interrupting yr broadcast: silje nes
Always alert for opportunities to indulge the editor’s Scandophile tendencies, Wears The Trousers jumped at the chance to interview Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Silje Nes, whose debut album Ames Room was an undisputed highlight of 2007. But don’t be fooled by Kim Hiorthøy’s illustration of a chaotic living space that adorns the album sleeve, Ames Room isn’t missing an apostrophe – an Ames room is actually a very clever trick of perspective often employed by filmmakers to make things appear smaller than life, invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames Jr in 1934 (ta, Wikipedia).
Created in near isolation through a process of dogged experimentation at her home in Bergen, to listen to Ames Room is to be sequestered into Silje’s island universe where the songs don’t so much as grab you but sneakily osmose into your bloodstream, working some kind of extrasensory magic to plant a tiny seed in your brain that metastasises over the course of a few listens until you succumb to her charms. By all means look for the bottle with the ‘Drink Me’ label but Ames Room is too subtle, too tricksy to cede to force of will alone. But once gathered into the songs’ hermetic embrace it’s a wonderland you’ll want to return to over and over again.
We chatted with Silje over email last week as she was preparing for an appearance at the Analog Festival in Dublin alongside recent Wears The Trousers interviewee Madam. This is what was said:
There’s not much information about you out there so I wanted to ask a couple of basic questions first. I know you’re a classically trained pianist – is classical music a hidden influence on your own music?
I’d say calling me a classically trained pianist is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s true that I played classical piano for a long time. When I started recording my own music I distanced myself very much from those kind of skills, putting together harmonies that I didn’t know the names of; I just struck single notes far up on the guitar neck and drowned everything in the two effects that I found. I was so surprised then by what the recording could do for me, and I still am, I never conciously brought with me any classical approach to it. But there might be some traces left in my blood still.
Which non-classical artists would you say you have been influenced by?
A lot. And it’s changing, and I’ve been afraid to mention names because I have a feeling it would stick with me. Then, instead, other people mention names that stick with me. What can I say? I haven’t listened to music that much lately; iTunes tells me I’ve listened to Silver Jews and Paul Simon.
You had been making music for four years before sending in your demo to FatCat, who loved it. What were those early days like for you?
I didn’t involve a lot of people back then. At some points there were plans for things to happen that never happened, which was maybe just enough to make me think I actually was doing something that others could appreciate too. So that I really sent the demo after a while. I pretty much just kept doing my things in my own little bubble, while also doing normal things like studying and playing in an indie pop band. I think I enjoyed the secrecy.
Bergen is such a wonderful city. Can you tell us anything about the music scene there and whether you feel a part of it?
I never felt a part of any particular scene going on, but there’s a lot of great people in Bergen working with music in different ways, and there’s more happening than you’d expect from such a small city. Normally I think people are very open minded and it’s easy to make things happen, but it can become a bit claustrophobic when certain phenomenons become big, since the place is so small it feels like you can’t avoid it.
How does living in Bergen compare with growing up in Leikanger?
Leikanger is a tiny town with 2000 people in a big fjord called the Sognefjord, which involves deep salty water and high mountains in every direction. It took me a bit of travelling to understand how absurd that place might look, ’cause to me it’s just about the most normal thing I can have around me. Moving to Bergen, for me, also meant going to university and meeting new people and there were a lot more exciting things happening. But for the last year I’ve lived in Berlin, and I’m finding that life is pretty much the same everywhere. And now we’re all stuck with our computers anyway.
In the last couple of years there’s been a bit of a shift in interest away from Norway to Sweden after the huge successes of Röyksopp and Kings Of Convenience. But with people like Ane Brun, Annie and yourself getting more and more attention, do you think that Norwegian music has become more interesting lately?
I guess I don’t think that much in terms of success and in terms of where you’re from. There are always things going on and it’s maybe a bit random what people outside notice and when. At least I like to think that’s how it is.
Kim Hiorthøy did the artwork for Ames Room. How did the two of you meet?
He did most of the drawings for the artwork, yes. I met him some times some years back and I was always deeply fascinated by his work, so it made sense to involve him.
You taught yourself to play a lot of instruments from scratch while making the album. Which was hardest – guitar, drums, cello or trumpet?
