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Unni Wilhelmsen - "Small detail, big poetic event"

The Norwegian singer, songwriter and guitarist Unni Wilhelmsen — we could as well call her a "multi intrumentalist as she also plays the piano, the banjo and assorted keyboards — recently published her seventh album. Self-confidently — did we mention she runs her own record label? — she consequently titled it "7" and transcends by far the singer-songwriter domain she is known for.

Unni Wilhelmsen

On "7" Unni Wilhelmsen proves that she is also "pop" and that a little electronics can add a certain surrealistic edge to her music. Besides singing about personal affairs, she covers Joni Mitchel's "Both Sides Now" and does a very good job with this. This is an artist to watch.

Carina Prange talked to Unni Wilhelmsen for Jazzdimensions

Carina: Unni, as a kid you always wished for a piano but could not afford one and that you weren't exactly fond of the guitar. How is it today—do you finally have your piano at home?

Unni: Yes! I have a huge, black Rönisch piano in my kitchen. Someone said it was built between 1880 and 1920. It's out of tune, but it sounds fantastic!

Carina: Do you still compose on the guitar exclusively? Or do you also seek inspiration on the piano?

Unni: I now compose on the piano as much as I do on guitars. A new song starts off by fooling around with the instrument that I happen to be near. I hardly ever write the melody first—it's the last thing to be finished. Much like building a bridge.

On my latest album "'7", seven songs are originally written on the piano, but you can't necessarily hear it because they are arranged, produced and recorded with other instruments.

Unni Wilhelmsen

Carina: If I may cite you: "At the age of twenty I let the guitar out of the closet."— Do you remember the moment when you felt "this is my instrument"? How did you experience the process of discovering yourself on the guitar?

Unni: Even if I'm now considered to be a professional guitarist and sometimes collegues invite me in as an instrumentalist on their projects, the piano is still the "instrument of my dreams". The guitar demands some technical skills and knowledge before you're able to get a clean sound and before you can turn your creativity and intuition into music. The piano—in my opinion—doesn't.

You can place your fingers wherever your ears want them to be, and you can instantly make music. At least that's what I did! To get to the same point with the guitar was difficult. I started out trying to learn other people's songs, but often got stuck looking for a chord or a harmony that I couldn't find. I felt the guitar was tricky, and it was almost as if it worked against me and my small hands.

I learnt some cover songs half way and was on the verge of giving up when something happened. I started to rearrange the new chords I had discovered, and I put them together in different ways from the cover songs I was trying to learn. That's when I understood that I was actually composing my own songs. And I started loving my guitar for letting me discover and play all those gorgeous harmonies.

I started finger picking right away, and the musical tension between the different single notes when you finger pick can be magical. You play them one by one in an intricate, rhythmical pattern, where you would probably play them all at the same time on the piano.

I'm quite picky when it comes to the nuances within a harmony. The guitar encouraged and challenged me at the same time. And that's when I understood that we would make a particularly good team.

Unni Wilhelmsen - "7"

Carina: Does composing and writing lyrics also mean in a way to withdraw into a safe and secure world of one's own?

Unni: When I started writing songs in the early nineties, it was because I wanted a private, beautiful place for my most important experiences and feelings: A personal archive of memories I didn't want to forget, and a place to handle bad, dramatic things I thought might haunt me forever.

I guess I was quite romantic about it, because no one was supposed to hear my songs, ever! That's why I wrote such personal and honest songs about me and my relationship with other people. When you think no one can see or hear you you feel free. But also, my friends' short attention span (or lack of interest in others—we were young and impatient) made me understand that I didn't have many people to talk to.

My experiences felt like rainy Monday afternoons every time I tried to explain to someone how wonderful or awful something was that had just happened to me. No one really listened unless it contained juicy gossip about someone they knew. So I gave up, and started talking to myself instead, through my lyrics.

It was a way to analyze myself—trying to get to know me, and a few people I met, better. I also think it was a way to try to take myself a bit more serious, after many years of being the "class clown" in school. And the greatest, most passionate, most beautiful environment I knew was music. If you tell a story accompanied by music, people will listen in a different way than if you're just telling the story. It's quite powerful.

Obviously I didn't manage to keep my songs private, even though I tried.

Carina: "But sometimes", you write on your website, "my guitar makes exciting turns of it's own." — In the end, who dominates? You or the guitar?

Unni: On the piano, when I write new music, I can decide exactly how I want the harmonies to support my melodies. On the guitar... The guitar decides what is possible or not! And my melodies are constructed on top of the guitar riffs.

I never learnt to play the guitar properly. Which means I don't really use "the system" or the theory of the guitar. I don't read notes and I don't really know where to find all the different notes and chords or how to transpose a key. I have to use my ears and decipher and invent my own chords, especially if I'm learning music I haven't written myself.

