Interview: Norwegian Malin Pettersen on americana and Ella FitzGerald

Norway only has a population of 5.3 million people, but it has an impressive musical heritage which includes Norwegian folk, jazz with internationally recognised artists such as Jan Garbarek, classical and modern classical music ranging from Edward Grieg to Arne Nordheim and Norwegian Black Metal has been an international influence since the late ‘90s . All this goes to show there is more to Scandinavian music than just Abba. What may be surprising to those not in the know, is that the 2000 film, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’, sowed the seed for a local americana music scene to develop. This scene has continued to grow over the years and now has it’s own sub-genre, Nordicana.  Malin Pettersen is one such artist. She started her career in 2018 and has won a Spellemannpris, a Norwegian Grammy, which helped her record in Nashville and really start developing her music. Americana UK’s Del Day caught up with her to discuss her career to date, her hopes for the future, the challenges of a non-American trying to break into the American market and her new album, ‘Wildhorse’, due in October.

How would you best describe your songwriting process?
It differs quite a bit how long I take to write a song. Some are written in hours, some in days, weeks, or years. And the process itself used to be pretty monotonous; I would sit down with my guitar and start playing something I would try to sing something on top of, as I made the words. But after a long writer’s block in my early 20’s I decided to start exploring different techniques and that has definitely made me a better and more diverse songwriter. Sometimes I’ll improvise melodies and see if something appears that I like and that I can work with. Sometimes I’ll look through old notebooks and look for single lines to see if they spark something. Sometimes I’ll sit down with my guitar and just start playing to see what comes out. Slap on a capo high on the guitar to see if it brings new melody ideas to me. Etc etc. And sometimes, if I’m in a period of writer’s block , I’ll just write all the bad songs in my head, and then something worth moving forward with will suddenly reveal itself.

What is it that fascinates you about American music?
One of the things that fascinates me the most is that it tells actual stories. That it conserves history. Not always, and not always factual – but in its core, and at its best, it does. I am very interested in the origins of the Country / Americana genre and how it came to be in the first place – and how it came to be what it is today. There are so many parts of that story that I feel like is not common knowledge – even for people who love country music. I have set out on a personal mission to educate myself more about it, and hopefully help spread the word. What happened as the European and African musical traditions met in The New World is such a big part of country music, and unfortunately, I feel like only half of that story has been told through the narrative most people know. And through all of those different circumstances, backgrounds, and lives that met, so much was born that shape our lives today that I think it’s in everybody’s interest to know more about it. Not just country fans, but fans of many types of music.

Can you describe the moment when you first knew you wanted to be a singer?
I know that I sang before I spoke, but I am not sure when I thought to myself “This is what I want to do” for the first time. I know I was up on stage at the age of 2 or 3 singing “Tomorrow” from Annie, and I remember that I loved that song so much because I felt like it had so much emotion and hope in it. And I think that communication, that lies within a song and in the meeting with the person singing it, conveyed to other people who might feel the same, was a very strong motivation in me for why I sang. And probably why I still do it today.

What was it like growing up with a parent who was a musician?
The fact that my dad took me out to do shows and sing with his band was a very important factor in me ending up with actually joining a band and going out touring. The people I grew up playing with, I grew up playing with thanks to him. My mom is not a musician, but she loves music a lot and always encouraged me to sing. She has been and is still one of the most important people and supporters in my life. So I have a lot of gratitude in my heart for both of them. And it still means the world to me when my mom comes to a show or if my dad asks if I want to do a song. They are my heroes you know, in each their own way.

Who do you consider to be some of your biggest musical influences?
There are so many. Boring answer I know. But of course the classics like George Jones, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Emmylou Harris. And newer voices, songwriters, and musicians like Brennen Leigh, I’m With Her, Our Native Daughters. I love jazz and my voice would not sound like me if you took Ella Fitzgerald out of the loop. I love Swedish folk music. Iris Dement. Joni Mitchell. Gillian Welch. Neil Young. And I am hugely inspired by drums, and by piano and bass, guitar lines, etc, those can be huge parts of why I like certain recordings or songs. Some of my favourite albums are instrumental ones. Oh, and I fell in love with music again at 14 when Norah Jones released ‘Come Away With Me’.

