Susanne Sundfør might well have created the most audacious pop album of 2015. Endlessly inventive, and unrepentantly bombastic, Ten Love Songs sees the Norwegian singer-songwriter skilfully weave complex layers of synthetic and organic instrumentation to create a mix of precision-engineered electro and drama-drenched mini-symphonies. It is the sound of an artist operating without boundaries, following each idea – however outlandish – to fruition. Even more impressively, for all its fearless ambition, it’s unquestionably Sundfør’s most accessible album to date.
Speaking over Skype, Sundfør confirms that her intention was “to be more pop and be more direct,” and that she altered her approach to songwriting accordingly. “[Writing pop music] is more of a puzzle you have to solve, rather than just putting your thoughts down on paper or tape,” she explains. “I feel more like a maths student when I try and make pop music… There are certain rules to follow; like, you have the chorus and the hook. Lyrically, it’s a lot of puns, and usually you might have one word that captures your attention. It’s got to be clever, but you have all these ingredients.”
The roots for Ten Love Songs were laid as early as 2012, not long after the release of her fifth long-player, The Silicon Veil. ‘Fade Away’ was the first song she completed, a sparkling, synth-led shimmy that’s practically euphoric in its sadness. Intriguingly, she dates ‘Memorial’ to the same period. Forming the centrepiece of the record, it’s an epic, ten-minute sprawl composed of three distinct movements: the first is redolent of ABBA’s ‘Fernando’, but reimagined as a power-ballad; the second is entirely instrumental, drenched in symphonic strings and underpinned by Sundfør’s virtuosic piano; and in the final movement, her soaring vocals return, before the melody delicately ebbs away.
“Originally it was just piano and vocals,” Sundfør explains, “But I figured it could be interesting to add strings, and make it almost like a Philip Glass-y outro.” She arranged the strings in New York, before visiting long-time collaborator Antony Gonzalez, of M83, in LA. “He added a lot of the epic-ness – the guitar, the drums and a lot of the synthesisers – and made it really beautiful.”
Alongside help from Big Black Delta on ‘Accelerator’ and Lars Horntveth on ‘Silencer’, ‘Memorial’ is one of only three tracks for which Sundfør sought assistance with production. Having co-produced her previous albums, why did she choose to take on full responsibility now?
“With The Brothel and The Silicone Veil, after we had finished I felt like I’d managed to create a certain sound with a lot of influence from the producer, and it was his sound. I wanted to explore another soundscape, and try out something new.” She concedes that “it was a lot of hard work”, and that she enjoyed working with the mixing engineer in Bergen, simply to have “someone else look at [the] music with their own eyes and [bring] their own opinions.”
I think that that was my best experience: to just admit to yourself that you can’t be everything.
As Sundfør explains, learning to embrace collaboration was one of the most important lessons she learned making Ten Love Songs: “Earlier in the process I had decided that I wanted to produce it, and I was quite stubborn about doing everything myself. Then I realised I needed people to contribute musically, and I’m really happy [I did] because they added so much beauty and interest. I think that that was my best experience: to just admit to yourself that you can’t be everything.”
With six self-penned albums under her belt now, including the instrumental record A Night at Salle Pleyel – which she reportedly recorded while “drunk on red wine” – Sundfør is so far removed from the “composition-by-committee” culture that dominates contemporary pop. And yet, tracks like ‘Delirious’, ‘Accelerator’ and ‘Fade Away’ are so infectious, Sundfør could easily find herself nestled alongside the likes of Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding at the top of the charts. You have to wonder whether she has any reservations about placing herself in that pop context; to be subject to – and judged by – those, often superficial, standards.
It’s very important to try and see through what is moralistic criticism against women, and what is actually a criticism of the industry.
“No. The pop industry is quite cynical, but a lot of great music has come out of it. And I think the pop industry in the 60s was as cynical as it is today, and it has the same mechanisms.” She adds with a laugh, “The only difference is there’s just a little bit more nudity now.”
Does the amount of flesh on show bother her, then? “I mean, as long the women want it then I don’t see the problem. To me, it seems like a lot of the women are quite comfortable with it, and it’s their way of expressing themselves and their art. I think the problem is when it becomes necessary, or something that you have to do in order to work with pop music, or any kind of genre. And I think it’s very important to try and see through what is moralistic criticism against women, and what is actually a criticism of the industry. Some of the discussions about that tend to tilt towards being about how women shouldn’t undress, instead of looking at the mechanisms behind it.”
This summer, Sundfør will headline Oslo’s Øya Festival, following in the footsteps of Björk, The Knife and Robyn. Considering the recent furore surrounding the lack of female representation at Reading and Leeds, it adds weight to the presumption that – in terms of gender equality – Scandinavia’s music industry is leagues ahead of the rest of the world. I wonder if our assumptions are correct or if, in fact, this is actually quite a rose-tinted take on the situation?
“I don’t know,” she says, slowly. “We’ve come pretty far in Scandinavia, and I think in Europe as well in general. It’s getting better, but it’s complicated; we are living in quite complex societies.”
Certainly, Sundfør herself has been vocal in encouraging a more enlightened stance. In 2010, she refused her second nomination for “Best Female Artist” at the Norwegian Grammys (Spellemannprisen), to highlight her objection to the perceived need for a distinction between the sexes. Two years later, the committee dropped all “male” and “female” categories, replacing them with gender-neutral awards.
I’m intrigued to hear how she thinks the British industry should be supporting female artists, and encouraging them to progress to the position where they are deemed headliner material.
“I think that, when you’re young, a lot of your identity is shaped by your gender,” Sundfør answers, thoughtfully. “You look at other people who have the same gender and idolise them. The music industry is especially powerful in that – in its way of imaging perfection or stardom – and it’s natural for young people to idolise musicians. So if you’re a boy and you grew up in the 90s, you might idolise Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Guns N’ Roses, and if you’re a girl you might idolise Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and you take that with you. And then you look at the people who write in the music magazines, and who run the industry – who are heads of labels, managers, promoters – and they’re usually men.”
She concludes, “I guess my point is, maybe the most efficient way to try and introduce more women in the market – and get them higher up the hierarchy – is to make women more interested in working in the industry. I think that would be the most efficient thing to do. I believe that music is identity. And while identity is not only gender, it is an important part of it.”
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