Susanne Sundfør Writes a Love Letter to the World
On her fifth album, Music for People in Trouble, Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør hones in on something dear to her: nature and, ultimately, the fragility of humans.
Boasting an album replete with references to Mother Earth, Sundfør ruminates on life and its ever-present relationship with decay. She culls from ten years of musical evolution, from the synth-pop leanings of Ten Love Songs to the placid folk of The Brothel, for a record that seamlessly mingles all eras of her work.
In an interview with TIDAL, Sundfør takes some time to talk about the evolution of her sound, our relationship to Mother Earth and what she has learned over 10 years as a recording artist.
You tend to incorporate both electronic and acoustic soundscapes and influences into your music. What leads you there and how did you arrive on that as the sound of Music for People in Trouble?
When I was making Ten Love Songs, I was thinking about how I really wanted to make a pop album. But after that album, I wanted to make a folk album about climate change. That’s what I started with, but obviously it became about things other than that.
I wanted to return to my roots, in a way. I felt the themes on the album would suit a more organic sound. I really enjoy being a musician and playing piano, playing guitar, so I wanted to create something that leant itself more to that.
What is a finished song for you? How do you know it has reached that point of completion?
I usually try to make 10 songs for an album. I like that number and I’ve done that since the first album 10 years ago. It’s really about the number and saying what I want to say with those 10 songs.
I like a good concept, and for this album I set out to make something about climate change with an honest approach. A lot of the things I’m saying in the album are about how things will go if we don’t change our course.
It’s about finding a balance and creating this world where you can say what you’d like to say. It is like a painting, where you tell yourself, ‘It needs a little bit more color there.’ You need all of the elements to be there.
You mention painting and the act of that process as a parallel to songwriting. Is there anything outside of music you call on to inform your sound?
I see pictures often. I think this is just because I watch a lot of movies. I like to watch scary movies and thrillers. I have had dreams where there is a soundtrack going on in my head during it. For example, the screaming in ‘The Sound of War’ was something I heard in a nightmare.
Life is very much like a movie, in that way. I can see a waterfall or birds flying into the sky and can think about their movements as an arrangement in a song.
What’s your relationship to nature?
I grew up in a family that did a lot of hiking, so I was hiking a lot as a kid. I always had a strong relationship to nature. Climate change has been something on my mind since we learned about it in elementary school. It has built up for a long time and I think it’s so important to address now.
We just had an election in Norway and the right wing party won. They will continue exporting in the oil industry and everyone knows the consequence of continuing those kinds of politics.
To me, it is very emotional. It stays with me. Even with these recent hurricanes, it makes me really worried and sad for these people who are suffering. It’s frustrating to know it’s possible to change our course. A lot of that frustration is on the album.
‘Mantra’ is such a strong album opener with very distinct imagery and a tight, lullaby-esque melody. Could you talk about the construction of that song?
It’s about self-worth, which is something I struggled with at the time. I was comparing myself to elements in the world. I think it can be healthy for people to get perspective on themselves. One of the reasons we are destroying the world is because we think we are the most important thing in the world, when we are not. We are part of a bigger picture.
I thought it’d be interesting to put together symbols that related to the darker side of nature, like the moon and the sharks and the crow.
What made you want to give the reins of the album’s production to someone else (Jorgen Træen) for this album?
For Ten Love Songs, I produced most of it myself and had a co-producer on some songs. Being a producer isn’t a lot of work, but arranging music is a lot of work to me. I did record and arrange a lot of the songs on my own, but I saw it to a point where I was exhausted with it. I also find it a little boring. I’m a very social person and I like to share ideas. That’s what I prefer.
Jorgen Træen never produced any of my stuff before. I thought it’d be a great match for us and he said ‘Yes,’ so we got started. He did an incredible job and had so many ideas for sound and arrangement. I needed someone I could trust, so I could be more of a singer-songwriter. I wanted to create the core and have fantastic musicians on it.
What have you felt like you have learned over these 10 years of being an active musician?
I think the main thing I learned is to trust my intuition. You can trust yourself and I don’t think I trusted my instincts in the beginning. That is completely understandable, but, in time, I’ve learned a lot by living through it. If you’re going to be a musician, you’re going to have see that through.
Do you feel as though you have said all you can on the subject of climate change on this album?
I don’t think it’s possible to ever stop talking about, but I don’t know if I’ll write about it again. The mission of the album was supposed to be a cleansing process for climate warriors. It can be hard to be a climate activist. That’s why I ended with ‘Mountaineer.’ I was saying, ‘No matter how hard it gets, no matter how much sorrow a person can have, we’ll always be able to explore nature and where we come from.’
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