Malin Pettersen: Americana from the Land of the Midnight Sun

The Norwegian singer and songwriter traveled to Nashville to capture the spirit of George Jones and Billy Sherrill on her new album, Wildhorse

Malin Pettersen (Art: Ron Hart)

Although she lives in Oslo, Norway, Malin Pettersen fell in love with American music.

Her father played in a country music band when she was young and the music of George Jones, and other country icons, informed her childhood. She always wanted to be a singer and first went on stage when she was two-years-old.

“I sang ‘Tomorrow’ from the musical Annie and I remember it communicated something that resonated deep within me,” she recalled. “I would sing it over and over again, as a little girl. My dad let me sing on stage with his band and I don’t know if that made me want to be a working musician when I grew up, but those experiences pushed me in that direction.”

 

 

Pettersen joined Lucky Lips, a bluegrass band, when she was 21. They toured internationally, eventually playing gigs at Nashville’s AmericanaFest. She made her solo debut with References Pt. 1 in 2018. It was a success, winning her a Spellemannprisen (Norwegian Grammy) for Best Country Album. When it was time for a follow up, Pettersen went to Nashville to cut Wildhorse, an album that sounds like something Billy Sherrill might have produced for George Jones or Charlie Rich. 

“California” opens the record with a loping, cowboy beat, sighing pedal steel and dreamy Laurel Canyon harmonies to back up Pettersen’s tender vocals. “Let’s Go Out” is a love song that rides a mid-tempo Waylon Jennings groove, with twangy guitar fills echoing Pettersen’s optimistic singing. “Mr. Memory,” a tune by Logan Ledger, is pure honky tonk and sounds like a hit from the ‘70s. Pettersen croons about drinking away her heartache with a fervid sincerity. Every track on Wildhorse is a keeper. It perfectly captures the Nashville sound of the early 70s. Pettersen spoke to The Globe about the record, and her career, from her home in Norway. 

 

Why did you choose Wildhorse as the title of your album?

The title is an image from the song “Wildhorse Dream.” A song about exploring unbeaten paths, not letting your available options of how to live your life be decided by norms or society. This was a process I was going through as we recorded this. I felt very alive getting on a plane to Nashville from Oslo, to record music with a people I barely knew.

 

How does this project differ from your last album, References. Pt 1?

References has more attitude than Wildhorse – I had a lot to say about the industry, the way people act towards each other and my dreams for the future. Wildhorse is about exploring, trying to understand the world around me, and my own mind and choices. I think References has more of a rock undertone, whilst Wildhorse is more vibey – not very concise terms.

Malin Pettersen Wildhorse, self-released 2020

Did you have any notable experiences making this record?

The whole thing felt notable. I think I remember every second of it – although I’m sure I don’t – but it feels like it. One thing I do remember was listening back to Particles,” after we’d recorded it. It was a special moment. We were all recording it to our phones, as Ryan (Keith, one of the producers) was playing it back to us, so that we could listen to it after leaving the studio. That song was, and is, special to me. I am so thankful for what the musicians made it become.

 

The album has a very 70s Nashville sound. Did you consciously aim for a retro feel?

That whole studio (Music City USA) is very 70s. That’s why I wanted to record there. I wanted the instruments to sound like what they were, and I wanted the player’s identities to shine through. I was interested in the possibilities of the reverb being recorded together with the actual vocal and the sound of people playing together in a room that’s not stripped to the bone. It wasn’t a conscious choice of “listen to these songs and let’s make it sound like that,” but more something that happened because of the players and the traits that room carried and Ryan Keith’s (the engineer and one of the producers) fantastic skill and taste.

 

Aaron Goodrich, Ryan Keith and Misa Arriaga co-produced the album. How did the partnership work?

Ryan engineered and mixed the album, as well as playing keys and singing harmonies. Aaron played drums and was the one who made sure everything happened that needed to happen to get it done. Misa played bass. He contacted me via social media and we decided to meet up when I went to Nashville in 2018. That was during the AmericanaFest week, which is a very busy week. We had full schedules, but decided to keep in touch. I met Aaron in Oslo. He was touring with Sam Outlaw. We met again at that same AmericanaFest week. He told me he was working at a studio with two other guys and told me that I should stop by with my friend Stian. We went to the studio and played all night. My voice was almost gone, but we had a blast. Playing George Jones and other old country songs all night, with that fantastic vibey feel, made me eager to record there. 

 

How did you get that Nashville aura?

I think it’s in the walls of that studio and the people playing in it. They have a fantastic collection of gear and a true interest in figuring out how to use it to make things sound the way you want them to sound. We didn’t set out with a goal of making an album that sounded like 70s Nashville – we just went with that warm, vibey feeling as we sat in that room and recorded it all live, together.

I sang in the same room with the band, as we recorded. Some songs got new vocals later, due to a tired voice and stuff like that, but because I’d already done it with the band, my vocal style still blended with the rest. I wanted to catch the atmosphere of a band playing together. The vocals are a big part of capturing that in-the-moment creation. It’s something I hope people can feel when they listen to it – even if they can’t put a finger on what it is. The joy of creation when a bunch of people who love to play are making and playing songs together in a small dimly lit room.

 

VIDEO: Malin Pettersen performs “Hometown” at the Static Roots Festival 2020

How are you managing with the pandemic? Is Norway locked down like the United States is?

Norway was locked down for a long time, but has now become more open and we’re starting to see a new spike. So I’m crossing my fingers that people become more careful again, before we have to endure a second full lockdown. I’ve been managing all right. The hard part, for many of us, is the uncertainty. Venues are starting to book again, but who knows if those gigs are going to happen? That’s what I’m trying to wrap my head around at the moment – making some kind of a long term plan that takes it all into account. It’s easier said than done. As we all know, life goes up and down, for some more than others. I’m definitely coping differently, depending on where I am in that wave. Right now I feel very lucky to be releasing this album and having it to work on.

  

What attracted you to American bluegrass and country music?

My parents listened to lots of fantastic American music within the country/roots and affiliated genres during the time I was young, everything from Neil Young to Lucinda Williams, The Highwaymen to Joni Mitchell. I grew up with it as a kid. It was a natural part of the input I got in life. As I got older, and started reflecting more on different styles of music, I remember the singing really caught my ear. George Jones didn’t sound like anyone else and Alison Krauss & Union Station – how was it humanly possible to play and sing the way they played and sang? I had been singing for years already and was always eager to develop my voice, so this was a new challenge. I remember practicing harmonies to Dolly Parton’s The Grass Is Blue album, and making up additional parts for Stacey Earle’s Simple Gearle. When I got asked if I wanted to join Lucky Lips at 19, I jumped at it.

 

Was that your first band? 

It was the first band I was an actual member of. My dad had taken me out to play with his band, which I will forever be grateful for, but this was the first one where I wrote songs and really had the feeling of being a part of a band.

 

What is the country music scene like in Norway? 

There has been a country scene here for many decades. And many of the people who were active players in the 80s/90s are still very active. At the same time, there are lots of new bands that have emerged these last 10 years. We have big country festivals here, out in the countryside, which are super fun. When it comes to a Norwegian aspect, it’s difficult for me to see what we might do differently from the US. It’s hard to look at it from the outside as an American would, but I do think we bring some new perspectives. Not necessarily unique to Norway, but still a bit different. We have bands like The Northern Belle, who use the Hardanger fiddle, which is a unique and fantastic Norwegian instrument that definitely gives their music that Norwegian link.

 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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