IN CONVERSATION: Sol Heilo

IN CONVERSATION: Sol Heilo

Norway’s Sol Heilo, once a mainstay of the popular multi-genre band Katzenjammer, variously described as “the best all-female band ever” and “the female Beatles” took a break when its four members went their own way two years ago. But she burst back on to the scene late in October of last year with her debut solo album ‘Skinhorse Playground’ and a clutch of innovative supporting videos that demonstrated that her talents are limitless. In advance of her first tour which passes through London (the only UK date) on 13th March, David Bentley caught up with her to talk about the album and tour, the transition from her previous life, and future plans.

Hi Sol, thanks for taking the time to parley with us at this busy time for you. You spent over 10 years with Katzenjammer before it went on hiatus and took some time out afterwards. What was it that prompted you to record and release ‘Skinhorse Playground’? Was it something you had always wanted to do, a new ‘necessity’, or was it something that was initiated by the vivid dreams you have had periodically throughout your life and which are referenced in the album’s title? Or something else entirely?

Curiously enough, I have never had a dream of being an artist on a stage. Whenever there was a play at school, an amateur movie being made or a musical show on stage, I would always be the one behind the camera or behind the stage, making costumes or doing the make-up. I did once want to be a percussionist in a symphonic orchestra (and actually was for a while in Norwalk symphony orchestra, Connecticut, when I was 21), but it required way too much technical practice and I hate to practice technique. So I never really tried. But then I per happenstance was dragged into Katzenjammer in the musical school I went to in Oslo, after my time in Connecticut. I was playing drums in eight different bands at the time and wasn’t really ready for another one. But I heard one song played by Anne-Marit (Bergheim) on the piano (‘Wading in Deeper’) in a rehearsal room in our school and I made up my mind then and there. I tossed the other bands and it was only Katzenjammer. I gradually started to sing in Katzenjammer too, having not sung for anyone before. (Song was not my thing, I thought!) I was 23. Well, having that said, you may have guessed that a solo career never was my dream. But in my time in Katzenjammer I had an urge for writing and I ended up writing a lot of songs and some suited Katzenjammer well, and some not. The ones that never ended up in the band, I hid away. When Katzenjammer had a break after 12 years of touring it felt natural to just continue writing, playing and performing. It is where I belong now. I fought hard to convince everyone that Katzenjammer had to continue, but when I lost the battle, my path was clear to me.

(Wading in Deeper)

While you always were a “big personality” in Katzenjammer you were working with three other equally strong personalities; there were no shrinking violets in that band. How does it feel to be “on your own” now, at least as a writer? How have you managed the change? Do you ever feel lonely? I ask that last question because I wondered if you had personalised the lyrics in the opening verses of ‘Walk a Little Further’ on ‘Skinhorse Playground’ in order to highlight your own situation now:

“Your dream floats out on Lonesome Street, softer than a hymn;
You cloak your solitude in the lifestyle that you skim.”

then…

“Enter Café Solitaire;
I’ll show you all the doubt that’s flowing;
People lost in disrepair;
A universal sadness growing…”

In Katzenjammer I never wrote songs with the other girls but for one exception; ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, so there was no change at all for me to write songs for my own project. I do like to co-write, but I always chose to write with people outside the band and people I do not know very well. It is the new meetings that inspire me the most. You ask me if I ever feel lonely. Ironically, the time in my life when I felt the loneliest was a period of four years in Katzenjammer. That was when most of my songs on ‘Skinhorse Playground’ were written.

(Walk a Little Further)

You’ve had various side projects as well, including one with Unni Wilhelmsen and Hanne Mari Karlsen. Are they likely to figure prominently in your recording and performing future or will you (sorry for this!) continue to ‘go Sol-o’?

Hanne and Unni are my best friends and Hanne is also in my Sol-o band and I feel very blessed to be able to be on stage with my best friends. Both Unni and I have on the other hand a steady solo career, so the trio will continue to be a fun thing we do whenever we find the time in our very tight schedules.

For live performances you are working with the Norwegian-English band that mostly comprises Captain Gone back in Oslo. You seem to have developed a great working relationship with them, especially Jon Arne Bjørnstad, who shares vocal duties with you.  Will this be your full time band from now on? Would you write together?

These guys are my favourite musicians and we’ve been playing together for a while, but we’re not a band, I am a solo artist and my musicians will vary from time to time. I have thought of writing with one of the guys in the band, though, the English gentleman Lyndon Riley. Time will show.

