Noise Boy journeys across the desert to hear Hanne Hukkelberg
It's 4:30 on a windy Friday afternoon, and I've driven nearly 400 miles across the desert to see a musician no one I know has ever heard of.
Norwegian artist Hanne Hukkelberg is performing the final gig on her first-ever U.S. tour at Hollywood's Hotel Café, and I'm doing my best impersonation of a California driver by weaving carelessly in and out of Interstate 10's jam-packed lanes. Why? Because Hukkelberg is, by far, my favorite musical find of the past four years, and I'm eager to arrive at the club on time.
Like most of my new music interests, I discovered Hukkelberg on the Internet. I spend a majority of my music-listening time streaming live and archived audio from all over the globe because Internet-only stations or traditional radio channels that stream online are the best way to find new music. Some of my favorite channels include the jazz-heavy WKCR at Columbia University, as well as the all-rock format of Radio Free Phoenix, based here in town.
I heard Hukkelberg for the first time in 2004, on L.A.-based station KCRW's stream. During that day's broadcast, host Nic Harcourt played "Cast Anchor" from Hukkelberg's debut, Little Things. Her voice was one of the most winsome and calming I'd ever heard. The lyrics, sung in flawless English, made the syrupy sweet melodies even more potent. As I dropped what I was doing to listen closely, I heard cultivated sounds such as clinking glass bottles, kitchen utensils, and dripping water swelling in and around her dreamy ode to the sea. It was so damned charming and beautiful that I've been obsessed with her music ever since.
Later, I pulled up the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" archived playlist and listened to "Cast Anchor" probably eight times in a row. I also found one other tune from Little Things complete with tuba growls, Theremin howls, bass clarinet groans, and background vocal swirls. The nautical songs, with their cathartic vocal modulations and mysterious vortices of sound, reminded me just a smidgen of quirky Icelandic song princess Björk. However, Hukkelberg's non-flashy, genre-bending approach was distinctly her own. Listening to her music reminded me of being in love, and that woozy feeling one gets when the person we've fallen for loves us back.
But when I searched online for more information about Hukkelberg, I couldn't find much of anything. There weren't any titles available at amazon.com, the only reviews were on Norwegian Web sites, and even my Bible for music information, All Music Guide, didn't have an in-depth description. Here was a case in which the Internet wasn't the ultimate bridge we like to think it is.
Crawling along the congested L.A. freeways with my eyes locked on the yellowish remains of a dead bug on the windshield, I start to wonder if enduring this stressful six-hour drive to see Hukkelberg perform is worth the hassle. I'm missing out on a super-fun (and cheaper) house party back home and I've already spent about $100 on fuel. (It's people like me who are contributing to skyrocketing oil costs.) I think my girlfriend — a working musician herself who forfeited a night's pay to come along — is having second thoughts, too, though she doesn't directly say so.
Around 6:30 p.m. (about 30 minutes before showtime), we're finally walking down an alley to the entrance of Hollywood's Hotel Café, which, by alley standards, is actually pretty pristine (no graffiti tags or broken glass, and not one speck of trash). There aren't any presale tickets, so I'm nervously hoping that we can get in. Thankfully, when we round the corner of the building, I see that there's no line.
Once inside the dimly lit club, which is decked out in '70s lounge décor, I grab a table feet away from the stage with my girlfriend and three of my L.A. friends. Soon after, the band takes the stage and launches into "Berlin," the first tune on Hukkelberg's latest album, Rykestraße 68, which won a Norwegian Grammy in 2006.
Immediately, Hukkelberg's talent and command of the music strikes me. Her singing is so polished, rich, and organic that I wouldn't have believed her voice could sound better live than on her records. She's charmingly shy with the audience (I think she even blushed at one point during applause). And her band — an all-Norwegian five-piece that includes the play-everything instrumentalist and singer Line Horntveth — show zero signs of tour fatigue as they vigorously jam out.
Because the group isn't the headlining act, they perform for only 45 minutes. But what an amazing time it is. The set includes two of my favorite songs from Rykestraße 68, "Cheater's Armoury," a tune filled with sparse-to-populated rock grooves and lyrics chronicling unfaithful lovers, and the best Pixies cover I've ever heard, a dark and unearthly reimagining of "Break My Body" (check out the studio versions of these two songs on the "Up on the Sun" blog.
By show's end, my concert companions and I are 100 percent impressed. We all heart Hukkelberg.
As my newly indoctrinated friends buy CDs and T-shirts, I want to tell Hukkelberg how much I love her music but worry about sounding too much like a gushing fan. I end up chickening out and heading over to the merch table.
A few weeks after the show, I was still determined to find out more about this ridiculously underappreciated artist, so I called Hukkelberg in Norway (nine-hour time difference from Phoenix), where she's living alone for six months in a village of 200 people to compose music for her third album. I was most interested to find out how she seamlessly weaves everyday sounds — such as the city noises of Berlin (where Hukkelberg lived for six months to compose music for Rykestraße 68), rhythmic typewriter, and a purring cat — into the already stunning songs that she writes.
"I've always been interested in sounds. My brother is a sound engineer and my parents are musicians, so we've always been talking about sound and music. When I met my producer [Kåre Christoffer Vestrheim], we just experimented with sounds," Hukkelberg tells me from her temporary home in Skaland, which is located in the always-cold Troms region of Berg, where mammoth mountains dip directly into the sea. "Often, finding sounds was a coincidence. I maybe brought a glass of water while recording in the studio and it made a noise on the glass and he would say, 'Oh, wow, that's cool. Let's use it.' It happened with more things, and we did it with more purpose. After a while, we used all of the sounds in our way."
Hukkelberg grew up listening to classical music, sang in a doom-metal band called Funeral during high school, and studied jazz at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. Despite this diverse background and eclectic approach to making music, the songwriting magic doesn't happen just anywhere, according to Hukkelberg. "When I compose, I need to get away from my regular life because I really need to dig into myself and to hear my inner voice a bit clearer. It's difficult to hear what I really want to express when I have the everyday life around me," says Hukkelberg, who also contributed a gorgeous piano/vocal ballad to The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian soundtrack. "I often go somewhere else to compose music because other thoughts come to me. It's not always very comfortable, but it makes me write better music, I think."
However Hukkelberg crafts her wondrous music, I can't wait to hear more. And I'd drive or fly just about anywhere to see her perform again.
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