Q&A: Susanne Sundfør
By Andy Malt | Published on Tuesday 26 March 2013
One of CMU’s Artists Of The Year in 2012, Susanne Sundfør released her debut UK album, ‘The Silicone Veil’, through Sonnet Sound last October.
Despite being her first over here, the long player was her second number one in her native Norway, after 2010’s ‘The Brothel’, and her third studio album overall. As well as that, she has two other records to her name, ‘Take One’, a stripped down version of her eponymous debut, and ‘A Night At Salle Pleyel’, a live recording of a specially commissioned piece for the Oslo Jazz Festival’s 25th anniversary in 2011.
Never before available in the UK, Sonnet Sound will release all of Sundfør’s pre-‘The Silicone Veil’ back catalogue on 8 Apr.
Following a sold out show at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London earlier this month, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Susanne to talk through her back catalogue and find out what she’s planning next.
AM: When did you start playing music?
SS: I started when I was six, I would go to these classes where we would just sing and play the tambourine. You know, it wasn’t really serious, but I really liked it so I started playing the violin when I was eight, then taking piano lessons when I was nine, and then singing lessons when I was twelve. So I was playing music at an early stage, but I didn’t really take it that seriously. I wasn’t practising that much or anything. Then I went to a music high school, and I guess that’s what you’d call my education in music.
AM: Is music something you thought could be your career from an early stage?
SS: No, I didn’t really decide for it to be my profession until I was 23. So I started it more as a hobby. I didn’t really see that I could live off making songs.
AM: So, that would actually mean that the realisation music could be your career happened after your first album?
SS: Yeah, I guess so. Actually, I think I only decided that this is something that I wanted to spend my entire life doing after I released ‘The Brothel’, cos that was the first time I really felt like I had ‘found’ a sound.
AM: So you were actually three albums in when you made that decision; well, depending on how you view ‘Take One’. Do you view ‘Take One’ as an album in its own right?
SS: I would say it’s kind of like a remix album. Like if you have an album of just remixes of an earlier record you made, that’s how I see it. So I don’t really see it as an album like the other ones.
AM: The jump, sound wise, from the first album to ‘The Brothel’ was pretty a significant shift. What was the process of ‘finding’ that sound?
SS: The first record was released three years after I’d written the songs that are on it, so I had moved on from that that kind of retro 70s sound even before I released it. I was starting to get into electronica, and just electronic music generally. I really fell in love with that sound, and I wanted to use that kind of a sound to get across what I wanted to say.
AM: It’s quite ambitious electronic music on ‘The Brothel’ too.
SS: Yeah, there’s a lot of info on that album, and on ‘The Silicone Veil’ also. But I guess it was necessary.
AM: There are lots of themes and layers to the music. How do you write like that? Do you start by just sitting down and writing a song in a traditional way and then develop it, or do you have an idea of where you want it to go from the start?
SS: Um, I don’t really have a method. I guess the best songs I feel that I’ve written are the songs where it comes naturally. Or not naturally, but it’s coincidental. When I plan music too much, then I feel like it doesn’t have that kind of extra magic, or whatever.
But as for a process, usually I start with the piano and just write a melody. I might come up with a line, and then I go to the piano and I try to try put it into a wider context. I have a tape recorder, and often I put a line together with another earlier line, so I’m kind of recycling ideas all the time, and I try to write the lyrics concurrent to that.
Then I just work from there and I try to build it into a structure. I like to make very standard pop compositions initially, and then I go to the studio and I arrange them.
AM: So you’re writing the lyrics as you write the music?
SS: Yeah, sometimes I write the lyrics before as well.
AM: Where do your lyrics come from, cos there’s a lot of very strong imagery in there, particularly religious imagery. Where does that come from? Did you have a particularly religious upbringing?
SS: No, I used to study English in Bergen, but then I hung out with a lot of people who studied religion, so I was very inspired by their thoughts. And I think that religious imagery is very interesting because it’s very powerful. It’s the same thing as when people use Greek mythology. I think it uplifts it in a way.
AM: It kind of adds a weight to something that might otherwise be quite a simple idea on its own?
SS: Yeah. I also find all kinds of extremity in society very interesting. I guess I’m really inspired by Sylvia Plath, she’s my biggest hero. But I also find it interesting that, in society today, there are a lot of extremes. People go to the extreme because they need attention, it’s like an attention culture, and I think it’s interesting to put that in lyrics, if that makes sense!
