Rebekka Bakken (Interview): "Acting on nostalgia is always meaningless"
Ever since she set foot in New York City in the late 1990s to embark on her musical journey, Rebekka Bakken has been on a remarkable creative ride. While her earlier, collaborative work was rooted in the city's Jazz scene, the Norwegian singer/songwriter has since ventured into Folk, Country, Pop and Big band territories. (See also: "A Listener's Guide to Rebekka Bakken").
But not only her musical life has been an interesting one. Bakken has lived in New York, Vienna, Sweden, then moved back to New York City – just to find out that the city and herself weren't a good fit the second time around. She then settled in her hometown, Oslo. She has released eight solo albums and one best of record. Her most recent work is the Christmas album "Winter Nights". Apart from her own compositions, "Winter Nights" also includes her takes on well known classics such as The Pogues' "Fairytale Of New York" and "Last Christmas" by Wham!
I had the pleasure to speak to Rebekka Bakken via Zoom.
Rebekka, you chose an interesting Christmas to release a Christmas album. The holidays 2020 aren't your usual ones.
Oh yes. I did not plan this. I mean, sure I planned the recordings. But little did I know that it would be released to a Christmas like this. It's weird.
How did the idea of a Christmas record come to be?
Christmas music is really, really big here in Norway. I like Christmas a lot, the message of it. And I associate Christmas with music. With singing together and playing together. I always had the dream of making a Christmas record. But my record label back then said: "You don't have to do this, Rebekka". I really wanted to do it though, so I started to make this record on my own. In the end my record label wanted to release it. The reason for this album is solely because I have loved Christmas music since I was a child. I'm very happy about this record.
Psychologically, the interesting thing about Christmas is that it often augments the feelings you have had all year. If you have been lonely, you are probably going to feel that amplified around Christmas time. Is that what makes it an interesting topic as an artist – the immediate emotional response?
You hit the nail on the head there. Everything gets augmented. It brings out the joy much more. It makes the pretty things a little prettier but it also gives the hard stuff more space. It evokes a lot of emotions, for sure. That's very interesting not only as an artist, but as a human being.
How did you choose the songs on the album?
Like with my Tom Waits record: I need the songs to become mine. They must really feel like mine first, and foremost. That's not an easy thing, with so many Christmas songs that so many great artists have done before you. So I chose the ones that I could make mine. That was "Silent Night", "In The Bleak Midwinter" and Wham!'s "Last Christmas". I love that song. I don’t care if I hear it in every store I walk into. I never grow tired of it. It was easy to make that song mine. Because there weren't so many that I could make mine, I had the chance to write my own songs. And I’m so happy that I did. I like those Christmas harmonies and I have a card blanche to do them on this record. I would still have a lot more Christmas songs to write. It really came easy.
So you wrote the songs specifically for this album.
Yes. I decided that some years ago during the summer, I think it was 2018. I wrote them all during this summer. Except for "Wonder In Your Eyes", that was the last song that I wrote. We went to the studio to record the last songs, and we needed one more song. That was in March 2020, right before the lockdown. I wrote it the night before we went into the studio. It's funny how the songs I like the most are the easiest to write.
What your version of "Last Christmas" does very well is to strip down the song's coat of happiness and lay bare its quite sad core. Usually people perceive it as a happy-go-lucky-Christmas song, especially with the video.
That's so funny to me. When I was a teenager and I saw George Michael sing it, I didn’t really think about the fact that it was a video. And I felt so sorry for him. It has always been the saddest song. What a horrible, horrible thing to experience: To give your heart away and then the other person gives it away. It's a really sad song. I really don’t know how the happy bells got in there in the first place.
You also recorded The Pogues' "Fairytale Of New York”. You wrote on your Facebook page that you came across this song very late. How come?
