Kristin Asbjørnsen: Wayfaring stranger.

First solo release from one of the great musical forces at large in Norway today. Wayaring Stranger -a spiritual songbook is a record that comes across as a benign, musical mystery.

Kristin Asbjørnsen - Wayfaring Stranger (Foto: Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen)

With Kristin Asbjørnsen there is something reminiscent of those musicians who up through history have been thought otherworldly inspired. Paganini did not play, but was played upon people said, and Robert Johnson had sold his soul to the devil. In Norway the notion of otherworldly forces guiding the most spellbinding of musicians was common. And it is a modern equivalent of this that springs to mind with Kristin Asbjørnsen.

Because a strong impression of this artist is that she is more of an inspired mouthpiece than someone labouring to express herself. It is as if she personally commands, and effortlessly funnels, an immense reservoir of this sublime and incomprehensible thing, music. Her natural intimacy with this language seems so much greater than were it just a “tool” in human hands. Here is sheer innate talent, instinctive musicality. But whilst the age-old conception of “super human” musicality was always a matter of spellbinding skill and technique, Asbjørnsen is not simply a technician but a true, composite artist.

And this lies in the fact that she is in perfect control of the forces and sources of her music, something which makes it, and her performance, infinitely complex: the scope and diversity is unique both in style and genre and the range of her vocal expression defies belief. Her voice is such that it is audible even when completely hushed, and warm even when screamed. And it is capable of weaving its way through the dimensions of sound in a way that makes it seem like an autonomous entity, performing such leaps that appear impossible. Asbjørnsen can navigate the parameters of octave, tone, timbre, rhythm, phrasing, style etc with complete precision, and there is always “more” kept in store: more force, higher notes, deeper hoarseness, warmer whispers, clearer and more lustrous middles.

In the course of the years that have elapsed since her record debut with the vocal quartet “Kvitretten” in 1996, Asbjørnsen has been the driving force behind a musical production almost without parallel in Norway. The ensembles Dadafon and Krøyt have managed to fuse artistic innovation, unruliness and audacity with impressive output. Great artistic ambition has been realized through the craftsmanship of the productions and the excellence of the performances, Asbjørnsens vocals in the centre of course.

Her work spans a spectrum from the frailest and most delicate hymns to super groovy world music, and from the warmest shimmering jazz to explosive fusions of contemporary rock and electronica. A recurring trait is the great dynamism, which is defined by Asbjørnsen’s vocal range and a rare melodic vain which she allows to play out through a great spectrum of musical energy. The emphasis on vocals entails a focus on the words too. These she often takes from great poems, something which also testifies to the seriousness and ambition of this artist. One example is Walt Whitman’s “I sing the body electric,” which appears on Krøyt’s “Body electric” EP from 2002.

Also without parallel has been the reception of Krøyt’s and Dadafon’s records. Reading reviews one often gets the impression that the critics find Asbjørnsen belonging to a qualitative category of her own, and that giving the top score on the scale is the very least they can do:

«Pick up your ears, Earth! Kristin Asbjørnsen’s voice is definitely world-class. And such songs!’ (Marta Breen, Dagbladet, rating 6 of 6).

«We are flooded by young female singers and songwriters these days. But Dadafon is in a league of its own» (Trygve Lundamo, Adresseavisen).

«Kristin Asbjørnsen has been an interesting vocalist for a long time. But now she goes all the way and makes PJ Harvey and Björk sound like two giggling schoolgirls» (Vegard Enlid, Adresseavisa, Trondheim).

And lately the tone of these reviews has begun reverberating also internationally. Dadafon and Krøyt have attracted considerable attention at festivals and in dedicated press for a while, but Asbjørnsen’s true entry unto the global scene came by writing the music for the motion picture “Factotum,” based on the book by cult writer Charles Bukowski. The movie – directed by Norwegian Bent Hamer - was selected for the Cannes festival last year. But more importantly, it has recently premiered in America, and the soundtrack was released simultaneously. Thus American critics have been introduced to Asbjørnsen’s music and voice, and they seem to share the enthusiasm of their Norwegian colleagues, expressing great expectations about Asbjørnsen’s future:

Though it is hard for foreigners to become music sensations in America, I think Asbjørnsen will be the next big thing. No one should be without this wonderful CD.» (TheCelebrityCafe)

« [...] the good news for music fans is the important larger discovery of the incredibly diverse and captivating Scandinavian jazz composer and vocalist Kristin Asbjørnsen. Even without images, the soundtrack functions quite well by itself as a haunting, complex atmospheric work with varied moods and instrumentation.» ( Billboard)

Back home the latest cause for euphoria has been her first solo album entitled “Wayfaring stranger,” which was released in Norway on September 25th. The record is telling evidence of her range in artistic orientation: Comprised of a selection of African-American spirituals it displays Asbjørnsen’s voice and musicality at its most graceful and profound. The tunes are taken from a treasure of little known spirituals that Asbjørnsen “inherited” from the singer Ruth Reese 16 years ago.

These songs touch me personally,” says Kristin, “through their open, repetitive words and melodies, they give me access to a place where I feel included and embraced. These are songs both to lean on and to take nourishment from. They are about holding and being held.
The songs are most of all beautiful and important to me, they are sacred songs I want to express from my musical point of view today.”

The existential aspect of spirituals constitutes a perfect match for Asbjørnsen’s voice and musicality, which has the courage and radiance to truly express the despair and the hope that the songs contain. In the words of one deeply touched Norwegian critic the album is:

“So gripping, it can make grown men cry. Asbjørnsen's voice is wistful, rough and intense. If this doesn’t bring tears to your eyes and send shivers down your spine, I can't see how anything will.” (Adresseavisen)

Currently Kristin and her band are out on an extensive tour of Norway, bringing the inner, unassailable glow of the spirituals out to the autumnally dark corners of the land.

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