Exclusive Artist Diary with ... LENA ANDERSSEN - December 25, 2006
"It was my co-writer Niclas Johannesen who stumbled upon HitQuarters and started looking up managers. He found Richard Ogden for me"Lena Anderssen came a long way from her homeplace at the Faeroese Islands to working with manager Richard Ogden (Paul McCartney), and Danish Grammy-Award winning producer Oli Poulsen.
In her unique, introspective and often highly entertaining language, she unfolds her story, revealing Poulsen's boot-tapping abilities, recording with the piano used for The Beatles' 'Lady Madonna' at Abbey Road, and eventually bumping into McCartney himself.
By Lena Anderssen
Coffee. Black. That's what I want and how I want it. I need it first thing in the morning before I can be of any good use to myself or anybody else. Coffee. Black. And strong. I need to taste how bad it is for me.
I need to feel the caffeine work its way into my system. I am one of those firm believers that true coffee drinkers take it straight...no ice, no fancy syrups or fluffy dairy products...just black. That's rock 'n' roll.
But today was a day where not even coffee black could do it for me. It was one of those I've-had-it-up-to-here-with-everything (especially the music business) days. A day where I felt like there wasn't a single musical tone left in my body. Surfing the waves on my self-pity boat, I wondered when the tide would turn. The guitar in the corner of the one bedroom apartment was staring straight at me. I stared right back at it.
I walked over to the corner of the room, picked up the beckoning guitar and wrote ‘Stones in My Pocket’. Within fifteen minutes the tide had turned, my pockets felt lighter and I had written a song. Sometimes I wonder if all bad days lead to a good song. I don't know. All I know is that a bad day isn't there for no reason.
It was way past closing time and I was busy cleaning up the last of the empty glasses, dirty ashtrays and coffee stains from the tables at Cafe Nature, a cosy little joint in the heart of Torshavn. I had been playing The Police's Greatest Hits album all night and couldn't get Roxanne out of my head. The CD had stopped playing but I kept on singing.
It was something I loved doing, especially after closing time when I didn't think anybody was listening. I was really belting out my jazzed up version of the song when up through the stairs bounded a tall, slender man with a shaved head. I recognized him. Thought I had seen him at Club Twenty a few nights earlier playing drums with some hip new band.
Startled out of my Police world I said, "Oh...um...thought everyone had gone home." He smiled and said, "You know, I've been looking for a singer to front this new cover band of mine. Any chance you'd be interested?"
And I guess you could say that's where it all started.
It was 1998 and I was restless. Hungry to record an album. I had met Niclas Johannesen in the cover band and together we started writing our own material. He had a real good sense for melody.
His Scandinavian influence and my North American background merged into what I call a 'Scandimerican' style that just felt right. We borrowed some recording gear and our friend Jakup's windowless basement and recorded ‘Long Distance’.
My first album. First songs. First time flipping out in a vocal booth (our homemade version of a vocal booth that is). First time learning how self-critical you become when you actually hear yourself on tape. First time discovering the true meaning of the word neurotic. Back then I had no direct ambition of 'making it' in the music business. I knew nothing about it. I just wanted to make music for music's sake.
My enthusiastic brother Leif had taken a few copies of the album with him to Canada. He was determined to help make his big sister famous. I was lying in bed in a hotel room in London when the front desk called and said that I had received a fax. In my pyjamas I went out to see who had faxed me in the middle of the night.
Lo and behold, my enthusiastic brother had gotten a North American record company's attention and they had faxed a contract straight to me (not considering the eight hour time difference). My naive little head just thought 'Where do I sign?'
I knew however that this was too good and too quick to be true. Enter Jonathan Simkin. World's best entertainment lawyer, whom my helpful, managerial brother also found for me. Jonathan immediately advised me not to sign any deal with this company. They were supposedly cocaine heads and owed loads of money to their artists.
