Aurora Aksnes has just returned to Norway after a trip to perform at Coachella, the huge music festival in the Californian desert. I’ve rarely met someone so happy to be home. The singer-songwriter, who performs under her first name, didn’t like all the dust, which hurt her eyes, and worried for the plants, which looked so dry. Here in Bergen, a waterfront city surrounded by mountains where it is constantly either raining or about to rain, she fits.
“I feel like a city is strange when there is no source of escape,” she says. “You need mountains, ocean, or forest. My parents have a sailboat and love being in the ocean for many days. I am a forest person. I like to climb trees, to have things over me, to be isolated and hidden.”
Being hidden is going to be harder for her this year, as she steps up to bigger things with a second album on which her dark sounds open out to welcome the world. Her comeback single, Queendom, is a whooshing, tribal synthpop anthem of empowerment that sees her setting out a rulebook for her own country. “You have a home in my Queendom,” she sings.
“It’s a celebration of the people who today’s society is not built around,” she explains. “Quiet people, shy people, introverts. The world is based around those who are very loud – we like them for some reason. I am fighting for everything that can’t fight for itself, which is the planet, the children, animals, sometimes the women, sometimes the men.”
This tiny 21-year-old, who grew up in Os, an even quieter area just south of Bergen, seems an unlikely leader of an army, even if she does call her fans “warriors” and her haircut, a sharp blonde bob with two longer strands framing her face, is rather Game of Thrones. Her eyebrows are so blonde they are almost invisible. She speaks high, soft and giggly, with a faint trace of a childhood stutter, her hands wafting balletically through the air. I feel like I’ve tumbled into a children’s storybook to meet a magic fairy.
When the museum where she originally planned to meet me turns out to be closed for an event, she strides in her red shoes, oversized coat and floaty skirt to a nearby café, where they serve “the BEST hot chocolate”. She drinks it as though she cannot comprehend the miracle she is experiencing.
Occasionally, she ramps up the kookiness to such an extent that I start to wonder if she’s teasing me, seeing how far she can push it until I start looking around for hidden cameras. What was the first thing you did when you got home? I ask. “Well, I put on my big grey jumper that I got from my mum. Then I washed my right foot, because that’s the one I prefer to wash in the evening. I wash my left foot in the morning. I don’t know why. It’s just a habit I’ve had since I was a child. Just in the sink – I don’t have a bath. That’s the biggest sorrow in my life.”
Okaaay. And how about pets? Did anyone miss her while she was away? “I have an algae ball. He’s big and round and green and kind of furry. He’s called Igor and he likes to be cold, so sometimes he lives in my fridge. I brought him on tour once but it was hard to get him through the airports.” I look this up later and it is a real thing. They’re called marimo, and naturally are popular in Japan.
The overall impression is that here is someone who couldn’t have less in common with the blokey rock of Oasis, which strangely, is probably how you know her. In 2015 she was the voice of the John Lewis Christmas ad – the one with the old lonely man living on the moon – covering the Oasis song Half the World Away on piano. When she was first asked, she thought John Lewis was a man and wondered when she was going to meet him.
Her relaxed, pretty interpretation is still her only UK hit, reaching number 11 in the charts, but her own music is a very different, much more interesting proposition. Her debut album, All of My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend, arrived in 2016 full of icy electronic songs, spooky and often nature-themed, such as Wiinter Bird and Running With the Wolves. Check out her ultra-creepy ballad Murder Song (5, 4, 3, 2, 1) for a stark contrast to that cosy cover version.
“That album was meant to make people look a bit into themselves, to make them feel like individuals that were seen by me and my songs,” she tells me. “The next album, the perspective is a bit wider. It’s more like there’s a whole army instead of one individual.”
She only finished mixing it in Bergen just before the Coachella trip, so it won’t be released until later in the year. The new songs were recorded with Norwegian producer Askjell and British duo Roy Kerr and Tim Bran, who call themselves MyRiot, with Aurora working on the production aspect too. They holed up in a 200-year-old farmhouse studio in the south of France in January. “I loved it,” she says. “It had a little garden, a little forest, a little pond, lots of good red wine, a library, a dog called Paula and a cat called Ginger. It was perfect.”
This time she was more confident about experimenting with her sound. She shows me her cracked phone, filled with dozens of recordings of random sounds she has heard out and about. She used some of them to construct rhythm tracks. “It’s much more inspiring to find a sound and kind of put it in a box and bring it back. Most of the sounds are from somewhere you can touch. I really like ugly sounds combined with beautiful things like harp and piano.”
The songs feature Florence + the Machine’s harpist Ruth Potter, a cello quartet and a 32-man gay choir called the Oslo Faggotkor. “I saw them at a festival last year, cried and asked them if they would perform with me the same day. We had to ask for 32 more microphones. I’ve brought them to a few more performances and they sing on three songs on the album.”
She can’t give me a title or release date but she can say it will have 11 songs. That’s her favourite number, because it looks the same upside-down and back-to-front. When she goes on tour, she restricts herself to bringing 11 things in her suitcase to remind her of home: “Small treasures, my little statue, three books, two pictures, and a lamp because it has the kind of warm, yellowy light that I like.”
She won’t be home much, with her current gig schedule running from May til October. But the rest of the world will benefit from the bit of Norway that this unique person brings with her wherever she goes. “I’ve met so many fans now, all over the world, and I’ve seen how much we kind of need each other,” she says. “I want people to feel powerful, to feel like they have this extra support. This is a power album.”
Queendom is out now on Decca.
Aurora headlines the Bushstock festival around Shepherd’s Bush on June 23 (bushstock.co.uk) and also plays Oct 11, O2 Forum Kentish Town, NW5 (o2forumkentishtown.co.uk)