Hailing from Norway, young beautiful and talented folk singer Thea Hjelmeland is a fascinating character. With a fascinating life story made of travels, exiles and, of course, music…
How did you start playing music ?
Thea Hjelmeland : My father is a musician, my mother plays too. Eventhough it wasn’t their job, we always had a lot of instruments at home. I had a lot of tapes, i was listenning a lot of music. Since i was a little child, i used to sing a lot. So i think i came to music very naturally. I started to play piano when i was about six or seven and before that i used to listen to song and write new lyrics (laughs). That was a nice hobby. After that i played drums for five or six years and after that i learned guitar at 13. At that point i started to write songs. I’ve learned all the songs from the artists that i knew and liked. I’ve played for so many hours each day. I went to music school when i was 16/17. And since then i’ve always been working in the music field.
Is that true that you wrote your first song at age 3 ?
T.H : Actually i couldn’t write at that age. But i found an old tape that my mother recorded, she says Thea please sing the song that you’ve made. I was about three years old. It was just rubbish, to be honest. But since that age i’ve enjoyed making music. I used to be in a choir and i tried to make songs for myself. I’m not playing those songs live though (laughs).
You’re playing a lot of instruments and you’re doing a lot of things by yourself, all alone. Could you tell me how do you work ?
TH : I’ve started by learning a lot of differents instruments but the songs, the vocals have always been the most important thing for me. I have an home studio and i play a lot of different things so i’m able to record myself just with a single instrument. When we recorded the album i’ve already had many songs and many demos from many years. With the album producer we focussed on what i do alone, just me and an instrument. We start to build around that. Sometimes i add musicians after that. But, i think the reason i’m playing so much different instruments is because i’m curious. I’m going after sounds. My playing is not traditionnal, i don’t play banjo like country musicians do. I play everything like a guitar, with chords.
That’s funny because i thaught that the extensive use of string instruments like guitar, ukulele, mandolin, banjo gave to the album a little country touch…
TH : Yes. I go with the way the instrument sounds. The sound of string instruments really attract me, it’s very folk.
Could you tell us a few words about your hometown, Forde ?
TH : It’s a small town, about 10 000 people lives there. I grew up there until 15 years old. It’s a very beautiful place inside in one of the bigger fjord. It’s in between tall mountains, like a valley. There is so much nature over there. But on the other hand, it’s like a city you drive through when we go to two bigger cities. There’s a lot of malls, cars… It’s a strange mix. I’m glad to be able to go from this place to Paris. It’s a small place, very local, in the nature. And then i’m in Paris, which is very urban.
Are you more anonymous in Paris ?
TH : Yes, absolutely.
At some point you said that you need to travel. Why is that ?
TH : I’ve always been travelling. My parents used to travel a lot, they brought us me and my siblings with them. After i finished school, i’ve stayed 6 months in Cuba, just to be someplace else, study, see something different. I was playing with bands and i got tired of the music industry. I needed to find myself. Cuba made everything worst, i was even more confused after that. It was the first time i saw my own country from the outside. The western culture. Cuba is very poor, but there is so much music and culture. I really got a new energy about the music. In Cuba, you just clap your fingers and people start dancing. It’s really exciting. Afterwards i met some musicians from Paris, they brought me here. I met them at an international folk music festival in my town. I’ve spent some nice days with them, they invite me here to play and i’ve met some new people. So i’ve stayed.
Do you think that travelling improved your music ?
TH : I’m curious, i like to explore. I’m travelling alone or with friends to meet new people, new strories, observing. It reflects itself in my music, in my lyrics. This album is like a compilation of the last ten years of my life. So i think the travels shows in the music, absolutely.
You had a lot of different experiences in music so far jazz, folk, rock even hip hop…
TH : Yeah, i’ve made two albums with an hip hop artist. I did backing vocals. He’s the biggest rapper back in Norway. It was a nice project.
Did it change anything in your own songs ?
TH : The hip hop project was after i finished my own album. Working with a rapper was very challenging. I was singing in norwegian, something i would never dare to do.
Why do you sing in english ?
TH : In France you have such a big culture of singing in french, french songs. In Norway, for many years, the popular culture was in english. In Norway we start speaking english very early, like in the first grade at 6 years old. And the movies are not dubbed. Everything has subtitles. So you hear english all the time. For writing songs, i write a lot in norwegian, but i don’t get myself to sing it.
Are you shy about singing in your mother tongue ?
TH : Maybe. It’s because it’s so honest, i’m not ready yet. In another language i can kind of play with the way it sounds. When i write a song, in the beginning and i just put words and suddenly it turns into lyrics. In english it’s kind of a way of hiding the truth. Eventhough i can be very honest, i can make metaphors. With that rapper it was ok to sing in norwegian because that was somebody else’s lyrics. But it really inspires me to write more in norwegian, so we’ll see…
Tell me about your song « Candyman ». Why is struggle so important to you ?
TH : The song is about the last years when we moved a lot, at some point i felt like i was living in a suitcase. For ten years i didn’t really have a place you know. It was one year here, one year there… I’ve spent, two or three months sleeping on friend’s couches. I have been very nomad for ten years. So the song is about the fact that people normally travel to feel free. I wasn’t. Travelling was part of my job, it was also an escape. I had trouble staying in one place. I need to move. The song is about me, joking with myself. Maybe i’m struggling with staying in one place. So maybe i like to struggle. I was teasing myself singing : « all i want is to struggle ».
How do you like Paris ?
TH : It’s interesting because when i’m in Norway people tells me : « Paris is so beautiful and romantic ». Well, there is a big difference between staying for a long week-end and staying for a long time period… Paris is very beautiful, that’s true. And there is so much, culture and different kind of people. And so much opportunities of shows. I usually stays here for few weeks and then i go back to Norway or i start touring. So i feel that i get to see the romantic part but also all the other sides too. My french is much better now. So i can understand what people says. I understand the political system here or what people are struggling with. It’s interesting to get to know the daily life…
Did you know anything about the french scene before moving here ?
TH : I knew Edith Piaf, Justice was really big, on the radio all the time. Daft Punk too. David Guetta. French music is not really promoted in Norway. I knew the name Serge Gainsbourg but i’ve never listen to him. But Norway is so small, you have to go out to survive.