Nordik Beat

Ask a room full of people what Nordic music means to them and you’ll get a different answer every time. From the biggest hits of The Saturdays to the enigmatic post-rock of Sigur Rós, from Björk to black metal, PRS’ Nordic songwriters have made their mark around the world.

Paul Nichols
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 22 Mar 2012
  • min read
Ask a room full of people what Nordic music means to them and you’ll get a different answer every time. From the biggest hits of The Saturdays to the enigmatic post-rock of Sigur Rós, from Björk to black metal, PRS’ Nordic songwriters have made their mark around the world.

It’s been a long and fruitful forty years since Sweden’s ABBA stormed the charts and music fans all over the world fell in love with their glam Euro pop. Over the past four decades the country has positioned itself as a pop powerhouse, encouraged by Stockholm’s late 80s electro-pop scene, which coined the term Nordik beat and gave rise to super-producer Max Martin.
The region’s songwriters have been responsible for some of the biggest international pop hits of the past two decades.

Meanwhile, the whole Nordic region has quietly developed an uncanny ability to combine musical innovation with international appeal. The region’s songwriters have been responsible for some of the biggest international pop hits of the past two decades. Pioneering Nordic record labels such as Norway’s Smalltown Supersound and Tellé, and Iceland’s Smekkleysa, which first signed Sugarcubes, have brought some of the region’s most innovative musicians to our shores.

Sitting right on top of the world, the five small countries that make up the Nordics are disproportionately influential with their cutting edge design, innovative and efficient songwriting teams and quirky artists. It’s remarkable to think that, with a seemingly endless roll call of talent, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are home to just 26 million people, less than half the population of the UK.

Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, who form the songwriting duo Stargate, grew up in Trondheim, a town with less than 200,000 inhabitants. They are now based in New York, penning R&B singles that have rewritten the rulebooks both sides of the Atlantic, and name Ne-Yo’s Closer and Rihanna’s S&M amongst their biggest. Also from Norway, Espen Lind and Amund Bjørklund, who together form pop production and writing team Espionage, created Chris Brown’s With You, Leona Lewis single Angels and co-wrote Beyonce’s worldwide smash Irreplaceable with Stargate.

But some songwriters have also had success as artists in their own right, such as Iceland’s Emiliana Torrini, who co-wrote Kylie’s hit Slow and released albums on the UK’s Rough Trade label. Meanwhile, Norwegian electronic pioneers and remixers Röyksopp, from the sub-Artic town of Tromsø, have pushed the boundaries of dance music far from their homeland.

It’s no coincidence that the Nordics’ remote geographical position, bewildering isolation and unique socio-political stance have fostered a musical heritage that is revered around the world. While this may seem like a sweeping statement, Anna Hildur, who has worked in the region’s music industry for two decades, believes there are deep commonalities that have linked these nations together for hundreds of years.

Until last month, London-based Hildur had been head of the Iceland Music Expo organisation for many years, providing a platform for its artists and songwriters to showcase their talent overseas. She now heads up NOMEX, an umbrella initiative spanning the whole region. ‘I think that it’s fair to say the Nordic music scene is really vibrant right now. I also think generally you can say the Nordic people are like-minded people and there has been a lot of cultural collaboration for a long time. We come from the same roots.’

‘These are small communities living in large countries so there is a lot of space,’ she explains. ‘We all have in common that the winters are dark and there’s quite a lot of time. Maybe there’s not much to do? To have all that time and darkness lends itself really well to rehearsal rooms and studios.’

Norwegian Joakim Haugland, founder of the Smalltown Supersound and Smalltown Jazz labels, agrees. He points to a melancholic vibe during the Nordic winters that lends itself to darker, more leftfield music. His Oslo-based labels have brought critically acclaimed artists and songwriters such as Robyn, Lindstrøm and Kim Hiorthøy to international audiences, and he works closely with British musicians such as Four Tet to build bridges across nations.

‘I think that a lot of good music is made in isolation, and in all these Nordic countries we are actually quite isolated from the main musical centres of the world. We are inspiring each other at the same time as listening to American and British music, so you get impulses from that and translate it into your own thing.’

