Words fail to describe the warm embrace that Daniel Norgren’s music puts on your innermost feelings, so it’s best to just listen. Go on.
There’s something elemental there—in his boyish, keening voice; in his lyrical surrender to nature’s majesty and finality and to love’s curative transcendence; in the bare-bones instrumentation that allows equal amounts of light and shadow to fall between the song's skeletal arrangement. This is Americana soul as envisioned by a rural Swede. Or the inverse—a grand, universal sound arrived at through a very specific place and state of mind. Norgren's music reflects the beautiful natural landscape of his home, as well as the comfort he finds in solitude and intimacy and the small moments that fill up a life. It’s simple, gorgeous stuff, immediate in its impact and leaving a lingering, luscious calm.
Norgren is a 30-something singer-songwriter-hermit-mystic who lives in the town of Rude, about an hour from Gothenburg, Sweden and its electrifying international music scene. There he, his wife and a few friends run their own record label, book their tours and release his music—almost entirely outside the US until now, when his albums are finally set for release in the US. He first came on my radar after last year’s Pickathon, the music festival outside Portland, where he played some of his first US performances and instantly captured unwitting crowds. On Friday he begins his first-ever US tour at the Tractor Tavern, and while I love his recordings I can tell you that the live experience is exponentially more powerful.
We spoke via Skype a few weekends ago—one of his first-ever interviews—while Norgren was at home in Rude.
City Arts: Are there special preparations to tour the US? Different from your usual routine?
Daniel Norgren: I guess we are. Because there’s so much pre-work to be able to come to the US, all the visas and preparations for how to tour. Otherwise I think it’s the same preparation.
And you’re touring with the same guys you played with at Pickathon?
Yeah—same band. Anders is the bass player, and I’ve known him for 10 years, a little more. And we’ve been touring frequently around Europe. We’re a good duo—we’ve been playing a lot just me and Anders. When I was sitting playing drums and guitar at the same time he was playing upright bass. He’s one of my best friends. And Erik, he joined the group a little bit more than a year ago, maybe one and half year ago. He’s the kind of drummer that just immerses into the music. You cannot stop him, even during rehearsal. Me and Anders have to stop playing to get him out of the trance. He’s very special and a great drummer. My kind of drummer—not a technician; he’s playing with his heart. The same goes for Anders. He’s a heart player.
Your performances at Pickathon floored me. I’d heard your music a little beforehand via Greg Vandy on KEXP, but the live experience was really powerful.
I was surprised that Pickathon went so well. We’ve been touring a lot in Europe, and you get used to a response from the audience. But when we played at Pickathon everything went just crazy. I really enjoyed that state, when you lose yourself in the song, just let go and just be there. Let the song grab you. The thing is that you shouldn’t know when to end the song. That’s one of the tricks—stay out of the exits.
Why do you write lyrics in English and not Swedish?
I’m not sure. I’ve never tried writing songs in Swedish. It’s just been the way for me to do this, so I haven’t thought about it like that. It just comes naturally when it comes to writing songs and performing. I’ve grown up with American music and English-speaking music, so I’ve never questioned it, I’ve just done it. One day I wrote my first song in English and never thought, OK maybe I should write it in Swedish, so I just kept going. I like how it sounds. It’s a different way, there’s another melody to it, to my ear. American music allows you to bend the words in a way that you cannot do in Swedish. I’ve never tried to write a song in Swedish but it might be a good idea. Who knows. We have a dialect here in Sweden called Skånska that’s more of a singing accent. I like that. We have some really good Swedish artists singing in Skånska. The accent does well to sing it.
Skånska, eh (messes up accent terribly)? I didn’t know Sweden had these different dialects.
It’s down south, the more south you get the more Skånska you get. I live around Gothenburg, I have another dialect. In my ears it’s stiffest one around so it’s hard to make it swing.
You’re outside Gothenburg, right? What’s it like where you live?
I live 10 kilometers east of Gothenburg, so not in the city, outside, about one and half hour drive. A place called Rude. The little town where I live, it’s a lot of nature—only nature I would say. A lot of trees. I have this beautiful little trail in the woods that I used to walk around. I thought about it today—I love nature, it really turns me on. I think it’s the best artist in every way. (This is the one of the downsides with Swedish versus American interviews—I lose my words.) It’s the abstraction in nature that I like. You can see nature the way you want to see it. It doesn’t tell you how to experience nature. In my book nature is the greatest artist.
There’s a lot of trees. A few neighborhoods. One street here, you know? I can see the neighbors right over the street but it’s a very small, narrow, almost dirt road. It’s on hills and trees. It reminded me of Portland, or actually when we went to Pickathon, but smaller. Pickathon and Oregon was grander, more of a jungle. The trees aren’t that big here. We have more pine trees, which I like. A lot of mushrooms. You pick mushrooms. There’s a beautiful trail, and at the end of the trail is a rundown watermill. There’s something about this trail that also turns me on when I take these long walks. The fantasy just flies. I get a lot of good ideas. Kind of a little isolated out here. All my neighbors are like 60, I think. Only old people. So it’s a quiet place, very quiet.
That does sound like the Northwest. We’re surrounded by intense nature here.
I know what you mean. When I went to Portland, I think Portland and Seattle are close to each other. I was surprised how much It reminded me of the place I live, how lush everything was. The smell. You can feel the life in the air. And how the light falls into the woods, in the trees. I felt every much at home when I came there.
Hopefully you’ll have time to explore the area while you’re here.
I’d love to. Were gonna land in Seattle and we’re gonna start at the Tractor Tavern and we’ll have three days just to hang around I think. I look forward to it. Been looking forward to touring the States since we started. It’s a very special thing to be able to tour the States for the first time.
This tour seems like a big deal. You’ve been making music a long time and now suddenly you’re reissuing your records in the US, and touring, and really breaking into a new place. It’s a new chapter.
That’s one of the big steps were taking because we don’t have any life beside this. It’s not very original in this business, of course—all the bands put all their energy into what they’re doing. But we’ve decided to do this all the way. We don’t have any room economically or time-wise to do anything else. That’s why I’m happy about the situation. When we started out we didn’t know anything, what path to take. We just had some demos. So we thought why don’t we release them? So Pelle started the record company to release the demos. Like when you see a cartoon and there’s a train leaving and someone is leaning down and putting down the rail at the same time the train is moving—me and my wife and Pelle, that’s how it’s been from the start. Every step is a new step, not only musically but also how to handle the administration of stuff. All the contacts. Every new contact is a new path that we have to try because we’ve never been there before. Every turn is a new turn. Everything has been totally new for us. We don’t have anyone to ask, how do you usually do this or that? Everything has been so fresh, and I think we’ve been lucky at the same time because we haven’t burned ourselves really bad. Just trying to play, trying to listen to our gut and try to feel, is this right or wrong?
I really enjoyed taliking with you, Daniel, and I'm very excited to see you in Seattle.
I haven’t done many interviews in my life actually. It’s hard to get into the details in a short amount of time, so when you have this kind of conversation, when you talk through things, I appreciate that. That’s the way I wanna do it. Many times it feels like when you’re interviewed it’s hard to dive into that world in 20 minutes, to say something that maters to you. I’m glad you took the time.