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Interview with Gjertrud Lunde

img  Tobias Fischer

When it comes to music from Iceland, Norway or Finland, even perfectly rational music journalists suddenly turn into dreamers, their writings into cliché-ridden poetry. And yet, the concept of a 'Nordic sound' is not as unlikely as it might seem. To Gjertrud Lunde, it should seem perfectly natural that the sounds of her debut album Hjemklang, equally fragile and immediate, both cool and passionate, should originate in her surroundings as a child, citing a close contact with nature and open landscapes as a common denominator  for a wide range of Scandinavian music. At the same time, when it comes to purity, an often-heard term in relation to music from Norway especially, she doesn't conform to expectations: "When you start mixing early music with jazz I think you have pretty much left the discussion of purity", she says in this interview, referring to the two stylistic poles that bookend her work without ever delineating any fixed borders or setting up binding definitions. Instead, Hjemklang feeds from all of the different influences accumulated over a life spent both on stage and at university, as a resident of Norway, Germany and The Netherlands, as a musician and a mother, as a fan of Bach and Björk alike. It is a colorful release all but entirely recorded during an inspired session in Lunde's current homebase of Cologne, yet it also feels perfectly coherent and of one piece. Hjemklang translates to "the sound of home" and perhaps that, amidst all of the clichés and revelations, is indeed the one reliable constant: Music will remain her home for as long as she has a voice to express herself.

Your biography mentions you were born into a musical family.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family were music always played a big role. I come from a quite big Norwegian family with many musicians. My father was an organist and choir conductor before he got retired. From my father I learned a lot about singing in the vocal groups he was leading and he also gave me my first piano lessons. My mother has a very beautiful voice and is a school teacher with music education. I think actually my very first singing lessons were sitting beside her in the church trying to sing the psalms as clear and beautiful as her. My love for church music, psalms / Norwegian folk tunes and composers like Bach, Purcell and Monteverdi comes from these early influences and led me to later study early music.

My parents have six children together - not very typical in Norway - and we were all brought up playing an instrument of choice. We were therefore often asked to perform at the Sunday service or in other arrangements of the church. This way I got the opportunity already from the age of four to enjoy performing solo or singing duets with my sister. Gradually, I got the opportunities to perform for larger audiences and I especially remember one occasion when I was 12 that I sang at a big city arrangement for thousands of people. Usually I felt comfortable on the stage, but this time I had in a moment of inspiration cut the hair myself the evening before, and it looked really weird! (laughs)

I feel very lucky to have grown up in a home with so much love for music. My parents waited many years before they bought a TV, and instead we would every Saturday evening have a house concert were we could perform for each other something we had prepared extra during the week. I was very little then being child number five, but I remember it was very nice, and we never missed having a television. Today all of my siblings are involved in music in one way or the other, and three of us went on to conservatories to study either classical or jazz and later chose music as our profession. It’s still always a lot of fun to meet up with everybody, because there is always a lot of jamming and singing together.

What is it about singing and using your voice that made you realise that this is your instrument?
I think I always liked to sing and my parents always encouraged me and gave me guidance how to use my voice. But when I had to choose a main instrument at the music gymnasium, I chose piano. It was first after a year I realized that I really wanted to sing and switched main instrument. After that it felt natural to continue studying singing at the conservatory in Stavanger. 

Today, it seems, our path as a listener is shaped more by records than concert experiences. What was this like for you? What were some of the important albums that were meaningful to you?
I think we listen in a very different way to an album opposed to a concert, and all of my musical experiences have shaped me as a musician.
In a concert, in addition to the music there are also the visual impressions, the energy of the musicians and the audience. The musicians are affected by this as well as the listener and every concert becomes a unique and new experience and can be a big, important source of inspiration – for the artist as well as for the listener.

By listening to an album you get the opportunity to hear the same interpretation of a piece over and over, and you can really get to the depth of it. I am not a typical album collector with thousands of CDs, but when I buy an album, I listen to it so much that I know it by heart and even backwards. In that way the music probably gets rooted very deep in my system. I can either listen to it very detailed, getting ideas and inspiration to hear how others arrange and perform their music, or I just let the music flow and let it give a glow to the day. Every moment of the day has its own request for what type of music I feel like listening to, and I therefor listen to all kinds of music from all genres. I think that’s why my own compositions in Hjemklang are crossing so many stylistic borders; it’s really the result of all the music that has inspired me during the years.

Also my own performances have inspired me, both as a soloist but also in choirs. I got the opportunity to learn so much rich repertoire, and besides the early music I especially learned a lot about harmony from performing songs by Hugo Wolf, Gabriel Fauré, Edvard Grieg and also Alban Berg. In choirs I have also had the opportunity to perform rather modern music which was always very inspiring.

