Life has never been sweeter for Norwegian indie artist Petter Carlsen once Plan A had to be discarded, and Plan B came into effect.
Coming from a remote settlement in the farthest reaches of north Norway has not proved a burden in terms of the career trajectory of Petter Carlsen. In fact, the harsher living conditions where the temperature often resides below sub-zero during the winter months has likely added to the steely determination already evident in this Norwegian singer-songwriter, who went from major label recording artist to self-financing, and now signed to indie record label Function Records.
Many a recording artist would have thrown in the towel many years ago once the last pay cheque had been cashed, and an amicable severing of the ties had been reached with one’s former employer, but not Petter Carlsen.
After the critical success of debut album ‘You Go Bird’ in 2009 which, unfortunately, did not reach the same degree of success in terms of sales figures, Petter Carlsen found himself at that critical juncture when approaching his record label armed with fresh demos for his second solo album. As mentioned, the plug was pulled from his major label deal, and without a moments hesitation the decision was made to continue this musical journey no matter the costs.
Two years later, sophomore album ‘Clocks Don’t Count’ finally surfaced and was greeted with much critical acclaim, which also extended to various publications throughout Europe and the UK. Buoyed by the continued critical acclaim, which no doubt tasted even sweeter after ploughing a chunk of his own savings into this second solo venture, additional support soon arrived via the previously mentioned Function Records who agreed to promote the record in Europe, and thus a solid footing for the recording career of Petter Carlsen was truly back on track.
By working to what appears from the outside a three-year plan, another solo record made itself known in 2014 by the name of ‘Sirens’, which produced a hat-trick of victories on the critical front as music critics in Norway deemed it a success. But for Petter Carlsen, the writing and recording process for this third long player proved a tough test, and one that he set himself if serious progression was to be made rather than repeating the same formula for ‘Clocks Don’t Count’. As said, the steely determination to succeed was already present and therefore completing the task in hand was never in doubt, only this time the hurdles to cross were raised significantly in order to reach the end goal.
“It was a different process with ‘Sirens’,” admits Petter Carlsen to Famous Last Words (FLW). “I didn’t have as much ready as I did with the two previous albums, and I started to doubt whether the material that I had was strong enough. But I had set a deadline for myself, and I wanted to make something that was good. For the first time, however, I was a bit afraid that maybe it wasn’t good enough, but it was my producer who assured me that I was definitely on to something, and together we kind of worked on it where we wrote some extra parts after I had presented it to him. So it was a different process for me as there was more song writing in the studio.”
Petter Carlsen’s ‘Sirens’ was recorded at Cederberg Studios and Skogen Studios with producer Wetle Holte, and co-produced and mixed by Christer Andre Cederberg. Furthermore, both producers doubled up as true team players by applying their musicianship via drums, percussion, bass and guitar. The additional help was certainly appreciated by Petter Carlsen who looks back on this third instalment in his recording career as his biggest challenge yet.
“In one way, yeah, the album was a challenge. That wasn’t because of an inner struggle,” he goes on to confirm, “but in the sense that it was challenging because of the different way of working. When you have done two albums, the third one is harder to make because it’s more difficult to be satisfied with the material. The reason for that was probably because I did twenty songs before that, and you have to find new ways and different approaches [to working], and I think we did. However, I don’t remember the recording experience as seriously difficult because I think my producer prevented that, but I could’ve easily gone that way if it had been someone else [laughs]! When we sat down together, we always solved any problems in terms of the recording process.”
Going back to your debut album ‘You Go Bird’, do you see much of a musical difference in terms of your current album ‘Sirens’?
“Both yes and no I guess,” Petter replies. “I’ve become a much better guitar player since then, and also a much better singer. The reason for that is because I have toured a lot with Anathema [alternative-rock band], and I have played a lot of gigs here in Norway. When you do 10,000 hours of something, then you start to get a hold of it. I felt that I had gained a greater sense of security, and it was much easier to do what I wanted to do live. Maybe in terms of song writing, I feel that there is development there, but at the same time I feel that the first album was really a personal one as it was written in the aftermath of my father’s passing. I guess it was a strong album in terms of the songs, and it hits a nerve in some people, or at least many people have said that to me. I guess that’s why music is so interesting because it’s so hard to tell what’s good and not so good.”
