Taking Care of Business: The 405 meets Ane Brun
Last month saw the ten-year anniversary of the release of Ane Brun's first record, 'Spending Time With Morgan'. With a further five studio albums under her belt, Brun's career to date has easily demonstrated the intricacies and beauty of her song-writing as well as the enthralling quality of her voice. Many contemporaries cite her as an influence, while her back-catalogue boasts a rare lack of stinkers - a feat achieved by few.
A retrospective collection of Brun's music, SONGS 2003-2013, comes out this week to mark her debut album's special birthday and here The 405 brings you a conversation with the Norwegian musician, in which we touch on Brun's rise to success, the music industry and her love of live performance.
'Spending Time With Morgan' came out when Ane Brun was a 27 year-old. After flitting and flatting between her Norwegian hometown of Molde and Barcelona, Oslo and Bergen for several years, she eventually settled in Sweden. The album was recorded in Stockholm and Uppsala and its recording was financed through her salary from working at a record store, academic scholarships she'd been awarded and loans from "friends who wanted to help me out [in return] for a future percentage of sales."
"My ambitions were to get a proper release of my debut album and get more gigs," she says. "I imagined my music career as a long-term thing and I wanted to be a part of every step of the way. When the album was done I really loved the songs and the recordings. I presented a sampler of the album to 4 or 5 record companies and also to some other music business people, but their response was slow and unenthusiastic and I was so hungry to get started, so I decided that it was better to release the music myself instead of waiting around for anyone else's permission to do so."
Brun tells me that, at the time, she didn't really know anything about the music business and didn't have any expectations for a major release. "I just wanted a real album out there," she explains. "It was really hard to get anything done only with the traditional demos, I wanted to make a real studio recording. I had heard about artists releasing their own albums - there were a couple of successful ones in Sweden - but my greatest inspiration was Ani Difranco. So the alternative of releasing my album myself existed in my mind when I finally had the finished mixes ready sometime in 2002."
During that time, Brun also met Mikael Gustavsson who was later to become her manager (and remains so to this day). "Mikael helped me out with a distribution deal with V2 Records and all of a sudden I was full-on in the music business and soon received the news that several European countries wanted to license my album," she says. "It was all pretty mind-blowing and confusing and amazing at the same time. I must admit that my ambitions were a lot smaller than what actually happened shortly after my Scandinavian release." Before she had the chance to take it all in, Brun was being put up in fancy hotel rooms all over Europe, doing interviews with journalists about her music and getting a first taste of fame.
I ask Brun whether she was taken aback by the speed with which things were starting to happen or whether it merely felt like part of the plan. "Even early on I had a lot of confidence in my music and my voice, as I do today, so I wasn't terribly surprised that people liked it and that I would build an audience of some kind," she says. "So in some ways it has gone according to plan, but maybe on a higher and broader level of success than I had expected. Of course, releasing through my own label without a big corporation supporting me, I didn't expect things to grow so quickly and internationally. I pictured a steady pace forward and looking back it has been steady but, again, on a higher level of success than I had expected. I felt the need to be a part of every step of this steady path forward and I feel I've had the chance to grow into most challenges along the way, which has made me strong and experienced."
I point out that ten years ago releasing music independently wasn't as prevalent a choice as it is now. "Well, It was my own decision to release independently and it was definitely the right decision," Brun muses. "I was quite intuitive about it, it felt right to do it myself. I am very happy about this choice I made. I believe it's been important for my creativity to have the last and only word in my career. Just knowing that no one else will take care of business makes me take care of things and make things happen. It's good to not have to ask someone if it fits the budget or timing to release or plan anything. This kind of spontaneous way of working has sometimes had the most incredible timing and at other times too many things have happened at the same time so that certain releases haven't had the attention they've deserved."
Does Brun think that the changes in the music industry and the way that people now consume music in comparison to what things were like back in 2003 have in any way affected the manner in which she now writes music? "I don't think it has directly changed my way of writing music," she responds, "but through the new possibilities of releasing certain songs and projects more quickly and digitally, it might affect the process of recording and producing. Songs can be produced independently from an album, which can work as a set framework to limit the creative process. This is, of course, also for the good. Perhaps the new circumstances can make the composer more free to go in different directions. It's also positive that, through the new ways of consuming and presenting music, I am able to make my more odd songs available to the listeners on the same terms as a studio album, on a streaming site or a digital downloading site."
