James Cubitt, the architect behind the Union Chapel’s unconventional floorplan, said in a manifesto for change that his vision for the church was to “step out of the enchanted circle of habit and precedent.” During our intimate, pew-side conference in front of the Chapel’s ornate stone-carved pulpit, Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun tells Wears The Trousers how she set to work on her recent album Changing Of The Seasons with a similar ambition in mind.
As the grey haze of late February gently filters through the beautiful rose window above the stage where she will later perform to a spellbound crowd, Ane emerges from the backstage area – a somewhat bewildering maze of dusty old wood-panelled rooms – and formally introduces herself with a handshake. “I’m Ane,” she says in a soft voice. “I know,” is my dumb reply. (If you’re reading this Ane – Hi, I’m Alan. Thanks again for the chat.) Eighties hair metal plays loudly through the large, airy room as we take a seat on one of the chilly benches. Ane’s accented voice is so gentle I’m worried that the dictaphone won’t pick it up, and I’m hardly loud myself. One alarmed, imploring gaze in the direction of the mixing desk, however, and it all goes quiet.
Born in the tiny coastal ‘city’ of Molde (the English pronunciation of which might rank it alongside our own Slough, the only place I have ever been that still looks ugly when it snows), Ane was raised by her lawyer father and musician mother in a community of around 24,000 people blessed with a stunning view of the 222 mountain peaks that make up the famous Molde Panorama. And while we’re dealing with numbers, you should know that every summer, for one week, up to 100,000 visitors descend upon the city for the Moldejazz festival. Ane and her parents would attend every year throughout her childhood, amazed to have such a bounty of world-class musicians right on their doorstep. “It was funny,” she says. “It’s such a small town yet we could go and see Herbie Hancock and all those big artists just down the road. That’s how I grew up and I think a lot of my melodic language is from that.”
There is a definite jazz element to Ane’s very deliberate phrasing, although it’s not often given the credit it deserves. American reviewers have been quick to align her with their homegrown crop of freak-folk artists. “I don’t feel I’m so freaky,” she laughs, but her eyes twinkle as she starts to talk about the music she loves. Joanna Newsom is a big favourite (“I adore her”), and Ane says that she can see a connection between them in the way they both incorporate a lot of classical references into their arrangements. Indeed, unconventional voices like Joanna’s are what most attracts Ane to other artists, and she’ll go as far as to say that if the voice isn’t interesting then she often won’t be into the music.
Pressed further on this opinion, she singles out M Ward, Justin Vernon and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy as having voices she is drawn to, while her well-documented love of Gillian Welch is something of an anomaly. “It’s weird because Gillian’s voice is not something I would particularly like usually, but it just has something that feels so personal,” she says a little dreamily. If she was to make me a Gillian Welch mixtape, she says, she’d probably put on most of Time (The Revelator) and definitely ‘Revelator’ and ‘I Dream A Highway’ (“the last one on that album that just goes on and on like…[she sings a little, cutely bobbing her head] ‘Nerr nerr ner ner nerr nerr’…I love it!”).
The song ‘Gillian’ on Changing Of The Seasons is something of an anomaly too, in that it trades the poetry found elsewhere for laid-bare honesty about a day in Ane’s life in which Welch’s music spoke to her like nothing else. It’s all there in the song so it seems unnecessary to ask anymore about it, and our conversation turns to Cyndi Lauper. Surprisingly, Ane says she’s never really been a fan of this most unusual of voices; covering Lauper’s classic ‘True Colors’ was originally suggested to her by a Swedish advertising agency for a wedding-themed promo, and was later picked up by Sky for a big-budget television campaign in the UK. The song sold well on iTunes, she says, and really helped give the album a push before its UK release. In a case of life imitating television, Ane has even played the song at the wedding of one of her friends. “It’s definitely something people like,” she says with a little nod.
Mindful of the fact that Ane’s tour manager had told me strictly no more than twenty minutes, and realising with horror that a big chunk of that time has already been used up just trading the names of artists we love, I quickly turn the conversation back to her formative years. Ane describes her late teens and early twenties as a time of indecision and “jumping around”. Leaving Molde behind, Ane first moved to the Norwegian capital Oslo, aged twenty-one, where she made a new best friend in Morgan, the Brun family’s battered old acoustic guitar. It was here, while working full time in a record shop, that Ane acquired one of her treasured possessions: a giant poster of PJ Harvey promoting the release of Is This Desire?. “I’ve had it on every wall since then and that was twelve years ago!” she grins. “Last year I finally got it framed.”
Finding that Oslo didn’t really suit her, Ane and Morgan headed to Barcelona where they spent a whole summer pacing up and down the pavements, both singing in their own ways. It was on these Spanish streets that Ane developed her hypnotic, serpentine guitar style, swaying in reverie with Morgan while playing songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco and, of course, PJ Harvey – perhaps a little too obscure for the tastes of Spanish commuters, but an incredible experience for Ane. Still, she had to go back to Norway once the summer wound down, and this time she found herself studying in the artistic haven of Bergen on the west coast. Working part-time in a record shop, she began to compose her own material and regularly performed live, but it wasn’t until she switched her studies and moved to Uppsala in Sweden that she recorded her debut album Spending Time With Morgan using her student funding.
