Thomas Dybdahl Sings A Love Story To North America

In 2002, Norwegian singer-songwriter Thomas Dybdahl released …That Great October Sound to widespread acclaim, both critically and commercially. October Sound fit nicely with the end of the Jeff Buckley era and as an anti-dote to Dave Matthews Band-fueled college rock. Opening track “From Grace” had a new sound that wasn’t too left-of-center to alienate but was just fresh enough to attract a sizable fan-base. He had the appropriate level of sensitivity, self-deprecation and wit to withstand criticism but not be above it, and what continued to rise to the surface was his commanding hand at song-writing.

It’s been a decade since then, which has seen Dybdahl release quite a few more records and gain extensive notoriety in Scandanavia; however, despite writing songs in English, he’s still relatively unknown in North America. To counter this, in July Decca Records released a compilation album of his strongest work, simply titled Songs to try and break into the market, and this fall Dybdahl will support Tori Amos on her tour through the States and Canada.

Glide Magazine spoke with Dybdahl earlier this week as he rehearsed furiously for opening night in Atlanta, following an upset with his side man’s work visa, thereby prompting Dybdahl to play the first four shows solo. We discussed a wide range of topics, from the pleasures and frustrations with trying to break into the music industry in other parts of the world, despite having a substantial career already, and also spoke in-depth about the Tori Amos tour and his next record, out hopefully in 2012. And just a word to the wise– go and download Dybdahl’s Daytrotter session, recorded earlier this month. It’s an excellent introduction to his catalogue.

You’ve recently released a collection of your work spanning your five studio albums in the US, titled Songs, out on Decca Records. This is your first North American release, so how did you first connect with Decca Records?

It was actually through Larry Klein, who runs this sub-label called “Strange Cargo.” He just set up this label last year, and he was wondering what the first project should be for the label. He dug out this one song that a friend of his from Paris had sent him three or four years ago, which was my song called “A Love Story.” He’d fallen in love with the song, but he didn’t have any specific plans or anything, so he didn’t think much of it. But then when he set up his own label under Decca, that was the song he dug out and made him get in touch with me. We talked, and I think five days later he was in Oslo watching a live show that we were doing there. He saw the show, we talked and just sort of said, “Let’s do it! Let’s work together!” A chance happening, I guess, but there’s always so many weird things that have to happen before stuff like this comes to being.

Larry Klein is a huge name in the music industry– he’s worked with some really great performers, like Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock and Tracy Chapman. Did it make you nervous to hear that Larry Klein was pursuing you and was interested in your work?

Not really… maybe I should be nervous! (laughs) But I thought that he must be interested for a reason. Of all these things, it was important to see if we connected and had a good rapport. He’s a great guy and we had a fantastic time. Actually, the first thing that happened was the waitress at the restaurant we were at dumped a bowl of soup on top of him, so things go only go uphill from there! (laughs)

It is a bit weird, though, because these things tend to happen way down the line from when you’d expect. It turns out that this happened through an assistant to a photographer named Jean Baptiste Mondino, who is a well-known French photographer and film-maker. He’s done some Madonna videos and great shoots, especially his fashion photography. I did a shoot with him for a record called Science (2006), and he had had my music, and then gave it to his assistant… or producer or something… and then he got in touch with Larry, who then loved the song but put it in the back of his mind, and then four years late it came to fruition. The universe is a weird place, for sure. I was just so surprised he was listening to my stuff, but it was perfect timing because I’d just gotten out of this deal that I didn’t think was working at all. We got out of that deal about a week before Larry called, and so we were really lost thinking about how to proceed from that dissolution, and then he called and it seemed like a good fit.

You released a collection similar to Songs in the UK in 2010, titled Thomas Dybdahl, on Last Suppa Records, but that has a very different tracklist. What’s it been like to essentially curate these introductions to your work? They’re fairly cohesive compilations, but they are in fact just an overview. How did you approach the song selection for Songs, after having done this once before?

For Songs, I basically just asked Larry to choose the tracks that he thought would represent me best for a new audience, because really that’s what it is. I haven’t done much over here, so it’s fair to say I’m very unknown, which sometimes is a really good position to be in. You can try and attack it with some baggage– you have some knowledge because you’ve gone through a lot of this before– so, it’s sometimes very advantageous.

I asked Larry to choose the tracks, and when he presented me with his selection(s), we fought over a couple of the songs– he was adamant that he wanted this and I wanted that– but after we settled on the list, my job was to make it sound like a proper album. The tracklist, therefore, was really vital, and so I went into the studio with this all in my mind, debating whether it should be chronological or just make sense musically. I spent a good week trying to make it work as if it were an album to be listened to all the way through, from start to finish, which I’m not sure many people do, but it was important to me. I love the album format, because it becomes something more than just the songs. You can build this experience, to put it in a larger sense. I’m very pleased with the fact that vinyl is coming back, and the emphasis on that singular one song as being the only way to lure someone into your music maybe is ebbing, so I’m very excited by that.

I’m intrigued as to why you chose to not include any re-recorded versions of these songs– or at least some live and/or acoustic stripped down performances, because it’s clear that you have a well-known and well-loved live act behind you.

