James Cubitt, the architect behind the Union Chapel’sunconventional floorplan, said that his vision for the London church was to”step out of the enchanted circle of habit and precedent.” During ourintimate, pew-side conference in front of the Chapel’s ornatestone-carved pulpit, Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun tells howshe set to work on her recent album Changing Of The Seasons with asimilar ambition in mind.
As the daylight gently filters through the beautiful rose windowabove the stage, Ane emerges from backstage and formally introducesherself with a handshake. Eighties hair metal plays loudly throughthe large, airy room as we take a seat on one of the chilly benches.Ane’s accented voice is so gentle I’m worried that the dictaphonewon’t pick it up. One imploring gaze inthe direction of the mixing desk, however, and it all goes quiet.
Born in the coastal city of Molde, Ane was raised by her lawyerfather and musician mother in a community of around 24,000 peopleblessed with a stunning view of the 222 mountain peaks that make upthe famous Molde Panorama.
While we’re dealing with numbers, youshould know that every summer up to 100,000 visitors descend upon thecity for the Moldejazz festival. There is a definite jazz element toAne’s very deliberate phrasing, although it’s not often given thecredit it deserves. American reviewers have been quick to align herwith their homegrown crop of freak-folk artists. “I don’t feel I’m sofreaky,” she laughs.
She singles out Joanna Newsom (“I adore her”),Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy as having voicesshe is drawn to, while her well-documented love of GillianWelch is something of an anomaly.
“It’s weird because Gillian’svoice is not something I would particularly like usually, but it justhas something that feels so personal,” she says a little dreamily. Ifshe was to make me a Gillian Welch mixtape, she says, she’d probablyput on most of Time (The Revelator) and definitely the songs Revelatorand I Dream A Highway (“the last one on that album that just goes onand on… I love it!”).
Ane describes her late teens and early twenties as a time ofindecision and “jumping around”. At 21, Ane moved to Oslo where shemade a new best friend in Morgan, the Brun family’s old acousticguitar. It was here, while working full time in a record shop, thatshe acquired one of her treasured possessions – a giant poster ofPJ Harvey. “I’ve had it on every wall since, and that was 12years ago!” she grins. “Last year I finally got it framed.”
Finding that Oslo didn’t really suit her, Ane headed to Barcelonato spend a summer busking on the streets, developing her hypnotic,serpentine guitar style while playing songs by the likes of JoniMitchell, Ani DiFranco and, of course, PJ Harvey – perhapsa little too obscure for Spanish commuters, but an incredibleexperience for Ane.
Still, she eventually had to go back to Norway,and this time she found herself studying in the artistic haven ofBergen. By this time she had started to compose her own material andplay gigs, but it wasn’t until she switched her studies and moved toUppsala in Sweden that she recorded her debut album using her studentfunding.
With all this moving around it’s no wonder people get confusedabout Ane’s background. A feature that appeared in The Times, forinstance, caused much amusement in the Brun household. “My dad laughedhis head off when he saw ‘Law graduate Ane Brun’!” (Their review ofChanging Of The Seasons later called her Swedish, a commonmisconception.)
In fact, after six years of hopping between subjects,Ane never finished her degree. “The music just took off,” she says,”but I feel so happy about those years because it made me who I am.”Asked whether she would ever go back to university, she looks a littlestartled. “The law degree…? No! I would like to study again (but) itis hard to read those kinds of books when you are touring. Too muchdistraction.”
Ane doesn’t really like to write songs while touring either, andmost of the album was written at her studio in Stockholm. This timearound she was determined to push herself to try new things. “Ifigured that one of my specialities before this album was using longnotes and long words so I thought, ‘I’m going to do the opposite!’”she grins.
An obsession with playing around with rhythms took hold andshe began to compose tighter, more changeable songs like The TreehouseSong and The Puzzle. She experimented more with writing songs fromother people’s perspectives, most notably on the title track, whichfinds her narrating the story of an emotionally restless man. “I guessI’m too Scandinavian,” she sighs, inhabiting his thoughts.
Ane also set out to use her voice in different ways, but confessesthat the soaring operatic trill we hear on Armour was not originallyintended. “I was trying to sing like (Peruvian soprano) YmaSumac. Somehow I ended up doing this opera thing instead.” Shegiggles and sings an impromptu scale. A more contemporary inspirationwas Regina Spektor‘s Begin To Hope. “It was great to hearsomeone use their voice in a way that is more than just singing.”
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy‘s The Letting Go also had a huge effect. Anebecame so enamoured with the production that, after listening to thealbum 50 or so times on her computer, she finally dug out the CD againto see who was behind it. “I read it was Valgeir Sigurðsson andthen I was, like, Google-Google-Google,” she says, pretending to typeon the pew in front.
One email later and Ane went out to Iceland tomeet him. “I’d never worked with a producer that had such animpressive CV so I was kind of nervous about it,” says Ane. The firstsessions took place in Stockholm in September 2007 and Ane covers herface in embarrassment as she remembers the first day they spentworking together. “I was so stressed! It was like a disaster for me. Iwas sitting with the earphones going, ‘No, it isn’t working.’”
Thanks to some patience, some wine and some in-depth discussion, itall worked out just fine. Changing Of The Seasons was released inScandinavia in March 2008 and went straight to the top of theNorwegian charts. A US launch followed in October and, finally, thealbum came out in the UK at the beginning of February this year. Thereviews were almost unanimously glowing, although one comparison keptcoming up: Dolly Parton. Really?
Ane laughs. “I was actually joking about it when I sent the demo toValgeir. I told him I’d got Dolly to sing the third verse of Armour. Ican see that it sounds like her, especially her phrasing.” So shedoesn’t mind the comparison? “Well, I’m not like a freaky fan of Dollyor anything but I do listen to her. I love her voice so it’s a goodcompliment. I’m not sad about it.”
With all that praise swimming around her head and ecstatic standingovations night after night on her tour, it’s a wonder Ane Brun canstill walk through doorways. Nevertheless, she comes across asextraordinarily grounded and her every move seems considered andgentle.
Her marketing is clever and never too in your face,understanding that the profundity of her songs suits a bit ofmystique. The three music videos for the album, each directed by Ane’sfriend Magnus Renfors, all capture that sense of magicalotherness.
It’s good news then that Magnus is at the helm of Ane’s nextrelease, a live DVD filmed in Stockholm last September. Performing toa crowd of 1400 people, Ane brought along a dozen of her friends,including First Aid Kit and Tobias Fröberg, to form “asinger-songwriter choir”. Add to that a nine-piece band, including asymphonic percussionist, and you have something of an extravaganza onyour hands. “The whole show looks and sounds fantastic,” she says. “Iam so happy about it.”
At the time of writing she’s still none the wiser aboutwhen the DVD will come out, although she’s pretty sure it will be thisyear. She’s also coy about another project she’s working on; you see,Ane has formed an as-yet-unnamed band with Fröberg and drummerErik Nilsson, but it’s a band with a twist – there’s no guitar. Fornow at least. They’ve only made one song so far. It’s “really good!” she says. Given her previous form, you’ve got tobelieve her.
Ane Brun plays the Union Chapel, London on 20th May and the Sugar Club, Dublin on 21st May 2009. The album Changing Of The Seasons is out now through DetErMine. This interview in extended form is available at Wears The Trousers.