Sitting on the rooftop of her home in Sandefjord, Norway - the sort of place you'd find featured on The World's Most Extraordinary Homes - Ina Wroldsen gestures out toward the fjords which come flowing up practically to her doorstep. Down there, her son William is having a sailing lesson in the hot May sunshine. The singer and song writer gets me to follow her gaze out to sea. "I mean, look around - it’s sooooo...how can you not get inspired?”
It's the Norwegian landscape which partly inspired Wroldsen's debut EP HEX. That view, which we're sharing from her rooftop 90 minutes south of Oslo, out to the sea and the surrounding mountains helped her write "Sea", the lead track from the her record. But there's two more major influences on Hex that come to the fore as we talk - fear, and folklore.
It's hard to believe that fear plays any part in the music of Ina Wroldsen. A few hours later the Norwegian is showing me her studio (all classic Scandinavian design, muted colours, classic but extremely and desirably modern) adorned with framed examples of the stellar song writing career she's had for the past ten years: Britney Spears, Shakira, Rag n Bone Man, James Arthur. Wroldsen has written or been involved in the song writing team for all these artists, and that's before we even mention The Saturdays, Little Mix, Leona Lewis and the voice you hear on Jax Jones' massive "Breathe" hit....an almost endless list of impeccable pop songs. So yeah, fear? It seems unlikely.
But fear is exactly what drove Wroldsen to start writing for herself, to make HEX before it was too late, before the song writing process diluted her true self away to nothing. A long time coming? Ten years would say yes, but Wroldsen isn't so sure.
“You know, that’s a question I get asked a lot and I struggle to answer it," says the singer. "The answer should always be: ‘YES’. But to be honest I was quite content being a writer for a long, long time….almost to the point where I denied that other Ina inside of me the opportunity to come out at all. When I tried to be an artist - and to be honest we all want to be artists, that’s how it starts - that girl who I was back then, I didn’t know how to deal with her. I was very narcissistic and I got confused about why I wanted to sing. Was it because I wanted to be famous, or was it because I was this person who just needed the attention all the time? I couldn’t make it out. So I decided that Ina needed to go away, to go and mature on her own somewhere.”
Wroldsen was just 22 when she chose the path of song writer instead of artist. In a world where Cathy Dennis and Diane Warren reign supreme, it seems a young age to have made that choice. “It is young, but I think it’s a different time now," explains Wroldsen of her decision. "There are a lot of young girls out there but it feels like they’re maybe of a different generation. Also, this is a different time in the industry and you don’t have to look a certain way anymore. When I started, everyone wanted the new Avril Lavigne. That was supposed to be me and I was constantly dieting...and I just didn’t like me. So for so many years I wrote suppressing that part of me, and then I came to this point where I wasn’t happy anymore. That was because I’m the most happy when I get to express myself - and I express myself the most through singing. Song writing is great, but it is a little bit like pouring water into your wine…..you know what I mean? You’re constantly diluting yourself and it just gives me so much to write about what I wanna write about.”
Wroldsen tells me that things happened almost by default. Having quit working in the USA and agreeing with her producers to try again in a year, she went home to Norway and enrolled in a history course. "But then my publisher said why don’t I try my hand at writing for others - I think he gave me something like £5000 and to me who hadn’t earned any money for five years that was like winning the lottery! So I tried and I liked it!”
“I think my problem back then was that I needed to mature in all ways," continues Wroldsen. "It wasn’t just my mind and my attitude, it was ‘who am I?’ I grew up mimicking other artists all the time; I had a Gwen Stefani era where I dressed up like her, I wanted to be Alanis Morisette, then it was Celine Dion….I probably didn’t have an identity. So being a song writer allowed me to try them all out.”
"Song writing is great, but it is a little bit like pouring water into your wine, you know what I mean? You’re constantly diluting yourself..."
