Solveig Slettahjell: visitations

Solveig Slettahjell is a gem among singers. Her first albums with the Slow Motion Orchestra/Duo earned her international praise as one of the great jazz-standard interpreters of our time, and from the album Pixiedust (2005) she has stood forth as one of the foremost conveyors of original material in the same genre. However, now is the first time she has written almost an entire album on her own. Instigated by a commission from the Vossajazz festival, the newly released album Tarpan Seasons has reaped unanimous acclaim in Norway.

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Solveig Slettahjell 2009 (foto: Barbro F. Steinde)

-I felt like I had a cowboy on my shoulder the whole time, says Solveig Slettahjell. Country music has been on my mind and in my heart during this process. Over the past few years I have experienced a very strong attraction to basic musical expressions and the immediate and direct way of dealing with life’s big issues. The country reference is part of a quest for simplicity I guess, says Slettahjell; I really want to find out what things are like before we start thinking too much about them.

Musically this entails shedding all notions of correctness and letting the songs –and the singing itself– manifest as a basic mode of being.

-I am always completely immersed in what I am doing. It is not just that music and singing is very important to me, it is a way of reflecting on existence. I really sing because I have to, singing works as a fundamental perspective on life. I don’t think I could keep on doing what I do if I felt detached from my music. Actually, I feel blessed with an inability to distance myself and just do a job. This means that there is always a form of oscillation going on, between changing personal phases, concerns, inspirations and moods. Lately the pendulum has swung towards this love of directness, and the notion of music’s unmediated, instant humanity.

We venture the proposition that country music is perhaps a simpler and cleaner idiom in this respect than jazz; which is more urban and secularised in its existentialism, but Slettahjell disagrees.

-Even though jazz can be intellectual and modern, there is a great deal of untamed force in it; there has to be. I need to feel that things are on fire, and that is the point with simple expressions; even the most basic of artistic idioms can be on the verge breaking asunder due to its own innate force and intensity: When Jackson Pollock splashes a wall with paint, I don’t think he does that with a kind of distant and blasé mind frame, I think he is on fire. And that is the way I need to feel when I sing and make music. However, this intense emotional aspect naturally has to be balanced with a more cool-headed and professional assessment of the material.

So is it even conceivable for her to be doing something else, we wonder. Would Solveig Slettahjell be an altogether different person without music?

-I did consider becoming a gardener. At one point I got really tired of working with music and wanted out, but then I realised that it was being an instrument for others that was tiring, not the musical vocation as such. So I had to discontinue some of the projects I was working with and just focus on my own things. Singing in itself is never tiring; on the contrary it is always empowering.

As a singer Solveig Slettahjell has proven her brilliance a long time ago. On Tarpan Seasons she follows suit as a song writer. But writing a whole album was no walk in the park.

-Previously I have sung my own favourite tunes; the best songs in the world. On that background it seemed very strange to start writing myself. How could I match these masterpieces, and why indeed should I? But the commission from Vossajazz meant that I had to overcome this notion, and think differently. Song writing is still very hard for me; it does not come easily. And when it works, it is because it feels like singing, which is a strange experience: writing and singing merge into each other, like aligning approaches. For me it has to do with the distinct sense that something happens; it is like being visited. Although this sounds like a sort of spiritual or religious experience perhaps, it is not important for me to pin it down as such. It is actually a common phenomenon among artists I think; a feeling of opening up for a factor beyond conscious control and letting a sense of being personally and directly affected be the goal and guideline. It is an unambiguous experience, like some unmediated and un-thought truth that reveals itself. I believe that truth can reside in such directness.

Solveig relates that inspiration comes to her in the most unpredictable and mundane ways, not as clear ideas or concepts, but more like simple epiphanies without particular content.

-Again, I feel that it is a question of being visited, and all I can do is work hard within a set framework and wait and see. I am very conscious that don’t pretend to invoke inspiration. The actual musical work is extremely concrete, but the thing is that when you stick to a framework and stay patient, things will happen, maybe even magic.

Jazz is normally associated with improvisation and “the moment”. Solveig readily acknowledges this aspect, at the same time she says that there is a dimension of conscience at play, which depends on thinking and planning.

-I want my music to reach out and communicate, which requires a certain amount of thinking. You have to be clever to combine the preconceived with the flow of things. That is what singing is about for me; it is a vital thing that takes place as a sort of oscillation between the concrete and controlled and the unpredictable and the transcendent.

Now that she has passed the song writing test with flying colours, Solveig allows for the possibility of letting it become a more important part of her musical being, which also entails a different role as band leader.

-When I present songs that I have written myself, the task is to define the whole song for the band. Even though I have always involved myself beyond the vocals, it is still something new to me to be presenting a complete piece of music: I feel a lot more responsibility, which is scary, but it is also rewarding of course. Writing puts me smack in the middle of the band’s overall music making, which reminds me how much I need just those people around me. I am really very fortunate: when I set up the Slow Motion Orchestra I simply asked the people I most wanted to play with, and they all said yes, so it is really the band of my dreams. And I have to say that we are a happy orchestra.

On Tarpan Seasons a couple of new element have been introduced in the form of Even Hermansen’s guitar and Andreas Ulvo’s Hammond Organ. The Slow Mo family now counts seven: In addition to Solveig and the newcomers, they are Sjur Mijeteig (trumpet), Per Oddvar Johansen (drums), Jo Berger Myhre (bass) and Morten Qvenild (keys).

-The music is more guitar-based than before, says Solveig, and the whole format and sound extended: more difficult to control perhaps, but even more open.

Towards the end of this month Solveig and the extended Slow Motion Orchestra hit the Norwegian roads with Tarpan Seasons. It is a tour sponsored by the Norwegian National Concerts, which entails a grander production and more fun for all involved.

Tarpan Seasons will be released in Europe in the beginning of 2010, followed by a three-week tour of Germany, a week in Austria/Switzerland and finally a week in the UK.

Already established internationally as one of the finest female jazz voices of our time, Solveig Slettahjell is ready to let the rest of the world in on the magnificent song writing that Norway has fallen in love with.


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