Usually when one gets into this business, they often dream of having the opportunity to talk with the entertainers that they have grown to respect and admire. I personally remember fondly when I was an intern walking daily through Avenue of Americas to the NYC Ebony Magazine office listening to the smooth sounds of Bernhoft’s Solidarity Breaks and Islander albums after being introduced to him as a VH1 “You Oughta Know” Artist. Fast forward nearly 3 years later and i’m having a conversation with the man talking about everything from his evolution as an artist from his solo debut Cermaic City Chronicles to his most recent EP Stop/Shutup/Shout it Out, his time living in NYC, and his take on the social issues going on in America.
Ladale The Fashionisto: Your mother was a music teacher, and your father also was an opera singer, did they have any type of influence in your career type, in terms of the sound of your music, or did they allow you to find your own path in music ?
Bernhoft: No, I wouldn’t say that. The most important thing that they gave me was a freedom and certainly no kind of … Let’s say, if I wanted to pursue music as a profession, they were not in a position to say, “No, you shouldn’t do that,” because they were deeply in the whole thing themselves. I think as far as sound, no, I don’t think so. I would say that most of my … At least my mom, she completely likes it. She is very musical, but she completely likes the feeling for any African American music. She enjoys it, but she doesn’t have that tonality, if you want and my dad as well. I think the main thing that they gave me, I think is exposing me to music from a very young age. That was really cool. That’s something I carry with me to this day. In terms of sound, no, they were very open. They have tons of instruments lying around, in this chaotic mess of a house that I grew up in. There was a violin that was constantly with 3 strings on, and there was a trumpet hanging on the wall and a clarinet, an old piano that was slightly out of tune, but it sounded really cool like a hard guitar thing. Yeah, messy, but free. That was my upbringing.
Ladale: Did you grew up with any siblings ?
Bernhoft: Yeah. I have a younger brother. He’s also extremely musical, but he’s just in a different path altogether.
Ladale: Let’s say you wasn’t a singer, what would you be generally doing? What would be your second occupation of choice ?
Bernhoft: I don’t know. I’m superbly lazy when it comes to everything else in life. It’s scary because recently I’ve started to see myself as a singer, first and foremost. Until 5 years ago, I perceived myself as a guitar player who incidentally sing. I guess I would probably play some kind of stringed instrument. My mom, when she was studying in conservatory, was teaching kids how to play piano, and she could never teach me. I was lousy with keys, but anything with strings on, I can make a passable sound. If there wasn’t music, I probably would have been a bum.
Ladale: Like a bum, like playing music on the side of the road? Is that what you’re talking about ?
Bernhoft: No. I’d probably be some kind of … If it wasn’t for music, then I’d just be bum. No music. I would be on the street. I don’t know, if there was a need, I’d probably make do, but I’m so lazy, man, I could never sustain a proper job. I’m trying to study and stuff like that. It’s not that I’m stupid. I just lose focus. That might be because of touring and the other world of doing music for a living.
Ladale: I understand that you grew up in Norway. The type of music that you make, some might say … or consider you to be an R&B singer, based on the other type of music I’ve heard from you, there’s also that 1970s type of funk sound ingrained into your music. Growing up in Norway, what was the music sound like over there? For you as an artist, was it difficult for them to accept your type of music at first, being that your sound is what many people call, soul music that relates to the African American genre of choice ?
Bernhoft: No. I wouldn’t say that it’s difficult to accept. I think that to be honest, if I’ve been black in Norway maybe it would have been more difficult for the average Norwegian to accept or to take in the music. Not to compare myself to anyone, but I think when Elvis Presley came out, that part of his appeal was the fact that he was white and he had this black sound. He was passable for a middle American audience. A huge part of the population in Norway is very homogeneous in terms of ethnicity. It’s getting there, but it’s fairly pale, this population of ours. I know how things are. If I’ve been part of a minority ethnically, that would probably be harder. I think I’d probably have the advantage looking like the rest but just sounding different
To a certain extent, I think that I’d probably have an advantage anywhere in the world. That’s part of the heritage, whites have it a bit easier, but at the same time, I think if you disregard every racist notion, then I look a bit strange with how I sound. There’s a discrepancy between how I look and how I sound, with the quirky glass, just like that. People, probably the most common feedback that I get is that, “I didn’t see that sound coming out your mouth.” I wouldn’t say that … There is no abundance of Norwegian soul singers, but i’m definitely an odd ball in the Norwegian music scene.
Ladale: It works.
