Susanne Sundfør is ordering room service in her hotel room just as evening falls in New York City. Her tour officially kicks off this week in support of her latest release, Music For People In Trouble (out now via Bella Union).
The Norwegian singer, songwriter and producer underwent a complete metamorphosis following the release of 2014’s Ten Love Songs. After experiencing exhaustion and a breakdown, Sundfør decided to do something drastic. She traveled the world on a meditative journey of self-discovery, and connecting with the earth and other cultures.
Those travels inspired Music For People In Trouble and re-discovering the beauty and humanity within herself and communities she encountered as she ventured everywhere from North Korea to the Amazon jungle.
“We are living in a time of great changes,” says Sundfør. “Everything is moving so rapidly, sometimes violently, sometimes dauntingly. I think a lot of people experience anxiety these days. I wanted to address these emotions on the album.”
Music For People In Trouble navigates a spectrum of emotions. At times vulnerable and heartbroken, there’s also moments of cerebral contemplation and reflection, as expressed on the title track. “Life is ready to happen and to unfold and we’re just a vessel...life happens through us” echoes a voice, as electronic samples glitch, short-circuit and reverberate in the background. Then there are times of wonder and gratitude as on the gorgeous “Bedtime Story,” the folksy “Reincarnation” and the reverberating “Mountaineers,” “And looking up at a heaven of fireflies,
I can not help but marvel at the beauty before my eyes” sings Sundfør.
Culture Collide spoke to Susanne Sundfør about her travels, the inspiration behind the new album, and leading a life of love and gratitude. Read on below.
Culture Collide: You traveled all around the world after your last album. What inspired you the most in the places you visited?
Susanne Sundfør: The most inspiring place I went to was Nepal. I went with some friends on a trek in the Himalayas for three days, and it was just the most beautiful nature I’ve ever seen. We were walking in the mountains, and then suddenly we’d be in a rain forest. It was like walking through one of the Lord of The Rings books.
The retreat I went to in Spain was also very inspiring because the purpose of it was to spend 24 hours alone in the wilderness. I was just sitting on a cliff, looking over the Pyrenees between Spain and France, contemplating life. It was pretty intense and beautiful. Those two trips. But also going to Brazil and visiting the rubber tapper people. They were all inspiring in their own way, but the nature in Nepal I would say.
What was one of your favorite moments from your travels?
SS: One of my favorite moments was visiting with the ‘rubber tapper’ people in Brazil. They were celebrating about eight years of an agreement with the Brazilian government to have their territory peaceful. They experienced many years of harassment and murder from people who are interested in the area where they live and work, so they were having a big party and they were dancing all night. Then they asked me to dance with them. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more awkward and just amazed at the same time.
You documented a lot of these places with photography. What made you want to do this and what are your plans for the photos?
SS: I wanted the album to be a photo and music project. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, get out of my apartment in London where I was staying, get out of Europe and everything that was familiar, and see something that was unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable, and basically be a spectator. But also I wanted to make a piece of work concerned with how it is to be alive today, how different people live today, with a focus on climate change. I wanted to make a little photo book of people today in nature today, in a simple way.
I started taking pictures four or five years ago. I got a Japanese camera from the 90s and I started documenting my life on tour. Then that escalated because I really loved it so much. I bought more cameras, and I just continued taking pictures of whatever was around me. It gave me a lot of peace. I just really enjoy doing something creative outside of music.
There’s jazz, industrial, and classical elements to your sound. What instruments are incorporated on the record?
SS: Piano, flute, clarinet, pedal steel guitar, synthesizers, saxophone, upright bass, percussions, a Lithuanian instrument called Kanklė, and electric guitar.
How did you conceive of the sonic landscape for the album?
SS: I wanted to go back to my roots when I started making songs in high school. I listened a lot to Joni Mitchell and Carole King, Cat Stevens, Neil Young, and Nick Drake. They were my absolute favorite. I was so inspired by Nick Drake and his sound when I wrote some of the songs, I wanted a similar style on the guitar and vocals of this album.
Tell me about the guest vocals and sampling on the title track
SS: The first part is composed by Jørgen Træen who produced the album with me. The person speaking is a friend of mine, John Milton, who runs an organization called Way of Nature where he takes people out in nature for a few days, preparing them to be alone in the wilderness. I did an interview with him on a retreat and recorded his answer to one of my questions. I asked Jørgen to create a piece around it that was inspired by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and his most famous piece, “Gesang der Jünglinge.” He’s talking about quite existential things and I really like the comparison between our earthly life to the universe. I like the cosmic imagery.
I’ve always loved Emily Dickinson. When I was in university I studied American Literature and I wrote a piece on her poem, Safe in their Alabaster Chambers. I’ve always been very inspired by this poem when I write lyrics. I wanted that kind of imagery reflected in the music as well. I felt that, that period of Avant garde, classical music is quite cosmic I think. It sounds like you’re in outer space. That’s the feeling I wanted, but at the same time I wanted the retro feeling of Stockhausen as well. I wanted Stockhausen to be echoed in the piece.
When you’re feeling stressed, what brings you back to feeling centered?
SS: My friends, my family, my cat. I was at a play on Sunday and I sat there and I thought, “I’m so lucky that I get to see and experience this. I’m lucky to be alive” you know. These are times when we really need to fight hatred as much as possible, and the way to fight hatred is to show more love, be more considerate, to care for each other, and tell each other we love each other. Because one day we are gone, and it’s important to take care of each other.
What’s one thing people can do each and every day to put positivity into the world?
SS: There’s a technique called EGS, and it’s an exercise you can do in the evening and mornings. When you go to bed, you have a little notebook next to you and you write down what you enjoyed today, what you’re grateful for today, and what you’re satisfied with today. You write that down, and then you sleep and first thing in the morning when you wake up, you look at what you wrote down the night before. It’s supposed to be very good for you mentally in creating a positive end and start of the day. That’s a very concrete answer (laughs).
“Mountaineers” is inspired by a poem by Robinson Jeffers. What’s a favorite piece of art that has inspired you this year?
SS: I’m a big fan of ABBA, they’re brilliant songwriters. I had a session yesterday where I listened to a lot of my favorite songs from when I was kid, but had never seen live. I watched live recordings of Abba, and I watched them play “SOS” and I realized how incredible that song is. It really inspired me yesterday and has inspired me a lot before as well.
Listen to Music For People In Trouble here, and catch Susanne Sundfør in a city near you.
11/7/2017 – New York, NY – Le Poisson Rouge
11/9/2017 – Chicago, IL – 1st Ward
11/12/2017 – Vancouver, BC – St. James Hall
11/13/2017 – Seattle, WA – Triple Door
11/14/2017 – Portland, OR – Holocene
11/16/2017 – San Francisco, CA – Swedish Music Hall
11/17/2017 – Los Angeles, CA – The Sanctuary at Pico Station