One winter night some years ago, I was driving home with friends after a performance of a Shostakovich string quartet at the Vancouver Playhouse. It was powerful and draining in the way live chamber music, at its best, can be. The ride home was quiet, save for The Signal (with Laurie Brown) on CBC turned low. We were driving west, along Hastings Street. Always with an ear out, I could hear faint strains of a harpsichord accompanied by a clear and vaguely mournful female voice. Absolutely captivating. I turned it up and drew attention to it. We listened for awhile. I recall saying something like: “What a fantastic piece of music … but what is with these ridiculous lyrics?” Normally, after being treated to some fiercely performed Shostakovich, anything remotely popular sounds pretty meek by comparison. But not this. It was elegant and powerful. And right out of left field.
That was my introduction to Susanna and the Magical Orchestra’s cover of AC/DC’s It’s a Long Way to the Top (if you wanna Rock n’ Roll). It was one of the highlights of her 2006 album Melody Mountain on Norway’s Rune Grammofon label. I promptly went out and bought everything else she’d done. Susanna Wallumrød is a fine songwriter in her own right but her covers are especially notable for their range and ice clear conviction. A random example? Her version of Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak:
When I saw a live, unvarnished video clip of Susanna and Will Oldham doing Without You (popularized in the 1970s by both Harry Nilsson and Heart) there was some detectable laughter from the audience at first. It seemed odd, as though the audience might initially have thought the song too maudlin. But again, it seems just right in their hands.
Many other cover choices she’s made (songs by Tom Petty, Abba etc.) seem incongruous at first. But after warming to, say, her version of Black Sabbath’s Changes I realized she had somehow elevated many songs (and artists) for me. Musical snobbery was common when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. You may have liked some cheesy rock/pop growing up but you never appreciated those songs on the same level as those by whatever “serious” songwriters or groups you appreciated that were accepted in critical circles. But growing up means being open to the hearts of others and challenging prejudices. Great songs are great songs regardless of genre. And of course, Susanna has done a fantastic version of Dolly Parton’s Jolene!
Born in 1979, Susanna has a positive and all-embracing view. “Maybe my age allows me to look at the history of popular music in a different way. I try to free myself from what the groups/bands and original versions of the songs represent, otherwise it would be hard to make a new version.”
One consistent element in both her original songs and her choice of covers is the feeling of impossible beauty and impossible loves that are fraught, subverted and menaced. But then, really, what great songs don’t involve those things? For example, her version of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart stands next the the original on equal terms. And that is an achievement!
Susanna has also tackled several Leonard Cohen classics including the ubiquitous Hallelujah and, more recently, Who by Fire? As I learned in 1996 while working there, Leonard Cohen still enjoys a great deal of popularity in Norway so I was curious about some sympatico connection between our two nations besides a familiarity with winter cold. “I didn’t actually know that he is from Canada when I started listening to him, but it feels like there is some kind of kinship between the countries, yes. Sometimes I think it’s hard to pinpoint how much origin has to do with someone’s creativity – but you are certainly lucky to have Joni, Neil Young and Cohen. And Feist too, of the younger generation. And Arcade Fire. AND Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Many more I am sure.”
During her June, 2014 Jazz Festival set at the Iron Works here in Vancouver, she said Love Will Tear Us Apart and Who By Fire? are her two favourite songs. “They are not my only favourites. They are two of many. That said, these two are very special to me. The lyrics feel like they have existed forever. From the first time I heard the songs and read the lyrics, they made a huge impression on me. Like it’s supposed to be.”
On what draws her to a particular song to cover she is clear in the need for a kind of ownership. “Oh, that can be so many different things. But probably a wish or curiosity about if I can transform the song to be mine somehow. That can happen right away when I hear a song, or maybe many years later.”
Surely there must be an ideal or hoped-for collaborator? “I’m not sure who that is right now. It has a tendency to just happen. Will Oldham, Emmett Kelly, Jenny Hval, Stian Westerhus, John Paul Jones, Jessica Sligter and Ensemble neoN are some of the people I have worked with over the years. And as I have done nine out of ten of my albums and a lot of touring with (husband, renowned producer and occasional member of Supersilent) Helge Sten (aka Deathprod), I must like it! :-) I hope I will be able to continue making and playing my music. It feels like a very uncertain way of living sometimes, but it’s still the best thing I can do here on earth I think.”
And while we are still on earth, do explore Susanna’s work here: