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Strike Up the Band: An Interview with Mari Persen

Norway's musical obscurity released a self-titled debut of big-band pop back in 2009, an undisclosed piece of heaven that slipped through the cracks of a less-than-discerning music-consuming public. Now she talks about recording her album and why she never had the breakthrough that she could have had.

“Angels strumming harps atop clouds overlooking line dancers in choreographed constellations below”. That may sound like a clumsy mouthful of superfluous praise. And yet, it perfectly describes Mari Persen’s sound. The Norwegian, some years back in 2009, released a cracking album of some of the most sublime orchestral pop -- and nobody paid attention. Her only album to date is every songwriter’s dream: a lush pop wonderland where the thrills are never cheap but the payoff is always satisfying and worth the price of the admission. While many pop artists project themselves forward into a future world of love, sex, and happiness, Mari looks back. Way back. Say around the time Dorothy just made it over the rainbow and Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell were foxtrotting across the glass floors of soundstages.

Borrowing heavily from the Golden Age era of Hollywood musicals, Persen pulls out all the stops, with panoramic and swooning orchestral arrangements, angelic choirs straight from the films of Busby Berkeley, and sheer pop smarts that nail down every catchy hook in place. Her self-titled opus does not neglect the use of technology either; hip-hop loops and digital beats sit comfortably next to the glossy spread of strings and brass while a gaggle of choral singers layer the harmonies with heavenly delight. If your heart isn’t racing by the time “Sweetheart” hits its sky-riding chorus or the euphoric choir reaches its zenith on the bridge of “Leo”, consider a transplant. Just one of Persen’s pop hooks could take down a swarm of Katy Perrys or Lady Gagas in one fell swoop and have them scrambling to the drawing boards to rewrite their blueprints.

Here, Persen talks with PopMatters about her musical upbringing and how a love of old Hollywood films was the basis for her inspired brand of cinematic pop.

* * *

PopMatters: Can you go into a little detail about your musical upbringing? What was the nature of your musical development as a child?

Mari Persen: My parents wanted me to play an instrument when I was a child. They were both teachers at high school and since they knew a violin teacher, I started to take violin lessons when I was seven years old. By pure chance really; it might as well be the flute. We also had a piano at my home; my older sister could play a little but she stopped when she became a teenager. I was dragged to the piano in the living room that nobody used and I taught myself how to play the piano when I was about nine years old. It later became my “main” instrument when I had a huge "violin break" during my teens. We used to have a lot of scores with old songs from the '30s and '40s given by my grandmother and I liked to sit and play through them, lots of Rogers/Hart and Cole Porter songs, among others. I am much self-taught on the piano but I don't think I would become self-taught on the violin. It is something about keys and buttons that I like. The violin is much more complicated to play I think. Along with playing the instruments, my dad had a huge collection of jazz records and vintage music a la "songs from the Second World War" that I liked to listen to.

Your music seems directly inspired by a lot of Golden Age Hollywood musicals from the 1930s and '40s. It evokes the kind of musical romanticism found in the Busby Berkeley and Ernst Lubitsch films. What was your attraction to the music in these films?

I've always felt attracted to movies from '30s, '40s and '50s. I can't explain why really. Maybe the drama that becomes even more dramatic when it is in black and white. The music is also enormously melodramatic, with tremendous string compositions and very dramatically played. I love the glissandos and the fast vibrato that the violinists used in those days. As you say, my music is very inspired by the drama and musical romanticism found in these films. I like to arrange the strings in that sort of "style". I must admit I haven't heard about Busby Berkeley and Ernst Lubitsch, but I think I might have seen films they have created. My favorite actors from that period are Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and I love all the movies with them. There was a period I watched a lot on the channel TCM that showed a lot of old movies.

What were some of the challenges you were faced with when trying to recreate that Busby Berkeley sound in your music? At times, it really feels like we are listening to a soundtrack to a Hollywood musical -- especially a lot of the vocal arrangements. Or did the writing and arrangements come easily for you?

I don't think I consciously try to recreate in particular the Berkeley sound in my music, since I haven't heard of him. I just arrange and write down what pops into my head, and I can hear the sound of it before I write it. I haven't studied composition at all, and I must say that intuition is my leading guide and it comes easy to me. The arrangements come easy -- what is more uneasy is to compose a song with all its parts. When the melody and chords are finished, it is all a joy to build it and "color" it with different arrangements, vocal or strings. I play it and sing it all by myself, a lot of takes, but in the end the result is what I want -- and I get it exactly the way I want it. I have a passion for block-chording in vocal and string arrangements. And I love to listen to jazz pianists like Errol Garner and Bill Evans, who use block-chords a lot.

