Something Real: An Interview with Thomas Dybdahl

Imran Khan
Photo: Kevin Westenberg

The Norwegian folk singer has been dodging Nick Drake comparisons all his life, but now, with his first-ever US release (despite a ton of albums to his name), Thomas Dybdahl feels like he's breaking through for the first time ...

You can be forgiven if the name Thomas Dybdahl doesn't ring any bells. 

Thanks to a lack of distribution, the singer-songwriter has eluded attention on the North American continent for years, though he has been steadily churning out albums for nearly a decade in his native Norway.  Dybdahl may have the misfortune of being labeled a troubadour--a title sure to provoke some unwarranted judgment.  But the Norwegian, in fact, shares a greater musical kinship with space-oddity Annette Peacock than he does with Nick Drake (of whom he is often touted as Norway's answer to).  While firmly rooted in folk, the singer takes a jazzier approach in his playing, strumming locomotive circles on a creaky, rustic guitar while exploring the more heavenly reaches of pop, cutting swaths through the spacey textures of moody keyboard swells and shuffling percussion.  Over the 14 tracks of his proper North American debut, Songs (an album that samples from his five previous European releases), Dybdahl works some impressive magic alone with his sensuously wine-soaked voice, which occupies a slim musical space that is at once eerie as it is sexy.

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This album will be your first proper introduction to North American audiences. Being that the album is a compilation of sorts from all of your previous albums, can you tell me a little about how you went about selecting the tracks? The album is varied enough musically and yet it maintains a sense of consistency. Also, why a compilation album and not simply an album of new material for your American debut?

I gave the task of selecting the tracks to Larry Klein (Strange Cargo) as I felt someone rather new to the songs could probably do a better job at finding the best tracks and the ones that would represent me as an artist to a new audience. If I had picked, I would have just picked b-sides, hidden tracks etc. My job was to put the album together in a coherent way, trying to make it feel like a "regular" album, taking into consideration feel, pace, key, chronology, arrangements, sound, and so on. Doing a compilation album was something the label felt was a good way to introduce me to a new audience. I would rather just move on, but I also wanted the chance to tour in the US and have a proper shot at finding an audience here, so I went for it.

Norway has (in my opinion) probably some of the best music artists working today. They seem to go unknown to the rest of the world (North America, particularly) for some reason, and this is a predicament of which you have found yourself in for a many number of years. What are your ideas about the struggles that you and your fellow artists in Norway have had in relation to getting their music heard outside their home country?

I wouldn't really know, as this is the first time I am giving it a real go and touring in the US. We'll see how it goes down, I am not married to the idea of making it, there is something to be said for the goodwill you get as an "underdog".

There is a very strong percussive element in your music (most evident on the Science album). Everything from the numerous and interesting types of percussion used right down to the way you play the guitar (which seems to place emphasis on rhythm). It's probably the more distinct trait in your sound. Can you tell me a little more about this particular element and its importance in your songwriting?

As with a lot of other things, a fair bit of the explanation is that it came about by chance. When I started out recording and producing my own stuff, I only had one mic and it was all but impossible for me to record good-sounding drumkits. I had to break it down into the individual percussive elements and record them all one by one. This became very time consuming and a lot of times I didn't really record a lot of drums, and considering that my timing was a lot better on the guitar than it was on percussion, I tended to use the guitar more and more as the driving percussive element. Voila!

Your musical voice is especially notable for its deep, rusty croak, and it's been a significant and unique feature in your music for many years. However, I am beginning to notice that you are stretching your vocals in many interesting ways--I was quite surprised to hear you sing in much higher registers on a number of the tracks. I almost couldn't tell it was you! Can you elaborate on the ways in which you experiment with your voice as a songwriter?

The voice is always the hardest part for me. If it's not a 100% right, it just feels like a glued on, added element, on top of all the other elements. Like a sore thumb, instead of a natural part of a piece of music. So I do whatever it takes to make it feel right. Sometimes I pitch it to hell, sometimes I crunch it, sometimes I sleep with headset on and the mic by the side of the bed, and record the second I wake up etc. Anything to make it "sit", as they say, basically. I am not a purist in any way.

Your sound is noticeably influenced by a lot of American and British music. What were some of the American/British influences that helped to shape your sound? Are there any Norwegian artists that we (outside of Norway ) may not be familiar with that also had a hand in informing your songwriting?

I grew up with Prince as a main musical character. Then I started playing guitar and became a shredder. I spent my adolescent years trying to become Kirk Hammett and [Joe] Satriani and [Steve] Vai. Then I got really into Neil Young, Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, the Band, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, Serge Gainsbourg, Tony Joe White, and a whole slew of others. As for Norwegian bands, there was a band called the September When that I was a big fan of. They made an album called Mother I've Been Kissed, and it's still one of my favorite albums ever!

I am quite interested in understanding how you feel about communicating through your music in English rather than your native Norwegian. Have you ever considered recording your material in Norwegian?

I have, I am just not very good at it. Language is an instrument, like any other, and English was the instrument I grew up hearing and connecting with pop music and it's an instrument I feel like a master more than Norwegian. It has a sound, a way of singing, and a way of flowing that I know how to work more than my own mother tongue.

Your music has a rather rustic feel to it--but I've always thought that your vocals would be a wonderful element in far more electronic/hip-hop realms (as odd as that may sound). Have you ever thought about dipping a toe into other musical waters outside of folk? Are there any new directions you are taking your music in?

I am very much seeking new ways to use my voice and new setting to do it in. I sing in another Norwegian band called the National Bank and I get to use my voice quite differently there, which is a lot of fun. I did a few songs with Morcheeba a few years ago, which was also a new thing for me. I love good hip-hop, R&B, and soul music and think I could do some cool things with it. It's a mine field though, if it comes out wrong, you're screwed and come off like an idiot.

What kinds of opportunities are you looking forward to if your album Songs takes off with North American audiences?

Just getting a new audience really, and seeing new places. Artist are usually a bit like sharks, they have to keep moving to stay alive. If I don't move about and experience new things, I feel dead and the stuff that I write feel dead as well.

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