This week, we have two female songwriters, both from the northwest. Country/Americana artist Brandy Clark is from the Pacific Northwest originally. Meanwhile, Susanne Sundfør is from Norway, the western and northernmost portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Both explore their heritage in their most recent albums.
Brandy Clark was born in Morton, Washington, a small logging town. She grew up enamoured with country music, naming the Patsy Cline movie Sweet Dreams as a particularly vivid influence. She took time out from music in her teens, attending Central Washington University on a basketball scholarship. Clark was already a well-regarded songwriter when she started her own career as a performer. Brandy Clark is her fourth album as a recording artist, revisiting her past in the Northwest.
…one thing that really intrigued me was [Brandi Carlile] saying ‘I see it as your return to the Northwest.’ That comment inspired so much for me. It took me back to where and how I grew up. ‘Northwest’ and ‘She Smoked In The House’ were both a result of that early conversation.”
Clark’s career has straddled the divide between mainstream country and the more organic sounds of Americana. This fourth album leans harder into Americana, fitting in with the nostalgic sound. Tracks like ‘Northwest’, a success with its tougher guitar sound, and ‘She Smoked in the House’ hark back to her childhood. Derek Trucks, known for his work with the Allman Brothers Band and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, adds some guitar muscle to the opening ‘Ain’t Enough Rocks’.
If there’s nostalgia in places, there’s also confessional biography – Carlile duets with Clark on ‘Dear Insecurity’, where they sing “That my lips are way too thin/Too many miles on my skin”. There’s something lost with the more sincere and direct approach Clark takes here. Starting as a professional songwriter, her cutting wit was always a strength, and always writing sincerely takes away one on her main strengths.
It’s interesting hearing Clark writing from biography, but it’s not always the strength you might expect.
Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør is best loved for her 2015 album 10 Love Songs. She embraced pop beats, adding propulsion behind her haunting voice. On her sixth album, Blómi, she’s back in singer-songwriter mode, often behind the piano. The record is dedicated to two members of her family – her young daughter, born in 2020, and her grandfather. Her grandfather is a linguist, well-known for his controversial theories.
Kjell Aartun, (in)famous for his theory that Norway’s Norse Runes came not from Vikings but semitic fertility cults. While her grandfather’s speculative runology was heavily contested during his lifetime, on blómi, she translates excerpts of his work into song, turning them into something beyond question and criticism.https://www.stereogum.com/2221784/susanne-sundfor-blomi/interviews/qa/
Sundfør’s pretty tunes deserve the singer-songwriter label, but she’s often wide-ranging. There are pretty tunes like ‘Alyosha’ and ‘Blómi’, but there’s also weird material. The jazzy feel and junkyard percussion of ‘Ṣānnu Yārru Lī’ recalls Tom Waits. Then there’s the lengthy ‘Leikara Ljóð’, where the pretty humming jars with the “gimme gimme gimme shock treatment” hook. The record also emphasises the spoken word, beginning and ending with dialogue.
Blómi has actually interrupted Sundfør’s impressive sequence of number one albums in Norway, peaking at number two. But it’s fascinating nonetheless – not her best record, but full of ideas.