Bernhoft: I don’t know, but back 2 years ago when I had a Grammy nomination for my Island album, that was the year when I didn’t get any nominations in Norway for that. In a sense, I guess my music is a bit too left field of Norwegian mainstream sometimes. Even though this is the market where I have the must success or have had, but it’s certainly not the typical Norwegian music
Ladale: Got you ! Speaking about the Grammy nomination, for Islander, which is a tremendous album, I must say, especially the song One-way track. That’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. I love that song !
Bernhoft: Cool ! Me too. I agree.
Ladale: Speaking on that, you said in a statement after that Grammy nomination, that you make R&B music.
Bernhoft: No. The reason why I wrote that is because I was never sure what kind of music I played. It was good for me to have, okay, this is probably what I do then. I wrote that. It was like definitely one of these camouflage your bragging. You brag by proxy. It was mainly me, I’d never had a clue. To be honest, I still don’t have a clue what kind of genre I’m operating in, but at least I fit in one pigeon hole.
Ladale: Also, getting back to growing up in Norway, who was some of your musical influences? Is there anybody that you pan your style out there, growing up in Norway ?
Bernhoft: No. There were many differences though. I think my main musical influences was rock and roll and even metal I remember the first time I heard Foo Fighters, that rap beat, that was like something that related to the metal with the hard-rock stuff that I used to listen to, I felt that Foo Fighters is probably a pop band that just play it really hard.
I have this tremendous experience with Sly and the family Stone. The first time I heard Sly, it was a profound experience. At the time I was in a rock band, that was more like in the Foo Fighters band realm, and I can hear that, especially in the second album that we released. I heard this guy, this guy tried to sing like Sly, but struggling to get past all the guitars and drums that were the bomb. When that rock band fell apart, it took me a couple of years to find my voice, but it was certainly Sly and family that opened up the right gates.
From that as well, I dove into the history of soul music and going back to gospel, and going back to spirituals, and the blues, and even to West African music as well, and trying to find out the phrasings, what’s the basis for the phrase, and the rhythms, and D’Angelo’s Voodoo album as well in terms of rhythmical finesse, how to bend the rhythmical, not going “doo-doo doo-doo”, but almost like “do-do do-do”, like stumbling kind of rhythm stance. They were that band that made the Voodoo album tremendous, I felt.
Ladale: I totally concur with that. Because I definitely feel the 70’s funk sound in your music especially in your latest LP Stop Shut Up as Shouted out, that showed it more than ever, especially with songs like, “Don’t stop, shut up.” You have Ceramic City Chronicles which was your debut album, Solidarity Breaks, Islander, and now Stop Shut Up as Shouted out, does it get harder for you creating new music ? or is the process more relaxing as you move forward ? Does it get easier or harder for you ?
Bernhoft: No, I think it gets harder. I feel like, and that’s a good thing, that you’re raising the bar for yourself, every time you release something. Like Ceramic City Chronicles, I see the first album that I released. To me, I had to put more shoulders on that when I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I like the sound of it. Lyrically as well, I felt like if I have 1 good sentence per song, that’s good enough. That’s the bar.
When the album came out, you raise the bar and then you raise the bar on every project that you do. It gets daunting in a way because you know you need to stop yourself. It gets harder, but at the same time, there is something to be said about just not giving a fuck. Sometimes just throwing every potential that you might have in the fire, and you start from scratch, and just make a good song. It doesn’t have to be good. Just make a song.
I feel like I’m in a good place right now, at least. It’s strange because in many ways the album format, it’s not dead. It’s challenged from a new way of consuming music, that goes more into songs and it press you to write hit singles that’s bigger than ever. I’m very much an album thinking guy. All my 3 albums, I wouldn’t say they are concept albums, but they have a thread lyrically, thematically. They’re connected, both within themselves and between. To me, that’s like the only way I know how to work. For me to write a good song that everyone can relate to basically, is the love song. How to write songs that say something about anything, without it being in a bigger context and being at the same time being profound and meaningful, and then have an easily graspable chorus that people can sing along to. That is very hard. I feel that something’s got to give. I will always try to steer away from nonsense, if you know what I mean. Some people might think that what I do is too complicated, but then I might say they’re too stupid if they can’t comprehend it.
Yeah. If people want easygoing chewing gum, pop song that goes in one ear and out the other, that’s fine, but I’m not going to be that provider of the said pop music. I have a different game plan. That might make me less commercially viable, but that’s fine.
