‚Ä¶Joplin. Asbj√łrnsen talked to AVIVA-Berlin about her music.
AVIVA-Berlin: How did you start making music? Did your parents make music, as well?
Kristin Asbj√łrnsen: I grew up with a lot of music at home. None of my parents were musicians or composers but both of them loved to sing and play and we had a strange kind of family orchestra, I remember. And I loved to sing from the very beginning and I participated in different choirs etc. The first years of my life my father was a priest and I loved to join him to the services to sing psalms. When I was about 8 years old my grandmother bought a piano for the family and I asked her to teach me notes, how to write down music, because then I started to compose my first melodies.
In general, my parents supported my interest in a good and healthy way, I think. Music was a natural part of the family life and a natural way to express myself, but I was never pushed to practise music.
AVIVA-Berlin: Which kind of music had a great influence on you as an artist? Have you always had a weakness for "black" music?
I think my musical roots lie in both the singer/songwriter tradition and in the groove-based world music.
Kristin Asbj√łrnsen: I sang in different choirs and in Norway there is very usual that every church do have a gospel kind of choir for young people. From a very early age I was privileged to be a solo singer in the choirs and then I explored a lot as a singer and improviser. I listened a lot to different gospel-pop music but at the edge of 19 (and when I met Ruth Reese) I was so fed up of this music tradition and my own way of singing. That led me into Jazz, both old and a lot of contemporary Jazz and also my love for folk music, basically African music. The last years I have most of all been listening a lot to West ‚Äď African music that I really adore. That music and the West-African singers have really inspired me a lot. It`s something about the rhythms, the phrasing and the griot-singers way of sing both with strong authority and at the same time with tender elegance.
AVIVA-Berlin: Ruth Reese was a singer from Chicago who lived in Norway. She gave you her collection of spirituals that you interpreted for "Wayfaring Stranger". How did you meet Ruth Reese? Would you say that she was your mentor?
Kristin Asbj√łrnsen: In Norway Ruth Reese was a well known person, both as a multitalented and as a woman with a great knowledge of African ‚Äď American culture. When I was 19 years old some musicians recommended me to get in contact with Ruth Reese since I was curious about the African ‚Äď American music made before the "easy listening‚ÄĚ gospel music I grew up with. At that level I needed to challenge myself and to move in a new direction as a singer and as an improviser. I only had a few meetings with Ruth because she died suddenly (on stage) only 2 months after I first met her. But the few meetings with her made an important impression on me. She moved me strongly. I was her last student and she became like a strong, wise and firm musical grandmother to me with a great authority. She learned me a lot about the spiritual tradition, about the real old gospel music and she challenged my way of singing. Always asking me to search for the core, the ground in the songs. To take away unnecessary ornamentations.
I had great singing teachers before and after but meeting Ruth Reese, including inheriting the great number of sheets of spirituals, has been of great importunity to me.
AVIVA-Berlin: Did you think about recording spirituals only after Reese passed away? Or did you think about it when she was still alive?
Kristin Asbj√łrnsen: The first years after her death I was basically working to find my own way into these songs, how to make them my own. Expressed from my point of view today. I did a lot of duo concerts with the piano player Tord Gustavsen until 1998, 2 years ago I felt that I needed to give more attention to these songs again and then I also started to feel a need to make a spiritual album.
¬© Fotos: Hans Fredrik Asbj√łrnsen
AVIVA-Berlin: For your earlier projects, you used texts by Walt Whitman, Charles Bukowski and by several Norwegian writers. Why did you chose texts by Bukowski, what did you find fascinating about them / why did you like them? Is Bukowski one of your favourite writers?
Kristin Asbj√łrnsen: When I was asked to make the soundtrack to Factotum ‚Äď a movie based on a novel by Bukowski, I must admit I didn`t know anything about Bukowski. So the first thing I had to do was to read a lot of his poems. I felt immediately touched by some parts of his poetry and started to work with the score by making some Bukowski songs. I really cant relate to all of his poetry or all of his life style, I`m not a Bukowski superfan, but I like how he combine a melancholic mood with a strong will, the loneliness combined with his warm, tender wish to be aware and to share what life gives. His do have this strong longing for freedom and an everlasting wish to be moving. I can relate to the emotions in his poetry.
It`s true that I have been working with a lot of different poetry. Not at least a lot of Victorian poetry (Christina Rosetti and Elisabeth Barrett Browning). Whatever kind of poetry I work with, I always need to be touched by the poem myself. But I also need to feel that the poem inherents and contains some sort of musicality. It can be the sounds of the words, the rhythms, phrasing etc.
AVIVA-Berlin: You have recorded an album with spirituals; obviously most of the songs deal with religious topics. Does religion play an important role in your life?
Kristin Asbj√łrnsen: Yes, Religion has played an important role in my life. I will say that I can relate to the more liberal branch of the Norwegian Church today. But I don`t reduce the spiritual songs to be mainly religious songs. All though the journey towards a spiritual freedom dominates these songs, I really believe in the strength of the symbols in this tradition. I see the spirituals as strong expression of life itself, travelling songs, open rooms to enter, songs that are not limited by time, origin, nationality or belief.
AVIVA-Berlin: The spirituals that you sing originally stem from African slaves in the USA. How do you relate to this music and to African American culture and history in general?
Kristin Asbj√łrnsen: I am me with my background, my cultural and musical references and with my life today. My work has not been to try to make an album from a historical point of view; these songs are all documented on more authentic American recording. My approach has been that I was touched by the richness of these songs, both spiritually and musically, and I felt an urge to find my own way into these songs. The songs have moved me strongly, as longing, mourning and hopeful travelling songs. I think that even though the songs were created very far away from me and even though the enslaved people lived under extreme oppression still the emotions in the song tradition are in many ways universal. I experience that these old songs touch upon our lives today as well, our own quests for personal freedom, protections and movement.
But of course, my interest in African music and in old African- American music has of course affected the result of my versions.
AVIVA-Berlin: What are your musical plans for the future? Will you record another album with blues- and gospel music? Or will you continue with jazz and rock music, as you did with "Kvitretten" and "Kr√łyt"?
Kristin Asbj√łrnsen: Hm... I`m already working with more spirituals on the repertoire, It`s important to be moving and it feels important to enlarge the repertoire because of all the live acts with this material. But I don`t think my next album will be a Volume 2 ‚Äď spirituals album. In parallel with the spirituals-work I have also started to make some new songs, I cant say so much about it yet, I`m in an early process about finding what and how its going to be. And it`s a slow process. But my spiritual arrangements and my own new songs are in some strange ways connected. You can ask me more about it next spring...