True Faith: An Interview With Susanna

The Norwegian vocalist and composer tells John Freeman why her captivating eleventh album, the 22-track opus Triangle, was recorded out of a desire to discover where "common sense ends and belief starts"

Photograph courtesy of Anne Valeur

Faith consists in believing what reason cannot. So said Voltaire. Faith is the framework on which every human pins their particular belief systems, be them religious, spiritual, political or scientific. Everyone believes in something.

It is the idea of prodding at the very notion of faith – or, as she puts it, "where does common sense end and belief start?" – that inspired Susanna’s eleventh album, Triangle. It’s a record spanning 22 songs of contrasting musical styles – she effortlessly flits between stark ballads, icy electronica, experimental pop, baroque folk and even a smidgen of opera. Aided by a suite of expert fellow Norwegian musicians, including Supersilent’s Helge Sten, Anja Lauvdal, Hans Hulbækmo, Heida Mobeck, Jo Berger Myhre and Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, and incorporating the Scandi sound of the langeleik and a munnharpe, Triangle is a perfectly balanced smorgasbord of ideas and sounds.

Susanna grew up in Kongsberg, a mining town 50 miles west of Oslo and famous for the Kongsberg Colt pistol. Surrounded by a devoutly religious and highly musical family (elder brothers Fredrik and Christian Wallumrød are a successful jazz drummer and pianist, respectively, with the former contributing synths to Triangle), she began singing in church choirs before moving to Oslo to study music.

Her career is a testament to her desire to explore and collaborate. Her project Susanna And The Magical Orchestra produced three albums and a gorgeous cover of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, while her solo work has included records with harpist Giovanna Pessi, with Ensemble neoN (on 2013’s wonderful The Forester) and 2014’s Meshes Of Voice with Jenny Hval. Last year, Susanna won Norway’s coveted Radka Toneff Memorial Award, given to the individual acting most in the spirit of the seminal Norwegian jazz singer. Susanna is a very versatile vocalist.

Susanna and I chat over a Skype video link. She tells me of a childhood soundtracked by Christian music, Olivia Newton-John and Whitney Houston, and how Triangle, even with its list of contributing musicians, was created primarily alone and informed by the two very different cities in which it was recorded – Oslo and Los Angeles. Triangle is her most realised and personal work to date – Susanna, it would appear, has deep faith in her own artistic journey.

I believe that much of the inspiration for Triangle came to you on a long flight. That must have been some plane journey?

Susanna: Ha. No. The flight itself was like any other, but I was lucky enough to be in one of those mental spaces in which I could think and contemplate – and have some ideas for lyrics. I came up with the lyrics for the song ‘Triangle’ up in the air. ‘Triangle’ was some sort of starting point for a new way to write lyrics and to push the ideas further. It was about words coming from images and that these images were from very strong places, both geographically and spiritually. I began to push further at certain themes and wanted to explore the mysteries of various things that we cannot understand.

Can you expand on that? For example, would you describe yourself as a spiritual person?

S: Well, I was brought up in a religious family, so I have a lot of experience of going to church and being part of a community within the Christian religion. I was surrounded by people who are very convinced they are right and that the rest of the world is on the wrong track. I was raised in such an environment, and departed from it when I was about 15 years old.

Why did you depart? Was it due to a loss of faith?

S: For me, my faith was based around the people I met when I was young, which is the time when you can become very devoted to whatever. I was very devoted to that community, but became very disillusioned due to certain things that happened. I was starting to question God and my beliefs. I began to ask many questions. I actually held on to my belief for quite a long time after that. I didn’t want to leave it all behind. I still wanted to believe in God, but I didn’t want to be part of the community. Then, at some point I realised that I really didn’t believe any more.

The album explores belief systems. Did your experience of losing religious faith play a big part in shaping the concept?

S: Well, I had believed in something. However, for the album, that belief didn’t have to be about religion and I found it interesting to think about where the common sense ends and where belief starts.