Ladale: I actually was just about to say that because some people might say, “Well, oh my God, this guy is so talented and this and that, but some of his music even though it sounds good, it might be kind of hard to sing along to at Karaoke night or something of that variety. Maybe he water it down a little bit, he might be a little bit more “commercially successful”. I respect the fact that you’re staying true to your artistry. Maybe it’s not all about being number 1 on the billboard charts domestically in Norway, and over here in the States or whatnot. You stay true to who you are as an artist. I respect that. I’m pretty sure many others will respect that as well.
Bernhoft: You see, I’m not the smartest guy myself, but my wife, she’s so smart. If I make songs that she can’t relate to, she will just scorn me every day and day out. It’s cool, I once heard that Eddie Izzard … You know Eddie Izzard
He’s a British stand-up comedian, transvestite, hugely intelligent. I think he’s now running for the office of Mayor of London. That would be so cool if he actually got elected to be a major. He was asked how he felt being an open transvestite, being a comedian on tour in America, whether he found it hard, especially when he come into middle America and stuff like that. He said that, “You know what, it’s great because stupid people, they stay at home. They don’t want to go and see me, so away with those, and I get all the smart people in my audience. It’s fantastic.
Ladale: Speaking of the States, I also see that for a brief period, you also lived in New York City, , what did you take away from your experiences living in New York City
Bernhoft: My wife is half African, and she always felt like the odd one out in Norway, so for her to come to New York City, she felt more at home in New York than she ever had in Norway, even though she grew up in Norway. She’s totally Norwegian. Her dad is also from Cape Verde Islands.
When we moved to NYC, these last couple of years, they’ve been very educating in the way we see how racism works, and how America’s society, it fails to handle its history in terms of diversity.
Obviously, standing on the shoulders of a lot of soul greats, I need to take that into account, both in the way that I think about my music and the way that I write. I think in the terms of broadening horizons, it’s been educating in so many ways. It feels like the 2 years that we lived in New York, we hit the spot there in a way. If you were a Hippie and you moved to San Francisco in 1966 and lived there through ’68, that would be the exact right time.
Ladale: That would be your time.
Bernhoft: I think for me, as a soul singer and song writer, to be living in New York in from 2013 to 2015, that was the years to live there, I think.
Lot of other stuff as well, to take away from that, but I think that that’s the main thing for me, is a unique way of seeing, not only America, but Norway and Europe, as well, from a different point of view.
Ladale: Would you say that you enjoy your homeland Norway more so than New York City? What is your lasting memory New York ?
Bernhoft: That’s a tough question. In a way, I put my roots down in Oslo, in Norway, before we left. Given more time, I think that I could have done that. I could have put my roots down in New York as well. There’s something about home that is almost like visceral. It’s part of me in a way. I can’t really define why, but there is something that just aww, when I come home. To be honest, I think that it’s our son, he’s just started school and stuff, he just started his first day of school yesterday. That was a huge part of the process of deciding where to end up. We had to choose between him being Norwegian or American. The Norwegian system of education is pretty solid. That was like the main tipping point, actually. If it was up to my wife, she would just say New York.
Ladale: Basically, it was very important to you to raise your family in your homeland, that way they could have a better understanding of your origin, as well as their origin, being a Norwegian, as opposed to having to settle into culture in New York City and America ?
Bernhoft: I think that it would’ve probably worked well. It would probably be totally okay. It’s just something about rookie parents, with their first kid in school. I felt that I really wanted things to be similar to my own situation when I was in school.
Ladale: Also, one last question about New York, What borough did you live in ?
We did like 2 years. The first year we ended up in, it was Morningside Heights between Harlem and, I don’t know what you call it Columbia or you call it Harlem, or the West Side, that area.
Ladale: Harlem is the perfect area for the type of music that you do.
Bernhoft: Yeah, yeah. It was walkable. I walked to the Apollo for a couple of shows there. It felt nice, having the experience of living in Manhattan. Then we moved to Park Slope the second year, down in Brooklyn. All our friends was down there anyway. High cost of living was 50%. It’s crazy to stay up in Manhattan
Ladale: Yeah, the rent is very expensive. New York, period, is an expensive place to live. Taxes on just about everything. Getting back to the music, let’s talk about your latest EP, Stop/Shutup and Shout it out. I love the EP, first of all, but I also noticed it’s the shortest combination of music out of all your albums. Was there a reason for that? Was it more for quality over quantity? What was the decision behind it ?
Bernhoft: Oh yeah, you see, I really wanted to delve into a shorter format, just trying … I felt like having released 3 full-length albums, LPs, that it would be good to just let loose a bit. I have this ambition, or I have this idea that I could try and write songs without the read thread, the big lines through them. That was my idea, to just try and see how that worked, and rather have a couple EPs, instead of releasing albums. There is another EP that I’m finishing up now. That was the main idea to break it up a little bit and see how that worked. I think the lesson learned for me is that, I need to make albums again. Easy as that.
