James Cubitt, the architect behind the Union Chapel’s unconventional floorplan, said that his vision for the London church was to “step out of the enchanted circle of habit and precedent”. During our intimate, pew-side conference in front of the Chapel’s ornate stone-carved pulpit, Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun tells how she set to work on her recent album Changing Of The Seasons with a similar ambition in mind.
As the daylight gently filters through the beautiful rose window above the stage, Ane emerges from backstage and formally introduces herself with a handshake. Eighties hair metal plays loudly through the 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 dictaphone won’t pick it up. One imploring gaze in the direction of the mixing desk, however, and it all goes quiet.
Born in the coastal city of Molde, Ane was raised by her lawyer father and musician mother in a community of around 24,000 people blessed with a stunning view of the 222 mountain peaks that make up the famous Molde Panorama.
While we’re dealing with numbers, you should know that every summer up to 100,000 visitors descend upon the city for the Molde jazz festival. There is a definite jazz element to Ane’s very deliberate phrasing, although it’s not often given the credit it deserves. American reviewers have been quick to align her with their homegrown crop of freak-folk artists. “I don’t feel I’m so freaky,” she laughs.
She singles out Joanna Newsom (“I adore her”), Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy as having voices she is drawn to, while her well-documented love of Gillian Welch is something of an anomaly.
“It’s weird because Gillian’s voice is not something I would particularly like usually, but it just has something that feels so personal,” she says a little dreamily. If she was to make me a Gillian Welch mixtape, she says, she’d probably put on most of Time (The Revelator) and definitely the songs Revelator and I Dream A Highway (“the last one on that album that just goes on and on… I love it!”).
Ane describes her late teens and early 20s as a time of indecision and “jumping around”. At 21, Ane moved to Oslo where she made a new best friend in Morgan, the Brun family’s old acoustic guitar. It was here, while working full time in a record shop, that she acquired one of her treasured possessions – a giant poster of PJ Harvey. “I’ve had it on every wall since, and that was 12 years ago!” she grins. “Last year I finally got it framed.”
“I don’t feel I’m so freaky!” – Ane Brun, anti-freak
Finding that Oslo didn’t really suit her, Ane headed to Barcelona to spend a summer busking on the streets, developing her hypnotic, serpentine guitar style while playing songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco and, of course, PJ Harvey – perhaps a little too obscure for Spanish commuters, but an incredible experience for Ane.
Still, she eventually had to go back to Norway, and this time she found herself studying in the artistic haven of Bergen. By this time she had started to compose her own material and play gigs, but it wasn’t until she switched her studies and moved to Uppsala in Sweden that she recorded her debut album using her student funding.
With all this moving around it’s no wonder people get confused about Ane’s background. A feature that appeared in The Times, for instance, caused much amusement in the Brun household. “My dad laughed his head off when he saw ‘Law graduate Ane Brun’!” (Their review of Changing Of The Seasons later called her Swedish, a common misconception.)
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 little startled. “The law degree…? No! I would like to study again (but) it is hard to read those kinds of books when you are touring. Too much distraction.”
Ane doesn’t really like to write songs while touring either, and most of the album was written at her studio in Stockholm. This time around she was determined to push herself to try new things. “I figured that one of my specialities before this album was using long notes 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 Treehouse Song and The Puzzle. She experimented more with writing songs from other people’s perspectives, most notably on the title track, which finds her narrating the story of an emotionally restless man. “I guess I’m too Scandinavian,” she sighs, inhabiting his thoughts.
Ane also set out to use her voice in different ways, but confesses that the soaring operatic trill we hear on Armour was not originally intended. “I was trying to sing like (Peruvian soprano) Yma Sumac. Somehow I ended up doing this opera thing instead.” She giggles and sings an impromptu scale. A more contemporary inspiration was Regina Spektor‘s Begin To Hope. “It was great to hear someone use their voice in a way that is more than just singing.”
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy‘s The Letting Go also had a huge effect. Ane became so enamoured with the production that, after listening to the album 50 or so times on her computer, she finally dug out the CD again to see who was behind it. “I read it was Valgeir Sigurðsson and then I was, like, Google-Google-Google,” she says, pretending to type on the pew in front.
One email later and Ane went out to Iceland to meet him. “I’d never worked with a producer that had such an impressive CV so I was kind of nervous about it,” says Ane. The first sessions took place in Stockholm in September 2007 and Ane covers her face in embarrassment as she remembers the first day they spent working together. “I was so stressed! It was like a disaster for me. I was sitting with the earphones going, ‘No, it isn’t working.'”
Thanks to some patience, some wine and some in-depth discussion, it all worked out just fine. Changing Of The Seasons was released in Scandinavia in March 2008 and went straight to the top of the Norwegian charts. A US launch followed in October and, finally, the album came out in the UK at the beginning of February this year. The reviews were almost unanimously glowing, although one comparison kept coming up: Dolly Parton. Really?
Ane laughs. “I was actually joking about it when I sent the demo to Valgeir. I told him I’d got Dolly to sing the third verse of Armour. I can see that it sounds like her, especially her phrasing.” So she doesn’t mind the comparison? “Well, I’m not like a freaky fan of Dolly or anything but I do listen to her. I love her voice so it’s a good compliment. I’m not sad about it.”
With all that praise swimming around her head and ecstatic standing ovations night after night on her tour, it’s a wonder Ane Brun can still walk through doorways. Nevertheless, she comes across as extraordinarily 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 of mystique. The three music videos for the album, each directed by Ane’s friend Magnus Renfors, all capture that sense of magical otherness.
It’s good news then that Magnus is at the helm of Ane’s next release, a live DVD filmed in Stockholm last September. Performing to a crowd of 1400 people, Ane brought along a dozen of her friends, including First Aid Kit and Tobias Fröberg, to form “a singer-songwriter choir”. Add to that a nine-piece band, including a symphonic percussionist, and you have something of an extravaganza on your hands. “The whole show looks and sounds fantastic,” she says. “I am so happy about it.”
At the time of writing she’s still none the wiser about when the DVD will come out, although she’s pretty sure it will be this year. She’s also coy about another project she’s working on; you see, Ane has formed an as-yet-unnamed band with Fröberg and drummer Erik Nilsson, but it’s a band with a twist – there’s no guitar. For now at least. They’ve only made one song so far. It’s “really good!” she says. Given her previous form, you’ve got to believe her.
Ane Brun plays the Union Chapel, London on 20 May 2009 and the Sugar Club, Dublin on 21 May 2009. The album Changing Of The Seasons is out now through DetErMine. Tour dates and further information can be found at anebrun.com
This interview in extended form appeared in Wears The Trousers.