Alongside his status as an independent recording artist, Anathema has perhaps been the next significant aspect in the career of Petter Carlsen. This particular friendship developed from Carlsen’s deep admiration for the alternative-rock band from Liverpool, and a copy of his first ever recording being sent their way which struck a chord with Anathema, who decided to invite the Norwegian indie artist on tour with them.
“Anathema was really important for me when I discovered that I wanted to be a musician. They opened up my eyes and mind a bit where I could see that you could play rock music, but it could be more melodic. I met the main songwriter in the band, Daniel Cavanagh, in Oslo and I gave him my first release, ‘A Taste of What’s To Come’, which was the EP that came out in 2006. I didn’t expect him to answer me, but he did after a couple of months and he mentioned that he loved one of the songs, ‘Pull The Brakes’ from the EP. So that was the start of our friendship, and I invited him north to Alta to see the Northern Lights as he said that he would like to see it. He’s infatuated with Oslo and Norway. He used to do a lot of solo shows in addition to Anathema touring. We did a little tour of Norway with us sharing the stage as well.”
Can you remember what it was like when you first went out on tour with Anathema?
“There are a lot of clear memories on the tour bus with Anathema when we played together. We played something like seventy shows in seventeen countries in Europe in 2010 and at the beginning of 2011. They’re one of my favourite bands, and it was a bit absurd to sit on the bus with them having a beer and going to the next city after a show. I remember saying to Vincent Cavanagh, the singer in the band, ‘This is the best days of my life, and the best thing that has ever happened to me!’ and he became all serious and looked me in the face for a long time and said, ‘You really need to get out more!’ [laughing]. So that was one of those moments that you never forget. I guess that’s the most important thing that’s happened in my career to go on tour with them. They were very generous to me, and introduced me to the audience before every show, and they basically told their fans to check out my music because it was something they would probably like. So it was a flying start for me every night when coming on that stage, and I’m very grateful for that!”
With Petter Carlsen’s music picking up comparisons with the aforementioned Anathema in addition to a variety of indie pop and rock bands with Radiohead being one particular reference and, for our penny’s worth, Alex Lloyd and his debut album, ‘Black The Sun’. But how does Petter Carlsen view his music in terms of influences and his sound?
“You can go back north regarding my influences, as a lot of them come from there in terms of the nature and the isolation in some way I guess,” says Petter. “For example, a lot of the lyrics are inspired by close friends and family, so that’s a lot of where the influences come from. In terms of other artists and music, it’s very diverse from heavy metal to classical music. When it comes to describing my own sound, I would say that it’s a bit atmospheric, and a bit melancholic and a little bit of a dreamy sound, but it’s difficult to answer really [laughs]! I play a lot with the guitar, and I’m always trying to find new voicing. I think the way I play guitar determines how a song is going to sound.”
Do you mean like a second voice to you?
“I think so, yeah. The fact that I’m not theoretically [trained] and therefore just experimenting by always trying to find a nice way to play the guitar and new chords and so on.”
Referring to an earlier point you mentioned regarding your lyrics, are they often written from a personal perspective?
“I guess that they are,” Petter answers. “Most of the songs in relation to ‘Sirens’ are about love, especially in the beginning when boy meets girl. The songs are also about the fear [of relationships] in the sense that this is going to hell and this could never last. So, I think the title track [‘Sirens’] is a favourite of mine, and also the song ‘Never Leave Me’, which is a song that I wrote after I had met this woman, and I can remember writing it sitting in a cabin, and it’s very clear in terms of the memories. I would like to add, however, that the ‘boy meets girl’ topic isn’t an underlying theme throughout my work because that’s far from the truth as I like to comment on a variety of different issues.”
