The 21-year old Norwegian Sigrid (Solbakk Raabe) was announced on Friday as the winner of the BBC’s Sound of 2018 competition; one that in its previous 15 years has only been won three times by non-British artists and all were American. (If you’re an Egghead, you will know they were 50 Cent [the first ever award]; the now defunct The Bravery, and Haim, although Mika is Lebanese-born and Ray BLK [the 2017 winner] Nigerian-born). Alumni winners include Adele and Sam Smith.
Most of the winners and a fair slice of the nominees are still around while others have all but vanished. Remember Duffy and the Ting Tings (2nd and 3rd, 2008)? Here’s a thing. Lady Gaga came sixth in 2009, when it was won by Little Boots.
But I digress. The point is, as Sigrid succeeds where other Europeans have failed, what does this mean for Norwegian music? Until fairly recently if someone was asked to name a Norwegian band with a UK top 10 hit for TV’s Pointless they’d say A-ha and then retire.
But the times are a-changing. Neighbouring Sweden is the leading pop music country in the world by a raft of measures but even the Swedes are beginning grudgingly to acknowledge that something miraculous is happening in the Kingdom of Norway.
It isn’t so much the volume – the population is only five million after all – as the quality that becomes apparent to anyone who has chosen to follow Norwegian music over the last few years as I have.
The music scene is focused on the capital, Oslo, as you might expect, but there is quite a debate going on just now as to what is the cultural capital, with both the much smaller Bergen and Trondheim, the location of a world-leading jazz school, weighing in with viable claims. Jazz is huge in Norway and many of its contemporary musicians were originally trained in it. Even the relatively tiny Ålesund (pop. 50,000) is in consideration. Sigrid is originally from Ålesund but now shares a flat in Bergen with her brother Tellef, also a musician, but quite a different, more experimental one. All tastes are catered for here, even in the same living room.
Map of southern Norway with the main music cities
Source: Google Maps
Indeed, Norway is a slightly larger Iceland, another sparsely populated country that seems to find global-standard musicians in isolated little villages although I’d argue that Norway is leaving Iceland behind at the moment.
Not since A-ha has a Norwegian artist risen to prominence as rapidly as Sigrid. It is no exaggeration to say that she was almost unknown outside her homeland only a year ago, playing to small venues in the UK. In contrast she has just completely sold out her March tour here. I saw her energetic performance in Manchester last November supporting Oh Wonder and with all respect to that excellent duo half the crowd seemed to be there to see her. I have no doubt her Academy 2 billing will be upgraded to Academy 1 (2,500 capacity) in the next few days. Next time it will be the Arena.
Her success here is based largely on two singles. Firstly, ‘Don’t kill my Vibe’ which received heavy airplay on Radio 1, which declared it “The hottest record in the world,” and which has amassed over 100 million streams worldwide.
Then, more recently, the more thoughtful ‘Strangers’, which was picked up by Radio 2. Most of the jocks have played it and it featured as ‘Popmaster’ Ken Bruce’s Record of the Week just before Christmas when audience figures of eight million were higher still as the Popmaster finals were played out. So, massive exposure on both of the UK’s two major pop music stations, and covering a wide age range. The power of the successful ‘plugger’ knows no bounds.
And hidden within that slightly cynical statement lies my only concern; overhype. Her quality is evident and her voice exceptional. She has an obvious and massive teenage market. But her output so far is fairly slim. We await an album that might not even be released in 2018. Anticipation based on a handful of songs can be premature and misplaced. Think Rag ‘n Bone Man’s ‘Human’ track and then the album.
Indeed there is a useful analogy with Exhibit #2, Aurora.
Aurora Asknes (out of Bergen and the same age) was, two years ago, in a similar position to Sigrid. On the basis of a select few songs, a cover of Oasis’ ‘Half the World Away’ for the John Lewis Christmas TV advert and mesmerising live performances, the world apparently lay at her feet. In this case her debut album, ‘All my Demons greeting me as a Friend’, was very well received. Yet while it reached the #1 spot in Norway, it managed only #28 and #150 where it matters (the UK and U.S.) and #24 in Germany, where Norwegian artists traditionally do well. She is working on her second album now and much is riding on it.
So which other Norwegian artists should one be aware of? If there is a ‘Queen’ it is probably Ane Brun though she has decamped to Stockholm, but Susanne Sundfør also vies for that title. The cultured 31-year old singer-songwriter from Haugesund, between the oil cities of Bergen and Stavanger, has released five albums, four of which reached #1 in the Norwegian charts though she has not been able to replicate that success outside the country. Her style varies between folk (as she started out and to which she returned on her 2017 album ‘Music for People in Trouble’) and electronic dance-pop, with which she experimented on the previous one, ‘Ten Love Songs’.