I have no idea. I've never been following what's going on on the radio. It's kind of weird, everybody knows this song and has a very strong relationship to it as well. As I said, I needed a few more songs for this record and my boyfriend said: "Hey, why don’t do that song". I have no explanation. Maybe because I have moved around so much then you don’t really have any cultural connection. I've lived as a foreigner in so many countries – and the great thing about that is, you never really log on to the socio cultural system. You don't really get what is in the wind, you live your live regardless of what’s going on. That's also how I got to be in peace with my own music making. I always felt that it’s true.
"We all go through this"
You left out the part in which Shane McGowan and Christy MacColl keep cursing at each other.
Yes, those are such horrible words (laughs). No, I cut it out because I don't like that part. It's too noisy for me. As a human being I can relate to that stuff. I think it's a fantastic Christmas song – and I wanted to stay in that mode. There's nothing wrong with it, but I dropped that part.
"This Year Is Different" is about the loss of your father.
Everytime I lose someone, and that happened a few times, I ask myself: "How can I spend Christmas without that person?" It's a sore thought to me. How am I going to live without that person? But also: How am I going to spend Christmas without that person? Now that I'm a little older, I have the experience that it is possible to spend Christmas without someone. I wanted to write a song about that: How is Christmas going to be? As I wrote that song in that moment, that was a true question for me. I think that was right in the week before or after my father passed away. I wrote half of that song and then I finished it with the thought: We all go through this.
Where did you record the album?
We recorded it in Stockholm and a little bit in Norway, as we had to add a few tracks. Mostly in Stockholm. I went there to do the background vocals – and I caught the last airplane back to Oslo before everything shut down.
Did you record separately or did you all come together?
I like to have the whole band in the studio. I need that atmosphere of live recording. We were all in it together, we all reacted to one another and to the song. That's the way I like to work.
Was it the band you've already worked with?
Yes. I've worked with so many people, depending what it is I'm doing at the moment. But these people I've been working with for a long time. All of them. But we weren't that many, it was a rather small band. Although: The sessions I have done in Norway was with new people. I have a pool of musicians that I like to use for different things. I like to pick and choose, depending on what I want to produce.
"New York was inviting."
When we last spoke, I think it was 2013, you said you had just moved back to Norway. Later I read that you moved to New York City again.
I thought Europe was getting too boring, but I realized that I am too boring for New York. I don't know, I fell in love with a Norwegian and it brought me back to Norway. Which I never thought would happen, but I am here and I haven't moved since.
You lived in New York in the late 1990s and started your musical career there. Was it a sense of nostalgia that brought you back there when you later decidedd to move there again ? How did the experience of living there differ for you compared to your later time there?
I think it was nostalgia. Acting on nostalgia is always meaningless. First of all the city had changed a lot. But I had changed also. It didn't feel like it anymore. When I moved there in the 1990s, you could still find areas that were dead or not happening. You could still find people in all age groups. It was still different neighbourhoods, things cost either lots or little. Now it was more streamlined, all over the place. The younger generation had bombarded the cities, all artists were out, all people who aren't rich were out. That brings a certain atmosphere to the city. It wasn't my atmosphere anymore.
Would you say the city has lost its edge?
Totally. I was living in SoHo in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the coolest neighbourhood. Back then it was weirdos and artists everywhere, normal people. Now it's just those very young, rich kids who have parents who pay for their housing and education. The edge was completely gone. It was just cocktail hour and Gucci bags. Not that I have anything against Cocktail hour.
Did you also live in SoHo the second time around?
Yes. I was very lucky with great apartments when I was chronically broke and poor. But that's the great thing anyway when you do something you love: You don’t mind being broke. I didn't mind not being able to afford a coffee at Starbucks. Now I was able to go back and find a nice apartment – which I always had anyway. But SoHo was not what it used to be. A fashion area for teenagers. That maybe sounds a little dark now, but I was really disappointed. Where did all the fun stuff go, the interesting stuff? I like when things are little off and weird and when things are a melting pot of different ingredients. I always liked to find myself in that – because I was never able to find myself in a group. I don't trust groups and their dynamics.
How were your beginnings in New York in the 1990s?
