people want to hear new sounds and in the end the same sound just gets boring.

There was really good art critic whose name is Clement Greenberg; he wrote a book about avant garde which I found really interesting. He’s a big fan of Jackson Pollock, and he says that avant garde is the most important music because it makes everything go forward. I sort of disagree with that because I think everything is important, but he has a good point that the new stuff is avant garde when it comes but when it becomes popular it gets mainstream. It’s a cycle.

Do you like to keep your live performances as near to the recordings as possible or do you like them to be totally separate entities?
A bit of both. When I play with my band, we try to make it resemble the sound on the record, even though we do some variations on it. And then I do a lot of solo shows as well, which are quite different to the sound of the record. I don’t think very consciously about that – I want the record to work live, so we’ll do whatever’s best for it to work on stage.

Do you feel like you have any flaws as a musician?
No, I’m perfect.

-Bronya Francis

 



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