(Listen to or watch also her work with Röyksopp)
While Sundfør is prolific, Alan Walker isn’t. The Northampton-born, now Bergen-residing child émigré – still only 20 – who is in reality a producer and house DJ – is probably best known for one song, but what a song. ‘Faded’ has clocked up 1.5 billion views for the original YouTube video. Watch it if you must (you must) but the version I chose is a “live” one (though the sound quality appears to be too good for that) which Walker recorded with Highasakite’s Ingrid Helene Håvik as singer instead of the original Iselin Solheim, and the Norwegian State Radio Orchestra, at the end of 2016.
(The song doesn’t start until 2:00. Walker is in his typical trade-marked black outfit and hoodie with the double W logo, one of the most successful brandings in Norwegian history).
Collaborations like that are commonplace in the musical village that is Norway, and Håvik has worked with numerous other artists, from Hanne Hukkelberg (who has embraced jazz, doom metal and electronic hip-hop in her lengthy and varied career) to A-ha, with whom she recently recorded a new acoustic version of ‘Take on Me’.
But the Ålesund, Trondheim and Oslo-originating Highasakite (they are big fans of Elton John and the name comes from the line in ‘Rocket Man’, a song they’ve covered) have so far failed to make much of an impact beyond Norway despite holding the record for the number of weeks an album (‘Silent Treatment’) has been in the country’s charts. They are regarded as deity there and their live performances are riveting and it is perhaps Highasakite’s reluctance to tour outside Norway (just four UK live performances during the 18-month promotion of the second album ‘Camp Echo’, all but one of them in London) that explains their relative lack of visibility here.
A third album should be released in 2018. Demos are reported to be amongst their best work yet. As with Aurora, much rides on this next album and the band’s desire to get on the road and sell it.
‘Since Last Wednesday’ (from Silent Treatment).
No Norwegian audience ever goes mad!
Other performers worth investigating are:
Dagny (Norvoll Sandvik). The Tromsø-born daughter of jazz-performing parents opted for synth-pop instead and has racked up millions of Spotify streams. Big things are expected of her this year.
Ary. Ariadne Loinsworth, the daughter of a Caribbean immigrant, is signed to the same label as Sigrid and Aurora (Petroleum Records). Another for whom big things are expected in 2018. I saw her perform this song in the cosy Reeperbahn Bus at the music festival there last year. She actually burst into tears when she saw foreign people singing along. The genuine article. She may be ‘already there’ but hurry up Ary, come on.
Thea and the Wild. Oslo’s Thea Glenton Raknes sounds unnervingly like Sigrid on some tracks but is developing a particular electronic sound of her own. Her debut album, ‘Ikaros’, will be reviewed soon.
Sløtface. While punk may have slipped out of fashion in some countries, the Stavanger-based Sløtface, headed up by Haley Shea, the daughter of a Texan oil executive, who has the attitude of JR Ewing and one that an ageing Liam Gallagher would die to regain, have developed their own brand of pop-punk, every song replete with a memorable tune.
I left the best until last. I have never been able to understand why Katzenjammer never really took a grip on the British public as they did in Germany and the Netherlands. It might be because one of their many styles and the most frequently-used one, a sort of American bar honky-tonk meets vaudeville, didn’t go down well with the British public, while beautiful ballads like ‘Lady Grey’,’ Lady Marlene’ and ‘Wading in Deeper’ were overlooked. But this was a band that drew comparisons with The Beatles (another vaudeville act if you think about it) and the often-applied label “best-ever all-girl band” may well be accurate.
They went on hiatus two years ago and we may never see them again. But we thought that about Sleater Kinney, and The Go-Gos, too. All may be revealed in a shortly forthcoming interview.
For now, two of the members, Anne-Marit Bergheim and Turid Jørgensen Holerud, don’t seem to be doing much. Marianne Sveen recently posted about the possibility of an album this year. The one who has seized the moment is Sol Heilo, who, in the introspective ‘Skinhorse Playground’, laid down what for my money was the best album of 2017, one of perfect pop tunes with intelligent lyrics and hidden meanings.
Katzenjammer: ‘Hey, ho on the Devil’s back’.
Sol Heilo: ‘America’.
Norway has its fjords. It is an international peace negotiator and hosts the Nobel Peace Prize each year, along with the music concert that goes with it and which has in recent years featured Susanne Sundfør, Highasakite and this year – yes – Sigrid. It has more oil than Jed Clampett would know what to do with and the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. Oh, and they send us a Christmas tree every year for having liberated them from the Nazi jackboot.
The country’s popular music isn’t so well known beyond its shores but it should be and there is every reason to expect that Sigrid’s sudden and unanticipated breakthrough here will be the catalyst by which other Norwegian solo performers and bands will make one of their own. It may not yet quite be an invasion but the phoney war is certainly over.
If you want to check out the range of music on offer I can’t suggest a better vehicle than Oslo-based Ordentlig (authentic) Radio to start with, a web-only station run by three eccentric old geezers who look like they could be UKIP candidates or characters in Last of the Summer Wine or The League of Gentlemen but which has its finger on the pulse of the scene there. And it only plays Norwegian music. http://www.ordentligradio.no/ (click Lytt på radio).