You get the personal touch with Emilie Nicolas. Whereas it’s not uncommon for authors and actors to allow interviewers into their homes, with musicians I’m far more likely to visit an anonymous hotel room, a record company office or if luck is on my side, a dark recording studio. So it’s quite a turn-up to be invited to the central Oslo flat that Norway’s brightest new star shares, rather cosily, with her boyfriend and his mother. She’s even baked scones.
It’s an appropriate level of access for someone who has already been so open in her music. On her debut album, Like I’m a Warrior – a number one in Norway which places her midway between Bjork’s abstract intensity and Robyn’s bright synthpop and gets a well deserved international release next week – you can hear her talking to herself, apparently about the pitfalls of a life on display. “No one said Emilie, it will get so stormy, and what´s in your heart, my sweet Emilie, they all will see,” she sings on the exquisite Nobody Knows.
Then there’s the video for her song Grown Up, for which she gave director Andre Chocron a bunch of her late grandmother’s 8mm home recordings and left him in an editing suite. The singer, now 27, appears in it as a baby alongside most of her immediate family, who sail, swim and sunbathe in the kind of scratchy, washed-out colours that Instagram has lately imitated but not matched for real evocative atmosphere. The music builds slowly as she sings about independence in a sad, jazz-trained voice that suggests that she isn’t quite as grown up as she claims. Accompanied by those images, it’s an incredibly emotional few minutes.
“When I saw that video for the first time, it was too much for me. I cried so much. Not just tears, but ugly crying – everything came out,” she tells me over apple juice on her balcony. She’s a thoughtful conversationalist, entertainingly sarcastic at times. With a doll’s face, almost swallowed whole by a heavy black hoodie, she potters around her small kitchen preparing ravioli and salad and dense Scandinavian bread. She’s bought lemon curd for the first time, not really knowing what it is, because a British person is visiting. We talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard, the controversial Norwegian novelist who became an international literary sensation with his six volumes of wincingly honest autobiography, and whose books sit on her shelves. As a student she wrote a dissertation on his first novel.
“What I like about music, and also when I read books, is when you find those few sentences that really confirm your own feelings,” she says. “You get an emotional feeling when someone explains something that is maybe underneath your consciousness. That’s the pleasure for me. In a book you can use a long time explaining, but in a song you only have three minutes. So if I want that reaction I have to say something that I feel that I never say.”
Nicolas grew up 20 minutes from Oslo with an art teacher father, a physiotherapist mother and two older half sisters. The music in the house was mostly jazz from Keith Jarrett and Stan Getz, and bossa nova from “my favourite singer in the whole world”, Joao Gilberto. “He sings like he’s lying in a hammock.” She found she could imitate the distinctive styles of singers such as Celine Dion and Eva Cassidy, and went on to study jazz singing at the elite conservatory in Trondheim, Norway’s third city. She used to have a jazz quartet. “I can do the scatting if I want to, the difficult music, but with jazz I thought, I’m so tired of this.”
Influenced by Norwegian dance duo Royksopp, she began to make electronic music with Eivind Helgerod, a drummer she had met on the jazz degree. Then things started to move quickly, and not to this nervous frontwoman’s liking. They put Nobody Knows on Soundcloud, at a point when she felt it wasn’t ready for public consumption, because having material available online was necessary to secure bookings for local festivals. Within a week, record companies in Germany and England started calling. “I didn’t send it to anyone. I just put it online and people noticed. It’s weird.”
Then in 2013 a music festival in Trondheim called Pstereo asked her to cover the song of that name, a little known rock ballad from 1990 by a Norwegian band called DumDum Boys. I’ve heard the original and it’s pretty meh to be honest. She thought it was for a minor festival promotion, but her version was so good – translated into English and given a soaring, huge chorus – that it got picked up to be released as a single and became a major radio hit. In the video the arrival of the chorus is represented by a mountain-sized whale leaping in slow motion through a wintry sky. That’s exactly how it sounds.
As it arrives in the UK it stands comfortably as one of the finest pop songs of the year, but isn’t really representative of the darker side of her sound, plus it’s not an original, which bothers her. “I made it like a job. I didn’t expect it to be my first single. It isn’t representative of what I do, but I guess it shows I can make a pop song.”
Still, it led to huge demand in her home country for her album, and to see her live, which doesn’t sound like great news to her either. She’s terrified of flying, even of the sound of a plane passing overhead, and gets through festival season with valium. “I should do like Britney does in Vegas, just play in one place and people can come to me.” And when she performs, she’s backlit, so you’ll see her sillhouette but not her face.
“When I play live, it’s like there are two sides of me. One is like, ‘Hey, here I am!’ and the other is like, ‘No, don’t look at me!’ When people applaud and scream, I can’t really take it in. You have to feel really great about yourself to stand there and say, ‘Yes, I am great, thank you so much,’ but I have all these insecurities and I think I always will have them. It kind of grounds me, but sometimes I think I might be a bit too grounded.”
Next week’s London gig, at the aptly named Hackney venue Oslo, should be okay, she says, because she’s still an underdog over here. “The pressure isn’t the same. In Norway I have these huge anxiety attacks, like, ‘I need to get off this stage, NOW,’ and it’s because there’s so much goodwill from the audience.”
It sounds like the most helpful thing we can do for her is keep her a secret. Get her album, treasure her as one of the best new voices around, and it may be tough but try not to tell anyone else, okay?
July 8, Oslo, E8 (020 3553 4831, oslohackney.com)
Like I’m a Warrior is released on Monday on Sony