Photo by © Bjørn Opsahl Drabant Music.

Paved with Good Inventions: Norway’s Anja Garbarek on Her Journey Back to Music with ‘The Road Is Just a Surface​’

Just beneath Anja Garbarek's deceptively cool and composed music are the raucous emotions of a fevered storyteller, trying desperately to impart an often startling and vicious truth.

The Road Is Just a Surface
Anja Garbarek
Drabant Music
31 Aug 2018 (US)

Often erroneously compared to her Nordic contemporaries Stina Nordenstam and Björk, Norway’s Anja Garbarek exists in a universe all her own. For years Garbarek has flown low under the radar and when her name has been plucked from near-obscurity it often resides in lazy journalism, which has often attached to hers the names of the aforementioned (and far more prolific) women as a point of reference. But while the Icelandic and Swedish songwriters, respectively, draw ideas from a deeply internal source of inspiration that often has them calling on their childhood designs, the Norwegian songstress prefers to explore the psychology of those outside of herself. Garbarek examines life from an impossibly uncongenial space that at once marks her as a detached voyeur and an involved conspirator.

After her 1992 debut Velkommen Inn, a Norwegian-language album of inoffensive funk-pop, the singer would return in 1996 with the surprising about-face that was Balloon Mood (2015). Full of sonic tricks that deliver mutated jazz and weirdly chopped hip-hop loops, Garbarek introduced to the world her English-language album featuring a set of noirishly fatalistic characters. It wouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the singer’s initial forays into the entertainment industry were those of an actress (she discusses this on her website); Garbarek parlayed her stage experience into characters whose peculiar actions and twisted desires were projected with the kind of scope that exists only for the theatre. Her music is often deceptively cool and composed, measured with an exactitude reserved for classical music. But stirring beneath the placid waves are the raucous emotions of a fevered storyteller, trying desperately to impart an often startling and vicious truth.

Garbarek continued with the eerily calm Smiling and Waving (2001) an orchestral exercise of minimalist dimensions that flirts only slightly with electronic beats and grooves. The album’s vast, open spaces allows the singer to field her narratives with greater abandon, her lyrics stripped bare of the particular detail that marked Balloon Mood to allow a wider conjecture for interpretation. The slow, glacial orchestral slides reveal a more mature communication of sound which, in part, is the result of a collaboration with Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis.

The pop-oriented Briefly Shaking (2010) redirects the Norwegian’s elliptic narratives into a compressed package of juddering hip-hop beats, skewed North Sea jazz, and bonkers pop melodies for a more accessible outing. Briefly Shaking didn’t bring her a wider audience, but it did expand her horizons of experiment, which inevitably (after a long-standing 12 years) led to her latest, The Road Is Just a Surface (Grappa Musikkforlag, 2018). An extension of a theatre piece created for the Bergen International Festival, it features Garbarek’s usual stylistic tweaks with an even stronger leaning toward electronica. Her father, the notable jazz musician Jan Garbarek, lends his expertise to help shape these clockwork curiosities of shuffling electro-pop.

Released in two separate versions (one, a pared down and compact version of the album featuring traditional song structures, the other an expanded version which links the songs with experimental conceptual pieces), The Road Is Just a Surface doubles as a commentary on the theatre piece it was recorded for as well as a musical exploration of the deeply psychological studies in human behaviour the singer’s work is known for. Listening to these songs, some of those concepts might glide right by you. Garbarek has an ear for delectable pop melodies and she delivers some of the most unnerving stories with a heavy dose of sugar. Take the cabaret dance-pop of “The Witness”, which begins with rickety scrap-metal percussion before plunging into a seductive and rhythmic plod; the lyrics suggest the pain of watching, from afar, someone struggle to walk. In the metallic grind of “Bob’s Song”, Garbarek’s heavily transmuted voice narrates the story of an unusual child. It’s unsettling, emotional and, like much of her work, compelling in its visual detail.

Garbarek is still a mystery to audiences outside of her native Norway. But those who have caught on to the enigmatic songwriter these last two decades have been rewarded with a body of work that relays all of our ordinary, mundane emotions in such fantastical and beguiling ways. She speaks to PopMatters about being a musician living in Norway, working with her famous jazz musician father and her latest, and long overdue, work.

* * *

Your last album Briefly Shaking was released around 12 years ago. What had taken all these years for a follow-up album?

