Whatever mysterious quality it is that elevates pop music from merely “good” to transcendent, the Ephemera girls have it to an almost magical extent.
People have different reactions to the sublime. An exquisite sunset or majestic mountain range, a warm kiss from that special someone, a cherished tune, or a perfectly prepared dish at a great restaurant…all life’s best things elicit a response, whether a gasp of delight, a murmur under the breath, or simply a wide-eyed stare. Myself, I tend to sigh, especially when I hear a beautiful piece of music. And I’ve been sighing almost every time I listen to Ephemera, a trio of young women from Bergen, Norway who have created their own style of sweet, blissful, melodic pop music that’s as pure as…well, the mountain air and water in their own country, probably. They haven’t hit the U.S. yet, but they’ve already cast their spell over countless listeners in Norway, other parts of Europe, and Japan. Whether Ephemera’s grace and innocent charms will appeal to the average American weaned on narrow radio playlists and flashy rock videos remains to be seen, but in my world, they are already superstars. You’ll probably hear them soon enough, so allow me to introduce them to you now.
Meet Christine Sandtorv, Inger Lise Storksen, and Jannicke Larsen, young Scandinavian singer-songwriters gifted with awe-inspiring talent, uncanny musical instincts, fresh, alluring voices, and a clear-eyed focus. Whatever mysterious quality it is that elevates pop music from merely “good” to transcendent, the Ephemera girls have it to an almost magical extent. And they deserve to be heard, even by the fickle American record-buying public.
The Norwegian city of Bergen has become, in the last few years, a hotbed of incredibly creative music. Breakout artists such as Royksopp, Kings of Convenience, and Sondre Lerche have emerged to great success, and there’s simply no reason why Ephemera shouldn’t do the same. The girls began singing together in fall of 1994, shy teenagers at first, who quickly discovered that they were onto something. Sandtorv and Larsen wrote most of the early, simpler songs, but the key element was how beautifully their three voices blended together. Within just a couple of years, they were signed by BMG, who released their debut, Glue, in 1996. Ephemera acknowledged the influence of creative artists such as R.E.M., U2, Mazzy Star, and Sweden’s innovative chanteuse Stina Nordenstam. Some of their songs also called to mind a more delicate version of ABBA. Although well-received, there was a sense that Glue was a mere warmup for what these girls were capable of. They spent several years touring, studying music, and writing new songs. A pivotal event was connecting with brilliant producer Yngve Leidulv Saetre, who was about to do for Ephemera what Nigel Godrich did with Radiohead: namely, establish an ideal working environment in the studio (in this case, a famed Nordic studio named Duper) and act as a benevolent overseer to every aspect of the sound. The girls referred to Saetre as their “musical soulmate.”
The first fruit of this collaboration was Sun, which was released in 2000. A masterfully produced, artful soft-pop gem, Sun gave the girls their first hit single in Norway (“Happy, Grateful, Aware”). But the real news was the staggering sophistication of songs like “Mrs. T,” “Tornado,” the Bacharach-like bounce of “Saddest Day,” and the aptly named “Perfect.” Sandtorv’s “Little Lion” is one of the most achingly beautiful vocal performances ever captured on disc; the first time I heard it, I was rendered speechless. Whether the producer’s idea or the girls’ (it was probably both), the cleanly strummed acoustic guitars were sometimes accompanied by a tasteful cello, a soft keyboard, or another instrument used for just that perfect texture. But the flawless arrangements never detracted from the focus, which was those sweet, soothing voices. Song for song, Sun is one of the most satisfying discs I’ve heard in the last five years—and it was only Ephemera’s sophomore effort. It earned the band a “Best Group” nomination in the Spellemannprisen, Norway’s equivalent of the Grammy awards. The magazine Natt & Dag called Sun “the best Norwegian album of 2000.”
The trio wasn’t about to rest on its laurels, however. The next year, they released their third album, Balloons and Champagne. The result: another platter of peerless musical treasures. Only the deaf could resist exquisite tunes such as “Last Thing,” “Air,” “Hey (Nanana),” the title cut, and the sheer rapturous beauty of Storksen’s song “Bye.” There was often a little-girl quality to Ephemera’s vocals, but the potent romanticism of their sound and the ingenious arrangements combined with those voices to create something remarkably fresh and pure.