As someone who tours quite extensively, I wonder what is Brun's favourite aspect of taking her music on the road. "I really enjoy performing to an audience," she tells me. "That's when the music comes alive again for me, after finishing the recording process, and the songs always progress and develop during a tour. I play solo or with different kinds of band set-ups and by varying this the songs present themselves in different shapes and colours, which makes my music stay interesting to me, and perhaps to my audience as well. I also love the social aspect of touring with a group of people. Weirdly enough, those are the only periods of my life where I follow a repeating day-to-day routine and I enjoy that. At home it's a more spread-out and spontaneous schedule, which is loaded with freedom but, as I said, I enjoy the schedule of a day on tour. It's very… specific!"
And out of all the very many gigs she has done in the past few years, are there any ones in particular which remain special to her? "I've played a few hundred gigs and gigs can be special because of many different aspects," she says. "It all depends on the audience, the venue, the circumstance, the sound, the guests, my own state of mind… but sometimes it's difficult to explain why a night is so enjoyable. On one hand, the bigger stages and the large crowds like the summer festivals are amazing fun and energetic experiences, especially in the last couple of years since I started touring with two drummers and a large band. I can mention lots of festivals around Europe where I've had a lot of fun. Then there's the club atmosphere, which is more intimate and intense. I loved playing the Shepherds Bush in London and The Troubadour in LA last year. And sometimes there are the more odd gigs that I'll never forget. Last summer I made food and played a couple of songs on the same stage at the Womad festival. That was very enjoyable. I've also played for crowds at a womens' shelter, at human rights award ceremonies and environmental conferences and these are almost always cherished memories for me personally."
In this context I also mention her recent performance of an adaptation of Dido's Lament at The Roundhouse, where she played with the BBC Orchestra. "It was an amazing experience to get to play with such amazing musicians," she says, "and in such a great venue! It was also my birthday the day before the gig so I got to celebrate it in London."
SONGS 2003-2013 brings together tracks from each of Brun's albums, showcasing both live recordings and studio cuts. Alongside her better-known offerings, there are a couple of more esoteric attractions, such as Brun's covers of Arcade Fire's 'Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)' and Nina Simone's 'Feeling Good' as well as an updating of her own 2004 classic, 'This Voice'. I ask her whether, when deciding on the track-list, she had a moment of assessing what her favourite album and song from her own discography might be. "If I have to pick one album," she says, "it would be 'It All Starts With One' since it's the latest, I guess, and it is closest to my heart right now. I love almost all of my songs, so it's completely impossible for me to pick a favourite, sorry!"
So how did she choose which ones would make it onto the compilation? "We made the selection chronologically and tried to pick the songs that have been popular amongst my fans in different parts of the world over the years, to present my music to new listeners and to show the different aspects of my career" she explains. "There are covers, duets, live recordings, ballads and more energetic songs. It is, of course, hard to pick songs, there are many personal favourites that are not on there, but I had to make the choices and the other songs still exist on the original albums. On the other hand, there are not many of my songs I don't love. Hard to pick among my many babies…," she chuckles.
'It All Starts With One' which Brun refers to earlier, was also the basis for ONE, a short film created by Swedish cinematographer, Magnus Renfors, which premiered online recently. I ask Brun whether visuals, as accompaniment for her music, are important to her. "I feel that visuals can make the music stronger and give it new dimensions," she says. "It can make the listener experience the music in a deeper or at least different way, with the right kind of visuals. I enjoy seeing someone else's visual interpretation of my music. That's what my videos are all about. I've given the directors mostly free hands to be creative without me interfering too much. But, of course, I accept the ideas that they present to me before the production begins."
In terms of what music Brun listens to herself, she reveals that she is presently enjoying The Knife's Shaking The Habitual as well as older recordings by Aretha Franklin. Are either of these artists likely to influence the direction of her next record? Brun is not so sure. "I think I will pick up on certain elements from 'It All Starts With One', especially the rhythmic elements. But I always come back to the acoustic guitar and I have just written a new song in that style for a movie soundtrack."
Finally, I ask Brun whether, based on her ten-year experience as a recording artist, there is any sagely advice she can dispense to musicians starting out today. "If you are a resourceful person, make sure you keep your own recordings and copyright yourself," she says. "If you don't feel up to this kind of work and responsibility, find someone you trust to work for you. Believe in your own music and your own expression and listen to your gut feeling. Let things take time, be true to yourself and keep connected to your music in the meantime. I definitely recommend to others to release their own music themselves, but it all depends a lot on who you are and what you feel you can and want to achieve on your own. It takes a bit of guts and imagination. I guess I could have done glossier press photos, more glamorous videos and more radio friendly versions of my songs, but I've always tried to follow what feels right for me and what makes me feel real and I've never felt at home in many of those accessories and activities that are expected from the commercial 'pop star'. It makes me feel fake. But on the other hand, I've tried to take it less seriously in the last few years and play around with it a bit more. Have fun with it!"
SONGS 2003-2013 is out now on Balloon Ranger.