The summer of 2018 would soon be coming to an end, and Rachel and I had just seen two of our favourite bands – Hiss Golden Messenger and Courtney Marie Andrews – play a double bill in Ghent, Belgium, when I started talking with Andrews’ bass player. Somehow, Ole Kirkeng knew The Influences already and soon we’re talking about sessions, Buck Meek and other musicians we both like. The Norwegian songwriter lived in the United States for about six years, but soon after our meeting in Belgium moved back to Oslo just before coming to Utrecht to record this session in the exact same spot as Buck Meek a year earlier.
‘Living in Oslo has been really inspiring.’
“Oslo is really nice – I’m almost done with the EP. I was thinking of doing it in New York, but then decided to do it here. This week I’m going to do some final things in the studio, and then it should be done by the end of May.” It didn’t take Ole Kirkeng long to get used to living in Oslo again, he tells me. “There are a lot of great songwriters in Norway, like Malin Pettersen who’s super awesome. I met her and the people from the band Darling West. They have been sort of mentors and new friends here and welcomed me into a community in Norway right away, and it has been really inspiring. I went to a show by Carson McHone and I met Mari from Darling West who is also friends with Michaela Anne. And I think Michaela had mentioned that I was in Oslo. Super random, but great.”
“I’d been in the States ever since I left high school, so for six years. Norwegians, or Scandinavian people, have their own approach to music. When they play Americana, they have these other influences that gives it their own little touch. It’s hard to explain, but what I felt at least, was that they’ve their own way of playing. And they don’t pull from the same roots and tradition as they do in America. So, it becomes a bit more of a different take on it, which I found really fresh. It really feels like Americana, a mix of everything. Musicians here tend to play all kinds of genres, from jazz to pop to indie. People in Norway are rather proud and don’t want to necessarily be like anybody else. It’s all about experimenting and finding their own sound.”
‘I got better at the craft of songwriting.’
The four songs on Ole Kirkeng’s new EP will all be full band, unlike his first. “Way more music. I’m really excited. People from Darling West are playing on it too. A lot of cool things. The songs from this session, Phantom Tears and Rocking Chair, will be on the EP too. It sounds nothing like the acoustic version though, more fleshed out. Live Miranda Solberg of Louien sings a duet with me on Rocking Chair.”
“I got better at the craft, really. Most of the songs I wrote in the States, just before moving back here. It was different, because once I moved here, Rocking Chair sort of got a new meaning. There’s a song called Alone With My Phone which is about being in a long distance relationship. I think you’ll hear I have experienced more in my life than I had when I wrote the earlier EP. With these songs, it was so nice to bring them into the recording environment with Darling West and some other really talented Norwegian musicians. They took it to the next level.”
Becoming ‘the Spotify guy’ in class.
Ole Kirkeng grew up in Oslo as an only child to a mother and stepdad with ‘a really good taste in music’. “When I was younger, I just loved listening to music. My parents aren’t trained musicians, but they have a really good ear. They could have been good producers, because they have a feeling when things work or don’t. One of the things I did, when we got the Apple computer and iTunes for the first time, and I was still in elementary school, it was my job to import as many of the cd’s as I could into the computer. So, that’s the first time I heard Pink Floyd, some Bob Dylan stuff, Genesis, The Bee Gees… I listened to every record that I copied to the computer.”
“Through listening to all this music, I became the music nerd in my class, and felt a weird sense of pride in that. Everybody has ‘that thing’ that they base their identity on, I was the one who was into music. When Spotify came, you’d need an invitation to create a free account and I found a way to create more invitations, so in my class I became ‘the Spotify guy’. Everyone would come to me to get an account. That was fun.”
‘I always felt like I needed to be in the USA’.
In middle school, Kirkeng who had always been more in sports up till then, picked up an instrument for the first time. “My friend asked if I could play bass with him. He said: ‘We’re doing a show in four weeks, can you learn these songs on bass?’ I said okay, borrowed his bass and that was my introduction. Later, my parents bought me a cheap bass. The first song I learned was Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison, it has a bass intro that I thought was so hard to learn. Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was the first song I played, because my friend showed me, and I played along. A cool thing about bass is that it’s kind of easy to start. It’s fun in the beginning, because you can easily make music pretty quick. Even if you only play the root notes, you’re already in it.”
Kirkeng joined the band, played the show and liked it a lot. “It was super awesome. I was so stoked! At tennis practice I would have my tennis bag and my bass bag with me. At some point I focused solely on bass. I started late, because all the other kids had started years earlier.” Songwriting came to him later. “I looked up colleges in the USA and saw that Berklee had a summer program. So, I went there. I have always had a pull towards the United States. At first, I thought I was going to play tennis at a college and get my degree with tennis. For some reason I always felt like I needed to be there at some point. I traveled there with my parents a bunch of times and basically all the music I listened to was American. I wanted to give it a go. At the summer program I auditioned for the school and I got in with a scholarship. That was great. Berklee is good in many ways.”
