Jarle Bernhoft, AKA just call him Bernhoft, America, is a Norwegian singer, songwriter, and composer. The Scandinavian with the the iconic Tin-Tin ‘do is best known for his songs “Streetlights,” “Shout,” “Choices,” and “C’mon Talk” — all of which showcase Bernhoft’s melodic voice, his aptitude for layering live sampling counterpoint, some punchy acoustic guitar, and his overall verve.
Bernhoft, who says he’s as inspired by turn-of-the-last-century African American music as much as he is by Otis Redding, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Bon Iver, also cops to a passing teen love of AC/DC.
We interviewed him over the phone to talk about being on the “Ellen” show, shaving his head, and hanging out in New Orleans.
The Smoking Jacket: You’re doing all this awesome soul music right now, but I read someplace that you studied opera?
Bernhoft: It’s not exactly true. My dad was an opera singer. I used to come with him to his work — I worked with him as an extra, as well.
TSJ: I grew up with artistic parents and I think that kind of soaking up of culture can be invaluable.
B: I don’t know how much that style of music reflects on what I’m doing right now, but it gives solid background to any kind of musical activity.
TSJ: And I guess you get to see how much discipline is involved, the amount of work that it takes to make something good.
B: Definitely. And I think it gives you respect for the craft, in a way, and for the amount of work that surrounds [any given project]. I mean my dad was a singer in the choir, and you see all the guys in the crew and technicians and lights, and the whole effort it takes to build a stage. I think it also made me acutely respectful of the [mechanism] that surrounds the stars, if you know what I mean.
TSJ: For sure. One of my sisters is a playwright and I’m always amazed at how much work it takes to stage a show, and how many people are involved. So based on what I’ve heard of your music, I’m guessing you were less into the opera music your dad was doing, and more into the ‘70s and ‘80s pop music scene?
B: At the beginning it was mostly the ‘80s — I’m a bit too young to have experienced the ‘70s. But ‘80s music… Michael Jackson and Prince were like an epiphany for me. And trying to find out what inspired and influenced these guys, was, as well. I remember when I first heard Sly and the Family Stone I was just — Wow, this is where Prince gets all his stuff from! This is so cool.
TSJ: Once you start doing that you can start seeing how it all builds on itself. It’s pretty awesome. But coming from Europe/Scandinavia — do you think you were fetishizing American pop culture? Do you feel like you were sucking it all up because it felt so new to you? What was it like for you to discover American pop?
B: I mean, this dates back to the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Europe after the war. American culture has had such an impact on Norwegian culture — probably from the 1950s and ‘60s on. So I’m a child of that whole thing. American culture is very accessible. They don’t dub movies, in Norway, the way they do in Germany and France. So in a sense [my interest in American pop culture] was [natural].
TSJ: What does your family think about your interest in American pop?
B: My dad doesn’t really like rock music. He thinks it’s noisy.
TSJ: Did you start out playing soul?
B: When I started in my teens I was doing metal stuff.
TSJ: You did metal?
B: Yeah, I was like the metal dude on my street! I was prancing around in my room to AC/DC music with a broom as guitar, when I was in my teens, anyway. When I was 12, 13, I thought Michael Jackson and Prince were sissies. [I rediscovered] soul music when I was, like, 17, 18.
TSJ: How do Norwegian audiences feel about the fact that you’re doing American-style soul music? Is it new to people?
B: I think a lot of people were skeptical at first. But Beyonce Knowles has a large audience in Norway; so does Rihanna. And there’s a lot of other contemporary American R&B artists who have a large audience in Norway.
But I came from a rock band and I was like, Try listening to this! There weren’t a lot of soul artists [in Norway] at the time. But it went well. I had the chance to tour — obviously playing solo is a big advantage, so I can get around and actually play live. And that works. And so on the basis of extensive touring it’s gone well. But I’m a bit strange to people, I think. To dive into that kind of genre so deeply is I think very un-Norwegian.
TSJ: What part of American/Americana culture do you think is more accessible to Norwegian audiences right now? I was in Denmark over Christmas and I was in this second-hand store and all these guys were were hanging around playing electric guitar in the style of the early ’60s. You know, sort of folky, with a little dirty-sounding amp. And so they were definitely into an authentic American sound. A different era, though, a different demographic.
B: Yeah, you have that in Norway too. A lot of bands are acutely aware of the ‘60s and ‘70s retro style. They’re into old instruments, old analogue recording gear, vinyl pressings, the whole thing, and that goes hand-in-hand with the clothes as well.
TSJ: For sure! I was calling them all Viking hipsters. But they were adorable. Totally, totally cute.
B: I think that goes hand-in-hand with the West Coast, soft-rock vibe, musically. So when you have someone like me who goes into that retro style as well but being slightly more concerned with what went on in New Orleans and Memphis and Detroit, that’s a bit left-of-center in Norway.
TSJ: Have you been able to go there and check out the music you’re into?
B: I haven’t been to Memphis. But I spent a couple of weeks in New Orleans a couple of years back, post-Katrina. And it was very interesting. But like with a lot of music, I find the mechanisms behind the music more interesting than the music itself. What creates the music that I’m into. The ’60s and ’70s in America were so vibrant in many ways. You have the gender equality movement, the civil rights movement… so many things going on at once, and the crystalization of that into music.
TSJ: Yeah, I totally agree You can feel all the social tensions clashing and then something new happening as a result of it all.
