Man O’ Songs

Waiting for the tide to come in, ORBO is ready to set sail for the next venture armed with a new EP and full-length player due later this year.

History is a recurring theme for double Spellemann’s prize winner ORBO – real name Ole Reinert Berg-Olsen – as the life and times of this west coast rock ‘n’ roller has been inflected by past events whether of a political or cultural nature which, in turn, has paved the way for the moments of inspired creativity and the phenomenal return of seven albums in ten years.

Whether it’s historical events regarding the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll from the late 1940s to the 1960s having an impact on the music of ORBO, due to incorporating a number of references relating to these past creativities in his own musings, or more tragic circumstances as a result of various political decisions playing their part whether directly or indirectly, history appears to be an important topic for Ole Reinert and his creative outpourings.

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The subject of history is about to repeat itself for ORBO as the recently released EP ‘Man O’ War’ confirms by means of a modernist painter’s depiction of Napoleon Bonaparte gracing the cover art and the actual subject of the former French leader being at the centre of the title track.

With a meeting arranged in the more modernist surrounds of a swanky hotel in the heart of Oslo, ORBO, or for the purposes of this interview Ole Reinert greets Famous Last Words (FLW) with a cheery smile and a brief discussion about various influences in terms of his music ranging from 50s rock ‘n’ roll, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and, more surprisingly, Del Amitri; more of which later.

The first topic of discussion, however, also lends itself to history as the birthplace of Ole Reinert is not too far from the hometown of historic composer Edvard Grieg who, inadvertently, played a major role in the first tentative steps of Ole Reinert becoming a singer-songwriter as he decided to capitalise on this fortuitous opportunity.

“I grew up in a place called Troldhaugen which is where the composer Edward Grieg has his house in Bergen,” comments Ole Reinert. “Lots of tourists from countries such as Japan and America go there nearly every summer and we figured that we could make some money by going down there and playing guitar. I was six years old when I started playing [guitar] and we’d earn approximately 3000kr during the summer with three of us playing. We had a flute, ukulele and drums. This was good fun and we made money, as well as it being a starting point in terms of getting into music. I have always had bands from when I was at school, with some people getting lost along the way and others I would keep performing with. The guys I play with now, the piano player Reidar [Opdal] I have been performing with since I was sixteen and he was thirteen. So we’ve been sticking together since then, as well as the drummer Magnus [Skylstad] on and off. Later on, I met British singer-songwriter Claudia Scott after a suggestion from a radio producer in Bergen that she should produce an album with me. So we did and ended up in Nashville and that was the first album called ‘Seven’, which was produced ten years ago.”

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With that first recording – ‘Seven’ – occurring ten years ago, the music of Ole Reinert has often included elements of alt-country with shards of rock ‘n’ roll and alternating between his native Norwegian and the more universal English language.

For the latest addition to the ORBO catalogue of work, ‘Man O’ War’ is the first recording in three years that makes use of the English language since the album ‘Prairie Sun’ (2010).  Such a decision to revert back to singing in English, after a considerable absence, was specifically to appeal to an international audience once again, but also to help transmit international subject matter consisting of the aforementioned Napoleon Bonaparte as Ole Reinert explains.

“[With the latest EP] I have kept it in English because it’s easier to spread the music as we have people listening in Australia, England, Japan and we have been touring a lot in the States, so obviously it has to be English. Having said that, I really wanted to do a Norwegian album, which I did last year, and that was really fun to do. Now, I’m ready with this [EP], and it just occurred to me that the last album was in 2010 when we made use of the English language. So much has happened in my private life since then, as the same year I had a daughter and now I have a son, so in that period my whole life – the rock ‘n’ roll life [laughing] – has evolved into this by becoming a father with two kids. When I look back at 2010, things were different then, and it was just a few years ago and now the next album is ready, so time passes fast like everyone knows [laughing loudly].”

Do you feel that your songwriting has evolved greatly since the first album ‘Seven’?

