A worldwide exclusive from KEVIN RENICK

Ephemera (Christine Sandtorve, Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen) (uncredited photo)

Ephemera (Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen) (uncredited photo)

Once upon a time, in the mystical, fjord-side town of Bergen, Norway, there were three clever and ambitious teenage girls who loved music. Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen spent many hours together talking about music, songwriting and life itself, and they decided to form a singing group. They called their trio EPHEMERA, a word meaning “something transitory or short-lived.” The girls had voices that could soothe the most hardened soul, and when they blended their three voices together, the universe itself seemed to smile and nod in approval. In 1996, they excitedly released their quirky first album, GLUE. But then they met a wizardly producer named Yngve Leidulv Saetre, who instinctively understood the depths of the music these three girls were capable of making, and he wanted to guide them a bit. With Yngve at the helm, the trio released SUN in 2000, the first album to truly capture the beautiful, luminous sound they would come to be known for over the next five years. They built a following in their native land, and fans in other parts of Europe and even Japan began to rave about them. Their third album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, won them a Spellemannprisen Award (the Nordic equivalent of the Grammys) for Best Pop Album in 2002. They toured, recorded and made magic together, and they kept growing as musicians. Across the ocean in America, one curious writer for a new publication discovered Ephemera’s music and fell in love with them. He became the first in that country to interview the band, and he told anyone who would listen how incredibly lovely and heartfelt Ephemera’s music was. America, though it seemed to be intrigued with many other popular artists emerging from Scandinavia, preferred flashier, more commercially aggressive or “obvious” type musicians, and did not take notice of Ephemera, despite one of their songs landing in a teen movie. Or maybe America just couldn’t keep up with all the Scandinavian exports of the new millennium and needed an urgent memo. The girls of Ephemera, however, decided to take a long break in 2005 to nurture relationships and raise families. But some fans, including the undaunted American writer, continued to listen, enjoy and talk about the band’s gorgeous music. “It’s like an amazing secret,” the writer said. “And more people should know about it.”

Ingerlise Storksen (photo credit: ORJAN DEISZ)

Ingerlise Storksen (photo credit: ORJAN DEISZ)

Oh, there are many ways to start an article about the female Norwegian musical trio Ephemera and the superb new solo album Ingerlise Storksen has just released, but since their music is so far above the norm, I thought we should begin with a fairytale flavor. The writer in that preface is yours truly, and I won’t hide the fact that this band has moved me to tears countless times with the transcendent beauty of their sound and songwriting. No other band in my adult life has given me shivers of emotion like Ephemera; I learned the word “frisson,” which means just that, because of them. I have digested every one of the songs on their five albums and even sublime rarities like “Puzzle” and “It Could Have Been Me.” I’ve had conversations with girlfriends, therapists and good friends about some of Ephemera’s most stellar compositions, which include “Maple Tree” (one of the most heartbreakingly life-affirming songs ever written), “One of a Kind” (should be an anthem for lonely or troubled people everywhere), “Little Lion,” “Bye,” “Thank You,” “Paint Your Sky” and many others. Ephemera’s music is sweet, romantic, sensual, empathetic, encouraging and hopeful. It is melodic, catchy and rendered with crystalline sonic clarity. It is free of cynicism and any sense of defeat; the songs are about living, loving, leaving (sometimes when you know you HAVE to) and learning to keep the fire burning in your heart. It may be classified as “pop music” stylistically, but the intimate vocals and engaging emotions in any Ephemera song make it something so much more, something more poetic and involving than just about anything you’ll hear in American popular music. It’s a gift, this band’s body of work, one with the kind of repeat listenability that only the best songs achieve. I have cherished and enjoyed a great deal of music throughout my life, but… sometimes, I see it like this: There is EPHEMERA. And then there’s everything else. The girls themselves may not truly realize how special they are…

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

Ingerlise Storksen isn’t the most prolific songwriter in Ephemera; that honor goes to Christine Sandtorv. But Ingerlise wrote some of the band’s most beautiful, heart-tugging tunes. No matter how many times I listen to her songs “Perfect,” “Close,” “Air,” “Bye” (simply a stunning gem of a song), and “Thank You,” the unmatched intimacy of her vocals sends shivers up my spine. Her songs are often “hushed secrets” that the listener gets to be privy to. And there’s a song called “Dead Against the Plan,” from the 2004 release MONOLOVE, a blue diamond of a pop song written by Ingerlise and Christine together, that is quite simply one of the most dazzlingly catchy, perfect songs EVER, not just out of Scandinavia. If I were teaching a class in songwriting and music arrangement, this is one of the songs I would have the class listen to and discuss. Yes, it’s that good.

