Fictional Worlds: An Interview with Susanna Wallumrod

Susanna Wallumrod

Whether performing with her "Magical Orchestra"
or playing all on her own, Susanna Wallumrod's
voice requires very
little accompaniment. 2004 marked the release of her band's debut
album in Norway, with collaborator Morten Qvenild providing sparse
instrumentation, followed two years later by an album of cover songs.
Susanna has most recently created Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos,
a solo record which blends folk songwriting (think Joni Mitchell)
with the ghostly indie quality of her previous endeavors.

Perhaps the most lasting impression of Susanna's music is its unyielding
tastefulness. Where one would expect a drum loop, a soaring harmony,
or a bed of violins or keyboards, one is left most often with Susanna's
bare voice, a few notes on a piano, and a lingering melody. The
effect is pure, haunting, and entirely successful. Below, she sheds
a little light on Norwegian hymns and explains why perfection is
not always necessary.

Your album strikes me as very confessional and personal.
The emphasis on vocal performance and acrobatics, and the importance
of the melodies and songs as beings of their own, seem well balanced.
Considering that you have released an album of covers, do you consider
voice to be your primary consideration? Or, in the case of this
solo record, was your emphasis on the songwriting?

My voice and songwriting belong very much together. The voice is
my "first" instrument, the instrument I express myself
best with and the instrument that is closest to me. I have found
that my voice can be used both in making my own music and also in
remaking other people's music into my own. I do think both are important
for my musical expression.

Having experienced composing and performing as both a solo
artist and as a collaborator, do you feel that the writing, recording,
or performing processes come more naturally for you one way or the
other?

I think I have learned a great deal from both ways of working.
When I first started my collaboration with Morten/The Magical Orchestra
back in 2000, I had been looking for a piano player to work with
in a duo for a while. I wanted someone to work out the music with,
together, and the duo is a very challenging setting. After some
time working with Morten, I got the urge to work more independently,
and I started to work by myself, on the piano... That was a long
and sometimes difficult process. After writing [quite a bit] I started
to involve other people, but I found that I should mainly stick
to the way these songs were made--with me playing. The result was
that I had to figure out a lot for myself, and now that seems an
important turn in my life and music--also for further collaboration
with others.

What is your approach to translating recorded songs to
the live setting?

I seek to be true to the core of the song, of the music--so I spend
some time figuring out how to do the recorded songs in a live scenario.
It feels like two different things, but I hope to bring the same
sincerity to my concerts, as well as recordings.

Was there a particular album that made you first consider
becoming a musician?

I grew up in a family where music was an essential part of our
lives, so I guess I was very young when I found out the importance
of music to me. I remember listening a lot to Olivia Newton-John
(Grease/Physical, etc.) and Dolly Parton at the
age of five or six. And later on came Whitney Houston with "I
Wanna Dance With Somebody," which I loved... Plenty of pop
music in my childhood.

I have read in a previous interview from a few years back
that you are a perfectionist of sorts--did your experience creating
this solo work make you more or less of a perfectionist?

I think I have learned that perfection can contain several different
parameters and that I can choose how it may influence my work. Perfection
and music are not necessarily related, I do not wish for the music
to be perfect but to move the listener in some way.

One of my favorite moments on your record is on "Home
Recording," the fret noises that punctuate the end of each
acoustic guitar phrase in the choruses. They are an unexpected and
very intimate sound on a rather polished album. I was wondering
if those finger sounds were intentionally played or enhanced or
if it was a happy accident?

We can call it a happy accident. We (the producer Deathprod and
I) came to the conclusion that the song [worked best] when I played
it just straight and simple, so we did the recording at home and
we didn't leave out all the noises from my imperfect guitar
playing. I am glad you like it.

How did where you grew up influence your exposure to music
and your tastes in music?

That is hard to answer. Growing up in a small town in Norway has
probably influenced me in some way, but exactly how is hard for
me to see. I grew up in a religious family--the religious music
tradition in Norway is a mix between Norwegian folk music and American
folk music, so that merge is my foundation. And through the years
I have experienced other worlds and other music.

What was the greatest decade in music?