The interest from North America led me and Niclas to Vancouver for a showcase at New Music West. We rented a rehearsal room and a few musicians and practiced intensely for five days. I had been told that this was it. This was the make it or break it gig of my lifetime. That I didn't have a second chance to make a first impression (quote stolen from an anti-dandruff shampoo commercial). The things people tell you.
I remember during one of those sweaty practices looking up and seeing a full-bearded man with white hair standing in the doorway, staring at me and moving his head to the music. Turned out he was a hot shot manager. Had managed a successful punk band a few years back and now he was interested in me. Only thing was...we didn't gel.
I didn't care for him suggesting I bare my midriff while on stage to get more record label interest. My lawyer didn't care for him either. In fact, the first and only time I had ever seen Jonathan angry was when Mr. Hot Shot came into the picture. And so the full-bearded man with white hair exited as quickly as he had entered. His intentions probably all good. Mine as well.
I suppose you could say my first encounter with an A&R person was rather untraditional (at least for me). He was working for Warner Canada and suggested that we meet in the lobby of his hotel. After shaking hands he then suggested we take a ride in his car while we listen to my demos. A few minutes later I was sitting in the passenger's seat of an I-don't-know-what-kind-exactly red convertible.
It was late spring and good cherry blossom weather. And it made me feel odd, nervous and special driving around town with the man who could potentially open up the gates of Warner for me. Wind in my hair, the rough demo mixes in my ear, and a sort of don't-get-your-hopes-up feeling in my stomach, I realised at that moment that there was no recipe for winning an A&R heart.
No sure way of knowing when you've written a hit. No guarantee that their ears will hear or feel what yours do. No jet-set ride in a record company's sports car is going to get your music out there. The distance between them looooving your stuff and actually committing to it is huge. It's a long road for the artist. And chances are the A&R man with the red convertible has now used up his company mileage.
I had hooked up with singer songwriter John Bottomely, and Niclas and I were doing a few shows with him at The Backstage Lounge in Vancouver. John was an old soul in a young body. He looked like an alley cat. A little wild, a little scruffy, but all full of love and soft on the inside.
When I first heard John sing it was as if that alley cat had leapt right out from underneath John's skin, scared it might drown in all that conviction. Music makes people interesting and people make music interesting. Another interesting fellow was Doug, the club's in-house soundman. He was one of those guys who insisted on wearing his hair in a ponytail even after Mother Nature had taken half of it away.
He smoked like a chimney and ate potato chips baked, not fried and with no MSG. He knew everything there was to know about live sound. Had been there, done that. He knew about all kinds of things, like for example ambergris. I remember commenting on his good-smelling cologne once and he had answered, "The smell lingers on for several hours because of all the ambergris they put in it."
"Amber what?" I asked, puzzled. "Ambergris, it's whale puke that floats on the top of the ocean. Fishermen pick it up and make a fortune selling it. Twenty bucks a gram. That's what they put in perfumes to make the scent last longer." Later I had checked ambergris out in the dictionary and sure enough soundman Doug was right. In fact, Doug was always right and one night I learned not to mess with his mix.
I was opening up for John Bottomley and feeling kind of nervous and beside myself. So I suppose I paid a little too much attention to what Doug was doing with my vocal sound rather than just singing my song. He had put too much reverb on it for my liking. Ignorant as I was, I told him so. On the mic, in front of everyone, in between songs of course.
After the set I went over to him to apologise. He scowled at me and shouted, "Don't you ever tell me what to do with the reverb, I'm on the fucking reverb!" I gave him puppy dog eyes and promised to never interfere again with his reverb technique. I have to admit though that I have, since that day, used Doug's very words when somebody tells me something I already know...I'll say, "I know, I'm on the fucking reverb!"
It was the summer of 2003 and I was hungry again to make another album. Having lived on demos for three years, Niclas and I decided it was time. We had written about 40 tunes over the last couple of years and had recorded rough demos of most of them. So we weren't lacking material, rather we were lacking the ability to choose which songs to put on the album.
