Sivert Høyem: – The devil appeared as a black dog

English Journalism Music
Sivert Høyem i bedehuset på Nyksund

Norwegian artist, and Madrugada frontman, Sivert Høyem is out with a sparkling new, and wonderful, album called On an Island. We did a track by track walk through of the album, which has garnered high critical praise in the past weeks.

Nyksund is a fishing village in the north of Langøya in Vesterålen, just under an hour’s drive from Sortland. The village was vacated in 1970 and became a ghost town. During the 1980s, German artists arrived there and began to breathe life into the place. Today the village has a few permanent residents who work with year-round tourism. The place has such a cinematic feel that it has been used in films such as After the Rubicon and Insomnia.

In 2021, Sivert Høyem, who grew up less than an hour’s drive from Nyksund, traveled up there, bringing with him musicians, a sound technician and a photographer to work on his next solo project. The first taster was released last autumn with the songs The Rust and Aim for the Heart. The album, On an Island, was released on January 26th. It’s an album that shows a side of him we haven’t heard before, Høyem says.

On a Monday morning, almost two weeks before the album’s release, we had a chat with Sivert Høyem, freshly out of his morning workout. After getting a cup of coffee and with some snuff stuffed up his upper lip, we got started.

Stripped down

– I thought we could go through the album, song by song.

– Yes, that’s right, that’s what we were planning to do. I like that. It’s fun.

– I agree. I really enjoy doing that type of interviews. So let’s start with the opening track, which is also the title track. On an Island. It is very minimalistic and strippe down.

– It was probably one of the first songs I wrote for the album after I had decided on the concept and how we would record it. By that I mean going up to Nyksund and doing it reasonably minimalistic, with all the musicians in the same room, recording it as live as possible. So when I wrote it, I was very inspired by that concept and finally getting to do something up in northern Norway, my home region. It was an ambition for me to induce something that had to do with my relationship with where I come from. It was always clear that this song would be the first track on the album and function as a kind of overture. It was actually meant to be half as long, but then it ended up having a very standard song length. Lyrically, it is a very broad, and almost a bit mythical. It’s about two unnamed people who met each other on an island.

– In the song you say: «And I love you more when you love me less». Gloomy?

– Yes, that’s a good line, isn’t it?

– Yes, it is brilliant. But what did you have in mind when you wrote it?

– I don’t know what I had in mind when it appeared. But isn’t that often the case? When one party pulls away, the other becomes desperate and yearns for something that never really existed in their relationship. This is not a personal lyric, very little of the album is, actually. They are things I’ve read, seen or heard and observed throughout my life, and then I’ve mixed it up and made stories out of it.

– Interesting that you said this song should be an intro, because when I heard the album for the first time I felt it was kind of an intro to the next song, Two Green Feathers

– Yes, it’s like those two belong together, and it was natural that Feathers is track number two on the album. There were quite a few suggestions from other people that The Rust should have been earlier on the record than it is, but I was very determined and decided early in the process that The Rust should appear later on the album.

Knut Hamsun

– What do the two green feathers represent? [Norwegian writer and Noble prize winner] Knut Hamsun and the book Pan?

– It originates from there, yes. As I said, I went north infuse this northern Norwegian vibe into the music. I remember very well when I read the first Hamsun books. His earlier books are somewhat nature-mythical and romantic. Victoria and Pan made a big impression on me when I was in high school and I read them during the last summers before I moved to Oslo. And these books were written while he lived in the Vesterålen region [where Sivert grew up]. I have always felt that it was this landscape he was describing in his books. Although what he actually wrote about was the landscape on Hamarøy [a bit further south], but it is not so different from Vesterålen. So then I went and bought Pan and Victoria, and plowed through both. After this I wrote both The Rust, Two Green Feathers and one more song in one day. When I read about the green feathers I thought it was a great title, Two Green Feathers. It piques your curiosity to find out what it is all about.

– The third song, When Your True Love is Gone, is like an Irish drinking song where people sit and rock back and forth and sing along with you on the chorus.

– I love that type of music. And now it would be easy to start talking about The Pogues, but we’re not going to do that. I love the Pogues, of course, but I think there are several elements of different types of folk music on the album. Not least English folk music, especially on the opening and closing songs. And once again we return to The Rust. I feel it has something of the English folk traditions about it. So these are things that have always stuck with me, not only in Madrugada, but also on my solo stuff. It may have been a bit hidden for a while, but I think it has returned in a strong way on this record. One of the reasons this song have this feel is in the way we made it. It should be simple, so that you get more focus on the story.