I landed at the airport, got myself some sleep and then I went out in the morning and applied for jobs. I went to different restaurants and asked if I could work as a waitress. I got two jobs that day. Then I went to more places. Two or three months later I had enough money to hire a band. I went to clubs and asked to play there. I got three, four gigs and a band to join me. I played within the first four months of my arrival there. I have no idea how I did that stuff, but I did it and it was great. New York was inviting. Everybody was curious about you, you were given a chance by everyone. That was something I didn't know from Norway. Here you have to prove yourself before you do anything. My first band were really great musicians. Just to be able to play with those great musicians without being scrutinized or without having to prove yourself.
That's odd, Norway is known for its Jazz musicians. It is a difficult starting place?
I think so. I had been here for a long time and I never wanted to elbow my way. I wasn't given any chance. The music system here is much more closed. You have to be in the circle and be approved of. That never worked for me. That was one of the reasons I left Norway. I thought if I stayed here, I'd never be able to do what I love. I had to go somewhere else and that was New York.
After those first years in New York you moved to Vienna. Was that city welcoming to you?
I had already done some concerts with Wolfgang Muthspiel there. You know, what I mostly experienced there was friendship. My dearest friends are in Austria and I go there a lot. It contributed to my stability as a human being.
"I jazzed it up because I thought that was what it was supposed to be".
Before you made your first solo record, you released three records: "Daily Mirror" and "Beloved" with Wolfgang Muthspiel and "Scattering Poems" with the Julia Hülsmann Trio. How important were those records to shape your own idea of where you wanna go ? And what do you remember most about making those albums?
Working with Wolfgang was extremely important to develop my own style. He's so strong and so good. If you're not up to par, first of all he's going to devour you and he’s gonna decide everything. And secondly, he's not going respect anything you do. In the beginning we just ended up fighting a lot. He wanted his will, I wanted mine. I wasn't fully developed musically and also with my self esteem. I had to work on a few things. Working with strong, great people has been very developing for me. I needed to sharpen my own craft, be aware of what I'm doing. So I could meet Wolfgang where he was. I needed to develop …not my own identity, I already had that … but respect for my own identity. At that time we were together – but regardless of that, he always loved my stuff and always supported me. Those years with Wolfgang and those musicians on that record, this amazing gang, that affected me a lot. To play with people with such a high musical awareness. I love to work with people that are better than me. It does something to me.
Is there a possibility that you'll make another album with Wolfgang Muthspiel?
We are toying with the idea. I don't know if it's going to happen, but I would love to.
And what do you remember about the record with Julia Hülsmann?
At that time I already knew that I wanted to make "The Art Of How To Fall". It was lovely to work with Julia Hülsmann, she writes great melodies and the lyrics by E.E. Cummings were very inspiring. But it was time for me to go on and do my solo album. That was what I ultimately wanted to do.
In 2003 you released "The Art Of How To Fall". Back then you were marketed as a Jazz singer, which I often heard you don't really like. But would you say Jazz helped you craft your toolbox for what was coming?
I thought my simple melodies and my love for harmonies was a sign of being very simple. I was embarrassed about it. Low self esteem, probably. I thought in order to be something, I had to jazz it up. I can hear it in my singing, I jazzed it up because I thought that was what it was supposed to be. I also hired jazz musicians. The songs weren't necessarily jazz but it worked perfectly. Now that is said, I must also say: The improvisation, the love for openness within a piece of music is something that stuck with me. I still need that openness. But I also want to keep an openness to other types of music. I don't know how to scat, I don't know how to improvise on scales. I don't know any Jazz standards. I don't sing them well, I tried the other, it didn't work. I never studied it. I mean, I was in New York, I saw real jazz. I can't call myself a Jazz singer. But am I influenced by it? Sure. In the beginning I was embarrassed about the simplicity of my own compositions. It took me a while to stand with that.
That's interesting: You have that amazing three octave voice and yet you had to gather self esteem to use it in the way you want.
