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Silje Nergaard in Jazzwise

Jazz singers might be two a penny these days but Norwegian Silje Nergaard hopes to stand out from the crowd by keeping her ears open to all kinds of music and sticking to her own material. (This article first appeared in the July issue of Jazzwise and is reproduced by kind permission of the author)

27/07/2004 :: Appearances can be deceptive, especially when appearances are presented by professional photographers. Take Silje (pronounced Celia) Nergaard, a Norwegian chanteuse who, judging by her album covers, is presented as a cross between Madonna and Geri Halliwell. In conversation, however, you soon become aware of the fact that hers is not a casual commitment to either singing or to the music of her choice. ‘I came from a musical family – the house was filled with music from when I was born. My father played the guitar, my mother was singing – there was always music in my house, and always singing. They were both amateurs, but my father told me he was a really really good guitar player!’ This reminded me of Sean Penn’s character’s self-assessment of himself as the ‘second-best guitarist in the world – after Django Reinhardt’ in Woody Allen’s Sweet & Lowdown, and I mentioned this to Silje, who laughingly agreed with the comparison. ‘I knew it was not true but it was nice to think of him that way!’

Nergaard began playing piano at the age of seven, but after a few years got bored learning classical pieces by rote and instead switched to learning theory form a local pianist, to give her a basis for accompanying herself singing and to allow her to write songs. ‘It was the beginning of my composing, which I think is the main thing that has driven me to become a musician. I had a lot of things inside me I wanted to gring out, and my father told me I was very musical right from the start, picking up the harmonies when singing at a very early age with my sister at home. I’d forget the words but I’d get the harmony! My ear was my strength, because I didn’t have a spectacular voice or anything like that.’

As a young musician – and even to this day – Nergaard rarely considered such questions that tend to obsess critics of all persuasion such as ‘what genre am I performing in?’ or ‘am I a jazz singer or am I a soul singer?’ ‘When I create’, Nergaard says, ‘I never think like that. Back at home my house was full of very different music, my parents had lots of different records playing – Abba, jazz, pop, classical – so I just learned to love good songs. Then in my teenage years I was very inerested in singer-songwriters, mainly, like Joni Mitchell and Al Jarreau, you know when he was playing around and scatting, so this was a main influence, because he was so playful. And Stevie Wonder’

These singers all dealt with combinations of acoustic and electric instruments in their music, and this is a trait in Nergaard’s recordings as well. She was not sure that this was a direct influence, but she was sure that the intimacy their records projected was a big part of what attracted her to them. It was something she very much aspired to for her own discs. It also confirmed her decision to make her own way in music, not go to music school but fashion her own style through her instincts. Like other Norwegian musicians, Nergaard benefited in this by living in a society that willingly embraced all manner of musical influences from abroad, rather than allowing just one or two main musical streams to dominate. So she heard a lot of things in a casual way on radio and on TV as she grew up, which would be hard to replicate in other countries, France perhaps being the exception. That, plus the slower pace of life and the sheer amount of space living in Norway gives people allowed her the unpressured time to develop an individual approach.

She appreciates the importance of this space and privacy because, during the previous decade, she spent four years in London. ‘Although it was interesting and I’ve still got friends and I learned about the industry – it became a bit too intense. It was so big and then agian, it was so little, So intense, and I couldn’t breathe in the end and I needed more space. I didn’t feel so creative at the end of that period. This was probably because I’d grown up with less people, less noise, less disturbances.’

Her professional career started in clubs, ‘and I stayed there, ‘ she remembered ruefully, ‘for many many years!’ At the age of 19 she moved to Oslo, hired some musicians, ‘booked my own gigs and started to tour. This is how it all started. I was young and although I didn’t relax that much about the music, I didn’t feel the pressure. I was in a creative mood: young and eager to create – I didn’t know about any difficulties that careers get. I was very naive, which I think was good. It’s better to get disappointed a hundred times and still keep being naive, I think, than give up.’ She steered clear of managers for years, made her own demos (always her own material), kept looking for deals, then came to London at the age of 21. ‘Then it started happening for me. I came to meet Richard Niles, and we started a little label there. I’d given my cassette to Pat Metheny – I always did, whenever he came to Oslo, for some reason – he was one of my heroes – and it was this one song, “Tell Me Where You’re going”, that started my whole career. It made it in England also, in 1990.’

Niles liked he tape and brought Nergaard over to make an album. The stir this made in music circles in Oslo – local girl makes good – got things off the ground for her in Norway. She had her own record label – she put the records in the sleeves herself. EMI Norway picked up on the single after radio exposure, and she signed to them. Toshiba EMI in Japan also signed her. ‘They love the blonde hair, and they also likes melodies, ‘ Nergaard suggested as the reason for this. England, however, failed to succumb, even though she moved to London in an effort to break through. Nergaard learned the hard way what media frustrations could come her way – being kept on tenterhooks for days, for example, as to whether she’d landed a spot on Terry Wogan, only for it to fall through. ‘In England you need TV to be a hit’, she notes, ‘but you need a hit to get on TV.’

