Norwegians love the banjo and bring a natural sense of melancholy to their music.
Many people enjoyed the 2000 film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’, but in Norway, it also helped kickstarted the nordicana genre when some local musicians were inspired to blend their music with americana and take up the banjo or mandolin and play bluegrass. nordicana has proved to be more than a flash in the pan, and Darling West are one of Norway’s leading americana acts. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with the core of the band, Mari and Tor Egil Kreken, who with Thomas Gallatin and Christer Slaaen, are Darling West, to discuss nordicana and their new album, ‘Cosmos’. Norwegian folk music definitely has influenced Darling West, as have Bon Iver and Fleetwood Mac, and they explain that with ‘Cosmos’ they have added more of a pop feel to their music, as well as opening up the songwriting within the band. Mari Kreken explains that all Darling West lyrics are written and sung in English, and Tor Egil shares his obsession with guitar players. Finally, the Krekens reveal that it is Mari who controls the finances for the band.
How are you and where are you?
Tor Egil Kreken (TEK): We are fine, we are at home right now in our apartment in Oslo.
Tell me about nordicana and the music scene that surrounds it.
Mari Kreken (MK): A growing scene, and that’s for sure. I’m not sure who coined the term nordicana, but I think it is very much to the point of what we are doing because while we are looking West for our americana influence, we are also adding our Nordic twist to it. There are a lot of bands, particularly in Oslo, but also in the smaller cities. It started twenty years ago now with that movie, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, where everybody just wanted to play bluegrass and bought a banjo or mandolin and tried to play really fast. Some people just stuck with the bluegrass, but for a lot of others, it took a turn to listening to more americana.
You mentioned the Nordic twist, what is it that makes americana nordicana?
TEK: Apart from poor pronunciation, I think it is very interesting the way the music goes back and forth between the continents for a long time, but maybe we also have a tendency towards melancholy in the Nordic countries and that could bleed into it a bit, and our folk music has a tonality that might seep into it. Some bands are using it, Northern Bell for instance, who have been using traditional Norwegian fiddle and other instruments. So that is some of it.
MK: Yeah, I think melancholy is a big part of it.
David Lindley made a couple of albums of Norwegian folk music.
TEK: ‘The Sweet Sunny North’ and ‘The Sweet Sunny North Vol 2’ I think they were called. It is incredible to listen to him and Henry Kaiser recording with traditional Norwegian folk musicians, such an interesting blend.
What were the songwriting dynamics around ‘Cosmos’?
MK: It was a bit different to the way we used to do it before. Tor and I used to be up in the mountains writing by ourselves. We are a couple so wherever we are, even if we are on vacation, it is easy to put in a bit of songwriting, and we will come back to the people who play with us, for a while that has been Christer Siaaen and Thomas Gallatin, but this time we thought it would be fun if we included them more in the process of actually writing the songs. So we went to a beautiful place on the west coast of Norway, where they have a studio called Ocean Sound and wrote some songs together. There are ten songs on there, and they weren’t all written over there at that time, we had a few ideas coming into the project and we just developed them together, and some of them we started from scratch, all four of us. It was a really fun and different kind of process. Before we started writing we had that thing, do you remember the pandemic, and at the start of the lockdown we started a project on YouTube that we called ‘Friday Sessions’, so we learnt a new song every week, covers, and did a little a live video of us doing the song, and it has been very enlightening to learn other people’s songs as well as you have to if you are going to perform their songs, sing their lyrics, and play their chords. That has also seeped into our songwriting this time, I think.
How did you record ‘Cosmos’ and what is the music infrastructure like in Norway, how easy is it to record and produce music?
MK: There are lots of people with a studio in Norway, these days, it doesn’t require as much as it did before, but the good quality facilities are certainly fewer and farther between, I guess.
TEK: Our guitar player, Christer, has a studio that has been there since the ‘70s, so it is a well-designed studio with a tape machine and stuff, so you can decide whether you want to record old-school with analogue or digitally with a computer. We recorded most of the album there, and we are very fortunate that way because we don’t have a clock we feel we have to fight.
Or pay for it.
TEK: That’s right
MK: You don’t pay the invoices so you wouldn’t know, there was a clock.
TEK: Ignorance is bliss in this case.
MK: We had more time this time around because people weren’t as busy as they used to be before the pandemic. This happened around the few lockdowns we had, so we had more time, absolutely, and that is very handy when you want to make a record with lots of layers to it, and hidden little things. As with everywhere else, I guess, if you want to be a musician in Norway you have to work extremely hard to make it on a certain level, but it is good to work with art and sometimes it is a success and sometimes it is not. It is so fulfilling to be able to do it, everybody doing it is still happy and content with being able to do it at all. There is funding from our government which makes it easier for people who play more defined music, like jazz, and weird stuff. There is a big spectrum of musicians who can make music in Norway.
Tell me about the guests on ‘Cosmos’ and what did they bring to the music?
TEK: We’ve been listening to the new LA folk scene for a long time, Ethan Gruska, and people from other places as well like Bon Iver, and they have all been using Rob Moose as a string arranger. We had a dream of working with him as our arranger so we reached out and he agreed, so he is on two songs on the album, ‘Old Man’ and ‘Till Night Turns To Day’.
MK: It was incredible, he opened it up in a way we just didn’t imagine we would get to experience.