It’s a big deal that Ingerlise is finally giving the world ALL THE GOOD THINGS, her first solo album. A big deal both for her artistic journey, and for fans of her contemplative songwriting style. While her mate, Christine Sandtorv, released FIRST LAST DANCE in 2006, followed it with several albums of children’s songs sung in Norwegian, and collaborated with other Nordic artists like Ralph Myerz, Ingerlise had not been so publically active. Those of us who are enthusiastic fans were quietly waiting and watching to see what she might do. And now here it is, the exceptional Yngve Saetre-produced gem that any Ephemera fan is going to adore. The album contains 11 original songs and Ingerlise performs with a band that includes Jorgen Sandvik on guitar, banjo and strings, Paul Inge Vikingtad on bass, Odd Martin Skalnes on keys and Vegard Fossum on drums. Ingerlise plays her distinctive acoustic guitar and also keyboards. It was no small thing for the artist to step away from Ephemera for the first time, and that was one of the first things I wanted to ask her about.

“At first I was a bit concerned and anxious that it was going to be too close to the Ephemera sound,” said Ingerlise via email. “But I concluded quickly that I am a big part of the Ephemera sound, and I cannot change my voice or the way I play the guitar or make music, just to keep a distance from what might possibly sound like something Ephemera did. The studio session was very focused and very good; I never thought about being on my own, or that it was scary or difficult. It was all very natural. The band was in the studio for only two days… so I had a good picture of what I wanted. Almost all the arrangements were already done, I had recorded them at home as demos. The band played and put their sounds and feelings into the songs and it went really great, I think.”

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

When a singer has been primarily known for being in a group with tight vocal harmonies, they must be cognizant of listeners’ expectations, and even though Ephemera were far from being “superstars,” they made a tremendous mark in the Norwegian music scene. But there is no trace of the other girls on this album, it is definitely all Ingerlise. Wasn’t that a bit strange?

“Actually, it wasn’t strange or difficult at all,” she said. “I love those girls, no question about that! But I have the need to make my own music, to make decisions and choices without always meeting others halfway. It’s been such a strong experience for me. Of course, I’ve had thoughts like, ‘what if I can’t do this without them? What if it isn’t good enough?’ But most of all, I’ve been excited and confident about this record. ALL THE GOOD THINGS is a turning point in my life. It’s a really personal album, and it is all about making the world the best it can be. To make the right decisions for yourself, spending the time right and doing what means something to you.”

Ingerlise is justifiably proud of this record indeed, as it’s a tremendous showcase for her sublime songwriting. “In the End” and “Hearbeat” are fine examples of the kind of achingly emotional, haunting ballads that Ingerlise contributed to Ephemera and now offers here in a different musical setting. It’s authentic and real, hearing songs such as these. Ms Storksen is incapable of ever hitting a false emotional note. On “Velvet Voice,” a phrase that could easily apply to the sound that comes out of Ingerlise’s mouth, unexpected harps add a surprising texture to a song that starts out somewhat plaintive and soon turns sublime. “If you have anything to say/Use your velvet voice in your best way,” the singer advises, and this could be directed to a struggling friend (“A poor lily lost her grounded view/Too much to lose… All the guilt, the endless wall/Insecure, even smaller… “) or possibly an affirmation for the singer herself. Such things are up to the listener to decide, but it’s a gorgeous song. There are simpler, acoustic guitar-driven tunes such as “Defender” and “The Birds Would Cry” that are the kind of songs Ingerlise seems to be able to write in her sleep. There’s an organic purity to these kinds of songs; if they were food, the label would say “organically grown, no artificial ingredients.” Like any normal person, Ingerlise has undoubtedly experienced plenty of hurt and disappointment, but the empathy in her voice at all times is a wondrous gift far beyond the ability of most singers to convey. “I keep breathing to keep you alive/I am your defender in every fight/I am floating, you’re dragging me down/I keep breathing, watching you drown,” she sings in “Defender,” a tune about someone that has clearly made some big mistakes and is NOT listening to our heroine. As for “Birds,” in one simple lyric, Ingerlise lays it on the line about the risk of loving: “I know you’re scared, so am I/The trees will mourn and the birds would cry/If we let it go without a try.” This is a singer who, when she sings words like that (in flawless, softly breathy English, by the way), you can’t imagine the kind of idiot who would NOT take her advice. Elsewhere on the album, there are some more rocking songs like “Knockout” and “No Need For Sleep,” both of which are incredibly catchy and should be on the radio. Of that former song, it is worth mentioning that the peerless arrangement and production provides a rare moment of apt comparison. It’s not often that Ingerlise (or the other Ephemera girls) particularly reminds me of any other artists, but there is a breathtaking chord change in the chorus (“Night and day/High and low/I’ve been looking for you”) and a big, sweeping vocal ascension that is absolutely reminiscent of latter day Cocteau Twins. Nothing about Ingerlise’s normal singing voice would remind one of Liz Fraser, but this amazing moment truly does. High praise, I assure you. It’s also worth mentioning the stylistically uncategorizable first single, “I Killed Your Horse.” The unsettling title is metaphorical, one assumes; this is a love song with some high stakes, apparently, about a “strong cowboy” (or IS he?) and the woman asking him questions he may or may not be able to answer. The chorus is again, excellent, and Ingerlise has already gotten some plaudits in the Norwegian press for the tune. What is most interesting is to see her expand stylistically; this song in particular is NOT reminiscent of Ephemera, while some of the ones mentioned above, definitely are. At any rate, she’s made a fantastic, smoothly consistent, emotionally stirring record. And that wonderful voice? It oughta be playing in therapy centers and mental health clinics everywhere; I have to believe that at least SOME patients would soon find themselves feeling less anxious…

