Rather than wheeling out the hits to celebrate 50 years in the music industry, Ottar Johansen sets his sights on a new beginning with ‘Big Hand – 50 Years On The Road’
To celebrate fifty years in the music business Norwegian country legend, Ottar ‘Big Hand’ Johansen decided upon a more proactive approach to appreciate this major landmark in his career. When most other artists are likely to be content with a ‘Best of…’ album to provide a retrospective of their careers after a similar length of time in the business, Ottar Johansen decided to take a more active stance by writing a whole new batch of songs rather than relying on his reliable back catalogue of material.
By taking this more arduous route, Ottar Johansen has ended up with a ten-track album that acknowledges his past, but is also enthusiastic about the present and what the future may bring.
From its opening song, ‘Starting All Over Again’, the desire to start afresh was greatly evident from the man at the centre of ‘Big Hand – 50 Years On The Road’; the album which is currently winning over the critics and reminding fans of what Ottar Johansen still has to offer.
The truth of the matter is that a whole new long player, as opposed to a collection of hit songs, was always on the agenda for this Norwegian singer-songwriter when considering the strong work ethic Ottar Johansen has held his entire working life in order to get to the position of where he finds himself now. The road to this success as a recording artist has been achieved by undoubted musical talent, but also hard graft that has seen Ottar Johansen work in numerous positions; one of which matched one of his idols, Elvis Presley, with a stint as a truck driver before the former and latter artists made the bigtime.
“I’ve always had that drive in me that I’ve always wanted to succeed in what I was doing,” explains Ottar Johansen to Famous Last Words (FLW). “I was raised on a very small farm by the sea, and mostly you had to take care of yourself. As a result of this, your confidence begins to grow. However, to live off being a confident musician in Norway was not an easy choice. I have been working hard and hard work is always good. I’ve been doing this for about fifty years. I’ve also been a label manager for RCA Records, as well as working outside of this industry where I’ve also driven a truck just like Elvis Presley [laughing]! So I did everything that I could to survive, you know? I have been fortunate though, as I’ve had a lot of success in terms of my music.”
In addition to all of the hard work being integral to the success experienced by Ottar Johansen, the country musician also admits to being “A little stubborn”, but understands that such an attitude has performed an important role as he explains: “You have to be like that, to go for something like this [work as a musician] and try to make a living, which is something special”.
It’s this very respect that he holds for his career and awareness of the privileged position that he finds himself in, to still be working as recording artist, that also played its part in the longevity of Ottar Johansen’s career, which began in earnest fifty odd years ago when guitar pop was all the rage.
“I moved from the north of Norway down to Oslo,” starts Ottar Johansen regarding the early stages of his musical career. “I had a band and we tried to get a record contract. We were really going for it, in the sense of trying to be a new pop band and a really famous pop band and to get a recording contract. So that was the whole thing [back then], and after a while we did get to record. However, there was a band in Oslo during this time called Country Snakes and they sort of headhunted me [laughs briefly still sounding surprised at the memory of this incident]. So that was my first record in 1970.”
Was it around this time that you’re interest in travelling to America and trying to make a name for yourself in the States occurred?
“We ended up producing a few more records in Norway before my first trip to Nashville in 1978. I’ve been there almost every year since that first trip because I fell in love with the whole culture of singer-songwriters, producers, recording studios and the whole music environment of Nashville.”
This love for Nashville seems to have rubbed off on half of the inhabitants of Norway because there is a real affection for country music in this particular part of Scandinavia. So much so that you have the likes of hugely successful country artists such as Brad Paisley setting out special compilation albums dedicated to the fans of Norway with titles such as ‘Norwegian Favourites’, which goes someway to explaining the fervour held in Norway for this genre of music. Perhaps Ottar Johansen can shed some light on why there is such a strong connection between Norway and country music?
