A fascinating, frank and open interview with the extraordinarily talented Karin Park, about her exceptional album Highwire Poetry.
You should really know who Karin Park is. Already on her fourth album, the gorgeously dark and ’80s influenced Highwire Poetry, she was once Norway’s biggest pop star, winning a Norwegian Grammy for her single ‘Superworldunknown’. Now she’s making her music, her way, signed to Portsmouth-based record label State Of The Eye. Polari caught up with Karin on a hot summer’s day and, over a mint tea, talked about her career, style and most of all, her music.
We first saw you back in May at the UK album launch for Highwire Poetry. It was one of the best gigs we’ve been to for a long time, despite the fact there were technical difficulties. How was it for you?
The intro was a bit pretentious, but then the fire alarm was set off and the power just went out. It took all the stylish pretentiousness out of it completely. It just felt like a punk-rock gig for the rest of the night, which suited me really well. When I think back, it was the best thing that could happen. I mean, there’s a situation, we have to solve it, and you really come back to earth. It was fun, it was one of the best gigs I’ve had. It was so unpredictable. We hadn’t had that kind of situation on stage before – we just had to deal with it, and it was fun, fun!
It almost felt like the technical difficulties had been staged because the way the gig took shape could not have been any more perfect. We were so buzzed afterwards we said we can’t possibly go home, we have to go drinking!
(Laughing) If my concert can give that sort of excitement to anyone, that’s more than I can ever ask for. I think if that hadn’t happened it wouldn’t have been the same for me, or the same for you. That’s the thing about England also, you don’t really like perfect, do you? I’m not sure if that would have worked as well in Germany, because they would have been (in an authoritarian voice), “No! What is going on!?” But here, when everyone sang that note together with me for the whole song, I felt like everyone really wanted to help us – and we needed help, desperately! It was a memorable night.
Highwire Poetry is an evocative title, where did it come from?
Actually, I watched this movie, Man on a Wire, and life to me is like walking on a highwire. You don’t know if you’re going to get to the other side or if you’re just gonna fall down, but you can’t just close your eyes. To me life is about overcoming fears, and my songs are about life, so I felt like it was a good title because it’s my kind of poetry of life.
The album has a very strong identity, musically. The art direction and your look is almost androgynous. Is your image a part of the bigger picture or does it just happen to be where you’re at right now?
I don’t put too much thought into how I look to be honest. I put a lot of thought, obviously, into the music and where I want that to go. I wanted to take off some layers and go deeper with the bass and drums. My first two albums weren’t very beat driven, and I’ve missed that, I’ve always been a lot more rhythmical than that. When I heard Kelis’ album Tasty, she had so many playful rhythms and I said, ”I want to do something like that”. But in my own way.
And the artwork?
I’ve worked very closely with a guy who’s listened to my music. He went to design school and this was his finishing project. So we worked for quite a long time to get the symbols right. I wanted a really nice album cover because before it’s always been thrown together.
Your albums have progressively become visually more interesting and the songs have become darker. You starred in the horror film Hidden in 2009 –
(surprised) Yes, that’s right.
– and you worked with your partner’s band Årabrot on their last album. Have all these things contributed to the exploration of the darkness in your music or do you think it was already there?
I come from a Christian background, and in church you don’t normally talk about the dark stuff and everyone’s supposed to be happy all the time. I think I’ve gradually wanted to react a little bit to the fact I’ve never really explored the darker sides and as I’ve got older bad stuff happens and you realise that it’s not really a bad thing – the dark side of life doesn’t have to be ignored. For example I was misdiagnosed with cancer and when they said to me that I had cancer, I was like, “you know what? If someone’s going to have cancer and die really young, that might just as well be me,” it’s not actually a big problem. And I discovered that to go to dark places is not necessarily a scary thing. Also when I got together with Kjetil from Årabrot, he underlined that even more.
In what way?
He’s into extreme things in any kind of way, he likes – not only the dark stuff – but he goes to total extremes. (She pauses.) Whatever you do, there is always someone who’s gone further, than you. He inspired me to go further in a direction I was already kind of going in.
How did the collaboration with Christoffer Berg happen?
We have the same manager. He played some music to Christoffer and said, “I want to produce some of this”. I worked with a producer in the UK as well, so we did the finishing process with Christoffer, who is also a jazz musician and knows a lot of acoustic instruments. I wanted someone who had a little bit of knowledge of that side of the music, as well as the electronic side. We have the textures of real cello, real drums and real instruments on there and he has a special understanding for that.