– I think it’s almost a jolly song, it makes me happy.

– But it tells a sad story. The main character has lost their lover, and doesn’t quite understand how it happened. But what I find nice when it comes to this kind music is that it can be endlessly sad, while at the same time being uplifting. This was written a little earlier than the rest of the material on the album, so it is in some ways outside the concept for the record. But I included it because I felt that a bit of up-tempo feeling was needed, so that people will get a bit of variety and keep on listening further into the record. And the theme of the song is romantic, so it also fits.

– I like the percussion in that song.

– Yes, we worked very hard to bring out the sound of the room in Zoar [a house of worship in Nyksund] when we recorded it. We were very conscious of getting as much of the natural ambience of the room as possible into the recording. You can feel it’s a group of people standing together, playing on real instruments in an actual room. I feel that there is less and less of that in music today. These days, music is often made in some practice room, using the same digital tools that everyone else use. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I miss hearing that natural reverb of having the place that you were in when you recorded it creep into the recording. That makes it sound like you are in an physical and real room.

– I think in any case this song will be a winner at future concerts.

– Yes I hope so.

Haunted house

– The next song is In the Beginning, where your vocals sound as if you’re standing far away from the microphone, while and singing with a lot of reverb on your voice. 

– On this one, I’m singing the highest notes I’m able to do, without twisting it into a falsetto. It’s pretty hard for me to sing like that. That song was another ambition I had when we went up to Nyksund. I wanted us to write a song and record it in one day day to really capture the mood. So we did that partway through the process, This is the only song that where the others were involved with the lyrics and music. The music was written together with Christer Knutsen and Børge Fjordheim. We played through the whole thing, so what you hear on the record is probably the third time we got through it, if not completely flawless, then at least as close as possible. We did it to capture the immediacy that is there the very first times you play a song. The lyrics were written quite quickly. I don’t really know what they mean but…

Sivert Høyem and fellow musicians on a dock

– You sing «I wake in the morning, and this house is haunted».

– I think it’s inspired by things from Hamsun’s book Pan. I thought of the part of the book where he returns to his cabin and he begins to look back on the harmonious life he has lived. He walks around in nature and has always been very satisfied with everything. But then suddenly it all seems so pointless it’s almost sickening, because he has found this person, Edvarda, that he has more interest in now. Maybe I was influenced by all that.

Aim for the Heart was released as a digital single this autumn. How was it received?

– It was quite good, I think, although it was The Rust that stuck with people the most. I fully understand that, so it was no coincidence that The Rust was released first. And The Rust also more representative for the whole project. However, I had hoped for Aim for the Heart to get a bit more radio play than The Rust got, because the latter song was relatively doomed in that respect. I don’t know how much radio play it ended up getting. But I also released it to show other sides of the concept of the album, even if it is perhaps a bit left field, compared with the other songs.

– Yes, I thought that about both this and When Your True Love Has Gone, that they stood a bit out.

– That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it makes the album more dynamic.

– There is a small sequence in the song, in the bridge, where you add a sound with an almost out-of-tune piano, which I like very much.

– That was inspired by the American music tradition, which is called border music. It’s kind of a cross between American and Mexican music. We used some Latin percussion on that part as well. The guitar borrows some phrases from one of Chopin’s most famous pieces. We also tried our best to imitate Chopin in the falling piano cascades on the part you’re talking about. Once again to emphasize the romantic aspect of the album. It was a long process to get the song finished. There were a lot of problems that had to be solved along the way. I especially struggled making the lyrics work. When you struggle like that and you’re finally able to finish the song, you are a little skeptical towards it, because it feels like you have spent a little too much time working on it. For the song to be more untainted when you’re done with it, I want it to be more spontaneous and directly from the source. At the same time, it was written very spontaneously, on the same night as the first two songs on the record. So even though it required a lot of work to get it finished, it is among the best songs on the album.

Car wrecks in Greece

– Then there is The Rust, which ended up on quite a few «Best song from 2023» lists. That must feel great. 

– Yes, that was very cool. I’m very proud of that song, so it was a great joyt that so many people included it in their lists of the best songs of the year. It also has very lyrics that are very different from anything I’ve done before. It was fun to sit down and write about something that didn’t absolutely have to represent me and my life. At the same time, I felt that it was something the listeners could relate to. It seems that there are many people who understand that song.