In what appears often to be a masculine world (just check the list of song writers on some of your favourite pop songs, you'll find it's male-heavy) the young Wroldsen had to search to find people to look up to. “Absolutely, no there weren’t [a lot of women]!" she agrees with a laugh. "There was Cathy Dennis and Miranda Cooper, but it was unheard of for a twentysomething to give up on what she wanted to do. For me it was a massive relief, and I think it taught me a lot as well, you know. You get a lot of punches on the nose in this business, and it’s really taught me how to deal with things a lot better.” With youth on her side and no baggage from a career in pop, Wroldsen found herself at something of an advantage. "I think I was very naive and because I didn’t have insight through singing, it kind of was like learning on the job. That was to my benefit. It gave songs a naivety.”
What's striking about Wroldsen, as she talks a mile a minute in the sunshine with a glass of rose in hand, locking eyes with you throughout, is that for all the tales she must have from her days in the studio she doesn't - not once - indulge in gossipy tattle. I'm suggesting that Wroldsen must have benefitted as an artist from dropping into the song writing process at a variety of points, from working with just one other person to a group of four or five writers, and although she agrees she also points out some drawbacks: "You come to a level in song writing where everything is politics. You’re fighting over percentages all the time because you give away a song, two others are jumping on it and in the end you’re like ‘oh my god I’m not gonna earn any money from this’. In the end, everything is business but I still really love the art of music. I had to learn the business side of it, but when that takes over….I know some brilliant people who have let that take over and I just don’t know how good it is for you.”
This leads us into talking about "How Deep Is Your Love" That song, eventually credited to just Calvin Harris and Disciples, features Wroldsen's stirring and passionate voice at its core, gave the Norwegian a valuable lesson in the trials of the industry. Wroldsen's name is nowhere to be seen, and that's down to politics. I ask if she pushed for her name to stay on the track. “I mean, I asked," replies Wroldsen matter-of-factly. "But it was a decision. We asked for my name to be on there, and you know what? That wasn’t because I was interested in whatever it brought, it was because I wanted credit where credit was due! Sometimes I feel like I did myself and other young females in that situation a little disservice by not doing it. But it was purely a business decision. I knew if I said ‘no, you have to put my name on it’ he would have put Ellie Goulding on there, or Rihanna…..and you know, there’s more money to be made from me singing that song! It wasn’t really a big deal for me.”
Ina Wroldsen isn't one for regrets, though, and as we look back over her time as a writer she tells me “I’m a really firm believer in this: when you stand face to face with everything in your life, all of it is choice. And then, when you’ve made your choice there’s no point in standing by that door, you’ve shut it. Then you gotta walk on, cos that door is closed now. Now you gotta look for other doors. So no, I don’t have any regrets.”
She was part of the writing team for Little Mix's "DNA", Clean Bandit and Zara Larsson's "Symphony" and Jess Glynne's "Hold My Hand" so I try and get Wroldsen to pick a favourite track, one that pointed her towards the process of creating HEX. It proves hard for her to make that Sophie's Choice. "To be honest, these songs I’m writing right now, these feel more like my true children," she laughs. "I always wondered when people said stuff like ‘oh you’re giving away your babies’ about the songs, I never felt like that! But for the songs I’ve written for other people I guess my favourite is probably ‘Impossible’ because that was so real to me. I wrote that from a conversation I had with my mum, and it just sort of fell out. I think those are the songs that I like the most."
Although "Impossible" originally comes from 2010, written for Shontelle, Wroldsen cites it as something of a game-changer in terms of how she approached writing. "That was almost like a stepping stone, because I hear a lot of the old Saturdays songs and I just cringe!" again, Wroldsen bursts into laughter. "What is this lyric?! ‘Higher’ has [sings in robotic girl band voice] ‘I’m doing nothing / cos at least then i’m doing nothing wrong’.....what does this mean? I spent ten years doing that, and I’ve learned so much and met so many people. I feel like I’ve been able to evolve in the shadows, and that’s kind of rare in the music business.”
