Just as SUSANNE SUNDFØR’s music career was taking off, her personal life went into meltdown, as she tells NEIL MCCORMICK…
“I went a little bit insane,” says Susanne Sundfør, contemplating the aftermath of her acclaimed 2015 album Ten Love Songs. “I don’t want to give you details. But I wasn’t myself.”
Sundfør, a thirty-one-year-old singer-songwriter, is a huge star in her native Norway, where three of her four studio albums have reached number one. She’s a classically trained pianist but her complex, inventive music embraces folk, jazz and electronica. “Pop music is smart, it’s like doing maths,” she says. “It all needs to add up.”
Introspective and musically rich, the self-produced Ten Love Songs combined dance beats with glittering digital synthesisers and forged surprising points of contact between ABBA, Taylor Swift, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead and Mozart. It brought Sundfør to international attention, but just at the moment of her greatest success, it seems her private world was falling apart.
“I got exhausted from all the work,” she says in precise, lightly accented English. “I took too much on, producing it myself. I was drinking and smoking and destroying my voice, so that didn’t help. And yes, I went through some bad relationships, some heartbreaks, and personal issues that I’ve been struggling with for decades, and it culminated in a nervous breakdown.”
” I went through some bad relationships, some heartbreaks, and personal issues that I’ve been struggling with for decades, and it culminated in a nervous breakdown.”
Sundfør shrugs, as if to suggest that is just the way things go. “I’m a very emotional person, and things that happen around me, I soak up. But it came to a crisis. The aftermath of so much emotional turmoil was depression, and it was the first time it happened to me. Your body can’t take it any more, so it just shuts off for a while. Nothing excited me. I didn’t feel like eating. I just didn’t want to do anything.”
It was while in this state that Sundfør made a start on her strange and beautiful new album, Music For People In Trouble, out next Friday. She says the songs for it “just came out of me” with an ease she hadn’t experienced since writing her self-titled debut album, aged nineteen. “It is like when you remove everything, there weren’t any boundaries. I was a tabula rasa, you know, a blank slate.”
In writing, she found a refuge from her depression. She had moved from Oslo to east London in 2015 (she has since moved back), where she wrote most of her songs “in bed in Dalston, looking at foxes pooing in the garden.” She laughs, awkwardly. “I’m sorry, but it’s true. Foxes were trashing my garden. I had a little shed out there, with some synthesisers, microphones, my computer and a guitar. And spiders. Lots of spiders.”
She completed the recording last year in Bergen, working with producer Jørgen Træen, who had previously produced her 2012 album, The Silicone Veil. “I decided not to try and do everything myself this time,” she says, “which was a very good idea.”
Music For People in Trouble represents an almost complete about-turn from the shiny commercialism of Ten Love Songs. Intimate and understated, it is structured around Sundfør’s acoustic guitar and her high, plangent voice. “I was tired of technology,” she explains. “I wanted to feel like I was a musician again. But also, what I wanted to say needed something organic to convey it .”
“I was tired of technology. I wanted to feel like I was a musician again. But also, what I wanted to say needed something organic to convey it .”
The subject matter is dark, conflating a destructive personal relationship with climate change. “And when the nights are cool and strange and all the birds are gone/ And all the oil’s been spilt and left us on this earth alone,” she sings on the spooky meditative Bedtime Story. “I’ll think about the time you reassured me you were mine/ Oh what is love but a frail little dream catcher?”
At times things get extraordinarily bleak. There’s a mournful piano ballad entitled No One Believes in Love Anymore, and an eight-minute, synth-heavy number called The Sound of War. Meanwhile, the gorgeous first single, Undercover, opens with the devastating statement: “Don’t trust the ones who love you… they’ll always disappoint you.” Sundfør laughs uneasily when I question the pessimism of that line. “I have a lot of love in my life, but I have been let down and disappointed, like a lot of people,” she says. “What I’m trying to do on this album is to give nature some sort of spirit… there’s comfort in that because you’re part of something much bigger. With that perspective, being dumped isn’t that big a deal any more.”
Although Sundfør’s manner is calm and self-contained, she laughs often- apologetic, self-mocking and perfectly aware of how dark she can sound. In her defence, she notes that she comes from a country where Leonard Cohen sells more records than Madonna, and the bestseller charts are dominated by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s microscopic examination of his internal life, told in five volumes. “We want art to be honest, and I think that is a very moral thing in Norway,” she says. “It’s like: ‘Here’s mine, with all my dirty laundry.’ I’m shaped by it too.”
Sundfør says she was inspired by the American poet Robert Bly’s 1980 anthology News of the Universe, in which, drawing on the poetry of Rilke and Goethe, he explores the idea of a larger-than-human consciousness operating in nature. “Thinking about nature as an organism, something alive, gives you a calmness about the state of the world,” she says.
She travelled extensively when making the album, visiting China, Nepal, Guatemala, Iceland and even North Korea. “I wanted to visit places that are very different to my home, and see nature that might disappear in a few decades,” she says. “Most of all I wanted to stop sulking and start looking outwards, meet interesting people and cultures.”
When I ask her about the thinking behind the new album’s title Sundfør laughs. “Everybody’s got issues. We are all insane.” Then she considers the question more seriously. “It’s not a political album, and it’s not therapy. It’s music that you can listen to to hear somebody else is thinking the things you’re thinking. We’re killing our planet. You can engage politically- join Greenpeace- but at the same time you can still feel really sad and scared and appalled. This album is about trying to find a way to stay sane and calm.”
SUSANNE SUNDFØR is a Norwegian singer-songwriter. Her fifth studio album, Music for People in Trouble, is out now on Bella Union.
NEIL MCCORMICK writes for The Telegraph.