It would have been easy for Susanne Sundfør to follow up her breathtaking album “Ten Love Songs” with “Ten More Love Songs,” if only it hadn’t been impossible. “Ten Love Songs,” after all, had been her third No 1 album at home in Norway, and her first to gain widespread attention abroad, winning a slew of gushing reviews in the UK and US. It was impossible because Sundfør had a breakdown as she completed “Ten Love Songs” in 2014, and pressed the reset button on her life: she travelled around the world, she changed homes, she completely altered the way she worked.
The result is “Music for People in Trouble,” her fifth “proper” album, and her first for Bella Union, home to Father John Misty, Ezra Furman, John Grant, Van Dyke Parks and many of pop’s other great individualists. It’s a stark and beautiful album, often stripped back to Sundfør’s wonderful voice accompanied by piano or guitar, and it was inspired by the fears Sundfør felt – for the world and for herself – in the wake of her last album.
“I was exhausted,” she says, “and had some pretty bad experiences. It just got too much. A couple of months after I broke down, it was like ground zero for me. There was nothing. I could only grow, and I think that’s why it was so easy to write the music. I also had a lot of things I wanted to say.”
As soon as her tour in support of “Ten Love Songs” finished in autumn 2015, Sundfør set out to find something new. She took a camera and went to Iceland, to Brazil to travel deep into the Amazon Basin, to Guatemala, to Spain. She went to Colorado and LA, to China and North Korea. It was, she thinks, an ultra extreme version of mindfulness: instead of going to a quiet room and clearing her head, she was putting herself in environments where she couldn’t help but have her thoughts consumed by the totality of the experience. “It’s a way of letting go of control,” she says. “It’s nice to have somebody else tell you what to do, and to explore other people. That was part of the healing process. Just letting yourself enjoy the moment. I think that was the best sort of therapy for me, because usually I ruminate. I think about something and can’t find a solution and it just keeps accelerating in my head.”
In North Korea, she was convinced she was going to get arrested at passport control, but the people of the country confounded her expectations. “They’re extremely funny. The first thing people would say to me was: ‘Why don’t you have a boyfriend? You’re over 30, you need to have a boyfriend!’ It was very direct, but they were making fun of me. Then it’s like they switch a button and they’re talking for the Great Leader, and then right after that: ‘I really like your lipstick, where did you get it?’”
Sundfør wasn’t just going on an extended holiday, though. She had set herself the task of visiting and photographing some of the world’s strangest places before they were changed irrevocably, be that the result of political upheaval or environmental catastrophe. “Music for People in Trouble” reflects this, it is stern and stark and beautiful. “It’s not a very innocent record, is it?” she notes. “I don’t like bullshit, and I don’t like to pretend, and I think that comes through in the songs. The most important thing to me is that it’s honest, and this is a very honest album.”
It’s almost fatalist at times, in fact. “Reincarnation” sees Sundfør contemplating the end of the world and dreaming of “a glass cylinder / Where we can linger / It might take us to the stars”; in “Bedtime Story,” she notes “I always thought my life would be a sad song … What is love but a frail, little dreamcatcher?”; in “Mountaineers,” she is looking up and marvelling at the beauty, except she is “neck deep in black water” and beneath her feet are “barren lands of boiling tar.”
And so to the music. It shouldn’t come as surprise, Sundfør says. Her first album, “Take One,” had been a singer-songwriter record. Three synthesiser-based records followed: “The Brothel,” “The Silicone Veil” and “Ten Love Songs.” But the point came where “I was really tired of playing synthesisers.” On the occasions where she and her band would play a song live that hadn’t been preprogrammed, “it felt so liberating and also very weird, Suddenly it was: ‘Wait, who am I following? Oh, shit, we’re following each other … That is so awesome!’ But that’s how musicians have always played together, apart from the last 20 years.”
She also wanted to go back to the music she had first loved – Carole King, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens – and make something in their tradition. For the first time, the songs poured out of her without impediment.
There were people in the music business busily facepalming over the abrupt change in direction – “No, Susanne! Plug the synths back in! Do the dark pop songs again!” – but she didn’t listen. “People in the business said, ‘Don’t do that,’ which just made me want to do it more. They can promote and sell the music, but they really don’t have to interfere with what the musicians do. That should be up to us.”
This time, though, she decided to cut the workload that had partially prompted her breakdown, with her longtime mixer Jørgen Træen co-producing with her. “I wish I’d produced with him on “Ten Love Songs,” because he adds so much to the music,” she says.”He’s really good at understanding what the music means, but not necessarily in a conventional way. He gets some strange ideas, and it turns out that they were exactly what the song needed.” For example, she says, he added “another dimension” to “Bedtime Story” by using a recording he had made of an old woman pacing back and forth in her home, her grandfather clock ticking in the background.
The recording also reflected her desire to get out and about in the world. She interpolated her trips and recording sessions, making the album between late 2015 and the start of this year, recording in Woodstock, Bergen, London and Los Angeles. She was able to achieve the honesty she is proud of on the album not just through the ease of writing, but because in the wake of her breakdown she had realised the lies she was telling herself; she had learned to self-examine.
What she has learned now is the power of solitude, and “Music for People in Trouble” is a record that sounds like solitude, like the hours spent trying to figure out how to make one’s life better. She hasn’t become a recluse, she won’t run from company, but she’s figured out where she fits in. “My favourite place is to be at a party, but not at the party,” she says.
“I’ll be in the room next door, playing the piano. That’s where I want to be.”
She had better be careful, though. Because once she starts playing, that room will fill up.