Saturday, 9 February 2013

Interview: Lucky Lips (Norway)

I wrote about Norwegian bluegrass act Lucky Lips back in January. After they scored the wildcard and became the tenth and final act in the final of Norway's Melodi Grand Prix, I got in touch with lead singer Malin Pettersen to chat about their experiences in the competition, their music and how it feels to write country music when you're not from the US.

Firstly, I have to ask – where does the name Lucky Lips come from?

I wish we had a great story to tell here, but I am afraid it's not very exciting. When our friends come with us to gigs and people ask, they often tell epic stories of how our first gigs were in Africa and that there were flamingos everywhere around while we played. I am afraid that's not true, though we wish it were. But it is indeed a bit of a mystery how we got our name, because no one really seems to know. It was decided some six or seven years ago by the girls who started the band and who are no longer in it. I will be sure to get the story right the next time I talk to them.

How did your participation in MGP come about? Did you submit a song, or were you invited to compete by Vivi Stenberg [the contest organiser]?

We were asked to compete, and we are very thankful for that. We said yes on the grounds that we could do it our way and Vivi and the rest of the team has been so kind as to let us.

Tell us about your experiences in Larvik on Saturday night [in the Melodi Grand Prix semi-final]. How did it feel being up on that big stage in front of Norway and viewers online from all over the world? And were you very disappointed not to come among the top three?

MGP has been one of the most, if not the most, exciting and fun things we have ever been a part of. And Larvik city, all of the people watching and voting, in the audience and at home, and the team around us is to be thanked for that. Standing on that stage we felt so comfortable, so at home, because the crowd there really made a nice and warm atmosphere. A big production like this is something we have never been a part of before and I could feel the excitement in my blood as we walked up on stage. But when we came up the audience made us remember: This is what we do, this is what we love! Playing for people, making contact with them, communicating. So when the amazing crowd started clapping we felt right at home.

Even though we didn't reach top three that night we felt like we had won it all. We knew that we had, then and there, shown our music to so many people who had never heard us, or heard of us, before. We were proud of our performance and most of all extremely thankful to all of the people who voted and who showed their support afterwards and in the days before. To us it was an adventure, and of course we didn't want it to end, but most of all we were humble for the opportunity we had been given by Vivi and the rest of the team.

I've read on NRK’s website that Vivi Stenberg came round to your house to tell you that you’d received the wildcard. How did that feel?

It was crazy! We were quite tired, and full of happiness, from the night before and had just gotten home from Larvik. We felt like we had won everything by just being a part of this experience. But when NRK came in with flowers and champagne and Vivi said; "Congratulations with getting the wildcard!", I couldn't stop myself from screaming "Yes, yes, yes, yes!!" I ran into the livingroom to the rest of Lucky Lips and we all started laughing and saying "Thank you!" "Is it true!?" and couldn't believe what we had just heard. Then the camera team and the press had to interview a very happy Lucky Lips and try to get some sense out of four (Stian couldn't be there) very happy people high on adrenaline. Erlend's girlfriend had baked as well, not knowing they would get the press on their door. But I think the press were quite happy about that.

Do you have any favourites among the other songs competing? Who do you see as your biggest competition?

I think it's hard to pick out a specific favourite as the songs and the artists are so different. We have some songs that we secretly play on our instruments backstage, but I'll tell you who they are when Saturday has come and gone ;).

You started your career in the Norwegian Idol show. Is Melodi Grand Prix very different to your experiences on Idol? It sounds like you've changed your style a lot since then...

I think it's hard to compare the two as I was in such a different "place" when I was in Idol. 16 years old, just started trying to get a career on the move and so on. And I know people seem to think that I have changed a lot since then, but personally I don't feel that way. I guess I have changed in all of the ways by which people normaly change from 16 to 24 - a bit more experience, a little harder to confuse with promises of gold and silver, and a little more life-wisdom to build my songs around (though I am perfectly sure there is still a lot to learn). And hopefully I have evolved as a singer as I work very hard at that.