I have always taken a long time between releasing records (1992, 1996, 2001, 2005). I’m not someone that does anything by halves. I either do it completely or not at all. When I create music, it completely takes over my life. I cannot just hop in and out of the creative process.

My daughter was born in 2000 and had started school by the time Briefly Shaking had come out. “Normal life”, and all that it brings with it, took over and I was no longer able to put myself in the place I need to be in order to create. It’s not that I stopped creating, it’s just that I no longer had the time and space to collect all my ideas in order to create one clear thought. It was in 2015 that I was approached by the Bergen International Festival and given free rein to create something for them. I almost said no, but was persuaded by my family to seize the opportunity.

After being away for so long, I did not want to come back and sing the same old songs. I saw this as a chance to do something new, to collaborate with people that I might not otherwise have had the possibility to. I chose Jo Strømgrem Kompani. It was a lucky combination of things happening around the same time: a photograph printed in the newspaper and a chance meeting with a musician/sound designer combined with the years spent watching documentaries on YouTube about psychological disorders that set the creative process in motion. I worked almost solidly for the next three years to create The Road Is Just a Surface.

The Road is Just a Surface has two different editions; one version is longer and contains musical interludes that link the songs. Please tell us why you decided to release these two different versions of the album.

The Road is Just a Surface is first and foremost a musical theatrical performance piece that I created for the Bergen International Festival. I wanted to give people the option of hearing the music as it was originally meant to be heard, so we created the “Red” concept album containing the performance in its entirety. There are 12 songs, ten with vocals and two instrumentals as well as a number of themes and interludes. In all, over 70 minutes of uninterrupted music. But it was also important to make the music more accessible. The “Yellow” standard edition comes in at 49 minutes. The instrumental songs have been removed, and the songs edited and tweaked to appeal to a wider audience.

Your last album was inspired by the true crime novels you had been reading and explored some very dark themes regarding the minds of criminals. This album explores psychiatric disorders. What is your fascination with human behaviour and mental illnesses, which have become a large part of your work?

I find that the human psyche is an eternal source of wonderment. I have a deep urge to truly understand why we behave the way we do. There are so many layers, so many hidden signals and messages out there. It’s amazing to me that we manage to co-exist. I have always been pulled towards the ones that did not quite crack the social code, or were too ill to be able to. They show us how vulnerable we truly are, and what a thin line it is between the sane and the insane.

There seems to be a lot of “found sounds” on this album, much like with Briefly Shaking, except that The Road Is Just a Surface has heavier electronic elements and less rock. Please tell me about the ways that you went about cultivating the musical ideas and sounds for The Road Is Just a Surface. How did you put the ideas all together?

I usually start by recording the vocals, as the words create the mood for everything that comes after. I spend a lot of time finding the correct tempo and pitch that give the feeling that I want to achieve. I record the vocals to just a click and a tone to keep me in tune. That way I’m not influenced by the music or the beat and I can fully concentrate on getting the correct vocal performance. I record the lead vocal, harmonies, everything. These are almost always the final vocals.

When I started writing The Road Is Just a Surface, I was writing a theatrical piece; the record came later. I was watching a lot of documentaries about psychiatric disorders. I began by sampling sounds from these documentaries; background noises, water dripping, voices, gnashing teeth etc. I took them to Nils Jakob Langvik, who has his background in radio theatre and documentaries at NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation), and together we came up with something new and inspiring.

All the sounds have a purpose and they have been placed with great care and attention to detail, either by Nils or myself. The main reason it took so long to make this album was the amount of time spent finding and putting together all the sounds. Individually they are just sounds, but put together, to me, they compose the landscape of the human mind.

Another main musical character is the viola. I have a soft spot for this unjustly bullied instrument as potentially it is just as expressive as any of the other stringed instruments. The viola has been featured in all of my albums since Balloon Mood. This time I chose it to take the role of the protagonist, Bob [the character in the musical theatre production].

The final stage of the recording took place at Propeller studios with Kåre Chr. Vestrheim. I felt that the record was missing some final details that I needed help to achieve. Kåre is a fantastic multi-instrumentalist and producer. He was able to take what I had created and work his magic to take it to the next level.

One of the biggest challenges we experienced during the recording had nothing to do with the music at all. It was that I work in [the digital audio workstation] Logic, Nils Jakob in Ableton Live and Kåre in Pro-Tools. This meant that every time I went to, or came home from, one of their studios, we had to spend a lot of extra time bouncing audio files that could then be inserted into one another’s music software. When it came to working with Kåre, most of the songs had in excess of 100 tracks that all needed to be bounced individually. With so many individual sounds to keep tags on it was a nightmare making sure that nothing got lost in the transfer.

