Silje Nergaard: Scorning the same old songs

The singer Silje Nergaard is a huge star in Norway. Sholto Byrnes says she should be just as big in this country
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The Independent Culture

At a time when real jazz, as it is understood by its hardworking practitioners honking away at the coalface of improvisation, is in danger of being submerged underneath a tidal wave of glossily packaged crooners, do we really need yet another jazz singer? The production lines seem to be going at full steam, churning out young person after young person who has mastered the great American songbook sufficiently well to make the obligatory appearance on Parkinson. In fact, that show's host is rapidly becoming a sort of Saatchi-in-reverse for British jazz singers, championing and offering great publicity to those who share his conservative taste in music, but reserving not a crumb for more challenging vocal artists with a greater connection to the jazz tradition.

It would be too much to expect singers as experimental as, say, Maria Pia de Vito to be picked up and plastered on billboards across the country. But there are other voices out there, deserving of the plaudits and the poster campaigns, who do make the case for enlarging still further the choral ranks. And Silje Nergaard is most definitely one of them.

Silje (pronounced "Celia") Nergaard is one of the Norwegian jazz artists currently dominating Europe, but is still relatively unknown in Britain. Anyone who hears her in concert, however, can hardly fail to be instantly converted. Reviewing her at Ronnie Scott's a couple of years ago, I wrote: "Her middle register has a captivating, viola-rich timbre, played with plenty of rosin on the bow so that she cuts emphatically into each note, but with perfect control. There is a candy-sweetness to her voice, but this candy is not for children. It's after-dinner candy, with black coffee and the promise of what is to follow."

She stands out not only on the strength of her voice, but also in her songwriting. Structurally, her compositions are influenced by an early love of singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, but their realisation and harmony come from jazz. It is the happiest of meetings. "I have not been taught that you have to follow the rules," she says, "because, frankly, I never learnt them anyway. I've always been open with genre."

Nergaard grew up in a musical family in the south east of Norway. Her father played guitar, her mother sang, and Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald and Dave Brubeck were constantly on the record player. "I was always in love with music," says Nergaard, "always cycling home to sing and play the piano." Taught classically, she learned about jazz harmony and chord placings on her own.

In her teens her musical career took off in the most remarkable way. Jaco Pastorius's then band was playing at the Molde International Jazz Festival in Norway in 1982, and the 16-year-old Nergaard was there.

"I went into the women's bathroom and started singing," she recalls. "This woman knocked on the door and said you should be singing on stage. So I went from the bathroom to the stage and sang with the band. And the next day all the papers were writing about me."

She must have been unusually confident, I say to her. "Yes, very unafraid of things, very eager," she says, "and very naïve too!" After spending a few years in Oslo, and touring in a two-woman band called The Blue Girls - "we played up north for the military; they were unhappy guys, so we cheered them up a little" - Nergaard demonstrated that confidence again in a New York club.

"I'd written a very Pat Metheny-type tune on the guitar, and I had a dream that Pat would play it. I was convinced it was true." So when Nergaard saw the guitarist in a club, she approached him and gave him a tape of the tune. "I told him that I'd had a dream that he would play it." His response? "He just said 'I'm very busy.'" But Metheny listened to the tape, and not only played the number with her but also recommended her to a record company.

Eight albums on, Nergaard is established as a major star in Norway. Her penultimate release, At First Light, went straight into the pop charts at number one and then went platinum. But with two girls, aged one and seven, she says that she and her husband, who is also a singer, need "balance" in their lives. Remaining true to her artistry is more important to her than gaining the greater rewards she undoubtedly could if she moved more towards pop. She has, in any case, been there before, entering the British Top 40 in 1990, when she was based in London for four years.

What did she make of London then, I ask her. "I thought it was modern and old-fashioned at the same time," she says. "Coming from Norway, where all our cities are much smaller, I very quickly learned your word 'annoying'. Cars were clamped; the trains kept stopping. And your queuing system was very strange to me, because it never seemed to move." Did any of the local culture rub off on her? "I learnt to have milk in my tea. Now I'm a proper English tea-drinker," she says.

Tea etiquette apart, it's good that no more of London has left its mark on Nergaard, for her music does not speak of the urban sprawl, of heart-race and rat-race. Backed by the Tord Gustavsen Trio, her music breathes easily in the space around it, space that it isn't filled by layer after layer of pads and drum effects by over-eager producers. "Music sums up everything," says Nergaard: "what I listen to, the life I live, the people I meet. Music is the way I express being alive. And it comes out like this."

From the way it comes out, it sounds like a good life, and a more textured, nuanced life than would be revealed by yet another trawl through Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter and Gershwin. Rich though those books are, sometimes we need to write our own.

Silje Nergaard plays Pizza Express, Dean Street, London W1 (020-7439 8722), as part of the London Jazz Festival, on 20 & 21 November