These days are so different for music consumption. Live music, and acoustic versions are going to be out there in the internet ether, because when you go out to promote an album, you’re playing radio shows, acoustic sessions, or something like this opening slot for Tori Amos’ tour, which is just me and a guitar. You do things like Daytrotter Sessions, which are going to be acoustic, so we just thought that the sound would definitely be out there.

The focus right now, obviously, is on a new album, which I’ve already started on, both writing and recording. For me, that’s more interesting than doing a compilation album, so that’s where my head should be, because it makes my career, both for myself and people listening, more interesting. So, next time I release an album, we can hopefully release it everywhere all at the same time and not have to do this bouncing back and forth between territories and countries.

It’s funny you bring up the Daytrotter Sessions in particular, because that’s one of the performances that I’ve found most compelling in discovering your work as of late. You played four songs for them: “Cecilia,” “A Love Story,” “Party Like It’s 1929” and “It’s Always Been You,” and they’re superb on their own, but especially as a complementary, and in some ways supplementary, form of your work, when taken next to this collection of Songs.

I was really pleased with the Daytrotter Sessions, because sometimes you come into a studio and you just sense right away that there’s a lot of magic and that the music is going to come out well. It was an old studio there with analogue equipment, no fussing about or over-thinking– just easy-going. It was early in the morning and I was tired like crazy, but it still felt great. I listened to that just a couple of days ago, because I couldn’t really remember what kind of versions I had played, but I was pretty pleased with that.

We were talking the other day about how something like that could be cool to sell at shows– like a 5-song acoustic package. Something special and different. Maybe we should do that!

You’ve just started a month-long tour as the opening act for Tori Amos in North America. Are you going solo?

Well, it’s a bit complicated. It was supposed to be a two-man venture, but we ran into visa problems. It’s not easy to come here and work– they make it quite hard to get through. So, basically I’m doing solo shows until this guy can get this visa and come over, which actually should be by next week– so I’ll play four or five solo shows and then have him on stage with me. He’ll be playing some lap steel and auto harp– stuff like that.

But you’ve probably rehearsed these songs for two people, so how’s it going to be on your own?

Well, you’re catching me in my hotel room rehearsing like crazy, for that exact reason. (laughs).

What sort of material will you be bringing on the road for the tour? Will you be debuting any new songs, or mostly sticking to what’s on this Decca Records compilation?

I’m going to try and do a little bit of both. When you play acoustically, with just vocals and a guitar, so much of the performance depends on the room you’re in. Some rooms scream for a particular kind of song, timbre or way of singing, but so many of the venues we’ll be in for the Tori Amos tour are theaters– proper rooms made for music– so it’s not all a bunch of rock clubs, which are often not the perfect kind of settings for this type of show.

I’m rehearsing a lot of different things and thinking that whatever feels right I’ll do. One goal is to try and play a new song every night, because I’m writing a lot, so it’d be nice to try out a new challenge for each show.

Is that ever intimidating for you, as both a writer and a performer, since the material is so raw and new? Maybe because you’re, as you said, fairly unknown in the US, everything is new and different, so it isn’t that difficult.

The people coming out for these shows are really going to see Tori, and I’m sort of a bonus act. I’m sure 99% of them haven’t heard my music anyways, so it doesn’t really matter. As long as I put on a good performance and faithfully showcase my voice and the songs, I don’t know if it matters if I play older or newer stuff. I think it’s more about how I come across and set a vibe for the room.

Can you tell me anything about this new record you’re working on? What can we expect from you in 2012 with this project?

Well, I am doing a lot on autoharp right now, as well as the Omnichord and Qchord. They’re really cool instruments, and I’m loving working with them. But, really all I know about this next project is that I’m not even close to 100% sure about what I’m doing. That’s the one thing I know! (laughs) Right now, it just feels really good and it feels like I’m getting to a point where I want to be musically and production-wise, and those two things are very inter-connected anyway, because if you’re not a purist songwriter who feels that everything is down to the song and the structure– I’m not like that. I’m more about the sound that I like and going for that, because that can almost be a song in and of itself! So I don’t see them as separate. It all has to sort of fit before I can feel good about it.

I can’t really say much about how it’s going to be arranged, but I’m working out of a 3 meter x 3 meter room in my house, and the thought is that I’m going to try and make the album there, for as long as I can at least, and then hopefully Larry and I will work on it together at some point. And I’ll be in Los Angeles for all of February next year– that’s just to write and do pre-production, so there will be a bit of travel, too.

Who are some artists these days who are really inspiring you? Are there any you’d specifically like to collaborate with?

It’s weird for me right now, because I’m focusing so much on the new album that I’m not really listening to that much other music that’s out there. I think that’s pretty natural, because once I feel like I’m where I should be then that’s what I want to focus on. But there are a few records that are still lingering that I can’t really get over, like Dirty Projector’s Bitte Orca — I thought that was brilliant, and I loved the sound on it. The last Gillian Welch– The Harrow and The Harvest— I just fell in love with that one. Beach House’s Teen Dream was unbelievable as well.

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