When you chose Funtcase to remix ‘Fryngies’, was that an attempt to move your music more underground?
I really thought it would be cool to have a gritty dubstep remix and when it came out. There were all these comments on YouTube, I was just watching them growing and growing … He phoned me up and he was like (going up an octave), “What’s happening Kaaa-rin!” It was just so weird, because I try to think about career moves like that, but I’m not so good at thinking “I need an underground link”. I didn’t know that he had that kind of insane nerdy following. I just heard his music and I thought he could take this song even further into dubstep and when I heard it on my speakers for the first time I was like, “Woa-OH! Shit!”. It was really really cool. It’s actually the only remix that my brother really appreciates, because he always thinks a remix just sounds like someone else is playing at the same time as your song is on, you know, but in another room, like there’s something wrong with it. But this remix he really loved because it’s HARD.
Do you ever hear a remix and think, this is better than the version on the album?
Pacific did a remix ‘Thousand Loaded Guns’ which I think is actually better than the original, and then it’s really, kind of, “wow,” it makes it a new thing for me, because I’ve heard the original so many times so I appreciate when people do something different. That’s the thing with remixes … and it can bring the song to a new audience, which is nice as well.
You seem to be spending a lot of time here in England, is that an attempt to also reach a new audience?
I am gradually getting less and less popular in my own country. On the first two albums I was like a big pop star, but when I did my third album, I kind of said goodbye to my old audience. I wanted to do something that I want to listen to and I don’t really care if no one likes it. There is a smaller audience for electronic music in Norway. I’ve lived my whole career in Norway even though I’m Swedish. But again, maybe not a good career move, but I want the people I admire to like my music, so I have to work on a level where I respect my own music and make something I can be proud of.
I think that’s part of the process … if you create something that is genuinely musically interesting, it often means appealing to a smaller audience. I hope you’re proud of Highwire Poetry, it’s a wonderful album, we just love it.
That means so much to me … to hear that. That’s the kind of people I want to reach out to, like you guys, who are properly interested in music. I think that’s what’s wonderful about coming to the UK, because here people really know about music. There are lots of subcultures where people are really into their thing and when they find something that they like they seem to really go in-depth. There’s a more hardcore interest for music here, as in Germany as well, I think. They really go to concerts and champion what they like. It’s so fascinating to see that sort of musical interest.
What sort of music do you listen to when you’re not thinking about work, when you’re relaxing?
I listen to Nick Cave, The Residents, or I listen to Whitney Houston … what else am I listening to? I love Death In June. I listen to Alice Cooper, from the ‘80s, Iggy Pop or David Bowie … The most recent records I have bought are a few opera records, and Edith Piaf, I like that sort of stuff as well. Music gives me so many different moods. And Leonard Cohen, for lyrics, but that’s thinking about work again!
I suppose if you’re a musician you never really switch off.
No, I don’t really do that. I’ve started on the new album. As soon as the last album was finished I started to think about the new one. I just want to get even deeper into the thing that I’ve started. I live in an old church in the countryside where I have a studio. There’s a big church hall where I can record real instruments, and I want to try and experiment with different microphones. But I’ve also collected a lot of trash from the village like old oil cans and stuff, to see what it sounds like to record them.
What’s the creative process of your song writing? Do you, for example, favour a particular instrument to write songs with?
I make the music first. On this album I collaborated a lot. I would get a beat from someone, because I’m not good at programming beats. Now I do programme, and that’s a part of the next album, to be able to do more beat driven stuff myself. I’ve taken some drum lessons to touch and feel how that has an impact on the rhythm. So when I make the whole song myself, I make the music separately, and then when I have done that, I start with the melody and then the lyrics – because I want them to work against each other. If you do the music and actual melody at the same time as I did on my first album it works together (she moves her hands in synchronicity) but I want them to be in constant conflict but still work, like ‘Tiger Dreams’. When you listen to the instrumental it’s like how can, or could, this melody work? But when you hear them together they make sense.
The lyrics come last. It’s the hardest work. That’s when I just sit for days and I’m like, “I just need one word! One word left… Come on! Give it to me!”, that kind of thing …
So the new album… is that the immediate future for Karin Park?
I want to play live as much as possible. And I want to go everywhere to perform… and work permanently on the new album, because song writing is like, “can I never just relax and not think about it?” – but you always think about what the next song is going to sound like. But also me and Kjetil have a band together where we just play instrumental music, more like film music and I want to do a little bit of that as well.