Yes, there is a part eight to this. I was surprised to see more interest than expected on this seven-week series on Nordic pop, and I got a message from the folks at Nordic Music Review looking if they can contribute. Why not? Now, to wrap up this series nicely, that blog’s editor, Andy Worsey, breaks down just how Nordic music has made an impression around the world.
earthings! editor Niko has bravely trusted me to try and wrap up the series on Nordic music, and I guess the question still to answer is “why, why, why?” Why does music from the Nordic countries make such an impression around the world, why they are all so darn talented, and what in particular is it that is inspiring them to write such wonderful music? Okay, so two ‘whys’ and a ‘what’.
Of course these are almost impossible questions to answer definitively. Firstly, there are clearly a vast number of reasons and influences. Secondly, if there was some type of quantifiable magic formula or mathematical equation that could be written down, well I guess everyone would be following it and catapulting artists to overnight success.
My personal view is that it all starts with traditional folk music, as there is a vast history within Nordic countries of musicians performing with each other, telling rich and sometimes dark magical stories about their countries heritage through their music. Those traditions have slowly evolved, of course, but storytelling remains at the heart of their music, and everybody likes a good story.
A great example of that in current music would be Norwegian musician Moddi, who has written some amazing stories in his native Norwegian, such as “Mannen I Ausa”, a dark and somewhat gruesome tale of two fishermen – but also has written some very likable folk pop songs that capture the beauty of the environment he lives in. “House by the Sea” is a great example: for someone like me who had spent his childhood living by the sea, and that misses its beauty and power every day, this song somehow captures everything I’ve wanted to say, but in a simple folk pop ballad.
If you listen to Moddi he has the ability to explain (often at great length during his live sets) his music, his passion, and the causes around the world he believes in. Critically, he does it in English too. In fact, his use of the English language is pretty perfect, memorably once interrupting a conversation two of us were having on Twitter about attending his forthcoming gig to correct our grammar. And he’s probably reading this right now, shaking his head in despair at my use of a conjunction to start a sentence too. This English-speaking capability is matched by very few across the world, although I’ve see similar abilities in the Philippines, and actually their ability to write such well written songs in English makes them extremely marketable abroad. On top of this they have this ability to write ironically, humorously and – particularly important in these dark times – satirically. Some of my favorite “lesser” known Nordic bands such as Koria Kitten Riot and the School Book Depository have this ability to write lyrics which poke humanity with a stick rather than just wallowing in its misfortune.
Although actually, thinking about it, they’re pretty good at wallowing in humanity’s misfortune too. We have a running “joke” at Nordic Music Review which relates to a mythical “machine” we have in our even more mythical “office” that measures, Richter style, the level of misery and despair in songwriting. It’s called the Mirel Wagner Scale of Bleakness, named after Mirel Wagner, the Finnish purveyor of dark folk. Her 2014 album was cheerily entitled When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day, and whilst it probably won’t make your latest Spotify playlist entitled “Christmas Party”, it is undoubtedly brilliantly written. The silences almost say more than the actual words.
Clearly one of Mirel’s strengths is her voice, and it’s more difficult to explain why it is that the Nordic countries just produce so many brilliant singers. They just do. It is rare that I get sent a music submission from a Nordic musician where the vocals, quite frankly, just suck. There are so many great examples – Siv Jacobsen, Susanne Sundfor from Norway, the lovely Laura Moisio from Finland, Sóley, and Agnes Obel from Denmark – I could name so many.
They also have this natural ability to sing together. The most astonishing example I can think of comes from Icelandic band Árstíðir, who whilst on tour in Germany were sitting having a beer in a German train station when they realized the acoustics were perfect for a good ol’ singsong Icelandic style, and a fellow traveler recorded their impromptu performance of an 800-year-old Icelandic hymn. This video still sends shivers down me, and across the world it’s had the same impact, with over six million people now having viewed it, and proving that organic and naturally performed music will travel across borders, irrespective of the obscurity of the music genre. Okay, so I apologize for offending all the Philippine students currently studying their masters degree in 13th century Icelandic ecclesiastics, but hopefully the rest of you get my point.
Most of the artists we’ve mentioned so far have folk influences at the core of their music, but actually the success in Nordic music comes from their ability to fuse different music styles together. Norwegian singer songwriter Aurora has been mentioned already in this series is one of many who has done this really successfully, as have Zara Larsson and Alma. There is a stream of Scandinavian artists who have built a reputation through their outstanding vocals, often folk inspired, but apply that to a radio friendly style of music that enables them to become huge exports. Away from electropop, the “Nordic Americana” genre opens up a huge opportunity for sales in the US and across the world too. Sweden, for example, has the third highest musical export statistics, after the US and the UK – and with the latter’s blinkered attempts to distance itself from the European economy through Brexit it wouldn’t surprise me if Sweden broke through into second place.
Maybe the most important factor in Nordic success abroad is that the countries involved have realized the huge economic benefits of selling music abroad, and actively fund the sectors to help them. This is a hugely undervalued and often underseen activity, but one that as a music blogger I see really clearly. Industry funded websites such as Ja Ja Ja and Nordic Playlist [editor’s note: they have merged into one website] are part of this activity, and some of the new music festivals in Scandinavia such as SPOT and Airwaves have become magnets for the worldwide music industry, and are hugely important in the promotion of music. I’ve lost count of the number of great new artists and particularly bands I’ve discovered at these festivals. Take Danish music festival SPOT, for example: this year’s line up included the likes of Danish bands Communions and Lowly, as well as the excellent Slotface from Norway, who are about to tour the US in January.
But I wouldn’t want to turn this into an economic paper. Whilst undoubtedly the Nordic music industry does its job very well, there needs to be that natural talent waiting to be discovered. Whether the music education system in Nordic countries is really the driver behind the volume of talented artists is open for debate: I always assumed it was, but not all Nordic artists I’ve spoken to agree. Undoubtedly though the funding in schools, colleges, and in some Nordic countries, the grants available to study music in college, play an important role. We can’t forget either that generally these are affluent countries, which may well enable many youngsters get their hands on musical equipment an early age too.
There is probably a stereotype that Nordic countries produce lots of music because it’s dark for 50% of the year, way too cold to go out, and all they really can do is huddle round an open fire and make music. That’s possibly a bit like stereotyping that Italians were good at writing opera because they liked singing to their loved ones about ice cream. And there’s a probably a terrible joke somewhere about Brett Anderson getting all his hard work done by a Butler too, but I can’t quite think of it. Forget the economics, I personally prefer the romantic notion that Nordic music sells because they have this natural inner instinct to convey beautiful music, inspired by the beauty of their surroundings.
There are so many examples I could finish on, but young Norwegian ‘float folk’ trio I See Rivers are a perfect demonstration, because not only are they the nicest people you could ever want to meet, but they have that natural quality, that ability to sing in total harmony, as if they were born to do it. This is a band who hadn’t even met until they went to college, and one of them had never formally studied music before. This is a band without a major record label, without a big PR machine or a Simon Cowell style manager. They just met and started singing, and they sing because they love doing so. Anyone listening around the world can hear that, recognize that and relate to it. I’ll leave you with no further comment, just their lovely voices. [AW]
Andy Worsey is the editor of Nordic Music Review, a blog dedicated to, well, Nordic music, based in Manchester – although, if you want to be really specific, it’s actually based in Stoke.