Friday 22 November 2019

Music - Nordic miracle: why Scandinavia rules

Northern Light: Ane Brun has just released her sixth album and will play Vicar Street.
Northern Light: Ane Brun has just released her sixth album and will play Vicar Street.
John Meagher

John Meagher

You know there have been academic studies done on this very subject, and countless theses written?" Ane Brun says. "It's not just outside the country that people are fascinated by the impact of the music made there, but inside it too."

Norwegian Ane, who has just released her sixth album - the seductive and majestic When I'm Free - is referring to Sweden, the country she has lived in for most of her adult life, and its astonishing ability to punch way above its weight when it comes producing musicians who are critically lauded and, frequently capable of making a dent on the charts too.

Every December, when I'm looking back over the albums that have made an impact on me, I'm struck by the disproportionately large number of Scandinavian origin, particularly those from Sweden. It's only a matter of weeks, for instance, since the country's most consistently exciting pop talent, Robyn, released the brilliant mini album Love is Free. (Incidentally, her recent duet with Metronomy's Joe Mount 'The Hardest Thing to Do' offers a reminder of her desire not to be pigeon-holed: it features on the Australian thriller, Partisan.)

For a country of 9.6m people, there might be six or seven albums each year that I would wholeheartedly recommend. Belgium, with a marginally larger population, and the Netherlands, which a far higher number of people, rarely enters my consciousness when it comes to music, or anyone else's for that matter either.

"English is the international language of pop and the Swedes tend to be fluent," Ane says. "They grow up watching television programmes that are never dubbed and Anglo-Saxon culture is everywhere."

But there are more subtle reasons too. "The Swedes have a great sense of self-confidence," Brun says. "This is a typical theory of success: you have to believe it. Swedes have had that self-confidence because they've seen it happen over and over again. You had Abba, of course, and then bands like Roxette and Ace of Base. All of them had big global hits.

"And then you've someone like Max Martin who's written so many of the big chart songs [from Katy Perry, Taylor Swift et al] that we hear all the time. We who work in Sweden can meet those people on the streets, so you can actually see that it's possible."

To reinforce her point, she says she got to perform alongside Swedish music royalty herself some years ago when she sung one of Abba's most emblematic songs, 'SOS', with its co-writer Benny Andersson providing accompaniment on piano. "He was very nice and down to earth," she says, while recalling that some of the young Swedish musicians who took part in this environmental awareness concert were awestruck by his presence. (Her impressive version is available for your viewing pleasure on YouTube.)

Those long, dark winters where even in the comparatively southern capital Stockholm, it's dark by 3pm in December, also help foster a sense of creating music, or other art, "because it's too cold to go outside".

Meanwhile, Brun - who has frequently used the service of Swedish musicians on her albums - notes that they have a "particularity" about them that's appealing for those jaded by a diet of homogeneous pop. "Many of the voices that come out of Sweden are quite personal," she says. "They don't feel like Hollywood. It's the ones that have that sort of exotic quality to their singing, people like Lykke Li or Robyn, that tend to do best."

Brun had dabbled in music-making growing up in Molde, Norway but it was only in 2001 when she relocated to Stockholm "for love" at the age of 24 that she became serious about making it as a singer-songwriter. Her debut album, Spending Time With Morgan, arrived in 2003 and it was acclaimed, not just in Scandinavia, but further afield as well. The title, incidentally, referred to the acoustic guitar she played at the time.

She has delivered one quietly impressive album after another since then and her Irish fanbase has grown accordingly: think Dublin's intimate Sugar Club one year and Vicar Street across town the next.

I was first drawn to her robustly penned songs in 2005 with the release of what's probably her best album, A Temporary Dive. Like many who just happened upon the album, I was struck by that inhomogeneous, faintly accented vocal, and a delivery that made you hang on to every word of deeply personal songs fashioned in that matter-of-factly Scandinavian way.

Her latest album is arguably her most expansive to date, and certainly her most playful. It's her most commercial too and arrives just months after scoring a bona fide hit with the marvellously catchy 'Can't Stop Playing (Makes Me High)' in collaboration with Spanish house DJ Dr Kucho!

While she may not have been starstruck by the prospect of playing alongside Abba's Benny, she had her own can't-believe-this-is happening moment when she got to duet with Morten Harket, frontman of a-ha, the band who put her native Norway on the map in the 80s. "It was in a big concert venue in Oslo," she says, "and I came on straight after they did 'Take On Me'.

She will be scaling it back when she plays her only Irish date of 2015, at Dublin's Vicar Street on December 7.

l If English is the international language of pop, spare a thought for those who want to prove that the songs of the magisterial Joni Mitchell can retain much of their magic when sung as Gaeilge. 'Tacsaí Mór Buí', anyone?

Sweetfire: Joni Mitchell is a tribute night in honour the Canadian veteran and will find Donegal trad stalwart Caitríona O'Leary performing Mitchell's best known songs in Irish. The event is part of IMRAM 2015 - the Irish Language Literary Festival - and takes place at Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre on Friday.

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