– Perhaps many people recognize the concept of car wrecks and garbage filling up the garden?

– You may not find much of that in Oslo, but if you go a little bit outside the city centre, things like that start to appear. And I think there are variations of that in every country. There are many Greeks who have contacted me and said they recognize themselves in such descriptions. So it’s probably universal.

– Then we have Keepsake, and here we are suddenly back to Sivert sings deeply territory again.

– I wanted a pure acoustic guitar song on the record. So this was probably one of the last songs I wrote, right before the summer we went to Nyksund to record the album. It fits very nicely between The Rust and the next song, because it’s like a little breather between two epics. So it has a clear function on the record in that it prepares you for the difficult song that is coming up.

– I get Cohen vibes from it.

– [Leonard] Cohen has always been with me. I have heard his songs so many times. Although I will never be a lyricist of his caliber, I am very, very inspired by Cohen in everything I do really. The chords I use are the chords he used in his songs. And he also had elements of folk music in what he did. But there is also a good portion of drama in it. I don’t know if I can fully describe it, maybe I’ve already messed up, ha ha.

A devil dog between their legs

– Let’s go to the next epic, shall we? Now You See Me/Now You Don’t, that makes me think of Nick Cave.

– A bit, yes. On this one, the lyrics were very important to me. I wanted to have a song that touched on the mythological and historical aspect about Nyksund. So I read, rather superficially, about the place, until I found something interesting. I wanted to weave it into the music and wished to tell about something that had happened there, at least according to the folklore. They had a lot of stories about how the Devil, i.e. Satan, used to show himself before accidents happened at sea or when someone was stabbed in the pub or wherever they were sitting when they were drinking. They probably just sat on crates in their boat houses and got drunk. According to the legends the Devil would show himself as a black dog in the the village. And there were stories of the dog running between the legs of those who were sitting drinking. Such stories make you reflect on what those people really lived for. They had hard, brutal and rather short lives. What you had to look forward to was that you most likely were going to die, quite young, at sea, and I mention that in the lyrics. One winter, I’m not exactly sure when, but it was towards the end of the eighteenth century, almost all the men in the village above a certain age died in a storm on the sea between Nyksund and the island of Andøya. So I wanted to pull in some of those stories, and then include something that might have something to do with the house of worship where we recorded it. Zoar was an important gathering place, although I am not sure how religious everyone in Nyksund really were. And then I also included this story about a young woman who finds herself in unfortunate circumstances.

– When I saw this line, «It’s the devil’s child» and heard the song, I thought Sivert Høyem must have seen a lot of horror films lately.

– Heh heh, well, maybe. It’s a bit more gothic than horror, perhaps. But the original horror stuff is probably considered gothic. Now I’m thinking of Mary Shelley and such authors.

Sivert Høyem

– This song and The Rust are my favorites on the album, I think they will go down well at the upcoming concerts.

– It has worked live from the start, and I love playing it, so I think you’re right. It is also very dynamic. You mentioned Nick Cave earlier, and that’s what I take away most from listening to his music. Cohen is probably more important to me than Nick Cave. And I think that Nick Cave and I probably share that fascination. The roots of the music that both Cave and I are doing start with The Doors. They were the ones who started this violent, dynamic, performative type of rock music. So there is a line going back to The Doors via the Stooges, Joy Division and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. It’s a very dynamic, dramatic type of rock music that draws in both blues and folk music and all sorts of weird stuff really. In Joy Division’s case, it is of course with  more electronic leanings, and perhaps to some extent kraut rock can be brought into this as well. What makes a song like Now You See Me/Now You Don’t work so well live are the dynamics of it. It feels so physical and it’s never going to be the same performance every time, which force something out of yourself that you might not get out in other songs. You have to include at least one such song in a live set. I wish I had more of them.

Norwegian versus English

– And then we’ve arrived at the final track. Te album ends very folk-like and Irish-inspired again, with Not Enough Light. Here you sing «A smile from the wrong side of the grave/Looks like a happy 1980s holiday». Tell me, what kind of holidays were you on as a child?

– He he, there is a story behind that song. I don’t know if I can verbalise what I’m trying to say now in a good way, but basically it’s probably about the darker sides of the job that I have. It’s not about Robert [Burås] but…

– I was going to ask you if this is a song about losing someone.

