Big Ears 2014: Susanna

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Though Susanna Wallumrød has been a member of numerous bands in her native Norway, she is best known abroad for her work with keyboardist Morten Qvenild in Susanna and the Magical Orchestra. The two have recorded an eclectic variety of well-known pop songs, Qvenild surrounding Wallumrød's vocals with a stark, somber ambience.

The dour romanticism of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is turned into a moody slow burn on Qvenild and Wallumrød's torch-song version. Dolly Parton's "Jolene" is stripped of its bouncy, poppy backing track and the tempo slowed to a crawl. Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak" and AC/DC's "A Long Way to the Top" share space with more prestigious classics like Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Fairport Convention's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," but Wallumrød's interpretations are never arch. She is fully committed to soulful readings of the songs, borrowing as much from jazz stylists as pop or folk singers. Wallumrød says her choice of what she covers is simply an attraction to a song.

"It can be lots of different things that attract me to a song," she says. "Sometimes it's the feeling, sometimes the beat or the melody, sometimes the lyrics. It has to be an immediate appeal, but it varies what it is. And sometimes it's not enough to want to do the song, either, to make it work."

Wallumrød is a talented songwriter in her own right, her lyrics often exhibiting an interest in matters of the heart and the natural world. This is evident throughout her two most recent releases, Wild Dog and The Forester, the latter recorded with chamber group Ensemble neoN. Not only do her covers focus on American, Australian, and British songs, but she writes and sings her own lyrics in English as well. Her only Norwegian-language album, Jeg Vil Hjem Til Menneskene, is made up of music composed to accompany words by the late Norwegian poet Gunvor Hofmo.

"I think the western part of Europe and Scandinavia are very much influenced by Anglo-American music history," Wallumrød says. "We also watch a lot of British and American TV series and films and learn English in school from an early age. But I guess the most important influence for me is the music, and the language I am used to hearing in combination with music. I really like the sounds in the English language."

Though much of the music with which Wallumrød surrounds her vocals tends to be fairly sparse, she has proven to be equally at home in more dynamic settings. Wild Dog actually ventures into rock territory with guitar and bass courtesy of Emmett Kelly and Shahzad Ismaily, frequent collaborators with one of Wallumrød's favorite duet partners, Will Oldham. (Ismaily will also be performing at Big Ears with Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog.) Working with the conservatory-trained acoustic chamber group Ensemble neoN resulted in some of her strongest recorded vocal work.

"The musical environment always has an effect on my voice and how I use it, so the acoustic world is different than the electric-based, for sure," she says. "I like very much doing both, and have worked a lot with different surroundings for my music and voice. I have a permanent group with Giovanna Pessi, a Swiss Baroque harp player, and we released an album on the German ECM Records in 2011 called If Grief Could Wait, where we do old songs by Henry Purcell but also newer ones by Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake. In that quartet, I sing together with three string instruments. It is way softer than the things I can do in my trio, and I find it interesting to work in several scales."

Susanna is an admirer of Nico; she has covered "Janitor of Lunacy" from the German singer's 1970 album Desertshore. She's scheduled to perform some of Nico's songs at Big Ears, and with the German chanteuse's former producer and Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale also in attendance, it's possible the two will collaborate. For now, Wallumrød isn't saying much.

"It won't be a surprise if I tell you now," she says. "I'm still working on which songs to bring over."

Susanna performs at the Tennessee Theatre on Friday, March 28, at 9:30 p.m. and at the Square Room on Saturday, March 29, at 9 p.m.