And so Wroldsen took that leap out on her own. "Two years ago I found myself seeping more and more into it, finding it was more like me," she explains. "I’m petrified of regretting anything in life - so I thought it was now or never. Either you give your sound away, or you try yourself. So here we are!”
HEX allows Wroldsen the chance to put in front of the listener a body of work that's truly her own and identifies her - initially at least - as a singer and writer of fantastic left-field pop music. From the wide-eyed floating electronica of "Sea" to the bassy, thunderous, opera-inspired "Remember Me", HEX is unpredictable but held together but the tenets of fear and folklore. It's a truly Nordic record.
"It was important that I didn’t compromise myself this time," says Wroldsen. "I understand what the radio wants and everything but I want the people interested in my music to know there’s a story behind everything. ‘Sea’, for instance, I wrote up here one night. I looked out there [Wroldsen points to the beautiful fjords and the hills which surround Sandefjord] and thought there’s something about that water….it’s almost scary how attracted I feel to it. It’s like a love. Everyone talks about love like it’s free. You’re not free when you love...and I love that. Then I thought why do I love it? I started thinking about the folklore, so every song has a character from Scandinavian folklore.”
Over the next hour get nerdy over history and myth ("Here, it’s Odin and Thor and Freyr and that’s how it’s been since we started out here believing in something"), ancestry ("I did a DNA test hoping there would be something interesting in there...but when you’re thoroughbred Scandinavian and you see, oooh, 20% of UK and it’s all based in the north. Yep, that’s the [viking] settlements!") and podcasts ("my mother - who I work with - was saying ‘Ina, you have way too much to do! Why are you doing podcasts?’ But I love it, it’s so relaxing and I can just geek out") and play guessing games over the characters she based the songs of HEX around. We begin with the manipulative sea-dwelling Nøkken.
"Everyone talks about love like it’s free. You’re not free when you love...and I love that."
"We were out camping, and I was swimming in this little lake," says Wroldsen of her first encounter with the Nøkken. "He’s not really a salt water creature, but my father told me about the Nøkken as we swam. There were some water lillies [known in Norway as Nøkkenrose] and he said ‘be careful, the Nøkken might get you’ and I was like, what? My father was always very good at making up stories, and after that I found a picture. This was in pre-internet times so I went to the library and found a book and saw a picture of him sitting in a lake. I was scared of him, I didn’t know how he would look other than knowing he played the fiddle….but he also looked so sad. He’s supposed to be a vengeful creature but he just looked really lonely to me.”
Wroldsen addresses her fear of failure and that feeling of being trapped in lyrics of "Sea". In a stirring pre-chorus she sings "I spent so long looking for a way / I could be part of another home / I tried so hard blocking out the waves / but my ocean heart never let it go"; it's as much about finally making that leap to being an artist as it is about leaving London and coming home to Norway (more of which shortly). The sea, like the tide endlessly rolling in and out, both attracts and repels Wroldsen. It signifies home, but it also signifies fear, and the fear of letting the Nøkken win.
"We have such an obsession with fear as human beings," says the Norwegian, with passion. "And then we want to put logic into fear….sometimes it isn’t logical and you just need to fear it and be careful around it. The ocean and the sea are one of those things.” Wroldsen continues: “I went to a psychologist when I was a kid. I had a lot of issues. One reason was that I got so afraid and my mum got a little worried. The library was my best friend and I had done a lot of research on gods because I wanted not to be afraid. I had this long list of gods I prayed to every night: Vishnu, Allah, Odin, everyone. But this psychologist I went to, he told me this one thing I always remember: ‘Ina, fear is just another human instinct.’ And you should be proud that you’re afraid. Instead of alienating it, try and love it - and so I have! Now I’m not a shrink and I don't know if this is smart or would help people in any way...but for me, it definitely helped.”