– Maybe, but not necessarily. At least it’s not about any personal loss. As mentioned, I’ve mostly avoided being very personal on this record. There were certain things I wanted to… I wanted to see if I could write lyrics in a slightly different way than what I have done before. Because many times the lyrics have held me back in the past. If you give me the guitar, I’ll spend fifteen minutes and I will be able to come up with a decent melody, but it’s in the lyrics that the magic happens. Managing to get the right words in the right places while at the same time ensuring that it comes from an honest place, that is a challenge for me. This is because you have the challenges and obstacles that comes with writing in a language that is not yours. Norwegians have grown up with English and have a good command of the language. But there are many references that are still lost, such as words, expressions and proverbs from daily life in English-speaking countries. And not least the names, places and all the things that American writers and composers are able to use. Foreigners will mostly not recognise those references. It’s a challenge, so at one point I’ll probably have to start writing something in Norwegian. But I haven’t quite managed to make it happen yet. There are many Norwegian artists who manage it wonderfully. The ultimate thing for the kind of music I play is to get things as direct as possible, but you can only really achieve that in your own mother tongue. I admit I have a weakness there. But it’s the natural place to go if you really want to touch people, and that’s what I want most.

– There are many artists I have interviewed who sing in Norwegian who say that they used to sing in English , but after they started singing in Norwegian, they feel that it becomes more personal and closer to their hearts. 

– I understand that very well. When we [Madrugada] started, the ambition was to get up and out and travel abroad with our music. And at the time it was completely unheard of for a band to sing in Norwegian if they were to achieve something abroad. But now in retrospect, there are quite a few Norwegian artists who have managed to do it. They are mostly from [the southern county of ]Rogaland, mind you.

– Nobody understands them anyway.

– Haha, no, nobody understands them. But it’s still a fact that most of the lyrics are lost to audiences outside of Norway. It will have be a compromise then. So in the meantime I will continue to do it the way I am doing it now.

Time-consuming process

– How long did you spend on this album, from start to finish?

– I had songs that were left over from the Roses of Neurosis EP, which came out in 2021. There was a period of years where I wrote a lot of good stuff, especially that spring. Then most of it was recorded in Nyksund in 2021. We had a session a year later where we cleaned up some vocal tracks and re-recorded a couple of songs in Oslo at Rainbow studios. And then it was mixed during spring last year. But we also have to take into account that the visuals have always been an important part of this project. I wanted to document the process and show the place where it was done. So I worked with someone called Andreas Hornhoff. He is a German photographer who I have worked with quite a bit. It was kind of cool to bring in an outsider who had never been up north before, to get his perspective. It was very funny to see his reaction. He was out all the time filming and taking pictures, and eventually got a little color in his cheeks, haha! We have worked a lot on finishing all the visuals, both the music videos, the pictures and the album cover. So this process has probably been more time-consuming than on previous releases. The actual recording of the music happened quite quickly, and we didn’t fix up too much of it afterwards. It was always the idea that it should sound as real as possible.

Sivert Høyem wearing a disco ball jacket with lights being reflected from it

The mixing was done with Chad Blake.

– I have worked with him since 2004, and he has worked with many big artists and band over the years, such as the Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys. He is one of the most recognized mixers in the world and a person who does things one hundred percent his own way. So it was a perfect album for him to work on as well, because this is the first time I feel like I’ve gone more or less completely away from a traditional band setup. There was a lot of air and space in the recordings, so there was a lot of room for him to do weird things.

– And in the middle of this process, there was also an album and tour with Madrugada.

– It was, so I’ve been working on this album in between and when I had time. But I really feel that was about time to get this one out now. Two and a half years is too long and I’ve already started on my next album.

– Will there be more videos in the future as part of the visual part of the project?

– There is a video for the next single coming up,  but the next thing Andreas and I will work on will have nothing to do with this project. He is also joining us for the upcoming tour to film it.

– When I see your tour list, it says «sold out» in most places. It must be a fantastic position to be in.

– Yes, I am very spoiled. Both my solo career, as well as my career with Madrugada, have their ups and downs, but the live aspect of it has worked well. I’ve not had to play for empty venues. Once I played in Birmingham where hardly anyone came to listen to me and that was very sad. There were a couple of people and a dog there, and then I think I think they eventually left because they were going to another concert, haha! But I love playing live and this will be a very good album perform in concert. We have already done a test concert, and we have practiced a lot and are well prepared and ready. When you have both a new strong record out, and also can rely on strong material from the past, it’s damn cool to be on the road. So yes, I know I’m lucky!


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