It’s not every day that a psychology and theology student from Oslo ends up on Japanese dance compilations that sell nearly half a million copies. The fact that the same student just snaps her fingers and hey presto! gets the Norwegian jazz élite (read: ECM’s studio stable) to play for her is equally unusual. To say that Bertine Zetlitz is an ordinary pop star is just not true; and she must be the first dance artist in the world to maintain that the lyrics are the most important thing!
She was born in ’75 and has composed for piano and guitar since she was twelve. At upper secondary school, she chose to study singing with a voice that was a natural light soprano. Of course, Morbid Latenight Show is not your average dance CD, even though it and she are usually catalogued that way. The melodies are imbued with a warm, naïve jazz feeling that is both rhythmic and atmospheric. The radio hit Snow On A Hot Day is just what bass-thumping, hypnotic radio hits should be – so irritatingly hearable that housework is boring without it.
The cool bossa nova Apples And Diamonds reinforces the impression of modest, retiring themes that creep into your consciousness and stay there. The jazz composition In My Mind reveals musical and lyrical depths that are lacking in most of her contemporaries in this genre. This is the one where the débutante gets the jazz A-team, Arild Andersen (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums), to accompany her. The lyrics have a poetic sting and are viable on their own, as evidenced by successful performances without music at a number of poetry evenings.
Zetlitz is interested in melding elements from the dance/club culture with lyrically-centred music. She believes the secret of being a good vocalist is to hold back; she doesn’t want to stand in the way of the words. Her strength lies not in volume or power but in what the vowels and consonants actually mean in the far-from-coincidental order in which they are uttered.
She convincingly opened her stage début for Oslo’s glitterati with an a capella rendering of Little Rosie – a song for her best friend, a rape victim. You have to have natural self-confidence, trust in your material and an overall objective to expose yourself like that. On the other hand, in this way it takes the 2 minutes 28 seconds of melody to convince a surprised audience that it would do well to concentrate on the lyrics.
You don’t have to be an astrophysicist or familiar with the concept of atonality to enjoy Bertine Zetlitz’s music. It makes demands on your feet, heart and head and contains more than the instinctive sounds commonly heard in clubland. Most of the hard work consists of giving the music a soul – it’s a creative process, whereas the composition itself is pure craftsmanship. The challenge out there in the jungle where market forces reign supreme is to combine the soulful with the commercial.
Following Bertine Zetlitz in the years ahead may be a breathtaking manoeuvre. She is working with poets, classical and jazz musicians, djs and producers and at the same time preparing a new CD, due to be released in the first half of ’99. She still wants to write the lyrics and music herself – in that order. And it’s only two years since she was acclaimed the saviour of Norwegian pop music.
Norwegian pop and the rest of the pop world may well prove to need and deserve a modicum of thought and consistency – and a litte latenight morbidity!