I don't think it is possible to divide music into decades, music
is something much more organic. I like music that goes several hundred
years back in time--and I like music made in the last couple of
years. I would have to say that I like very much music from the
'60s and '70s, rock, jazz, and singer/songwriters...

Is there anything about music as a business and industry
that is off-putting to you?

Many things. The business part of it is always frustrating and
the industry is... an industry, which I don't think belongs together
with music as an art form. At the same time, people have so many
different reasons for making and performing music...

You have covered handfuls of songs in your career--is there
one that you feel was a particularly perfect fit for your voice?

I like every song that I have done, in different ways--it's hard
to tell if any one of them is more fitted for my voice than another.

I read that your first performance was at the age of five--have
you known since then that you wanted to be a musician? Did you have
periods of doubt in which you considered other paths?

I have wanted to be a musician since that age, yes, but to choose
that way of living is a constant struggle between belief and doubt
in what I do and how to do it. To make the choice of music is to
constantly choose what I want my life to consist of.

One of the things I like about your lyrics is that they
are quite broad and put simply. They seem like they could apply
to many things, circumstances, involving all sorts of relationships.
For instance:

"Is it hard to confess to yourself?"
"I've been waiting for a reason to stay, will it come today?"
"Hang out here with me a little longer..."

It seems that you convey an emotion, without particulars getting
in the way of the song. But I'm curious if the songs do have those
particulars for you, experiences and memories of yours that you
chose not to clutter the song with? Are most of your compositions
about something very particular to you--a specific memory or scene--or
are they about a general emotion?

I think almost every song that I've made has an origin within a
state of mind or an emotion. It evolves from there through different
memories and a lot of fiction. I would have to say that my fictional
world [stems from] my own world, as for every human being, I think.
But that is also a very abstract picture because you don't
know what I have experienced and what I've fantasized about. My
songs are both very particular and very general to me--and I hope
others experience my music that way, too.

In America, Scandinavian music has only started to become
a significant influence in the past few decades. Artists like Mum,
Sigur Ros, Kent, Under Byen, and Bjork have clearly had a big impact.
High indiscernible vocals, glitchy laptop noises, heavy mallets
on drums accompanied by string sections.... these things could be
pegged here as "Scandinavian" and also as modern. I am
curious--considering that you have grown up in Norway--if you would
say that these examples are representative of a modern movement
in Scandinavian music, or if they are elements that have long been
present, that only recently have started to have an effect on American
and British music?

I would say that Norwegian music is so much younger than, for example,
American music... We are a young nation and so few people. We have
looked to the States and Britain for inspiration for decades, and
rightfully. Those countries have been the main influence of Western
music for a hundred years--and we are influenced by this music.
But we are also very lucky, in Norway, to have musicians such as
Terje Rypdal, Radka Toneff, and Jan Garbarek in the jazz tradition--they
set an example focusing on their own voices, music, and way of expression.
For me, they have had a great impact on how I make my music. I cannot
speak for anyone else, but the creative spirit of the '60s and '70s
in this country has made a foundation for the generations and music
to come, I think.

That may represent the movement you mention as Scandinavian music--in
my opinion it's quite young, but the roots go way back... and some
of the roots are well-grounded in America.

What is your favorite modern novel and your favorite classic?
Do books that you read directly influence your songwriting?

I am currently reading some novels by Raymond Carver, which I like
very much. And classic... I would have to say Simone de Beauvoir
and her writings about the sexes. It's maybe not that "classic"
and old, but still interesting. Literature stimulates my fantasy
and my way to see the world, life, etc. To me, every art form has
that possibility to influence, stimulate, and move.

What recent albums or artists are you enjoying?

I enjoy very much Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' album; I'm looking
forward to a concert with them in May. Lately, I have listened to
and enjoyed Larkin Grimm, Bonnie Prince Billy, Sufjan Stevens, and
Arcade Fire.

Visit Susanna on MySpace at www.myspace.com/susannasonata

Identity Theory's recommended listening: "For
You" and "Demon Dance" by Susanna, "Love Will
Tear Us Apart" by Susanna and The Magical Orchestra

Image courtesy of Andreas Froeland

Scroll to Top