The Nordics are hugely open and international in their outlook. They embrace music and culture from around the world, absorbing styles and genres and incubating new sounds that merge with their own traditions. It is this drive to ‘keep up’ that has allowed the region’s songwriters to play UK and US counterparts at their own game.
English is a strong secondary language for all countries in the region, so lyrics aren’t a problem

English is a strong secondary language for all countries in the region, so lyrics aren’t a problem. Children are taught English from an early age and often international TV programmes and movies are not over-dubbed with local languages. Swedish songwriter Nina Woodford, who co-wrote James Morrison’s Broken Strings and has written for the likes of Tom Jones and Leona Lewis, says that for her, it’s more natural to write in English than any other language.

‘Scandinavia is pretty international; we don’t have subtitles like Germany or other places and people always remark on our accents. That has a lot to do with [our success at writing songs in English] because the vocabulary and the confidence are there. Also, it’s easy for us to discover other music that is written in English too.’

She explains that when she was growing up there was strong government support for music in schools, which encouraged her to learn new instruments and play and sing with others. Children were allowed to choose up to two instruments to play at any one time, and schools offered free lessons and equipment hire.

Outside the education system, the region’s five music export offices work hard to raise the profile of local songwriters and create tools to help export. They all have a very broad ownership, mainly encompassing performers, songwriters, composers and producers. Although different countries have diverse strategies and overseas priorities, the new NOMEX enterprise will encourage Nordic partnership so that individual countries can work in tandem on music trade missions. Interestingly, although an unofficial initiative has been in place for many years, this formal arrangement has been agreed and funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

‘I think the political system understands that the music industry has faced severe challenges over the last decade or so,’ Hildur says. ‘I think also that the Nordic political system understands that culture, music and the music business all go hand in hand. We don’t necessarily have to divide it completely. You can make music and the music business go together, and that’s how our export offices are set up.’

This unified approach, together with a fixation on the UK market, has helped Nordic songwriters migrate to our shores. Our local industry is heralded as a taste-making market, buoyed by strong media, healthier record sales and a large live music scene. To break through here can open doors into other territories.

Hildur says that success leads to success, adding that thirty years of Icelandic acts breaking internationally has helped stoke interest in the region. ‘It started with Mezzoforte then the Sugarcubes and Björk, followed by Sigur Rós. I think this has been really encouraging for the scene and it’s just been growing from year to year,’ she says.

Once inroads are made into a market, networks can flourish and people become more interested in other songwriters the region has to offer. But, while industry demand, success of past artists and efficient music export organisations have certainly helped Nordic talent gain a foothold overseas, it’s also local outlook and attitude that has bred success.

London-based songwriter Ina Wroldsen has co-written more than 20 songs for The Saturdays, and has also penned lyrics for Britney Spears, One Direction, Pussycat Dolls and many others. She learnt her craft at a young age, hanging round the studios in her native Norway, and aged 14 worked with Espionage and Stargate to hone her English accent and language. For her, working in the UK became a priority.

‘In Britain you don’t really have to get out there to earn money, you can just stay here and do well. For a Norwegian artist you have to get out. I think that’s the reason you have so many artists and songwriters coming from there. We don’t have more artists, but if we want to make it we have to get out,’ she explains.

‘We have a lot more to prove, being born and raised in countries where English is our second language. When we come home to our parents we speak Norwegian, or Swedish, or Danish, so I think we have to be good. We have to be better. Why would they go for us if we’re not? We have to constantly prove ourselves!’

Danish-born Jonas Jeberg, songwriter and producer whose credits include Pussycat Dolls and Jordin Sparks, also cites ambition as a primary motivator. ‘We always strive to get in with the bigger, better people you hear of in the business,’ he says. ‘Also, I think we have a certain mindset in the way we work. The more people I meet from America I see that our work ethic is more strict and hard on ourselves than other people! Maybe that has something to do with it.’

 
It’s so important to find music that has its own voice and style

As Haugland from Smalltown Supersound puts it: ‘It’s so important to find music that has its own voice and style. We have to compete with people singing in their own language. Also, we’re outside the main music centres. You have all these pockets that good music has emerged from, such as Seattle, Manchester, Paris, and it shouldn’t be a problem for Scandinavian countries to do the same.’

Northern Lights:
Read the extended interview with Nina Woodford.

Over the next week we will publish more interviews relating to this feature. Details to follow...