“My belief is that the Norwegian sailors who ventured to certain parts of America, such as New Orleans, that they picked up records from the 50s and 60s and brought them back to Norway. It’s from this that people have appeared to have adopted country music. Maybe this is also through movies and stuff like that, but you have to understand that there was only one radio station in Norway, and that was NRK. When I first arrived in the States, there was a lot more radio stations that played country music twenty-four seven and that was a big, big difference. These days we are lucky as one song can be played once a week, which is fine, but in order to get a hit [record] you need to be played much more than that.”
Ottar Johansen’s early visits to America led to him gaining considerable recognition from country fans overseas, but it also earned him much recognition from some of the big names in the business including George Jones, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
“I opened several shows for them,” responds Ottar. “Johnny Cash wasn’t that big in the ’80s, but he became bigger and bigger the older he got. He did something else as well by moving away from those records with a lot of instruments and horns and stuff like that. He went back to his roots of just him and his guitar and the piano. It was very lowdown and he started recording kind of rock songs in his style, and he got a new audience. If you like his singing, George Jones was the best. I was fortunate to play in the UK and he invited me to sit with him afterwards where even his band was not allowed to sit at his table! The reason for this was that he thought that they played too loud on stage [laughing]!”
It was interesting to read that George Jones, outside of his country music, dismissed his rockabilly recordings of the 50s.
“Before they started Sun Records in Memphis, there had been the Hank Williams style of singing [mimics Hank Williams] with very sparse instruments – they didn’t use drums at this time – but the singer was the boss and carried [the song]. The first time Johnny Cash performed at the Ryman Auditorium, the manager said, ‘No drums in here boy!’ and he [Cash] was so mad you know? A lot of those bands were trios as well when they started touring, such as Carl Perkins and those guys in the ’50s. I would have loved to have been in the ’50s when Elvis and those guys recorded those first songs.”
From such experiences Ottar Johansen has built up his music and reputation, which brings us back to his latest album ‘Big Hand – 50 Years On The Road’ because such experiences are greatly interconnected to the musical influences and narratives making up this record. In fact, one only has to gaze at the titles to gain an insight of the history behind these songs with ‘Just Like In The 50’s’, ‘The Outlaws’, ‘Gods Own Sailor’ and ‘Honky Tonks We’ve Known’ the most visible. There is one other aspect to consider regarding these songs, however, and that is whether they are a reaction to times lost and the present environment Ottar Johansen now finds himself in where country music has traded jackets from its traditional roots to something more modern.
“If you look at country music now, with its type of pop country that is on the American country radio where they don’t play Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard and they call it Americana! If that’s regarded as Americana, then I’m Americana too [laughing] because that’s what I’m like! Then again, younger musicians such as Jamey Johnson I admire because I think he’s taken that approach from the outlaws and taken it a step further. There are many more artists that have done that as well of course. You wouldn’t exactly call Taylor Swift an Americana artist, for example, as country has gone pop.”
Do you see that as a good thing or a bad thing?
“It’s difficult because I’ve seen it happen [the transformation of country music],” comments Ottar. “I’d rather listen to a bluegrass record rather than a so-called pop-country record. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but it’s something else you know? I guess it’s a lot of younger people that love it. Also, lyric wise, you can’t get played on an American country radio station if you don’t have a few words in the lyrics that contain ‘dance’, ‘bars on a Friday night’, ‘pickup trucks’ and so on, and that’s in every song! There was some journalist in America who compared number one songs from the last year and they all had the same theme and were all about the same thing [laughing in unison], and that’s really something! I think that’s why the Americana genre is the most growing in our kind of music today because more and more artists don’t want to do that and be in that pop – country grouping. Everything is formatted today, it wasn’t before, but I don’t like the formats much.”