As a secular, pragmatic, scientifically minded person I quite like the idea of common sense and belief being almost mutually exclusive. However, it doesn’t feel quite right, as a belief in the laws of science still requires a certain degree of faith.

S: Exactly. I guess for everyone it is about finding your own truth – something you can lean on and believe in – whether that is an understandable reality like science or something else that is harder to realise. What sort of reality do we want to make for ourselves? There seems to be as many realities as there are human beings.

Turning to more prosaic aspects of the album. It contains 22 songs – did you always plan such an expansive record?

S: I always knew the album would be substantial, because I had many ideas. Actually, the reason why I knew the album would be very long from early on was that I had a doomsday thought about this being my very last album, so I had to get everything on there. It’s so hard to make any financial sense of the music business these days, and sometimes I get a bit fed up of it all. Of course, to declare that this is my last album would be madness, because I think I have more coming.

The other aspect of the album is that a lot of the songs are very short. Many are under two minutes long. Why was that?

S: Well, somewhere along the way, I realised I had many ideas for the album. I began to work with those ideas and I tried to build some of those ideas up into more traditional song form – with verse-chorus-verse-chorus, etc. While that is, of course, a great form for a song, it didn’t feel like what I wanted this time. I wanted to push what a song could be, so I wanted to be very true to the original idea. It may be short, and it may be strange, but I decided not to expand the idea into a five-minute song.

Sonically, the album is very diverse. I know that Triangle was created in both Oslo and Los Angeles, which are very different cities. How much did the two places shape how the record ultimately sounded?

S: It is always hard to analyse your own creative process, but it could be that the reason the album is so diverse is that the places are so very different. I have been very inspired by the contradictions in the places. I love Los Angeles and that’s why I continue to go there, repeatedly, even if there are also a million reasons not to like it. There is a horrible industry part, which I don’t have any contact with and I am lucky in that respect. However, there is a very strong creative community in LA and there is a huge underground environment in the arts scene (probably due to the horrible industry). It is easy for me to notice that. Therefore, the album also explores how it feels for a Nordic person to be in a city like LA and to experience something completely different.

I’d like to ask about the artwork for Triangle, which includes paintings by the artist [actor, poet and occultist] Marjorie Cameron. What is it about her work that made you want to use her paintings?

S: I stumbled on Cameron’s art in Los Angeles. She has such a captivating style and she is a special woman with a fascinating story. She was an actress in Kenneth Anger’s movies, among other things. I asked her foundation whether there was any possibility that I could use some of her art for the cover. I don’t think they have ever done that before. So I was unbelievably happy that they gave me permission to use two of her works – the ‘East Angel’ and the ‘West Angel’.

Finally, can I ask about the collaborations on Triangle? Even though the album contains input from many musicians, you have described the recording process as working very much "alone" – can you explain a little bit more as to why that was the case?

S: I had a feeling that if I started by myself, the album would take another direction compared to my previous work. This is my eleventh album, so I have been doing this before in different ways and it feels like it is important to try something new when you make an album. It’s not just about going to the same studio and doing whatever worked well before. I wanted to take that opportunity to go somewhere new and start the album by myself. It’s been a while since I have been working with recording equipment and I wanted to start from that point. Due to that situation, I composed, arranged and recorded songs along the way. Before, I would rehearse and arrange songs before recording them.

Did you enjoy the process of recording songs ‘along the way’ on your own?

S: It was fun making this album. I had a really good time with it. However, I also had a really hard time with it. There were so many frustrating periods when I wondered what I was doing. Creating alone was great, but it would be nice sometimes for someone else to make a decision.

However, Triangle does include subsequent contributions from some fantastic Norwegian musicians. What are you like to work with?

S: I gave them a lot of freedom, so they could bring their ideas. I was very curious to hear what they wanted to do on my songs. I think that is a good starting point, but I also feel very strongly about my music, so I won’t let go of it. I hold onto my songs.

Triangle is out on April 22 via SusannaSonata. Susanna plays London’s Cafe OTO on April 19; for full details and tickets, head here

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