Susanne Sundfør began playing violin at the age of 8, took piano lessons at 9, singing at 12, and guitar at 13. At 17 she began songwriting out of necessity to try her hand at a career in music. "In Norway, at that time, you had to write your own music to get anywhere in the business and I really wanted to work as a musician but I wanted to do my own thing as well so I guess that's why I started writing," Sundfør explains as we chat before her show at Club Bahia, a Latin dance club edging its way into the modern music by booking indie-leaning music acts during the week. The stage was set up in front of a giant dance floor with a slew of tables along the outskirts. Dave Chappelle recently did a secret performance at the unexpected venue choice. It seems as if not all things are as they seem.
Her first foray into writing drew inspiration from from the romantic folk scene, largely influenced by her father's record collection containing artists such as Simon & Garfunkel and Cat Stevens. At 19, her booking agent, who she still works with to this day, landed Sundfør gigs across Norway where she traveled solo with her guitar and played lots of other out-of-the-box venues. "I did a show on a tiny island for a guy who was celebrating his 30th birthday," Sundfør recounts of her earliest performances. "It was all dancing music and for some reason he had booked me to play. I think some people just call a booking agency and they ask for, I just want someone to play. There was nobody listening. It was very, very strange. I remember right before I went on—and this is quite naked and sensitive music, it's not like I'm standing there dancing or whatever—so right before I'm going on I'm talking with this girl." Here Sundfør adopts a Valley Girl accent, "She's like, you know I love it when people just play in the background and I can just talk to people and then there's like music in the background? So good luck!" It's hard to decide whether the situation would make you laugh, weep for humanity, or a combination of the two. "I was basically booked as background music so that was funny."
At the time of our meeting, Sundfør was in the midst of her North American tour to support her latest album, Ten Love Songs, which was a more solo endeavor than her prior work. "Before I would let things go. I would bring it to the studio and then I would make the arrangement. Then the producer would sort of take over or we would work together, but this time, since I was doing it mostly on my own, there was a lot more details I had to pay attention to. I was much more critical. It took a long time and a lot of work to be satisfied with the songs this time. She claims she drank plenty of white wine to stay on track while holed up in the studio - a practice she doesn't recommend. The most notable thing about Ten Love Songs is that it have an almost story-like quality to it. How much was fact and how much was fiction? Although we didn't delve into the particulars, each song maintains its root from a personal place despite whether the direction is rooted in reality or not. "I want to write something that can maybe hit people in the head. No, but you know, emotionally. The themes have to be from something I have experienced but it doesn't have to be an episode. It can be just like a feeling that I want to convey."
As the band sets up on the stage, I have to ask about the performance aspect of her show. Sundfør is no stranger to large-scale productions, having performed with the likes of M83 and Röyksopp. Shows get bigger and more theatrical to draw crowds, especially due in part to it now becoming one of the few revenue streams for artists in lieu of album sales, often at the risk of drowning out the heart of the music being performed. "It's always been a battle between being just a musician on stage and being a performer because I think it's been a very long process for me to understand that the best way that I can perform is actually to just focus on the music." While she would love to add in a cool lighting effect to the show, she'd prefer to stay away from flashbag performances. "I was worried maybe that people weren't having fun and then I realized that I don't think people go to my shows to have fun necessarily," she admits. "So now I just I focus on just playing well with the band and that we perform it well."
The music industry can be a bloody landscape and Sundfør acknowledges this aspect. "I just think the music industry is struggling because we don't have much money and then that makes the companies more nervous about releasing more left-field music or avant garde or stuff that isn't super commercial. It's not that I have anything against being commercial—I think Taylor Swift is an amazing songwriter—so it's not about that. It's more when you listen to the radio and it's just a repetition so things aren't moving forward and I think people need that. People need to feel like they belong to something or something is happening and people are saying something new. I can't really see that happening at the moment but I think that we will have a counter-reaction very soon."
Written by Jordan Blakeman
Photography by Robiee Ziegler