Artists Of The Year

CMU Artists Of The Year 2012: Susanne Sundfør

By | Published on Monday 17 December 2012

Susanne Sundfør

“We’ll do it all, we’ll do whatever you say, God has left us anyway”, sang Susanne Sundfør, hitting the emotional peak of ‘The Brothel’, the title track of her 2010 album and the first song of her encore at Old St Pancras Church last month. The power of that line was only enhanced by the Christian iconography looming down on the audience in that small, dimly lit church, and then driven home by the dramatic synth riffs and bass shuddering through us.

A blend of electronic and classical sounds topped with dark, probing lyrics typifies Sundfør’s work today, but part of what makes her so intriguing is the route she took to get there. Drastic changes of sound don’t always go down so well for artists, specifically with their existing fanbases, no matter what the size. Susanne Sundfør is a prime example of that. Her eponymous debut album, released in 2007, is a reasonably standard piano-based singer-songwriter collection, nicely complemented with additional instrumentation. A hit in her native Norway, it reached number three in the country’s album chart.

But many those early fans (and possibly Sundfør herself), who had come to know the songs through live performances featuring just her and a piano or guitar, wanted to hear recordings more in-keeping with that stripped down feel. And so, ‘Take One’ was born – an album of solo recordings all laid down in one take, capturing a rawer, more intimate sound.

Paring back those recordings highlighted the strength of Sundfør’s songwriting, though anyone expecting more of the same would have been surprised by 2010’s ‘The Brothel’, which saw her run in the opposite direction. Though that album does open with Sundfør and a keyboard, there’s an immediate progression in her vocal talents that makes it clear that this is something different. Then the record explodes into life and it becomes apparent that this is not the sort of album that wants to sit and play nicely in the background.

At the heart of it all sat a collection of incredible songs, and Sundfør’s voice is utterly stunning. Somewhere between her debut and ‘The Brothel’, she clearly hit upon some creative force that elevated her from being a good artist into being one of the most original and innovative musicians of recent years. And Norway, it seems, recognised this, because this dark, experimental record surpassed the success of her more user-friendly debut and went to number one.

This year, Sundfør released her third album proper, ‘The Silicone Veil’, another Norwegian number one and her first to receive an official release in the UK. Its first single, ‘White Foxes’, picks up where ‘The Brothel’ left off, and then pushes the possibilities within her new found sound yet further.

Slowly lurching in with percussion like a ticking clock, it takes the familiar topic of a failed relationship and turns it into some kind of fantastical journey based on a wish that “the earth would turn cold … all the pretty tulips would disappear”, while Sundfør heads “down barren trees in fields of snow” with a gun gifted by her lost love.

It doesn’t get much brighter on the album’s title track either, as she informs us, “I go to a funeral every day, I follow these people around, I follow these people like a rat’s tail, I carry their caskets, I sing them good night, they’re better off without me”, before launching into the song’s chorus with the line, “beauty is poisonous”.

Musically the record continues to wind acoustic and electronic sounds around each other to build grand soundscapes for her songs and their characters to live in. These incredible constructions of sound also allow her the ability to really push herself as a singer, which she does with incredible control and dynamic range, even though it all sounds as if it spills out of her with little effort.

And perhaps one of the more striking things about Sundfør is the apparent ease with which she translates this to a live setting. It would be perfectly reasonable to assume these intricate songs were a product of the studio too complex to translate, but that performance at Old St Pancras Church proved that’s absolutely not the case. If anything, her music became more powerful, bass shuddering through the small church and her voice poured out of her.

The music was only broken up by her occasional and timid between-song interjections, leaving you wondering where all this music comes from. It almost seems to channel through her, arriving from some other world – almost as if there is some broad landscape from which the songs emerge when she sits down at her piano.

See all of CMU’s Artists Of The Year for 2012 here.