After a bad accident left her flat on her back, Danish musician Oh Land found creative freedom in music. It saved her life, she tells Ed Power
Published 03/06/2011 | 05:00
Looking as if she's wafted out of a glossy shampoo commercial, Nordic pop sensation Nanna 'Oh Land' Fabricius sits in the back of a dingy tour-bus winding its way through the outer suburbs of Amsterdam.
The contrast between the glamorous singer and her dowdy surroundings is so stark as to be almost comical. With to-die-for cheekbones, immaculate hair and a smile that splits the difference between Claudia Schiffer and Brigitte Bardot, she more closely resembles a Hollywood actress playing a pop star than a real-life musician en route to a gig at a pokey rock club.
It's hard not to be cynical. In fact, Oh Land is the antithesis of the manufactured starlet you might at first take her for. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, the 26-year-old has lifted herself up by the bootstraps as surely as any plucky indie underachiever. Far from being groomed by a manipulative record label, her career is a story of heartache, hardwork and ambition. She secured a record deal after moving from Denmark to the United States, hustling for gigs in a country where she knew nobody and, by her own admission, barely spoke the language. Back home she had been a ballet dancer of some promise until a serious back injury left her bed-bound for a year, a trauma that casts a melancholic pall over her music.
Most surprising of all, perhaps, is her friendly, unassuming demeanour. Scandinavian pop singers have a deserved reputation for ice-princess imperiousness. But, despite being more physically striking and musically accomplished than many of her rivals, Oh Land radiates the sort of earthy self-effacement that is impossible to fake.
Right now, she is swigging a bottle of mineral water and, apropos of nothing, holding forth on her favourite topic of the moment, Darren Aronofsky's balls-out bonkers ballet horror Black Swan. It is a subject to which Oh Land has evidently applied a considerable degree of contemplation.
"A lot of ballet dancers were very critical of the film -- they say it's full of clichés," she says. "But, really, ballet is a tradition built entirely on clichés. What could be more clichéd that standing on your toes in a tutu! In the film, they did a good job. However, there is definitely a fine line between the character you play in a ballet and your own personality, and it's a division that can get blurred."
She speaks from experience. Before damaging her back at the age of 18, ballet had been Oh Land's entire life (the stage alias, incidentally, is a Anglicisation of her middle name, Øland), when she suffered a slipped disk and had to spend 12 months recuperating, she was forced to reassess not merely her professional ambitions but her entire sense of who she was.
"In losing dance, I wasn't only losing a hobby, I was losing part of myself," she says. "I struggled with an identity crisis. If I don't have dance, who am I? When you are dedicated to something, you think of it as the one aspect of your life you can rely on. When it goes, what do you have left?"
Oh Land describes ballet as an addiction and means it literally. If you dance for nearly 40 hours a week through your entire adolescence, your body develops a taste for that adrenaline, she says.
"To have that supply suddenly cut off can be wrenching." Bed-bound and in shock, she turned to music because it was the only way she could truly feel free when the future she had spent years working towards was collapsing around her.
"It's not just a job that you have lost. It's your body also," she says. "I had to deal with going from all that training every week to suddenly nothing. It was a very bad time for me and I was struggling with a lot of issues. I couldn't move basically. What I could do was sing. To be acrobatic with your voice when you are lying completely still is a great freedom. It saved me in many ways."
Charming, glamorous and with an arsenal of glittering cyberpop, for Oh Land pop global fame would appear a foregone conclusion. If there's a speck in the ointment, it's that her timing might be better. Released this month, new mini-album White Nights sees her chasing a bandwagon that, arguably, chugged out of the station a good 18 months ago. Already on board are Florence and the Machine, Bat for Lashes, La Roux, Lykke Li and dozens of others. With the female synth warrior genre moving from bleeding edge to passe, Oh Land could be accused of being a straggler rather than the outlier she clearly regards herself as.
Happily, such misgivings wilt when you listen to White Nights. Transcending its one-woman-and-her-Moog origins, the record attests to Oh Lands gifts as arranger, composer of melodies and lyric writer. What's especially striking is the intense sadness that clings to the project like stormclouds around a mountaintop. Chronicling her first year in America, the LP sets upbeat melodies side by side with a keening sense of regret. Listening closely it sounds as if her first year in the US was a baptism of angst.
"The songs were written at a time when I was moving away from everybody," she says. "From family, friends, my culture. There were language barriers.
"Everything was new and exciting -- as it always is when you are chasing something. At the same time, there was a lot of loneliness and a sense of not belonging. I turned up in America not really knowingly anyone. I went there because I had heard there was this festival called South by South West which got a lot of attention. I got there without any contacts and arranged my own tour. It was a strange time for me. I came out of it a lot stronger, I think."
Statuesque and striking, Oh Land is often assumed to have graduated to music via the fashion industry. She laughs when you bring this up. Though she's been asked -- sometimes begged -- to go into modelling, the profession has never held any attraction. For one thing, her family is famous within Danish classical music circles and would probably be aghast were she to do so. More than that, however, the thought of working as a professional clothes horse horrifies her.
"I used to be requested to do it when I was younger. I was busy with a lot of other things. Plus, I've always been very opinionated and wanting to create my own little world. I don't think I would be very suited to that sort of career."
She's halfway through her first European tour and has been selling out dates since the start. Having been generally ignored in this part of the world the media, too, is finally paying attention (she's had no such difficulty in the US, where glossy titles such as Vogue, Interview and Black Book have lined up to interview her).
Later in the year, meanwhile, her career will truly shift into the fast lane when she goes on tour with Katy Perry. The risque pop princess apparently hand-picked Oh Land for a string of support slots after stumbling upon one of her videos on YouTube. Though the two have never spoken, Twitter salutations have been exchanged and Oh Land is psyched about a face to face meeting.
"I'm not snobbish about music," she says. "If people can connect with a piece of music and get something out of it, then good for them."
It is, of course, impossible to discuss an exotic new female pop star without conversation straying towards the 'G' word. We would be overstating the case to claim Oh Land is strongly influenced by Lady Gaga. Still, there are parallels.
On stage, both like to dress extrovertly and if the Dane has never arrived at an awards ceremony in a lamb-chop skirt she has certainly pushed boundaries in her own way. For all that, she is visibly reluctant to claim Gaga as a kindred spirit.
"I'm not really affected by Lady Gaga ," she demures. "I grew up listening to Bjork . To me, what Gaga does is not original."
Oh Land is out on iTunes next Friday, June 10
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