‘I think I’m mostly inspired by emotional and existential topics, either my own or people around me’, muses Ane Brun, the Norwegian songstress as she reflects on everything from poetry in politics to racism and fantasy collaborations. Having recorded nine albums since her debut album Spending Time with Morgan in 2002, it’s fair to say that the dusky-voiced singer songwriter is as prolific as she is independent (she currently lives in Stockholm where she not only writes and records her own music but also runs her very own independent label Balloon Ranger Recordings).
Shifting from large band performances to bare acoustical pickings, Brun is difficult to pin down in her sound. Imagine a combo of Annie Di Franco, Bjork and Joni Mitchell – and maybe throw a little Florence and the Machine in for good measure and you may get a sense of the unique sound of Ane Brun. Her songs are emotional, eclectic and often experimental. She is definitely not afraid to play with her folky sound moving between the spare, stripped and vulnerable acoustic to the more playful and violent beats of a fuller band (see her latest offering ‘It All Starts With One’ released at the end of last year). She has worked with a vast array of musical greats including Ron Sexsmith, Peter Gabriel and Annie Di Franco and has earned two Grammy awards for Best Female Artist and Best Single.
When I asked Ane Brun to speak about her life as a musician, her answers were typically carefully considered as she veered from earnest consideration to a more intuitive descriptive flow about life, love, ‘air’ and the differences between good songs and great songs:
TMO: What inspires you the most when writing songs?
AB: I usually start with some kind of notion of something and then it grows into a bigger poetic world…… yes that’s how I do it. Sometimes also I get inspired by things outside of me like the song One on the new album which is inspired by human initiative and how revolution starts and how change starts- but they are also existential questions in a way. I always try to bring back the ideas to myself and how I see life.
TMO: Some say creativity should simply flow through the artist while others maintain that for a work to be ‘good’ it must be hard earned. What do you think?
AB: For me it’s a combination. It starts usually with the creativity of flow; flow and that almost religious feeling of disappearing into something creative. That’s when the first initial idea -how it kind of becomes magical – that part has to be there, but to finish a song….It’s hard work and that’s why I always need space and time to finish songs for an album. I need to be able to focus because I can always sit on a bench somewhere and make a sketch for a song, but to finish it and really make it recordable and playable for an audience, I need to really focus. It’s quite an introvert, focused process. For me it’s a mix of both and I think that’s important.
TMO: It seems now, more than ever, that Scandinavian artists – yourself included – are finding success and acclaim on the international stage. Why do you think that is? Do you feel there’s a scene, or something that links your music together? And how important is your background to your music?
AB: It’s quite difficult to answer as I am a Scandinavian artist. I guess, I don’t know…for me, being here I see that there is a lot of quality music coming from here now ……there’s so much good music and it’s intoxicating, I guess………no – It’s not intoxicating – it’s contagious. It’s contagious and inspiring to be in such an environment where you see good music everywhere and you want to be as good, and you’re kind of pushing the roof all the time. I think there are also a lot of brave artists that dare to have their own expression and image and do it their own way. If you’re creative and a musician [in the music business today] , the chance of getting a deal is quite sparse so you have to kind of make your own world and I think that makes people free – it’s one of the good things about being independent. You’re free from other people’s expectations I guess. In Stockholm there is definitely a music scene. A lot of my best friends are artists and musicians and I feel it’s [Stockholm] very warm and generous – we’re helping each other and lifting each other and playing with each other and I feel that’s very positive environment for me.
TMO: and your background? How important is that in terms of your musical style and identity?
AB: I think we are always affected by where we come and what we come from and what kind of music we come from. I guess that something the Scandinavian countries are very influenced by is the Anglo Saxon countries like England, Ireland or UK or the US. I guess what we bring into music is maybe a mix of our own traditions which is our own popular music and our own folk music which we have of course heard all of our lives. Maybe it’s not conscious but it’s always there and it makes some kind of musical library – and if you mix it with western pop music of the last 50 years…maybe that’s what’s making this special sound that we have. The connection then to this Western pop music is very strong so it becomes almost like it’s from America or the UK but it has a little twist? I guess that’s maybe what makes it stick out and also at the same time belong in the international music scene.
TMO: As a performer you are versatile to say the least – working with many kinds of stage arrangements. You even went on tour with a string quartet. You do, however, seem to return to playing alone with just your guitar. What kind of difference is there between playing the songs solo and with band/backing, and if forced to choose one or the other which would you pick?
AB: Hmmm…..the last question is hard at the moment because I’m kind of loving doing both a lot. I don’t think I would like to pick! There’s a difference. When I do a solo show it’s very much a focused show where I can just kind of float with my own energy and the audience and it can be very strong and magical actually – especially (she adds with a wry smile) with an attentive audience! It’s amazing sometimes what happens in the room when you really feel that you’re a hundred per cent communicating with the audience.
I feel that playing with a band- especially now with the new album and the new songs that have more rhythms and more drums it has more of an element of playfulness that I didn’t have before I guess? I go on stage and I play and have fun and it’s more…. light than it used to be I guess -which is something I enjoy a lot. The solo shows are very intense in a different way. I also love sharing the stage with people and sharing the experience. The conclusion is that I love doing both! I don’t think I could choose but if I had to I guess it would be solo since that’s the foundation of everything.
TMO: In your career so far you have worked with a veritable who’s who of the international song writing scene and have made an entire album of duets. Who would you most like to collaborate with in the future that you haven’t already, and why?
AB: Well I have a dream to sing with Anthony Hegarty [ Brun takes an almost dreamlike pause as if to imagine it in her head] One day to sing with him and kind of have that experience of hearing my voice singing with his voice. That would be amazing. I also love Ray La Montagne who is one of my favourite singers- that would be fantastic. I think those meetings and those collaborations are a combination of luck and coincidence and chemistry and the right song – like for instance with Jose Gonzales. I wanted to do songs with him for a long time but we really didn’t have a song that fit and this time with Worship I felt was perfect for Jose so it kind of falls into place sometimes.
TMO: One of my favourite of your songs Gillian captures a beautiful fragile moment that reminds me of comments by Irish songwriter Glen Hansard, when he told TMO ‘Music is medicine and dreams. For me that’s what music is, when it’s at its best. It makes time stop. It’s salve.’ Can you tell us a little bit about writing that song, and what music means to you in your own personal life?
AB: That particular song was written in a very, very difficult time in my life. I’m not going to talk about the specifics about it because it’s personal and I want it to be private. This song is very much for the listener. I think a lot of people – most people can feel that they understand this song. For me music is …I don’t know…. if I should pick anything – anything to bring with me to a desert island it would have to be music. I guess that’s food, air love and music – that’s what I need in my life – I use it for everything – I use it for comfort, for fun, for sleeping, for dancing, for exercising , thinking , cleaning, doing the dishes……I’m a real music consumer. I search for new music all the time. I would be devastated if I wouldn’t be able to have music in my life.