Susanna and the Magical Orchestra
Though they might deny it, there is something enchanting about the music of Susanna Wallumrod and Morten Qvenild. The named and the orchestra, respectively, of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, the duo combines expertly Susanna's mild, beautiful voice with Morten's delicate, sparse keyboard work. Add in a little production help from the man behind Deathprod, Helge Sten, and the result is music that inspires more questions than answers. There are probably few who know a lot about them other than those very close to them, so it is a delight to be able to present this interview. It was conducted by Eden Hemming Rose between June 30th and August 17th of 2004.
MQ: We started working together four years ago, and I think we both had been looking out for each other. Even though we are from the same city, Kongsberg, which is quite small, we didnít run into each other before we were both living in Oslo. I have always been fascinated by the duet - constellation, and I had some experience with this before we started working together. There is a big lyrical potential in this setting, and also very much space for both of us to work in. From the start I have admired Susanna a lot musically, and it worked out very well from the start, although we spent some time to figure out what was our musical platform as a duet. We had to start trying to make our own signature on things, and this came out well. Thatís probably why we are still working together.
SW: We started to work together in 2000. I was looking for a piano player to play with; I wanted to work in a duo and like piano as an instrument very well. I had already tried working with several musicians without any luck. I knew that Morten was playing, and I asked him if he wanted to try it out with me. And it worked out fine. We stayed in the rehearsing room for a year before our first concert.
SW: No, I do not think so.
MQ: I donít think that the time or place we met each other has influenced the music in any important way.
MQ: Iím always looking out for great songs, songs that hit me in the face and make me feel that I look upon something great. Susanna suggested that we should play this song, and the song captured me at first glimpse. ďJoleneĒ is a great song and a desperate story that really hit my neurological system. When we managed to do a nice version of it, that we both were happy with, it was no doubt that we were going to put it on the record.
SW: Jolene is one of my favorite songs, and has been since I was about six years old. I just loved it long before I even knew and understood the meaning of the words; it has always moved me in a special way and I very much wanted us to make our version of it. So we tried, and it took a long time before we got to play it the way we play it today.
MQ: Actually, touring for me it not so much about which country Iím in. Of course, Iíve done very much touring in Norway, but Iíve also toured in Sweden, Denmark, Spain, England, France, Germany, Macedonia, USA, Belgium, Netherlands and Italy. In every country you meet fantastic concert arrangers, crowds and good food (which is very important to me). In the same countries you meet people that really donít know how to arrange a concert and crowds that unfortunately just came to the wrong concert. Maybe you get served a really trashy dinner too!
So, as a conclusion I can say that I like to tour, as long as it doesnít become too much of a stressful experience. Iím also a guy that collects the good experiences and remembers them, while Iím trying to learn from, or just forget the bad ones. This is important to me, no matter what country Iím in.
SW: Well, we have played almost every concert in Norway, except for one in London and one in Barcelona. So far I think I have enjoyed every place we have been to.
MQ: I really think that it is, and always has been, an important part of me to play and write music, and I started this when I was about six years old. The first stuff I wrote was instrumental music, and I really donít remember a lot of it now. I think I wrote my first song with my own lyrics when I was about 14 years old. This song was a comment from a young boy with a feeling that nobody understood him. Puberty? Quite dramatic thing actually. I still remember the song, but I will not record or play it because it is a symbol of a young boy on a way towards something, rather than very good music. As an artist, I feel that Iím always on my way, and itís often hard to be satisfied with stuff that lies behind of you in time.
SW: I started kind of early making songs on the piano (started with piano lessons around seven years old), and made my first song with lyrics when I was 14 years old. Music have always been a big part of my life, so I guess it just happened naturally. I donít really listen so much to the first things I made, and that is for a reason; it feels like some sort of teenage music.
SW: My first performance was at the age of five years old. I guess it became more difficult when I grew a little older.