TEK: Michaela Anne sings harmonies on ‘Echoes’ and ‘Till Night Turns To Day’, she is a great friend of ours and we are so happy she wanted to do that.
MK: After doing ‘Friday Sessions’ on YouTube which turned into something called ‘Family Sessions’, we’ve been working with a lot of other artists, just coming together to play a song together, and one of those times we were doing something with a Norwegian artist called Jarle Bernhoft, and he is extremely talented and he has a beautiful voice. At that time we were just trying to lure him to sing background vocals on our songs and he is on there. We have this very uplifting song called ‘Light Ahead’, which is about living your life and in the dark times seeing the light, and we wanted someone to express that together with us who had lived a life and had a very expressive voice. The first one we came up with was Matthew Logan Vasquez who is a friend of ours from Austin. He has an extremely powerful rock type vocal, and we wouldn’t be able to express that, and he is singing on that song, and he made it into what it is now.
How would you describe the music on ‘Cosmos’ to someone who maybe hasn’t heard Darling West?
MK: That’s a hard question. We like to use the term cosmic folk when we are making music because it is, I don’t know, cosmic. This record is quite eclectic so it is hard to pinpoint a certain genre and it is more pop than we used to be. We’ve been taking some more modern steps, but the banjo is still there so it is still nordicana, and some of the music is still rooted in the folk music tradition where you tell a story, or you have an elaborate universe with the lyrics, and some of them are more pop orientated lyric wise this time. A little bit more hidden, which is always fun to play around with, and it also means something particular to us that we don’t really want to tell people about because the listener can have their own experience with it.
TEK: I’ve been desperately trying to think of something else to add, but I think there is definitely even more of a band feeling this time than there has been before.
MK: When we have been playing our new songs live recently, people have been coming up with references like Fleetwood Mac, we really love laying those vocal harmonies on as much as we can.
TEK: It is a lot of fun to hear people say that they hear some similarities, it is amazing.
MK: It is what we’ve been told, it is not us comparing ourselves to them, we would never do that.
How are you going to make sure ‘Cosmos’ is heard outside of Norway?
MK: That’s a job for our PR people. We make the music and we want to reach as far as we can.
TEK: We are definitely a band doing it the old-fashioned way of just touring and trying to build an audience. We’ve been touring a lot in some parts of Europe, especially in parts of Germany and the Netherlands, but we haven’t been that much to the UK, apart from Americana UK, which was so much fun. I think that is how we need to do it, just go on tours and promote ourselves that way.
MK: We love travelling and playing live, it is great to be in the studio and creating music and finding things out, but it is so different communicating our music live, so we want to continue doing that.
Have You Been To America very often?
TEK: We’ve been a few times, and we did a few tours before the pandemic, and we went back in March to play SXSW in Austin, Texas, and we did quite a few radio stations. It is a bit like beating a dead horse because it is so hard to get work visas these days so we don’t have any plans of going and touring there, but SXSW and possibly Americanafest in Nashville we can do without a visa, but other than that it is really challenging to do anything else. So, I think Europe is a safer bet for us.
MK: We would love to come to the UK, we would just need an agent. We write our songs in English, and it is very rewarding to play our songs live where people have that as their first language. You guys put the music and the lyrics together instantly, whereas Norwegians speak English quite well, it is just how the brain works that it isn’t so easy for them to put it together instantly, they have to hear it a few times. So we would love to come to the UK.
TEK: Our favourite thing to do on a Sunday morning when we want to relax is to watch classic British crime shows. So we would like to visit all those places we have seen.
TEK: That would be a lot of fun for sure.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
MK: I’m really slow downloading things on my phone so when I’m on a plane I’m like oh, I’m still listening to these albums, then again, I do enjoy getting to know albums really well, so this is an old reference, ‘Big Red Machine’ by that Bon Iver guy. There is also a Norwegian artist called Susanne Aartun Sundfør, who is a bit arty but what she came out with a few weeks ago is just beautiful. She sings amazingly and just does weird stuff with a lot of attitude.
TEK: I love to listen to guitar music, and for a long time I’ve been interested in desert blues, there are so many great artists, but the band that made me get into that music was Tinariwen, so my recommendation is any album that they made because they are all superb. Also, there’s an album I’ve been listening to a lot recently is ‘Superwolves’ by Will Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billie and Matt Sweeney is just brilliant, and Mdou Moctar, the Tuareg guitar player, is on that album as well.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
MK: Enjoy the music, it means so much to your brain and your body to let the music in. So I think it is like a jungle out there, there is so much to listen to and you can fall into apathy and you might just listen to a podcast, podcasts are great still, but it is hard to take it all in but take some of it in, let it seep in and listen to it a lot of times and let it speak to you. It is good for us humans.
TEK: We also like to encourage people to go to shows, it’s been a bit slower since the pandemic, but I think it is so healthy to go out and experience live music.
MK: We had an incredible experience doing this together after the pandemic, you just forgot you needed it and then one morning we drove to a really scenic place where a friend of ours had an improvised piano concert. We hadn’t experienced live music for a year, or something, and we felt kind of stressed in a pandemic kind of way, but when he started playing that piano something just clicked in the body. I think we forget how healthy it is for us.
Darling West’s ‘Cosmos’ is out now on Jansen Records.