Oslo state of mind

Norway is a land of strong contrasts and turbulent undercurrents. No wonder Beate Lech has created a unique soundscape. Keith Shadwick meets her
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Something dark and exciting has been stirring in the backwaters of Norwegian music in recent times. It's not often that Norway reaches out and shakes our collective musical consciousness, but when it does, the results are usually memorable. There are metaphorical as well as physical mountains to climb to make your voice heard, so what gets out is pretty special. The latest in that line are Beady Belle, a band of four musicians who are the musical outlet for the creative muse of Beate Lech, a young woman of singular musical, vocal and lyrical talents.

If you're Norwegian, and you want to create music that isn't either a re-invocation of Edvard Grieg or clog dancing in the fjords, what do you do? A couple of years ago, Lech came up with a more than viable solution. Taking her expressive voice, her penchant for allusive but biting lyrics and a sensuous love of sound that has her mix synthesisers and acoustic instruments, dance beats and ambience, she set out to create a music that was all her own.

Relaxing in the plush armchairs of the Bristol Hotel's sedate lounge in central Oslo, Lech recalls the course that took her to today's mastery. "I grew up with music around me. My dad's Polish and my mum's Norwegian. Both were amateur musicians: he was a violinist and played jazz; she was a singer. My first strong memory of music is my mother singing lullabies to me when I was very small. She would sit on my bed and sing these old Norwegian songs to me, and she would sing for hours. I was in love with that, really in love with it, having my mother there singing those melodies to me. I was embraced by it. It was very intimate and intense, and it has stayed with me."

She finds that quiet intimacy and intensity reflected in everyday life in Norway, brought on by the extremes of weather. After the short summer, with its near-endless daylight, by October people are wrapped up against temperatures of -20C. "I was born in a town in western Norway with a population of just 9,000. Norway has only five million people; Oslo is just 500,000. The people keep their distance, like the country, until you know them well. Not like Italians, who are expansive, throw their arms in the air and exclaim over everything. Here it's dark and cold, people hurrying along in the snow with their heads down and going to bars or cafés to meet friends. No great show of emotion... But these places, they're very intimate, too."

That is what Lech's music epitomises: a surface coolness that conceals a surprising turbulence and an utter lack of sentimentality. Her music is all about contrasts: taking disparate elements and making them work together, so redefining them.

"When I was six, I was started on the violin, and I studied it for 10 years. But I was born in the mid-Seventies, and that period was my music. The first thing I had a big feeling for, that I felt to be mine, was black popular music from America, especially Stevie Wonder. Songs in the Key of Life - that was what I embraced. And it is there in my music now, but it's always combined with other ideas from completely different places. It's that juggling and balance I like." One of those places is her instrumental training, which allows her to write easily and quickly for violin and related string instruments. Such contrast appeals strongly to her. "I like putting this thing with that; I'm not interested in pigeonholes. Each thing I add is defined by the other I put with it, by its contrast, or becomes something else. Like hot and cold together."

It has taken Lech 10 years to find a way to offer her music to the world. "I've made lots of records in Norway, singing other people's music, different styles - pop, jazz and that - but I wanted to record and perform my own music. I had always composed songs - I've written hundreds of bits and pieces since I was a kid." So it became essential to find a way to move on from being merely an entertainer. "I don't do this just to make money. I don't have any desire to stand there miming to tapes to have hits. I live in Oslo and I'm happy. I don't need more. It's only recently I've seen more of the world and seen how beautiful it is. But I don't have to own it."

The route to the extraordinary achievement of the two recent albums, 2001's Home and this month's Cewbeagappic, was provided by the musical community in Oslo that coalesced around the musician, producer, record-label-owner and cultural shaman Bugge Wesseltoft. He knew Lech had untapped musical abilities. Two years ago he acted on his instincts. "He asked me to make a record for his label, Jazzland, and left the music 100 per cent up to me. "

She wrote lyrics in English from the start. "It's important to me to write in English. The words usually come second for me, and fit the music. I write lyrics, not poems - I make little scenes, little pictures. I paint situations. They're not my life, but things I observe. The autobiography is only in the sense of being a history of my ideas.

"In write in English because I love sound, and when I speak or think in English, I am constantly excited by the sounds I hear; I fall in love with the sounds of the words. I can't do that with Norwegian - it's too much just part of everyday life."

'Cewbeagappic' is out now on Jazzland/Universal