“The songwriting has definitely matured and become more defined in terms of subconsciously creating your own profile and how you write and how your songs are built up,” explains Ole Reinert. “My songs are very familiar to me whereas other songs that I hear, I sometimes fail to grasp how they are built up or what the writer was thinking when he [or she] produced it. So during the years, I have specialised in my own way of doing it that works for me. I remember when we did the first album because we had seven days in which to do it, and I remember trying real hard to play and not play the wrong chords or sing the wrong words and therefore I was really focused. Now, I do almost everything in one take; we can hear a song and then just play it and that will be it. It sounds easy, but there is so much work behind it and being able to do it.”

Despite your years of experience and with the songwriting becoming an easier process, do you have moments where you struggle to write new material?

“Yeah, sometimes I still struggle as some songs just won’t go anywhere,” says Ole honestly. “But more songs come together now, and you kind of work with it as if it’s a living thing. All of the songs are different, however, and you don’t really know the secret to songwriting. I think if you think too hard about it in terms of why or how, then you could lose it [inspiration] and you can’t do it anymore. So I try not to think too much on how songs are made or how the whole thing works because you want to keep the magic without analysing too much as well.”

How does it work in terms of the songwriting as you have a band with The Longshots as well as working solo with the new EP ‘Man O’ War’?

“Most of the time it’s been The Longshots plus me,” replies Ole. “Two years ago, I built a studio and the songs on the current EP, and on the upcoming album, I recorded between other projects and with other people dropping by. So it’s kind of created itself, and all of a sudden I have twenty songs that I want to release. The album will probably contain fifteen songs, which is a lot of music. I put the band together for this project, as these are the people who have been playing on these particular songs, but the piano player is from The Longshots and the drummer is a former ‘Longshots member as well, so it’s basically the same thing with a few pieces missing.”

Despite a few missing parts concerning Ole Reinert’s longstanding cohorts, ‘Man O’ War’ shows no sign of incompetency when it comes to the musicianship because the entire works is bristling with confidence and energy. In fact, the pursuit of the solo route was the correct decision with ‘Man O’ War’, as the majority of its contents are of a personal nature with such songs as ‘Deadlock’ and ‘Time To Move On’ filled to the brim with sensitive emotions, as well as containing passionate interests (‘Man O’ War’) regarding one particular period in history – the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).

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“A couple of the songs are very personal to me,” considers Ole before continuing, “but then they could also make it personal to someone else listening to them as well. The title track is about Napoleon because I have read so many books about him and been fascinated by his history – you know, the crazy French [laughing]! The thing that struck me about Napoleon was how badly he was treated by the British when he was sent in exile until his death. He was really mistreated like a dog and the British made a point of doing it all. The funny thing about all of this, is that it still seems to me that the British and the French still have a certain [amount] of tension. It’s how history makes its footprints.”

History appears to play an important role in your life and your music would you agree?

“I think it’s so important combining history with modern times because sometimes you feel that the younger generations do not pay enough attention to it,” replies Ole passionately. “For example, it’s very similar in terms of how World War I came about and what’s happening with Russia and the Ukraine – it’s scary! So when I was thinking about this thing with Napoleon and how he was treated and possibly how he felt, because I imagined that he must have had so much dignity and that must have hurt him [to be mistreated], but [I think] he must still have been feeling powerful regardless. There are a lot of stories about him, but I think one of the cool ones refers to how driving on the right side came about. Everyone was on the left side when there were no cars and horses were used because you mount the horse with your left foot and take your right foot over. But then Napoleon was hurt in battle and he hurt his left foot and had to mount his horse from the other side and so he changed directions. So his whole Empire did the same thing, apart from Britain and his [other] enemy Sweden.”

Who was responsible for the artwork gracing the front cover of the ‘Man O War’ EP?

“The front cover is a painting by a Spanish artist called Pedro Delso, which I have a print of at home. I was fortunate to have met him once in Spain, as he was one of Picasso’s former students. Delso painted this great painting of Napoleon that is called ‘Yo’ which means ‘I’. The painting itself is an image of self-centration and is full of machismo as that’s kind of the way he saw it. I decided to telephone the family of Pedro Delso and I spoke with his wife – who is actually Norwegian and living in Spain – and she was thrilled about me wanting to use the painting and gave permission to use it right away for the front cover of the EP.”

