Nikolaj Nørlund, Musician, Producer & Songwriter
Words by Nikolaj Hansson. Illustration by Sine Jensen.
It's been 18 years since Nikolaj Nørlund released his first solo album. 18 years with 10 releases, eight of them being studio albums. You can't call him a veteran but Nørlund's contributions to Danish music, through lyrics, songs and production is something that should garner a great amount of respect. His lyrics are immaculate and it doesn't take long before you realize that he has a lot on his mind. Stories that he'd like to tell you. We met with Nørlund for a talk about linguistic health, storytelling, Danish apple juice and much more.
What is the mission of Nikolaj Nørlund?
I believe that I've settled with the fact, that music is my life. That's how it went. It affects me, when people call me a veteran though. It's a bit harsh. If I'm a veteran today, what am I 20 years from now? When you've kept doing it for as long as I have, that's just what you do. That being said, one of my tasks is to positively contribute to everything that I work with, regardless of what role or position I'm in. A positive contribution to music consists, to me, of openness, positivity, coherence, prime content and an aspect of quality.
Is it important to have an opinion on how the society acts?
I consider it a life condition. I'm interested in politics. It defines who we are. We have so many things making our life easier here in Denmark, so it'd only make sense if we as a country acted as frontrunners on matters and decisions, that were going to be changed or made in a few years time anyway. We might as well legalize marihuana now. It's bound to happen at some point. We have a relatively well-functioning society, thus we could allow ourselves to lead the way on more complicated matters. I live on Nørrebro (the Northern part of Copenhagen). There, it's rather a question about whether or not we want gangs in the streets than it is about people being allowed to smoke marihuana. You know how it is, they're standing on street corners and all that. That affects my life. Is it okay for my kids to walk down this street or that street? That's what we want to get rid off. It's not gonna have that big of an effect on the amount of people smoking it, you're just moving a huge amount of black BMWs out of Nørrebro and Copenhagen. Circumcision is going to be prohibited. You can't cut in your kids. You're not allowed to hit them. You're probably not allowed to cut in their bodies either then. Shut up. It's gonna happen. The problem is that in twenty years, people who have been circumcised will be mad that the legislation wasn't in place back then. Just get it done. Some people will probably be angry, but that's that. Not that I'm a religious personn, but I believe that we live in an enlightened society. We shouldn't be afraid of being considered politically correct, if it's the proper thing to do. We're a modern society and need to use all information in our power to make those decisions. That's how I see it.
You've previously interpreted the poems of Michael Strunge and had several guests on your Roskilde Festival 2014 performance while the likes of Martin de Thurah and Naja Marie Aidt have cowritten some of your lyrics. Can things be reincarnated when they're interpreted by others?
I believe so. Strunge's works had another life as poems. They had never been depicted as songs, until I worked with them. When others sing my songs, the songs become something completely new. Niels Skousen, who performed, Ridset I Panden, during my Roskilde Festival 2014 show, changed parts of the song so it made sense to him. There were words he didn't like and all that. With Pernille (Rosendahl) and Raske Penge, I wanted something that people didn't expect. Raske Penge had even written verses for it. It's fun that way, being able to define your own universe and expand the idea about what that given universe is.
Is it possible to educate people through music?
You can't educate people. But I remember a guy who taught Danish in Russia. He liked my music and used some of it as part of the curriculum. However, the problem was that the pupils started speaking a Nørlundsk kind of Danish, using my expressions and accent rather than the regular Danish ones. That was pretty crazy. I don't think you can educate through music, but you can influence people through your own approach to music and through openness. When you get through to people with music that stirs them emotionally and shows them the world in a new light, that can introduce people to a new way of perceiving the world. When you strike people with something that they're unable to describe, whether it's political or not, that's something big to me.
Is music the optimal medium for storytelling?
I believe that, indeed. I'm glad you use the word. Storytelling. That's how I see it. That's what I do. I think the medium is denounced when you make it about confessions and yourself. People often think texts are solely about yourself, it's almost as if you need to go into extremes before people realise that it's not about yourself. To be able to orchestrate the vibe and mood around a song is quite unique. It's the story that drives me. It's about having a story to tell that needs to be orchestrated, rather than doing the opposite. As you would with a movie. You tell a story by the help of moving pictures. I want to tell stories and music is my place to do so. Put your money where your mouth is. You can complain about how you want things or you can actually execute them the way you want it. We should strive for a more interesting music scene. I think a lot about how Håkan Hellstrøm got so big annd how proud Sweden are of their musicians. In that sense, we need to look at who we should be proud of.
What special capabilities does the Danish language possess?
