It is almost four years now since Marianne Sveen decided to move on from the genre-indefinable Norwegian all-girl band Katzenjammer, after 12 years of almost constant touring, a decision which led to the other three members of the band going on hiatus after they had found it difficult to identify a replacement.
Now, after a couple of years of relative silence during which she made a successful TV appearance but was then faced with a family misfortune when her daughter was diagnosed with leukaemia, Marianne Sveen is back writing and preparing to release a debut album, one which is likely to be quite different from what we came to expect from her previous band.
During a visit to Oslo for the Øya Festival I took time out to meet Marianne in the city centre and to talk through her recent experiences and hopes for the future.
GIITTV. Hi, Marianne. So, in broad terms, what have you been doing for the last three years, both in the music arena and outside it?
MS. What we had with Katzenjammer came to an end. We had another baby, and I was already working on my album. I started taking extra shifts as a nurse at a psychiatric ward, to have a steady income, unaware that I would find it to be one of the most inspiring things I have done so far. The people I met here, and their multi faceted stories, made me realize I was writing the wrong album. I tossed everything I had written so far, and started over. But right after I made a connection with my new label, my daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, and our lives turned up side down.
Naturally, this has been all we have focused on for quite some time, consuming every last bit of energy we had. But finally, things has stabilized, and we can start living our lives again, little by little.
You described yourself recently as being “in a very different place” musically to where you have been in the past. What is that place?
Followers of my ‘Dandylion’ EP might have an idea! I didn’t form the band Katzenjammer with the other three girls but I feel so blessed to have been a part of it. I wouldn’t be what I am now without having done it. But even when I joined the band I was already working on my solo project, which was, even back then, probably closer musically to where I find myself now). It is where I feel most like my self, but it is not one which people might be familiar with. It is more of a storytelling sort of thing where other people are in focus rather than me.
This will be your second album? Will it be as stylistically diverse as the first one was and will the lyrics in some way reflect the personal turmoil you and your family have experienced in the last year?
My first full album, the previous one was an EP trilogy, “Images under construction”.
This album will be more homogenic as it was written over a shorter period of time. The first one was a case of tidying up the musical and personal chaos in my head and was written over 10 years. But this latest one comprises songs written over a more recent period, using my voice to tell other peoples’ stories. I’ve tidied up my own chaos. But there is one song about the situation with my daughter. As the album is called Next of Kin it will concern as many aspects of ‘next of kin’ as there are. And suddenly I found myself being one myself, in an unthinkable situation.
I’ll change the subject a little now. Will you be doing any more TV talent shows like the one you did last year or was it a one-off? What prompted you to do that? (Incidentally, some of your performances were fantastic and Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ stands out in my memory for its sheer chutzpah).
Well there are not too many shows like this in Norway, it’s a small country and there are not too many artists to choose from! And I may not even be asked again. I can be in a show I believe in. I did it for fun as I could choose my own songs and to show people what I can do. And that performance, with the six drummers, is musically kind of where I’m heading now. I felt I was thrown off before I’d given my best performance! I don’t regret doing it and under the right circumstances I could do it again. But what I am really about is creating, and composing and story-telling.
I reviewed Sol’s (Sol Heilo, another member of Katzenjammer) album last year and her recent single. Some of her songs can be connected directly back to your old band and were written during 12 years of touring with it and there is a feeling, well, not of bitterness, but of exasperation. Did you write material of your own during that period as she did? Have they been influenced by events then or in your comparative fallow period since then? Do you look back (in anger) in your songs, or forward?
I look forward and not back in anger. I’ve tidied up my musical and personal chaos now thorough Dandylion and “Images Under Construction “ . The ‘circus’ we were in comprised four different stories by four different people and they are all true. We’re all still friends but we also remember how hard it can be when we’re all on top of each other, 24/7. Living that life that we did is not natural to anyone. And you constantly display all the versions of yourself, which never is at its best all the time. I think its a necessity to try to see the bigger picture, and always try to be the bigger person. Forgive and move on.
Roughly, how should we ‘categorise’ you? Or should we categorise you at all? What sort of ‘genre’ do you fit? Or are you one of that growing number of people who work outside of ‘genres’?
My main reason for moving on from Katzenjammer was so that I could embrace my own sound fully. It requires time and energy because it comes in pieces rather than songs. I have this fantastic guy called Ola Kvernberg who will help me arrange the string section in my songs. Every song speaks for itself and it’s a little cinematic and serious because these are serious stories, involving other people. It’s acoustic, mellow, loud, strong…everything. And very emotional.
Have you collaborated with others on the album? Is collaboration on the agenda for the future or do you see yourself as a solo artist?
I’m a solo artist now I guess, without that excluding anything. I work better when I can collaborate with those people who do what they do best. I met Ola Kvernberg at a Christmas concert and it was an eye-opener to me because with Katzenjammer we were responsible for everything – as multi-instrumentalists – but I now feel I can do what I do best by leaning on these people with their own strengths that I don’t have. I can take full responsibility for a little less, which is nice right now.