This wasn’t an album recorded on a very huge budget, funded by a major label. How were you able to get such a lavishly rich, splashy, and luxurious sound on such limited resources and budget?

Really? Well, I guess when you have good musicians the sound is great, no matter what equipment you have. My record is basically funded by myself and on my label, Music For Records. I recorded it in two different studios in Bergen, Norway.

The lyrical themes in your songs are not the sort normally found in pop songs -- some of the stories you tell are pretty out there. “Criminal” deals with a depressed, petty thief who is desired by a lonely woman. “Leo” seems to be about a young man thinking about taking his life before the arrival of Spring. Your lyrics read more like vignettes than they do typical pop songs. Where do you get your ideas from when penning lyrics?

I must say that music and composing is my first priority. I want to create a picture, a scene, a feeling with the music. The lyrics are the last thing I write down before recording and I want to give associations more than a whole story so that the listener can choose to think what they want about it, create their own picture as soundtracks from a movie, really. Since Norwegian is my speaking language it's more difficult to write "distant" or "associating" lyrics in Norwegian and since my English is not very well, it's a bit of a challenge for me to write lyrics in it. I'm glad you got these interpretations; I guess I have managed to get through to the listener. But I don't want to part the lyrics from the music because then it gets a different meaning. They have to be listened to through music; you can't separate the lyrics from the music. There is also humor there, in the lyrics.

Much of your music takes inspiration from American Hollywood musicals, but what element of your music do you think is particularly Norwegian?

I don't know really, I like so many different musical styles. I don't think there is any particularly Norwegian element there. I sadly don't play the Hardanger fiddle, which is the Norwegian folk-music fiddle.

You are a notable music arranger in your native Norway, having worked on arrangements for a number of bands/artists. Could you discuss some of the creative aspects involved with arranging a piece of music?

I don't have any guidebook really. If I am to arrange strings to a piece of music for instance, I just listen to the music and write down instantly what I hear "in the background" of the music, inside my head. I use the piano to write down the melodic lines. Then I arrange it wider to more voices.

Your debut album was released back in 2009. It’s now 2013. Your album was picked up in places like Korea, Japan, and Thailand, but was somehow overlooked by the entire of Europe (with the exception of your home country) and North America. This is especially strange when considering the fact that your music is extremely accessible and has very strong chart potential. Why do you think larger success has escaped you so far?

I know, I think maybe I have been to the right place at the wrong time. I think my music is somehow very accessible to the European and North American public, it's just that I don't have a management around me that can work for me. I do have to mention that, through a friend of a friend in London, I got many interested record-people who wanted to meet me before my record was released, in 2008. I flew over to London and got to meet the head of Island Records at that time, Nick Gatfield (head of EMI now?), a very nice person, and people in all the record companies there, Atlantic Records, EMI, Sony, Mute. We listened to my music and chatted. Then I flew home and never heard from them again. I must say I met them alone and I didn't know anything about the record business. Plus I'm not very good at speaking up for myself and on top of that, very shy with people I don't know yet. So maybe with a dedicated manager, things would look different today? Anyway, I couldn’t wait for the huge record companies to call and answer my mails, so I released my album myself. I think my record deserves a lot of listeners. It would be nice if it was released in North America!

Your music has a very grand, expansive sound. Yet your live shows are stripped back, and extremely minimal. What kinds of creative challenges do you meet when having to pare down the full-orchestral sound that we hear on the album to such an intimate setting when performing live?

Yes, my dream would be to play my record live, exactly the way it sounds on the CD. That is with a full symphonic orchestra. Since I don't have the money for that, the live versions will have to be more stripped. Sometimes I bring a string quartet with me along with a band, just to have the string arrangements as an important "color” to the songs. The songs also work well more stripped because I have really dedicated and skilled musicians to play with who are participating in the creative process. I like to challenge myself and find new arrangements in a more intimate setting. It also makes me look at the songs in a different light or angle.

What projects are you currently working on? Have you started writing your next album?

I am currently working on my second album but I don't know what direction it will take yet. It seems I can't decide to make something in "one style" or genre. I mix all the genres that I love, so this will also maybe be a record in different styles, some songs more stripped and some more orchestrated and monumental.

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