A young song-writer enters the room, sits at the piano, closes his eyes and begins to play. When he has finished, there is a moment’s silence. Then another. Suddenly, the recording company boss stands up and says: "Kid, I’m gonna make you a star!"
Espen Lind (27) from Tromsø, Norway, had been waiting all his life to hear those words and was reasonably well prepared. On the other hand, he is highly ambitious and is not interested in being “flavour of the month”, a rhythmical stylistic mix that dominates the ether for six weeks and promptly disappears into obscurity. He wants to be no less than a big, important pop name.
At the time of writing, he is traversing Europe with a classical piano ballad of the type Elton John would give his wig collection for, a sad pop ballad of the type that makes every generation stop, sigh and think bittersweet about the awful reality of love. When Susannah Cries, as it is called, may well become a classic, a Nothing Compares 2 You, or an Every Breath You Take – one of those three-minute odysseys that briefly colour our lives and have something timeless to say about our dilemmas.
Espen Lind was a dreadful child. He was clever at school, but rebelled at the age of ten and refused to have a social life “because other people weren’t that important”. He was happiest in his room at home, practising and playing records. In his teens, he surprisingly joined various pop bands, which he terrorised with a mixture of narcissistic charm and military precision. His pop dream was implemented and, supported by the academic security of his parents’ home, he trawled every recording company in London with the world’s best pop group since the Beatles – to deaf ears. An ignominious return home resulted in a flood of new demos, and he purposefully flew to Los Angeles to cultivate his dream. In the course of a year, he became thick-skinned; far from bitter and cynical but, if possible, even more convinced that a pop star was what he wanted to be.
The dream was not entirely unfounded. Espen was already playing piano, violin and guitar as a seven-year-old, and it wasn’t only his great aunt who thought the boy sang amazingly well. He was totally absorbed by pop music and was a fan of the Bee Gees and Kiss – at the same time. His passionate enthusiasm for pop, his talent and a year of subjecting himself to a pitiless, self-imposed work regime have resulted in what is now being called a pop sensation.
Under the artistic name of Sway, he made his début in 1997 with the album Mmm...Prepared To Be Swayed – an apprentice collection of overwhelming pop pastiches with a Prince flavour. The trouble was that he would rather have been compared with Albert Einstein, because Einstein slept for only one hour in twenty-four compared with Prince’s three! Espen worked as a sound technician during the day, for musicians who could afford to rent a studio; at night he bombarded the instruments and mixing desk with his own music. His self-composed, self-played and self-produced début cried out “Aren’t I clever!”, and to the trained pop ear he was a fount of unreleased talent.
The release came in ’97 with the album Red. Its sound image is economical, its melodic content concise and its editing strict. A traditional pop structure like When Susannah Cries comprises catchy refrains, suggestive bridges, a guitar solo (!), a dramatic crescendo (with heavenly strings from the Oslo Philharmonic) and a closing finale on the piano, all done in 3 minutes 36 seconds, thank you. This time, he has not been struggling alone; 21-year-old city boy Bluefish (Amund Bjørken) has been co-producer and held the reins more than once.
On Red, Espen Lind is a knowledgeable, capable tour guide through the last thirty wonderful years of pop music. Much of its special character lies in the shy strength of his voice, which barely reveals his classical know-how. The music is not as cold and calculating as the Roxettes, as affected and grand as George Michael; thanks to his ability as a pianist and his technical skill, he sounds more like a hungry young Elton John or Billy Joel would have sounded today.
Espen Lind’s pop dream is not made of celluloid or tinsel but of hard work, renunciation and occasional joy, sixteen hours a day. This is what he is good at, this is what he can do. In this context, he has no choice and he is not being coquettish when he says that everyone has an obligation to make use of “what he has been given”, no less. But this boy puts his life where his mouth is.
He despises pop artists who claim that what they create is art. He loves light pop music, that’s what he wants to do, “what people want”, but behind the carefree exterior lies a professionalism that demands dedicated focus on what is important in an ocean of superficiality. Discipline is his hobby and his strength, the talent itself is an extremely small part of Espen Lind the artist, he maintains, making every interviewer feel like Barbara Walters. He also masters the pop profession; in the last five months, he has given 1,000 interviews – that’s about six a day – because the battle- ground is the promotion circus; which pop, film, TV or writer star gets column space and broadcasting time in as many markets as possible – preferably all at once.
The redeeming feature about Espen Lind, in the midst of the self-important pop circus, is that he really is a good musician and songwriter who finds joy in the effort to achieve quality. He is still a pop enthusiast who can become emotionally unbalanced if he hears a fantastic pop song on the radio. With youthful foolhardiness, he once called a pop-hero in the middle of the night to ask about the chords in a particular song. The fact that the pop star sleepily said “just a minute” and wandered across to the piano to return with a complete sequence of chords taught him the importance of looking after crazy people who think your music is so good that they can be bothered to learn the chords.
Espen Lind will probably be coming shortly to a radio or television near you. Now you know he is Espen Lind from Tromsø and has worked hard to gain your attention for a few fleeting minutes. The thing that’s so great about Espen Lind, in addition to his music, is that he also knows he is Espen Lind from Tromsø.