With all this moving around it’s no wonder people get confused about Ane’s background. A feature that appeared in The Times, for instance, caused much amusement in the Brun household. “My dad laughed his head off when he saw ‘Law graduate Ane Brun’! I was like, ‘OK, I’m a law graduate. Great!’.” (Their review of Changing Of The Seasons later called her Swedish, a common misconception.) In fact, after six years of hopping from one subject to another in her studies, Ane never got a degree. “The music came and just took off,” she says, “but I feel so happy about those years because it made me who I am and that feels great.” Asked whether she would ever go back to university, she looks a little startled. “The law degree…? No! But I would like to study again. I do miss that as a musician, to have an intellectual side of things. It is hard to read those kinds of books when you are touring. It’s just too much distraction.”
Ane doesn’t really like to write songs while touring either, and most of Changing Of The Seasons was written at her studio in Stockholm. This time around, she says she was determined to break some of her usual patterns and push herself to try new things. “I figured that one of my specialities before this album was using long notes and long words so I thought, ‘I’m going to do the opposite!’” she grins. An obsession with playing around with rhythms took hold and she began to compose tighter, more changeable songs like ‘The Treehouse Song’ and ‘The Puzzle’. She experimented more with writing songs from other people’s perspectives, most notably on ‘The Puzzle’ and on the title track, which finds her acting as narrator in a beautifully detailed story about an emotionally restless man. “I guess I’m too Scandinavian,” she sighs, inhabiting his thoughts.
Ane says that she also set out to use her voice in different ways but confesses that the soaring operatic trill we hear on ‘Armour’ was not originally intended. “I was trying to sing like Yma Sumac [the legendary Peruvian soprano said to have a range of more than four octaves]. It was so funny, somehow I ended up doing this opera thing instead.” She giggles and sings an impromptu scale. A more contemporary inspiration for many of her vocal experiments at the time was Regina Spektor, specifically her 2006 album Begin To Hope. “It was great to hear someone use their voice in a way that is more than just singing…where the music is not too difficult.”
Another 2006 album that had a huge effect on what would eventually become Changing Of The Seasons was Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s The Letting Go. Ane became so enamoured with the sound and quality of the production that, after listening to the album fifty or so times on her computer, she finally dug out the CD again to see who was behind it. “I read it was Valgeir Sigurðsson and then I was, like, Google-Google-Google,” she says, pretending to type on the pew in front. One email later and Ane and her manager Mikael went out to Iceland to meet him. “I’d never worked with a producer that had such an impressive CV so I was kind of nervous about it,” says Ane. “I think he is a genius.”
The first sessions took place at Atlantis Studios in Stockholm in September 2007. Ane covers her face in embarrassment as she remembers the disastrous first day they spent working together. “I was so stressed! I had made all the choices about musicians and studios and everything and I had to live up to that, so I got really nervous. It was like a disaster for me that day. I was sitting with the earphones going, ‘No, it isn’t working,’ and he said, ‘We have to take a break and talk about it.’” At least she can laugh at it all in hindsight because, thanks to some patience, some wine and some in-depth discussion, it all worked out just fine: “It was just the most amazing week!” With the bulk of the recording complete, the sessions moved to Valgeir’s own Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavík where the strings and backing vocals were added, and the album was mixed, which took some weeks. Ane certainly wasn’t complaining; she loved it there. “In between the breaks we went to swim outside. It was fantastic!”
Changing Of The Seasons was released in Scandinavia in March 2008 and went straight to the top of the Norwegian charts and to #2 in Sweden. A US launch followed in October and, finally, the album came out in the UK at the beginning of February this year. The reviews were almost unanimously glowing, although one comparison kept coming up that I couldn’t quite get to grips with…Dolly Parton! Really? Ane laughs. “Oh, I think there are a couple of songs on the album that sound like her, but other than that I don’t get it either. It is definitely there in ‘Armour’ and ‘The Treehouse Song’ though. I was actually joking about it when I sent the demo to Valgeir. I told him I’d got Dolly to sing the third verse of ‘Armour’. I can see that it sounds like her, especially her phrasing.” So she doesn’t mind the comparison? “Well, I’m not like a freaky fan of Dolly or anything but I do listen to her. I love her voice so it’s a good compliment. I’m not sad about it.”
With all that praise swimming around her head and ecstatic standing ovations night after night on her tour, it’s a wonder Ane Brun can still walk through doorways. Nevertheless, she comes across as extraordinarily grounded and her every move seems considered and gentle. Her marketing is clever and never too in your face, understanding that the profundity of her songs suits a bit of mystique. The three music videos for the album, each directed by Ane’s friend Magnus Renfors, all capture that sense of magical otherness. It’s good news then that he is at the helm of Ane’s next release, a live DVD filmed at the Konserthuset in Stockholm last September.
Performing to a crowd of 1400 people, Ane brought along a dozen of her friends, including Nina Kinert, Anna Ternheim, Lisa Ekdahl, First Aid Kit, Tobias Fröberg and Elin Ruth, to form “a singer-songwriter choir”. Add to that a nine-piece band including an extra guitarist, two pianists and a symphonic percussionist, and you have something of an extravaganza on your hands. “I love working with Magnus! He always has the craziest ideas so there are a couple of weird bits in there,” she says. “The concert house is a fantastic place and it was a long concert [twenty-seven songs!], which was really nice because it was almost as though it was a summary of where I have got to. The whole show looks and sounds fantastic. I am so happy about it.”
When I email Ane a couple of months later she’s none the wiser about when the DVD will come out, although she’s pretty sure it will be this year. She’s also coy about another project she’s working on; you see, Ane has formed an as-yet-unnamed band with Tobias Fröberg and drummer Erik Nilsson, but it’s a band with a twist – there’s no guitar. For now at least. They’ve only made one song so far but she assures me that it’s “really good!” Given her previous form, you’ve got to believe her.
The Live At Stockholm Concert Hall CD/DVD is released throughout Europe in September. Full details here.
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