The real Rebekka
Norwegian writer, actor, singer and songwriter Rebekka Karijord says her creative drive – and restlessness – comes from her troubled childhood. ‘I guess I’ve always searched,’ she tells Kevin Courtney
IT’S THE WEEK before Christmas, and I’m sitting on a large, comfy sofa in the drawing-room of a Georgian townhouse hotel on Harcourt Street, a faded haven from the seasonal hustle and bustle of Grafton Street. Above me looms a large Christmas tree, twinkling with old-fashioned baubles, and across from me sits Norwegian-born, Stockholm-based singer-songwriter Rebekka Karijord, who is in Dublin to promote her concert in The Workman’s Club next Friday (January 18th). It’s not quite a traditional Norwegian yuletide setting, but it feels pretty close.
Karijord had a lot to celebrate when she went back to her family home near Oslo this Christmas. Her new album, We Become Ourselves, released last autumn, has been greeted with acclaim across Europe, and finished the year in Mojo’s list of the Top 10 World Music albums of 2012. It’s her second album, following 2009’s The Noble Art of Letting Go, but this is just the tip of the Karijord iceberg; her artistic timeline goes all the way back to when she was 12, and has been marked by a restless and searching nature that keeps her always moving towards her next creative peak.
“I think it results in me never wanting to repeat myself. Sometimes too much. I can be very impatient. I’ve had a little bit of a problem in that I never ride the wave. You know, I jump off the wave. I think that’s why I’m such a late bloomer, in a way, because I’ve been doing this since I was 12, and on my last album, The Noble Art of Letting Go, that was the one that gave me some sort of fundament as a musician, and gave me the opportunity to tour. And before that I had been doing a lot of different things. I’d been writing plays, I’d been acting in films, I’d been writing music for films and theatre – which I still do – and working with humanistic issues – going to Palestine.
“I think it comes from my upbringing, actually. Because I grew up with a single mom, and a dad who was not present, and we were really struggling in many ways. My mom was super-poor. She was really young when she got me. I think also because of how my dad was, he had drug problems, and a lot of personal problems, so I didn’t see him that much.
“I think I’d been thinking a lot about this since I was little: why are some people on the inside of what’s accepted and approved in society, the inner warm circle, and why are some people on the outside? How much coincidence is it? Because I think it could be you and me. And my father, who was a musician and came from a super-privileged family, with education and everything, ended up spending 20 years of his life on drugs. He’s healthy now, but I’ve always had this soft spot for the people who end up on the outside, and I get really provoked by unfairness. So I guess I’ve always searched.”
When she was 12, Karijord came across a set of lyrics written by her estranged father, which prompted her to seek him out and try and reconnect with this lost soul. “He didn’t give me much as a parent, but indirectly, he gave me music.” Over the next few years, father and daughter exchanged music, and she worked with him on some of his songs, setting many of his lyrics to music.
“He was playing his really prog, socialistic type songs, but there were love songs as well, for me and my mom, which was very special. It really was a big part of my life until I was 21 and I studied theatre, and then I made a play and integrated it with his songs, and it was a huge success in Sweden and in Norway, too. And that was the end of it. Because then I was done, it was processed. But it was a special time, really weird.”
There’s a happy ending to this child’s story: after 25 years of drug addiction, her father got clean, and is part of her life again, after being absent from it for most of her childhood years.
“It is, of course, a relationship that doesn’t have a fundamental basis in childhood, but it’s as good as this can get under the circumstances. He’s a remarkable man. What he has achieved, getting clean after all those years, respect.”
She may not have had a strong male role model in her formative years, but Karijord was never short of strong, Scandinavian women in her life; her grandmother worked on a Norwegian oil rig, while her mother, an artist and sculptor, wielded a huge influence through her craft and storytelling. It left her with an inquisitiveness about the male psyche that she explores in such tracks as Oh Brother.
It’s no coincidence that the album as a whole features the deep, bassy voice of her collaborator (and record label boss) Jacob Snavely, counterbalancing her own clear, melodic soprano, and a male voice choir swelling beneath Karijord’s delicately plucked electric harp. Another striking aspect to the album is Karijord’s use of percussion, which gives the record a primal, pagan force that seems to throb beneath the gently undulating melodies.
“I was thinking of that when I wrote it. I wanted it to sound religious and hedonistic at the same time. Almost like in church, with a church organ and a voice choir, but a love album, with the human body as the church, and love as the religion.
“I know it sounds really big and pretentious, but I wanted to get this feeling that is a big part of the Scandinavian music tradition, this pagan, repetitive folk melody. My family has Sami blood from north Norway, and when you look back in time, what did people do in the winter darkness? You sit around the fireplace and sing, and someone has a drum, and there are these repetitive melodies. And I grew up with the tradition, that’s in me somewhere. I want to explore that more.”
That mix of the rhythmic and melodic has earned Karijord comparisons with her friend and fellow Norwegian, Ane Brun, with whom she has toured extensively, including a date in Dublin a couple of years ago. When Karijord plays her own headliner at the Workman’s Club next Friday, she’ll be bringing her electric harp, along with a couple of drummers and a guitarist. “It’s four or five onstage, and a lot of voices. All of them are singers. It’s more energetic and louder live than it is on record. Very dynamic. From the small, silent, minimal, only one instrument, to total mayhem.”
Ask Karijord about her influences, and she’ll cite everyone from PJ Harvey to Patti Smith to Björk to Buffy Sainte-Marie to Sheila Chandra, but what most influenced her was her mother’s storytelling when she was a child, which she says fired her imagination and opened all sorts of creative doors in her mind. The influence is there on such tracks as Prayer, Your Love and Multicoloured Hummingbird, and also on the single Use My Body While It’s Still Young, which drew criticism from this very Ticket for its provocative title.
“I thought it was a very simple interpretation. It’s not about sex. It’s provocative, yes, I know that, but I wanted to be a little provocative, because I think that’s when pop music is at its best. I tend to try to not explain what my songs are about, because it takes away the magic, but I can say that to me it’s about memento mori – remember that you’re gonna die one day, so embrace your life.”
Rebekka Karijord plays the Workman’s Club on Friday, January 18th. Her new single, Multicoloured Hummingbird, is out today on Control Freak Kitten Records