Fresh from a recording experience that not only reinvigorated Christel Alsos in the creativity department but also opened new avenues to the possibilities that exist, third album ‘Presence’ is certainly leaving its mark in more ways than one.
It is that one defining moment that truly reduces your entire soul to a quivering wreck and earmarks Christel Alsos’ latest effort ‘Presence’ as something of greatness. Without wishing to distract from the rest of the contents making up ‘Presence’, as this album has genuinely not left the FLW player since it was introduced barley two weeks ago, the beauty nestling in the middle of this compelling body of work is none other than ‘Found’. Never have I been so deeply moved by a song since Chris Thomson’s gravelled tones, backed by wondrous orchestral accompaniment, declaring: ‘The dream is over, long live the dream’ whilst staring deep into the abyss of departed love. In other words, whisper it, Miss Alsos has crafted three minutes of perfection bottled for posterity.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that the very song filling my head with so much sadness yet ballooning my heart with happiness was recorded in one session as the sincerity held in the vocal delivery is something to move mountains by.
“The song ‘Found’ on ‘Presence’ was the demo [version] and there is only one take,” explains Christel. “We kinda figured that I can’t do that again because if I do it again it will only be different (Thank goodness for that, FLW). A phrase that Tobias [Fröberg] often used during the recording was; ‘Sing with your heart and not with your head’ and that helped me to let go and not to over think things or overdo it. Tobias is a funny guy, whereas I can make things a bit too important or this is a big deal and the most important thing in my life. That was the great thing with him, as he reassured me in terms of my singing and to do what I’m good at.”
Without such wisdom from producer Tobias Fröberg, the previously mentioned ‘Found’ may not even had been written, let alone recorded, if Alsos had merely followed the same path as before. The problem which presents itself now, however, is that with such quality running throughout ‘Presence’ the bar of creativity has been raised and it will remain to be seen whether such a song as ‘Found’ can be topped in all its splendor; something of which is not lost on Christel Alsos.
“I remember reading something about Michael Stipe [REM] and how he found it extremely difficult when he started to write new songs because ‘Everybody Hurts’ kind of haunted him, in a way, whereby he questioned whether he’d write something as good as that song again,” comments Alsos on the difficulties of trying to compose the perfect pop number. “He said something like, ‘that song will never come again’ and that is, in my humble career, ‘Come On’ or ‘Come Back To Me’ from ‘Closing The Distance’ as I can’t write another like those songs. But then, when ‘Conquer’ came on ‘Presence’, I feel that way now because I can’t write another like that,” she finishes with a hint of frustration.
There is a more relaxed atmosphere about ‘Presence’, not to say that it’s any easier on the emotions, as the album exudes a more abrasive surface compared to previous works which, it transpires, is down to the recording practices Tobias Fröberg and Joachim Berg [Kent] brought to the table, but also a certain Bristol flavour to add to the ethereal qualities felt throughout and thus paving the way for a slightly more experimental approach. However, due to being something of a perfectionist, the past has not always been easy to let go of for Alsos when it came to recording new album ‘Presence’.
“That will always be [an issue] and what you have to struggle with due to being a perfectionist whereby you want everything to be as good as it can. If you do things too many times in terms of a line or word then you’re destroying it on the way if you over do it,” she explains regarding her approach to writing and recording. “I’ve learnt that this is what I managed to get out of myself during this time and period with ‘Presence’. I don’t know where I’m doing my next album, but maybe I’ll be even more open to exploring different directions because I noticed that I didn’t lose myself, and the music is still very much me even though Tobias brought down a few walls during it [recording]. That was because he said from the start that I was the boss and that I made the final call on everything. So, I really trusted [him] and that I knew that he had good taste!” she finishes laughing.
How would you describe your sound, therefore, in terms of your third album ‘Presence’?
“I feel that it is very textured and organic, and it is very classical in terms of its storytelling approach,” explains Christel. “This time, I explored the pop segment more due to the sound being more dirty or textured or kind of rougher and it felt comfortable doing the more pop-like songwriting. Previously, I have freaked out saying ‘love’ [laughs out loud] because I didn’t want it to be too commercial. So that didn’t even cross my mind this time, as it was just natural.”
It is interesting to note the trip-hop influence of Bristol’s Portishead, especially during the ghostlike delivery of ‘Remember It Now’ echoing the twisted tension Beth Gibbons often transmitted through contorted facial expressions and extended hand gestures, filtering in and out of the shadows of ‘Presence’ considering the time-lapse of this particular genre of music.
“It wasn’t something conscious and we didn’t have a discussion about it as it just came out of nowhere,” reflects Alsos on the trip-hop references. “We talked about every room, every house and every person getting different things out of you. When I came to Gotland, something fell into place within me, and I remember when we wrote ‘Remember It Now’ we made the demo, and it sounds like a cliché, but it was night-time and it was raining cats and dogs outside and you can even hear the rain on the demo tape and that reminds me a lot of Portishead. I started listening to Massive Attack from approximately 1999 – 2000 as I went from Hanson to Massive Attack!” she continues laughing loudly. “I feel more open now, whereas before I was very strict on using synths or any non-acoustic or organic instruments. I wanted everything to be something you could touch and feel. But now I feel more open to going into a ‘cooler’ and colder direction. So yes, I had listened to it [trip-hop] a lot and I guess, in a way, the sound on ‘Presence’ is very warm and vintage but maybe also on a cooler scale than before.”