What do you think are some of the unique challenges that artists who are not based in the U.S., like yourself, face when trying to break into the American market?
I think at some point you really want to start having a presence there. Which can be challenging because of many things. Money, time, distance, etc. And also – why should people give you a spot on their line-up when there is an endless line of fantastic American acts ready to play? Personally, I have always had a global mind, so it feels very natural for me to travel, but I feel very thankful that the US has been so open and welcoming to me, a stranger. I don’t take that for granted. And I respect my fellow US colleagues a lot. But back to the question, I do think the market Is different from many of the European ones, which are the ones I know the best, so you kind of have to learn the US as you go. You have to be persistent, you have to do your best at all times, and you have to be able to see an opportunity when and if it presents itself. I feel like sometimes they are more “sudden” in the US than they are where I am based. I don’t know if that’s fact or not, and you always have to work hard no matter where you are of course, but I think the US has its own way of doing a lot of things and to be able to work with that you have to figure out what that is. And to break into any market you need perseverance , things like that can take a long time, many radio promotion tours, etc, etc.. and to do that on several continents can, of course, be a challenge.

Your new record ‘Wildhorse’ comes out in October. Would you say there is an overall theme for the record and if yes, what is it?
I think, without even knowing it, it has become a record about journeys. Both literally, like flying, but also as a more transferred idea, like the journey through life. It has songs written while I’ve been on road trips through California, on a plane to Nashville, songs written while looking back at where I’ve been and where I am today and one about my funeral.

How did you come up with the title Wildhorse?
The title is drawn from a line in one of the songs on the album, and the title from that song ‘Wildhorse Dream’. I’ve always felt like a risk-taker and a breaking boundaries kind of person, but I’m not sure how many boundaries I’ve actually broken, or how many risks I’ve ever really taken, and that was why, when the idea came to my head of getting on a plane all by myself to go record with a bunch of people I barely knew, I felt I had to do it.

What are some of the challenges you are facing because of COVID 19 when it comes to promoting it here in America?
Well, the lack of presence is the first thing that comes to mind. The actual physical presence of being there, going to shows, meeting people, playing shows, writing and getting to know the way things are done. With the situations being what it is now I feel very fortunate that social media is a thing. It gives us a tool to work with when we can not actually be there. The Internet in itself as well. You can communicate with people and try to spread the word there. Hell, maybe you even “meet” people you would’ve never met in real life. I’m also glad, with everything that is going on in America right now, which is so important for the future history of the country, that I don’t have to do the “Hey, here I am! Listen to my stuff! Me!” right now. It would feel strange for me as I don’t think my music is what needs attention right now, from an outsider’s point of view. I do know people who are releasing music in the middle of it all and I do want to say I think they are doing a great job of actually using that to amplify the voices that also need to be heard. And that, I think, is fantastic!

Has it affected your release plans for it at all?
We are moving forward with our plans the way we planned them. Because of that, with summer festivals being cancelled, we suddenly find ourselves in a time gap where nothing was planned release-wise. And we are just taking that extra time to try to be extra prepared when things finally do come out, and when we can actually move about the world again. I am personally taking the time to listen and to learn a lot about our world and the history of its people. I am taking the time to mould the promotion of the album, making things that can accompany the vinyl when that is released, and just really trying to get into a lot of things I didn’t have time to do when stuff moved as fast as they did before. I think about how privileged most of us have been through these months, being able to help just by staying inside. It has given me more time with my family and my heart breaks for those who have lost parts of theirs.

If you could transport yourself back through time and work with one musical artist from the past, who would that be and why?
Ella Fitzgerald. I just think she would have an undrainable amount of knowledge and skill that I could learn from and be inspired by. Everything she must have experienced, good and bad, the music, the way she phrased her lines, the way she makes it impossible not to be drawn in by the story when she sings. Some of my favourite recordings of her are live ones – when you can hear the crowd go wild, the joy you can hear in that room when she comes out on stage because she’s the one they’ve been waiting for. And then, when she starts singing: that voice and that presence. Gets me every time.

What are your plans for the future, specifically between now and the album’s release in October?
Besides trying to soak up a lot of knowledge and learn how I want to take parts of this quieter time with me when things start to move again, I am trying to plan the longer lines and will probably be working on getting content made to have ready when we release the next single this fall. I am excited to get to hang out with my family this summer, hugging my kids every single night and kissing them good morning every single morning. And alongside this, I’ll be trying to make use of the internet to meet some interesting people based out of America and other places in the world, so I’ll have new places to go, and new friends to meet , so I can go make new adventures once this wild horse is finally set free.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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