It would be fair to say that Ephemera’s music has an old-fashioned femininity to it. Whereas many female musicians trying to make it in the biz take the “rock chick” approach, coming on all tough and aggressive like their male counterparts, Ephemera opts for a gentler sound, allowing qualities such as shyness, romantic yearning, and private heartache to emerge from behind their sometimes sensual, “fluttering-eyelash” delivery. But make no mistake: their music is as driven, confident, and sure-headed as anything from their more rock ’n’ roll sisters. Balloons and Champagne was another critical sensation in Norway, and a following developed in Japan, as well. There was a second Spellemannprisen nomination, an appearance on a Norwegian compilation album, and a lot of very, very enthusiastic fans.
Less than a year passed when sessions got under way for the fourth album, Air, released early in 2003. Ephemera’s sophistication was growing, the craftsmanship taking on ever more impressive dimensions in luminous new tunes like “Countrysong,” “One Minute,” Sandtorv’s fetching “Maple Tree,” the deceptively upbeat “I Think He’s Dead,” and yet another classic single, “Girls Keep Secrets in the Strangest Ways.” The album went gold in Norway (20,000 copies sold). And the title track was featured in the recent Olsen Twins TV movie (an older song, “Again,” is also scheduled for inclusion in the American TV show Line of Fire on December 16). A review on the Internet site Luna Kafe enthusiastically proclaimed, “In a perfect world, Ephemera would be stars, with their music played on every radio station on the planet with Saddam and George dancing on the table.”
At the moment, clearly, we don’t live in that perfect world. Although thriving in Scandinavia (and having completed a very successful tour in Japan), the Ephemera girls have yet to come to America. They’re being patient, probably plotting out every step of their career, thoughtfully. But there’s simply no reason these immensely talented musicians can’t develop a sizable following on these shores. To appreciate them, you need nothing more than a pair of ears and a heart. The following interview was conducted via e-mail, through the courtesy of Ephemera’s busy New York-based PR man. Their English is near-perfect, although they often express things in a unique manner. Certainly that’s true of all their recordings, as well. Here’s hoping that some of you readers will be inspired to check out Ephemera’s music, most of which is now available through cdbaby.com.
KR: When you first began, what kind of music did you talk about writing together? Who were the artists and songwriters that you liked or felt influenced by?
Inger Lise: We have always been big fans of U2, Edie Brickell, Stina Nordenstam, and many, many other great artists. I think they have influenced us a bit. The three of us do like mostly the same kind of music, so to find our style was never a big problem.
KR: Tell me a little about starting a music career in Norway. What steps must young musicians take to get noticed and develop a following?
Inger Lise: We started early writing music together. It is our biggest hobby, and now it is our everyday job. We started in 1994, so for almost 10 years, we have been a big part of the music scene in Norway. It’s hard work if you want to reach out to a lot of people and sell albums. There’s so many great musicians out there fighting for the same success. But I think if you really believe in the music you make, and you get to play many, many gigs all over, and never give up, you can be a hit! It can be hard work, but it is really good fun, as well. And for us, it is most important that we enjoy what we are doing.
KR: How did you three meet? And how long was it before you decided to make music together?
Inger Lise: We have known each other since we were kids. We all grew up in the same area. We went to the same school and we all sang in a children’s choir together. I think the three of us were a bit more interested in music than the other kids at that time. When I was 15 years old, we decided to start a band. Christine had a guitar, we could all sing, and that’s how the whole Ephemera story started.
KR: I don’t have your first album, so I cannot compare it to what came later, on Sun. But it seems that your producer, Yngve Saetre, had a very big impact on your sound. What changed in the band when you met him? How would you describe his influence on the way you make records?
Sandtorv: When we recorded our first album, Glue, we were very young teenagers, and I think you can hear that on the album. We didn’t want anyone to change our songs so much from what they sounded like when we played them live. So to be honest, I don’t think our producer Knut Böhn had an easy job, actually. Three stubborn teenage girls…
Yngve Sætre, who has produced our three next albums, mixed the first one, and he has always liked our music. When we decided to let him produce Sun, we knew immediately we had found the right man. He always makes us believe in our ideas, and he kind of drags out the best of us and our inner thoughts… And no idea is bad to him, so he has really made us open up when we are in the studio. But he is also strict, and knows when to put down his foot. He has a really warm and good personality, and he has also become a very good friend. He has also a good portion of great humor, and that is always more than welcome in the Ephemera family. The time we spent with him and in Duper studio really helps our confidence and guts to do what we like.
