As a little side story to the a-ha/Rick Astley piece I posted, it got me thinking, how many other Norwegian artists and performers have made their mark on popular culture? In 1985 a-ha were the first band from Norway to have a No. 1 hit single in the US, UK—or anyplace else, for that matter.
“Actually, we’re the first Norwegian band to even make the charts anywhere,” notes keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, who had blamed Norway’s hitherto lack of impact on the pop scene on a certain Nordic lack of self-confidence.
“All of the kids play in bands there. But most bands copy what the English and American acts are doing, so no real music scene has developed. Everyone has kind of a minority complex. Sure, some Norwegian bands have hits in Norway, but so what? And when a Norwegian band does make the charts in Norway, everyone says, ‘Pretty good—for a Norwegian band.’”
He has a point. Norwegian music is likely influenced by the country’s sparse population (14 people per square mile — creaking old England has 430 people per square mile), natural surroundings and cold climate. Norwegian musicians are not as savvy as Swedish artists like Neneh Cherry and The Cardigans, but in general less full of themselves than Icelandic icons like the irascible Björk.
Soft pop with haunting vocals. Space disco. And of course, black metal. Norwegian music has certain genres it has become famous for – and some others, like jazz and rock, that witnessed a low-key but long overdue renaissance.
“In Norway,” says Mags with mock solemnity, “we are national heroes.” Indeed, the on-off-on success of the Oslo trio (a-ha are, like you didn’t know, are composed of Mags, Morten Harket and guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy) the past 35 years calls for an overdue audit of local legends, so here’s a few other Norse heroes that warrant some attention alongside their animal-costume-wearing countrymen. Just don’t mention vikings.
HENRIK IBSEN, 1828-1906
As one of the founders of modernism in theatre, Ibsen is often referred to as “the father of realism” and one of the most influential playwrights of his time. Indeed, Ibsen is believed to be the most frequently performed playwright in the world after Shakespeare. His plays, which include A Doll’s House, Ghosts and Hedda Gabler, were considered scandalous to many of his era. Lightweights.
EDVARD GRIEG, 1843-1907
The composer and pianist is best-known for his incidental music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, but other works, such as the Piano Concerto in A minor, and the Lyric Suite, are still incredibly popular. At the age of 15, Grieg began studying at the Leipzig Conservatory and became music director of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra from 1880-1882. The Edvard Grieg Museum in Troldhaugen celebrates his life.
EDVARD MUNCH, 1863-1944
The artist who painted The Scream—which has become a modern symbol for human anxiety and, over a century later, somehow manages to be utterly ubiquitous and still eminently disconcerting—was a major influence on the development of German Expressionism in the early 20th century. His parents, brother and sister died when he was young, which may explain his preoccupation with misery. One of the four existing paintings of the iconic 1895 portrait of a man holding his head and screaming under a streaked, blood-red sky was stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo in 2004. It wasn’t me.
BJØRGE LILLELIEN, 1927-1987
The sports journalist and commentator won international fame after Norway’s 2-1 victory against England in a World Cup qualifier in Oslo in 1981. At the end of the match, he proclaimed: “We are best in the world! We have beaten England! England, birthplace of giants. Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana, we have beaten them all, we have beaten them all. Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher, your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!” Quite.
LIV ULLMANN, 1938-
The actress, author and film director played the lead roles in nine films directed by Ingmar Bergman, with whom she has a daughter. Born in Tokyo, she grew up in Trondheim in Norway. She was nominated twice for Academy Awards, for The Emigrants and Face To Face, and published two books of her memoirs, Changing and Choices. Ullmann, who is multilingual, lives in New York and is a Unicef goodwill ambassador.
JENNY HVAL, 1980-
Growing up in Oslo, Jenny Hval was inspired by Kate Bush, Jimmy Somerville and the ambitious, androgynous feel of ’80s keyboard-based electronica. With her ethereal avant-artpop music and writing, singer/songwriter and author brings a questioning, passionate, and frequently witty perspective to art, feminism, and sexuality. In much the same way that she contrasts her delicate vocals and provocative statements, her mercurial combinations of folk, jazz, spoken word, and electronic music are equally unconventional and approachable. In 2018, she issued the novel Å hate Gud (Girls Against God), following in 2019 with the album The Practice of Love, which found Hval combining the sound of ‘90s trance music with searching songwriting about love, creativity, and existence. The English translation of Å hate Gud is expected in 2020.
