Countering the blockage of interaction and life as it was before when the pandemic began in 2020, Fredrik Saroea of the indie-electronic duo DATAROCK veered right into working on his debut solo album, Rona Diaries, which he released in May 2021. Co-produced and mixed with DATAROCK drummer Øyvind Solheim, and also mixed by Mark Rankin (Adele, Weezer, Harry Styles), Rona Diaries was dialed back sonically and a departure for the Norwegian artist from the more bombastic “Fa-Fa-Fa” dance beating from previous songs with the band.
By 2021, live music was beginning to reappear in Norway, and when it was time for Saroea to premiere the album, he opted to re-envision it completely, performing most of the album backed by the Norwegian string quartet BIT20 Ensemble, made up of violinist Martin Shultz, cellist Agnese Rugevica, Liene Klava on viola, Johannes Wik on harp at the Grieg Hallduring Norway’s 69th annual Bergen International Festival on May 28. Arranged by Bjørn Morten Christophersen, Soroea reinterpreted his debut during the orchestrated concert with Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions Live at The Grieg Hall, Bergen.
Of the 12 songs of Rona Diaries, which run 28 minutes total, The Chamber Versions keep to the original length of the track, give and take some seconds. The new recording also switches the original sequence and replaces Rona tracks “Zip-a-Dee-Doo” and “My Borough” with newer songs “Bergheim” and “Understatement Lovesong” for the orchestral recording in Bergen.
Once reimagined, the songs held different content, says Saroea, who wanted to emphasize the optimism and lyrical poetry in the songs, not the anger or aggressiveness of louder vocals, drums, and distorted guitars. He insists that the entirety of Rona Diaries, and one track, in particular, is also somewhat inspired by a scene from the 1986 John Hughes comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
“After Ferris tells his cynical best friend Cameron to ‘stop and look around once in a while,’ Cameron drowns himself in the painting ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ by Georges Seurat in a museum visit as a Dream Academy’s instrumental version of The Smiths’ ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ plays in the background,” says Saroea, referencing the final single off The Chamber Versions “Battered & Bruised” borrowing from The Smiths’ classic.
Originally written from the states of isolation and its during-and-after effects around the pandemic, the Rona Diaries songs were completely transfigured at the Bergen International Festival. “They’re all about ventilating all the darkness and difficulties even the most well-adjusted went through during those days of hardcore isolation and lonesome, sometimes twosome, solitude,” says Saroea. “Some of us took it all harder than others, and some of us had close ones we had to support in all ways we could—we’re talking breakdowns, breakups, suicide attempts, reevaluating one’s entire life, having to leave a loved work life or private set up, leaving after seeing oneself through a new angle, new choices, regretting old choices.”
Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions Live at The Grieg Hall, Bergen is a gorgeously sweeping landscape of sounds one—Saroea—could only dream of. Opening on “I’m a Rock,” which keeps up with the original tempo, now backed by strings, the closing “Heaven Knows Those Songs Weren’t Heaven Sent” is a more vivid take of Saroeas’s original acoustic-driven track, while “Battered & Bruised”—the sole track featuring “fake strings” on the first Rona Diaries—gets a facelift on The Chamber Versions.
“They all transformed dramatically,” says Saroea of the new recordings. “Bulletproof Vest” is one song he says transformed the most, switching off from indie-rock into something more cinematic. “The orchestration totally altered the nature of the whole thing, as the arrangements so prominently enhance the original’s minute element of romantic optimism.”
All falls in line with Saroea’s initial intention with Rona Diaries in approaching the songs in the most non-DATAROCK way, moving away from percussion, drum beats, and heavier guitars to something more stripped back, and “timeless in nature,” says Saroea, whose connection in the orchestral world ultimately led him to the Bergen International Festival.
Stripping back the music is something Saroea says he has tried to “force” into DATAROCK, referencing “New Days Dawn,” off the band’s 2009 album Red, but decided to leave the band intact and do his own thing, following band members Ketil Mosnes and Kjetil Møster, who also released solo albums. Rona Diaries was the first full-length release for Saroea, who had previously released singles including “I Will Always Remember You.”
Releasing Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions Live at The Grieg Hall, Bergen as a double vinyl, featuring the original album along with the orchestral versions, will give listeners a chance to compare and contrast the tracks. “The person we love the most can so easily become the one we hate, and here you can look at ‘life through both sides,’” says Saroea of the distinction and correlation between the two recordings. “The weird part of it is how the new versions are closer to what I always felt the song’s true nature was, which is odd knowing that I play all instruments on the original myself.”
Saroea adds, “That just shows how valuable change sometimes can be, which is something I try to touch upon in the song ‘I’m a Rock.’ We so early slip into comfortable habits that sometimes limit us in all aspects of life, so a good thing that came out of the last couple of years of crisis was at least a new approach and a super rewarding collaboration with four amazing musicians [BIT20 Ensemble].”
Wrapping up a new DATAROCK album, a follow-up to the band’s 2018 release Face the Brutality, along with The Chemical Brothers’ Steve Dub and Rankin on board again, the collaboration with the ensemble has redirected what Saroea wants to write: more material that will work as arrangements with the BIT20.
“There’s nothing I’d like more right now than to continue exploring this amazingly rewarding new avenue together with Christophersen, BIT20 Ensemble, and Mark Rankin,” says Saroea, who is eager to perform the songs live in their orchestrated form.
“The only thing I truly dream of doing on a stage right now is reenacting that insanely gratifying experience of playing with those four magicians,” adds Saroea, who says the songs will take on more improvisational elements live. “There’s no conductor helping us. There’s no backing tracks, no first violin or dominant metric charged forth by a lead instrument. We just have to hit it and figure out on the go where we’ll end up both in tempo, temperature, open pauses in the arrangements, lyrical nature of the phrasings, volume, and end of the songs.”
For Saroea, the experience of playing with the BIT20 made the Rona Diaries material feel “in touch with the etheric, timeless nature of music, as a truly profound kind of interaction and communication,” he says.
“I know that sounds pompous and grandiose being that I wrote the foundation of the songs, but that’s the only way I could experience performing with artists of this level of skill and quality, as I don’t know the first thing about playing music made by others,” shares Saroea. “I really hope there’s more to be done with BIT20. I haven’t felt this attuned with the role of being a musician since I was a young slacker playing in DATAROCK just so we could travel the world with our buddies and delay growing up. Now I’m 100 percent comfortable with being a grown-up, and I just love how BIT20 elevates the little I have to offer up to something I’m truly proud of.”
Now, Saroea finds himself gravitating to what he calls more profound, personal, and interpersonal topics when writing. “I’m from a social environment where we’re used to being very honest and open about our personal and emotional life, which might be part of the reason why you have so many deeply dark and serious artists coming out of Bergen,” he shares. “I’ve used DATAROCK, and music, to get a break from that level of grave, seriousness that’s surrounded me since childhood.”
Saroea adds, “Now that Bjørn Morten Christophersen’s arrangements and BIT20’s lyrical execution showed me a true beauty within this kind of expression and musical communication, however, I very much like to see if there’s more where that came from. I always have DATAROCK as a safe haven—or personal Prozac as we used to see it—if things go too far.”
Photos: Tove Lise Mossestad / Reybee PR