We return to the Nøkken, and Wroldsen explains the connection between "Sea" and the creature of the sea. “I think the reason I am so connected with nokken and folklore in general is because of the fear," says the singer. "When I was five I nearly drowned and I think that experience is what made me so interested in the folklore. I want HEX to be something you can taste and bite into. For every song, I can always see pictures and I always see something. I saw Nøkken. I saw him dancing and doing his thing. It’s really strange...I can’t explain half the stuff that goes on in my head!”
The idea of the songs becoming pictures is extended by "Remember Me", a song explicitly about the terror that fear holds over you. Wroldsen sings "I'm the will that you could not keep / the dream that returns to you in your sleep / I'm the leap that you did not take..." It couldn't be more obviously about the song writer stepping out of the shadows, getting away from the next creature of folklore - The Mare, or The Night Mare.
“Up to the release of the song I’d been having these awful night terrors," Wroldsen begins. "They were so bad I had to get up in the night and put cold water on my wrists because I couldn’t calm down. I can’t even explain the nightmares but I know it’s because so much is happening now. As much as I can feel prepared, you’re never really. I expect so much of myself; last week I had Jesse Shatkin [co-writer with Sia of 'Chandelier', among other massive hits] here. He’s one of my heroes, I think ‘Chandelier’ is an opus. I know ‘Cheap Thrills’ did better but I remember where I was the first time I heard ‘Chandelier’. It opened up so much, that song. It allowed for songs again, in a way. I was so stressed - he’s coming here to Sandefjord, is my studio gonna work? It sounds good on paper but all of a sudden this guy is coming, one of the top producers on my wishlist. But it went well! And I think that’s what’s great about being human. No matter what, you can never be prepared. Instead of being afraid of that, I’ve decided to love that.”
The nightmare and the fear are in a symbiotic relationship; one can't live without the other and Wroldsen knows this all too well. Fear has pushed her to make HEX, and pushed her at every point along the way of her incredibly successful career. She continues: “Fear is so irrational, but it’s also the basis for everything that we have. Which is why I find it so interesting. I’ve been obsessed by vampires since I was little - another reason why I had to go to the shrink! Honestly, I wore a cloak for a year, to school and everything! When people made pizza trays in woodwork I made gravestones! The shrink told me that vampires are fearless because they know that they can’t die. I don’t know if I agreed! I think you’d always be afraid - yes, we’re afraid of dying but we’re also afraid of losing people that we love.”
We move from vampires, to another possessive creature. The warping synths of the urgent and anxiety-laden "Mine" is framed around Huldra, a dangerous and seductive woman lurking in the Norwegian forests. She wants to own everything, and will do anything to get it. The song pivots on the line "tell me are you hers or are you mine?", and while it's about a relationship, it's not quite what you'd imagine it to be.
"Everyone thinks it’s about two women...or everyone says ‘is it about you, your husband and another woman?’ says Wroldsen. "But I wrote the song about London and me. If you listen to the song again you’ll hear it, it’s got references to big buses ['now the monster wheels on her bus / are gonna hit us baby'] and football and these things that he [Wroldsen's husband, Mark] loves. Two years ago he was struggling. He didn’t wanna move to Norway but I was dying to get home. We’d been together a long time, eight years in London, but I wanted to go home. So we came back and found this home, but he was struggling, we were struggling. I was like, ‘are you London’s or are you mine? Tell me, are you hers or are you mine?’ 'I bet she lets you have it hard' isn’t about sex, it’s about how much fun he has in London, compared to here hahaha.”
Wroldsen tells me she "loves talking about her own shit" so it's clear why HEX was so important in dealing with her myriad fears, and that honesty is a big part of everything she does. “He said to me earlier ‘being married to you...you’re so direct!’" says Wroldsen when I ask about how her partner deals with this public honesty. "With me, I won’t wander around going oh it’s nothing. It’s this, this and this. I think it helps us. It works better, and you know no-one is gonna go through life with just one person. Monogamy is great but it’s not natural for us, so we need to find a way to deal with that - and allow yourself to make choices. Like I said earlier if you walk through one door, you close another behind you. It’s nice, but I love him more than I love the idea of me having that type of excitement. I don’t need anymore excitement in my life, man.”
