Bernhoft recently released Islander, a retro-soul filled album and his first since 2011. The Norwegian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist first broke into the American consciousness in 2011 when his viral video for “C’mon Talk” landed him a slot on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He spoke to us about the effects of Spotify, communing with trees, learning to play guitar and more.
You’re known for performing with a loop pedal. Do you use the loop pedal when writing and recording? Does it influence how you write songs?
I have recorded some improvisations on soundchecks and used them as the basis for songs. “Come Around,” the first single off my new album is one of those. I had it as an idea for a Bossa-like ballad, and then added some boomclash to it. However, I rarely use it in the further songwriting process or in the studio. There’s something about the limitations that the looper provides that’s good for a live setting, but in the studio I’d like to be free to add textures outside the domains of a sequencer. So I try not to let it influence how I write songs, but rather how I translate them to a solo format afterwards.
What’s it like writing songs in English for you?
It’s become a natural thing for me. I’ve tried singing in my native tongue, but it sounds miles south of horrible. It might be something about my dialect that’s not very singable at all and very few people have made it work. So I dove into English headfirst to not make an ass out of myself, and I might just be alright now.
How would you describe your new album?
Islander is a collection of thoughts on how it is to be the luckiest person alive, and how that fact can isolate you. I travel the world trying to communicate to people a sense of hope, a message that it’s all gonna be ok, just sing and dance and hold hands with me for an hour or so. Sometimes I come close to achieving that goal, but at the same time I have absolutely no clout at all, being an oiled up King Midas on welfare with custom made guitars. It’s about how you need to build a boat or a bridge to come across. It feels like it breathes, eats, laughs, throws a few punches. It’s like a rolling tide, it sweeps up slowly, but right before it hits you, it curls and whips you with force and foam. Hopefully it’ll stick around to carve some out of you, and give you some back.
How would you compare it to your last album?
This album is way more organic than Solidarity Breaks, my previous release. Even the drum machines are played rather than programmed. We took the time to almost exclusively use whole takes on Islander, be it any instrument or vocal. Songs need to be sung from beginning to end; punching in can be a blessing but more often a curse. You can hear that, the stretches are longer, it’s less fragmented than my previous work. This time too, the lyrics are about solidarity, but with a different perspective and also more sharply written. I’ve gotten better, haha.
Do you have any tricks you like to use in the studio? Reverb, candles, a certain kind of microphone you always use?
Other than the propensity to take naps under the console, no. That is a solid habit though, developed in the early 2000s while recording in RAK studios in London. They have a beautiful API desk in there, so calming…
Any thoughts on streaming music services like Spotify? Do you worry about not getting fairly compensated?
You know, I’ve always perceived myself as a live artist, first and foremost. So when the whole filesharing problem arose for the record industry, I kinda saw it as a forest fire, where a lot of chart-topping bubble gum nonsense could get the chance to fry in its own fat. I guess I was partly rewarded, the live side of the industry has gained power, but the one major label with the oomph enough to dominate streaming services by weight of its catalogue should concern us all much more than our prospected lack of fair compensation.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
I’ve recently had a huge kick out of re-learning finger picking. Guitar is my main instrument of old, but I’ve kind of lost sight of it as a source of fun in itself, it’s turned more into an accompaniment. But lo and behold, I’m really firing away these days.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
It was a crash course of the basic chords from my dad, and then straight into playing along with a cassette deck blasting Iron Maiden. I moved on to AC/DC from there, before someone told me I had to learn jazz because I showed some promise.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
George Harrison, Carole King, David Bowie, Lewis Taylor, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder and a great deal more than those – that was just off the top of my head. I must also say I have a deep respect for artists who can turn other people’s songs into their own. Jealous Guy is much more a Donny Hathaway song for me than a John Lennon song. Fire at will, purists!
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I really can’t tell, it was probably some AC/DC ripoff from my first band, with lyrics so sensationally lame I must have suppressed everything. But I still sing one of the early ones regularly, it’s a part of my warm-up routine before gigs. It’s called “Hopes,” a mind-blowingly original anthem about teenage insecurities, haha.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
That one just came pouring out of our fingers so fast; “Don’t Let Me Go” was jammed into place during a break in the recording, I think it was one of the preamps acting up. Within an hour, we had the song, lyrics written that night and recorded and wrapped the next day, it was pure magic.
How do you go about writing songs? What sort of things inspire you to write?
I tend to go walking without headphones on, and suddenly there’s a beat that sticks, a hook, a little story, some guy might be walking past me rehearsing his rhymes and I can borrow his mojo for a little while, or I might be in the woods back home in Norway and get trolling with the trees. Those trees have seen some stuff in their lifetime, let me tell you. So, it’s basically walking around with ideas until they stick, and then try to make something useful out of them when I get back in my little shed. Lyric-wise I tend to try and stay away from the boy-meets-girl-girl-leaves-boy-boy-sings-heartbrokenly-about-girl-for-hours-approach, it’s just a bit chewed up. So the trick is to find something that I can say things about, preferably smart, in a whole album’s worth of songs. Generally I get more inspiration out of books, newspapers and conversations than music.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
There is a song called “Time/Chances” that sadly didn’t make the cut, where I felt like I was confessing some dark truths about myself all the while being true to the superstructural theme of the album. I was really sad to see it go. Having said that, I think “One Way Track” has a mean swing to it. Doesn’t have to be about more than that…
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
There is this line from the aforementioned “Don’t Let Me Go” that goes, “Now I’m like a naked man standing in the desert, trying to sell a Messiah for silver.” I feel perky about the use of biblical references, you’re literally supposed to do that once in a while.
Are there any words you love or hate?
There is this phrase I’ve sworn never to use in any of my songs – “how does it feel”. I don’t know why I’ve developed such an antipathy towards it, but there you go. It might be the closest I come to hating anything, I’m really not much of a hater. I’m a sucker for positive words, “yes” being the supreme winner.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
It seems like “Sunday” from my first album Ceramik City Chronicles gets to people. Whenever I open up for requests that one gets called, and I hear sniffles during and after. I must have hit on something there.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I have a few ideas for a series of children’s books, but that needs some time to mature. Looking at my calendar that might be a few years ahead. But I wouldn’t consider myself a prolific writer, I have to clean out the schedule to sit down and churn out some ideas.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
It would be dead cool to be a fly on the wall in a Beatles, Beach Boys or Stones session of the mid-60s. But I’ll go for Lewis Taylor, an odd gem of a British nu-soul dude who just changed my whole game with his self-titled debut album. Serious instrumentalist skills going on there, and the line “If I don’t get lucky baby, you don’t get lucky too” is just too good. He’s made some strange albums after that though, and then gone totally off radar, so I sense my mission.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Almost all the Norwegian ones, bar Paa Waaktaar-Savoy of a-Ha. I’ll highlight Mikhael Paskalev, someone you should’ve heard of, but probably haven’t. And I have a little thing for Emily King (rhyming unintentional on that one).
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell, the version that’s on the album of the same name from 2000. Sung by an older Joni, those lyrics are just ethereal, and the arrangement is the essence of sublime.