KR: Something that I deeply love about your music is how effortless it sounds. Nothing ever seems forced or calculated, and the emotions always seem authentic. How much do you rehearse a song before recording it? Do you consciously try to avoid doing too many takes?
Sandtorv: Most Ephemera song bases are made by one of the members and then rehearsed with the band; some vocals might be added and then arrangements for all the instruments. We usually don’t rehearse a lot before entering the studio, but the original songwriter might have an idea on how it should sound. Then we test different stuff with Yngve, and find a sound we’re all happy with. This way, the songwriters’ intention with the song stays through the whole process, and the song still gets the Ephemera sound. I think the fact that we’ve evolved over the years is an important factor in the creative process.
KR: So is the writer of the song usually the one who also sings it?
Sandtorv: In the early stages of Ephemera, around the time of Glue, Inger Lise used to sing a lot of my songs, but as I have grown more confident, I sing a lot more of my own material. I think I speak for all of us when I say that singing your own songs helps maintain what the original thoughts behind it was. However, this is not a strict rule, and if we find that a certain song fits one voice better than another, there’s no problem doing this. Usually the writer of the song also sings the lead on the song, but not always.
KR: Many of your songs are about the ups and downs of love. Yet there never seems to be anger or bitterness, only sorrow and regret when love doesn’t work out. Can you comment on this?
Sandtorv: A lot of the songs are about ups and down of love, like you say, but most of the time we try to keep a different undertone in the songs, maybe a bit of melancholy in a happy song (“Happy Grateful Aware,” for instance) and the other way around. The best songs are often written when one is in an emotional state of mind, and it helps releasing these feelings through music. In the matter of bitterness and anger, I think a lot of the songs have an understanding of the fact that…love is a matter of more than one side, and often a breakup is a result of both parts, kind of an inevitable happening, but still sad.
KR: How do fans react at your concerts? Can you share a story or two? And is there a difference between how males and females respond to your music?
Larsen: Men and women respond quite similar when hearing our music. Most people (men or women, young or old) seem to catch what our music is about, and sometimes they get a little moved by it. Some have cried, others have actually danced line dance during an Ephemera concert. And we had one case of fainting.
KR: You became popular in your own country first, then you went to Japan. What made you go there? What is there about Japanese audiences that makes them so receptive to music like yours?
Larsen: After playing and selling music exclusively in Norway for some years, we were told about a man named Mike Gething, whose office was in London. He was recommended by another band from Bergen, Poor Rich Ones, and he soon became our manager (to make the story short). He already had contacts/relations in Japan, and neither of us doubted that Ephemera could have a fair chance in the Japanese music market. So he gave them a call…and we were right. The Japanese are interested in our music. They seem to like how our voices sound, the way we make different harmonies, and that you can relate to the lyrics of our songs.
KR: It seems like the community of musicians in Norway is very close, as you appear on each other’s albums sometimes, give each other encouragement, etc. Can you explain what is special about the scene, especially in Bergen?
Larsen: Bergen is not very big. Only 250,000 people live here, which means that a lot of people know each other. But why so many of them choose to make music together, I cannot explain. I guess we were lucky. Lucky that the major record companies are on the opposite side of Norway, and lucky because musicians in our city found a way to climb the ladder alone, without the safety net of such companies as BMG, Universal, Virgin, etc. We were able to work without too much negative pressure, and slowly created something strong and lasting.
KR: When do you think you might come to the U.S.? And do you think it would be a big adjustment if you became very popular here?
Larsen: At this point, it is hard to predict the future when it comes to Ephemera and the United States. We hope to come there soon, and we will continue to work toward success there. Time will show how far we will get. Fortunately, we have already experienced that American people like our music. And that is the most important issue for us, that people wish to listen to our music… being stars is not the bait.
To learn more about Ephemera, check out their Web site at www.ephemera.no/english. Their CDs are available here through cdbaby.com.