And then I have to learn everything by heart, or write peculiar color coded notes that only I understand. So in a sense the guitar dominates me, since I'm not really in control—I don't understand the instrument as I should. But I use a lot of dynamics, complex finger pickings and rhythms when I play.

And since I have no classical training and therefore not much respect for guitar theory, I use a lot of alternative tunings. I retune the strings and start a new expedition without a map into unknown territory, where classical guitarists wouldn't follow. Maybe that's my survival strategy as a guitarist: I don't know enough about my instrument, but that's also why I'm not afraid to try out new things.

Carina: You write songs about your view at and your experiences with other people. Are these very personal lyrics or do you regard yourself as a mere observer who looks at things from a distance, registers and analyzes?

Unni: Like I mentioned earlier, I write in a personal way and for personal reasons. And I'm still trying to get to know myself and my life better. But as Joni Mitchell have said "it takes time to peel the onion". As time passes by, I'm equally curious about other people as I was curious of myself when I was younger.

I think I'm more of an observer now than before. Being younger, I felt everything very strongly. Now I understand and analyze much more, and I'm lucky enough to have a place to concretize my observations. It is also a playground. But even though my personality has changed, I still see the songs as something private, even when I play them for thousands of people on stage or hear them on the radio.

But I can get fascinated by other topics now, like "Pedestrian Slow", the song about evacuating the subway. It is personal, but the idea came from reading an official safety instruction sign inside the subway car I was riding on.

I think my strength as a lyricist is to take an average, hard to notice, small detail, and turn it into a bigger, more poetic event. Without loosing the connection to what others find relevant to them! I'm obviously not alone in becoming briefly jealous of an orange—if that's what my boyfriend is boneheadedly occupied with while I need his attention.

From the reaction of the audience in Germany (who brought me oranges on stage because of the song "Orange"), it seems people relate to it when I notice small, seemingly dull details and make songs out of them.

Unni Wilhelmsen

Carina: Is there a similarity in writing songs and writing a diary? Did you, in fact, write a diary in the past? Or do you still?

Unni: If my songs are my diary, it feels like I represent others, too. However, I never kept a diary, not even as a kid. But in my late teens, I wrote a lot of stuff on sheets of paper. I had my drawers full of these unorganized scribbling, some of it was in English, but not in the same style people use in their diaries.

It wasn't about trivial things (at least I thought). I didn't understand it was song lyrics I was writing, until I started playing the guitar. I remember my reaction when I put some music and these words together for the first time and it fit. A great, surprising moment. From then on, I kind of knew what I was doing.

Carina: Your new album "7" aims at the international market. You did design the cover yourself. Did you make use of your expertise as an illustrator?

Unni: Yes, I have done a lot of art work in my life. I used to work as an illustrator until I became a musician full time, but that was before people started using computers and software to create graphics. I've never done much visual work on my Mac, but I spent a few nights learning Power Point, while designing this cover.

It was fun, and since my contribution to my earlier CD covers was mostly hand drawings and different styles of writing, I finally felt that this is something I'll continue to do myself. I know enough about how I want things to look, but it has been my lack of technical software skills that has stopped me before. And it's also quite time consuming to take care of that part as well, in addition to all the other tasks lining up in the middle of release preparations.

Carina: How did you get into contact to Jan Bang and Erik Honoré for your collaboration?

Unni: Both of them were familiar names to me for many years, but I had never met Erik Honoré. He was involved in one of my all time favorite bands for many years: Velvet Belly (Kristiansand, Norway) I had his name on a short list of whom I'd like to work with.

We're members of the same music organizations in Norway, and one day Erik had written a collective information e-mail to a large group of musicians. I thought "there he is!" and wrote back to see if he would be interested in joining me on my new album.

He was interested, and since he usually collaborates with Jan Bang, I got two producers instead of one. They are quite a dynamic team, with a sophisticated taste. It was an honor working with them.

Unni Wilhelmsen

Carina: How did the two of them influence your sound and your music?

Unni: I think they are more "jazzy" than I am. They've been working with the world as their playground for many years, in collaboration with many "out-of-the-box" musicians and projects and they know a lot of instrumentalists and alternative musicians. And they have integrity.

One of the things I noticed was that they don't seem to think it's important for the chorus in a song to sound like a chorus. I'm used to verses, bridges and choruses, easy to tell apart, and the chorus is supposed to have some kind of "fire cracker effect"—a highlighted area of the song.

Jan and Erik likes for instance when the song quietly rolls on, without the big gestures. It's safe to say that some of the tracks on the album sound very different from my live versions. It's refreshing to get away from my "regular sound" and sometimes a certain production and the use of different musicians can result in new listeners and concert offers from places I wouldn't normally get invited to.