It’s hard to just mention a few albums of all those genres that occupy me, but I especially like music with flow and lot of space.  The Scandinavian jazz albums have therefor been a big part of my life: Sissel Endresen, Bugge Wesseltoft, Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvær and many more. Also those that go in the more pop direction like Beady Belle, Rebekka Bakken etc, or more electronic like Susanna Wallumrød. But I have also listened extremely much to the albums of different international artists like Maria João, Dhafer Youssef, Leszek Mozdzer, and (of course) Florian’s band Tiny Tribe and Wolfert Brederode International Quartet.

I also listen to  film music (Thomas Newman, Gustavo Santaolalla), early music (Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach), alternative rock (Radiohead, Björk, Jeff Buckley) and trip hop (Massive Attack, Portishead).

You mentioned that you hold a love for early music and jazz. Where do you see connections between the two? With regards to your own projects, what's your take on the notion of purity?
When you start mixing early music with jazz I think you have pretty much left the discussion of purity. Hjemklang is influenced by many genres but perhaps we can hear my early music background most clearly in the song “Lead me” which is inspired by Henry Purcell. I have mixed early music and jazz more consciously in other projects than in Hjemklang. I think it’s a beautiful combination because early music often builds on modal scales, which together with the open and calm melodies gives space for improvisation. And since modality and improvisation is common in both jazz and early music I think those two styles are nice to combine.

How would you describe your relationship with Norwegian folk songs - and what's your take on the importance of traditions in a time when everything seems focused on the present and future? 
As mentioned, I grew up with these songs, I have sung them a lot, I think they are beautiful and they are a part of my musical background. All music ever made is per definition from the past. Even the music created in the moment is in the next moment in the past. That’s why it’s so important to appreciate the past since that’s where we all come from, that’s how we can understand where we are today, and it also shapes the future. What is so amazing about music is that even if it is made in the past, it still has the power to speak to you, move you and be alive in the present moment.

You would go on to study at the conservatory in Stavanger. Can you tell me about this time, please?
At the conservatory in Stavanger I soon found a nice collaboration with the good friend and pianist Beth Elin Byberg. In this time I was therefore very busy performing and gaining great experiences. There’s a nice music scene in Stavanger, also thanks to the many oil companies sponsoring music. One of the gigs that made the greatest impression on me was when we were brought to an oil-platform with a helicopter in order to give a concert for the people working there during Christmas. There are also great international festivals in Stavanger, and for me Maijazz and Stavanger International Chamber Music Festival were always of big inspiration, as a listener, helper, or an artist. There are also many choirs in Stavanger, and I sang in several of them, and got to know a lot of music from different genres.

When I studied in Stavanger, the jazz department at the conservatory didn’t exist the way it does today, but because of a strong initiative from the students some jazz teachers were brought in, some bands were starting up etc. I was studying classical singing but always felt like combining what I learned with other styles.

In The Hague, you would meet Florian Zenker, who's remained an integral part of your musical projects to this day. Can you tell me a bit about your first musical collaborations?
Florian is extremely creative and brings a lot of innovative ideas in to the music. We really like sharing the stage together, and it’s especially great to be able to make music with somebody you know so well. The first project we had together was Trio Legenda with the Norwegian percussion player Kenneth Ekornes. We toured in Norway with a blend of early music, jazz and electronics and gave concerts in old ruins, monasteries and churches.  Before this we had played a bit together in a band called UR that I started up together with my brother Kjetil Lunde while I lived in Oslo. Here we performed old Norwegian folk tunes with new arrangement made of my brother and I.

Listening to Hjemklang, one of the things I really enjoyed is that your approach to singing is free of the many stereotypes associated either with old music or jazz and perfectly adds to the already personal space of the music. What was the road towards finding your own style and approach like, especially the years leading up to the release of Hjemklang?
I have always been occupied by many different music genres and also of different ways of singing, and even though I started to study classical singing, I didn’t stop singing and performing other styles. After some years of studying I realized that it was time to make a conscious choice and so I decided to focus exclusively on classical singing.

After some years of only practicing classical technique I learned a lot and my voice underwent a big change. It was great but at the same time I was slowly losing my ability to sing other styles. Singing a simple children song or a psalm started to sound the same way as when I was singing a big aria. This puzzled me and made me feel increasingly uncomfortable. While gaining a rich classical voice, I also felt I was losing a certain freedom that had been an important part of my voice my whole life. Eventually this development became such a big conflict for me that it in the end forced me to take a long break from singing. I really believe that crises in fact are an opportunity for new beginnings and this was for me the start of a whole new journey which should be important to my sound and that over the years should lead up to the album Hjemklang.

This period of my life became a significant learning time for me in all aspects. After some time I also started to investigate how it could be possible to use the great things I had learned about singing technique and to consciously adapt this to other genres. After all there is quite a difference in sound in each genre, and I felt like exploring the possibility for a deliberate choice in creating a certain sound and the technique behind it - how to adapt the classical mask resonance in other genres and decide the amount of it, or how to consciously use other types of resonance, how to decide the amount of air on the voice, the amount of vibrato -just to mention the most typical differences.