Ladale: You enjoy the whole process of releasing 12-15 tracks, that type of thing? That’s more your fit for you?
Bernhoft: Yeah, it just feels right. I feel like I’m a tier novelist and you write short stories, and you find out that you really are a novelist, and you want to pull the lines, pull them out of it.
Ladale: For the project that you’re currently working on, is there anything you want to share in terms of what can we expect, what would be the the title of the album, the EP, whatever the case may be? Like what type of sound could we expect from you? I feel like for each project that you release, you just continue to evolve. What would be the next evolution for Bernhoft ?
Bernhoft: It depends, because I think the mixers are coming in now. There’s certainly going to be some kind of grandiose, enormous synth layers going on with that album. I’ve been struggling with my voice a bit, the last 6 months. Suddenly, it’s becoming very sore. My throat is getting sore for no reason. I need to find out why I am dealing with that.
A couple of times when I’ve gone into the studio, it’s been really rough voice. Basically, I’m just trying to explore how to take advantage of that kind of voice quality as well. I think a couple of the tracks is going to be almost like … I’m delving into my inner Jill Crocker, I guess. That’s sonically how that’s going to pan out. I’m finding that I’m diving in head first into that whole almost political … I’m trying to find my way into this black and white way of thinking. You know what I mean? In terms of how can I … I think a lot about the fact that we are partaking in a system where it’s almost like a routine that black unarmed men is being killed by the police. I find that very disturbing on a lot of levels. In a sense, it would be wrong for me to not speak about it, but at the same time, for me to speak about it, there is a trap there. There is a Rachel Dolezal trap there. You remember her ?
Ladale: Oh yeah !
Bernhoft: It’s almost like, it’s tricky, but at the same time, I can’t avoid it, in a way. It just keeps popping up into my writing, even though I’m trying to stay clear of … It’s minefield as well. Basically, I can very uncomfortably wedge myself between 2 tiers here. I can say things about these. I can work within the subject and I can make an album or make songs that no white person would want to listen to, and black people feel, am I speaking on behalf of someone else. That is a trick, do I speak on behalf of myself and how I feel about this, and not trying to be judgmental, and trying to be thought-provoking in a good way.
I feel that some of the songs that are written about this, it’s almost like they were good at the time, but I felt like the Freddie Gray case, that turned one of my songs into total obsolete words. It felt like the kind of kumbaya, let’s all look pass our differences and just dance together, suddenly after Freddie Gray, that’s not valid anymore. Suddenly I realized that it hasn’t been valid ever. I moved to America, thinking that America had moved forward lots since the riots in ’92.
It hasn’t, and it seems like it won’t for foreseeable future. I’m really pessimistic about the whole thing as well, because it’s all connected to the amount of guns that keeps flowing on the streets as well, and the perpetual fear that everyone is dealing with. It’s pretty profound stuff. I’m trying to find my way of writing about it in a way that’s not stupid. I’m facing that now, that I’ve been stupid for all my life.
Ladale: Don’t be too hard on yourself
Bernhoft: My main project is like I’m seeing it as being flawed, fundamentally flawed. It’s a good process because I know that I’m probably going to land on my feet.
Ladale: In your defense on this whole situation, the whole thing with Rachel Dolezal was that although she was speaking up for the black culture or whatnot and was also with the NAACP, she was not authentic to who she truly was. She disregarded her upbringing, her family and whatnot, and in your case, because you know who you are. You’re a proud Norwegian man, but you’re also married to a woman that’s partially African, like you said. You have a full spectrum on both sides, like you could understand it, in my opinion. I understand it might be a slippery slope, but from your perspective, people will have a better understanding of who you are as a person after this interview, knowing who you’re married to, your child is biracial, you’re married to a biracial woman, you lived in the heart of black culture in USA, which is Harlem, NY so basically, you are definitely coming from the right place with this.
Bernhoft: Yeah, but at the same time, I feel like the flack that Rachel Dolezal got was also … Yes, she was not authentic in the way that she presented herself, and she may or may not, I’m not sure, may or may not have made that identity shift because of economical gain, but at the same time, she was actually working in the Civil Rights Movement in a much more active way than I will ever do. It’s almost like the whole Azealia Banks controversy. Say what you will about her , but she does have a point that if you are solidly founded what you do, as your art-form is solidly founded in black America music, then how to pay respect to that, how to stand on shoulders without stepping them down. I feel like it’s a tricky balance, but being aware of the balance, I read you and I thank you for the good words. But is being aware of it only half the battle ?
