Kari Bremnes: on straightforwardness and shelter

Kari Bremnes has just released her thirteenth solo album entitled Ly (shelter). Its songs tell of life-changing decisions and simple, guilty, pleasures, big unwieldy emotions, and the little feelings that permeate everyday existence. It is a collection of human stories and human destinies, conveyed in Bremnes’ trademark forthright poetry. We start the interview by suggesting that Kari Bremnes’ catalogue of songs is about to become a part of the Norwegian songbook and thus part of our national cultural heritage.

Listen to and download Kari Bremnes releases here

Kari Bremnes 2009 (photo: Siren Lauvdal)

    -That is a fantastic thought, says Kari Bremnes. It is something I cannot really relate to, but the notion is both stirring and humbling.

    Yet again you have released a record that is unanimously embraced by the press and critics. One of the recurring characterizations is that your songs convey a balance of audacity and peacefulness, and that as an artist you stand forth with a special self assurance; something that opens up for aspects humour and an unpretentious mode of expression. Is this self-confidence something that has matured over the years, strengthened by the excellent reviews?

    -First of all I have to say that every release fills me with excitement. You never know what will happen, and every record and every concert unleashes an undying sense of apprehension and turbulence. But I think that I have always enjoyed a feeling of confidence regarding what it is I want to do and what I want to say; a feeling that is entirely independent of reception and previous reviews. I am a very ambivalent person, but not as an artist.

    Your first record, «My Wild Heart» (1987) was based on poems by the Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen. Before your debut as an artist you studied literature and language and worked as a journalist. Is it fair to say that words were your first love? If so, can you describe the process that led you from words alone to your choice of becoming a singer and songwriter?

    -I have always been a very avid reader. Reading is a deep disposition in me; it has always been a sanctuary that I have withdrawn to. For a long time I felt that words and music were two separate things, but hearing people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen changed all that. I realized that the words and the music could belong together intimately, mutually enhancing each other.
    After I did the record with Tove Ditlevsen’s poems, (the music was written by Petter Henriksen) I slowly began to realize that I could write the music myself, most of all because I felt that there was music already there in the words, so that it was not two separate expressions that I had to fuse, but more like aspects of the same creative process.

    You have said once that growing up in a small, yet bustling village in the north taught you to enter other people’s minds? Do you think of this as a special gift?

    -It is a disposition! (laughs). It is both a gift and a burden I think. I often sense that it is a wonderful thing to be able to see behind the surface of other people; to become aware of their troubles and their desires and their sense of destiny. On the other hand this kind of sensitivity can be overwhelming at times. It brings about a general feeling of vulnerability, and I also find that expressing these observations with precision is an ongoing challenge. It is not that I feel a responsibility in terms of truthfulness; it’s not that kind of precision, but there is always the challenge in balancing reality with poetry and finding the emotional precision. I want to keep my songs and my artistic expression natural, like a dynamic conversation, which means that I try to avoid any kind of poetic distance. I don’t want to take up a role when I sing and I don’t want people to experience that my music requires a special mode of listening; something that is different to a real-life exchange between people.

    It is probably fair to say that this sensitivity to individual stories along with your sense of unpretentious poetic truthfulness is a key to the fact that so many people feel personally moved by your songs. On your new record Ly, you come across as even more direct and unambiguous than before. Was this a conscious choice?

    -Yes, definitely. I was very mindful about this album being lucid; which meant finding the right balance between straightforwardness and poetic nuance. I needed the words to feel right, like something I would actually say, not only in a song. And so the songs grew forth on that basis, as depictions where the words and music belong together, and come out as honest expressions.

    Can you describe the process of writing the songs?

    I always work intuitively. Sometimes I just like the sound of a phrase; sometimes I feel that I have understood something important, perhaps not knowing just what. And then I explore these notions and try to find the right words and the right balance. Over the years I’ve become more conscious that the words must have the correct musicality in their own right. I discard a lot of words and phrases that look good on paper, because they don’t invoke music naturally. The words must have musical properties and give direction to the music, I think. I find that to be the key to achieving the aforementioned balance, where the songs sound natural and where communication is immediate. When playing live I depend on feeling fully at ease with what I do on stage and experiencing that I have a transparent and honest relationship with the audience.

    How does this quest for a direct and natural expression play out in the studio context? Many artists put a lot of emphasis on finding the right location and the right atmosphere when recording. Is this important to you?

    -Quite frankly, I don’t give a damn about the studio; its atmosphere, the location and those things. I find that the physical room is totally irrelevant. The important thing is that the room can be moulded to fit the music so that the music itself allows space for the vocals. What’s decisive is that I feel that the people I’m working with are able to care for the songs in the right way, and thereby give me the space in the songs that I need. I have very good people around me. With a producer like Bengt, (Bengt E. Hanssen, Bremnes’ long-time producer and chief musical collaborator) who has so much expertise and confidence, any studio works.

    Lately you have enjoyed increasing success in Germany. Are there any specific reasons for this? Is there something in your music that strikes home particularly well with the Germans?

    -I’m afraid it is more of a coincidence really. I am just lucky to have contacts and some very skilful people working for me in Germany. So I was given a chance, and it has paid off. In general, my impression is that people are the same wherever you go: When we play in Germany people respond to the same songs as in Norway. There is no mystery to it at all. I think it could have happened in other countries too, but Germany was where I was given the chance. It is as big a market for me now as is Norway. It is a wonderful feeling to have a different country to work in regularly. Working in Norway alone can get hard and tedious, so therefore what has happened in Germany is very refreshing and inspiring.

    Kari Bremnes will tour Norway with Ly in February and March, and then head on to Germany for a fourteen-date tour in April and May.

    Kari Bremnes' MySpace site.

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