Having received the honour of second place for ‘Western Harmonies’ in the FLW Top 20 Albums last year, Jonas Fjeld talked with FLW about his career to date and his love of bluegrass music.
The sky is grey overhead and the cold is biting as Famous Last Words (FLW) awaits the next locomotive to Drammen in Norway. With the city being a former competitor when it came to the industries of shipbuilding and timber, Drammen is now more recognized in its present state as a thriving metropolis of cafes, restaurants, live venues and regenerated public walkway along the Drammenselva River. In addition, Drammen continues to house the oldest operating brewery in Norway – Aass Brewery – right in the Port of Drammen, which no doubt proved attractive down the years to seafarers of old but also the various rock ‘n’ rollers frequenting the city during whistle-stop European tours.
Once boarded, the train proceeds to thunder down the track to the rhythm of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Trio via a more recent Lonesome Drifters ‘From The Backwoods’ before arriving at the designated destination to the authentic bluegrass and acoustic sounds of Jonas Fjeld and The Chatham County Line. It was fitting that once the wheels of the train had grinded to a halt and the final remnants of steam had wheezed their final breath at Drammen Central that Jonas Fjeld and The Chatham County boys’ stupendous ‘Western Harmonies’ – voted as FLWs’ second favourite album of 2013 – was filling the airwaves on the oh-so-modern iPod, because today is the day that FLW finally gets to meet the great man himself – Jonas Fjeld.
Having previously held views that ‘Western Harmonies’ was somewhat at odds with the northern landscape of Jonas Fjeld’s native homeland, any such reservations soon evaporated once taking a moment to glance back at the ‘railroad’ of the north set against the surviving and threadbare industrial works separated by the aforementioned Drammenselva. Such an impressive sight leaves a lasting impression of a city steeped in much history with the very first foundations being laid as depicted by the magnificent ‘Railroad’ from Jonas Fjeld’s latest album; only this railroad lies to the American West rather than anything lying to the north.
The inspiration for such songwriting, however, is definitely an amalgamation of two different countries and climates, but more notably a longstanding affection held by Jonas Fjeld for bluegrass and Americana music that helped create the songs for ‘Western Harmonies’. Add to this mix a friendship and working relationship with Nashville’s Chatham County Line, which has spawned two previous albums, then the connection stateside becomes perfectly clear.
Once FLW meets Jonas Fjeld, he proves to be a warm and friendly host who is just “taking a cold one [beer]” as a result of a gruelling trip back to his hometown after a lengthy delay at one of the domestic airports due to performing the night before at a charity function. In fact, even before the conversation takes full flight, such warmness extends to Jonas delving in to his personal collection of albums and pulling out a career retrospective, which he kindly bestows to FLW, as a means of providing a few examples of an altogether different career trajectory that was more offbeat and definitely a million miles away from the sounds of ‘Western Harmonies’.
With such a lengthy standing in the Norwegian music scene that has seen a catalogue of work stretching back to the 1970s, Jonas Fjeld has remained in a privileged position of being able to grow as an artist and produce the music which inspires him, but also one that has taken various guises as the aforementioned career retrospective album indicates. Not only is this becoming a rare state of affairs in the current industry climate when it comes to survival rate of new and upcoming artists, but it makes for fascinating listening because everything from a collision course of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart to a more mainstream rock sound before arriving at a predominantly bluegrass and Americana vision that has, in our humble opinion, ushered in Jonas Fjeld’s best work to date.
With Norwegian audiences being more familiar with Jonas Fjeld’s long and illustrious career, it is appropriate, therefore, to start at the very beginning in order to provide some background details to those less familiar, before getting to the crux of this discussion with current album ‘Western Harmonies’ and his work with Chatham County Line.
“That’s 42 years ago,” reflects Jonas Fjeld when quizzed by FLW regarding his first tentative steps in terms of songwriting and performing. “Our first record was in 1973 when we wore makeup and that was before KISS. So we were a little early on the comic rock ‘n’ roll! But that was a start, which ended briefly as that band lasted until ’79. The comical side of that band changed in 1976; as that side of the band went on to start another group called Prima Vera. In 1977, we met JJ Cale’s producer Audie Ashworth in Oslo and we asked if we could make a record in his studio, which he agreed to. So then we went to Nashville to record ‘Tennessee Tapes’, which was a big success. It’s a long story, but in total I have recorded three albums in the US before the band totally changed [again] and we recorded the album ‘Neck n’ Neck’, which won the Spellemannpriser – the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy – in the category of Rock. The next album [‘Time and Motion’] also won the Spellemannpriser, but then the band decided to quit and I went to Nashville and lived in the US for a year. Then I came back from the US and recorded my biggest hit with the song ‘Angels In The Snow’ from ‘Svært nok for meg’ in 1990.”
