Music Interviews

Susanne Sundfør: “Gender has a lot to say when you’re growing up” – Interview

Susanne Sundfør

Susanne Sundfør

Susanne Sundfør’s Ten Love Songs is unquestionably one of 2015’s best albums. A boundless, wildly inventive work of avant pop with industrial and classical hues underlining its uniqueness, it is the Norwegian’s third Number 1 album in her homeland. But only in the last year or so has Sundfør’s international profile begun to build. The euphoric, hook-laden songs on her new album make a convincing case for many more ears getting to hear her music before the year is out.

Sundfør, who hails from the fishing town of Haugesund due south of Bergen, is among the absurdly successful clutch of artists managed by the D-E-F organisation, which includes international success stories such as Robyn, Röyksopp, The Knife and Fever Ray. Following her debut UK album release The Silicon Veil, and after appearing on M83’s title track for the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion and receiving rave reviews for her new work, she headlined her biggest London gig to date at a sold-out Scala – upgraded from the Lexington due to demand. The rapt crowd witness the new album’s certified bangers Accelerator, Delirious, Kamikaze and lead single Fade Away, stay with her through the centrepiece Memorial and see her sing White Foxes while lying on the floor.

At a most unglamorous hour the following day we convene in a Shoreditch hotel cafe, coffees at the ready. Sundfør’s accent, as she introduces herself, is decidedly transatlantic. Despite the touring schedule and the time, she seems fresh as a daisy. “I always wake up this early, like at 7 or 8, even if I’ve been out the night before. I’m not a morning person, but I’ll survive,” she says, sipping. She’s still buzzing from the previous night. “I’ve never played for that many people in London before! It’s a big deal. It was exciting, and I was pretty sure it would go well at least musically for us – we’ve been rehearsing so much. It was fun.”

“Love is pastiche. Love is such a cliché.” – Susanne Sundfør

From beginnings coloured by her teenage years studying opera, Sundfør’s career has taken a decidedly pop direction this time round, though her background shines through in the structure of both the album and several of the longer tracks, some of which seem to take place across distinct acts. Alongside the Trondheimsolistene Chamber Ensemble, M83’s Antony Gonzalez and Röyksopp’s Svein and Torbjorn, she’s worked with the same band of musicians since 2009. One of her musicians, Lars Horntveth of Jaga Jazzist, is “all over the Norwegian jazz scene”, while the album of another was produced by Sundfør herself.

There’s always a connection of musicians supporting each other in Norway, she explains. “Maybe Norwegians can be a bit better at reaching out and working with people abroad; I do really like the way we support each other. Maybe it’s the culture but I also think it’s because we are a small country and the music scene is quite small; everybody knows everybody. But it’s really cool. In the village where I live now you can go and have a drink with people who play black metal and we can still connect. It’s not like you play pop music so you hang out with pop musicians, jazz musicians with jazz or whatever. Musicians aren’t really uptight about genres in Norway; journalists are the ones who want to pigeonhole things.”

However, jazz is one genre into which Ten Love Songs does not travel. “My intention was to be quite clubby,” confirms Sundfør as talk turns to the new album. “I picked out songs to make a bit more industrial kind of vibe. I’d never structured a set like that. But I have a lot of songs now. I thought more conceptually this time about sound and vibe. There are so many dynamics in my albums, if I would only play the hardcore stuff the whole way it would be exhausting for the audience – and for us. Constant screaming on stage!” If she had to do a journo’s job and pigeonhole her music, what would it be? “I don’t really care if people think it’s Scandinavian or electropop or whatever. They like it, so I’m happy.”

Ten Love Songs weaves together lyrics of violence and love across a quite stunning musical tapestry. The elegiac Silencer – “Here I stand with a gun in my hand” – describes the aftermath of the protagonist shooting someone, who ends up “at the bottom of a suburban swimming pool”; in Accelerate there is “blood streaming down the wall” while she declares she would “die for love… kill for love”. “I wanted to make a sound and lyrics that expressed society and the culture we are in today,” explains Sundfør. “I remember when I saw Kill Bill when I was a teenager and thinking, ‘What? Can you actually show that in film?’ because it was so violent. There’s nothing wrong about it, but it is very raw.”