After a while I also got a whole new inspiration to write my own music. I had been writing some songs earlier in my life, but not really performed them. Now the inspiration to write came in a whole different way and my husband encouraged me to write the music down and to perform them together with him. I am so glad that he did, cause this way I found the joy in singing again. My songs gradually started to take a clear direction and didn’t really fit any of the projects I after a while had gotten involved in. But I stored the songs in a file and kept writing, thinking that someday they would find their way to come to life. Every time I got an idea, I literally dropped everything I had in my hands, and sat down by the piano. Then one day I got the question if I could give a concert in Norway. I basically got a “Cart Blanche” and could choose repertoire and musicians myself. A great opportunity to put a band together with musicians that I felt would fit the music, try out my new songs and to start my project Hjemklang.

The name “Hjemklang” felt natural since I was finding back to my roots in this project and also felt home soundwise , but working with this project also made me realize that the most important of all is to enjoy to be always moving, always learning and developing and that the road itself is our home.

How do you see the relationship between the words and the music for you as a singer?
For many years I didn’t understand the value of the words in a song. I often got the feedback from teachers that I was interpreting the music like an instrumentalist. I didn’t understand what they meant until I had a very strong moment during a concert, where I realized in a flash the weight of the words I sang. Since then I understand how much words can add to the music for both the listener as well as the singer. Since I have a classical background  I am used to sing in different languages, also languages that I don’t speak myself. But through my studies I learned how to work on the lyrics so that I on stage always know every word of what I am singing and have a story to tell.

In addition to the meaning of the words I think every language also adds an own color to the song by the way the words sound in themselves. In the process of writing the songs, I usually get a strong feeling what language would most fit the melodic lines.

The fascinating thing about Hjemklang is that large sections of it were truly recorded in the moment and on the fly during your first musical meeting. How did the band get together and what do you still remember about this first session?
Playing together the first time was a very special and great experience. It really clicked at once. We had a lot of fun trying out different things and everybody came with creative ideas to the music. It was the very first time Bodek was playing with me or Wolfert.  Florian was the only person that had played with everybody before. I had only met Bodek through a good friend of us, Chris Jennings, the bass player of Dhafer Youssef’s last band. I later heard Bodek in a concert with Olivia Trummer, loved it and asked if he would like to play with me in Norway.
I have known Wolfert since many years through Florian and also from the student times in the Hague, and was very happy about his positive reaction when I asked him to join.
Wolfert and Florian had earlier played in Wolferts band “Nimbus” so I knew they would sound great together and it was exactly the sound I was after. Bodek had exactly the diversity of styles that I wished for, and his amazing grooves but also his delicacy with brushes made him fit right into this music.

During our first rehearsal at Loft I had the tape running in case we could use something for a demo later. I didn’t know then that most of the recordings could go straight on a CD. In the beginning of the rehearsal I had to leave the guys alone for a while. They therefore had some time to jam alone as a warm-up. When I later heard the recording of this jam I just had to grin. I then knew I had found my perfect band.

One of the strengths of the album are the arrangement decisions, in my opinion, such as the surprising middle section of "Pilgrim". What was the process of arriving at these arrangement choices like?
One of the advantages of having musicians so close in my family is that I am very aware of what they are up to and what they are in the position of adding to my music. My brother Kjetil also works as a producer for pop music. I have often heard what he can add to a song and I really like his taste and subtlety. In both “Pilgrim” and “Beautiful” I wanted to go in a more pop direction and I therefore asked Kjetil to add some programming. The idea of the intro with Florian and Arve came when Florian one evening showed me a soundtrack he was working on for a movie. He was using a bow on a retuned 12-stringed Portuguese guitar and let it go through very nice delay effects. I loved it and immediately hijacked it for the intro of “Pilgrim”.

What is the satisfaction of working in the studio?
I really love working in the studio. I like hearing a good mix of the band in my headphones while singing. Hearing each instrument and myself clearly in the headphone gives me an immediate feedback about what we sound like, a great feeling of control, but at the same time I have the freedom to be as subtle as I want and still be heard. I am perhaps a perfectionist when it comes to music, so I love the possibility of being able to really perfect a piece, to play it several times in a row until we are really happy. The challenge is to at one point be satisfied with myself and to go on with the next song.

In how far, however, has your perspective on music changed and become richer through parenthood?
Becoming a parent is perhaps the biggest change in one’s life. It brings along lots of emotions that most likely will be reflected in the music you write or perform. A child really forces you to stay in the moment, it’s impossible to drift away when they want your attention. I like that and remember it from when I was a child myself. To remember to stay in the moment is perhaps the most important lesson for a musician since that’s where the music comes to life. Children also remind you of how precious time is. By the speed of their growth you get reminded all the time of how time flies and you better use it well. Before I had kids I thought I had endless amounts of time. Now I know better, and the hours I have with them or alone with my husband or for creating music and work on my projects, I highly appreciate.

Gjertrud Lunde interview by Tobias Fischer
Gjertrud Lunde Press photos by John Nordahl
Gjertrud Lunde Live photos by Jogchum Van Der Vegt

Homepage: Gjertrud Lunde
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