One thing I know is that even if I was confused sometimes in that period of where my way should go, I was determined to make, play and breathe music. Just as I am now. I was into country back then as well and my first real gig was with my dad at a Norwegian Country festival at Vinstra. And I learned a lot from Idol, just as I have from being a part of MGP. But of course, this time I'm in a band. I play my own songs. And I get to do it with the most amazing guys you could ever imagine!

I have to say that I particularly love the honesty in the lyrics to your song 'Mountain Dust'. The lyrics to your songs generally sound very personal. Would you say that's an accurate assessment? And on that topic, is 'Sweet and Heavy' written about any one person in particular?

I would definitely say that is an accurate assessment. 'Mountain Dust' is a very special song to me as I wrote it to convince myself I was allowed to write and sing country and bluegrass music even if I weren't from the US. I remember writing it and it felt like a very personal moment.

I write because I have to, not always because I want to. If I didn't write I would be a mess. That's the main rule at least. Sometimes though I might want to write so bad, but not have anything to write about. And when I write in those periods the songs might not seem so personal in the beginning, more like little poems where I try out different rhymes, try to tell stories or even just try to write for the sake of writing. But when I start to sing them, find a melody, arrange it with the rest of the band, it always ends up becoming personal. I also draw a lot of inspiration from the songs of Stian and Erlend. 'Sweet and Heavy' might be about someone in my life but I hope, and want, people who like it picture the person they love when they hear it. It is about unpretentious love that is true but seems too good to be.

Can you tell us a little about the country and bluegrass scene in Norway?

It is growing! That's for sure! New festivals for this type of music is popping up and young musicians are picking up their banjos and guitars. There are great bluegrass bands like Earlybird String Band, Boxcar Rental, Sweet Marie and Ila Auto, just to name very few. And great country bands like A-11 and Hellbillies. We also see more bands traveling abroad to visit the scenes in Europe, and some even in the US. Other established musicians are also starting to bring in elements of the genres making it more known to their listeners. We are also lucky to have had bands like Christiania Fusel & Blaagress, from the late 60's/70's, inspiring people today. If you travel out of the big cities of Norway in the summertime you can be sure to catch a country band at most festivals you pass. A lot of them sing in Norwegian and in their own dialect, making them very popular.

Who are your inspirations in the world of country and bluegrass music? What are your favourite songs by these artists?

We in Lucky Lips are big fans of both new, old, traditional and contemporary variations in both these genres. It is hard to pick out only a few. We are big, big fans of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. As well as Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott, Buck Owens, Hank Williams, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Neil Young and... well, you get the drift.

Favourite songs is even harder! But we do love Buck Owens' 'Crying Time', Tim [O'Brien] and [Darrell] Scott's 'Five Rooms' and Gillian and Dave's 'I want to sing that rock and roll' just to name a few.

What are your plans for the rest of 2013? I see you’re off to Texas in March...

After MGP we will play at a big music happening in Oslo called By:Larm. Both brand new and more established bands and artists play here to make themselves known to the audience and the people in the business. As well as concerts there are also great people from the industry giving talks on different parts of the industry. And then, yes, we are going on our first tour in the US. We are so excited we can hardly hold it together. Our great friends in Austin have helped us book and plan the tour so all we have to do is rent a car and start driving. We will, amongst other places, play the legendary Continental Club in Austin with our great friends The Carper Family and Brennen Leigh on March 28th and Full Moon Barn Dance during SXSW. I could talk about this for days!

When we come home I suspect we'll be prepping up for the summer season with new songs and inspired hearts. Our goal this summer is to play as much as we possibly can! Then there is studio work that we are definitely looking forward to!

Thank you to Malin for making this interview possible. You can watch the video for 'Sweet and Heavy' below, and find out more about the band on their website.

Originally published in a slightly different version at ESC Nation.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Artist profile: Lucky Lips (Norway)

When I heard that one of the acts in Norway's Melodi Grand Prix, the country's selection for the Eurovision Song Contest, would be a bluegrass act, I had to check them out.

Lucky Lips describe themselves as "a rootsy acoustic band, consisting of four guys and a songbird". They play roots and Americana inspired music, in what Norwegian broadcaster NRK calls "the borderlands between country, bluegrass and pop".