There were many, many questions I wanted to ask this amazing artist, and it was difficult to try to limit myself to a dozen or so. But the bulk of them follow; they cover the new record, the past and future of Ephemera, Ingerlise’s formative years, et cetera. Initially it might require some patience to get ahold of the vinyl (yes, it IS released in that format) or CD of ALL THE BEST THINGS, but I’d advise you to persevere if you like intimate, emotionally cathartic music of uncommon melodic beauty. Ingerlise Storksen is worth whatever you have to go through to hear her music. Personally, just knowing she is on the planet makes me feel better!

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: You seem to have this trademark style that is primarily acoustic guitar, your amazing voice, and then various quirky sounds that emerge during the production process. Do you generally have your songs finished as acoustic arrangements before you go into the studio? And do you also have the keyboard parts in your head?

INGERLISE: Yes, the songs are all finished and arranged in acoustic composition before I go in the studio. I’m working a lot at home, recording demos where I arrange and compose melodies for keys and choir and even strings. I love working out harmonies, and I love putting them together, chasing for that little magic touch.

THE MULE: There are some very intimate, melancholy songs on this album, like “You Are Love,” “In the End” and “Heartbeat.” You do these songs with such gentleness and emotional clarity. Do you ever get overwhelmed with emotion by your own songs? Are songs like this always about people or situations from your own life? “In the End” strikes me as a song that could be either about a character talking to herself, like therapeutic “self affirmation,” or advice to an insecure friend who is suffering.

INGERLISE: Those songs you mention are all very important songs for me. They are written in “real” moments. Moments when I really HAD to write them out. They are all very personal and emotional – especially “Heartbeat.” That song is about my dear, dear grandmother who passed away in May 2014. She and I have always been very close, and still I think it is so strange and so sad that she is gone. This song is for her. I managed to sing it at her funeral. It was hard work, but it was the right thing to do. I know she knows. So, yes, sometimes a song can be overwhelming – even for me.

THE MULE: I love the song “Velvet Voice” and it sounds like one of the album’s highlights. Could you talk about the recording of this song? I don’t recognize one of the string instruments, but the arrangement is startling. Is Yngve Saetre proactive about suggesting unique instrumentation like this? Does he surprise you, or do members of your band surprise you with suggestions that maybe you would not have thought of yourself?

INGERLISE: This song is one of my favorites, as well. The string-thing was something that happened in the studio, all spontaneous. I think maybe Jorgen picked up one of the harps in studio, just to play along with me while going through the song before we started recording. And all of a sudden, Paul Inge and Odd Martin were playing harps as well. It sounded great right away, and we jumped into takes. I think we played through the song two or three times, live – and there it was. It is two small harps and one Guzheng used. Plus two acoustic guitars. And Odd Martin is humming, as well.

Ingerlise Storksen I Killed Your Horse single

Ingerlise Storksen I Killed Your Horse single

THE MULE: “Knockout” and “No Need For Sleep” are the upbeat rockers on the album. Is it more fun to do songs like that in the studio? What made you choose “I Killed Your Horse,” a more eccentric song, probably, for a single rather than one of the upbeat tunes like this?

INGERLISE: It is really fun to record upbeat songs. It’s a whole different energy and way of working. I think “I Killed Your Horse” is such a strong song. It is not a typical single right away, but still it’s got a good chorus, but maybe more; it’s got catchy verses. The lyrics are very important for this song, and it really comes through. The next single release will be “Knockout” – a much more easygoing radio song. But when that song comes out, I will have already established a “deeper” image. About myself and my music. And I like that!

