It is difficult to even begin to describe how severely coronavirus has impacted countless industries around the world. Right now, the music business, especially the live sector, is suffering greatly. Musicians who make any portion of their living on the road are taking a huge hit. Feeling the struggle, perhaps more than anyone, are international artists attempting to gain traction in America.
Malin Pettersen is a musician and singer-songwriter with a long and successful track record in her home country, Norway. Early in her career, the Oslo native helped form and sang lead vocals for the popular country-rock band Lucky Lips, releasing a string of stellar albums with the group throughout the 2010s, performing on Eurovision Song Contest and at Nashville’s AmericanaFest along the way. She developed strong ties in Music City and towards the end of the decade, embarked on a solo career with the hopes of finding more success in the states.
After a full-length release in 2018 and a mini-EP in 2019, for Pettersen, this year figured to be a big one. Her sophomore effort, Wildhorse, got slated for October. Prior, she was to play SXSW and tour the album around the country over the summer. Then it happened.
When coronavirus forced the U.S. into a nationwide shutdown in mid-March, Pettersen and every other touring musician’s 2020 plans went out the window. Initially stuck in Nashville during the first stretch of the stay-at-home order, after finally returning to Oslo, Pettersen, along with the rest of the world, bunkered up and braced for the unknown.
As the magnitude of the virus revealed itself over the next several weeks, any sensible person posed the question: what now?
With her album scheduled for an October release, Pettersen and her team decided to stick with their original plan. Finding ways to connect with new audiences in the U.S. remains a large obstacle, but when I asked her why she chose to go with her gut and follow her initial strategy, her answer was simple. “I feel like we need new music,” she says encouragingly. “Personally, I need something work and focus on to not go crazy.”
In her circumstance, it’s not hard to see why Pettersen doubled down. For one, she has a few months to build up some steam to her release, with or without concerts. Second, she’s right about the importance of new music during such a weird and oddly uneventful time. Lastly, and most importantly, her new album is incredible. For Pettersen, Wildhorse not only marks a major step forward in artistry, it represents a life of hard work and sharpening her craft and a musical heritage that runs deep within her blood and where she is from.
Norway’s country music scene has thrived for multiple generations, Pettersen’s being the latest to carry the torch. Her father, a country musician who performed in numerous local bands, started bringing her to his shows at an early age. Eventually, she was on stage playing with him.
“It’s a very supportive community and it’s big enough that it’s not just like two people trying to get ahead,” she says. “It’s getting bigger too. I feel really fortunate to know a lot of the people who kind of paved the way for this kind of music, like my dad and the people he plays with.”
On her new album, Pettersen’s Oslo roots meet her Nashville sensibilities to cook up a dazzling slice of modern Americana. The album signals a return back to the full-band sound of her first LP while still maintaining a gentle and intimate feel. The songs are soft and sensual, the music unabashedly rootsy and overwhelmingly serene.
Wildhorse is officially out October 16. Until then, though she is not physically in the United States, Malin Pettersen is here mentally and emotionally, chasing and working towards her dream.
Riffs & Rhymes Editor Roberto Johnson spoke with Malin Pettersen about the challenges of connecting with fans during quarantine, crossing over into the American market, Norway’s bustling country scene and more. Check out their conversation below.
You’re an international artist trying to build an audience in America, yet right now, you can’t travel to the U.S. or play shows here. I’m sure it’s been a difficult process. How have you been dealing with that?
Malin: It has been stressful. People have always told me, “You have to have a presence there, you have to be there.” I’ve always used social media to try to connect with songwriters I really like or other musicians and I am fortunate to have friends in Nashville and Austin who do music. So I’m trying to use the skill set I’ve learned, still trying to get to know people over there and connect with people in the business. Right now, all we have is the internet, which is a weird place to be. I normally try to have a presence there but I also try to distance myself a little bit from having that matter so much.
You’ve played your fair share of live streams over the past couple of months. How would you rate that experience?
Malin: I really like listening to and watching other people do them. I don’t feel like I’m doing such a good job when I’m doing them (laughs). I wish that I could see the people who are watching. But I do like them. I just hope I’m doing enough on my end.
How did the lockdown affect you in a creative sense? Are you writing more or have you been focused on your family and non-music related things?
Malin: In the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can write so many songs now. This is going to be amazing.’ Then I found myself not really picking up the guitar to write but instead, picking it up to play songs that I’ve been listening to forever that I haven’t had a chance to actually sit down and learn how to play.