MQ: I think I performed first time at the age of six, when I was taking classical piano lessons and we had a concert by the end of each semester. This was no trouble at all. The nervous[ness] and the seriousness came later. Itís been periods with difficult performances due to nerves, but now itís all right. With Susanna Iím sometimes nervous because of the openness of the music. Itís very exposed music.
SW: I think working with it is the only way to develop.
MQ: I think that a mixture of getting older and working/living with music for ten years has helped me mature as a musician, composer, and as a person. Itís difficult to point out specifically the most important thing, but I believe in hard work in order to mature in what youíre doing, no matter what your occupation is.
SW: That depends from one time to another; sometimes it takes one hour, sometimes it takes one year. Sometimes the music comes first and sometimes the words; it is difficult to explain about the process because it happens in many different ways.
MQ: It basically is two phases of getting a song to work: You have to write it, and then you have to perform it in a way that you like. Of course you also have to write it in a way you like. This process is a creative thing with a lot of trying and failing until we (hopefully) get a good result. If we donít get a good result either because the song, arrangement or the performing is not good enough, we put it to rest for a while or just discard it.
Making a song can take from five minutes and up to several days. Often a song needs time to mature before I can put it on paper, and sometimes it is just very easy. To know if it is any good, you have to feel the song and use your stomach. Youíll hopefully know when you get it right.
SW: Not for me, I have just tried to be in contact with myself and my way to tell a story. But who knows where our stories come from, or what we are influenced by?
MQ: The intention with our songs is always to create something that we like personally. I donít intentionally use that kind of references in my music, but I think itís great that the listener puts her/his own references into the music, and makes some own conclusions.
SW: I have had a few other projects besides S&TMO, and I think it is a good thing as long as we have got time to do S&TMO as well.
MQ: I no longer play in Jaga. I was with them for two years (2000-2002), and I was involved in making "the Stix," plus a lot of touring. This was a good time, but this band was too demanding to me when it came to time spent. I had to quit to make the record with Susanna, and concentrate on my education for a while. By the way Iím educated in jazz piano by the Norwegian Academy of Music.
Now I do some different projects:
-I have my own trio with piano, bass, and drums. Itís called "in the country." Hopefully releasing an album in the spring.
- I play with Shining, a quartet. Two albums released, the last on Jazzland. New release in march.
- I play with Nils Petter Molvśr and a few other constellations in Norway.
For me, working with other projects is necessary, both personal and economically. Iím actually lucky to earn my money only from things that I like doing. Not every musician has a life like that. Actually I consider myself more an artist than a musician because I only do stuff that Iím involved in artistically and philosophically.
The only problem is the classic one: time. My life has got quite an amount of organizing just to get it together. Susanna and the Magical Orchestra is my first priority, so I try to arrange other things when I know that we are not working. Itís hard work, but it is also a fantastic life!
SW: There has been some projects where I have done other peopleís songs in studio or in concerts, but not permanent projects or bands, besides my project with another keyboard player named David (who is my cousin by the way). We have been playing both as a duo and as a band, doing cover songs by Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen amongst others. The work I do with David is somehow the project which is closest to the one I do with Morten, because it contains more of me and my music than the other things I have been doing.
SW: I have not done that yet, and being some kind of a perfectionist I strongly doubt that I ever will. But at the same time I will not say that I am never going to do it.
MQ: If you listen carefully, youíll hear my voice in the song ďDistance Blues and Theory.Ē This was just a stunt. Normally I wouldnít sing, because I do not feel that my singing is good enough.
SW: I agree. That is very difficult to explain about our own music. I cannot tell exactly what we have added or want to add in our approach to the music, apart from that I always will struggle to be in contact with my music. I think it is kind of abstract material, so again, it is hard to say anything very concrete about it, especially about my own music.
MQ: I think of every new song as a new, not decided journey. For me itís important to stay as open as possible, and see where the music is going. This for me is about evolving. As long as I can stay open, and involve my gut feeling, new things will appear and the music is evolving.
The most important thing in this process for me is a calmness and a lot of time.
-- Eden Hemming Rose (28 June, 2005)