THE MULE: “Defender” is also a marvelous song, what inspired that one? It’s a great example of your style and your musicality. Do you need a “defender” in your own life?

INGERLISE: “Defender” is an important song for me. It’s about the need to “keep on walking”, and to leave things behind. To put something into sleep, while still keeping hold of the good feelings and the soul and the moments. It’s one of those sad love stories. I would like to have a big and strong defender in my life… but sometimes I think we all need to just lay down and let somebody strong and safe take care of us. Without any questions.

THE MULE: Your producer, Yngve Saetre, is a genius in my opinion. He worked on all the Ephemera recordings, and now he has produced your solo album. It would be an understatement to say he has good ears. What makes him such an ideal producer for you?

INGERLISE: Yngve has this unassailable way of working with music. He is a man with strong meanings, without any filter. So… we have had some good discussions on the road. He is stubborn and I am stubborn, but we both agree that we have to do what’s the best for each song. He is a very creative soul, and can often see things that I never would. Still, the songs on ALL THE GOOD THINGS were so ready when I went into the studio, and with all the preparation I already had done – the arrangements and harmonies – so there was not so much to discuss. I love working with Yngve, and I hope I get the opportunity again.

THE MULE: Bergen, where you live, has consistently turned out amazing musical artists. We think of it as a mystical, almost mythical music town here in the US. What is it like for you who live there? What makes it so unique?

INGERLISE: Bergen Is a small, but big city. Small in its size, but big in its facilities due to music and art and soul. The one thing that actually is kind of unique with Bergen, is that everyone who’s from this city is really intensely committed. Proud and loud about it! Even the mayor is really well known throughout Norway because of her big love for Bergen. There’s a little something special about Bergen that is hard to explain. When it comes to the music scene, there has always been a lot of generosity around. It seems everybody is cheering for each other – there is no fighting for the spotlight. The main thing is the music. Not money. Not fame or any of that.

Ephemera (Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen,Christine Sandtorve) (uncredited photo)

Ephemera (Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen, Christine Sandtorv) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: What is it that first made you want to write songs and sing? What were your biggest influences?

INGERLISE: I have all my life felt this big and natural passion for music. I remember being a small girl, yearning to sing out loud, being on stage, singing for people – it was an intense urge. I grew up in a very musical family, and both my parents always played music in our house. Actually, they both played in bands as youngsters, my mom in a girl band, and my dad as a lead singer in his band. So there were guitars and a piano around me at home, and I was 12 years old when I sat down in my room and started to figure out how to play the guitar. I loved it! And I preferred to stay home in my room, playing and singing, than to be outside playing with my girly friends. I began to write my own songs at 16 or 17, with no other ambition than just for the love of it. When we started to play gigs with Ephemera, we suddenly understood that people out there liked the music we made. And all of a sudden it meant something more… There was never a question about playing together or spending all our time doing music.

THE MULE: Did you set any particular guidelines or rules for yourself when you first started writing your own songs? Were you shy about the process?

INGERLISE: Hmm. No guidelines or rules. But just always hunting for the good melody. I think it is possible to learn a method, or follow rules and setups for how to write a song – but I don’t believe you can provoke the real soul that you can sometimes feel in a song. I write my best songs when I experience the darker days. I love writing songs when I NEED to. I remember I felt a bit shy early on, when I was performing a new song for the girls in Ephemera. Was it good enough? Would they like it? But we were all a bit shy back then.

THE MULE: How much did Christine and Jannicke, your partners in Ephemera, influence the way you composed? Did they give you a sense of what did or didn’t work? How much collaboration was there?

INGERLISE: Well, Jannicke, Christine and myself are so much alike when It comes to taste in music in general. We grew up together, and we shared our youth and the “basic time” …if that makes sense. Still, we are very different souls and we have different preferences. I would say that the three of us together IS the sound of Ephemera. We’ve influenced each other on the road, and we grew as a band and as songwriters together. That is quite beautiful, actually. We have shared some really great things together. We have mostly written songs on our own – taken the song to the band rehearsal, and together, making it an Ephemera-song. I developed my way of writing during the intense time in Ephemera, and of course I’ve been influenced by the other girls. Still, I have always had a clear view of my own music, and how and what I want it to become.

THE MULE: The first Ephemera album, GLUE, came out in 1996. It was a pleasant recording, but didn’t truly showcase the “Ephemera sound.” That came to fruition on SUN, when you started working with producer Yngve Saetre. What did he bring to your sound that made such a difference? What happened in the group during that period between GLUE and SUN, which was in 2000?