You are multi-skilled. Apart from your abundant musical talents you are an arranger and producer, also an artist, designer, fashion designer, and a puppeteer. Perhaps the only thing you don’t do is ballet, as anyone who has watched your live performance of the Katzenjammer song ‘Virginia Clemm’ will know (only joking!). Many people have been won over already by your clever homemade iPhone videos of two of the songs on the album, ‘America’ and ‘Killing Karma’. Do you have any ambitions for multi-media productions in the future or do you see yourself remaining as a singer-songwriter?

(Virginia Clemm)

Ha-ha! Dancing is not one of my strengths, no! You’re not only joking you’re so right! I do not have any ambitions at all; my motto is and has always been: as long as I love it, I do it. So these two videos (there is one to come, prettyyy, prettyyyy soon too) I made because I felt like it then and there. It’s always been like that; I remember when I was a child, my musical teachers in the marching band wanted to give me special lessons with teachers from the Norwegian Music Academy, because they felt I needed more challenge and could “become something”. But I really didn’t like the prospect of that, because then it became “serious” and not just fun and playful. My mother and father supported me in my choice and I respect them a lot for that. I quote the proverb: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

You started out as a drummer in a marching band as a very young girl but now you play many instruments – I’ve heard 15 or more? Which is your favourite, and why?

I love the guitar. That’s an instrument I can find myself playing wherever and whenever. It has so many opportunities and backs a vocal so very well. So does the piano, but I am more friends with the guitar. But on stage the drums are just an extension of my body. It moves with me and grooves with me, so drums might be my all time favourite. But I NEVER sit down playing drums in my home for practice, I need to play with melodic music to enjoy it.

While you’ve had (and continue to have) great success in your homeland and in Germany and the Netherlands in particular you are still something of an unknown quantity in the UK. Prior to your London show here on 13th March, how would you ‘sell’ yourself to a potential audience? For those that know Katzenjammer and its style, what are you writing and performing now that is the same, or different from your time with that band?

I think I will not be able to not bring a part of Katzenjammer into my shows, as I am a quarter of Katzenjammer, and my stage feeling was created there. I do switch instruments and I find myself building a set in a fashion I would build a Katzenjammer set. A progression of building the energy and vary from very frail expression to thundering energy. That is who I am as a musician, and that will be a part of my shows as well. My album is not a complete representative for what will happen live. The big difference is that my expression is of natural reasons more personal. All songs are written by me and they’re almost a diary. They are a door into a very secret place that has been shared with only a couple of people. And as my musical taste is very eclectic, my need to express myself in different styles and genres is still present. ‘Skinhorse Playground’ is pretty far away from Katzenjammer. My live show is perhaps closer.

Norway is growing in prominence internationally as the source of great musical talent and most of its artists seem to choose to continue to live there. But have you considered moving abroad to further you career? What would be the pros and cons of doing that in your opinion?

I have definitely considered moving. I love Norway with all my heart, but we are a small country, and the same thing that happens with the common mentality in a village, you can find here. There are a few people deciding what the consensus should be. And we do follow. Well, not very much myself, that’s why I sometimes want to move. But right now I am very happy and content and 12 years of constantly touring makes you treasure the steadiness of home. But I have been thinking of the States, UK, Switzerland and perhaps Germany and the Netherlands. I play more often in some of those countries than in my home country and I love to tour there.

During your performance at the Reeperbahn Festival last September you played one song (a powerful one) called ‘No More Games’, which isn’t on the album and which isn’t a Katzenjammer song. How many others do you have in your locker? Enough for another album? Are you thinking along those lines already or is it too soon for that?

I have 40 songs or so lying around my head and in my locker. Many of them will definitely end up in albums! I just need to do one thing at a time. Album-tours-album-tours, and of course videos and all the invisible work that takes 80% of the time being an artist. 20% is music, to be honest. I wish it was more.

Much has been said about sexism and sexual abuse in the entertainment business and the “under-representation” of females in popular music but I don’t want to ask you about that. I’m interested in ageism though. The result of the BBC Sound of 2018 competition was announced recently. It is supposed to showcase the most exciting rising stars in music. The winner (Norway’s Sigrid, as it happens) is 21. The other four on the shortlist were half your age. Youth is obviously in demand while some artists of a different era find it hard to get the work these days. You are ‘re-entering’ the business at a later stage, even though you don’t look your age.  Do you find age to be an impediment in any way? Or even a benefit?

