As her name reveals at first sight, the singer and songwriter Kristin Asbjørnsen doesn't come from the USA but from Norway. Nevertheless her current album "Wayfaring Stranger", published by Emarcy Records, is dedicated solely to Afro-American spirituals. And Asbjørnsen ploughs through this issue with great virtuosity....
Even though it would not be a far-fetched educated guess that "Wayfaring Stranger" was just another traditional gospel album, the listener is soon taught better: Asbjørnsen not only has a very unusual and expressive voice but her rather extraordinary approach to improvisation also makes her music an exceptional enrichment for the world of jazz and beyond.
Carina Prange talked to Kristin Asbjørnsen in Berlin.
Carina: Let's start with a question concerning the other two projects you were involved in recent yearsDadafon and Krøyt. Will both projects and your solo-projects go on side by side in the future? Are these three projects like three facets of your musical personality?
Kristin: I think what you just said is already a good answer! (laughs) It's actually different facets of my musical journey. And right now I am still a part of Krøyt and Dadafon, but there is not so much activity right now, because I am focussing on the spirituals. We worked together last year with Dadafon and two years before with Krøyt. However, last year I decided that I really needed to give more attention to these spiritual songs. Because they have been with me for so many years and I have been doing a lot of concerts with them as well. The recent years they have been a little bit pushed away, because I have been doing so much with my own projects. So I really fell a need to use these spiritual songs as my main source for a while.
Carina: The Afro American singer Ruth Reese bequeathed you her songbook with spirituals. Besides these songs, what did Ruth Reese give you on the way?
Kristin: Hmm, I just had a very few meetings with Ruth Reese. I met her, when I was nineteen years and it was just before she died. But she really, those meetings meant a lot to me and really made a base for I have done since: her focus, her knowledge about the spiritual tradition and old gospel music and her way to…she really challenged me and pushed me in how to take away what is unnecessary! And to search for a kind of naked expression in what I do, to try to be grounded. To try to strip it from all these conventional ornamentation.
And so it's been - it really gave me a lot of new focus. Because at that point I was fed up of my way of singing. I was nineteen years old, I had been singing a lot of these light new gospel music. And I was fed up of my own way of improvising, my own way of singing emotionally. And really, when I inherited these songs from Ruth Reese, that led me into so much new music. That forced me to explore more on my possibilities that lay in my voice and to work more on improvisations, that led to more jazz-music in fact.
Carina: Why do you look at Spirituals as something that is contemporary enough for a whole album? To quote from your website-information: "…I experience over and over again that the songs touch upon our struggles of modern life, or own quests of personal freedom, movement and protection." Please explain, in which way are they transferable to modern times?
Kristin: I think, even though the enslaved people lived under extreme oppression and under different circumstances from us. Still the emotions expressed in this song-tradition are in a way universal! And for me these songs are such existential expressions of life and powerfully intense traveling-songs. My experience is, that the meaning of these songs, the force in them is not limited by time, origin, nationality or beliefs. And I experienced this myself, because for meI have been really touched by these songs! And I have really found that these songs have become good rooms to enter, where I feel embraced and included. Where I feel they are room enough for me to be. And it's also an experience doing all these concerts, meeting people and experiencing that these songs really touch our hearts today as well.
Carina: What is of interest in this context: Did you already travel to the USA in the footsteps of these songs? Or are you planning to go there and to talk to people, who grew up with these songs and their history?
Kristin: Well, actually I think, that my musical view into it is that for me these songs have touched me personally. And I just immediately felt an urge to find my way into it. And I do it from who I am and I listened to a lot of different kind of music, roots-music, American-gospel-music, West-African and other different approaches. And of course it will be wonderful to go and do more research. But for me it's been also important that this is not a kind of historical documentation in a way. Because there are lots of old recordings from Alabama and similar places… I have been listening to a lot of those records, of course I have.
But I also… for me, I think, my approach was, that I inherited a great number of sheets of relatively unknown spirituals. And getting these sheets and learning this songs from reading, that has been a kind of natural, pure way of discovering the songs. If I grew up in Harlem or just listened to a lot of this authentic old recordings, I think, I wouldn't manage to do the versions that I had done now. So in one way, I think, that there is a strength in my interpretations, that is there because I actually learned it from sheets and not only from listening to old music.
It's more like I listened to a lot of West African music, what also inspired these songs. I am interested in all this history and this strong tradition, but it has been very important for me to not try to make a kind of authentic album when it comes to sound and instruments… I am not a slave in that way. I just met it as my own personal songs.
Carina: What are the most important qualities a song must have for you so that it fits into your repertoire? Is it mainly the lyrics or a kind of special emotion in the melody?
Kristin: Oh, I think, both parts are quite important actually! Especially, if they work together. I always have to be touched by a poem, if I should make a song or if I should use the song. Because I am also a songwriter. I really need to be touched by the poetry to work from that. And I also believe in the strong melodies like in these spirituals, my approach is a kind of mantra-repetitive-meditative way of doing the songs, because I really believe in the open rooms, that are created with this repetitive words and melodies.
These repetitions are a strong part of the spiritual tradition, but this is also an approach when I make songs. That is also some influence I have got by listening to the West African singing. Melodies are important and also I am an improvising singer. How to improvise has differences: sometimes I have more open rooms, so I just go wherever the energy flows. And at the same time I improvise a lot on details, subtle nuances. Because I really like to focus on both: this raw expression and at the same time these very nuanced fragile subtle details. And I improvise a lot on the sound itself, the timbre of the sound, how to be flexible within these very often quite strict, quite tight frame.
Carina: You sang the lyrics for Ketil Bjornstads album "A Seafarer's Song"I was very impressed by your singing and always thought about who this singer might behow did this working together start?