Ottar Johansen’s vast experience is noted in such songs as the aforementioned ‘The Outlaws’, which is an accumulation of various creative thoughts but also part tribute to two of his heroes – Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson – “I called it [originally] ‘Waylon and Willie’ but changed it to ‘The Outlaws'”. In addition it’s the song’s ability to enthral the senses with its charismatic storytelling and evoke memories of a traditional country sound, and it’s this experience which seems to lend itself to country music rather well and one of the reasons why Ottar Johansen demands so much respect.
“When I play a singer-songwriter festival of some description in the States or the Bluebird Café, Nashville, you have to design your songs in relation to the audience. For example, the order of the songs is important as the American public is not all about jumping around and all that. Therefore, the set list is important because they really like to listen. So you’ve got to find those songs from the bottom of your pocket [laughing]! In other words songs that have good lyrics because that’s what country audiences like.”
By supporting several of country music’s legends and performing regularly overseas and in his native Norway as mentioned, the vast experience built up by Ottar Johansen over the years has enabled him to write ten new compositions for ‘Big Hand – 50 Years On The Road’ due to the high number of stories to tell, but also it has allowed for an open working environment where other musicians have been asked to partake on the album due to the international outlook on life acquired by Ottar Johansen as well.
How did the collaborations come about with the artists featured on your latest album?
“It came about because I had been working with the majority of these people throughout the years,” says Ottar. “Also, a couple of bands, Too Far Gone, which is a really famous Norwegian band, and a new band called Sugarfoot, who are great guys and I gave them a couple of the songs and allowed them to arrange these songs like they would if they had been their own songs, so that’s been very exciting.”
With the whole recording process for ‘Big Hand – 50 Years On The Road’ being an open experience, did this create any problems due to the possibility of too many ideas bounding about between the musicians?
“You’ve just got to keep up with it you know? There’s a lot of thinking going on, and you shouldn’t have to do that when you’re getting old [laughing]! Joking aside, it’s been ok, but we’ve just had to keep it together. I am quite experienced as a recording artist, so I was able to add my experience to the whole process. Bjørn Nilsen [producer] has been a great help there as well. For example, he’s been very productive and thorough in terms of picking up on what we had done the week before. We worked in another recording studio as well with a lovely guy called Knut Hem, who also helped to produce the album.”
Did you come up with any other names for the album title or was it always going to be, ‘Big Hand – 50 Years On The Road’?
“It was the co-producer and guitar player, Bjørn Nilsen, who asked me earlier last year what I had in mind for a title for my anniversary album. It had been fifty years, so I thought that maybe it should be called ’50 Years On The Road’. Another title that was considered was ‘Starting All Over Again’ in the sense of, let’s do it all over again. The irony was that when he was at home [Bjørn Nilsen], he started writing on that song, ‘Starting All Over Again’. So that was the first song for the album and what is now the [first] single from the record.”
Did the actual songs for this new album come together quite quickly once the song writing process was underway?
“I had to put my mind to what I wanted to do in terms of writing new material because I wanted the album to consist of new songs and not like a ‘Best Of…’ album. However, we struggled with a couple of songs that we did up in Trondheim. One of the songs – ‘Son Of The Mountain’ – but that was more of a technical problem as we took all of the files from that particular studio and into Knut’s studio in Sarpsborg and it didn’t quite come out the way that we heard it [laughing]! We had to send it back and then get something new, but it came out ok in the end. Another song, ‘It Took You Away’ that I recorded in Nashville with the basic recordings of bass and the guitars and it’s actually like a demo, but it’s a very nice song and kind of a little Roy Orbison feeling to that song. We wanted to get this song right, so we worked very hard on this track. I think we produced fifteen mixes of this track before finally finding the album version. It can take a long time, as you have to work at it to get what you want.”
Do you have a favourite track from the album?
“I think the first single as we talked a lot about that in terms of whether it should be like a radio single or whatever,” considers Ottar. “Of course we make music for the fans, but mostly it’s like an ego-trip as you’re making songs that you think are good with the lyrics as well. So this song, ‘Starting All Over Again’, I think is a wonderful song and probably my favourite along with two or three others. The video for this song, I really love as well. It has a lot of stuff from before with old pictures and old performances and somehow we’ve managed to capture some of those moments.”