Well it is what it is. If I could choose, I’d like to have the cognition and experience I have now, in a body of a 25-year old. That’s because I love life and would love to relive it thrice at least, and of course the fact that women become mothers. But I must really say I am very happy for the experience I have, I do not envy young people who are thrown into this business overnight with no warning or experience. It’s a harsh business and you need a firm spine to linger. Katzenjammer had no “overnight success”. We built it with our own hands stone by stone. I am extremely happy I learned it the hard way.

Speaking of Sigrid, in a recent interview with her and her brother Tellef they both claimed that Bergen is the “cultural capital” of Norway. I guess both Oslo and Trondheim would have something to say about that. As an Oslonian (Oslovian, Oslopudlian?) what is your take on that claim?

I don’t have a claim whatsoever. To be honest, I am living my life in a different style than most I know. I don’t watch TV, I do not read the papers and I don’t pay much attention to what is going on in the music business. I have my informative podcasts or I listen to the radio sometimes. But not the stations with music. There is music in my head all day and all night, and I mostly find it disturbing to put on another song when there’s already plenty in my head. The eternal stream of information and news and “what to do and not to dos” have this effect on me: silence. I need silence.

The song ‘Killing Karma’ chronicles your nightmare relationship with ‘The Cloak and Dagger Heart ???’ as the person is credited in the song and on the video. As in the case of Carly Simon and ‘You’re so vain’, are we likely ever to know that person’s identity?

No. That will stay a secret. To protect the person it is about. I wrote these songs for myself, because I had to. It was the only way to go through another day. I was deeply depressed at the time. But the funny thing with songs is that there is a great possibility that they will be performed in public at some point although they’re highly personal. 🙂

(Killing Karma)

I’m reluctant to ask the Big K question but many people would like to know and will read this interview to try to get a clue at least. Let’s put it this way. The lyrics of the last track on the album, ‘Happy Song’, at least seem to hint at a desire for reconciliation. And you’ve said yourself that you wanted to keep the band going.  So let’s keep it simple. Your priority right now, understandably, is your solo career. But on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high) what is the chance of Katzenjammer recording and playing again in the future?

That is not up to me, I’m afraid. If it was, Katzenjammer would be going steady right now. So all I can say is time will show! (My gut feeling is definitely a yes to future playing, but it will take some years, I reckon) As for the song ‘Happy Song’, all I want to say there is that the song was written during, let’s say, my dark years, long before I ever thought of having a solo career.

(Happy Song)

Finally, this is a fleeting visit (to the UK) indeed. Can we look forward to a return visit before too long?

I really, really hope so. I love the UK and a lot of the album content is connected to UK. Several of my songs were created there (many not on the album). It is basically the audience who decides whether I will be back. If the show in Camden is packed it is considered a success and something to build on. If nobody shows up…, well, your answer is there. Let’s hope for a bunch of non-square people! 🙂

Sol Heilo plays The Camden Assembly in London on 13th March. You heard the lady. Be there or be square!

Photo: Jørgen Nordby

4 thoughts on “IN CONVERSATION: Sol Heilo

  1. Sol is an amazing lady and her talent and that of Katzenjammer is beyond any band now or in the past. Show me any band with such an array of musical ability or instrumental skill. The fact that Sol has found Unni and Hanne equally musically talented is amazing and says a lot about Norway’s musical talent. So Sol says she can’t dance I say so what that’s all most bands do now fancy little dance routines but no actual skill with instruments much less a multitude of them. My regret is discovering Katzenjammer to late to see them live but I will be in Camden to see sol play. Congratulations Sol Heilo a shining star in an otherwise dull music industry.

    1. It’s ok Derek, it was just a little joke to lighten things up a bit as there were a couple of heavy questions in there. Solveig took it in the right spirit. Cheers.

  2. I was very privileged to see Katzenjammer 10 times. They were such fun & brilliant at being crazy as well as a very talented bunch of Norwegian female musicians.
    Then unfortunately they all went their own sweet ways. Leaving behind thousands of heartbroken fans who had followed them around for about 10 years.
    Then something magical happened. Sol Heilo decided to go solo. WOW !
    She put an amazing band together. Rehearsed them into something so good. The band said Sol was an amazing band leader & knew exactly what she wanted.
    I saw one of the first shows in Oslo & brilliant it was too. Then I saw the show again November 17. What a difference a year makes.
    I hadn’t seen anyone so good since Tina Turner.
    It was fabulous, so professional. She grabbed the crowd from the very first song.
    Now Sol Heilo is just about to go on her first solo tour. With her debt album in hand.
    America is an album you won’t put down either.
    I really think that Sol is just about to hit the big time. The world needs something to lift their spirits. Sol Heilo will do just that.

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