The interpretation of Napoleon has the appearance of modern art would you agree?

“Yes it does,” is the immediate reply. “Pedro Delso invented Triangulism whereas Picasso was responsible for Cubism. You can see from Napoleon’s hat that it was triangular. The cool thing about Napoleon was his vulnerability, the way he had his hand under here [visually demonstrates Napoleon’s trademark pose with one hand tucked inside his uniform] because he had a stomach problem. When he died, he had an enormous liver or something like that, and that’s why he held his hand in that position. So he was a very powerful, macho guy with an Achilles heel and that became his brave image yet it was his vulnerable spot as well.”

The personal nature of the entire ‘Man O’ War’ EP also extended to the choice of recording studio, which just happened to be located in the coastal town of Os (Bergen) and home to Ole Reinert. By setting up a studio within touching distance helped to add a relaxed atmosphere when it came to laying down all twenty tracks for both current EP and forthcoming long player, so much so that the idyllic lifestyle Ole Reinert was leading, at this point in time, almost brought a sense of guilt, especially when thinking about the other side of the fence in terms of occupations consisting of general office duties, finance or other similar types of work.

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“I have been fortunate enough and privileged enough that I’ve been able to work as a musician for many years and doing fine,” says Ole Reinert. “When I added the studio to it, I wanted to put in some free time as well. So I bought a boat and I remember during that period that I would go out on the boat and fish for lobster and then return and go to the studio and record. So it was just the perfect week and provided harmony in the brain and the body [laughing]! Some of the days during the recording sessions, I found myself thinking about people working in offices and the usual grey days that go with that. Therefore, I feel incredibly lucky that I am able to work with what I love, especially when I’m able to go out on the boat as well and there are little patches of blue sky and you’re feeling the weather. I had a friend of mine in the boat during one of those days and she said, ‘I’m just glad that people don’t know how good a life we’re living right now because they would become very sad if they knew’. So the EP was recorded in that way – fishing and lobster for lunch and recording later on, with a gig at the end of the week.”

With such an idyllic way of life, it must have been difficult at times to maintain concentration and complete the recordings for ‘Man O’ War’ and the new album due later this year?

“We set a release date, which is the smartest thing that you could do because then you have to finish it!” explains Ole Reinert laughing. “Once I had that, the recording of all twenty tracks went very quickly, and then I mixed it and sent it to Nashville for mastering.”

Have you always produced your own records or worked with other producers as well?

“No I haven’t, not on my stuff. It’s not because I don’t want to, but I feel that I haven’t met the right companion for such a thing. The thing with [using] a producer is much a part of the big, industrial commercial music thing because you often have an artist who can sing but doesn’t write songs and you need a producer to put the song to the artist and put a sound to it. So I never felt the need for a producer because I feel that when I have written a song I know how it should be and I’ve liked the results so far.”

Do you have a title for the album or is it still a working progress?

“Still working on it,” replies Ole. “There is a song called ‘Safe and Sound’, which is the opposite of ‘Man O War’ and so it might be that, but I will have to wait and see.”

Is there a hint of irony in that possible title for the next album considering the uncertainty regarding various different issues happening currently throughout the world?

“Well, I think from the beginning of the EP to the conclusion of the next album, it will be war on one end and a safe haven at the other. It’s not something that I’m pretentiously making up; it’s just how the songs have been and how it’s made itself. So the EP and the album will have a start and a finish because, in my way of thinking, they’re a combined product which makes a whole story. But we will see when it’s finished as there’s still some work to do on the album and some lobsters to catch [laughing]!”

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It’s not surprising that Ole Reinert describes the ORBO sound as, “handmade and organic west coast rock ‘n’ roll” considering his attention to detail and independent control of all creative and production duties. The scenic surroundings of his hometown also play their part and give way to the American roots influence whether incorporating a country edge or harder rock sound, only this sound is based on the west coast of Norway rather than any specific location in the United States of America.

