Susanne Sundfør has spoken out about how the state of the planet and our own personal relationship with nature inspired her acclaimed latest album ‘Music For People In Trouble’.
Last night saw the respected Norwegian singer-songwriter cap off the latest leg of her UK tour with a stunning audio-visual feat at London’s Barbican. Decked in hooded capes while performing behind a screen of projections of the moon and stars while she and her band presented ‘Music For People In Trouble’ in full, the show was as intricate, personal and emotionally devastating as the record itself.
Sundfør spoke to NME about songwriting, her relationship with nature, working with John Grant, and just what went into writing her fifth opus.
Other than the beautiful stripped back show at Union Chapel last year, the last time we saw you in London was the play the Scott Walker tribute show for the BBC Proms. What was it about Scott Walker’s songs in particular that attracted you to do that gig?
“For me, he’s been an important inspiration when it comes to sound; when it comes to composing music and arrangement, et cetera. I listened to ‘Tilt’ before I made ‘Ten Love Songs’. I just really admire his sound and his originality. I hadn’t actually listened to the songs I performed, but I did find quite a few similarities, because it’s like his experience is there – and his avant-garde spirit is there as well, especially in the lyrics. These songs are arranged with the sound of Frank Sinatra; a singer kind-of vibe, but that are also quite surreal, dark at times and very dramatic as well. It’s like he’s experimenting – though that’s not necessarily easy to hear.”
We know you’ve got a relationship with John Grant, but did you have any kind of relationship with Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker before that show?
“No, I’d never met them before. Of course I’d heard their music, and they were lovely. They’re all very funny. We spent a lot of rehearsal time laughing, and Jules as well – Jules Buckley, the conductor – was really funny. So there was a lot of humour in there, and it was great.”
So, ‘Music For People In Trouble’. What trouble are these people in?
“I mean, the world is sort of in trouble. We’ve been in trouble before and gotten through it, but now it seems like we’re spending a lot of resources and it’s kind of worrying. I think that people are starting to wake up, and I think that will be fine, but at the same time there is an ‘if’ there…and I think that causes quite a lot of anxiety in people. But this is just my observation, my take on it. It might be that everything’s fine and it’s all gonna be fine…it’s just based on the things that I read in the news – and not just tabloid news or whatever, but all over the place. It seems like scientists are quite worried about the state of the planet. So how should you relate to that emotionally?
“I think a lot of people just push it away and do their thing, and don’t necessarily think about it – but then what about people who can’t do that, like me? I can’t just push it away. I keep imagining scenarios and it’s probably not very healthy, but still. The album is also about my emotional trouble the last few years, and it’s sort of coincided with me getting absorbed into the work of artists in the Dark Mountain Project. A lot of their ideas and things discussed in those books are also part of the album, so it’s a good mixture of trouble.”
What kind of ideas are they talking about in these books that have fed into the album?
“Joseph Campbell talks about how we would write myths today, because what’s currently happening to the world isn’t anything we’ve experienced before. It’s kind of difficult to explain quickly, but his ideas about mythology, and how to write literature and create art that can resonate with and relate to people today. Because the old universe doesn’t really make sense anymore. It’s quite complicated and complex, but that’s one of the things they talk about. Also, being frank and truthful about the state of the world – writing truthfully about how we feel today is a lot of what Dark Mountain is about.
“They get a lot of criticism for it; a lot of environmentalists are angry with Dark Mountain because they’re so pessimistic. But for me…I feel like in order to fight the people who are making this world a worse place, you’ve got to face your fears and face reality. I just think it’s a really important aspect of art that’s kind of missing today, and they’re doing an immensely important job. I understand why it can be intimidating to start reading them, but to me it was very liberating, because what I felt was, “oh, somebody else is also thinking about those things, and here’s a world of artists who are sharing these ideas, and I finally feel like my voice is heard.”
Were you inspired at all by the political trouble in this Western part of the world? It’s a very divided atmosphere; more so than ever, over the past couple of years. Do you think that infiltrated your writing?
“Yeah, I guess. I mean, it’s been an ongoing process for quite a while and now it’s getting even more tense. But for me, it was more about climate change. That’s the main theme I write about, more than anything else.”
Is that what led the sound? The last record [‘Ten Love Songs’] was a full-on pop record. Was it these darker themes that led you down a more tender and serene route this time?
“Yeah. That kind of sound was necessary for what I wanted to convey, and I wanted to give it another dimension of something organic. But it could also be interesting if it was a really dark techno album. It was just my personal preference at the time; I just really wanted to play the guitar.”
Was any part of you itching to make a pop banger?
“No. I’d already made a pop album. For me, making pop music is very intense and demands a lot of brain energy. Writing a pop song is like an algorithm that you need to solve. It needs to be recognisable, but also have something new, something slightly different in order to make it a really good pop song. I read this book about it; a scientist who talks about how people really want to hear pop music because it has this mix of recognisable patterns, but then some element breaks with the recognisable and it’s like candy for the brain. You’re experiencing something you know, then also experiencing something new. It’s like finding that golden combination. That takes a lot of energy.
“Also, I produced a lot of that album myself – not all of it, but a lot – so I sat in the studio for a long time, programming and writing and thinking out these ideas, and I just got a little bit tired of that, so I wanted a different approach. Something a bit more improvised. This time, I’d have a melody or an idea, then I’d sit by the piano and let it go wherever it wanted to go. I didn’t plan anything. It was a completely different way of writing.”
How would you compare your own personal states between the two album?
“I think on ‘Ten Love Songs’, I was really hungry – very ambitious, eager to do it on my own. I had ideas about arrangement and sound. On this album, I was turning myself inside out. It was a much easier way of expressing myself. “This is what I feel, I’ll play it now on the piano: here’s the song”.”
And this record features the incredible John Grant. How would you describe your working relationship?
“I met him when we recorded ‘Mountaineers’ for the first time. We’d talked before about a potential collaboration, but just because of practical reasons it didn’t happen. But then I contacted him because I wanted deep, powerful male vocals on this album, and he has a very beautiful timbre. I asked him to do that religious-sounding part in the beginning of ‘Mountaineers’. When we met and went to the studio, we talked for an hour and the sound engineer was like, “you guys are paying me…you need to start.” We just had a really interesting conversation, so to me it was like instant love. I think he’s just a fantastic person and incredibly talented. He sings on another song as well – ‘The Sound of War’. He’s just doing some humming, and it’s so low in pitch it doesn’t sound like a human voice. It sounds like a synthesizer or something. It’s just incredible. I’m super happy he’s done the album, and that he wanted to do it.”
‘Music For People In Trouble’ by Susanne Sundfør is out now. Alongside her European festival shows, she returns to the UK to perform at Cardiff’s Festival Of Voice on June 13, Larmer Tree Festival in July, Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on August 16, and Green Man Festival in August. Visit here for tickets and more information.