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While touring the world over the past few years—and captivating crowds with his stunning looping power as a one-man-band act— the Norwegian retro-soul singer/multi-instrumentalist, Bernhoft found his music taking on a whole new level of meaning. “On the last tour it was very strange for me to come from a country that’s incredibly well-off and unaffected by the recession, and then perform in places where a whole generation is out of work and there’s a real feeling of hopelessness,” says Bernhoft. “I felt like I was trying to reach out and lift people’s spirits, but at the same time I was always aware that I was very much in a separate place from them.” On his new album Islander, Bernhoft explores that disconnect by amping up his groove-laced soul elements with frenetic tension captured through deeper and richer sonic textures. His guitar riffs, piano chords, and lyrics on Islander, embrace both heartbreaking raw emotion of reality and soulful positivity. Escapist yet challenging, Islander emerges as an album that dares to reimagine what’s possible in pop music.
To record the follow-up to his critically-lauded sophomore album, Solidarity Breaks, Bernhoft took to another island locale; England’s Isle of Wight, home to the legendary music festival of the same name. “Isle of Wight is just a magical place, almost like a time machine that brings you back about 30 years,” says the singer, noting that the island’s distance from electronic-centric London culture helped to foster Islander’s warm, organic feel. Working at Chale Abbey Studios (a vintage-equipment-packed facility converted from a former monastery), Bernhoft teamed up with producer Paul Butler—a member of beloved alt-rock band The Bees whose past production work includes releases by Michael Kiwanuka and Devendra Banhart.
Inspired by everything from Swedish pop to the trailblazing soul of Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone and the intricate folk-rock of Carole King, Islander begins by elegantly flaunting Bernhoft’s sweet, yet masterful, vocals on the lead single “Come Around.” “That song came to me while I was driving from San Francisco to L.A. and blasting the radio and just being reminded of what music can do to you, how much it can affect you,” says Bernhoft. From there the collection brings smooth, feel-good numbers like “Wind You Up” (a song whose kaleidoscope of rhythms includes Bernhoft’s deft beatboxing), “Everything Will Be Alright” (a funk masterpiece driven by slinky guitar riffs and vocal-group harmonies), “One Way Track” (a blissed-out dance track that blends disco beats and razor-sharp storytelling) and “No Us, No Them” (Bernhoft’s smoldering love-song duet with GRAMMY Award-winning R&B artist Jill Scott). Islander pushes deeper into emotional territory with the beautiful slow burn of “Don’t Let Me Go” (a guitar-drenched soul ballad) and the album-closing “I Believe in All the Things You Don’t” (a quietly stirring epic that warns against jaded cynicism with lines like “You cut your arms off at the elbows thinking all was lost/You couldn’t be more wrong”).
Describing himself as “still basking in a ‘60s and ‘70s sort of soundscape,” Bernhoft notes that he took a decidedly old-school approach to the recording of his new album. “We just went to the studio and belted it out for a solid month,” he says. “The vibe and the chemistry were so great that we just kept at it for long hours, which I think gave the songs a really cool intensity.” To that end, Bernhoft also snubbed in-studio perfectionism for a looser, rawer approach to performance. “There are lot of tools and technology that we chose not to use so that we’d have to limit ourselves to natural musicianship and musicality,” Bernhoft says. “Paul and I were very much in agreement that we’d much rather use a whole take and end up with a beautiful mistake than try to be perfect all the time.”
In 2008 Bernhoft made his solo debut with Ceramik City Chronicles (a love/hate homage to his native city of Oslo) and—in touring in support of the album—quickly garnered a reputation as a must-see live performer, ultimately scoring an opening slot for blues-rock legend Joe Cocker. In early 2011 he released Solidarity Breaks, featuring the beatbox-infused, acoustic-guitar-laced single “C’mon Talk” (whose video has earned more than 7.3 million views). The following year, Bernhoft continued his breakout success by nabbing the Best Artist and Best Male Artist of the Year awards at the 2012 Spellemannprisen (Norway’s equivalent of the Grammy Awards). And in 2013, the singer broke through in the U.S. by flooring audiences at SXSW, appearing on NPR’s Weekend Edition, and making his late-night-television debut on CONAN. Soon after his new found American success, Bernhoft signed with Paradigm Agency’s label Big Picnic Records here in the States.
Solidarity Breaks has now racked up more than a quarter-million sales worldwide, a feat largely accomplished on the strength of Bernhoft’s awe-inspiring live show. With Bernhoft wielding his loop station to weave in lush layers of harmony and magically reproducing the sound, feel, and energy of a complete band, his live performances proves to be both stunningly complex and beautifully simple in its emphasis on pure-hearted vocal performance. In building such an intensely intimate atmosphere onstage, Bernhoft envelopes his audiences in the same joyful mood that imbues the soul of Islander. “As I was writing for Islander a lot of the lyrics had references to boats and water and bridges,” says Bernhoft. “It’s almost like I was saying, ‘Hey, come on board, I’m gonna take you for a ride, and hopefully for the next hour you can forget about your troubles.’ That’s the kind of album I most want to make; one where the songs are in good spirits, and maybe they can help give you a new sense of hope.”
I play piano and sing. I've played piano since I was four, my mum taught me to play. My dad played in bands, so he was more of a rock n roll kind of guy. I also used to sing drumbeats and annoy the shit out of my two brothers. Later on, I recorded some songs at home, and decided to sing the vocals on them - primarily because nobody else was around to perform them and I was keen to get something started!
I cut my hair this year (wow, big deal!!!) But it was a big deal for me, it was like I was showing my true face for the first time. Also, I figure, you can't see me singing from the side while I'm sitting at the piano with long hair!
I wanted to go to America to try all of this stuff out. They say that change is as good as a holiday, so I thought, "Why not have a change and have a holiday at the same time?!" But I knew it wasn't going to be a holiday. I knew it would be hard work, and it took a while to muster the courage to get myself over here, but I'm here now.
Someone asked me the other day, "What is it that you want to do?" I thought about it for a few seconds, and the best way for me to describe it was something like this: I just thought about how I'd sort of see myself on a stage, performing...
It was like:
"You know that moment when you're at a huge awards ceremony or watching one on TV, and there's all this glitz and glam, and flashes of light and it's all hype and craziness and then... some artist comes on stage, and just plays a song, either on their own or simply with one accompanist, and performs a heartstopping song that brings the whole f*ckin house down? That's kind of what I'd love to be able to do. That would be my ultimate goal, that would make me the happiest person alive."
There's another element that I love about music: I also like to groove. I'm not a trained dancer but dancing is where you get to express a certain energy where, instead of moving your fingers on the piano, you get to move your whole body. I used to do it only after a few beers, haha - but it's something I'd be into exploring more. Then there's the improvising element. I love going to gigs where it's a non-stop party, and there's that electric vibe in the room. The rhythm of jazz does that sometimes, when it's on. Prince did that once when I saw him at The Forum here in L.A. Donny Hathaway did it on "You Got A Friend" on his live album, 'cuz everyone was singing along, they were just spreading the love! Great comedians and actors do it too.