“It’s a mix between the European and American rock ‘n’ roll music,” suggests Ole Reinert once the subject of the ORBO sound comes into focus. “Kind of like the British invasion [music on USA] and the American influence with Elvis and Tom Petty and all the blues and rock ‘n’ roll from the States and rock ‘n’ roll from Britain and Europe blending together. In addition, I am a very big fan of Del Amitri because I feel that we’re kind of doing the same thing sound wise, as it’s got elements of British rock and American roots music. I love Justin Currie [vocals/songwriter, Del Amitri] for his songwriting and his voice.”

With Del Amitri coming as a complete surprise, FLW offers a recommendation to Ole Reinert that all three of Justin Currie’s solo albums are worth their weight in gold.

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“It’s a little depressing as well or a little dark to rephrase,” responds Ole Reinert fully aware of Currie’s solo albums.

A dour Scotsman at times, maybe, but there is a lot of dry humour present as well responds FLW.

“He kind of reminds me, when I have seen him in interviews, of a little bit of the Monty Python bizarre way of thinking – not to be funny, but that kind of black humour. I was on the same record label as him in the United States – Compass Records – and I have always wanted to meet him, but only in the right setting as you don’t want to be one of those annoying people. I read a recent interview with him and he was asked about writing lyrics and he mentioned that it was easy and something that he just does without thinking about it. I think he’s got that kind of [creative] mind. I am of the same opinion too, but some songs just stop and won’t go anywhere and some songs just write themselves. I wrote a song in two minutes once, and the song lasted for three minutes [laughing]! So it can be done.”

One song to be included when the full-length album is ready later this year certainly lasted longer than the duration of three minutes when it came to the actual recording. Reasons why this particular song titled, ‘Riding The Waves’ proved something of a bugbear to write was due to the sensitivity of the subject matter as it concerns the grandparents of Ole Reinert and a particular horrific period in their history as well as the rest of the world during this time that still resonates today.

“One of the songs that will be on the new album is called ‘Riding The Waves’, as I finally wrote a song about an ordeal my grandparents experienced,” begins the Norwegian songsmith regarding the personal content of this difficult song.  “To explain, my sister has this silver plate with the engraving of the coastline of Norway and the coastline of Shetland. There is a route marked [out] with Nazi swastikas, submarines and warships that were in the area. This was the route my grandparents travelled when they fled from Bergen to Shetland in 1943. It was in March that year and my grandmother was pregnant, but they [grandparents] went out in fishing boats and just kept going. There were four people on board their boat and they experienced problems with the engine stalling and stormy weather. The journey was supposed to take three days, but it actually took them a week and they were always close to the Nazi submarines and warships and planes, so it was really hostile territory, but they weren’t spotted and they made it to Shetland. However, it turned out that they had a Swedish waiter on board from a hotel in Bergen and he was a Nazi spy. So when they got to Shetland they were all arrested because someone had picked up on that. My grandparents were put in a prison in London and my grandmother actually gave birth in the prison during the bombings of London as well. They were in the prison in London for six weeks until they were cleared by the Norwegian government because they were working for the Foreign Ministry in London for Norway, so they were cleared and the Swedish spy was killed. I have heard the story a number of times but not all of the details. It just seems so far from anything, as I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to do that [journey] and navigating by the stars because everything was lost due to stormy weather and they just made it to the north part of Shetland and could have easily gone past it and that would have meant the Atlantic! So different times, but it will be a nice song to release once the album is ready.”

With a couple of the tracks from ‘Man O’ War’ to be included on the new album “as I feel it wants it and I want to make the album very complete and therefore some of the pieces should be there”, Ole Reinert is steadying himself for a busy autumn that will include several live dates in Norway as well as hopeful dates overseas with the UK and possibly the States. If the good ship ORBO manages to reach American shores once more, as Ole Reinert has ventured to the US on several occasions previously, one thing is for certain that the Norwegian singer-songwriter from the west coast of Norway remains grounded when it comes to any suggestion of instant gratification in relation to success stateside.