Lucky Lips

Their most recent album, Mountain Dust, published in 2012, certainly strays closer to the bluegrass and country end of that sphere than the pop, their music full of tight harmonies with banjo and mandolin featuring heavily in the arrangements. Those who don't speak Norwegian will be happy to learn that they sing almost exclusively in English, thankfully with barely the trace of an accent - indeed, Dagbladet describes lead singer Malin Pettersen as "realising she was born in the wrong place", and she announces as such in the title track from the album:
Oh, how I wish I was a mountain girl (...)
But I guess I was born where my soul belongs
Not high up in the mountains
But I'll sing those mountain songs.
Pettersen is the main songwriter of the band, having written nine of the album's thirteen tracks. She certainly shows a keen understanding of the bluegrass genre, with a surprising lyrical finesse that fits right into the scene and belies her background - she first came to fame finishing 9th on the third season of Norwegian Idol.

In 2011, the band had the honour of being presented with the prestigious #1 European Bluegrass Band 2011 Award at the European World of Bluegrass Festival (EWOB) in the Netherlands, the first time a Norwegian act has received the award. In February they will play two dates in Oslo as part of the by:Larm festival, followed by two further dates at the end of March in Austin, Texas.

If you have Spotify you can listen to their album Mountain Dust below (check out in particular 'A Man Like You', 'Daddys Lament' and the title track), or you can see some of their performances on their Youtube channel. Their MGP song, 'Sweet and Heavy', is also on Spotify.

Official website

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Artist profile: Hanne Sørvaag (Norway)

If you liked the direction Jewel’s been taking with her recent country releases, but wished they were just a bit, you know, better, then Norwegian singer Hanne Sørvaag’s new album might be just the thing for you.

Sørvaag has been active on the Norwegian music scene for a number of years, but has only recently started to move into country music. She’s also a successful songwriter; her most familiar song to many Americans will probably be ‘My Destiny’, which was butchered by Katherine McPhee in the final of American Idol in 2006.

In 2011 she took part in Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix, reaching the final with ’You’re Like a Melody’, which at the time I described as the kind of song that would fit right in on contemporary country radio. The year before she wrote the competition winner, ’My Heart Is Yours’, arranged as a big ballad for Didrik Solli-Tangen, but interpreted by Sørvaag herself on her album in a much more intimate form, with tones reminiscent of Dolly Parton’s gentler moments.

Last year, as well as winning Skal vi danse, the Norwegian version of Dancing With the Stars/Strictly Come Dancing, Sørvaag released her fourth album, All Is Forgiven, her first truly country release. Recorded in Nashville in collaboration with several Music City songwriters, and produced by Jørn Dahl, the Norwegian behind Kurt Nilsen’s excellent Rise to the Occasion from 2008, the album has received critical acclaim and climbed to the 14th position on the Norwegian chart.

Among the best songs are ‘I Hope I Dream’, a delicate rumination on what we achieve in life sung in a duet with Tobias Stenkjær, and ‘Something About a Song’, a natural successor to ‘You’re Like a Melody’, which has a beautiful, thoughtful mood conveyed through both the simple arrangement and the honesty in the lyrics – there’s something that everyone will be able to identify with in this song.

The lead single from the album was the pop-country ‘Days That End With Y’, which brightens up a slightly tired lyrical trick with a bright, breezy arrangement and genuinely wistful vocal.

If you have Spotify, you should be able to listen to the full album below:

Monday, 13 August 2012

Artist profile - Jill Johnson (Sweden)

Jill Johnson is a country music singer from Sweden, who represented her homeland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998 in Birmingham with the song 'Kärleken är', placing a respectable 10th. Her career since then has gone from strength to strength, culminating in the release of a second greatest hits package in 2010 and a #1 album at the end of last year. Throughout this entry you can click the links to listen to songs on YouTube or Spotify.

In contrast to her Eurovision entry, much of Johnson's music slots neatly into the genre of contemporary country.

Her first release, in 1995, was a cover of 'Shake the Sugartree', a hit for American singer Pam Tillis three years previously. Somewhat bizarrely, the accompanying album included a cover of 'As Dreams Go By', which placed second in the 1992 UK Song for Europe. It was her win in Melodifestivalen 1998 however which moved her into the mainstream, along with the album 'När hela världen ser på', Johnson's only collection in Swedish.

