The personal is political
What does ownership mean? When we buy a record or stream it, watch a video, see an artist play live, when we read their lyrics…where does that leave us? We’ve spent money on this piece of music, we have access to them on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat. We’ve got a right to know as much as we can about this person or this band, they wanted to be in the limelight so they gotta play the game, right?
It’s a conclusion reinforced in the days after speaking to Ingrid Helene Håvik, singer, lyricist and star of Norwegian five-piece Highasakite. I speak to her in the days leading up to the release of the band’s stellar second album Camp Echo, the follow up to their debut Silent Treatment, a record which shot straight to number one in the band’s native Norway.
Camp Echo is a terrific pop record, full of high energy, aggressive and bright songs, each one a potential hit for a band who could quite easily be the biggest pop band in Europe and beyond. Alongside her band members Trond Bersu (drums, and alongside Havik a student of Trondheim’s jazz conservatory), keyboardist Marte Eberson, guitarist Kristoffer Lo and Oystein Skar on synths, they’ve made one of the pop albums of 2016.
Camp Echo has lyrics, which while being inspired by global terror and war, show Highasakite – and Håvik in particular – as beset by personal turmoil, loneliness and darkness. And it’s not like it’s subjective, particularly. I can’t remember a record with more “I” than this, or a record with more explicit references to being alone, or wrists, scars, needles, getting high, getting out.
And here’s where my frustration lay, initially, in the aftermath of speaking to the complex Håvik. I try to gain entry to her world from various angles: take it from the wider perspective of global events. Not much. Talk about her home country and its place in the world. A little more. Try to get her to talk about how personal and dark the lyrics are. It comes in drips, not a flow.
Yet as the days go by, I start to accept Håvik’s reticence. Why should she talk to me about her innermost turmoil – it’s there in black and white in the lyrics, why go over it again. I understand that someone can be guarded. I’ve not done a single interview where I’ve not been completely wracked with nerves and lacking in confidence beforehand. Talking isn’t my thing, so it doesn’t have to be Håvik’s either. We’ve all seen how the industry can break people, so fuck us – let them do their thing, we’ll do ours. And we’ll occasionally meet in the middle.
Camp Echo refers to one of the seven detention camps on Guantanamo Bay run by the US military, set up in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq war. It’s a place used mainly for solitary confinement, a room eight feet by ten with no windows. It sounds like a nightmare made real, and its isolation is reflected in the album’s lyrics on a number of occasions.
Yet the camp was not the main motivation for the album’s birth. “I think 22nd July  maybe triggered it a bit,” says Håvik. “I hadn’t always wanted to go about writing something like this. The record’s name, Camp Echo, we decided on before we started recording at all so I knew what it [Camp Echo] was going to be like a little bit.” The title meaning is (more than) twofold, though, as any person who has Googled the words “camp echo” has discovered. Håvik explains “the place is like this concentration camp, or detention camp…but it’s also like a teen camp, you know…a summer camp in the US. And the ‘echo’ name is sort of musical. I liked the weird balance between the two…it’s really deranged and dark but at the same time it’s also a summer camp!”
If you don’t know what the date 22 July means, it was the day in 2011 when Anders Breivik killed 77 people in two terror attacks in Oslo and Utøya island. Ten years on from the terrorist attacks in New York, it shook Norway to its very core. Håvik explains the way her country reacted in contrast to the aftermath of the 2001 attacks which resulted in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It couldn’t be more stark.
"I don’t see any need for addressing myself in a flattering way. I want to be honest both as a person and as an artist"
“I felt like the country came together, for sure,” she begins. “It was hard work in the weeks after. Everyone was being very warm towards each other….not wanting this to make racism blossom and trying to make sure Norway remained open towards other cultures. He [Breivik] obviously didn’t want a multicultural society. But before we knew who it was, I think everyone thought it was Al-Qaida or something, and in the hours before we knew it was really tense and angry. When we found out that it was a white guy, everyone was ashamed. Well, not everyone, obviously.”
It’s interesting to note that Håvik felt the country came together at this time in 2011, given the isolation and loneliness present in the lyrics of Camp Echo. The record’s centrepiece, the beautiful PTSD ballad “God Don’t Leave Me” finds Håvik singing “I panic in my bedroom half asleep” and “if only but a second of your time” alone in her room, anxious and lost – the last resort is turning to a God she doesn’t even believe in. There’s a reference to “the last summer”, perhaps the July of the Breivik attacks, and it also shares a contemplation of the existence of God with a poem by pre-and-post WW2 Norwegian poetess Gunvor Hofmo, whose work “There Is No More Life” came to prominence again during the summer of 2011.
