Susanne Sundfør

Interview

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Offering an enthralling mix of precision-engineered synth-pop and epic mini-symphonies, Susanne Sundfør’s latest album is one of the finest records we’ve heard so far this year. We caught up with the Norwegian singer-songwriter to find out more about the making of Ten Love Songs, and to hear her take on gender prejudices within the music industry.

Hello Susanne, a huge congratulations on Ten Love Songs; it’s wonderful. How long did it take to put together?

Thank you! It’s a bit tricky to date, but I think I started writing it in 2012, so it took two years to make.

It feels more direct than you previous records.

Yeah, I agree. I wanted to be more pop and be more direct.

Does that involve approaching songwriting with a different mindset?

Yeah, it is more of a puzzle you have to solve, rather than just putting your thoughts down on paper or tape. I feel more like a maths student when I try and make pop music.

How so?

I think that, when you write pop music, there are certain rules to follow; like, you have the chorus and the hook. Lyrically it’s a lot of puns, and usually you might have one word that captures your attention. It’s got to be clever in a way but you have all these ingredients. Whereas, if you just make whatever you feel like, it can still be challenging but it is a different mindset. I think the first more “pop” song that I made was ‘Fade Away’.

The arrangements are really epic, and there’s this acute sense of drama; it feels like you’ve explored the furthest reaches of your imagination. Was it a liberating album to write?

It was, actually. It was challenging because I was making the music more direct, but it was liberating because I produced a lot of it myself, so whenever I had an idea, I would just go for it. Sometimes it didn’t work and sometimes it did, like when I thought of using a harpsichord as an intro for ‘Kamikaze’, or to suddenly include a long string piece like in ‘Memorial’. Things like that were random ideas and I just went for it, so I guess you could say that was quite liberating.

With the exception of three tracks, Ten Love Songs is self-produced. Why did you decide to take that responsibility on for this album?

Well, I have produced another band before, and I co-produced my previous albums, but this is the first time I’ve done that much of the album myself. With The Brothel and The Silicone Veil, after we had finished I felt like I’d managed to create a certain sound with a lot of influence from the producer, and it was his sound. I think my main motivation was that I wanted to explore another soundscape, and try out something new.

What were the challenges?

The challenge is that you do it all on your own, and it can be a bit boring because you don’t have anyone to play ball with. And it’s a lot of work: you write the songs, you write the lyrics, then you arrange it, then you record and produce it and the only thing that you don’t do is to mix it. I mean, a lot of people have contributed on the album but on a lot of the songs I did most of it myself, and it was a lot of hard work.

But looking back on the album now, it must feel rewarding to know you did it all yourself?

I guess. I mean, it was still rewarding with the previous albums, but I just feel a bigger sense of responsibility for this one.

I actually think my favourite bit of the process was when I brought the raw mix to the mixing engineer in Bergen. To have someone else look at your music with their own eyes and [bring] their own opinions was the best part. I think the most valuable thing I learned [making this album] was that sometimes it’s actually a good thing to include other people in what you do.

Earlier in the process I had decided that I wanted to produce it myself, and I was quite stubborn about doing everything myself. Then I realised I needed people to contribute musically, and I’m really happy that I ended up including people because they added so much beauty and interest to the music. I think that that was my best experience: to just admit to yourself that you can’t be everything.

‘Memorial’ is particularly incredible, with its epic, symphonic middle-section. Can you tell us more about it please?

It’s an old song that I think I started writing back in 2012, and I never really finished it. Originally it was just piano and vocals, but I picked it up again after a year and started working on more lyrics and made this interlude that I just extended until it became longer and longer. I figured maybe it could be interesting to add strings to that part, and make like it almost like a Philip Glass-y outro. So then I went to New York for a couple of months to work on some other songs, and that is when I worked on the string piece. Then I went to LA and visited (M83’s) Anthony Gonzalez and we worked on the track in his studio. He added a lot of the epic-ness – the guitar, the drums and a lot of the synthesisers – and made it really big and beautiful. After that, I brought the sheet music to the string orchestra that I worked with in LA, and we recorded that. And that was it!