Well – I’d say that sounds like half the story. I always played a lot of different instruments when I was growing up so it’s not completely true that I never played drums before, and I did play the trumpet when I was younger. But there’s no trumpet on the record, just a broken horn. That was by far the hardest thing to learn because it was full of holes that I tried to repair with gaffa tape and it will always sound like it’s being tortured. Some of the instruments, like the flute, I still can’t play. I just managed to produce some sounds that got through my forgiving control instances. That’s why I like recording.
A lot of the early stuff was instrumental only or instrumental with wordless vocalisations. Was there a moment of realisation when you decided to add lyrics?
For a while I really wanted to make things as abstract as I could, maybe because it felt very hard not to be stuck in these typical square structures that appeared when recording on a computer, and I wanted to do what I could not do. The vocals just came out that way and made enough sense to me.
Another thing is, I was never really confident that I could actually write lyrics. I never used to notice lyrics myself and I never had any urge to write them so I didn’t really know what they were all about. I guess that was the next thing I had to challenge, and it just grew on me. And after a while the lyrics started entering my songs like they belonged there.
You have an unusually spontaneous approach to writing songs, doing it at the same time as recording. Do you find it hard to make lyrics up on the spot? Most artists would probably run away screaming if you asked them to do that.
Haha, yeah, I don’t really make the lyrics up on the spot. Normally I make something up on the spot that is sometimes just things reminding me of words, and then it’s often the last part that I finish. To me the spontaneity is just the nature of making songs; you don’t know what it’s going to be until you’ve made it. I don’t want it to sound like I’ve ‘improvised’ the whole record – it’s just that I never rehearsed the things over and over until I knew how to play them. I tried out things and played them until the recording sounded nice, so I couldn’t ever play a song after I’d finished it. And it works since I’m not in anybody else’s studio, just working by myself, so no scary pressure from anybody.
In fact, for the only song I wrote with somebody else, ‘Over All’, Kristian [Stockhaus, of Norwegian rock band Ungdomskulen] had to write the lyrics because I was too embarrassed to come up with a single word when he was there.
Have you been pleased with how well the album has been received? What’s the nicest thing you’ve read about yourself?
It’s been fun. At first it was all so scary to me, that enormous contrast between keeping my music so close and involving just a very few people, and then suddenly having these things exposed and evaluated in public. So, yeah, when you go to that step of sharing your music with just anybody, it feels nice that there are people to receive it and appreciate it, or I could have rather kept it by myself. I haven’t really read things closely enough to remember what flattered me the most. I get a general impression and that’s good enough…
You’ve been compared with PJ Harvey, Trish Keenan from Broadcast, Rosie Cuckston from Pram. What do you make of such comparisons?
I’m ambivalent about comparisons, like most people probably are. On the one hand it feels crazy to be compared to people doing great things and I’m flattered and wondering how can I justify that. On the other hand I have problems when it points in just one direction, and I feel like there are so many layers of the music that are left out when leading peoples’ attention to this or that name.
How do you find touring in the UK? How did it compare with the US? What was being on the road with Múm like?
We’ve toured a lot more in the US than in the UK, and that was my first experience going on a real tour so that made some long lasting impressions on me. It was a nice and filthy road trip, me and my drummer sharing the driving and searching for the cheapest motels in the middle of the night. I guess touring tends to feel a bit the same no matter where you are, ’cause you do the same things every day over and over. Touring the UK feels more normal cause it’s European and I’m European, and there’s less cactuses and spaghetti highways.
We actually played only one show with Múm, in New York, which was fun and a lot bigger than what we were used to. But most of the time in the US we were on the road with the San Fransisco band The Dodos, a great band and some nice guys.
I heard that when you first started to play live you used a robot to play drums for you onstage. Amazing! Where did you find such a thing?
The robot is something I learned from a Canadian called Maxime Rioux. He had a concert in Bergen where he just had a bunch of robots playing. It was amazing. He stayed at our place for a week just making these robots and collecting instruments for them. I didn’t really get very far trying out those things. I prefer having a real drummer that can carry his own stuff and drive a car and even make some good company…
Are you working on a second album now?
I wouldn’t call anything an album yet, but I’m having some tiny breaks from touring and we’ll see what happens!
Silje plays the Offset Festival in London on August 30th.
Live performance of ‘Giant Disguise’