Niclas had produced ‘Long Distance’ and felt it would be cool to find another producer for this album. We had been sending some of the demos to producer Oli Poulsen. He liked the material and was all up for it when we asked if he'd produce the album. He was based in Copenhagen and so off to Denmark it was. I had worked with Oli before and already knew how good he was.
He was a Producer with a capital P. Wore authentic cowboy boots. Alpha male. Could play any instrument he picked up. He was a self -taught genius. I remember driving to the studio with him one day.
Niclas was in the front seat and I was in the back and Stevie Wonder's ‘Superstitious’ was playing on the radio. Suddenly, I heard the wickedest sounding beats and they weren't coming from the car stereo. It was Oli.
He was drumming away in the driver's seat with those funky boots of his. While waiting for the red light to turn green, Oli had delivered the world's greatest boot drum solo in a car. I was impressed. He didn't need to show me no fancy CV or Grammy Award to impress me. That day, the boot solo was all I needed to know that this man knew what he was doing.
After seven months labour the album ‘Can't Erase It’ was born. And it was time to do some more shopping. I felt a little lost in the business of it all. I mean I'm not at all business-minded or practical-minded and I had been pretty much managing myself. With the new album in my back pocket and the determination to see it in many other people's back pockets; I went out looking for a manager.
I knew how hard finding a good manager was, and that was exactly why I hadn't bothered trying to find one in the first place. It was Niclas who stumbled upon the HitQuarters site and started looking up managers. He found Richard Ogden's name.
"Hey Lena, guess who this guy used to manage." "I don't know, The Smiths?" (I was and still am a Smiths fan...so they were my first guess) "Nope. Paul McCartney," he cheered. "You've got to be kidding! And even if you're not, a guy like him would never want to work with me!" The pessimist in me had arisen. We wrote him anyway.
Richard replied the next day asking for a press kit. I wanted to update the kit a bit with new photos and stuff so I thought I'd do that before sending it to Richard. A week later he emailed Niclas asking why he hadn't received the material yet.
When Niclas told him that we were doing some updating, Richard wrote “Just the album will do. Send the album!” And so we did. A copy of ‘Can't Erase It’ flew off from the stormy Faeroe Islands and into the hands of a genuine English gentleman who ended up loving the album and managing me.
Richard Ogden had secured a licensing deal in Demark for the ‘Can't Erase It’ album and so I introduced myself to the Danes by opening up for Roxy Music, doing a support tour for Beth Hart, and engaging myself in a very intense radio tour. As a Faroese-born Canadian-raised girl I never had the chance to learn Danish the way people living in the Faeroes do.
You see, the Faeroe Islands are technically a part of the Danish Kingdom and although the people there speak their own language (Faroese), it is compulsory to learn Danish as well. Given my upbringing, I was not included in this learning process but had picked up enough Danish by ear to be able to carry a conversation (a simple conversation that is).
On the radio tour I was given the option to speak English during interviews if I wanted, but thought I'd try to be a little cultural and speak Danish instead. Sometimes I kick myself for wanting to be so damn multi-lingual. And after the live interview at radio P4 in Holsterbro, I found the need to do just that.
The journalist had obviously done his homework on me because he knew that as a teenager I had been into punk music (still love a rockin' dosage of it now and then).
He said he had a surprise for me, and then gave a nod to the engineer who began to play The Dead Kennedys' ‘California Uber Alles’. I could tell by the way the journalist was moving his head to the music that he wasn't a punk rocker, but that was alright, he was still into it. He seemed proud of the fact that he had scooped up a part of my past and had it all nicely prepared for me.
He watched me while Jello Biafra's jiggly voice belted out to see if there were any signs of that little rebel in me coming to life. Yup. I sang along and bopped my head. In fact, he nearly had me moshing in the studio. When the song stopped playing he asked, "Your own music doesn’t exactly sound like this, so what was it about punk music that you liked?"
