“Life is ready to happen and unfold. But we’re just a vessel… we don’t do life, we don’t choose life, life does us.”
Those are the words of Andres Roberts, a guide at Way of Nature, a company that takes people into the wilderness for an encounter with the great unknown. But for Susanne Sundfør, who used them as part of the spoken word title track on her new album, Music for People in Trouble, it was a cold comfort. After an intense handful of years that saw her release two albums to critical acclaim (2012’s The Silicone Veil and 2014’s Ten Love Songs) and keep a grueling schedule that involved producing, touring across the globe, and even taking the stage at the Hollywood Bowl with M83 to perform their Oblivion soundtrack collaboration, the Norwegian singer-songwriter bottomed out. Life was doing her, and she needed a break.
“I think I had just gone through so many hard things that my body and mind wasn’t coping with it anymore,” Sundfør says from her home in Oslo, remembering the time marked with headaches, dizziness, and depression. “I had to take a step back and reevaluate my life, basically.”
Sundfør’s next act came in the form of a camera, purchased on a whim from Amazon after paging through a book of photos by Norwegian author Tomas Espedal. The self-declared workaholic immediately saw the potential for her newfound hobby as complementary to her main gig. Soon she found herself traveling from North Korea to the Amazon in search of photo subjects. (A booklet of her images will be available along with Music for People in Trouble.)
“With photography, you have to listen to your surroundings in order to create a composition,” she says. “It’s a very different way of expressing yourself. With music, it comes from within. It takes a lot of energy.”
It’s that wiliness to change it up that consistently impresses John Grant, who appears on Music for People in Trouble track, “Mountaineers.”
“She is simply a child at heart, curious about sounds and words and music and the voice, and always searching for new and inspiring things,” he says. “As a person, she is simply an individual. A Norwegian individual. But she does her own thing and isn’t interested in adhering to any pre-prescribed norms.”
A wiliness to step outside daily life, coupled with an amassed collection of passport stamps, helped set the tone for what would come. Tired of programming synths, Sundfør directed the moody collection of songs more toward dark jazz, ambient nature samples, and guitar passages inspired by her teenage hero, Nick Drake. Together, these newfound and rediscovered sounds became a minimal backdrop for her indelible soprano. (“And did I mention that voice?” Grant jokes of the instrument that has been known to make fans cry during live shows.)
Sure, the occasional romantic lyric sneaks through. See: brokenhearted lines like, “I wish I had a lover/ To tell me what was real/ To tell me what to feel.” (“I’m definitely not the relationship expert,” Sundfør notes with a laugh and verbal eye roll. “I just sound like it.”) But overall, the musician’s Music For People in Trouble characters concern themselves with the task of self-discovery. On “Mountaineers,” which serves as the album’s haunting losing track, Sundfør tackles the heady idea of mediating on nature as a way to understand herself. For the singer, the idea of getting out of your head has been one of the big takeaways from this crazy time period.
“I think often people who are inspired by religion or spirituality, they’re often good at putting themselves in perspective of something bigger,” she muses. “I think sometimes that can be a bad thing because it’s easy to exploit people who sort of dedicate themselves to something that’s bigger than them. But I also think that there’s something really healthy about it. For me, I put myself in perspective of the universe. Because it makes me feel small. That makes me calm.”