Erik and Jan are devoted to details and quality, and they know how to make a song sound interesting and original. They don't often compromise, and where others produce for radio formats, they act like radio was never invented. All of the songs were already written when we started recording, but we changed a few of them radically in the process. We also discussed lyrics and titles. I like it when producers have the capacity to care about that part as well, coming up with better suggestions.

Carina: How would you describe the essence of your music in a few words?

Unni: I tell stories in the tradition of the American singer-/songwriters, that would be the plain definition. But I try to observe and capture moments, framing them as beautiful as I can by composing music to fit the words and the events I sing about. The music can sound quite melancholic, but in my lyrics there's often humor between the lines, at least in the recent years.

Sometimes I compose quite detailed—I want my songs to sound independent and complete even if I play the original versions all alone on stage. Regarding topics and lyrics, I try to write about big issues in tiny ways or small details in big ways. I guess I can be both romantic and traditional, but I always try to add a little twist—in lyrics, melody and harmonies—to satisfy my own musical taste and needs.

Carina: Indeed your lyrics have a lot of depth. Can you tell me about the stories behind the songs "Space Opera" and "Pedestrian Slow"?

Unni: "Space Opera" was trigged by a handsome person I once knew. He had a gorgeous face and specific talents, but he wasn't too smart, and he seriously lacked imagination. The thought experiment was: How long can I be attracted to such a person before his intellectual limitations destroys everything? How long can people do only fun things together, avoiding serious conversation and plain reality, to keep the fascination alive?

The interesting moment is when all the pieces fall into place and you realize what an impossible project it is. Jumping to fast conclusions, caused by sloppy hand craft of the mind, is unsexy. Things start to hang by a thin thread, and respect is running out the back door. Fascination and attraction turns into frustration and irritation. And it ends the moment I see this clearly, even if the future looked bright yesterday. And how would I explain the decision to him?

"Pedestrian Slow", as I mentioned already, started on the subway towards Oslo city center. I was reading the safety sign near my seat. It said: "In case of evacuation, remain on the train..." — I found it funny and started to laugh: "Stop, everyone! Stay where you are! There's an evacuation going on. Nobody move!" — Sometimes it doesn't take more to set me off.

Sure, if you read the next line, it explains: "...until given further instructions". But if you took a sharp object and removed the lower part of the sign, it would stand out with it's contradictive, curious message.

It made me think: If I'm a passenger in the second car, and the first is in flames, who's going to tell me what to do? Ten bucks the driver has escaped, is seriously injured or in panic or worse. Will I wait for the instructions while the flames creep up on me, or would I force open the doors and jump across the electrical rails to maybe save myself? I don't know, because I've never been involved in anything remotely like it. I don't know if and when my politeness and faith in authorities will leave me for the more individualistic, clearheaded survival instinct.

So I wrote a song about it, just to remember the dilemma. And since it seemed (on paper) like the lyric theme was a bit odd, I thought of wild train rides as metaphors for relationships out of control. So that's what the chorus is about.

I actually put that in to make the song more palpable to others. I don't usually do that. I'm very happy with these sentences:

You're just like a train you know
racing the hours. / Maybe I have to go
pedestrian slow / picking flowers.

Unni Wilhelmsen

Carina: There's one cover song on the album, "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell. What would you miss if you hadn't added it? What does it mean to you?

Unni: A Norwegian musician challenged me to play some songs of Joni Mitchell a few years ago. I didn't know how to play any of her songs! I haven't listened as much to Joni Mitchell as people often think, but I was always aware of the exceptional talent she is and how important her music has been to several generations of musicians.

She has written some of the best songs in the singer-/songwriter history, and "Both Sides Now" is certainly one of them. I rehearsed my own version of this song, and I discovered that most people have a special connection to it. And it makes quite an impression on the younger audiences as well. It suits many occasions because of it's legendary lyrics, and I'm often asked to play it in friends' weddings, and special events. I've played it so many times now that I felt it was about time to record my version.

Carina: The story about your becoming "discovered" is something that probably every musician would wish to become true. Did it seem like a dream to you then?

Unni: The weird thing about me back then was, that I never really wished for, or dreamed about, fame and fortune. Or even about becoming a musician in that way. Music was an all-consuming but personal matter to me. And I would never have entered a record company office if I hadn't been invited.

I had no expectations beyond the "don't call us, we'll call you", and I was very uncomfortable with playing my home-made cassette to complete strangers. I did not record my songs to tape for anyone to hear, or as a demo—I had recorded my songs because I was afraid of forgetting them!

So I was skeptical, acted naive and odd. And to this day the guys who were at the Polygram office back then laugh when they remember that first séance, and so do I... I knew that they were bombarded with 1500 physical demos a year (and that they signed about three of those acts yearly). So what I was doing there, being invited and all, was hard for me to comprehend.