After two more moderately successful albums, but no hits on the Swedish singles charts, it took a second participation in Melodifestivalen to lift Johnson to the next level. By 2003, as we all know, Melodifestivalen had become one of Sweden's most-watched TV shows, and although 'Crazy In Love' only placed 4th in the final, the song was a hit and was accompanied by the platinum-selling compilation 'Discography, 1996-2003'.

Johnson's subsequent albums have been generally well-received, both by critics and the Swedish public. Much of her work has been recorded in Nashville, where she worked with well-known country songwriters like Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and wouldn't sound out of place on today's US country radio. No attempt has been made to launch Johnson in the US though - probably a wise move when you consider that America certainly has enough country singers of its own without looking beyond its borders. And it certainly didn't work out for fellow Swedish country act Calaisa. As well as original material, Johnson has also paid homage to her own favourite classic country artists with two 'Music Row' collections.

As well as her successful recording career, Johnson tours frequently around Sweden, presenting both her regular material and 'Jill Johnsons jul', a celebration of Christmas music that has become a fixture of Swedish TV during the festive period. After a stint supporting Toby Keith on his European tour, Johnson's most recently been spotted on Swedish TV helping Lionel Richie promote his country album 'Tuskegee', with features a duet between Richie and Johnson on a re-interpretation of the Commodores hit 'Sail On'.

Her most recent album, 'Flirting with Disaster', was released in October 2011, and immediately topped the Swedish album charts. In One Piece is taken from that album.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Reba McEntire - one from each decade

When I started writing this entry, I was originally going to go for my Top 5 Reba songs, but then I realised that there's just so many that I had no idea where to begin. So, to make it a little more interesting, and to celebrate her long career, here's my favourite song from each of Reba's decades, from the '70s to the '10s.

Glad I Waited Just For You

The seventies isn't really the golden age of McEntire's career, with just two albums of material to select from. Her debut, self-titled album is surprisingly strong, if not particularly reflective of her later style, and I really like this simple, understated declaration of love, and the satisfaction that comes from finally having found The One. And yes, the instrumentation is eerily reminiscent of 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head'.

Whoever's In New England

The lead single from McEntire's successful breakout album, My Kind of Country, 'Whoever's In New England' takes the perspective of a devoted wife who knows that her husband is cheating on her in his frequent business trips, yet swears to stand by him, and to be there for him 'when whoever's in New England's through with you'. It's extremely touching, and McEntire's sympathetic yet dignified performance is largely responsible for that.

For My Broken Heart

A very difficult decade to choose just one song, but eventually I settled on this, the title track from her 1991 album, the best of her career. The narrator is emotionally recovering after helping her lover to load up the car and leave her, and slowly realises that the world around her is carrying on and so she must too. Like many of Reba's best songs, it's heartbreaking in its everyday, mundane detail and its reflection of real, human, adult emotion.

Every Other Weekend

Narrated from the perspective of both halves of a divorced couple, this is a touching account of their feelings as they share custody of their children. Once again, it's all about the details - the loneliness of the mother when her children are away ("nothing to do and all day not to do it in") and the father trying desperately to please his children ("'that's not the way mom does it, Dad.' It breaks my heart"). The characters are completely identifiable and oh-so-real, and Chesney and McEntire combine their best in a heartbreaking performance.

(Except the Kenny Chesney version isn't on YouTube, so here's the radio version with Skip Ewing)

If I Were A Boy

Probably not a popular choice, many critics disliked this pop cover from McEntire's most recent album, citing it as an example of her dumbing-down, not acting her age and not being country enough. I disagree. The first time I heard this song, I was struck by just how well it worked with McEntire's signature twang, and how well it transferred to the country genre.

One thing that struck me while I was researching and writing this post was just how detailed McEntire's songs are, and how real the characters are. As well as being a canny selector of songs, McEntire lives the characters, their thoughts and their emotions, and brings it all out with her authoritative, sympathetic interpretation that reflects her years, her experiences and her maturity. Those things are her strength, and I hope she never leaves them behind.