Interview: Susanne Sundfør

04 Mar 2015 — Andrew Darley

For her fifth studio album, Susanne Sundfør vowed to put herself to the test. After building a repertoire of producing for herself and others, as well as collaborations with Röyksopp and M83, she committed herself to self-producing and arranging a body of work. This autonomous approach conceived a frenetic collection of songs, comprising several stories and characters as she embarks on a crusade of love. Ten Love Songs expands on her signature brand of dramatic pop that interweaves classical and electronic elements as she hops between menacing electronics, sweeping synthpop and organ ballads. The initial assault of her diverse palette soon gives way to lyrics of complexities of love; obsession, unfulfillment, vengeance and trust. Her voice is both the anchor and the vehicle of the music as she brings these stories to life in the way she heard and imagined them. I spoke with Susanne about the intent of the record’s literal title, the learning curve of her career so far and the confidence she has developed to carry her music.

Read the interview after the break.

The last time we spoke in 2013 for Polari Magazine, your back catalogue had just been given a UK release. How do you feel you have progressed since then?

I feel that I have made a lot of progress working in the studio, especially different boxes involved! I have learnt so much about production; from how to use new synths to writing string arrangements. It’s been a very exciting album to make. It was a lot of hard work but it was fun as well.

You recorded, orchestrated and produced Ten Love Songs predominately on your own. What made it feel like the right time?

I produced an album for a band called Bow To Each Other two years ago so I learnt a lot from that. That project gave me the confidence to produce my own music. Also, I co-produced my previous album, The Silicone Veil. It’s been a step-by-step process where I’ve just picked up more and more skills as I’ve done it. I had a lot of ideas about how I wanted the songs arranged and things to sound so I figured it would be best to do a lot of it myself. It was both a wish to have independence in the studio but also a necessity because I had so many ideas. It would have been pointless to tell another person to do what I could do myself.

Do you feel that you are able to execute ideas you hear in your head more effectively now?

Definitely! On my two first albums, which I’m very happy with, it was difficult for me to communicate in the studio because I didn’t have the language or didn’t know the names of things. I might’ve had a vague idea of how I wanted things to sound but I had no idea how to express it to someone else.

The name of this album is Ten Love Songs and the songs feature diverse musical styles and moods. Did the title of record give you the freedom to write ten very individual songs which worked as a whole too?

It was the title that made the most sense because they’re all different worlds. They have quite different sounds so Ten Love Songs was a name that bound them together.

You obviously were not afraid of not being cohesive?

Yeah, it’s a bit schizo for sure! I just had so many different ideas and I was listening to lots of diverse music and that’s probably why my songs came out that way too.

There’s always been electronic dance elements in your music but possibly not as direct like "Accelerate" or "Kamikaze". Did you want to make people dance with this record?

I think if that’s what I directly wanted, I would’ve made it quite different. Like in "Accelerate" there’s a long part of just an organ solo and "Kamikaze" ends with a harpsichord solo. I think I wanted to use the dance elements in music just because it’s an interesting sound. It’s quite instant. It’s not like jazz, you can pretty much get it after a few listens. It doesn’t mean it’s bad but there’s something more immediate about it – it’s like candy almost.

There are several voices and characters throughout this album. The character in "Delirious" really stood out for me in the way they describe his or her desire to hurt, even kill, their partner.  It’s quite a viscous tale. Do you enjoy creating characters like that?

I think it’s interesting to put yourself in someone else’s mindset. I’ve seen these things happen to people – these misunderstandings in love when one is just playing and the other one gets hurt. It’s so classic. I thought it would be more interesting to frame it as a murder ballad.

This theme of violence also has roots in The Brothel and The Silicone Veil. What is it about it that fascinates you?

Extreme things fascinate me a lot – these extreme emotions. Taboos as well. I think the biggest taboo of this album is that it’s called Ten Love Songs. It might even be more controversial than the violent references because a lot of stuff happening in the public or in media, it’s usually about sex or violence. It’s generally never about love or feeling vulnerable. Love is kind of corny to talk about today. That was also a reason why I believed it to be an interesting title.

As you say that, I can see that the album and single artwork is quite different as well. It almost doesn’t match the music.

That’s one of the reasons why I really like it. I completely trusted Grady McFerrin and told him to do whatever he wanted based on what he had done before. He came up with this drawing concept, which I thought brought an interesting element to the record. I love when artists bring their own take on the music and conjure another world or dimension.

Moving on to performing, I’ve watched your shows online for this album and it looks like you’re becoming more comfortable fronting your music in a live setting?

Totally! The first time I was ever on stage, I completely forgot the lyrics but I was 12 then. It’s taken me a long time to just be comfortable on stage and feel like it’s my place. For many artists, going on stage can be a bit alienating especially if you work a lot in the studio – an audience is pretty much watching what you do in the studio on stage. It’s much easier for me now to be in the music when doing shows.

Are there any musicians that you admired in terms of carrying the music over to a live stage?

When I started music high school that we have in Norway, I began listening to a lot of my Dad’s old records. Before that I would only listen to pop music or whatever was in the charts. I listened to Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, John Lennon and George Harrison – all these ‘60s and ‘70s classics. Both their songwriting aesthetic and the way they performed as musicians really inspired me. These artists really influenced how I view and create my own music.

Have you learned anything about approaching music from the contemporary artists you’ve worked with recently, such as M83 or Röyksopp?

Oh definitely! I’m a huge fan of both, so to work with them was such an honour and an education. I learnt so much about the various microphones, different equipment to how they compose music.

Back to your music, "Insects" closes the album in an intense, almost anxious way. Why did you want to close out the record in this way?

When I made the tracklisting for the album, it was more about the mood than the lyrics for me. There also had to be a flow to the songs and "Insescts" was so intense that it wouldn’t really fit in anywhere else. That is the main reason why it’s the last one but it’s also quite open and experimental. It doesn’t end with a statement or something clear – it’s a cliffhanger.

Looking forward, what would you like to achieve with Ten Love Songs?

I just want to have an open mind about it. I am ambitious but I prefer not to make business plans. My only goal with this album, apart from that I wanted it to be good, is that I want to play more shows. Maybe that can happen and maybe not. We’ll see!

My final question I’d like to ask you, given the content of this album, is what are some of your favourite love stories?

The Brontë sisters are the first people who come to mind. They’re probably my number ones.

Ten Love Songs is out now.