There is undoubtedly ready access to violence for all now, in every media form, and for Sundfør a lyrical response was demanded. “With the internet as well you have all these live videos, really awful violent videos everywhere, and I don’t know if it does anything to us as human beings but I find it interesting because we didn’t have that much access to violence before,” she muses. “I wanted to write about that, comment on it; write something violent. The songs turned out to be about love as well, and I thought that was more interesting to have a love perspective than a violence perspective. The songs became more interesting with that concept. Love was a response to violence, but it has a lot to do with intensity, passion; they’re both very strong feelings. Strong feelings are connected in a way, if that makes sense. I was nervous of the album title but I really liked it; it’s a cliched title. If I’d called it Modern Violence it wouldn’t be that controversial. It might be kind of cool, but the lyrics present love and relationships.” Lana Del Rey’s album Ultraviolence explores such themes, using the construct of her identity, but rooted deep in the female experience. “I really like her,” says Sundfør. “She’s got a really good concept going on.”

This summer Sundfør headlines the Øyafestivalen in Norway, following in the footsteps of Björk. Against a backdrop of few women appearing on the big UK festival bills, at least in the top billing slots, it would seem that Scandinavian countries are showing the way forward. Sundfør, who once rejected an award on the basis of it being gendered, has much to say on this. “Being a woman is not a musical genre,” she says, unarguably and firmly. She understands how things have got to where they are, but is far from excusing the status quo on account of it. “Most of the people who work in the music business are men. And gender has a lot to say when you’re growing up. When you’re a teenager you look up to the bands and the posters in your bedroom and maybe you like it so much that you want to start in the music industry, and you have that background with your favourite male artists. The same thing is with girls – personality has a lot to do with gender and often the people you idolise when you’re a teenager are the same gender as you. And essentially that’s why so many guys are idolised in the business – because there are so many of them. It’s what you’re used to. I listened a lot to Cat Stevens and The Beatles when I was a kid. When I was a teenager I listened a lot to Joni Mitchell. She’s still my favourite, the best ever, better than all the guys if you ask me. Carly Simon, Carole King, those were my favourites when I was growing up.”

Her influences now and how they translate into her current work are harder to pinpoint. “I went to New York for a couple of months, just for inspiration, to finish writing the album, and I listened a lot to Philip Glass. I wanted it to be quite Philip Glassy. A friend said I should add some Hitchcock to it, like, do the Vertigo thing, so I did that at the end. It’s very pastiche but I wasn’t expecting myself to be like a contemporary classical composer, but I wanted that expression in the song. I wanted it to be emotional, and kind of cliche. The ‘80s film score cliche.”

“Being a woman is not a musical genre.” – Susanne Sundfør

One man who knows a thing or two about ‘80s film score cliches is M83’s Antony Gonzalez. The Antibean is a self-confessed John Hughes fan who thinks nothing of dropping a sax solo into proceedings. “Anthony asked me to sing on a soundtrack he did, and we kept in touch afterwards,” recalls Sundfør, who had supported M83 at a gig at London’s Somerset House. “I asked him if he wanted to contribute on my album and he said yes.” The two would collaborate on Ten Love Songs’ 10-minute centrepiece, Memorial, a chamber orchestra fantasia that sweeps aside pop convention. “I’d written the strings piece, and I took that with me to LA. He added a lot of the beautiful synths, drums and electric guitar, and the last thing we did is record the strings in Norway,” she recalls. “It was just a piano ballad with vocals for a long time. I had this interval part on the piano and I decided I wanted it to be longer. Then I decided I wanted it to be really long, and with strings as well.” Its central refrain – “You took off my dress and you never put it on again” – is not only one of the album’s most memorable lines, but captures the vulnerability and candour at the heart of Sundfør’s songwriting.

While Ten Love Songs overall melodically leans towards pop, her experimental flourishes are rarely far away. The evocative Delirious is a compulsive synth-pop track that conjures up a sense of a battle between melodic conformity and textural abandon. Vocals and synth bass drive the track in one direction, but the chilling choir and menacing strings drag it back to darkness, underlying the powerplay of emotions at work. Elsewhere, Fade Away wears its ‘80s influences lightly, with Sundfør’s distinctive voice at the core carrying the pain of two lovers drifting apart. Does she write from personal experience about such matters? “It’s never really that personal,” she begins, before pausing for a retake. “It is personal, but at the same time it’s not. I read literature where I can connect. Everything I write I want to be from a perspective where other people can understand it. Love is pastiche. Love is such a cliché.”

Sundfør considers that she has found her sound, one which has decidedly evolved in a pop direction but which brings to bear far more than mainstream commercial pop, and on Ten Love Songs it has produced stunning results. While there’s a feeling that the diva is yet to flourish fully, she shows every sign of so doing. If her music continues in its current trajectory, Sundfør’s next project could well bestride the globe.

Susanne Sundfør’s album Ten Love Songs is out now through Sonnet Sound. Tour dates and further information can be found here.

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