Silje Nergaard has an archetypically Norwegian first name. Otherwise she is an internationalist in control of the most difficult lingua franca in the world, a beautiful singing voice. The word "beautiful" is often used to describe her musicality. Sure, jazz is cool, hip and in, but Silje Nergaard has ensured that a large new audience describes jazz as "beautiful". Well done, Silje!
She is no stranger to hard work. She became a star overnight at the age of sixteen when she jammed with Jaco Pastorius at the Molde International Jazz Festival. Our legendary jazz writer, the late Randi Hultin, reported: “Suddenly Silje was standing there with a microphone in her hand, not trembling but glowing.”
The girl from the Norwegian provinces was not even old enough to get into the clubs, but that summer (1983) she became the hottest concert attraction on the Norwegian jazz scene. There was something about her voice, the delicate phrasing, the impressive changes of key; something about her empathy, the heartfelt passion that it is impossible to fake; something about her overall presence, the fact that 1,500 different people felt that she sang to each and every one of them and no-one else. For once the audience and critics agreed. But then, she is a rarity.
She did not start making records immediately. She sang at clubs and festivals, wrote songs, made progress, wrote new songs, was disappointed, sang at several concerts. No less a character than Pat Metheny spurred on her career when he recommended her to producer Richard Niles and his small company Lifetime Records. Her first single, Tell Me Where You’re Going, released in 1990, was one of those charming gems that are not labelled a resounding hit but have a hidden water-mark in the refrain that reads “classic”. It did well on the charts in the USA, Britain and Scandinavia, but it was in Japan Silje really became a big star. The song has withstood the test of time and is still played regularly on radio stations all over the world, as are other songs from the debut album of the same name.
The following year saw the album Silje, in which the jazz was toned down in favour of a sophisticated west-coast style. The third album, Cow on the Highway (1993) was precisely that; a daring mixture of jazz tunes with elements of traditional country & western. During that period she was based in London, while Japan and the USA were her most important markets. In 1995 she moved back to Norway, began to sing in Norwegian and produced her own material. The album Brevet (The Letter) continued the experiments with jazz and c&w, while on Hjemmefra (Away from Home, 1996) Silje was accompanied by eight members of the Gli Scapoli male voice choir. Here she investigated and challenged her voice in unfamiliar sound landscapes, sometimes on the borders of free jazz, sometimes on the threshold of thousand-year-old religious music. Language was no obstacle. Both records were released in Japan with a booklet of translated lyrics.
Her career thus far revealed a daring vocalist who loved surprises. In theory, it would have been easiest for her to seek fame and fortune in the field of pop music, exploiting the resources she obviously possessed. Instead, she was silent for four years. She married, became a mother and wrote songs. Then she re-discovered her youthful passion for the lovely standard songs that the more romantic of us call evergreens. The Port of Call album is no less than a sensation in all its pop hit glory. In Norway it has won a golden disc award and it is now being released in eighteen countries, including major jazz markets like Germany, Italy, the UK and Brazil. This is not because of a central order from the recording company, Universal. The communication has rather gone the other way: “We want to release this, yes, we want to work with Silje!” Music to the ears of a vocalist and songwriter who is starting out on her second career and might sceptically have thought “been there, done that”. However, Silje is full of humility and regards the fuss about the record and her person as a fortunate result of being in the right place at the right time with the right song.
She is not easily scared, however. Alongside standards such as Rodgers and Hart’s Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, Arthur Herzog Jr. and Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain, Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye and contemporary tunes like Paul Simon’s You’re Kind and Sting’s If You Love Somebody, she includes three of her own songs. The Waltz is a powerful, demandingly arranged example of the type where the improvisationally-inclined jazz singer is reined in by the strict limits of the pop song composer, Me Oh My is the cat-pawed shu-bi-du song that smells of night clubs and excessively made-up cigarette girls, while the bossa nova Shame On You is a sunshine song a Diana Krall or a Rickie Lee Jones would gladly have swapped one of their songs for.
As a song writer, Silje has acquired the pop listener’s demand for an eventful, schematic drama along the lines of “get it out quickly, let it happen quickly!” But her heart, nerves, vocal chords and soul, and what may pretentiously be called the truth of the songs, are in the jazz. It sounds the same when other people sing her songs, too, for example Norwegian Celine Dion clone Sissel Kyrkjebø’s treatment of On And On, or when the male vocal group State belt it out. Here is a songwriter who is aware of the voice’s range and masters the freedom offered by jazz. She has won a prize in the major USA Songwriter Competition and is increasingly in demand. She used to release a record when she had twelve new songs; now she has perhaps forty new songs but chooses to sing only three of them herself.
In musical terms, she moves in a mythical genre. The image of the jazz singer from the smoke-filled clubs who lives the life of the sad songs she sings is a cliché that doesn’t fit Silje Nergaard. She requires a great deal of peace and quiet to be able to write. Her very varied career has taught her to look at herself from the outside, make demands on herself. She has a professional interest in her voice and is never tired of discovering its potential. It does not sound technically trained, but emotionally it produces an enviably large range of sounds. The contrasts between childish naivety and resigned, lived life are remarkable and have resulted in an unusually large number of superlatives from the critics, including in the last Listen to Norway.
Her five previous albums have taught Silje Nergaard never to compromise, never to choose easy solutions. In terms of production, Port of Call seems flatteringly expensive, largely due to the excellent arrangements and the sensuous use of strings, clarinet (Putte Wickman) and saxophone (Magnus Lindberg). Apart from that, the only instrumentalists are her permanent trio (Tord Gustavsen, piano, Jarle Vespestad, drums and Harald Johnsen, double bass), with the assistance of producer Georg Wadenius on acoustic guitar here and there. And of course there is Silje Nergaard’s voice, which is all the fine words you can think of, but primarily beautiful.