INGERLISE: Wow, it was a long time ago. I’ll try to think back. That first record, GLUE, was very pure. I was only 17 years old when we were recording this album. And we were very concerned, and focused on the “live sound,” making sure everything was clean and organic. And real. It was a great first experience, and we learned a lot during this recording. We met Yngve during the mix of GLUE, he is the one who mixed the album. He really liked the way we worked and our songs, and wanted to work some more with us. I remember recording the album SUN like magic. It was in summertime, late evenings, and we just had a really good process. Working with Yngve went very well. He understood us, and together, we found the Ephemera sound during this recording.

Ephemera (Jannicke Larsen,Christine Sandtorve, Ingerlise Storksen) (uncredited photo)

Ephemera (Jannicke Larsen,Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: It’s hard to analyze what makes something “magical” in music, but I just want to tell you that for me as a listener, what you and Ephemera have achieved often sounds like pure magic. There is some special ingredient that makes it soar higher than mere “excellence.” What makes music achieve that magical level, in your opinion?

INGERLISE: The magic in music… that is so powerful. And, so hard to explain. For me, it is those times when you write music because you really NEED to – when there is pure and real feeling and meaning in your words. When you manage to get pieces of hurt or soul, fervently into a song – I think some of that soul keeps on living in that song, and other people can feel it when they listen to it. That is magic!

THE MULE: My impression is that you were not that assertive about songwriting in the early days of Ephemera, but became more so between AIR and MONOLOVE. Is this accurate? What was your “evolution” as a songwriter?

INGERLISE: Hmm… I think I have always had it in me. Remember – we were young back then. At least, that is what I kept saying to myself. 17,18,19, 20 years old. I think it was more about confidence than ability. For every year that went by, It became easier for me to write songs, and to believe in myself as a songwriter. Still, I have this fear of, “what if I never write a good song ever again?” But deep inside, I know it’s there. That there will be more songs. I hope!

THE MULE: All three of you have fantastic voices, and you each add something special to the mix. Christine has written a ton of great songs. And I have to say that a lot of your songs, your vocal performances, give me chills. There are many songs I could ask you about, but I specifically wondered about two songs from MONOLOVE, the last Ephemera album. “Thank You” features a heartbreakingly beautiful vocal from you, with a level of hushed intimacy that few singers could ever hope to achieve. And “Dead Against the Plan” is, to me, one of the catchiest and most dazzling pop songs ever put on record. Can you tell me a little about what it was like working in the studio on those two songs? Did you know you were capturing some amazing musical moments on record when you did these songs?

INGERLISE: “Thank You” is a song written to one of my favorite persons in my life, my grandmother. I have now written a song for both of them – but both were amazing, you see. Really. “Thank You” is about everything she gave to us. The beautiful perspective of life she gave us. She lost two of her children when she was young, and went through such hard times. Still, she was always there for my dad and us grandchildren. She gave us all the love in the world. She was so strong and small at the same time; she was broken, but she never broke. It just makes me so sad to think about. Life can be so brutal. “Dead Against the Plan.” This is a song I started writing, the melody and the story. But I needed some help from Christine to finish up. So this one is a collaboration. The story is about a girl and a boy, they have been really good friends through many years. Always there for each other, in the ups and downs. It all changes the day he starts to feel more. They ruin the friendship by not figuring it out, and they never get back to where they once were. Stupid, right? This was a special song, and it was recorded not long after it was written, so there is some real energy there.

THE MULE: What is the current status of Ephemera? Obviously you guys keep in touch, but some fans were disappointed when the “break” you took turned into over a decade long. What happened? Will the group ever record an album again?

INGERLISE: We will never fully break up the band. We are on a long break. You see, we started up when I was 15 years old, and Christine and Jannicke 16. From early on, Ephemera got a lot of attention and it quickly became a busy pleasure. So the life with Ephemera was committed, and it held us back from doing a lot of other things in life. BUT… I would never miss that for the world. We got to keep doing what we really loved, we traveled around and experienced a lot that other “kids” didn’t get to do. But after all those years together, we needed to do some stuff on our own. All of a sudden, there were babies coming into the band, and family life was a fact. It’s not easy to leave your kids behind, to travel and tour. So we decided to take a real break, with no pressure or expectations. And then came more kids, and we had time to finish our education and try out the “adult-life” for a bit. Will Ephemera ever make another album? I would say yes.