As the discussion continues apace regarding Christel’s latest and greatest album to date, it becomes rather clear that the place itself – Gotland – and the aforementioned Swedish duo of producers/musicians really helped to transform the mindset and working methodologies Christel Alsos first brought to this project. It becomes clearer because there is constant reference to Gotland and the experiences felt during the writing and recording processes, which helped to provide new avenues for the looser atmosphere of ‘Presence’. But it remains to be seen whether Miss Alsos genuinely feels that she has moved on musically, and personally, since her previous albums.
“Yes, and I feel it has a lot to do with confidence and getting a little bit older and kind of finding peace in a way knowing that no one else has a big answer to things,” she replies thoughtfully. “For instance, with songwriting, I used to think that I was nervous and I didn’t want to write with anyone else that I didn’t know very well, but also because it was so personal. Also, by becoming a bit braver by gaining more experience from stage [performances] as for me it was scary going to Gotland all by myself and living there. I travelled from February to June to Gotland and the paradox is that doing something that I found difficult made the music easier. So it was a good experience. Before Gotland, I had worked with several others but I couldn’t put my finger on anything, but when I met Tobias and went to Gotland everything kind of clicked. When Tobias or Joachim commented that something was a great line that was very healthy for me to hear considering I hadn’t worked with them before.”
A change of scenery must work wonders as well in terms of gaining inspiration for your music?
“As a songwriter, I am constantly looking for interesting angles and interesting topics or what I think is important with a view to saying what something is about. I guess I have this golden take on songs because to me they are sacred in a way and I what I sing about has to be something important to me. I don’t want them [songs] to be about my view from my kitchen. So that is often something that sits deep inside, and songs about love and relationships in your life that really hits a nerve. So reading a book or watching a movie or listening to music that makes me stop and view the world from different perspectives. I think an important part of my job is to put myself into that mood. So it’s about getting into that [mood] and that is why Gotland was so good for me due to leaving the city and leaving everything I had worked with before and what I knew.”
It sounds like Gotland was a resounding success in terms of providing that key inspiration for your music?
“My two previous albums were recorded in the middle of the city and then I came to Gotland where there weren’t any neon signs or streetlights or cars or buses – it was this space and peace where there weren’t any distractions and even with the band, nobody looking at the time to catch a bus home. Everyone was there and we made dinner together and we listened to the recordings at night, and it was intense [she emphasises strongly here] and that made me go even deeper into the music. Even Tobias – who I wrote with and produced the album – saw me in a different light.”
The vulnerability that Christel Alsos speaks of can certainly be heard throughout her music and understood through the lyrics with the aching longing of ‘Always Hoping’ (‘Presence’) being a prime example with its ambiguous reference to “a person but also to a city” in the vain hope of something surviving from the wreckage of a relationship that in all likelihood was doomed from the very beginning. This, however, is Alsos’ forte as her work is littered with the kind of late-night tales of broken relationships and hapless figures desperately seeking salvation through another.
“I feel as a writer that I need to use myself as an instrument in a way, and my theory is that if it strikes a nerve and makes me feel something that it has to resonate with others as well, and that is what I want music to do. I want you to feel something and I want you to cry or get goose bumps. I want to reach out with my music. I always start an idea for myself, and this time I’ve also played around with ‘perspective’ in the sense that the ‘I’ person is not necessarily me, but everything is still something self-experienced.”
You sing a lot about broken relationships. Is this something that has been problematic for you personally?
“To me, it’s just what comes very natural to talk about as songs are what they’re made for in a way. You can’t get away from that. I guess I like to sing about those huge and important feelings that tear you up in a way. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m interested in why we connect so deep to it and how another person can mean so incredibly much. You know, we need each other and if you don’t have it, you want it. It’s the constant battle [emotionally] and that is so universal and so very strange.”
With current tour promoting latest album ‘Presence’ well underway, there remains a nagging doubt in the mind of Christel Alsos, one that is rather reminiscent of the longing often depicted in her songs, of unfulfilled desires as she explains:
“It is my all-time dream to tour the UK and USA. I have this feeling that there is an audience out there that doesn’t even know that they like my music. You know, I have this feeling that there has got to be more, and it’s a curiosity. I just feel that there is something more out there, outside of Norway, but that I haven’t found a way to reach them yet. So that is a dream to work on.”
Before ‘farewells’ are exchanged, there remains one last desire to fulfil on the wish list of Christel Alsos, which she is more than eager to share with FLW considering the rather fashionable trend for female artists gracing the UK music scene at present.
“My biggest dream right now, is to perform on the Graham Norton Show. I absolutely love him and the whole show. I think deep inside that’s what keeps me going as well, that curiosity and wanting more as I want my music to explode!” she concludes laughing.
I remember reading something about Michael Stipe [REM] and how he found it extremely difficult when he started to write new songs because ‘Everybody Hurts’ kind of haunted him, in a way, whereby he questioned whether he’d write something as good as that song again,”
FLW - From the Tapes
Christel Alsos offers Famous Last Words an insight into the relaxed atmosphere that helped create third outing ‘Presence’ by taking in a little bit of the Swedish traditions.
“We celebrated midsummer in Sweden because I went there for two weeks in June and the band were there. I kind of got into the 17th May as what that is in Norway is what midsummer is in Sweden. We went out picking flowers in the forest and it was beautiful weather as I had a break in the middle of those two weeks. Having this long table in the garden and there were other guests with a dog and a kid running around and it was, in a way, too good to be true. The band left after the first week, but I had the second week to do my vocal takes after that. We were all there together the entire time, and we could go for a walk or play football in the garden or whatever. But we were there, and there weren’t any of those ‘city’ distractions. I was so sad when I realised that this will never come again.”