Did you ever perform in the UK during the early part of your career?
“We did a tour in England in ’77, and that was really nice,” comments Jonas.” We played Dingwalls in London and that was a big event [chuckles to himself] and we also went up to Manchester and played at Manchester University. We did two weeks in total.”
So the eccentricity that was Jonas Fjeld Rock n’ Rolf Band never made it to England?
“No, that was past Rock n’ Rolf Band and was after the album ‘Tennessee Tapes’, but I bet Rock n’ Rolf Band would’ve been more suitable in England with the makeup and everything!” he replies laughing.
Did you have any desires to move to the UK during this period, as you did with Nashville, to try your luck musically?
“Of course, but my ambitions [now] are on a different level due to having two children and I have a great life here,” replies Jonas before taking a sip of his beer. “I know that it would have gone well in England, but that process of having to get an agent and having to book [gigs] is more complicated than saying I want to go to England and play. Sorry to say, but it’s difficult as there are so many dogs on the bone and they don’t give a f***! If you find the right person who likes it and can book some gigs, then I’m easy to ask. My period of scratching doors like a dog are over, as I have done that and I can’t afford to start from the beginning once more.”
It must have been an altogether different music scene when you first started out to the one you’re confronted with now?
“I started playing in ’67 and that was before the PA system,” explains Jonas. “So just like The Beatles, all we had were amps and you couldn’t hear a f***ing thing in terms of what we were singing as the amps were so loud. I still remember when we got our very first PA in ’74, where you could mic the amps and the drums, and then finally we had monitors and you could hear what we were singing!”
Where did your love of bluegrass and country music come from?
“My dad had his [collection] of 78 records with artists such as Gene Autry and a lot of bluegrass, which I really loved. So he was really into that and I always liked it [as well]. There was a period during the 70s whereby country was not the thing that you should like as [there was this attitude] you couldn’t dare to say that you like country music.”
When you met Chatham County Line for the first time and started recording bluegrass, was this a learning curve for you at this point in time?
“I had been in living in Nashville for a year and so I was familiar with bluegrass,” explains Jonas. “I was not a pro, but I could hang in there easily. I did two albums with Rick Danko from The Band and Eric Andersen the folk singer as we had formed a trio and Chatham [County] loved this band, so that made it a little easier for them to say yes [to recording].”
Were there other reasons for recording bluegrass music at this point in time with Chatham County Line?
“Flipping the page to Chatham County Line was a desire for doing bluegrass the way it should be done with one mic and no cables to the guitars and therefore a live recording,” responds Jonas. “It was not meant to be a recording at all, but ended up that way due to annual concerts at Drammen Theatre during the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. So I did that every year with guests, and the desire was to let them hear bluegrass the right way. A lot of people played bluegrass but that was the fake version of bluegrass with cables [to the guitars].”
In terms of ‘Western Harmonies’ did you intend for it to be a mixture of bluegrass and acoustic-based songs?
“That was on purpose and we did talk a lot about it,” he responds without hesitation. “Some journalists got a little p*****off [due to such decisions], but it was on purpose that we chose to take a little step outside the bluegrass environment instead of repeating ourselves for the third time. This is what music should be about and maybe the reason why I am still in this business because I am making an effort not to repeat myself. People repeating themselves is [just] f****** boring! For example, going back to The Beatles, as they were the peak of my musical interest, there was a new angle with every single album they produced. I am heading towards the acoustic [sound] a lot, but I still do a lot of electric guitar on stage. I have an eight-piece band when I’m performing electric [sets] that includes a horn section. So we do a gig now and then with that band and that’s great, but I can still rock it…I’ve still got it!” he finishes laughing.
Where was the album ‘Western Harmonies’ recorded?
“It was recorded in Durham in North Carolina, and it took a week to record. There were some overdubs that were recorded here in my basement and some at Dave’s house [lead guitarist], as he also has a setup to record there.”
