Kristin Asbjørnsen is currently living in two parallel musical worlds. Her second solo album The night shines like the day was recently released in Norway to massive critical acclaim, while her first, Wayfaring Stranger, is simultaneously making headlines in France. Late March saw Kristin being bestowed with the Babel Med – Mondomix award in Marseilles.
Sixteen years –and about as many records– after she graduated from the jazz program at the music academy in Trondheim Kristin Asbjørnsen has firmly established herself as one of the truly unique voices in the musical intersection of jazz, world music, religious songs and pop. Her music can be summed up as diverse, powerful and highly melodic. But the main character is the exceptional voice and her remarkable presence. For Kristin music is not simply a craft or an artistic expression, it is a way of being human.
-I like rowing, says Kristin Asbjørnsen, and sometimes I feel that working with music can be compared to the heavy strokes of the oars that create movement. In my life music is what makes things move and come alive.
The night shines like the day was a difficult record to make. It was not an album she had planned at all. Born out of a sorrowful phase of her life, it was a record that came into being unintended –as an emotional process materialized as songs. However, it is important for Kristin to point out that it was not the pain and sadness in itself that became a source of creativity, rather it was the experience of accepting the state of being she found herself in that became such a rich ore.
-It has become clearer to me than before that music is a site; it is a clearing where fundamental aspects of life meet and reconcile. I realize that my entire vocation with music has to do with reconciling the contrasts of life. This record ensued from a situation where I felt that I was facing a complex of emotions that I had to address. I don’t mean to say that I consciously used music therapeutically, it is the other way around really: I discovered that music is my way of dealing with life; it is a place to become whole. So in the situation I was in I had to make these songs.
Another aspect of the hard rowing that The night shines like the day represented for Kristin is the fact that for the first time she wrote all the music and the words herself. She has previously written both a lot of music as well as the words for many songs, but the combination of both was a new experience.
-Writing music and the words simultaneously means that there arises a dialogue between the two. It is not the way I am used to working. I found that the creative process became circular and that music and words interplayed in a mutually progressive way. In a way this record delineates a full circle on a different level too, because when I started writing songs as a teenager I would always work with the melodies and the words simultaneously, so I’m back where I started.
A recurring trait of most of Kristin’s music with the bands Dadfon and Krøyt, and more recently with her solo work, is a strong sense of melody. We ask her about her ability to write music that quickly becomes internalized in the listener, regardless of the theme and atmosphere of the song.
-I think my love of melody, and perhaps an ability to write open and capturing melodies, has to do with being a vocalist. Over the years I have acquired an attitude and an approach to music where the melody is central. As a singer the melody is my expressive arena; that is where I need to find the spaces that can contain me. For this reason the sense of melody is a general musical resource for vocalists. We approach music and find our footing in new songs by means of melody, which means that we are very used to identifying and also creating melodies.
More specifically I think that having worked with spirituals over many years has contributed to this attitude: I’m drawn towards simple and open structures, the embracing character of the melodies and the repetitions. I believe in exposing the fundamentals of a song. Isolating a core melody and working with repetitions opens up and expands the musical experience.
Kristin explains that the songs on The night shines like the day came into being while she was touring with the Wayfaring Stranger album. So the new songs are clearly influenced by the expression and symbolism of the spirituals, while at the same time they mark a distinct departure.
-The songs developed from being a means of confronting my innermost emotions to more structured song writing. The whole prospect of making something this personal into a record was very alarming to me at first. But then I realized that if music could be a place for reconciliation for me –and work as a clearing or an open site, so to speak– it might perhaps have the same value for others. However, since the songs are essentially personal and simple tunes with a sad and darkish general motif, it was important for me to juxtapose this character with something else in the arrangements and the production. I wanted to blend the quiet sorrow of the songs with the kind of trickling, patchwork qualities that you find in West African music. Presenting my ideas to the musicians –for the first time everything was mine– was a bit of a challenge. I gave them one CD with me alone on a piano, and one CD with music from Mali. But they caught on to the idea and we managed to get the balance the way I had hoped, which is of course also a reflection of the title and the theme of the record: light interspersed with darkness; trickling through it.
This ensemble of musicians, consisting of Tord Gustafsen, Olav Torget, Svante Heryson, Jostein Ansnes and Knut Aalefjær, is currently touring with Kristin in Norway. But parallel to this, and in between, she is also doing concerts in Europe with her Wayfaring Stranger material.
-It is not a problem, because I am so immersed in both records now. Moreover, the two projects are kept apart by the fact that I play with two different ensembles. What is happening in Europe is very exciting. France has been a country I’ve kind of zoomed in on for a few years now, so it is really fantastic with the sales and the attention, not least the nomination for this prize. And in Germany too Wayfaring Stranger has fared really well –I think maybe because they have a strong gospel tradition there– so now the new record is due there in June. There will be a lot of switching between material and between countries, but I enjoy living in two parallel worlds.
Ed. Note: On March 28th - Kristin was bestowed with The Babel Med – Mondomix awards in the new «mix» category - she also performed a well received set at the festival.