As singer, guitarist and songwriter in Harrys Gym, taking the decision to end one of Norway’s most innovative and influential bands was never likely to be pleasant. But looking back two years later, Anne Lise Frøkedal has no second thoughts. “It felt like a horrible thing to do at the time but I’ve never regretted it,” she says. Now in the early stages of a solo career, 2015 sees the release of her debut EP. Its four tracks may have a familiarly striking voice but the underlying pop sound is compact and owes much to influences both near and far from home.
Frøkedal’s numerous other projects include the Norwegian Grammy-nominated I Was A King – who count Sufjan Stevens, Robyn Hitchcock and Norman Blake among past collaborators. She also writes music for film and contemporary dance and sang backing vocals on Robyn Hitchcock’s 2014 album The Man Upstairs.
With her old band no more, Frøkedal found both the time and inclination to write music alone. Although there was already plenty of material early on, working out what the project should be precisely was the first obstacle. Avoiding the “standard” band set-up was the only thing that was certain. What happened next was a bold move, and one that turned her songs into something concrete. A four-show, month-long residency at Oslo’s Mono in November 2013 was a spark for productivity. The form the material would take was uncertain but the shows were used as a creative catalyst. “I didn’t have a clue what to perform and how many musicians would be on stage with me. Or even what songs we would be playing. I just needed to book the gigs to put something together. I needed an excuse,” Frøkedal says.
She then asked a handful of her favourite and most trusted musicians to join her for the residency. They came from a variety of musical backgrounds and included former bandmate Erlend Ringseth, traditional violinist Olav Christer Rossebø, choreographer and musician Ingeleiv Berstad and Thea Glenton Raknes – who performs as Thea & The Wild. Frøkedal affectionately refers to this quartet as “the family” and they are now her live band.
The shows were approached as a work-in-progress. “Nothing was perfect and that was kind of the whole idea. I kept thinking if I could play these songs for people they would turn into real songs,” she says. A somewhat reluctant solo artist, there was an understandable level of apprehension beforehand. “I was horribly nervous,” she says. The informality helped, though. “I was aware that it wasn’t going to sound perfect and we weren’t going to play everything perfectly. That was a bit relaxing.”
Simplicity was a cornerstone and the songs ended up with few layers. “Part of the idea for this was to write the simple song or work with songs that would make sense; no matter how I played them or with how many people”. Though much is owed to a range of sources, the music is at its core pop and is pulled together by effortlessly delivered vocals. The lack of clutter has given her music an impressively sharp focus. “I realised that whatever I think I write, I write pop songs. Even if it feels like I’m writing something that’s a bit far off what I normally do,” she says.
The desire to write in a simpler way was partly influenced by traditional music, both from her homeland and elsewhere. Spending time with Norwegian traditional musicians was a particular inspiration. She wanted to get closer to her music and for it to be easier to play in any setting: “I’ve always been a bit jealous about how they [traditional musicians] bring their music along everywhere they go. If they go to a party they will bring an instrument and at some point they’ll start playing. I had always been in rock or pop bands and needed a big PA and fancy gear to be able to play my music.”
Elements of traditional Norwegian music found their way onto the EP; with Rossebø’s fiddle adding subtle colour. The gentle tones of his violin are present throughout and increase the melancholy on the wistful ‘Silhouettes’. There are also elements of electronica, too, notably in final track ‘First Friend’; co-produced with Ådne Meisfjord, formerly of Oslo-based krautrock and electronica outfit 120 Days. Whilst the opening triplet of the EP has guitar
and melody as the basis, ‘First Friend’ is more nocturnal and dark, with the melody pushed further from the foreground. Pulsating synths and rudimentary drums combine in an intense, tempo-shifting four-and-a-half minutes.
Other influences and inspirations come from further away, in particular the Cajun music of Louisiana, which Frøkedal describes as “sorrowful and beautiful”. Having visited Louisiana, Frøkedal sampled its musical community first hand. The breezy ‘I See You’ is where it is easiest to hear this. “So long as you don’t ruin the music you are always welcome to participate. It exists where people are,” she says of Cajun music. This concept is reflected in the way she now operates. A veteran of the Oslo music scene – where she moved in her early 20s to join the band which became Harrys Gym – Frøkedal has made good use of the city’s musical community and openness. “It seems like there are no rules today to what you can and can’t do.”
An extra edge of excitement in recording the EP was created by the fact that it was somewhat uncharted territory for those involved, in particular Røssebo, who had never played pop music before. Recorded as live, Frøkedal approached it free from the trappings of the complex textures present in the latter days of Harrys Gym. The stripped-back nature made the production a more integral part of recording, rather than a separate one. This was liberating and the results satisfying: “I was really proud of how good I thought we sounded. It felt so new to everyone. I was really excited when I heard that it all made sense on tape.” The EP’s simplicity and the conviction in what was recorded have created a fundamental aesthetic which doesn’t rely on numerous tracks and peripheral sounds clouding its core.
A positive part of writing alone has been freedom and the contrast with being in a “democratic” band. “I’ve always had a strong opinion about things but this is the first time where I don’t really have to listen to anyone else unless I want to.” With the EP finished and a debut album in the works, the prospect of playing the songs live with her “family” is one that Frøkedal relishes and one she will have plenty of opportunity to do in 2015. “Playing live is the reward for all the hard work. But I’ve always loved travelling and loved being on tour. That’s kind of what I look forward to really,” she says.