After four years and two albums of trying for an English success to compare with the Norwegian one with EMI, she went back to Oslo. ‘I felt very stubborn and strong, but I just didn’t want to live there, I just wanted to go home.’ By the mid-90s she was back in Oslo and ready for a change, of sorts. ‘My first three albums were more pop with a jazz influence,’ she recalls. ‘I wanted to do something more acoustic, more intimate, so I did two CDs in Norwegian on a little label: they were doing OK. And then I had a long break for four years. I had a child, and people were always asking me “when are you coming back?”, but I left it a while. Then I did an album of standards, which then was not such a popular thing to choose as it is now! I was honestly interested in singing these songs because they inspired me and I needed to change my writing and singing: I couldn’t do it without digging into the material a little more and learning from that. It was refreshing. I paid for it myself, we hardly got a deal on it, but we did with Universal and that became for some reason a success...it’s very unpredictable! That was the jazz album. This was my revival, in way.’

That album remained a one-off. Nergaard regarded herself as not the type of singer who could carve a career out for herself as a singer of standards, and anyway, she was much more interested in continuing to write her own material. ‘I wanted to compose in a way that made me feel free and playful again,’ she comments. Her style didn’t shift much – she still looked for that intimacy and closeness she’d specialised in on her early-90s albums – but the rest of the world had moved on, allowing for such an approach to become fashionable. As ever, the overnight success that took 10 years to arrive. ‘It’s all about timing,’ she thinks. ‘It’s about hitting something, or filling a hole, and suddenly there was room for my music, I was doing something nobody else at the time did.’ Here comes success, as Iggy Pop sang back in the degenerate 1970s. ‘I never expected success,’ Silje asserts, ‘I just thought it be nice.’ So far, that success has not included the USA. ‘I have not performed in the States...they’re a bit...they protect their own....But I’ve never been an America-is-the-goal person. I love Europe, I love going to all the countries in Europe, I think Europe is a really interesting place. The people are open-minded and they have a lot of energy. Each country also ahs its cultural stories and they’re really good to know. I had a tour in Germany recently and they were the perfect audience, they are so ready to listen.’

With all this going on, I wondered what her main interests were outside of her career. “Well, I have two children. They are my main interest. They are six years and 11 months. So as you understand, the days don’t have so much space for other interests, although I have an interest in sculpture. I am interested in art, because I am also a creative artist. I have had exhibitions of sculpture – as in clay – but it is so time-consuming. It is just there: as Joni Mitchell says, “it’s not gone, it’s just underground.” It’s waiting, but I have to choose, my time is valuable, and just to write these songs takes enough time.’

Nergaard recently sang at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival to generally warm reviews, and her record company have been assiduously shaking the trees of jazz critics such as myself to get us to react to her presence. After that, she will be be appearing at festivals in Europe throughout the summer, including the North Sea Festival. Nergaard thinks it will be busy but not too busy – for example, on coming to England for Cheltenham she brought her baby with her, making time in the schedule for them to be together for decent stretches. ‘She may be only 11 months but she digs the music. She’s standing backstage and she digs the music. She’s into this stuff – I can feel that she’s born into the whole chaos!’

England will remain a place on her itinerary for some time to come, a place she hope to be able to tour more regularly in the future. ‘I still have a place in my heart for it,’ she claims. ‘After all of these years, you know sometimes you hate it and then you love it, so that’s something I definetely want to do. We’ll also be going to the Far East again later in the year, and in Portugal.’ Not at all bad, if one can structure the time sufficiently to give breathing space in each place, allowing oneself to take in what is going on around you. Somehow I suspect that Silje Nergaard will manage this, because she is so aware of what is going on around her and so determined to make things work to her advantage in a world where everything is a commodity and personal insights translated into music have never been valued so cheaply. Whatever your thoughts are about having yet another female singer being thrust in you direction by a major record company, bear this in mind when staring at the glossy pictures in the magazines.


LISTEN UP \\ Take Three

Port Of Call
EmArcy

Released in 2000, this was the album that announced Nergaard’s return to her music career after four years away bringing up her first-born child. It is the standards album, delivered with a samll group rather than a big band, and it has the distinguishing trait among such standards albums of containing no less than three of her own tunes, written in partnership with Mike McGurk. Apart from that, it’s Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers and the boys, with Sting and Paul Simon thrown in to break it up a little. Ahead of its time, really.

At First Light
EmArcy

The subsequent album for her new record company and released the following year, 2001. This is – bar the wonderful ‘Two Sleepy People’, a nod to both composer Hoagy Carmichael and to Fats Waller, who made the song famous, and Stevie Wonder’s Blame It On The Sun’ – Nergaard’s music is all the way, lyrics once more courtesy of Mike McGurk. Features an expanded personnel including string sections and horns, from time to time.

Nightwatch
EmArcy

Mixing small and large ensembles again for this latest release, issued in 2003. Nergaard concentrates even more closely on her own material here, coming up with both music and lyrics on one song, ‘On And On’, and allowing just hte one cover version, a choice that seems at first glance a little odd, but not in the light of her declared adoration of his music in the accompanying article: Pat Metheny’s collaboration with David Bowie, ‘This Is Not America’.

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Photo: Mathia Bothor

Photo: Mathia Bothor

Photo: Mathia Bothor

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