You mention Philip Glass; were there any other musical reference points?

I think Stevie Nicks was also important for ‘Fade Away’ and I wanted the solo to be very Queen-y. And then I guess Depeche Mode for ‘Accelerate’.

Thematically, what was the starting point for Ten Love Songs?

Well, I think that I’ve always been fascinated with love songs, both because they are very powerful and because the theme of love is a big part of our art history. So I guess I just wanted to make some kind of contribution to that. But I think – and this goes for the previous albums as well – at the time, there’s wasn’t really one big motivation to talk about a certain subject. For this album, [the theme of love] was more coincidental at the beginning, and then I realised I’d written a lot of love songs, so thought I should continue doing that and it could be a theme throughout the album.

In previous interviews, you’ve described the previous two albums as a form of therapy. How did your mindset compare for this album?

I think on those two albums I was rambling on about whatever I was feeling. One might expect the opposite, but I think this one is not very personal in comparison. My focus on this one was much more, “I just want this to be good,” and not necessarily wanting it to be therapy.

Tracks like ‘Delirious’, ‘Accelerate’ and ‘Fade Away’, are probably your most “pop” tracks so far. Do you have any reservations about being viewed in that pop context?

No. Pop is such a broad genre, and I just try and focus on the quality of music instead of what genre is the best to follow moralistically. The pop industry is quite cynical in a way, but at the same time a lot of great music has come out of it. And I think the pop industry in the 60s was as cynical as it is today, and it has the same mechanisms. The only difference is there’s just a little bit more nudity. (Laughs)

Are you bothered by the amount of flesh on show in the pop industry?

I mean, as long the women want it then I don’t see the problem. To me, it seems like a lot of the women are quite comfortable with it, and it’s their way of expressing themselves and their art. I think the problem is when it becomes necessary, or something that you have to do in order to work with pop music, or any kind of genre.

It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s very important to try and see through what is moralistic criticism against women, and what is actually a criticism of the industry. Some of the discussions about that tend to tilt towards being about how women shouldn’t undress, instead of looking at the mechanisms behind it.

Looking at Scandinavia’s music industry from the outside, there appears to be a much more progressive attitude towards equality between the sexes. For example, a lot of the big musical exports from Scandinavia are female. Do you believe it is more progressive, or do you think there are the same pressures and prejudices that we experience here?

I don’t know, I think we’ve come pretty far in Scandinavia and I think in Europe as well in general. It’s getting better but it’s complicated; we are living in quite complex societies. But I don’t know why there are a lot of [Scandinavian] female artists who get big in Britain. Maybe it’s a coincidence!

You’re headlining Øya Festival this summer, and Robyn headlined last year’s event. In the UK, there are so few female headliners, which is pretty discouraging. How would you suggest we could rectify the situation, so that more female artists are deemed headlining material?

I think that, when you’re young, a lot of your identity is shaped by your gender; you look at other people who have the same gender and idolise them. The music industry is especially powerful in that – in its way of imaging perfection or stardom – and it’s natural for young people to idolise musicians. So if you’re a boy and you grew up in the 90s, you might idolise Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Guns N' Roses, and if you’re a girl you might idolise Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and you take that with you. And then you look at the people who write in the music magazines, and who run the industry – who are heads of labels, managers, promoters – and they’re usually men.

So I guess my point is, maybe the most efficient way to try and introduce more women in the market, and get them higher up the hierarchy, is to make women more interested in working in the industry. I think that would be the most efficient thing to do. I believe that music is identity. And while identity is not only gender, it is an important part of it.

You’re now six albums into your musical career. How have your motivations changed?

I think they’re actually pretty much the same. I just want to make music that I am happy with, and to be good at what I do. And I think I’m getting better. For example, I didn’t know anything about the technical parts of music when I was 20. I definitely don’t think I could have made an album like this back then.

Febrer 2015