"You can immerse yourself in fear so bad that you let it take over."
I suggest that there's perhaps part of Huldra in Wroldsen as well, as fear morphs into jealousy. “I was jealous of London, I was jealous of him having his heart and his left foot in another country and I wanted him wholly here," she says, hinting at the possessiveness of the folkloric female. "She wants to own everything. She doesn’t even want them! She just wants them now and then later she’ll want someone else. I think that’s something I ponder on in humans a lot - the need we have to possess other people. We get married and think that person is now my person. It’s one of humanity’s biggest flaws.I hear people talking like they own their kids - you don’t! They’re gonna leave, you need to be prepared.”
The mention of children leads us into a whole new world of fear, one in which you're responsible for a young person. Wroldsen's son is almost nine and seemingly right at home in Norway (sidebar: in one of the most Scandinavian incidents ever he accidentally hits me on the back of the head with a tin of snus in an attempt to throw it to his parents. I escaped without injury.) after being raised in London. But the singer is filled with dread: “Oh god. It just ups the game. When William was just born there was that Baby P case in the UK, so when the case came up William was the same age as the baby was in that picture," Wroldsen shudders at the memory. "I couldn’t stop thinking about it, it was constant. You can immerse yourself in fear so bad that you let it take over. I had to stop thinking about it. I called my mum and told her I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t do anything. I felt like I was living in a bubble and it’s so easy for someone just to go [makes gesture and popping sound] and then I’m fucked. It’s next level, I would do anything for him. If anything were to happen to him I think I would be done.”
On the powerful ballad "Mother", which closes HEX, Wroldsen is both parent and child on yet another fearful excursion. As her gorgeous vocals wrap themselves around the repeated line "I wanna go home", we're almost swept from London to Norway on a bed of elegant synths and strings. "Have you ever heard of the changeling?" asks Wroldsen. "That’s one of my favourite characters - not for the nature of the changeling but for how humans viewed the changeling. We call them “byting”. You know, there are actually laws on trolls here, from the 1200s. So there are guides on how to protect yourself from trolls here in Norway. The byting was the most feared one - that’s when someone takes your child and swaps it with a troll child. In Irish mythology it’s the fairies. But once I started reading up on it it became so sad - it’s such a dark chapter of human history! People killed their kids! There were two ways of getting rid of a byting; you had to treat him so bad that the trolls have to come and take him back, or you have to throw him on the fire and he would jump up the chimney and be replaced by your child again.”
While Wroldsen doesn't worry that her son is going to be replaced by a changeling, it is a song which addresses the fear of the unknown, of change and of difference. "It amazes me when humans are so intelligent and we know so much, we still have this basic instinct to normalise everything that’s a little different [in order to make it more comfortable for us].”
She continues: “Using byting for ‘Mother’ was the perfect choice. That song was written about me wanting to go home. I felt so alien, I got to this point in London where I felt so alien about everything I was doing and I felt like a changeling! It got to a point where it felt like I wasn’t meant to do this, I didn’t know where I was meant to belong. It expresses everything so simply ‘I wanna go home’ - I don’t know where it is but I wanna go there.It’s funny, when you’re little you think you’re gonna grow up and become an adult….and I kind of think you never really do. It never stops surprising me how little of an adult I am.”
The second part of "Mother" deals with directly with the fear of failure, or the fear of not being able to cope with a new challenge. “I was running this morning and I was listening to The Ugly Duckling [from the fantastic Tales podcast] and you can draw so many comparisons from that to humans," says Wroldsen. "‘Oh you’re not like us, to me you’re ugly because you don’t look like me, you don’t behave the way I expect you to behave.’ It’s every parent’s nightmare that you’re gonna have a child who proves to have no empathy. You think you’re going to give birth to a blank canvas, but you don’t. You give birth to something which has a personality already, it’s just gotta be developed.”
