From her very first album, Crux, back in 2011, it was clear that Norwegian singer-songwriter, Sandra Kolstad didn’t just have something interesting to say but also an interesting way of saying it. Her individual take on electronic pop music has resulted in an eclectic interpretation of ideas, clothing intricate melodies and clever lyrics in unpredictable arrangements. And in a musical landscape where radio still predominantly focuses on homogenous sounds, Kolstad’s attitude to pop has always offered a genuinely fresh feel.

Burning Love, her brand new record, applies Kolstad’s sonic approach to a collection of songs that zoom in on the ups and downs of desire and how love renders human beings blind to red flags and black holes. Mixing vulnerability with defiance and strength, Burning Love is an album that uses the hurt and flips it on its head to reveal growth. It’s about how you use fear to become unafraid and how you shift the mindset of weakness into an outlook of strength.

The 405 caught up with Kolstad to discuss overcoming toxic relationships, the push and the pull of personal experience in her songs and the interplay between being music and theatre.

What was the starting point for your work on Burning Love?

Unfortunately, it was pain. And pain gives you two options: you can lie down and feel sorry for yourself. Or you can reclaim your self-worth and do your best to survive. By feeling sorry for yourself I don’t mean practicing empathy towards yourself, because that is so important. But however awful experiences may be, you can always learn something new from them. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s possible. This process was all about taking control over my own life again and writing my own narrative.

Does the record have an overarching theme for you?

Yes, there is definitely an overarching theme, I would even say this record is very conceptual. All the songs belong together. Even though every song carries its own story, the record as a whole carries its own dramaturgy and narrative. I would say it is about traumatic relationships, where an I is colonised by a You and burnt to the ground – survival songs for rising from the ashes!

You soft-launched the release of new music with ‘Half Life’ last October and at the time you spoke of how the song and the new album represented the most personal music you have ever made. What can you share about the experiences that helped bring the song and the album to life?

I found myself in a very toxic relationship. This record came directly out of the pain deriving from that relationship. Fortunately, working with the album also brought a lot of empowerment and liberation from what was holding me down. I did a lot of research on what constitutes toxic relationships - what mechanisms are at work - and tried to develop a musical and literary language that can describe the different stages of a toxic relationship. I wanted to understand what makes it possible that a human being can colonise another human being in that way.

The single ‘Burning Love’ talks of a lover demonstrating inhuman behaviour and a relationship ravaged by imbalance. Was it difficult translating the private hardship of that past relationship into lyrics that can universally resonate with other people?

I think by writing this personally for the first time and showing the first demos to some people I trust, I realised being very personal is sometimes more universal than trying to be universal, if you get me [laughs]. Also, after experiencing what I had experienced, I met a lot of people with similar experiences. I realised it wasn’t just my pain I was writing about, trying to understand and process, but the pain of many people. Toxic relationships don’t necessarily have to be romantic ones. Unfortunately, there is a lot of trauma going on between people in families, friendships, working places and in the society as a whole. I wanted to dig into what makes it possible, how it affects us, and, most importantly, how one can stand up after being pushed down. I wanted to create songs that look at those kinds of relationships from different angles. Not just the one I had experienced.

You’ve previously described ‘Burning Love’ as your favourite on the album. What are you other key moments on the record?

‘Burning Love’ is my favourite because it is kind of the essence of the theme and the energy of the record. It’s the starting point and the point of no return. But, as I said, I understand the record as a conceptual record. The songs are carefully stitched together and also refer to each other. ‘Catch 22’, which I’ve just released as a single, is also important to me, because it’s the one song that has to do with the great hope that can come with love, which I still insist on believing in. I really hope the listeners will enjoy how the album is built up and how it comes to peace in the end, with the final song, ‘Haiku Kaiku’. When I wrote the song, I felt relief: wait it out. No matter how bad it is, it will end, it will change, it will shift shape. Wait it out. Love is not just something you have to get from others, but something you have to find in and give to yourself.

The four tracks you’ve released prior to the record have been very different from one another – how easy was it to pick which songs to put out as “singles” so as to best represent their parent-album? Oh, that’s always so hard! I’ve tried my best. But it’s really nerve-racking. You never know if you choose the right ones. Then again, what songs are the “right ones” will change from person to person. I feel the four tracks represent a broad spectrum of what this record is trying to communicate: the struggle, the fight, the pain and grief, but also the hope, the relief and faith.

Over the past few years your creative energies have been shared between music and theatre. How did you first get into acting?

The Norwegian director, Peer Peerez, asked me to compose music for a play he was directing, Songfuglen, at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo in 2016. I said a very humble yes and found that I loved working with theatre. A year later he asked me if I wanted to act in a play he was directing, which I also said yes to - even more humble - because I trust him so much. Around the same time I also had the great pleasure of making music to a newly written text by the French author, Édouard Louis, at Litteraturhuset in Oslo, which we later performed together in Paris.

What sort of fulfillment would you say one gets from theatre that you don’t get from music and vice versa?

It’s very interesting to work with other people’s texts and performances, but also to work in teams. The performative situation in theatre is quite different from playing a concert. I really enjoy exploring different ways of filling a room with music and words. I guess theatre and music are both doing that, but in a little different ways. It’s also very interesting to see in what ways they are different and the synergy from working with both.

Would you ever consider combining the two worlds and crafting a play that incorporates your original music?

I have actually just done that! It’s a play that premiered in Norway in January. It is called Verda er ein skandale (which translates as: The world is a scandal) and I’m both acting and performing music that I wrote for the play. It’s one of the most fantastic experiences I’ve had and I really hope I get to do more of that.

You’re about to embark on a tour in support of Burning Love – how have you approached the live arrangements of the new tracks?

I always put a lot of effort in playing the music I release live. I want it to be live and dangerous [laughs] so I always bring my band and use very little backing tracks. This enables a performance that will be different and new every time. Because of the strong conceptual aspect of this record I have decided to just play the new record on this tour, what with it being a release tour and all. Also, I’m working with designer, Ingrid Haugnes, on creating a visual frame for the concert that will transform the concert venues into something a little different, hopefully.

Burning Love is out now on Nordic Records International. For Sandra Kolstad’s forthcoming tour dates check out https://sandrakolstad.com.