That was easy enough. "Well, the music just felt like a big release," I replied. His face went bright red and the engineer looked like he was about to explode. What had I said now? I knew my Danish was far from perfect, but I thought I had managed this one alright. Turns out the Danish word I used to translate "release", actually meant "ejaculation".
That explained the tomato-faced journalist and the nearly cracked up engineer. I had made a royal misinterpretation and my efforts to be as Danish as I could possibly be left me kicking myself hard, very hard, all the way to the next interview.
Determined to not let a big gap of years pass between albums and with a new pile of songs, writing partner Niclas Johannesen and I simply started on an entirely new album. With no big record company's budget to blow, we were as indie as they get and thought it was best to just make a quick and inexpensive acoustic album. One album. One week. Just the two of us.
We went back to our good old friend Jakup's studio, which was now no longer in a dark basement but smack dab in the middle of town in a small but bright room, and started recording. Everything was based around the acoustic guitar and the vibe we were feeling. Playing back the tracks, we liked what we were hearing but there were a few songs that felt a little too naked.
Like they needed some help from a friendly bass. A groovy pat on the back from a Wurlitzer. A kick in the ass from a tambourine (better yet, a full set of drums).
Yeah, we could hear lots of things that would potentially work and before we knew it we were standing in the recording studio at the Faroese National Radio station with a full band, laying the ground work for what became a much more ambitious project than the one week humble acoustic version we had intended on.
Heck, we even went to Abbey Road to record a few live tracks with strings. This of all recording sessions has to be the most idyllic I have yet experienced. "Alright then, Abbey Road here we come!" Dan Clews' lovely English voice was excited on the other end of the line. "See you tomorrow morning!" I answered in my slightly less lovely Canadian accent.
We had asked him to arrange ‘Stones In my Pocket’ for our Abbey sessions and gave him the liberty to do exactly what he wanted (though still staying true to the original feeling of the song). His arrangement included a harp, vibraphones, cello, double bass and an acoustic guitar. So I was really looking forward to hearing it.
Niclas and I were staying at a hotel within walking distance of the studio, but we were running a tad late and so asked the concierge to call a cab. "Where to Miss?" he asked. His accent sounded Eastern European...maybe Hungarian. "Abbey Road Studios." I replied.
He turned to make the call and then, as if something quite extraordinary had just dawned on him, he whipped his head back towards me and asked in an almost adolescent boy-not-quite-man-yet voice "You mean the Beatles one?!" "Yeah." I smiled, trying to keep cool, but my insides were like jelly and I felt just as adolescent as the concierge had sounded.
We arrived at Abbey Road on time. We were accompanied by the Faroese Television film crew who had been following me for a couple of days, making a documentary on the first Faroese artist to record at the Beatles studio. To their dismay, they were told when signing in at the reception that they weren't allowed to film in the corridors or anywhere else, only in Studio 2 where we were booked.
I reassured them that the corridors weren't that interesting; it was Studio 2 that was ‘the’ studio. Dan Clews and engineer Joe Hirst had already arrived and were drinking coffee with milk.
I hadn't had my full dose of coffee black that morning so I quickly poured myself a cup after we had said our hellos. All our correspondence had been via the internet, so it was nice to finally meet them in all their human dimensions.
Dan and Joe certainly lived up to my expectations of young Englishmen. Chivalrous and rock 'n' roll at the same time. A rare combination found only in the UK. They knew when it was time to work, when it was time to crack dry English jokes and when it was time to drink lager. I felt right at home in Studio 2.
During our first session we recorded ‘Stones in My Pocket’, which Dan had arranged. ‘And Life Carries On’ was the next tune. Niclas, who was also producing the album, had arranged the strings for this track together with our friend and fellow musician, Finnur Hansen. We used a typical string quartet ensemble and watched the song take on a pair of timeless wings and soar through the live room of Studio 2.