What are the reasons for performing some of the songs in English and some in Norwegian in relation to your current album ‘Western Harmonies’?
“A difficult question,” ponders Jonas before adding, “but the main reason for writing so many Norwegian lyrics is the fact that this [Norway] is the market for the record and is predominantly my market. However, some songs fit better with English lyrics such as ‘Railroad’ but mainly it is easier [to write] for this market in Norway. There is a DJ in Colorado [USA] who loves my music and especially the songs performed in Norwegian although he doesn’t understand s*** in terms of what I’m singing about [laughing]! But I didn’t understand s*** when The Beatles performed in English as it was just sounds and the voice was like an instrument. I started learning English pretty late whereas now school kids start in the first grade. I started school in ’59 and probably started learning English in the sixth grade and I didn’t know anything. We only had one TV channel as well, whereas nowadays kids [in Norway] are hearing English all over the place and they’re pros by the age of seven!”
When you write in English, does it take you longer to write these songs compared to the Norwegian compositions?
“I have never written lyrics,” is the surprising revelation. “I wish that I could, but I never got it [right]. In terms of music, that is easy to write as it comes fast [to me] whereas a lyric simply leaves me blank. So with both languages, I always use lyric writers.”
How does the songwriitng process work, therefore, with the Chatham County boys?
“I always write the music first and then structure this around the lyrics,” explains Jonas. “It works and it’s a process but it’s a learning process and it’s difficult as I write using an imaginary language, which is not a language, but it’s a language that bypasses the brain and it sounds more English than Norwegian. So that’s the language the lyric writers use for translating my thoughts, and then I’ve got to switch my brain to express what the actual lyrics are about [laughs]! There is a real process there, but that’s the disadvantage of not writing your own lyrics but at some point, I think I will release a record with the original language which is b******* but that’s going back to using the voice as an instrument instead of actually using words. The demos are often the best because the nerve of the demo is very rarely captured in the actual recording. From the musical aspect of it, the performance is a lot better especially in terms of the vocals.”
When you receive the lyrics such as for the song ‘Railroad’, do you sit down and take everything in to gain an understanding of what it is trying to say because your songs sound very convincing in the sense that you have actually written the lyrics?
“‘Railroad’ was easy because that was a perfect lyric to the music. That [song] is me and my friend Jim, who I talked about [off tape], living and running Hatch Show Print in Nashville (Check out their website because it is worth a visit, FLW) as it’s a duet between the two of us. As I said, however, that’s the job of this [songwriting process] switching the brain from my imaginary language to actually performing a story with passion that people believe in and what I am singing about. I spend a lot of time getting that right, and I’m a hard judge as I’m never satisfied. The best [scenario] is if I can sing it live as a lot of ‘Western Harmonies’ the vocal is overdubbed as we just played a track on the mic because the lyric wasn’t ready. It’s a longer process for me to get the English language under my skin, as I do spend a lot time trying to get the Norwegian lyrics to sound like my own.”
Do your lyricists provide ideas beforehand in terms of various topics you may wish to sing about?
“No, not really as I give the lyric writers freehand and free mind,” says Jonas. “The lyricists get the melody upfront with my phoney language and they’ve got to translate it. I like that [process] as they’re getting involved. For example, one of the girls from Bøygard [Jonas Fjeld and Chatham County Line produced the band’s album ‘Blågras På Skrindo’] wrote the lyric for ‘En gammel mann’ [‘Western Harmonies’] and it fits perfectly as she caught the atmosphere of the tune.”
Did you decide not to stay in Nashville permanently for the same reasons as to why you did not try and set up in the UK?
“Yes, but also for the reason that I didn’t have a work permit or a Green Card to stay there. Therefore, it was risky and I needed to earn money and the money was easier to earn in this country [Norway] than the US.”
Was the trip to Nashville a means of testing the water to see if it was possible to establish your music over there?
“I have friends [over there], especially one friend in particular who runs the previously mentioned print shop. So I worked there and had an apron [laughing] and got my hands dirty [hard work] so to speak.”
Was it music by night, therefore, in terms of performing at various bars and other live venues if you were working during the day?
“No, no, no,” answers Jonas. “I mainly scratched doors for songwriting in terms of publishers. I made a lot of friends, but it was an endless trip scratching on publishers’ doors. I mean…f***,” he tails off sounding weary at the memory of this experience.
So it was very difficult to try and make a name for yourself over in the States?