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Do you have any insights as to why many Norwegian recordings don’t get released in the US? Many albums I love from Norway cannot be found ANYWHERE here, they can only be ordered as special imports. That is gradually changing, as downloading becomes the prominent way for listeners to get music, but still… why didn’t Ephemera records, for example, get released here?

INGERLISE: Hmm. I don’t know, actually. A lot of Norwegian bands typically tour and release their music in Germany, England and Europe in general, but not so often in the US. But yes, it’s changing now. I see more and more bands traveling over to you, and making things happen over there. Sondre Lerche. The Last Hurrah! They are both working in the US these days. With Ephemera, I don’t think we had the right contacts. And we were so busy touring in Europe, Japan – and we didn’t get to the US before we took this break. We did have some songs on some TV series and some movies, but it never quite got to anything else. Maybe I will try with my solo project! I would love to release my music over there.

THE MULE: During the long break since MONOLOVE, I understand that you were all raising families, but it has certainly been a much longer break than bands usually take. The only new recording the band made, I suppose, was your cover of the Prince song “Manic Monday” for a tribute album. How much were you working on music yourself those years? Did you ever lose interest in it? Or were there particular “barriers” to overcome?

INGERLISE: I could never lose interest. This is about so much more than just an interest. I’ve been writing music all the way, for all these years. It is such a big part of who I am, and I will never stop making songs and writing lyrics. It was just time for me to jump off the wagon for a while. I needed time home with my son, and this was a choice I made. I have been working as a journalist as well, and I tasted the “everyday-life.” I love being at home with my son, but working in front of a computer all day… no! It kills me. In the end, it makes me sad and “sick” if I can’t keep working and spending time with my passion and music. So I have recently quit my job, and will be focusing only on music now. And Oskar. There is one life. One chance.

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

ALL THE GOOD THINGS is due for release this Spring on iLs Records. You can follow Ingerlise’s activities at Most of Ephemera’s music is available on iTunes, and some of it can be heard at Spotify.


Although on hiatus, the Norwegian trio has recorded a clutch of albums that are stellar examples of luminous, emotionally compelling modern pop. Here are five of their very best songs to seek out:

Ephemera  (Jannicke Larsen, Ingerlise Storksen, Christine Sandtorve) (uncredited photo)

Ephemera (Jannicke Larsen, Ingerlise Storksen, Christine Sandtorv) (uncredited photo)

1. PERFECT – From their 2000 release SUN, Ingerlise sings this delicate tale of a troubled relationship in which the boy begs unsuccessfully for forgiveness for the way he’s messed things up. Spine-tingling harmonies only add bliss to the impossibly fragile lead vocal.

2. BYE – Another Ingerlise tune, this is one of the most perfect melancholy pop songs you’ll ever hear. Sweetly sad, flawlessly sung and graced with a soft chugging rhythm and singalong chorus. If that weren’t enough, the song unexpectedly breaks into a semi-jazzy piano break halfway through that sends this straight into “blue diamond” territory. Transcendent.

3. MAPLE TREE – Christine Sandtorv penned and sang this gorgeous romantic song from the 2003 release AIR. A seemingly simple song about a girl sitting under a tree on a sunny day, “holding a leaf with my toe,” with an unnamed romantic companion suddenly showing up. So perfect, sweet and life affirming is this song, it has brought me to tears on several occasions. “When the sky is blue, right in front of you/Touch it while you can/It may never happen again,” sings our angelic protagonist, and I don’t know of any advice on ANY recording that gets you right in the heart the way Christine does here. Nordic magic so sublime it puts the overproduced and melodramatic works by most American female artists to shame. Probably one of my ten favorite songs of all time.

4. ON MY FEET AGAIN – Another tune from AIR, this is a lovely collaboration between Christine and Ingerlise in which, improbably, almost every line begins with the word “Maybe.” It comes across as a girl talking to herself, trying to figure out, perhaps why things aren’t so great. The repeated refrain is a simple “Maybe I’ve got a lot to learn about falling down/Maybe I’ve got a lot to learn about getting up on my feet again.” Melodically rich, catchy as hell, featuring an evocative keyboard sound, and oooh, those sweetly feminine harmonies. Beautiful simplicity, something Ephemera does better than anyone.

