Norwegian musical polymath Einar Selvik has been keeping well and keeping busy during this momentous period and even though there have been no live performances – there is a lot of studio work these days for his magnum opus Wardruna. As this musical feat is as complex as Norse mythology itself, we settled in and attempted to unravel Wardruna layer by layer…
The time, energy and resources that went into establishing and implementing Wardruna was no easy feat – and as I understand it, the initial process to complete the band’s first release took several years to complete – what was your sense of achievement with this and how rewarding has it been for your personally and as an advocate for the culture and tradition of Norway, of reintroducing this element of Norse culture back into the world? “It is a fantastic feeling and overwhelming on so many levels and of course the intention was, in a way to sow some new seeds and strengthen the roots and highlight certain aspects from the older traditions that I feel are relevant still today. So the fact that the music resonates so much with people all over the world is fantastic and not something I expected. In many ways you can say I have done all of this for myself; and I still do it for myself, out of a need or simply the extreme form of passion I have for these things – everything else just becomes a giant bonus”.
You have stated, and I am paraphrasing here – “People need nourishment in music”. This statement resonated with me. What was your original vision for Wardruna and do you feel you have achieved this ‘nourishment’ with all you’ve done so far? “Nourishment, it comes from somewhere and you’re not just imitating emotions or imitating authenticity. I think it is really important and Wardruna in many ways connected to these old musical concepts where what lies behind the music is just as important as the music itself – and this has been a sort of a mantra, all along – and it is such a massive project. The performative aspect – if you want to reach the heart you have to sing from the heart, that is, the music is true emotion. The creative concept, or the goal is to get as close as possible to the subject I’m working with. It is the subject that decides what instruments I use, the language, the sound, where and when I record, what state of mind I record in – so you could say that it is the subject that is the composer and I’m just the instrument. I feel we have succeeded in this. For instance if we interpret the Rune for the Birch tree, I will go into the forest and play on Birch trees – now I could easily chop off a table leg and do that in a studio and get more or less the same sound, but I’m one hundred per cent sure, be it unconsciously or consciously, that the listener will know the difference”.
There is that level of authenticity and it is evident that this is something you strive for – and being the original visionary, are you strict with this vision? In terms of how much creative licence do you give yourself, is there a lot of interpretation involved or do you feel the research you have done has given you the confidence to create without doubt? “There are no rules – in terms of allowing a song to take me where it wants to go, rather than me attaching it to a grid, there is a lot of freedom but in terms of the research part and that form of authenticity – it has never been an unspoken goal for me to attempt to replicate music from any specific time period, its more about taking ideas and traditions and creating something new with it that resonates in the contemporary space. I always say ‘don’t climb into trees that don’t have roots’ so having a solid ground to stand on – meaning, knowing as much as possible about the primary sources for these different traditions whether or not its the musicology or the archeology; I try to do a lot of research before I get into the creative process – so whenever I do, it is born from solid ground”.
I’m interested in the involvement in a project so ambitious – what challenges did you encounter creating this contemporary style – and using instruments that up until Wardruna had not been used in a modern setting. “A lot of them [the instruments] are difficult to handle. When I started out there wasn’t a lot of information about certain instruments, it has been a long process of trial and error, for instance – certain instruments, I didn’t want to hear any music ever played on them until I had the chance to try it out myself because I wanted to approach it almost like a child and try to find the instruments own voice rather than implementing my own pre-determined ideas about it”.
Tell us something more of the new album. “Kvitravn continues where Runaljod, the Runic Trilogy left off in terms of the creative concepts being the same and a lot of the themes as well come from the same universe in a way – it’s about man’s relationship to nature and each other and to something that is bigger than yourself, these animistic ideas. The difference I would say is that this one kind of zooms in and goes into more detail on certain concepts of how mankind is defining themselves throughout history. So I guess the main difference is that it goes into more detail and in that sense it can perhaps almost be experienced as more personal because it is more related to humankind I would say. I wanted to do several things; of course explore some of these concepts, like how memory is considered in this tradition. One of the recurring themes is the Raven which is a very central figure in the Nordic tradition – almost like a totem for the culture; if it ever were to have a totem it would be the Raven. There are so many myths and traditions and folklore revolving around this animal and in mythology it’s almost a human embodiment in nature or the animal embodiment of man’s mind and memory described through the myth of Odin’s two ravens, Huginn and Muninn; meaning mind and memory. I will use the old tradition of song hunting; the animistic idea that everything has a sound or a song connected to it – and the tradition of seeking these songs, going out into nature and learning the song of the snake or the song of this given tree. It is a concept I like to apply to my work too”.