Ladale: Yeah. Also, in terms of racial diversity and whatnot, would you say that in your home of Norway, and Europe in general, that you guys are ahead of America in terms of cultural diversity, in terms of African Americans, dating a white woman or a white man dating a black woman, and not being ridiculed by the ethnicity that he’she relates to? Do you feel like you guys are ahead of the curve than most Americans in that regard ?
Bernhoft: I’m not sure. I think we run a different path, and we haven’t had the baggage that America has in terms of slavery. We didn’t have it as close. I think in America, the sheer number of … I could see that when I was bicycling across Brooklyn, that the whole of America is married in a cultural divide. It’s a 2 parallel of societies, whereas Norway has always been the level of embracing, up to Norway is dwarfed in comparison. Basically, most of us look like me, but not good-looking of course.
There are certain challenges that are unique to America, that we just have to acknowledge. How to deal with it, is a different matter, but also the fact that in America there’s also this thing about guns, that the whole country is founded upon like an armed conflict. That’s the basis of the country, and the basis of the economy in slavery. The land and the economy is based on severe problematic foundation. Norway is not like that at all. We came here, we lived in poverty and everyone was equal, and somebody found oil and bahaa !, so we’re equal, but filthy rich. That solves a lot of problems. That erases a lot of foundation for the problem. We’re like an oil country that has no oil which is crazy ! Good, but crazy, nevertheless. We’re like a well functioning social democracy. We’re like Bernie Sanders wet dream. Jarle Bernhoft
Ladale: I think Bernie would have been great for the progression of America.
Bernhoft: I think he speaks the truth in many ways, but I’m not sure whether it would work within the context of America though. It’s hard to say.
Ladale: Unfortunately, that’s the way it is here in America. I feel like some people are afraid of change. Also, the same thing could be said in regards to music, especially nowadays, because a lot of people could say that today’s music would be like bubblegum music, like very simple, especially in hip hop culture. Like now it’s not about your lyrical ability. It’s more about, is the beat hot? Is the hook catchy, stuff like that. You have the old-timers that be like, “Well, you know, back in my day, these kids, a matter of fact, they would not be on the radio,” I feel like not so much also in like political or social issues, even in music as well, I feel like we’re so slow to catch up and accept something that is new.
Bernhoft: Yep, but at the same time, suddenly things like A Tribe Called Quest came in from the very … The first hip hop that I heard, I didn’t like it, that much. The flow that we become used to now that makes hip hop great, that was not accepted back then. It didn’t swing. The first hip hop that I heard didn’t swing. Then suddenly A Tribe Called Quest came out. That’s something else. That’s really cool. That’s thoughtful. It swings in a different way, and then things go in waves. Then suddenly Kendrick comes out of the bushes and being extremely well versed in both flow and lyrics, and so thought-provocative, and so thoughtful as well. That’s the way things go. It goes up and down, but let’s face it, a big percentage of the world’s population on a whole, that goes for Norway, that goes for America, that goes for everywhere, and it goes for Britain, not least, most of the people around are not that smart. It’s okay for them to have something to sing about it too.
Ladale: In terms of artist, which artist from the past, if you had the opportunity to work with, who would you want to work with and what the title of the song would be? Any artist from the past.
Bernhoft: I think to spend the day with Frank Zappa, that would be cool, because I think he comes from a very different perspective than I’ve ever delved into. Every time I hear Frank Zappa, I go, wow, he’s so different than anything else I’ve ever heard. I think that with Zappa, We could make a couple long songs, like a really long complex song, to challenge the both of our abilities, but I’m not sure whether I could ever challenge Frank Zappa’s abilities, ever. I think that would be cool to explore that challenge.
Ladale: Okay, awesome. Also, same question for the present day like, which artist out there here right now, that you haven’t worked with, but you would love to work with? Let’s aim to make that happen right now. Who would you love to work with currently ?
Bernhoft: The newest Frank Ocean stuff is like the only thing that I really wanted to tap into, because he’s just something else, I’m going to go with him.
Ladale: In one word , Describe yourself ?
Ladale: In one word, Bernhoft the family man ?
Bernhoft: I’m warm
Ladale: In one word, Bernhoft 10 years from now will be ?
Bernhoft: Old !
Ladale: That’s right. All right, man, thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else that you would like to say to the people before you go ?
Bernhoft: Take care of each other. That’s the most important thing. Stay away from guns. Take care of each other.