Kristin: Ah, I think, we both, we knew each other a little bit from before. I always loved Ketils melodies. I thought, this project was very, very special with the great musicians involved as well. It was actually a short-term project, meant for a festival in Norway. And the first gig was actually recorded. So documented is the first concert we did together, a live-recording. It has been a wonderful collaboration! I really love what Ketil is doing.
Carina: You also did the soundtrack for the film "Factotum", which is based on a novel by Charles Bukowski. What is different about film music?
Kristin: It was very different to make film-music. I think, I can say it was more different from my other works than I had expected. So it was really a hard time, but I learned a lot. I am really so happy that I was involved and that I was invited to do this soundtrack for "Factotum". With Bent Hamer, the director from Norway, and Jim Stark, the producer from the United States. Well, the challenge is to make the picture grow with the music instead of…it's so easy that it's just getting too much, or that you are actually ending up reducing the emotions in the pictures!
"Factotum" is based on Charles Bukowski's poetry as well. So I made a few songs based on Bukowski's poetry and I used the main themes there as a part of the score. It was really fun-work to make these songs and trying to find the right moods to express the movie. It was trials and errors, and really a special journey. I liked it very much. But it is very different, because you are not a solo-player, when you are making the score. The movie itself is the main issue. I needed to simplify a lot, because usually in my music I have many layers at the same time, many elements going on. But here that was too stressing.
We needed to reduce, we needed to simplify to maintain a kind of directness. Therefore the acoustic feeling and the way to approach the arrangements. I think, they actually also inspired this spiritual album, because with "Factotum", it was a more acoustic sound than I had been doing for a while!
Carina: The comments about your roots say, that they "lie in both the singer-songwriter tradition and the groove-based world music." Why then is your current album published on a jazz label? Would you also regard yourself as a jazz-singer?
Kristin:: It is always hard to say if you are a jazz-singer or not. Because it always depends on what you mean what jazz is, in a way. But I started with jazz-music, and I sang jazz-music for many, many years. In Norway as well, I am stamped, I am called a "jazz-singer" since ever. For me it's more like I was led into jazz-music, because I wanted to learn more about how to improvise. That has been my focus all the time, to force myself in new directions. I needed to explore better my possibilities, work with singing, trying to say something important with my songs and trying to be grounded in a way.
So that has been my main focus, not how to brand it. And all the time I have been working with my own songs, my own compositions. But that has also led me to meet other musicians, both pop-rock- and jazz-musicians. So I am not so very much interested in the category, it's more like I am influenced by different kind of styles. And I think, in this respect Emarcy is an open jazz-label as well. O.k.?
Carina: You often use Victorian and contemporary poems for your musicwhich are the lyricists you love most?
Kristin: I am really fond of Victorian poetry like Elizabeth Barett Browning and Christina Rosetti. I have used so many of their poems with all their melancholy and loneliness and at the same time with all the energy and will and faith. The energy to work on and to never give up. There is something, also with this spirituality, that really touches me. I also love Walt Whitman, I have been using a few of his poems. These are the older ones - the last years I've been working with Charles Bukowski doing the "Factotum".One of my favorite poets in Norway is Anne Bøe. I have been working a lot with her and I am still working with her. She wrote most of the poems for Dadafon's last album. In recent years I have been also starting to do a few of my own poems myself.
For many years I have been very focused on the lyrics-parts, it is very important for me. Since I have been using a lot of old poetry I also need to be both humble and kind of frank, to sometimes cut and use pieces with the hope that the main feeling, the main issues are still there. I have been working a lot with the poetry, trying to use just elements from it. And it remains that I very often like to use short parts. And to use different musical views with this repetitive kind of, mantra-kind of approach.
Carina: You also write lyrics of your own, you just said it. What inspires you for writing? And: will the following album perhaps be a whole album with own lyrics?
Kristin: Oh, I think, it's hard to say, what inspires me. It's more like, all of my own songs is about "to be", about the issues of being a small person in a small life. I never write that many stories, it's more like relationships between people. You will always find strong melancholy and at the same time a lot of energy and this fancy feeling in my poetry. Right now I am spending a lot of time trying to make my own poetry, hopefully for some new songs. And it's more about these existential questions, about finding it hard to be a part of this world sometimes. (laughs) But matters like when do I loose myself. How to manage to be close to another person and not loosing yourself.
Carina: Back to the current album "Wayfaring stranger": The title-song is a very famous song, which both Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash sang before. Why did you choose it as the title-song of your album? What does it express for you personally?
Kristin: For me that is such a wonderful travelling song and it really says so many important things about being alone. And at the same time we all are together in this loneliness. We all are on our way through this life. It is actually a song I have learned as an Afro-American spiritual, but other people are singing it as an Irish folk-song or Romany-people-folk-song. It is also a song that also says something about strength, about the universal strength of these songs. So it's really one of the first spirituals I actually started to work with seventeen years ago. And it's been one of the most important songs to me. It's very sacred!
Carina: Do you have a sort of philosophy for life?
Kristin: I always fight a lot. I think, it's hard to live. I always try to find my own place in a way. It is also important to give attention to the search for a place where you feel included and embraced in a way. And not at least in yourself! So I think, I can relate to the aspect of being a "wayfaring stranger". Both a stranger and being on my way. I always focus a lot on my way and to be moving. And at the same time on not trying to run away from myself. It's not a philosophy, but some thoughts…
CD: Kristin Asbjørnsen - "Wayfaring Stranger"
(Emarcy / Universal 60251 7050617)
Kristin Asbjørnsen im Internet: www.kristinsong.com
Emarcy Records im Internet: www.emarcy.com
Fotos: Universal Jazz