Having worked at different stages with different people, I was the only one with a total overview of all the sounds. At one point during the mix, I noticed that a sound was missing. It was only tiny, but to me it was a huge deal. When a sound is not there, it is like a note in a chord is missing and it doesn’t make sense to me anymore. Needless to say, we did find it and I was able to sleep again!

Your father is Jan Garbarek, one of jazz music’s most notable figures. He has been on hand to work on some of the arrangements for a number of your albums. You work mainly in electronic and pop music. In what way do you think your father influences the structure of your music when he helps out with arrangements, since you two work in very different genres of music?

At the end of the day, music is music. There are only a certain number of chords and being a jazz musician, he knows them all. He is a very skilled arranger, and when it comes down to string arrangements and such he is able to give me a number of options that I can choose to use or not.

It also means I get to spend a lot of time with him, which is nice. One is at one’s most vulnerable when creating music, as you are exposing your soul, your innermost secrets and thoughts. I feel very safe having him around in the first stages of the music coming together.

Your very first album was in the Norwegian language. Your next four albums were sung in English. Yet much of your success is in your native Norway. Why do you choose to sing in English? Do you ever think you might record in Norwegian again?

I have always been lucky in that I have had the opportunity to make exactly the kind of music I want to make. My wish is to communicate with people. And to be able to communicate with as many people as possible, I have to sing in English. My lyrics are the most important part of my music; they tell the story. The sounds I use are carefully chosen to fit and enhance the meaning in the words. This is the way that I have always worked. I have nothing against singing in my native language, and I may do so again in the future, but I don’t think I will ever make another album in Norwegian.

Speaking of overseas success, you’ve had great critical acclaim from around the world (Q Magazine, and a large feature story in Dazed and Confused magazine). Yet you seem to be one of Norway’s best-kept-secrets. Hearing your albums, it seems like you would be destined to gain much exposure in North America and the UK, because there’s a strong accessibility to your work. What have your experiences with working the overseas markets been like for you in the past?

When Balloon Mood was released in 1996, I was signed to BMG in Norway. I had recently met my husband, and chose to relocate to London to live with him. Deals were made and I was transferred to the UK department of BMG. A huge amount of work was put in at the beginning, with press articles and excellent reviews in important magazines. But, for whatever reason, they were all printed two months before the record was released. This was before the internet. There was nothing in the shops, and people have short memories.

Unfortunately, shortly after, there was a change in management at BMG UK, and the new people did not “get it”. They weren’t interested in working with the record and I was just put on the shelf. When I came with Smiling and Waving in 2001, they had no idea what to do with them. Luckily, I still had a close connection with the people at Virgin in Norway and they were able to negotiate my release from BMG.

That is not to say that I have not worked to promote my records in other countries. I toured Europe with both Smiling and Waving and Briefly Shaking, and it was because of Smiling and Waving that Luc Besson asked me to write the score for his film Angel-A. So much in this industry is down to luck. It only takes one important person to notice you or your music to whisk you out of obscurity.

I feel lucky to have the opportunity to continue to do what I do, and that there are people who want to listen to me. For an artist like myself, it is extremely important to work with people who care about the music. This is especially important these days now that budgets are so tight. My new label, Drabant Music, is small, but they have an enormous love of music. I am so happy to have the opportunity to work with them.

Do you have any plans for a visual component to the album (music videos, film, etc.)?

The Road Is Just a Surface started out as a musical theatre piece. It wasn’t until we had started the recording process that it became apparent that this was too big to not become a record as well. After premiering with Jo Strømgren Kompani at the Bergen International Festival in May, we put on a further three sold-out performances at the Opera here in Oslo at the beginning of September. I don’t yet know what will happen next. Meetings are taking place with various people, both in Norway and abroad, and we will be announcing something in the near future.

Please describe, in your opinion, what Norway’s music scene is like. What makes it different from other music scenes around the world?

I have been completely removed from the music scene for over 12 years, so I don’t know enough to be able to comment too much on this matter. But since coming back with my new record, I have noticed that there is much more of a positive energy, a kind of community spirit amongst musicians and other artists. Budgets have been slashed and everyone is willing each other on. There is also a confidence that I have not experienced before. The world has become a much smaller place, people from all over are getting in contact and working together, so where you come from doesn’t matter that much anymore.