It has been nice to take time off with the family. I can make food for my kids and not have to hurry them to finish their meal. I think it would have been a lot harder if I was the only one who couldn’t play shows and couldn’t leave the house. You don’t have to worry about trying to get cool gigs because there are no gigs. You can just relax. At some point, I will be playing shows and touring the album. I’m trying to keep some of that calmness when the world slowly starts up again, because it’s something I’ve definitely been missing.
The pandemic has affected a lot of people in dramatic ways but it sounds like you’ve been able to get some positives out of this time period both personally and creatively.
Malin: Yeah. It was a roller coaster in the beginning. Luckily we have a great community of musicians that are very open with each other about stuff like this. So I’ve been able to talk to colleagues and know that other people are feeling the same thing. There’s really nothing we can do. Let’s just, you know, get the sleep we haven’t been getting. We’re also very fortunate here (in Norway) to have financial support from the government that helps us pay rent and not go under.
Roots music has a long and rich history where you’re from. What’s the country scene like in Norway?
Malin: We’ve had a baseline of country music for many decades. This is like the third wave of roots and Americana-inspired music. We have the generation before us still producing music, touring and releasing albums. We also have the newer generation with people around my age. I think I started in a bluegrass band when I was 20. We thought that we were the only ones doing it. Then maybe a decade ago, probably even before, there was suddenly a booming of newer bluegrass, country-rock and more honky-tonk stuff coming up. I remember being at festivals and seeing other bands on stage who were our age and realizing, ‘There are other people playing this kind of music.’ Now I hear about new bands all the time. It’s not just artists that are in it for fun but who really take it seriously and make a career out of it. I think that that makes the overall quality better. Die With Your Boots On started out as a country-DJ collective at Revolver, one of the hippest bars in Oslo. They had young people around my age dancing to country songs, everything from Gram Parsons to Shania Twain. They’ve been really important, at least in Oslo, and they’ve given people a place to play.
I wanted it to sound warm and gold. That’s the feeling that I get when I think of California.
Your parents’ musical backgrounds certainly shaped your tastes and the style of music you like to play. In what ways did their love for music influence you the most?
Malin: My dad, I mean, he’s obviously inspired me in the ways of what I listened to. I remember being a kid in the car and he would play Dwight Yoakam or George Jones and I would sit in the back and be like, I can’t believe anyone can sing like that. My mom would listen to more jazz stuff. She really encouraged my singing. I remember trying to mimic Ella Fitzgerald. Motivation-wise, my dad allowing me to be on stage with him and taking me with him to go do shows was really important. There was a huge difference between standing in the kitchen, singing alone, and then being on stage with monitors and a band.
Back to the album. Your last EP was very sparse and minimal in aesthetic. The new record adds more instrumentation and returns back to a bigger, full-band sound. What kind of musical aspirations did you have for this project?
Malin: I think this was the first time where I let go in the studio and let other people control the sound early on. In the beginning, Misa [Arriaga] called me saying, ‘So production-wise, what do you want?’ I told him, ‘I just want you guys in that studio.’ I visited them during AmericanaFest in 2018 and we had a jam session that lasted all night and it was amazing. I just wanted to get in that room and play music. We didn’t even know what songs to begin with when we first got in the there but I truly, truly love what we made. I feel like it could be the soundtrack of something. I can picture the scenes in my head.
The material on Wildhorse is largely inspired by America, both geographically and culturally. What’s one example of a specific thing or place that moved you to write or compose a song a certain way?
Malin: “California,” the first song on the album is directly inspired by and was written on a road trip I did with my family when our kids were a lot younger. I really wondered if I’d remember the gloriousness of the trip and the amazing times we had. I still have so many feelings about it because it [California] was so different: the mountains, the fields, the hills and the beaches. I really liked the way we captured that in the studio. I feel like the vibe is really golden on that one, which is kind of what I wanted. I wanted it to sound warm and gold. That’s the feeling that I get when I think of California.
What does this record mean to you in your journey? Do you look upon it differently because it’s attached to this period of quiet and uncertainty?
Malin: I will probably always wonder how things would have been if everything was normal, but one of the reasons I want to keep on going with the plan we originally had is because I want to try and solve these challenges and problems of the time that we are in. There will always be stuff popping up that you can’t foresee when you’re releasing an album. Whether it’s nobody wants to write about you or some venues aren’t booking you for whatever reason, you have to find ways to solve these things. I’ll probably always think about it but this is reality right now. We’ll find a way to survive this.