In a near-20 year career of albums and tours, a Peter Gabriel duet, and with not one but two career-high albums released at the end of 2020, it’s at the very least a minor mystery why Ane Brun’s only mark on the UK charts to date is a featured credit on Oliver Heldens’ remix of Dr Kucho and Gregor Salto’s 2015 dance hit Can’t Stop Playing (Makes Me High). Her richly textured albums habitually occupy Top 5 spots in her native Norway and longtime homeland Sweden, and France’s deep house mainstay The Avener featured her on the single To Let Myself Go. But in the UK? Ane who?
Certainly this seems remiss, and likely a result of this country’s sectorisation of musicianship where artists play to particular niches rather than reflecting their diverse interests and abilities. In such a market, a consummate musician, songwriter and singer whose tracks are remixed by dance acts yet whose background encompasses everything from nordic jazz to ‘90s Bristolian trip-hop is perhaps not an easy sell. But, not least with her 2017 covers album Leave Me Breathless, she’s a noted interpreter of songs too, unafraid of well known tracks from Radiohead’s How To Disappear Completely to Nick Cave’s Into My Arms. And with those two new albums providing arguably her strongest original work to date, Brun is at the top of her considerable and very diverse talent.
Being out of the international touring limelight as a result of the ongoing covid horror hasn’t helped. So this several-times-rescheduled tour at last provides a chance for Brun to reconnect with her loyal fanbase and offer up her new material in a live setting. The two new titles, the intimate yet universal After The Great Storm and the more stripped back, piano-based How Beauty Holds The Hand Of Sorrow, were originally destined to be one double album but eventually went their own separate ways, distilling two distinct strands of Brun’s artistry, the better perhaps to attract fans to these different sides of what and who she is. After The Great Storm blends acoustic and electronic, with bigger production and a full band sound, while How Beauty Holds The Hand Of Sorrow is more maudlin. ”Both albums deal with the bigger questions in life,” Brun says, “but in 2020 these questions have become even bigger. Even though I wrote most of them before this whole pandemic started, I feel they all have a message that fits the situation we’re in: frustration over the state of the world, how to grieve for a loved one, existentialism, love, relationships, loneliness, inner struggles, sleepless nights… I guess they’re just about being human.”
Brun and her six-piece band – including, intriguingly, two drum kits – are this evening resplendent in white as if as visiting angels, and spaced between vertical monolith-like lights. They look set to put on a show, and to remind us what being human is. Reflecting justified confidence in her new material, After The Great Storm starts. “Do you want to dance with us?” asks Brun coyly, knowing full well what the response will be as the band strike up Honey, after which we head back to simpler times in the form of Directions, from 2015’s When I’m Free.
She offers up a few words about the tour rescheduling and then, with Crumbs, convincingly urges us not to settle for them, even in these strange times. Between songs Brun fluently and engagingly explains emotions and themes behind her lyrics in what is a language other than her mother tongue. For Feeling Like I Wanna Cry, “the waiting” is recontextualised as a paean to singledom; rather than hanging about for someone to come along and give meaning to life, what are you going to do with this moment now, she wants to know? She’s unlikely to need or desire a career change, but Brun would surely make an excellent therapist.
A Sade cover, By Your Side, leads into an old one featuring Brun on acoustic guitar called The Puzzle, from 2008’s Changing Of The Seasons. “I wrote it years before, played it on all tours, and it has different meanings each time,” Brun explains, leaving its meaning this evening open to our own interpretations. She’s more certain of the meaning of Fingerprints, which follows; it’s “about losing someone and not being able to let go”. It marks the start of a slow, intense part of the set. Trust is preceded by a story about fear crowding out emotions, then giving way to a Zoom room meeting which brings about trust across divides instead of polarisation. She tells us that Breaking The Surface, played on acoustic guitar and piano, is about grief being important as an agent in allowing you to see the people around you, and the world, clearly.
In its non-Avener form, To Let Myself Go is a quite different entity, minor keys and intricate guitar underpinning float-away vocal lines that suggest a spell being cast in a forest, while the exceptional Take Hold Of Me, audibly inspired by The Knife’s Silent Shout, has the beats dialled almost out, the synths keeping the rhythm moving. Lyrically it seems to encapsulate so much of these weird times: “My existence is screaming / It’s a physical feeling / Of missing out on dance and light.” Brun has discussed the song as “a suppressed explosion”, and the sustained applause perhaps gives her pause for thought that, yes, the world would like more like this. The following Don’t Run And Hide’s meaty drum beats in contrast vindicate the two-kits set-up.
But then the none-more-fragile, stunningly beautiful encore of Closer, with just piano accompanying, couldn’t feel less like what had gone before, and showcases the emotional power of Brun’s voice. Demonstrating the range of her musical mastery further, an acoustic guitar led cover of Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love leads us into a plaintive These Days, from It All Starts With One, a decade-old folk-meets-tribal album. Having run the gamut of emotions and styles, the set closes on the joyously communal and intricately arranged Do You Remember, and yes, we do now; what it is to feel, to dance, to be together, to be in the power of music.