Do you see this song as a celebration of your life then?
“Yeah, it’s just like in the old days but I really like the idea of starting again as well, despite it being fifty years.”
Very interesting artwork for ‘Big Hand – 50 Years On The Road’ as the car you’re standing in front of has the appearance of a toy model car. Care to elaborate?
“I have always been crazy about American cars,” replies Ottar enthusiastically. “This was not my car, but it is a Thunderbird ’57 and I just loved the [idea] of that imagery because I thought it would have a nice flow through to the backside of the album sleeve. The photographer is Bjørn Memby, a good friend of mine and he’s a music fan and loves what he’s doing. One night we were at a concert in Oslo, and suddenly this car came out and stood just outside the front of the venue where we were. I remember Bjørn saying, ‘Wow!’ and I said, ‘Wow! Look at that!’ and he was insistent that we take a picture. That was last summer. With the album title having ’50 Years On The Road’ and therefore something to do with the road, we decided to try that photo and work with it and the response has been positive from others. I’m really happy with the way it came out.”
Considering your passion for vintage American cars and taking into account your song from your latest album, ‘Just like In The 50s’, would you like to travel back to this particular era?
“I’m not sure about that,” replies Ottar Johansen before continuing, “but it’s [‘Just Like In The 50s’] more like a dream, in the sense of something you saw at the movies like a James Dean movie and stuff like that. For some reason those films became really popular and there’s a lot people who like them, so there must be something that people long for in relation to the 50s. On a personal level, I lived in the ’50s and I had a really good childhood where I used to go fishing for example, so there’s probably something in me [looking back with fondness at this particular decade]. It was the cars as well though, with the 50s – 60s American cars and the actual design of them, which was unique. But I think the song has a lot to do with movies, and I wouldn’t want to be back in the ’50s as we didn’t have TV [laughing]!”
What’s next for Ottar Johansen?
“The first thing now is to promote the album with some gigs. Later, I will be going to Spain to do some concerts at the Norwegian Seamen churches, and then it’s back here before going out to the States where I will play at the Bluebird Café, as well as going down to Alabama in mid-November for one of the song writing festivals.”
Can you explain more about the gigs in Spain because that is new to FLW?
“Norway is a huge sailing nation and that’s why we have these seamen churches in almost every harbour round the world. For example, there’s a seamen’s church in Miami and Houston and in Spain and London as well. They’re everywhere as a place for a Norwegian seaman to go and talk to a priest or have a cup of coffee and meet others.”
Meeting others and continuing his musical journey is something that Ottar Johansen is right on course to do with a number of live dates taking in various countries and a strong desire to maintain the song writing momentum now that ‘Big Hand – 50 Years On The Road’ has received such a positive reaction. Clearly, ‘Big Hand’ is back and raring to go when it comes to the next instalment of his career.
I've always had that drive in me that I've always wanted to succeed in what I was doing."
Ottar 'Big Hand' Johansen
FLW - From the Tapes
With a truckload of memories having been on the road as a touring musician, Ottar Johansen provided a brief anecdote the day when the band’s tour rider was nowhere to be seen, but they still managed to get through their gig despite having empty stomachs. (Note: Sorry to anyone who was left empty-handed at this particular petrol station in Norway hoping to buy a hotdog after Ottar ‘Big Hand’ Johansen had been in town!)
“It’s a bad one, but not that bad. We drove down from Trondheim to a gig further down south in Norway. We didn’t get any food the whole day, but we did the gig no problem. I remember afterwards that I was feeling so hungry and that we ended up at a fuel station at two o’clock in the morning. I ended up eating twenty-two pølser i brød – hotdogs – and that has to be a world record! Don’t ask about the two days after though [laughing]!”