B: Whereas — not the mainstream, but the Viking hipsters you refer to, I think they’re more into Dylan had to say about this. I think what Otis Redding had to say about this is more important to me.
TSJ: Otis is great.
B: And Otis Redding couldn’t have had the music he had and the impact he had and the voice that he had if hadn’t been for the stuff that surrounded him. You can’t take pop music out of its context, its environment, its social context.
The form of a pop song hasn’t changed that much. You know, the old verse/chorus/verse/chorus/take it to the bridge [sings], it hasn’t changed that much. But it reflects so much what goes on around both in society/ politics/visual arts, so it’s full of something else.
TSJ: Are you seeing other people get excited about this in contemporary music?
B: Someone like Bon Iver, when he had that Re: Stacked song on his album — so much zeitgiest in that song.
TSJ: Since you’ve brought him up, tell me how you developed your Bon Iver/Prince falsetto.
B: [Laughs] To be honest, I’m probably still trying to emulate my heroes. I’m not much of a trained singer. Up until about three years ago, I belted everything I had, like, full-throttle, almost like a shout — trying to hit the notes I wanted to hit. And then someone challenged me to sing a Curtis Mayfield song. And I was just, I don’t do that — I don’t have a falsetto. And he said, Yes, you have, you just need to find it. So I found it and I got thrilled by the whole thing and now it’s like I can’t make a song without substantial amounts of squealing falsetto.
TSJ: What’s it like for you to write in English? Are you writing all your own songs when you’re not doing Tears for Fears covers?
B: Yeah. I’m very sensitive to other people’s input when it comes to lyrics. I’m aware of the challenges of being Norwegian and writing in English. At the same time, when I read, if I’m not reading books by Norwegian authors, I tend to go to an English translation, because English is such a big language compared to Norwegian. If it’s a Japanese book, for example, I’d rather go for the English translation than the Norwegian translation for the quality of the language.
TSJ: That must be a Murakami reference.
B: Yeah! I’ve read almost everything he’s written. I couldn’t sleep for a week after I read that Wind Up Bird Chronicles.
TSJ: I love that book. I just read it this summer, actually.
B: That book completely transformed the way I see my surroundings. He does it in Sputnik Sweetheart as well, with the impaling of the — have you read it?
TSJ: Not yet, no.
B: He does the same trick that he does with the skinning alive with the Wind Up Bird one.
TSJ: Oh, that was so rough.
B: It was. I had to read it over and over. I couldn’t sleep. Every time I shut my eyes I just had that image of the officer being skinned alive.
TSJ: Yeah, it was horrible.
B: Reading a description of something that horrendous — it’s almost like Murakami slaps you in the face and he wakes you.
TSJ: I was reading that when there’d just been a horrible crime in Montreal, where I live — a guy killed and cannibalized a student. It happened right near my office. So I was just thinking about human atrocities for a a while, there. Anyway! That’s not really here or there.
B: Not really something to talk about in the Playboy interview is it?
TSJ: [Laughs] No, we’ll probably skip that part in the transcription.
B: Okay, we talked about skinning people alive…
TSJ: Bringing it back to music! You’ve been touring solo, you do that thing where you record sound with your voice, and it does a rhythmical thing back. What’s it called again? Looping?
B: Live sampling or looping.
TSJ: How did you get into that?
B: It started out as an economic necessity. I was broke and I had this huge band I couldn’t tour with. I thought I’d either have to stop [music] and get a day job, or I could [make something out of] the situation I was in. I find myself boring when I’m in a kind of singer-songwriter style — I felt like I wanted to give the songs more life and arrangement than that. So thought about how I could save money while doing the stuff that I need to do. Because it’s a very personal thing to play gigs. I need to play in front of people on a regular basis to stay sane. So I just had to find a way, and the live sampling was a good means to an end.
TSJ: Well all that layering and counterpoint sounds great. Tell me about your experience being on “Ellen.” How did that go? Was it insane?
B: [Laughs] It many ways it was. I don’t think I got the size of the whole thing until somebody told me it was pretty big. I had obviously heard of her before but it was just very organic. I got a call from someone who probably has the job of scouring the Internet for stuff — one of my YouTube videos had just started moving. And he wanted to check if my English was okay and if I was I pro-whaling or anything like that.
TSJ: Are you a whaler?
B: No, but you know, Ellen is an animal rights activist, and I think he was kind of nervous about that, or that I would crack a gay joke or something.
TSJ: They clearly didn’t get how the Scandinavian countries are way more socially progressive than the rest of the world! So lastly, tell me about the super dapper look you have going on. I bet this isn’t how you were dressing in your heavy metal days. I’m picturing long hair? Maybe shaved on the sides? And a pony tail or something?
B: I just had lots of hair back in the day. And I did until three years ago. I have a son, three years old. And when he was newborn we didn’t sleep too much at night –
TSJ: That’s what they say –
B: And so he was at his Grandmum’s, and me and my girlfriend were having a kip [nap] in the daytime, and I dreamed this hairdo up. I woke up and I said, Shave my sides! Come on! And we went in the bathroom and we just created this hairdo. And it’s just practical. If I want to sleep during the daytime I don’t ruin the haircut. And it stays out of my eyes. It’s just fantastic. And it’s very easy. I just get out of the shower and stand upside down with the hair dryer and pump it full of hairspray.
Check out his mane, catch his act: Bernhoft will be playing in NYC, Brooklyn, LA, and at SXSW between March 9-20, 2013. See his tour schedule HERE.
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