The first line, “God, if you’re still watching” actually appears in “Golden Ticket” – another song focusing on trying to escape loneliness – and Håvik says of Hofmo’s work and her own lyrics “It has the same void and same voyage, kind of. It’s a very famous poem; on our national day people perform it. When the terrorist attack happened, I remember it was on TV, always showing up somewhere.”
I say to Håvik that Hofmo was also a person who suffered personal loss in the aftermath of WW2, with her close friend being taken by the Nazis to a concentration camp. While I’m not comparing the type of loss, I suggest that there’s more to the use of Hofmo than is hinted at in the press for the album…does Havik see parallels in the way both her and Hofmo express loneliness and loss… “I don’t really know that much about her, but that’s an interesting observation.” It’s a short and frustrating reply, and I try again saying that there’s often a close-to-overwhelming darkness to Havik’s lyrics that’s also in Hofmo’s poems. Take that “a needle is a shitty way to leave” line in “God Don’t Leave Me” or the one-two punch of “I’m obnoxious…I’m not loving” in “Samurai Swords”; there’s evocative, stark and startling imagery at every turn on Camp Echo…
““It’s really sad when you say it like this!” says Håvik with a laugh. “I think you’re right, though. The album is absolutely about loneliness, being this ‘me me me me’. It’s about how do I feel and how do I see things, how does the world look from my point of view. Looking at the lyrics I wrote, I’m not looking at it from a very positive angle…”
Håvik could not be more right. At almost every turn, she sings of a bleak outlook whether that be from a personal perspective or a global one. On “My Name Is Liar”, inspired by George W Bush’s speech after the World Trade Centre attacks, the infamous "War on Terror" monologue, she takes the theme of someone who is bending the truth and applies it to the war at home, singing “my name is sorrow, and I’m sharing sheets with shame…I have no sense of honour and I am not the one to blame”. It’s one part political comment, one part personal. But of course, the personal is political.
"I feel unsafe when people in power want to meet violence with violence"
“Yeah, I think I am expressing that,” agrees Håvik. “I’m also not really a fan of describing myself as a good person. It’s more about describing my dark sides…for some reason I’m more comfortable with that than making myself look good.” Now in something of a flow and willing to talk about herself, Havik continues: “I don’t see any need for addressing myself in a flattering way. I want to be honest both as a person and as an artist.” As for Camp Echo’s solitary confinement being reflected in Håvik's own loneliness, she admits this was a factor in what she was writing about, saying “I think that I am always alone while writing songs. It’s important to get into the right mood for me, normally with no one disturbing or affecting my mood except for myself and the weather. I was a single lady at that time as well…I had some time to be ego-trippin’!” she laughs
As for the “I” which dominates the likes of “Samurai Swords”, Håvik agrees the use was completely deliberate. “I think that’s more fun. I’ve not been writing much about ‘he and she’ or ‘you and me’,” she says. “I dunno why, but it feels closer and more natural to me this way. I find it soothing but I also feel like I’m posing, and painting a picture of me…and I needed to use ‘I’.”
Håvik doesn’t expand too much on being single at the time of writing, and she doesn’t need to. It’s there in the song titles “My Mind Is A Bad Neighbourhood” (a song inspired by the words of an Iraq war veteran) and the high-energy pop banger – contrary to the darkness in the lyrics – “I Am My Own Disease”. So we turn to the more global concerns we started with, and the reaction of Norway to the Utøya attack.
“It’s not necessarily about global things, it’s more inspired by it,” says Håvik of Camp Echo. “It’s more about me, and describing my state of mind, my way of living, my way of thinking….I am the one on this earth, observing, and this is what I’m telling it through. It’s subjective, you know. So it has to be me, and what I see, and my observations.” Håvik tells me a bit more about the mood of the country in the wake of Breivik’s actions. “I remember our Prime Minister wanted us all to be on neighbourhood watch,” she begins, “especially on the internet…because that’s where it often starts. If you’re alone and your only influence is the internet then you’re more likely to get radicalised.”
We compare the reaction of Norway’s Prime Minister at the time, Jens Stoltenberg, to that of George W Bush’s following the 9/11 attacks. While Håvik reminds me that “My Name Is Liar” is not literally about Bush, she is explicit in her appreciation for her PM at the time: “I was very proud of the way he reacted and I was very grateful that he reacted with so much love and calm. He made us feel safe again.”
"We are the first generation to think that the future isn’t going to be very positive"
Håvik continues: “I dunno how other people feel but I feel unsafe when people in power want to meet violence with violence, because that lasts forever and it’s not a good way to find a solution. Look at how the French Prime Minister reacted…that scared me. Obviously people have been hurt and they’re scared and they want their leader to be harsh but at the same time I’m really happy with how our PM reacted.”