I mention that this reminds me a lot of Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Wroldsen lights up. "Ohhh, that’s one of my favourites!" she exclaims. "Have you read that book? It’s fantastic! The honesty of that mother...when I talk about it I get chills. When she stands by the roadworks so she can drown out his crying? Imagine what that does to a child. More fear! But that’s life, you just have to try and enjoy.”
All this folklore, all this fear...everything leads us back to HEX. Wroldsen is without question a woman full of confidence and full of ideas, and as she relaxes across the sofa on her rooftop, gold swimsuit covered with a billowing green dress it's hard to imagine her being fearful of anything...yet it's the thing which links the songs on the EP to make a coherent body.
"I want to be free and I want people to accept me for that freedom.The goal isn’t a Grammy, the goal is to make people feel something."
“Lately I’ve had this fear where I feel like, no matter what happens with this I know that what I’m trying to achieve now is almost impossible," she says, a worry moving briefly across her face. "But I’m happy, and then I’m afraid that something is going to shatter that happiness. There’s always fear. When you’re sad, you’re afraid it’s never gonna get any better….I think if you’re aware of that then it’s easier to deal with it. Or it is for me.”
Wroldsen continues: "Fear is the link in almost all of my songs! I know that sounds really dark and depressing and of course I write songs that are different but I like messages, I like to talk about something.My mum used to tell me when I was little ‘oh do you want me to get your cloak and your collar?’ because I would always stand and preach about something, like a priest. I do love that. I wanna talk about stuff that matters...there’s not that many things we’re interested in as humans, and it’s my job to keep making that interesting.”
While we touch on religion, demons, and much more, Wroldsen gives me a charming insight into her writing process and how it directly deals with fear. "I wanted to move home and write for myself," she begins. "I got this ancient piano with candle holders on it and a shelf for my wine. It’s 110 years old. One day son asked me how I get to sleep after I moved away from my mother and father. I was thinking, this is a question you’re gonna answer yourself when you’re 18 haha….but I tried to give him an answer and I wrote this song called ‘Ten Feet’. It’s a poem:
I don’t know what to tell you much about life
I’m not good at very much else than writing songs
And I've been chasing fairy lights for as long as I can remember
And you’re small but you’ll grow
One day you’ll be standing tall
And I might be gone
But you’ll never be alone
Because all you need to do is remember
That every time you go to sleep
Make sure everything you love is within ten feet."
Wroldsen says this was the moment that started pushing the writing process for HEX. A fittingly simple song which says so much about the Norwegian's life at home in Sandefjord compared to London. "Now, I have acrylics and I can’t pick up my guitar...and when I do pick it up I turn into 18 year old country Ina," Wroldsen laughs at the very idea. "So I write on the piano, on my own and take them to producers. There’s so much freedom in that. I can go downstairs at 7pm and start vibing a little bit. I try and just be free but that can be hard because you sort of go back to the tricks you have as a song writer. I’ve had songs cut with lyrics like [again, Wroldsen puts on the dead robot voice] 'I want your body / won’t leave without it / I’m feeling naughty / It’s time to party' [A song written for Romanian singer Inna]. I mean, have you ever heard anything so generic? But at the same time there’s a market for it. The hardest thing for me is not to go to 'we’re stuck, so let’s go to this beat and vibe out.'"
HEX is only the beginning of a new chapter for Ina Wroldsen. It might only be four songs but it's four songs she's poured every feeling into, every fear....and every hope. Already a magnificent song writer, the future looks assuredly positive for Wroldsen as an artist.
"I don’t want this to be light and easy, I don't care if it takes me forever," she says, finally. "I think the people who get this music love the stories in it. It’s like the way I love Regina Spektor. I want those listeners. That sounds terribly dickish because she’s a queen, but I want to be free and I want people to accept me for that freedom.The goal isn’t a Grammy, the goal is to make people feel something."