It depends on who's listening. When Danish rock bands write in English, the lyrics tend to fade into the background. That can also be an advantage, when it's more about the instrumentals. But it annoys me when it becomes a claimed reality; where you don't know what you're singing about but you just want it to sound important. It has to give me something, that I hadn't thought about prior to hearing that song. Danish is a bit more rough and bumpy, but that can also work. In the end, it get its own rhythm. I don't think about it that much anymore. You just have to put your faith in it. I like some Danish rap as well. It's amazes me how broad an audience they've attracted. I went to a concert with Raske Penge recently, along with my sons. They like it and I like it. That's what I'd like to do as well, on my own terms. It needs to offer something to everyone, regardless of their age. Everyone can hit a certain segment. Almost. It's definitely easier, that's for sure.
Do you see a concert rather as an interaction between artist and audience rather than a monologue?
That's what it's evolved into. My concerts have undergone some change over the recent couple of years. Perhaps that was a bit necessary. But I'm quite communicating. Maybe because I've played solo a lot. You don't have that much choice in those situations. People have gotten used to it; that's how Nørlund does. It's important to note the balance though. But there's something liberating about talking to the audience. A concert can become quite intense at times. It's nice for people to know that they can relax and take a breath before we are back in it. I played in Hillerød last week, where everyone sang along. I don't think it'd been like that five years ago. I think it's fun when people get a different experience. I like that.
Can the music industry ever take itself too serious?
It's important to note, that 75% of the music industry consists of businessmen who need to make money. I have tremendous respect for that. They don't really care how they make those money. That's the way it is in all industries. But luckily, someone, from time to time, chooses the Danish apple juice to see if they can make some money off of that. I think I'm a Danish apple juice in some way. I don't think there's anything wrong with taking yourself too seriously. We're anxious about that in Denmark. But what does it mean to take yourself seriously? The Beatles probably took themselves very serious, but they still had quite a lot of fun. Maybe a bit too much fun. Ob-la-di ob-la-da. But you have to do that before you can create something of a certain quality. It's also important to look in the long run. How many seasons can we stand playing this? What do we want to tell? What do we want to be? Putting things into the proper order. What is the core of our aim?
What do you think your writing abilities would've been like, had you not been trained as a journalist?
I think it had a great influence on me. I don't think you should underestimate that, when thinking about what I refer to as linguistic health. I had a fantastic teacher, Gert Smistrup, who taught me that phrase. I'm the type of person who always correct people. I can't help it for the life of me. I love linguistics and it annoys me, when people don't speak properly. However, I do think languages, accents and dialects are all brilliant things. That's why it can seem a bit bombastic, when I say that I'm too old for writing in English. But that's because I think we need to take some pride in who we are. That's where we become something of value; when you take pride in being from Copenhagen, Denmark or wherever you're from. You see that wherever you go in the world; people with quality are those who have pride in themselves. I think it becomes more fun, when we take ourselves more seriously. I saw the new Nick Cave film recently, as a journalist, together with a friend who's a reviewer. My friend is a writing person. he does reviews, scripts, articles etc. I'd lovve to work in those fields with journalism, movies and so on. I think it's important to diversify yourself. I love to perform, I love to produce, I love to write journalistic pieces and so on. It's sort of an L.A.-thing, where you have many different roles. There's an openness to it. That word is probably what I use the most these days. But it's important. You can also call it empathy; being able to put yourself in the place of others, how they think and what they feel. It's becoming an increasingly important focal point of our time.
Do you think people are afraid to take pride in where they're from?
We're in a place where it's a hard thing to do. There's a battle of values appearing. On the one hand, we want to embrace globalisation and all that it carries with. On the other hand, globalisation has already occurred. However, it lead to a counter-reaction. We're starting to think about, even though we are a global community, who we are as a nation. Not that we want to be nationalists in any way. How does that even work? I tried looking into that on my latest album, Det Naturlige, together with Martin de Thurah. We zoomed in on different fragments of Danish history with Jens Otto-Krag (former Danish PM), people from the resistance movement during WWII, a punker from the 80s and random highlights showing what we find positive about being Danish. I too become affected by it. I think it's interesting. I've been drinking a ridiculous amount of Danish apple juice lately. It just makes so much more sense compared to drinking orange juice in some way. We have some of the best apple juice in Denmark, produced on the island of Fyn. Why drink mediocre orange juice from abroad then? I also think the whole new nordic movement is fantastic. Consume your local food. Listen to your local music. Write in your own language. Why can Håkan Hellstrøm sell 70.000 tickets with his weird indie rock in Sweden, when I can't sell 50.000 tickets in Parken? I think it's important to ponder upon these things.