Oh yeah, don't we all? There's not one person on this earth that does not have problems with self esteem at one point. Self esteem is something that a lot of people grapple with. The more you get out there as an artist, the more you need to look at that. If you look for that self esteem you always lose. I try not to care. I do not have it, I do not not have it. I try not to have it at all. That's what I've been doing my whole life: Making sure I don't think about self esteem. Should I wait to do things until I have self esteem? I don't have time for that.
Do you still listen to your old records? I do, once in a while. When I make new records, I listen to the old ones to see where I am going regarding sound and mixing. There is not one record I regret, they all have something special. I can hear my developments. I am very happy about getting older, I can hear that. I am very happy that I always did what I felt like doing and that I never had to make compromises. I am glad that I followed my own will. I had the chance to do so because I was signed to Universal Austria, to Harry Gruber. If there's anyone with the most impact on me, it was Harry. He always said "You know what you want to do". He always had trust in me. To have that trust is the best thing an artist can have to get to the core of yourself. Always giving the pen back to me: "You know what you want to do". Being with him at Universal enabled me to strengthen that source. When I listen back to the records, I always think about him and want to thank him for that freedom. I shifted a little bit away from Jazz. I wanted to explore the Singer/songwriter genre. He let me do that – and that's where I got to where I am today.
Did you have a master plan for your career or do you take it as it comes? I never plan anything. The only thing I let plan for me are concerts. The only thing I know in the future are which concerts I have. It is completely and utterly meaningless to plan anything. The world changes, what I want changes, the music in me changes.
2020 taught us even more that plans don't really mean much.
Right, and for me that wasn't difficult. I never make plans. For me to experience something unexpected is never a problem. I'm always up for that. You get to know new experience or something else comes. Changes are possibilities. It's exciting. What's coming. I remember in March: "Oh my God, what's gonna happen when you got so much time on your own?" That was a big chance for me.
Has 2020 been good to you? Were you able to make good use of the unexpected time at home?
Yes, I had a very good time. Especially in the beginning. I wanted to take this chance before it was gone. But it wasn't long before I wasn't doing too much. Still, I got a chance in how to say yes to everything. In the beginning all the concerts in the spring were delayed to fall and then they were cancelled. All the time we were rolling the stone up the hill and falling back again. That can be stressful. Saying yes to everything happening is a choice that you can definitely make. But you haven't made that choice before you had a difficult time making it. In the fall I started to have a difficult time with the quarantine. All in all it's been a great year – I haven't suffered, but hey I'm in Norway, how can you suffer here? That mask thing is starting to wear me off a little bit – and maybe the Christmas thing, because I have to buy Christmas presents. I didn't think I'd have to because I was going to be on tour. Now I am at home making Christmas cookies and looking for presents.
Do you have plans for 2021?
The only plans I have for next year are doing the concerts we had to postpone. I have a lot of concerts that I need to do. Also can't wait for the moment Vienna opens again. I am going to go to Vienna for my friends and my heart. Other than that, I don't have plans. Just do the concerts and hopefully, when the time is right, another record.
Do you prefer living in the city or the countryside?
In Oslo I live in the city, but I also have a house in Sweden, in the countryside. I spend my time 50-50, I'd say.
Could you imagine moving somewhere different again?
Life has always taken me somewhere. I'm here now. Whenever I go to Vienna, I miss Vienna terribly. Sometimes I feel like going back to Vienna. That was the city where I first felt at home. If life would invite me somewhere or if I felt the wind around my nose pulling me somewhere I would go. I am happy in Oslo, as long as I have my place in Sweden. I can go anywhere, but I also can stay. It doesn't really matter.
But the mix between city and countryside is important to you.
Yes, that's very important. The solitude. That's where music comes from: Silence. But you can have that in the city, too. You just need to stay in your apartment, like I did in New York before my last record. I don't know. It depends on the time of the year, which page of the cookbook I open. I am happy anywhere, actually.