AM: You said you always arrange stuff in the studio, so is it that quite a lot of the final version of a song generally comes together there?
SS: Yeah, on the last two records I worked a lot with [Jaga Jazzist’s] Lars Horntvedt and we’ve made a lot of the arrangements together. So, a lot of the sound has been developed in the studio with him, so he’s been quite influential there.
AM: I think perhaps ‘A Night At Salle Pleyel’ also fed into how your sound developed between ‘The Brothel’ and ‘The Silicone Veil’. How did that project come about?
SS: Yeah, I see what you mean. That was more like a side project from my main project. It was [the Oslo Jazz Festival] in Norway who commissioned it. They just wanted me to write 44 minutes of music, I didn’t have any other restrictions or guidelines or anything. So I decided to make a piece of music for a string quintet. And then, when I started writing, during the process I got more and more convinced that this would sound really cool with just five synths. So at the beginning it sounds more like classical music and then it goes more and more into this synth world.
AM: Have you started writing for the next album?
SS: Yes, I’m working on the next album now. I just bought a TR-909, which is like a 90s drum machine, which was used a lot in house and techno. It’s very industrial and very cold, and I really like that, so I wanna use that a lot on the next record. I think it’s gonna be a lot more repetitive, it’s not going to be as shifting as ‘The Silicone Veil’, because ‘The Silicone Veil’ is very, like, you have this theme and then suddenly there’s this other theme, and then suddenly you go back. It’s like, there’s a lot of stuff to hang onto, in a way. I think the next one is gonna be… not so busy. But you never know, I might just change my mind!
AM: Do you find that it’s quite a challenge to perform live such complicated songs that have been constructed in the studio?
SS: Yeah, it can be quite challenging. Not necessarily getting all the parts there, because you can always put stuff on tape, but I guess the challenge is just that a lot of that parts are quite difficult to play! I use a lot of MIDI programming, so like on ‘White Foxes’ I could never play that synth line that goes up and down, so yeah I guess that’s the biggest challenge. I’m just making it difficult for myself!
AM: You do seem to have quite a lot of stuff on stage…
SS: Yeah, we used to be six people on stage, and everybody was almost always playing something, so it’s quite heavily arranged.
AM: Is it a different live set up when you come here, compared to in Norway?
SS: Unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with money, but I do honestly find it challenging in a fun way to try to rearrange the songs to make it fit to a different set-up. The set-up we use in England, I wouldn’t say it’s poorer than what we do in Norway, it’s just that we’ve made it more electronic – though we do have live drums at the moment. But then we try to trigger a lot of the pre-recorded parts live, just to make it more organic, so we don’t have just a track where we press play and I just sing over it. I like to rearrange the songs, it makes it come alive again.
AM: It’s always interesting to see someone play over here to, say, 150 people, and then see them play in their home country to a much bigger audience. It’s such a different experience. It must be nice to go back and play the small places again and really practice your craft.
SS: Yeah, it becomes more interesting. In Norway people know my music, and I have an audience there, so when I play it feels more safe, in a way, because they know what to expect and I know what to expect from them. But then when I come here, it’s like I present the music to a new audience, and I really like that too. I like to see if people are surprised, or even if people don’t like it, it’s interesting to get new reactions to what you do. Both things are fun.
AM: And what has the reaction over here been like?
SS: I think it’s been positive, so far. I mean, the people who come to the shows say a lot of nice things afterwards and I really like the London audience, they’re quite polite. It’s nice to see people nodding, and to see their reaction to the music.
AM: Now you’re about to release your back catalogue in the UK. How involved have you been with the reissues?
SS: I haven’t done any remixes or anything… actually it’s all been re-recorded on fiddle! No, the records are the same as the original releases. But they haven’t been available in the UK until now, so to me it’s very exciting.
AM: Other than that, what are you doing at the moment?
SS: I’m actually producing this band right now called Bound To Each Other.
AM: Have you produced other artists before?
SS: No, this is my first time. It’s a lot of fun because it’s a different way of working and I don’t have this anxiety when I go to the studio, because when I do my own stuff it’s like, if I don’t do this well, then the rest of the day or even the rest of the week is gonna be shit. But when I work with them, it’s not my main project or responsibility, so that makes it much more fun, cos you can be playful, and just be creative in the studio. So yeah, it’s fun, and they’re really talented. We’re getting close to the end of that now, and then I’ll start focussing on my next record. I have written some tracks but there’s a lot of work left to do.