Learning to trust his instincts.
“I was purely studying bass, but at some point, I kind of stalled. I realized I listened to more music without any bass in it. I started playing acoustic guitar in my free time and had this secret little dream inside me of playing both and becoming a songwriter as well. I never was into instrumental music as much as songs with lyrics. The identity of songwriters and their stories were more important to me than whether or not there was bass in the songs. The curriculum was good, but very bass focused. To me, I look at music as a whole as well as zooming in on the bass.”
Kirkeng turned to YouTube as a source to develop his playing further. “I would hang out on YouTube a lot and listen to acoustic sessions and saw some of your videos without realizing they were yours in the beginning. It was a way to see how people actually play the songs on guitar. I think I learned so much music through YouTube. That’s been really huge. I remember seeing The Staves’ session, because in my freshman year I really got into their music. It’s inspiring to see the bare bones of songs. It made me decide to play music that I liked, rather than what everybody else is telling me to play. To trust my instincts and also to start writing songs for the first time.”
‘When Damien Jurado picks up an instrument, the feeling is right there.’
“The level was high when I got to Berklee and I was working my ass off on bass. So, with starting to play guitar, I was back to scratch while maintaining the bass thing. It was a mental struggle a little bit. But it made me learn the guitar faster, I think. Still, it was tough to start from scratch again. At some point you have to tell yourself you don’t care that you’re not playing that well yet. I had gone through the process of learning a new instrument already, with the bass. The musicality was definitely there, and I think with each instrument you pick up it goes faster. I started relying on my musicality and doing simple and effective stuff. Which is sort of how I approach it in general. One of my favourite songwriters from Norway is Jonas Alaska, probably my main influence starting out. He has some amazing songs and is someone I really looked up to at a young age. Seeing him play at a record store, unplugged for thirty people, was one of the best shows I’ve seen.”
“The songwriters I love, write seemingly simple songs – but the overall feel is amazing. They have secret chops. Damien Jurado for example, he’s a really good example of someone who when he picks up an instrument, the feeling is right there. They can be ‘simple’ chords, but his vibe, musicality and the way he delivers his message is so amazing. And that’s really where it’s at. It’s not about fancy chords, Jurado is at the core of human emotion and combining that with music. He’s someone I really like; I just love his music.”
‘This is something I could do.’
Kirkeng studied at Berklee for four years, but really came into his own style during his final year there. “I was struggling a little bit with playing live with my own songs, because I was nervous. But I met this professor name Susan Rogers, who was the engineer for Prince and worked with Barenaked Ladies, David Byrne, T Bone Burnett. She’s the most inspiring person I met, and she became my mentor. I’d go to her office and play her songs that I wrote each week and she encouraged me to keep going. That’s when I started playing open mics. She was the one who inspired me to believe this was something I could do. Susan Rogers is a huge influence on me.”
The open mics at times could be soul crushing, Kirkeng tells me. “You wait three hours to play. But I was very motivated, and I just had to do it more. There is no escaping of it. It’s so different to playing bass, because you’re putting your personal life, emotions and character out there. It’s like a whole different game.” At Berklee Kirkeng was in the bass department, not the guitar department. “But there was this teacher Abigail Zocher, who also taught Adrienne Lenker of Big Thief, and she made it possible for me to take guitar classes there. So, I was in her Joni Mitchell ensemble two times, and I played her singer songwriter showcase. She also was a huge influence on me.”
Big Thief and Courtney Marie Andrews showing the way.
Big Thief came through town once, just after the release of Masterpiece. “Abigail set up this masterclass/meeting, where I got to play a song for Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek. They were so inspiring and gave me really good feedback. They encouraged me to continue developing my own voice and pointed out some lyric lines they liked. Like Damien Jurado, I think Big Thief approach music in a very cool way and I really like their work. When I met them at college, Buck also helped me get settled in Brooklyn. I’d said to him I was going to move there, and we talked about a studio called Figure 8, where I later started interning. That’s where I met some other interns and one of them became a good friend who introduced me to his group of friends in New York. That’s how I got into a new scene in Brooklyn. My friend’s in an amazing band called Closebye who gave me my first show of only original music for thirty minutes.”
“Later that year I started playing in Courtney Marie Andrews’ band. The first tour with her was when we met in Belgium.” All of a sudden, Kirkeng was touring in a band all over the States and a lot of other countries. “I learned so much. Meeting Courtney and the guys in the band, who had been touring so much and are so good, I learned a huge deal from them. Courtney has been a big influence, just observing her and how she does things. She’s so sweet to everyone. Playing with them is really amazing.”
Filmed & edited by Matthijs van der Ven.
Audio recorded & mixed by Matthijs van der Ven.
Utrecht, The Netherlands
Courtney Marie Andrews