Magnet | A Growing Attraction

You can’t fake melancholy.  You’re either melancholy or you’re not.



It’s a perfect name. Simple. Easy to remember. A time-tested metaphor for something exerting a powerful force. Magnet is such a stellar moniker, in fact, it’s hard to believe a young singer/songwriter from Bergen, Norway, named Even Johansen was able to nab it. But Johansen’s just released his third full-length recording, The Tourniquet, under that banner—it’s earned mostly rave reviews and given him the opportunity to showcase his evocative brand of Nordic folk pop at this year’s South by Southwest festival. His 2000 debut, Quiet and Still, did not, however, bear the Magnet name—not in America, anyway.

“I recorded that first album and it was released at home as Magnet,” said Johansen. “But the label that was doing it in the states said, ‘Well, there must be someone else called Magnet. Seems like a very common name.’ They were a small label and I don’t think they wanted to get sued. But I’ve had a magnet [tattoo] on my shoulder since I was 13; people have been calling me that since then. So we came to the conclusion we were OK.”

His father’s unconventional doctor sent the anemic young Johansen to see a half-Chinese, half-Indian medicine man who applied the tattoo with “special” ink. Mysteriously, Johansen never suffered from anemia again, so the magnet symbol is understandably significant. It’s not a stretch to also say there are two “poles” in Johansen’s music—a deep, skin-prickling sense of melancholy on one hand, and a survivor’s steely resolve on the other. You can hear it in his gentle, often weary vocals—which have drawn comparisons to other restless troubadours like Jeff Buckley and Ellott Smith—and in the artful, sometimes Radiohead-like arrangements that reveal an unexpectedly compelling emotional undercurrent.

“You can’t fake melancholy. You’re either melancholy, or you’re not,” he said. “I’ve never really been able to get into much music where it’s not something that’s been actually lived through. There’s a reason why people write books—it’s because they’re really good at telling stories. But I think basically, one shouldn’t write too many fictional stories in music. It doesn’t work for me, anyway.”

Johansen fits nicely into the almost-mythic perception of Scandinavia in general, and Bergen in particular, as a place of heavily landscape- and climate-influenced creativity, resulting in rich, textural pop music suffused with an underlying sadness.

“If I was to try to have some kind of take on it, during the wintertime when it is really dark and cold, it lends itself to a melancholy feel. You have more time to reflect. During the winter, people don’t necessarily stay in their own house. You go and talk to people. You’re more in a mode of where you want to communicate, you know? In my case, I get more touched by things that go well. By things that aren’t necessarily right at the moment, but there’s some kind of hope in them. For me, that’s powerful. I’ve never seen the need to lay my insecurities or unhappiness on someone else.”

That the music scene in Bergen has produced such stellar artists as Kings of Convenience, Royksopp, Ephemera, and Sondre Lerche is invariably going to arouse the interest of the international music press. What’s his take on the creative energy there?

“People just help each other out all the time,” he said. “Christine Sandtorv [Ephemera] just recorded a solo album. So she’ll phone up and say, ‘Can you sing on a song?’ and I’ll say, ‘Of course I can!’ It makes for a great atmosphere. Nobody is actively seeking to sell a lot of records. Everyone just wants to make an album they’re going to be proud of. Everyone in Bergen takes music really, really seriously. But they don’t take themselves seriously.”

Listening to Magnet’s music, you do get the impression of a deeply introspective artist at work. But despite the poignancy and mood of uncertainty, the listener never gets a sense that Johansen’s about to give up or go off the deep end. It’s more an admission that life’s a struggle that one must continually endure.

“To me, it’s almost like gospel music in a way,” said Johansen. “I’ve never really been self-destructive in that manner. I have two kids, and I suppose that’s got something to do with it. When you’ve got children, it seems a bit feeble not to keep trying.”

Johansen has plenty of reasons to feel upbeat these days, though. The awareness factor is growing exponentially. There’s a hard-working publicist who’s managed to place a number of Magnet tunes, including several from 2004’s On Your Side, into television shows (such as Six Feet Under) and movies.

“I’ve been really lucky with that. There’s been maybe ten songs that have gone on different series.”

Magnet’s global audience has grown steadily in the last couple of years, thanks in part to regular touring. Does he find audiences different around the world?

“In general, the response is similar,” he said. “In Japan, people get so carried away. Like crying and stuff, which is a little weird. I guess that’s probably the ultimate reaction. It means you’ve connected, you know? It’s not like someone leaving a note in my guest book or something—it’s right then and there. They find something they like so much, they have to cry about it—you can’t get a bigger compliment than that. And in the U.S., people are a lot more open. In the U.K., it’s more like, people cross their arms and say, ‘Impress me.’ Then if you manage to impress them, they clap.”

Johansen has a knack for twisting his compositions into something unexpected. He’s rarely content to merely write two verses and a chorus and lay down a pretty vocal. He’s after the sparkle, the indefinable thing that stays in a listener’s mind after hearing a tune.

“I’ve always actively tried to make something I haven’t heard a million times before,” he said. “You know, all the chords have been played. So you have to search elsewhere if you want to come up with something a bit fresh and surprise yourself.” He partially credits his producers Jorgen Traeen and Yngve Saetre for providing a loose, productive atmosphere in the studio that enables him to do his best work.

“They’re really good friends of mine, and they’re a great team in the studio. When you know somebody that well, it’s much easier to get things done. There’s no set way of doing things,” said Johansen. “Ideas are bouncing around all the time, basically. You need to have that sort of playful feel with music. Music is all about being playful.”



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