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Since releasing his sophomore album "Solidarity Breaks" in early 2011, Norwegian retro-soul singer/multi-instrumentalist Bernhoft has thrilled crowds around the world with his stripped-down yet amped-up one-man-band act. Largely on the strength of his looping-enhanced and wonder-inspiring live show, Bernhoft racked up 250,000 sales of "Solidarity Breaks" and earned more than three million views for "C'Mon Talk" (a beatbox-infused, acoustic-guitar-laced single that Bernhoft performed during his September 2011 appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show"). With his irresistibly of-the-moment approach to classic R&B and soul, Bernhoft also nabbed the Best Artist and Best Male Artist of the Year awards at the 2012 Spellemannprisen, which are the equivalent to the GRAMMYs in Norway. Now, the former frontman of acclaimed alt-rock band Span is returning to the U.S. with an unforgettable live performance in which his ingenuity in looping magically reproduces the sound, feel, and energy of a complete band.
Along with his looping wizardry, Bernhoft offers a take on pop music that's equal parts stylish and strikingly thoughtful. "One of my main goals with my music and my shows is to get people to dance and let go and smile and be happy, but to also get them thinking at the same time," says Bernhoft. So while "Solidarity Breaks" serves up both breezy pop gems and huge-hearted ballads (including "Stay With Me," a track voted Best R&B Song on iTunes in Germany), the album maintains a mellowed-out consciousness that instantly sets it apart from the rest of the pop landscape. "It's about everything from solidarity in politics, solidarity with other humans, in society, in relationships -- or how difficult it can be to live together both under small and big conditions," explains Bernhoft of "Solidarity Breaks," the follow-up to his 2008 solo debut "Ceramik City Chronicles." Undeniably helpful in delivering that message is Bernhoft's voice, a sweetly soulful instrument that frequently finds him hailed as one of the most gifted vocalists in his homeland.
As a childhood performer for the Norwegian Opera, Bernhoft has long been honing those powerful vocal skills. In the mid-'90s, Bernhoft channeled his musical talents into Explicit Lyrics, a four-piece alt-rock outfit that eventually mutated into Span and landed a deal with London's Island Records. Dubbed the "thinking man's Hives" by the NME, Span partnered with producer Gil Norton (The Pixies, Foo Fighters, Echo & The Bunnymen) and released their sole album "Mass Distraction" in 2004. After Span's 2005 breakup, Bernhoft decided to go solo and revamp his approach by boldly exploring the realm of soul music.
"As a musician, I'm much looser now than I ever was with my bands," says Bernhoft. "My music involves a lot of improvisation -- it's like I play pop with a jazz or avant-garde attitude toward things." On "Ceramik City Chronicles" (a love/hate homage to Bernhoft's native city of Oslo), that newfound looseness took the form of a richly textured selection of songs that revealed roots in artists like Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder while boasting a slick pop sensibility. Touring in support of "Ceramik City Chronicles" quickly garnered Bernhoft a reputation as a must-see live performer, ultimately scoring him an opening slot for blues-rock legend Joe Cocker.
To expand his sound on "Solidarity Breaks," Bernhoft teamed up with multi-platinum selling producer Fred Ball (Pleasure, Brett Anderson) and songwriting collaborators like Ed Harcourt (Paloma Faith, Jamie Cullum) and Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Beverly Knight). Despite its classic feel, the album mines a great deal of inspiration from more modern musical movements. "I have among many things listened to a lot of hip hop, the part of pop music I think develops most today," says Bernhoft. "Jokingly you can say that the album sounds like my former one taking a couple of fish leaps via early Nik Kershaw and The Roots and has landed in 2020."
Mixed by Steve Fitzmaurice (U2, Depeche Mode, Kylie Minogue), "Solidarity Breaks" was also dreamed up with an eye toward Bernhoft's live performance. "In a live situation I'm very dogmatic that everything should happen there and then without any pre-programming of any kind," Bernhoft noted in the midst of creating "Solidarity Breaks." "In a studio it's a little bit silly to tie oneself up too much. But I'm clearly focused on ensuring that this album offers a playfulness that also works on stage."
Although the early days of his solo career saw Bernhoft taking his entire band out on the road, he soon scaled back his live show and began hitting the stage with only his guitar and loop station in tow. "It just wasn't financially viable to bring a huge band with percussionists and a horn section on tour," he admits. "But at the same time I had qualms about going for the middle ground and turning it into that same old four-piece rock band everyone's seen a million times already." Wielding his loop station to weave in layers of harmony -- and showing off his formidable beatboxing skills along with his remarkable vocal range -- Bernhoft ends up creating a live experience that's both breathtakingly intricate and intensely warm in its simplicity. "Being alone onstage, the intimacy between me and the audience is so enhanced," he points out. "It's like I'm part of the gang, and we're all united."
For Bernhoft, that sense of unity is integral to his music as a whole. "In a way performing is this very self-centered thing fulfills a need in me to play in front of an audience as often as I can -- whether it's four of my friends in my living room, or an arena filled with thousands of people," he says. "But at its best there's something sort of altruistic about music. You have all these different types of people coming together and being pulled in the same direction and it's just beautiful. In those moments where I feel like I'm having that kind of an effect on the audience, it's really the best thing in the world."
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.