Listening to Susanna Wallumrød

Susanna Wallumrød is a 31-year old Norwegian singer who first came to prominence in 2004 as one half of a duo called Susanna & the Magical Orchestra.  The other half of the equation (give or take the odd guest contribution in the studio) is Morten Qvenild, who plays a wide variety of keyboards behind Susanna’s ethereal vocals.

‘Ethereal’ is a word that seems to feature quite heavily in descriptions of Susanna’s music.  Also popular are ‘glacial’  and ‘icy’, signifying the fact that because Susanna comes from somewhere in the wastelands to the north of Newport Pagnell Services, she’s ‘Nordic’ and these adjectives are therefore apt ways of describing her music. If there was map of this area, it should read ‘Here there be clichés’ , not to mention ‘a great deal of unimaginative journalism’.  Bands from Scandinavia must get heartily sick of all the ‘glacial’ ‘icy’ stuff that’s used to describe their music, but that’s a topic for another day and another rant.

Susanna Wallumrød

What Susanna’s singing style does project is fragility.  Her high soprano breathes and whispers its way through a repertoire that takes in sources as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Joy Division, Dolly Parton and Kiss.  At times it seems as though her voice must crack, but she’s made of sterner stuff.  Increasingly, there are larger numbers of self-penned songs appearing in her repertoire, but she continues to plunder the rock & roll archives in a diligent quest to unearth songs that you might expect her to sing, like Nico’s ‘Janitor of Lunacy’  or Roy Harper’s ‘Another Day’ and songs that come as a total surprise, like Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’.

My first exposure to Susanna & the Magical Orchestra came at 2005’s Wychwood Festival, where she & Qvenild played a 45-minute set in front of myself, the members of Jaga Jazzist (Qvenild is a former member and JJ had come off stage about an hour beforehand, having played a tremendous set) and about 150 or so bemused punters who thought they were at a Folk Festival.  The pace of the presentation was so low-key as to be virtually non-existent and the songs all proceeded at a slow and stately tempo.  Notable among them were the usual mixture of the predictable and the odd – Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’  and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene‘ have surely never featured on the same setlist before.  To begin with, it all sounded a little too minimalist for its own good; you somehow felt that if some beer-sodden wag were to lurch to his feet and start calling out for ‘Smoke on the Water’ or ‘Freebird‘ the duo on stage might just have disappeared in a puff of glacial, icy smoke.  The thing is, nobody did, and after a while you began to focus on the voice, on the way they had deconstructed/reconstructed their chosen songs and on the mood being woven by the two of them.  Even a hackneyed piece of Nashville ham like ‘Jolene’ somehow sounded fresher and newer for being put through the Magical Orchestral filter.  They concluded their set to warm applause and though it wasn’t the best set at the festival, it was up amongst them.

Susanna & the Magical Orchestra – Punkt 09, Kristiansand

S&TMO have produced three albums on Rune Grammofon to date – the latest unimaginatively entitled ‘3’ – and they seem to be moving towards a larger complement of self-penned material. ‘3’ is really a terrific album, with telling contributions from guest musicians like Andreas Mjøs (from Jaga Jazzist)  & Erland Dahlen.  They really seem to be hitting their stride.

However, Susanna Wallumrød has another string to her bow, going out and producing albums in her own name.  I’ve been listening to a recording of her made at Bergen’s ‘NattJazz’ festival back in May.  Here she  is partnered with her husband Helge Sten (guiding light of Supersilent, otherwise known as ‘Deathprod’ and the eminence grise behind many Rune Grammofon projects) who plays guitar and helps out with the singing and Pål Hausken on drums.

Susanna and Helge Sten on stage

This is a set of cover versions with sources as diverse as Bonnie Prince Billy and Agnetha Falskog, but whilst Susanna’s voice is the common factor, the dynamics of her ‘solo’ band are rather different.  She plays grand piano throughout in contrast to Qvenild’s electronic keyboards, Sten interjects with occasional bursts of Eivind Aarset-style guitar and Hausken provides a gentle percussive counterpoint.

The performance also encompasses an amusing interlude where Susanna and Helge Sten launch into an impassioned duet version of Prince’s ‘For you’, but then make a complete dog’s breakfast of the lyrics and have to be reminded of them by a member of the audience. 

Taken together, Susanna’s work with her own trio and with the Magical Orchestra is stacking up into a growing and impressive body of work.  The music remains a ‘mood’ thing but just as there are times when only Thelonious Monk or Traffic or Marvin Gaye will do, so there are times when Susanna’s voice can spin a quiet web that is both haunting and satisfying.  But glacial or icy?  I don’t think so.

Currently, the NattJazz website is hosting a video stream of this concert.  Here’s the address:  http://www.nattjazz.no/index.php?Stream=Ja&counter=7

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