Ragnhild Furebotten’s solo project has become know as the new super trio of Norwegian folk. In this interview she explains how focusing on a constellation of personalities in a loose format may open up for genuine re-exploration of traditional musical expressions.
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Not yet thirty years old, Ragnhild Furebotten is already a driving force in the sphere of Norwegian traditional music. As a member of the acclaimed fiddle ensemble Majorstuen she has won a Norwegian Grammy award, popular acclaim and international experience. But also individually she has made a mark in recent years; as composer and an innovative interpreter of traditional music. Not least her solo project, Ragnhild Furebotten Trio, has drawn a lot of attention lately, and their performance at this year’s edition of the Førde Folk Music Festival is definitely one of the highlights.
After last year’s release of the trio’s debut record “Finally Waltz” -which reaped brilliant reviews across the line and was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy in the folk category- they have become associated with folk music at its most vibrant: emotionally arresting, dynamic, energetic and always a special experience live.
We had a talk with Ragnhild Furebotten in advance of the concert in Førde. The trio bears her name, for it is Furebotten who brought the three together and it’s her songs that make up their repertoire. In addition to Furebotten on fiddle, the trio consists of Frode Haltli on accordion and Gjermund Larsen on fiddle and Cello.
-We all knew each other well from before. I had played with Frode on many occasions and Gjermund is of course a close musical colleague of mine since we play together in Majorstuen. But the two of them had never actually played together before. I’m glad to say that they match each other perfectly and I think that the chemistry between the three of us is really exceptional.
So when you established this band, did you have a clear notion of what you were after, in terms of sound, instruments, repertoire and dynamic?
-The most important thing for me was to find the right people –personalities were more important than instruments- because what I wanted was for us to create a context that was really free and inspiring and mutually rewarding for all of us. I started out with a selection of songs that I wanted to explore further and give an expression; some were my own and some were folk tunes I had picked up here and there. I wanted to try out the trio format, and I wanted it to be an open and free kind of constellation that was more about listening and responding to each other than realizing fixed musical ideas.
Does that mean that improvisation and jamming is a chief character in the musical process when you play together?
-Yes and no. First of all many of the tunes we play -and the arrangements- have appeared underway. You know; tunes and ideas introduced at sound-checks and things that have developed little by little between us. And sometimes music happens in a more sudden manner too, that’s part of the fun of playing in a trio like this. -Because it is an open and pretty playful concept, and because it’s based on our musical understanding of each other and the fact that we simply lock in terms of personalities. Of course we have a plan and a structure in place before concerts, but many unexpected things happen every time.
Furebotten lavishes praise on her fellow musicians and stresses that it is because of their intuitive take on music- and the fact that they are what she calls “very liberal” musicians- that she is comfortable with the concept of the trio being her solo project.
So how would you describe the actual song-writing part of this project? What is the balance and dynamic between traditional tunes and tunes that you compose?
-Well, I don’t really focus so much on whether I came up with an idea myself or whether it is something I’ve picked up along the way. Coming from a background in traditional music these are things that always sort of interweave anyway. My incentive for this project was that I had ten songs that were mine, meaning that I’d come to regard them as a part of me, even if they weren’t all my compositions. Some of them were made by me, some are traditional tunes from Northern Norway and some are tunes I picked up while studying in Denmark.
And the first thing you did as a trio was to record those ten tunes, which became the debut Finally Waltz?
-Pretty much yes. We started out rehearsing the tunes and exploring musical ideas around them. Then we all went up to northern Norway and brought with us everything needed for proper recording sessions. It was like an expedition. First we played a few acoustic gigs to try out our ideas live. Those concerts were recorded professionally with the idea in mind that we might capture some live magic. And we did, two of the songs on the record are live takes from those concerts. The rest of it we recorded in an old church on the island of Senja. It was really a great experience because we found that special atmosphere that I had wanted; for us and for the record.
Finally Waltz has been called wide-scoping and spirited; with tunes ranging from tender beauty to fiery bursts of musical energy. As for Furebotten herself, critics often emphasise her ability to present a modern and exciting take on traditional music and a vital expression of her own north- Norwegian cultural heritage.
-As a musician one is always searching for a personal expression. Since all kinds of influences go into the moulding of this identity it is something that is constantly in progress at the same time as it naturally falls more into place over time. North-Norwegian cultural heritage and traditional Norwegian music in general are big parts of my identity. But still, I don’t think of myself first and foremost as a folk musician. Rather I feel that I’m a musician period, and that being a musician is always about the balance and strife between background and traditions and ever-new inspirations.
But all the same, you have been very conscious about linking your identity as a musician and artist to northern Norway?
-Yes, moving back up north after years in Oslo was a decision to embrace and live fully the specific culture that was mine form the start. I wanted to find my place and to play a role in the cultural life of the north. As a musician, I think that ties to tradition and proper knowledge of cultural history are things that make a more genuine personal expression possible. For me at least, the notion of being a representative of a tradition makes my quest for a personal expression more focused and fruitful.
Do you feel that the trio is a vehicle for this personal identity? More so than other projects you are involved in?
-Well, it is true that the trio is special in this respect because it is based so much on our personal chemistry. Since it is a constellation that I set up, and which I think works incredibly well, it is of course a context where I feel that my musical self naturally thrives and comes to the foreground. The fact that it is based on persons rather than line-up, and that it is an open kind of musical framework, makes it very different from what we’re doing in Majorstuen where we use only fiddles, violas and cello and never depart from the basic tenets of traditional fiddle music. We’ve played many tunes of mine in Majorstuen, but because it is a pretty dogmatic project, it can never be as personal and free as what I’m doing with the trio. The trio is a vehicle for the search for a personal expression, while Majorstuen is more focused on reinvigorating traditional expressions and refining instrumental techniques.
You’ve been on leave from Majorstuen while working with the solo project. Does this entail a more permanent shift of focus? How will you be prioritizing in the near future?
-The trio is something new and exciting for me that we’ve only just started to explore really. And I feel that the record is still “young;” the material is far from fully realized in terms of live shows. I’m looking forward to developing it further through the summer and fall, and I know that many interesting things will happen in the course of that process.
So you are not consciously working towards a new record yet?
-No, but like I said, things will certainly happen underway and new ideas will develop. Perhaps notions of a new record will take shape, that’s not unlikely. With a loose kind of concept and intuitive, open-minded musicians, things tend to happen in their own way, not according to some fixed plan.
Ragnhild Furebotten is also involved in a number of other ensembles and projects. She is active with several festivals and institutions dedicated to north-Norwegian music and culture, and in addition to her trio’s activities, the summer will see the realisation of another project dear to her heart.
-In July I go into the studio with guitarist Tore Bruvoll to make a record under the name Bruvoll / Furebotten. I’m pretty excited about it because we’ve played together since we were fifteen. So it’s a kind of coming of age of a long-running collaboration and friendship. It includes more musicians, and also vocals, but it will be released in our names. The record, entitled “Hekla Stålstrenga” (which means crochet-work steel strings), will be out some time in the fall.
Ragnhild Furebotten Trio can be captured live twice during the Førde Folk Music Festival; on Friday afternoon and again on Saturday night, at the festival’s folk music gala.