Following a year in the rehearsal studio and three successive years spent as an acclaimed live-act, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra debuted with a bang in 2004 with their ‘List of Lights and Buoys’. Since their debut, the duo consisting of Morten Qvenild and Susanna Wallumrød has been a sought-after feature at venues and festivals at home and abroad and now they’re finally ready with their second album ‘Melody Mountain’ (out now on Rune Grammofon). What then, could Leonard Cohen, AC/DC, Matt Burt, Prince, Joy Division, Kiss, Bob Dylan, Scott Walker, Depeche Mode and Sandy Denny possibly have in common?
Their brand new album ‘Melody Mountain’ saw its release this week while the duo debuted the material at a praised performance at Oslo’s Øya Festival last week. Two years have passed since ‘List of Lights and Buoys’ – how has the duo worked in order to develop its form of expression during this time?
Says Wallumrød: “When we began working on ‘Melody Mountain’ I felt a need to think outside the box, approach the process from a different angle and test some new ideas. When we first started to work together back in 2000, we focussed on cover tunes with acoustic piano and vocals. We wanted to go back to that starting point.”
“Our first album stands by itself” says keyboardist/programmer Morten Qvenild. “It didn’t feel quite right to continue to build upon that release. ‘Melody Mountain was supposed to be an EP, but that wasn’t to be – we had a number of tunes that we felt could be compiled into a totality, an album.”
‘Melody Mountain’ is entirely made up of cover tunes. Joining these separate renditions into a coherent whole has presented Wallumrød and Qvenild with a number of challenges. Susanna, do you feel that you’re able to express yourself satisfactorily through other people’s lyrics? “For me it’s much a question of what I feel is a strong lyric, something that I can subscribe to on a musical level. It’s not as if I feel that it’s only I that write strong tunes in this world. It all depends on if I’m able to apply something that’s mine to the tune. Sometimes you’re able to penetrate into the matter, sometimes you don’t. Why it is so I don’t really know?
Sound-wise, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra’s music has a distinctly acoustic character. Even if Qvenild has put various electronic instruments into use, the overall character of ‘Melody Mountain’ is decidedly acoustic. A shift in paradigm, compared to the debut album. Says Qvenild: “We’ve gone back to using acoustic instruments while also focusing on making the electronic elements sound acoustic.”
AC/DC and cembalo
Acoustic instruments featured on the duo’s second album include cembalo, organ and piano while the arrangements of the renditions are minimalist versions of often grand tracks such as Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode, Crazy, Crazy, Nights by Kiss and It’s a Long Way to the Top by AC/DC. The re-arrangements of the cover tunes have been made jointly by Wallumrød and Qvenild. Says the talented keyboardist/programmer/composer/arranger: “It was a really hard trick to pull off. You’ve got a tune which means a lot to you and you’re about to re-define it for yourself. You cannot do it half-heartedly. You end up becoming extremely focussed on finding solutions that fit in with the sound that we want to present. One example: AC/DC on cembalo?”
Says Wallumrød: “AC/DC and cembalo together aren’t exactly the first words that spring to mind for most people. It is a matter of having openness with regard to the source of the musical material. We’ve been focussed on having a broad scope and we’ve questioned ourselves whether if there is something we could add to the various tunes. The same approach goes for what instruments we’ve decided to use.”
“That idea popped up pretty quickly, I don’t know why, but cembalo rocks!” says Qvenild. “It packs a punch and is very distinct, almost too distinct when you record it with close miking. We wanted something distinct and tight and I feel the instrument definitely lived up to our expectations.”
Next topic: track selection. With the exception of Matt Burt’s These Days we find virtually only well known and cherished tracks. In addition to the above mentioned tracks the listener will find cover versions of tunes by Prince, Joy Division, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sandy Denny and Scott Walker on the on ‘Melody Mountain’.
The listener will be treated to renditions of familiar tunes such as Hallelujah(Cohen), Love Will Tear Us Apart(Joy Division), Enjoy The Silence(Depeche Mode) and Fotheringay(Denny) – all of them are tracks that have been mainstays on the Susanna and the Magical Orchestra live repertoire lately.
What have been the criteria for selection of tunes?
Wallumrød: “It is based on a wish of showing people that there is something more present in many types of music, much more than what it might seem at first glance.”
Many people might share that sentiment already, given the vast popularity of the material featured on ‘Melody Mountain’?
Says Wallumrød: “Even if many know these tunes well already, not all do. Those who are into AC/DC probably like the band’s songs in their original form; we do hope that they can appreciate our renditions too. Perhaps someone who doesn’t even like AC/DC could even like our version. And that’s also a purpose with this album; a tune can appear in many forms and have different content. It’s got to do with presentation of the material; a given tempo or the amount of energy put into the rendition can change it substantially. By shifting the composition’s focus you can alter the tracks appearance.”
Qvenild: “We could might as well have chosen only unknown tunes, but through this process the well-known and familiar tracks popped up simply because they’re strong. It’s my hope that one get to experience these tunes in a new way and that the end result is a totally new listening experience.”
For this journalist, the high-point on ‘Melody Mountain’ is the rendition of Condition of the Heart by Prince. The version could serve as a symbol of the inherent fragility and minimalist expression that characterises the album. The tempo is set to the lowest gear transmission, the ambiance lingers in the air and the vocal presence is strong. It really sounds as if lyrics and melody has been thoroughly absorbed by Wallumrød and Qvenild.
Says Wallumrød: “I cannot divulge what the lyrics mean to me as this would limit the listener’s experience. However, I can say that a high degree of honesty is paramount, and that honesty can be expressed in a number of ways. I feel that this tune does it for me, not just the lyrics but also the composition as a whole. I had never heard the tune before Øystein Greni (Big Bang front man) gave us a tip while we were working on the album. The original Price version is pretty spaced-out, but so is much of his stuff. We’ve made a much more down-to-earth version.”
Says Qvenild: “The Prince track was a new discovery for me too. When it comes to the Kiss track, it was I that first became aware of Crazy, Crazy Nights but it was Susanna that had to persuade me that we needed to include it on the album. I heard the tune on (Norwegian commercial radio station) P4 and thought “shit, that’s a goddamn pretty tune, but can we pull it off? But then again, you can pull off almost anything as long as you’re honest about it. Right?”
‘Melody Mountain’ is out now on Rune Grammofon.
Susanna and the Magical Orchestra are set to tour the UK in the beginning of October – tour dates are found in the Calendar section.
This article originally appeared on MIC's Norwegian web-site Ballade.no and has been translated and adopted for use on mic.no/english
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