5. DEAD AGAINST THE PLAN – Before their fifth album, MONOLOVE, came out in 2004, Ephemera had raised their own bar so high that one could be forgiven for thinking they were finally going to make something LESS wonderful, something maybe a bit, I don’t know. Self-indulgent? Repetitious? Ordinary bands do that sort of thing, after all. But gee whiz, MONOLOVE turned out to be deeper, richer and more multi-layered than ever before, with a full slate of gorgeous new songs like “Thank You” and the anthemic “Paint Your Sky” (one of Jannicke Larsen’s finest songs). “Dead Against the Plan,” however, another Ingerlise-Christine collaboration mostly sung by the former, is ridiculously brilliant. Every single second of this song is so meticulously sung, performed and arranged for maximum musical impact, that you can only shake your head in awe. Multiple hooks, rich harmonies, odd little detours and breaks, one of the best uses of a banjo on a pop song ever, and an A plus plus plus production by Yngve Saetre put this song in a class by itself. It’s so damn good that I only allow myself to listen to it once in a while, because I don’t want to ever take for granted or “get used to” pop music this dazzling. Anyone who wants to quickly find out why I am so in love with this band just needs to put this song on, turn it up loud, close your eyes and experience Nordic songcraft at its most enthralling.



Nico and Vinz cover

Norwegian pop duo Nico and Vinz (Kahouly Nicolay Sereba and Vincent Dery, formerly known as Envy) blend danceable new wave vibes (there is more than a cursory nod to the Police and their rock-Reggae-ska hybrid), a retro New Jack soul cool and an urban hip-hop swagger with their Ghanian and Ivorian musical heritage. The vibrant aural stew of BLACK STAR ELEPHANT is joyful, inspirational and something that is utterly… Nico and Vinz.

After a brief “(Intro),” the album’s lead single, “Am I Wrong” (which went Top 5 on BILLBOARD’s Hot 100 Singles chart), gives the album legs right from the get-go. While the guitar riff and melody line are straight out of the Police hit “Message In a Bottle,” the tune has more of an American urban pop sound, featuring the duo’s faultless vocals, an unobtrusive but effective horn chart and an infusion of African percussion. “Last Time” has a little more of an uptown, Bronx sound in the vocals, lyrics and overall groove. It makes this old heart happy when you can actually hear a sense of jubilation in a voice and, here, you can almost see the brilliant smiles on the faces of the background singers (Nico and Vinz, themselves, along with Elisabeth Carew). Though it has yet to be released as a single, this one has Top 40 radio supremacy written all over it. “(Leave Us)” is a short, spoken word outro to “Last Time,” with an ominous male voice (African, I’m guessing, by the dialect) that intones a warning, “You have to go.” I’m thinking that many of these short interludes come from a movie (maybe THE GOOD LIE, as the soundtrack features a track from Nico and Vinz and the albums were delivered to me in the same package). The next song, “Know What I’m Not,” sorta reminds me of Peter Gabriel’s “Senegalese period,” at least instrumentally. The song has an infectious melody; the vocals have a slight resemblance to Police-era Sting, with just a dash of doo-wop style scatting. “Miracles,” another beautifully upbeat lyrical piece, begins with a bit of down-home pickin’ (which remains the main musical touch point throughout the track) before adding some minor key piano chords and a combination of acoustic and electronic percussion to sweeten the already brilliant musical pot.

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

A bit of neo-Zydeco goofiness, “(New In Town),” leads straight into “My Melody,” an atmospheric number with lyrics delivered in the Mumuye language of Nigeria and Cameroon (as identified elsewhere). There’s a nice Reggae-sounding break before the English verses, which features a heartfelt rap about dreams and reality that could come off as just another “woe-is-me” rhyme, but there’s a definite sense of hope shining through. “(Powerful)” is a philosophical interlude that leads into “Another Day,” a sing-songy rap about overcoming (or, at least, surviving) the struggles of life: “Another day goes by/And I thank God that I’m alive.” “People” is more Police-like Euro-Reggae about… living; the song is just flat-out inspirational (“People will always be people to me/We do wrong, we do right”). It features a cool backward guitar (or is that… an accordion?). Speaking of cool guitar, “Runnin’” has one that sounds oddly Frippian in tone. The descending bass line and piano really add a nice touch and what can I say about those vocals? They are continually upbeat, joyous and infectious. “Imagine” is a slow groove with a Bob Marley kinda vocal. The backing vocals are highlighted by some awesome throat singing; this is one instance where the rap sorta ruins the overall vibe of the song. The album’s second single, “In Your Arms,” seems like an obvious bid for a Top 40 hit (probably at the behest of the record label), with a definite Bruno Mars thing happening. Despite that, I actually think the tune isn’t all that bad.