When they offered me a contract on the spot, I was surprised and reacted very untypical. I didn't take anything for granted and wasn't sure I wanted to take the step. I insisted on keeping my three different part time jobs for two years after I signed my record contract. And I released two albums and received two Norwegian Grammies ("Album of the Year" and "Best Female Artist of the Year") before I quit my jobs and went on my first tour.

A true "Cinderella story" from the Norwegian music business... I don't think this could happen in Norway today. When I look back, it feels like a dream now, even more than it did in 1995.

Carina: Did something change in the way you look at the music business today? Are you maybe more down-to-earth, maybe a bit disillusioned? Is that maybe also true in the way you look at life itself?

Unni: Sure, there's not many illusions left—at least none concerning the music business and the entertainment industry. When it comes to life, I'm also pretty realistic. I know how things work in different social environments, and I've learnt to see most things from at least two sides.

That comes in handy when I feel frustrated about the business, the Norwegian media, and sometimes even the audience. They've stopped buying CDs in Norway now, because of the the digital streaming solutions. One of the side effects is that people tend to look upon music (CDs, concert tickets) as less worth paying for.

So while most other things get more expensive, music gets cheaper. A CD costs less now than back in 1996, and concert fees are the same as then, not higher. In comparison, a local beer costs three times as much as in '96. So it's harder to make a living as a musician in Norway than before, and at the same time the competition is tougher.

I compensate by doing even more of the work myself, because I'm now capable of doing most of the things I needed professional help for before. So I've cut down on the expenses, but I work constantly, one way or the other.

The scary part is how important and closely connected my work situation is to my private life. If I'm busy and happy with my musical life and my job, I'm happy as a private person. But if I feel left out, un-creative, forgotten or disliked as a musician, I can't really be happy at home.

It is about like this: If you're a musician, your value as a human being is measured by how successful you are. You're a musician and a creative person first, not a person. It seems many of the musicians I talk to feel the same way if we really talk it through. At least if they don't have children or are married.

I know the mechanisms, and I know how to do my job the best way I can, with the resources I have. But there's something I'm unsure of: How to get old in this job — if it's even possible.

Unni Wilhelmsen

Carina: Really "being" a musician, does that differ from what you thought it would be like at the beginning of your career?

Unni: I really don't think I knew what to expect. Everything happened pretty fast, and my ambitions felt somehow like an echo of what had just happened. Like my ambitions didn't really catch up with reality.

Usually, people want a lot of things for themselves that can seem quite unreal. In my case, great things happened that I had never wished for or even heard about. But knowing what I know now, I don't think any debutant can fully appreciate the effect of being the "new, exiting musical act".

Even if you're well established and appreciated many years later, you rarely feel that buzz around you, representing people's expectations —the official goodwill is inevitably fading. I see it around me, talking to my collegues who've also been around for a while.

The music industry in Norway (maybe everywhere) is fixed upon new things, new people, new acts. That's natural I guess, but in such a small country, it can leave hard working musicians in a state of self doubting. The message is: you can never be as good as you were when you were new (and really young). You release a new album and you're invited to the radio stations to talk about it, and they insist on playing your first hit from 1996 rather than any of the new songs.

Apart from that, I now know how much I've learnt about the business, how detailed my "job" is, considering all the different tasks I perform. Running my own record company doesn't make my days more musician-like. Most of the time I feel I work in an office, and I do. I answer tons of e-mail between every hour I play music, and that wasn't what I expected.

But somewhere along the line I decided to take maximum responsibility for my musical life and my career, and the consequences are: no one can step in for me and take over my job, not even for a day. It generates more bad conscience than I'd wish for, because there's always something I should've done that I haven't come around to yet. Always someone counting on me to play or answer or participate, and it feels it's getting more and more the better I get at it.

But on the bright side: I never imagined (in the beginning) that complete strangers would pick up my songs and use them in their personal life the way they do. They make out, get pregnant, give birth, propose, get married, burry their loved ones and grieve to my songs! They comfort their broken hearts with my music, and they're kind enough to tell me about it.

It is the best compliment I could ever get, and I didn't dream of anything like it when my first album came out. And look at me now: telling about my experiences as a professional musician in fluid English, as answers to questions with depth, for an online German Jazz Magazine! It wouldn't have crossed my mind when I recorded my first album. I had never even touched a computer back then!

Carina Prange

CD: Unni Wilhelmsen - "7" (EDEL:CONTENT/Edel:Kultur)

Unni Wilhelmsen im Internet: www.unniwilhelmsen.com

St.Cecilia Music im Internet: www.www.edel.com

Fotos: Pressefotos (Line Dybwad-Olsen)

© jazzdimensions 2011
erschienen: 14.11.2011
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