“Yeah, but I had tonnes of melodies but unfortunately I don’t write lyrics,” responds Jonas. “Eventually Anne Murray [country singer] recorded one of my tunes, so that was the actual reason for going to Nashville because if she recorded one of my tunes then at least I had something to put on the publisher’s table.”
Did you experience a lot of good bands in Nashville during your time there?
“There was a lot of excellent players in Nashville,” replies Jonas before continuing, “but what they call country music, I don’t like that too much as it’s very polished both lyrically and musically. However, it was a learning process and my best friend is still there running Hatch Show Print and is a big success making the posters the old way and that’s a part of the Country Music Association.”
In terms of your work with Chatham County Line, have you performed with them in the States or have the live performances mainly been in Norway?
“We have performed in the States before, and I will be performing with them again this year in Durham. The two gigs we have performed in the States, people really loved it and I can sing in Norwegian as well. With the first concert, that was not meant to result in an album as it was recorded by accident and more or less as a memory for me. However, listening back to the recording it sounded great, so that became the first album ‘Amerikabesøk’ [with Chatham County Line]. The record company [however] didn’t believe in it at all, so they [only] printed 5000 copies and it sold out immediately!”
Was the album reprinted on the back of this success?
“Yes, but again they lost a lot of sales because they needed to reprint the f***ing thing!” he replies sounded frustrated at the memory of this incident.
But did it take you by surprise that all 5000 copies of ‘Amerikabesøk’ sold out immediately as you said?
“Yeah, a little bit,” he replies after a lengthy pause. “The timing was right as there was a peak in interest, especially here in Norway, of bluegrass and therefore the timing was perfect, but purely accidental. It went really well and the tour was great and people loved the way we performed with one mic and no cables. So the path to the next record was easy, which we did in the States – ‘Brother of Song’ – and was recorded in different places including the old tracking studio RCA Studio B in Nashville. Having said that, and in terms of bluegrass, it is the search for a good room rather than a search for a good studio when it comes to capturing the right sound.”
Do you prefer to work alone or do you like a balance of working with other artists as well?
“I rarely perform alone anymore, not because I can’t do it, but more to do with the fact that it’s very boring to travel alone. So I always bring a second guitar player with me – my wife’s brother, who is an excellent guitar player, and that’s a hell of a good match. I love the way of performing with no cables in the guitar and playing on mics as the dynamics happen on stage and not on the soundboard, that’s the ultimate way of playing music. It all matters in terms of hearing each other without that f***ing monitor because it’s an ego-trip big-time! So the bluegrass way of performing is perfect.”
What is the next step musically for Jonas Fjeld?
“Well, I’ve got my pension to come later this year, which makes for more freedom as finally I get a regular wage!” he says laughing. “I will know what’s coming in here, as I will receive a firm income that will hopefully take care of my bills and that’s good enough for me. How the pension rules are now in Norway is great as you’re allowed to work and earn money.”
So can we expect a new album later this year if the finances are in place?
“Yeah, but not with the Chatham County guys as I am thinking about a different direction using the piano because I think that some of the best songs are made on the piano. So the idea is to make a piano album, but I need to start rehearsing again.”
Do you have a final word or phrase of the day?
“Skål, you’re damn right it’s cold!”
(All ‘Western Harmonies’ promo images courtesy of Tim Chumley)
This is what music should be about and maybe the reason why I am still in this business because I am making an effort not to repeat myself. People repeating themselves is [just] f****** boring!"
FLW - From the Tapes
Jonas Fjeld recounts an incident during the early stages of his career that mirrored David Bowie’s need for change when it came to reinventing the next stage on the musical ladder.
“Speaking of 40 years in this business, there are tonnes of stories that I could give you, but there is one in particular that I often remember due to it being a dramatic change.” considers Jonas. “The incident occurred during the 70s when we got so tired of the makeup and all that stuff and therefore decided that this had to stop. So we made a decision to climb to the top of one of the mountains in Norway and set up a fire consisting of all our stage clothes. In addition, we wrapped the set list around a firework rocket and fired it up to signal the end of this phase in our lives.”
Was this stage in your career greatly influenced by glam rock considering your use of makeup?
“No, this was pre-glam rock,” he continues. “It was great, and if you listen to some of the tracks from our first record you can hear the period where we gave up because we made a comedy record with the intention of it being so bad that nobody would buy it.”