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Homeless” is a jaunty little folk thing, with harmonica(skillfully provided by Ntirelang Berman), acoustic guitar and a more uplifting message than the name implies. There’s some great harmonizing (with other voices and with nature) on “(Lakota),” the rain-soaked intro to the funky “Thought I Knew.” An excellent arrangement and orchestration inform the number, with understated guitars, nice percussion and a cool bridge with piano, cello and violins. A cosmic sounding “(Arrival)” urges, “My son, use the knowledge and sing your song.” And, sing he does, accompanied by piano, fretless bass and a guitar that would not seem out of place on a King Crimson record, on a tune called “When the Day Comes.” It’s another joyous exclamation, punctuated by more great African percussion and amazing background vocals. “(Kokadinye)” is a beautiful lullaby with suitably subtle guitar. The interlude leads into the spiraling, thumping groove of “Imaa Imaa,” with its nods to such groups as Osibisa and the Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign… even a touch of El Chicano and mid-’60s psychedelic pop. The song is a terrific album closer.

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

The production on the record is split between William Wiik Larsen (who also goes by the moniker Will IDAP) and Thomas Eriksen, with the interludes produced and performed by Raymond and Kouame Sereba (Nico’s brothers?). Eriksen and Larsen also provide most of the instrumentation and programming on the tracks they are credited as producers, with some help from various musicians and backing singers along the way. This is such a great album and Nico and Vinz appear to be as likeable and uplifting as their music; I have to hope that this much deserved success doesn’t go to their heads and adversely effect their music. That would certainly be a shame.




The Norwegian band, Highasakite, is somewhat of a pop conundrum. They are very much a group of elegantly precise musicians with a sublime vocalist in Ingrid Helene Havik. At the same time, the precision that makes so listenable and so enjoyable is seemingly undermined by a lyrical obliqueness… allusive lyrics that leave you stumbling through the songs, trying to catch the meaning. I’m going out on a limb here by saying that this album is a quasi-concept piece about familial relationships (husband/wife; parent/adopted child/step-child). As dense (not thickheaded dense; more like a molecular type of dense… I don’t know… now I’m doing it!) as the lyrics are, this is still an exceptionally fine album. And… I think that pretty well covers the “conundrum” aspect; let’s look at the songs one-by-one, shall we?

Highasakite (uncredited photo)

Highasakite (uncredited photo)

Up first is “Lover, Where Do You Live.” The song is majestic… orchestral… ethereal. The only thing I can think to say is, “Hauntingly beautiful.” Even though the second song sounds nothing like it, the rather loopy “Since Last Wednesday” somehow kinda reminds me of Lorde’s “Royals.” Lyric sample: “No one has seen or heard from him since last Wednesday.” So… on to “Leaving No Traces.” It’s kinda like a Nordic take on an Irish reel. I’ll give you some time to digest that statement, let it congeal at the bottom of your brainpan for a bit. Alright… I got it! The Lorde comparison (and, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!) has more to do with Havik’s phrasing and timbre. “Hiroshima” is a gauzy, percussion happy tune about “carelessly walking around Hiroshima.” It’s kind of a nonsense song lyrically (at least, to these ears), but still a nice listen. “My Only Crime” features minimal instrumentation and a nice vocal performance. The first line, “I dreamt I was the devil’s child” sets the lyrical tone. The song melds into “I, the Hand Grenade,” in which Havik refers to herself as “the real terrorist.” I’m guessing (“hoping” would be more accurate) this is some sort of protest song. There is an elegant soft to hard juxtaposition in the vocal delivery as, later, the protagonist declares, “My ignorance is a tool to justify.” And, so, the meaning is obvious: By looking at the differences in each other, we are blind to the likenesses. Or, maybe, it’s about five-speed transmissions.

Highasakite (photo credit: TONJE THILESEN)

Highasakite (photo credit: TONJE THILESEN)

Darth Vader” is next, wherein the musical question is asked, “Am I the real Darth Vader?” The listener answers, “Uhhh… nice melody, though.” “Iran” might be another politcal song. Either Ingrid is very confused or I am totally missing something in the translation” “It’s common news/It’s common sense/If I could choose/I’d go to Iran” even though “I could lose a hand.” The tune has a kind of Celtic Middle Eastern vibe… whatever that means. With “The Man On the Ferry,” we’re back to basics (maybe… kinda sorta). It’s a gently rolling tune about love – I think. The last line stymied me: “It made the Indian in me cry.” At least, that’s what I think it is. The last track, “Science and Blood Tests,” is another head-scratcher. It could be yet another song about acceptance or it could be about loving an adoptive parent or a step-child. Let’s go with that last one, as a lyrical sample reads, “Science and blood tests doesn’t say anything ’bout how I feel.” Overall, strangely allusive lyrics aside, SILENT TREATMENT is a pleasant musical experience. Having said that, I think the next time I listen to it, I’m going to do so with a linguistic major beside me to explain the squiggly bits.