Music is magic. And magic exists in the live room of Studio 2. I will attest to that. I laid down the vocal track for that very tune with the lights turned off and only a warm projector light shining down, gently illuminating the old hardwood floors. Joe had asked me when I first entered the room if I could feel the vibe.
Indeed I could. Alone in the big room, where immeasurable amounts of musical energy had flowed over the years, and with what felt like miles to the ceiling, I sang. Up in the control room there was silence for about a minute after I had stopped singing. And then through my headphones I could hear Joe say, "That's the take."
The song ‘Let Your Scars Dance’ had taken on quite a seventies feel and Niclas had written this brilliantly fresh string arrangement for it. We used the quartet for that too. "We want attitude! Lots of it!" Niclas said to the players during rehearsal. They had been playing so beautifully on the previous song and this next one definitely needed the rock attitude. Ugly. Wild. Fearless.
I think the players had quite a blast down in the live room that day, just being unconventional and crazy. Sometimes we take music too seriously and forget that it's also about having fun. And for the last bit of the song we added some extra fun.
There was an upright Steinway standing in the far corner of the room and we asked Mirek, the in-house engineer, what the story was behind it. "That's the Lady Madonna piano." Mirek told us. Niclas started playing the ‘Lady Madonna’ riff on it, and sure enough it sounded like the piano Paul McCartney had played way back in 1968 for that very single.
"We've got to have this piano playing somewhere in the song," Niclas said. With the song already arranged and recorded, it really didn't need much in the way of extra instrumentation. But Niclas came up with the brilliant idea of just playing a one-note, sort of percussive accompaniment for the strings. Mirek was an expert on mikes and decided to rig us up with something special.
He went over to the great Abbey mic assortment and returned with the oddest looking microphone I'd ever seen. "What's the name of that one?" I asked curiously. "This, my dear, is the ‘Ball and Biscuit’". Looking closer, I could actually see the ball and the biscuit.
And so on our last afternoon at Abbey Road we recorded the piano for ‘Let Your Scars Dance’ using the Lady Madonna Steinway and the ‘Ball and Biscuit’ microphone.
Niclas and Joe Hirst took turns banging away the one-note part on the historical piano while I played engineer up in the control room.
It was our last day in London and I had had a blast. But that day, fate decided to top my London cake with the most exquisite icing I had ever tasted. It was a late Sunday morning and Niclas and I were strolling along the streets of the St. John’s Wood area, near Abbey Road Studio. We were talking about the city, music and Paul McCartney, wondering whether or not he lived in the area.
My stomach started to rumble and my caffeine Ievels were low. We were on the lookout for a place to eat and I suggested we go to the same place we had been to with the television crew a couple of nights earlier. I had just set foot inside the restaurant when Niclas whispered, "He's here." "Who's here?" I asked, unzipping my leather jacket. "Paul McCartney."
In disbelief I turned my head in the same direction as Niclas' eyes were pointing, and there he was staring straight at me. The restaurant was crowded and it seemed as though all the tables were occupied. "Just a minute while I try to find you two a table." The waiter approached us with his French accent (I suppose I have thing for accents).
He came back half a minute later and sat us at the table right next to the brilliant melody-maker. I looked down as I was being seated, trying desperately to give him his privacy and partly embarrassed that I was wearing so much leather in the presence of one the most famous vegetarians. I had on my black leather biker boots, leather jacket and a leather belt.
Six months later, it's October 2006, and I am taking in the crisp autumn air as I walk to the studio where Oli Poulsen is mixing the album that once upon a time was supposed to be acoustic and only take one week to record. Niclas and I have taken this album as far as we musically can. Now it's time for the man who delivered the world's greatest boot drum solo in a car to work his magic.
I've spent most of my life asking myself what I want from it. I come up with answers that satisfy me for a day or two and then I ask the question again. When it seems almost impossible to figure out, I find comfort in returning to the bare necessities of life. Love, music and coffee black. That's a good start.
Artists interested in contributing to HitQuarters future chapters of Artist Diary are welcome to get in touch through our contact page
Read On ...