Some have compared her to Björk, others to Florence Welch. But Aurora Aksnes has, at just 23 years old, managed to cultivate a style that feels both elaborate and organic, vulnerable and primal. Seeing her perform in one of her whimsical videos, you would be excused to think she has created her own sign language – one that complements her ethereal voice and her elfin physique. She has managed to put her own stamp on iconic songs by David Bowie (Life On Mars?, above) and Oasis. Latterly, her second album, Infections Of A Different Kind (Step 1) made it out in 2018. If you haven’t already, familiarise yourself with her work because she’s clearly destined for even greater things.
TODD TERJE, 1981-
Norway’s space disco is a genre that started some 20 years ago with a group of teenagers in the arctic Tromsø, and is still going strong, even beyond the country’s borders. One of the artists responsible for that is Todd Terje, a DJ, songwriter and record producer who is best known for his 2012 house track Inspector Norse. Todd’s typically Scandi sense of humour is apparent throughout his work, but also in the illustrations he uses to promote his latest releases or gigs on social media – he has even said he just wants his music to be “fruity”. Not bad for someone the Rolling Stone magazine has dubbed “one of the 25 DJs that rule the earth”. His debut album, 2014’s It’s About Time features a collaboration with the laconic lounge lizard himself, Bryan Ferry, on a version of Robert Palmer’s Johnny And Mary (above). All hail.
That arctic city of Tromsø I mentioned earlier? There’s probably something in the water – because the number of genre-defining musicians that have emerged from its shores is certainly disproportionate with how small the population actually is. Röyksopp, who you’ve undoubtedly heard of, was founded in 1998 by Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland. Constantly stretching electronic music to its limits, Röyksopp (which, by the way, is a kind of mushroom) love eccentric outfits and elaborate concert performances – often featuring guests like Robyn in their videos and live shows. They’ve also been canny enough to make their mark through smart licensing, resulting in their work being heard in telly ads, jingles and elevators the world over. A remix of The Girl And The Robot, featuring the aforementioned Robyn, was even nominated for a Grammy in 2009. These mushrooms are not going anywhere any time soon, loon.
ANE BRUN, 1976-
There’s this specific kind of vocal that can only be described as “Nordic haunting”, a voice that brings to mind misty forests and elves. Aurora has it, but Ane Brun probably had it first. The singer, songwriter and guitarist has been around since 2003 and knows how to make people feel things, both with her mellow, soulful reinterpretations of songs like Alphaville’s Big In Japan and Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours, as well as with her own whimsical music. In 2010, I caught her singing back up for Peter Gabriel on his New Blood tour, where she did her own unique take on Kate Bush on the duet Don’t Give Up. Her recent covers album, Leave me Breathless, reinvents iconic love songs like Always On My Mind, its gentle folkiness owning more to the Willie Nelson version than the more famous renditions by Elvis Presley or Pet Shop Boys.
ANNI-FRID SYNNI LYNGSTAD, 1945-
Anni-Frid, better known as the fabulous Frida, is the only Norwegian member of the otherwise Swedish awesome foursome Abba. Born in Ballangen during the German occupation, her father was the German sergeant Alfred Haase. At the end of the war, her family fled to Sweden, and Anni-Frid got her first job as a jazz singer at 13. After winning a television talent contest, she recorded a couple of albums for EMI, and became part of Abba, dominating worldwide charts through the Seventies and early Eighties, with Frida’s glacial lead vocals powering memorable hits like Fernando, Knowing Me, Knowing You and Money, Money, Money. Now based in Switzerland, in 1992 Lyngstad, an arch feminist and vegetarian, married Prince Heinrich Ruzzo of Reuss, Count of Plauen. Following his death, Her Serene Highness the Dowager Princess Anni-Frid of Reuss, Countess of Plauen has shared a home with her British aristocratic partner, Henry Smith, 5th Viscount Hambleden at the posh ski resort of Zermatt in the Swiss alps. It’s a rich man’s world.
BONUS: In case you were unaware, Frida loves her gay fans. I should know, I’ve shagged a few of them.