Is it quite difficult to write in that way, in the sense that you don’t want to give too much away?
“I don’t feel that I give too much away,” he answers before adding, “but I think most people can relate to it. I write in that way because it’s the easiest way for me to write. It’s just something that comes naturally to me, and if I feel that it’s not too awkward and I feel it’s good, then I go for it.”
With 2016 barely a few weeks old, Petter Carlsen has already been active with a recent live date just outside of Oslo, but more notably for the album release from another project he is involved with called Pil & Bue. By producing an album rich in sonic experimentation with co-founder Aleksander Kostopoulos, all of which runs to a remarkable six-tracks in length, Petter Carlsen is showing signs of developing a serious creative momentum; a suggestion that is further supported by his admission that, “I’m also recording a new solo album, which is going to be finished this year,” leaving the major record label days a long and distant memory right now.
“Regarding the major label stuff, of course, financially, it was a very good thing because I had nothing [at the time],” recollects Petter. “I had recorded one EP and then suddenly I had an advance! I didn’t have to pay for the studio with ‘You Go Bird’, but I was smart enough to put some money aside because I predicted that it may become an outcome that I wasn’t doing the next album on EMI. I knew that the focus was on having a hit single and so on. At the end of the day, it was red numbers at the bottom of the page, and the London office [EMI] said that they couldn’t continue with this guy. I also presented the demos for my new album to them, and they said that they couldn’t hear a single hit there either. So we shook hands and [it was] thanks for the cooperation. But it was never an option to just stop [writing and recording] as I was already hooked. I think that it was an advantage in terms of myself because I had already released the EP back in 2006 on my own label, Friskt Pust Records, so I knew that I was able to be my own record label as well. Therefore, the fall from EMI wasn’t that hard because I also knew that this might be the outcome. In fact, it was one that I turned into something positive where I had a bit of a breakthrough with ‘You Go Bird’, and it was a good foundation to build on.”
There is no doubt that the initial disappointment with EMI has been transformed into a positive experience as two solo records later, and a double offering with the above mentioned Pil & Bue, Petter Carlsen has progressed immensely as an independent recording artist, and one with a large and loyal following behind him. Despite all the recent success, does Petter Carlsen hold any aspirations of being signed to a major record label again?
“No, I don’t aspire to that,” replies Petter firmly. “You know, if an offer comes along then of course I will always think about it, but in many ways it’s better to have control over your own music and to own your own masters. Every time that you’re out playing gigs, people will stream your music and eventually it comes back to you, so it becomes a bit safer to go on. I can depend on myself, and I know that I want to work for myself and make a living. Also, for the sake of the music, it’s free because I can do just as I want and that’s the way that it should be. I don’t look at it as yesterday’s news and stuff because I still feel that new people are discovering my music and it gets passed on by word of mouth. I don’t think that people think about that in the same way as the industry, you know? I try to be as independent as possible because it is possible to reach out directly to your fans as you don’t necessarily need the music business to help you at all.”
The album ‘Sirens’ is available on Function Records
(Photography courtesy of Øystein Hermstad and Mirjam Bosch)
"In one way, yeah, the album was a challenge. That wasn't because of an inner struggle, but in the sense that it was challenging because of the different way of working."
FLW - From the Tapes
The whole song writing process started for Petter Carlsen back in his hometown of Alta, Norway.
“To go way back to the beginning, I started playing guitar because some of my friends started playing guitar in Alta, and they introduced me to Metallica and that was the way in. Then I started playing the guitar and I immediately started writing songs with a drummer in Alta, and we made this heavy rock band called Burger Heads [laughs]. How it turned into this very different genre in the end I’m not sure, but I think it was because I wasn’t able to find the band that I wanted to play in, if you know what I mean? I didn’t find the right group of people, I guess, to create this rock band that I wanted to set up from the beginning. So that turned into me sitting alone on my bed and writing songs, and that’s how my solo project started.”