Ah, Scandinavia, with its sprawling landscapes of sculpted beauty, population of more than averagely good-looking humans and endless well of amazing musicians. Can it do no wrong? Well, here’s the rub: it looks as though it can’t. Without necessarily setting out to do so, this corner of Northern Europe has become somewhat of a leader when it comes to electro-pop. With an added bonus of nonchalance and effortlessness to the sound, there is an unmistakable quality to the music continuously emerging from this region. Singer-songwriter, Sandra Kolstad, is its latest export. When I put my ‘Scandinavians Do It Better’ tenet to her, however, the Norwegian popstrel is a bit baffled by it. “I think the Scandinavian pop scene looks more homogenous from the outside than the inside”, she says. “At the same time, living outside of Norway, in Berlin, I do see there is a certain sound coming from the North. It’s very interesting, but I guess more for an anthropologist than for me”.
Taking to the piano at the age of 6, Kolstad felt a natural draw to music. “Neither my father nor my mother ever asked me to start playing anything”, she says. “I just got this idea in my head that I had to play the piano. Looking back, I don’t have the faintest clue why. My great grandmother, Elise, bought me a cheap, white piano, on the one condition that I would play her Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ before she died. Since then I have been playing and making music all the time”.
In 2009 Kolstad released an EP titled All That We Are but her big break in Norway came last year, after an extensive tour of the live circuit. “I think that is a very nice and important way of establishing your music, through performing it directly to people”, she tells me. In April 2011 the hard work finally paid off, with the release of her first album, CRUX, on Nordic shores. And now it’s time to conquer the rest of the world. To do so, Kolstad is armed not only with her assured debut but also with its follow-up, (Nothing Lasts) Forever, which is released this week.
On this record, Kolstad positions herself comfortably somewhere between Karin Dreijer Andersson, Bertine Zetlitz and fellow Berlin-dwelling Norwegian, Annie, if you find these sort of reference points useful. The album’s heralding single, ‘The Well (We Will Change It All)’, is a good Try-Before-You-Buy indication of what you can expect. Some of Kolstad’s vocal inflections have a delightful whiff of Grace Jones about them and the chorus sticks in your head all too quickly.
“The album is about change”, Kolstad says. “How people react and relate to change, whether it appears in ourselves, in our close relations, in our societies, etc. Water was my inspiration both for the making of music and lyrics. I wanted the record to reflect the fluidity, the flexibility of water. Water is a heavy symbol: Life, death, the unconscious, changing between ice, water, fog, changing the surface of the earth… I think it’s both a dark and a very optimistic album. For me the everlasting change is one of the disturbing things in life. At the same time it’s very beautiful. I wanted to explore this ambiguity”.
Kolstad produced (Nothing Lasts) Forever with Swedish jazz musician and composer, Petter Eldh. There are also a couple of collaborations on the album, which Kolstad is rather excited about. “I did some duets on the record: one with Norwegian hip-hop legend, Son Of Light, one with techno duo, Bloksberg, and one with the amazing English-born Norwegian singer, Lucy Swann. CRUX was made by very few people so I wanted to include more people in the process this time”, she explains. I ask whether the process she refer to was a long one. “In total, I spent a year making this record, from September last year”, she says. “I was living all alone in an old house by the ocean, on the Norwegian west coast, for four months, composing the record. That was a wonderful time. I would say the recordings were quite demanding. But then again, I often feel that making music is hard work”, she states.
I wonder whether, having originally trained as a classical musician, there was ever a temptation for Kolstad to go down the ‘girl and a piano route’ with her music. “I started out recording a couple of songs for voice and piano”, she says. “The piano was always my main instrument and I think it just felt very natural to incorporate the instrument into my first works. But I was never happy with the sound, so I had to do something else. I started working with electronics and found something interesting there. Now I think I am slowly returning to acoustics again. My father used to run a record store in Oslo and I grew up listening to progressive music and space rock like Captain Beefheart, Hawkwind and Gong. Playing classical piano, I also listened to classical music. Living in that old house by the ocean where I composed the album, I only bought two records: Little Dragon’s Ritual Union and PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. I listened to them a lot”.
Does she have a favourite track on (Nothing Lasts) Forever? “It changes”, she says. “But at the moment I am very happy about my duet with Son Of Light”. The song she is referring to, ‘Do The Dive (Gravity Animals)’, is certainly a highlight on the album. You can imagine dancing to it in a very dark club, putting a beer-drenched sticky dancefloor to good use.
I ask Kolstad how she is finding the international promo load that comes with trying to break new territories. She seems to be enjoying it. “Alongside playing concerts in Norway, I have always been eager to go abroad and play”, she reveals. “So I have played many shows in Europe, like Germany, France, Sweden, and so on. I think my focus is just to try continue doing that, on a larger scale, and working with really good people on the booking and promo side”.
Hitting London’s Nordic club night, Ja Ja Ja, at the Lexington on Thursday, Kolstad will bring this promo tour to the UK, showcasing tracks from the new album. But what can new audiences expect from a typical Sandra Kolstad show? Well, perhaps ‘typical’ is not the right word here. “My live shows change, that’s what I like about them”, she offers. “Sometimes I want to have a body-builder on stage. Sometimes I work with a video artist. Sometimes a light designer. Sometimes it is just me. I never do something just to ‘do something’. Anything can happen, really. That’s the only thing one can expect”. Is she excited about coming back to London? “I love London”, she says. “My family used to travel there all the time, for my father, the record store owner, to buy records and for my mother, who is a designer, to go vintage shopping. Me and my brother would just soak in the vibe of a much bigger city than our home town, Oslo. I also hear that the Ja Ja Ja Club is an amazing event, so we are very set for this gig”.
Finally, is international acclaim important to her? Ask a silly question and all that: “All acclaim is important to me”, she states resolutely.