Since the time of our conversation, the UK has voted to leave the EU and Håvik comes from a country which remains outside of the EU and indeed voted against joining. In an uncertain world, Havik expresses pride with her home and how it has dealt with everything that’s been thrown at it since 2001: “I love Norway, and I feel very lucky to be a Norwegian. Sometimes I feel positive about the world, and sometimes I don’t. Being a Norwegian, I think we mostly feel very safe and lucky. I don’t go around dealing with terrorism every day.”
But Håvik, who is in her late twenties, is in the position like with the majority of her western peers of having grown up and gone through their teenage years with one global event after another following decades of peace time. “I’ve heard before that we are the first generation to think that the future isn’t going to be very positive,” she says with a resigned note. “People who grew up in the 90s were like ‘oh the economy will grow’ and are looking ahead and upwards, but when this happened in 2001 I was 13 and things weren’t looking that positive anymore. All of a sudden how I saw everything had shifted…it was my first meeting with the dark side of the world, and suddenly these things weren’t only happening in places you’d never heard of before, it was here in western society.”
The isolation and that dark side of the world which pervades every line of Camp Echo comes in part from being let down; while “My Name Is Liar” takes its cues from the events that led up to the Iraq war and the lies spun by some of the most powerful men in the world, it’s Håvik who appears to take the role of the liar. Whether that’s lying to herself or to another, there’s a manifest feeling of disappointment that’s spilling over into disillusionment. I ask if losing trust in politicians or those meant to be making big decisions for us has an effect on who we can trust on a day to day level, on a personal basis. “No I haven’t really thought about if I have trust issues,” says Havik, again perhaps contradicting the evidence in her lyrics. “I think a lot of us feel very powerless because we can’t trust people in power…like, you can vote for a good person but they have to go through so much to get there and that might affect them. It just feels like people are powerless; you’re updating your Facebook status and that’s your contribution to things. And maybe that’s okay because we don’t really know what else to do…no-one goes out into the streets and demonstrates anymore, that much at least anyway. I feel like people are thinking that it’s useless to try and do something about things that aren’t right.”
I’ve perhaps been doing Håvikand Highasakite something of a disservice in playing up the “all hope is lost angle”. Camp Echo has a wide palette of musical emotion from the passion of “Samurai Swords”, through the intense electronic throb of “Someone Who’ll Get It” to the rave-up of “Deep Sea Diver” which contrasts against the deep murk of Håvik’s lyrics. But there’s something else at play: scan through lyrics and we can see “fire”, “blazing”, “fighter”, “unbreakable”, “bomb”….the singer is fighting. It might not be something which shines through as we talk, but Havik isn’t going to let this isolation and loneliness break her.
“I wanted to write more up-tempo songs this time because I wanted the album to be more electronic,” she explains. “There’s a kind of negative feeling but it’s up-tempo in terms of the music and how aggressive it is. Both reflect my state of mind and how I’ve been. It’s a portrait [of Håvik]...I don’t want to say this is how I’ve been because then it looks like I’ve been angry all the time…I’ve really not.
What she says next is key to Camp Echo: "We haven’t completely given up the ghost…we’re still fighting.” It’s hidden behind a wall as we talk, perhaps, but as I watch Havik on stage a few weeks later at The Great Escape it’s clear from the way she moves and the way she almost throws each line from her chest that there’s someone who’s living every note or line of this music, discarding a line at a time, show by show until the band are ready to move on to the next fight.
That attitude has taken the five members of Highasakite, from various parts of Norway, to the point where this summer they will headline the Friday night of their “hometown” festival, Øya, this summer. With a festival that includes PJ Harvey, Massive Attack, Jamie xx and New Order, it’s quite an achievement for Highasakite to usurp some of these acts to be the main draw as the festival heads into the weekend.
“Yes! We’re thinking about it the whole time!” exclaims Håvik. “What kind of lights will we have, is it going to be dark…we’re hoping it’s going to be dark to get everything out of the lights. This is our home town, and it’s kind of like graduation day!”
As our conversation draws to a close and my frustrations ebb and flow, Håvik once more briefly drops her guard and allows me to see the passionate, unbelievably talented, thoughtful and emotional - not to mention complicated - person behind Camp Echo. She’s completely effusive, almost bouncing as she ponders the headline slot: We have the biggest ambitions I know…we just aim for the sky!”
The sky, the stars, the moon – they are Highasakite’s for the taking.