Who features On the new album, who helped to co create it and what do they offer to the music of Wardruna overall? “My main companion is Lindy-Fay Hella who has been with us since the first album and Lindy is of course a part of the creative process with her unique voice and unique take on music; Lindy is an important instrument for me because she has this wild and unpredictable element – where you never know exactly how it will shape the song which is a fluent process and a very central part of our sound. Also, one of the musicians who has been a part of our live setting for many years is a man called Eilif Gundersen who is kind of a Norwegian bearer of culture and awarded in it and one of the reasons why certain traditions have survived – having Eilif as part of the group is such a great thing, both on a human level but in terms of working with such an important person who preserves the traditions of our music. We have a group of traditional singers featured on one of the songs – all very prominent within the folk scene and especially one of them who is almost like the Godmother of this tradition and kind of a living legend; Kirsten Bråten Berg which is just a fantastic honour. If it weren’t for these people, things would die out; important parts of our traditions that go back thousands of years. So the personal importance for me to include such things and such people into Wardruna is of course something I value a lot”.
It is impassioning to see so many musicians taking a personal responsibility and becoming flag bearers almost to keep ancient cultures and traditions alive – I’m curious how has this pursuit increased your connection with your culture and country? “You learn a lot from it, I feel I am much more connected and enlightened on these things, it having been such a big part of my life… for the better part of my life”.
Speaking about experiences, you have so many avenues and platforms to push this through, what experiences have you taken working with the Vikings series and more recently the Assassins Creed franchise? Has the experience further solidified your relationship with the style of music and how do you feel, being responsible for pushing that out to the world? “It has been very interesting and I learnt a lot working with both projects. For the more mechanical part of composing for different formats, you have to think in a different way – working with TV you have insane deadlines which is in itself a very challenging thing in my approach to music, I had to push my own boundaries quite a lot in that process but it also gives you an opportunity to portray elements from your own culture to an extremely high number of people. The latest project with Assassins Creed was a great project to work on – the core of my work on this is the Skaldic traditions, the poetic tradition – giving a voice to the oral culture of the Norse. The project itself is so ambitious, so massive but it’s good to feel a part of it”.
The effect of Norse mythology or the ‘Viking Culture’ on heavy metal music and heavy metal fans – just so much of the mythology is adorns the scene worldwide, more than any other culture in fact. Be it the aesthetic – the brutality, the beards, the mead – we all gush like fangirls. What in your opinion is it about this mythology that is so adored? “It’s many reasons, yes, it is a form of aesthetic that has always been central in many forms of heavy metal. It is very often about mythology, about history in various forms. Also in terms of tonality I would say; especially Norwegian metal, which is very connected and inspired by traditional music, classical music in a sense but of course the Viking culture is very… It’s quite brutal or at least certain parts of it. It has an aesthetic. If you read Skaldic poetry, especially Skaldic battle poetry in the Viking period, twelve hundred years ago or so… black metal lyrics pale in comparison to these poems; and just how they described something brutal in a poetic way – they were just brilliant at it. For metal bands to get some lyrical inspiration, go visit the Skaldic library”. [Laughs]
Well, we could talk about touring but that’s a bit of a dud topic these days… Regardless, the album is out 22 January 2021, so what are anticipations for release and how do you hope to promote it in this new world we find ourselves in? “It’s a difficult time, or just unusual and of course we had a lot of plans – this album was already pushed back by half a year; it was originally set for release in June 2020. You just have to stay constructive and flexible. In this day and age or at least in our profession you have to have a plan A, B and C ready at any time, I don’t know – at this point it’s up in the air and you can just do your best, it’s out of my hands – the music will just have to stand on its own feet I guess. Australia is definitely a place we have been talking a lot about trying to visit at some point soon. So when we and the world come back to some sort of normality, I certainly hope we can revisit this idea”.
On a personal note from this journo; thanks for the bang bangs in Gorgoroth, Einar…