Are you still in touch with Anne Marit (Bergheim) and Turid (Jørgensen) (also members of Katzenjammer)? I ask because I believe you once hinted that you were going to be involved with or even co-produce Anne Marit’s debut solo album. If that is true, how far have you progressed with it and what direction is it going to take stylistically – both in general and compared to your own work?
I am still in contact with all three of the girls but we don’t see each other much as we are busy doing what we do. Anne Marit is the one I see most often as she lives in Oslo and we are also probably the closest musically. We had plans for her to record at my studio before my family situation was turned upside down. Her Telegram (band) project is going very well and she is in Tiergarten as well. For her to shine like she can she has to do this when she’s ready and I’ve told her not to wait for me and my family situation to resolve, especially with me doing an album too. Her songs are more ‘naked’ but they are strong enough just to be recorded with just a guitar, with a little production. She’s a storyteller, too and has some amazing stories to tell.
You’ve had other jobs, most famously I suppose as a nurse on a dementia ward? (Which is how the song ‘Lady Gray’ came about) How have those experiences influenced how you view life and how you write your songs?
It’s clear I was writing old peoples’ songs for a long time and had an EP planned but Katzenjammer came along and blew everything up into a fun party. But when I started as a nurse I didn’t think psychiatry was for me. When I found this place to work (and I still work there now), it changed everything for me and I felt it was better to move forward at all times and not to, as you said, “look back in anger”.
On your social media pages you seem to have become preoccupied with bullying and its effects. Is there any particular reason for that?
Bullying is an important issue to me because of the patients I meet, in the age range 18-62, half of them with serious psychological challenges have been bullied at some time in their life. Personally it has never happened to me but I learned early on not to hang around with people who did not make me feel good. I did feel excluded at times in my teens but was fortunate to always have other platforms rely on. But not everyone has that. There is a case now, I mentioned it on my Facebook page, of an old woman, my fiancé’s grandmother who is still haunted by the same feeling in her stomach she had, being bullied 60 years ago , when she talks about it.
I believe you travelled to Iraq several years ago? What was the reason for that journey?
Yes I went there in 2014 when the Syrian war broke out and was at its worst. Katzenjammer was at a festival and I was watching the news before the show. The newsreader warned about strong images. Suddenly dead children were everywhere on the screen and I started to cry and was ashamed I was concerned about my running make-up. I decided I had to do something. So I arranged a concert to gather money for the refugee council then I went there to meet refugees and record a video to a song which translates as ‘make me rest’. If it wasn’t for my son I would have wanted to stay there.
Is Norway your home forever or do you ever yearn for somewhere a little different, even if only for a few years?
I dream a lot, as does my fiancé, about living somewhere else but the practicalities don’t allow for that. In any case I love Norway. But I have a weak spot for Denmark and the Netherlands and Switzerland. And the countryside in the UK. It would have to be closer to nature. I’m not very social! If I could choose I’d have a property where I didn’t have to mix with other people. We live in a nice townhouse now in a cosy and inexpensive area but I dream sometimes of being on a farm.
What do you think of the Norwegian music scene presently?
It’s really exciting. We always look outside our countries but I’m discovering Norwegian music now from years ago, artists like Sigrid and Dagny are really doing well. And I’m getting into Norwegian jazz these days. There’s so much interesting stuff going on both with the pop culture and the indie scene. Recommendation: Ola Kvernberg- “Mechanical Fair” and “Steam Dome” and Eple Trio,s “In the clearing in the cavern”, are current favorites
I have a question specifically from the Katzenjammer fan club. Is there any chance you will play in America?
I really hope so. One day, within the next 10 years I’ll make sure I’m there even if it’s just me and my guitar on an open mic session!
I’ll ask just one more question about Katzenjammer because as you’ve said online recently, that chapter is closed. If you had the opportunity to go back in time and relive that period, would you still do it?
Yes, without a doubt. It’s important to me that me leaving the band isn’t interpreted as being ungrateful or regretful about my time there. If you have a job for 10 years sometimes you feel you’re done there and that the only way to get new tasks is outside of that restriction. It’s better just to leave it at that. We all have choices to make so we can be happy and to be the best version of ourselves and I was starting to become a version of myself that I didn’t quite like. I was just done with the whole period but would never have gone without it. I still look back at old clips and am very proud of what we achieved, the music that we made, and that we moved and touched people. That’s why I call it a chapter, it’s nothing I want to erase but it is done and we have all moved on to another one.
Katzenjammer – ‘Hey Ho on the Devil’s Back’ live (Marianne Sveen on vocals/piano)
Marianne Sveen, thank you for taking the time to talk to us and good luck for the future.
(Immediately after the interview Marianne gave me a preview of her new single [which concerns bullying] on her phone and it was quite lovely, and utterly different from anything recorded with Katzenjammer. It should be released shortly).
Main image: Photo credit – Paal Audestad