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“I think that if you want to do that now, you’ve gotta do it like the two Ylvis guys, who I went to school with and they’re friends of mine, with ‘The Fox’ song because then you can deal with other things in terms of finance,” explains Ole Reinert. “I don’t know if America’s breakable anymore because it’s too commercial. For example, Garth Brooks [country singer] makes these deals with Walmart and he sold 500,000 copies the week before his album was released! That’s how big Garth Brooks is in America and to be part of anything remotely like that, you have to be a commercial and industrial thing for sale, and that’s just not happening [for me] as you can’t do that with a rock ‘n’ roll band. So you won’t get another Springsteen or Tom Petty or Johnny Cash in my opinion, or even if there is they won’t be as big. So as far as breaking America, it has been fun going there but I’ve never thought about breaking America as it’s never really entered my mind. One thing that I have always thought about is that I want to play this music to people. If that happens here or in the States, then that’s the same thing, as it’s extremely enjoyable to play and meet new cultures through music.”

FLW - From the Tapes

Two particular tales regarding recording and the presence of something croaky, as well as meeting one of your idols, unfurled from the top deck of the ORBO Man O’ War when Famous Last Words (FLW) met Ole Reinert.

Tale number one:

“I remember one thing when we recorded at Prairie Sun Studio, which Tom Waits has been using for years, and it is a turkey and chicken farm with one of the barns that has been rebuilt into this recording studio. Between takes, we kept hearing this sound, and it was a really weird sound. We couldn’t figure out what it was and when we listened back, sure enough it was on the tracks. It was right where we did the vocals and was on every vocal track that we had done and all the guitar tracks, but almost to the point where you couldn’t hear it as it was only when you listened to one of the tracks at a time that you could hear it. We still couldn’t figure out what it was and we investigated it for several days to try and get rid of it. In the end, it turned out to be a frog! There was this little frog in the studio between the wall and the floor. It was really loud as every time we made a sound the frog did as well. So we decided to keep it [the sound on the album] as you can’t hear it unless you listen to one track at a time. So the whole album is full of frogs now!”

FLW - From the Tapes

Two particular tales regarding recording and the presence of something croaky, as well as meeting one of your idols, unfurled from the top deck of the ORBO Man O’ War when Famous Last Words (FLW) met Ole Reinert.

Tale number two:

“I remember we did a song with Delbert McClinton because to me he holds this iconic status, especially with his song ‘Hey Baby’. Even John Lennon asked him if he could teach him how to play harmonica as The Beatles had been opening up for him as well back in their day. I was going to do this song with him, this old Chuck Berry inspired rock ‘n’ roll song I had written. We were in this studio in Nashville and when he arrived I thought he was going to be in this big Cadillac with long horns and grill or whatever, but he turned up in the tiniest Smart electric car and five minutes before our scheduled meet! When Delbert was in the studio, he was singing to get a feel for the track and it was just crazy to hear that iconic voice. We did the song and it was very cool. I added a small change to the lyrics as well because the lyric was ‘Little Queen baby’ in the chorus and he kept saying ‘Little Queenie’. So I started thinking that there is a Chuck Berry song called ‘Little Queenie’ and for that reason I asked him to sing ‘Little Queen baby’ and not ‘Little Queenie’. Delbert responded by mentioning that he liked ‘Little queenie’ better [laughing], which I decided to go with. He asked me if I was afraid of getting sued and I mentioned that you’ll never know what Chuck Berry will do [laughing]. He replied, ‘If Chuck Berry sues you or this song, all he wants is money, so just give him some’ [laughing]. It was a fantastic response and Chuck hasn’t sued yet [laughing]! But it was very cool to work with McClinton and nice to work with someone who has worked with so many things over the years and touching a part of that golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. Also, it was [interesting to hear] his take on meeting The Beatles in Hamburg as he was blasé about it  – ‘Yeah, just four kids [dressed] in leather’ – so he was really cool and funny as we think of The Beatles as legends whereas he kind of brings you back down to earth. I think he’s a very cool guy, and it was really nice of him to come and sing a duet with a Norwegian band and he didn’t even want any money for his work either!”

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