LILLEBJØRN NILSEN - AN INDIAN CALLED "LITTLE BEAR" (2000)
I arrived at our rendezvous, a jazz club in Oslo, at 8pm sharp. After about two minutes, Lillebjorn came sauntering in and we sat down. There was an awkward silence, but it was not to last as we had two loud, slightly drunk women sitting beside us. So, he lit up a cigarette, I took out my recording gear, and we got started.
- I was supposed to attend one of your concerts last Thursday, but couldn’t get in. How did you feel about playing there?
- ”Smuget” is a place I’ve only played once before, but then I was a bit reluctant about whether or not it was really for me. However, it went great. “Smuget” started a project called “Acoustic Winter” – a project that really started at “Soria Moria”. They got a lot of well-known artist to play, such as Erik Bye and Unni Wilhelmsen.
- So when I had the opportunity, I played there. This (“Acoustic Winter”) is a form that’s very important to me, to do things on stage in a close and almost naked format. When this was moved to “Smuget” they wondered if I wanted to do another concert, and I saw no reason to turn it down.
- This particular night I think was really special. They said there had hardly ever been that many people inside the building. They had to put up TV monitors in a room next door so everybody could get in and see what was going on onstage. I think it’s unbelievable that one can stand and play acoustic for two hours. It’s totally quiet and everybody just listen. To me that was an amazing experience.
- I play a lot together with a band, but I like to perform songs totally independent of anything else. It’s hard to do it, as it’s always easier to have someone to lean on and take a break every now and then. It’s tough to stand in a spotlight and only rely on what you do on your own. The best part is when I can get the audience to sing along.
- You’ve done this for, what, 30 years now? Do you still remember the old songs from 30 years ago, or do you have to practice a lot before a gig to remember all the lyrics?
- I started doing this when I was younger than you, so it’s well over 30 years. I hardly ever listen to my own albums, but I don’t consider songs as new or old. If I perform songs on a stage, they’re new then and there, because the experience for me to play them and for the audience to hear them is new. Then it doesn’t matter if it’s a song I wrote 20 years ago or yesterday, because I see that the story works then and there.
- What sources of inspiration do you have? Have your inspirations changed during the years, and has your music changed as your sources of inspiration have changed?
- I’ve had one inspiration since I started playing, which is still important to me, and that’s folk music. I have used folk music both in Norway and other countries, and it’s the history that’s important to me.
- When I started playing there was a “folk wave” in the USA with a legendary singer and storyteller called Woody Guthrie. We also have Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. I listened to these people and was fascinated by the honest, committed and naked expression.
- I first heard of Pete Seeger when I was a child, and the honesty of it knocked me out. It gave me an idea to follow a path. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to perform with my big hero – Pete Seeger – at a festival in Denmark. He was then 78 years old. My jaw dropped to the floor when it turned out that he had the same respect for what I did as I had for him. He asked me to proofread a book that he was going to release with all his songs, which of course I did.
- It’s very hard to use the word ”folk-music” in Norwegian, because here we use it to describe traditional music, but in other countries – like the USA – it actually includes Bob Dylan and the others who follow the traditions after Woody Guthrie.
- What does it take to be a good musician?
- I think you have to feel an attraction to something in the music. It can vary from musician to musician. Some can just be fascinated by the instrument they have chosen and some by the type of music because it means something for their identity. One has to be drawn towards it; I don’t think you can just say, “This is what I want”. I think you also have to know that the instrument you’ve chosen – whether it’s your voice or an instrument – it’s not the instrument playing, it’s what’s in your head that does.
- What do you think about what the youngsters listen to nowadays? Like for instance boy-bands, girl-bands, dance, and techno…?
- I don’t really think I can say much about it, because I don’t really listen to it but I can’t avoid it when I turn on the radio. Sometimes I hear things that fascinate me, that have a bit of originality to it. It can be anything, but if we look at especially music videos I think it’s a kind of cold cynicism, sex – even scary images or violence, and I don’t really like that.
- You used to collaborate with three other guitarists for years, but was it hard to cooperate with the others? Was it for instance hard to make them play your songs the way you wanted?
- No, not really. Well, the whole thing started as an experiment. Through the years I’ve done my own concerts and done concepts like this with others. I started playing in a group called “The Young Norwegians”, and I’ve played in a quartet called “Ballade” where the point was to play with well-known music. The whole idea with the guitar group was to put four capable guitarists and songwriters and see what happened.
- In the beginning I honestly think we didn’t believe it was possible to play four guitars at he same time, but when we tried we adopted one role each. It turned out to be a fun, own sound and experience because we all respected each other as songwriters.
- How do you think others to see you?
- Hum, I feel most people see me positively, which of course I’m happy about. As a musician I sometimes miss that most people overlook the actual music. Most people catch the songs I write and the stories I tell. I actually do have a formal music education and have worked a lot with learning different types of music. In reviews I never see anything about the music, it’s all about the lyrics and what clothes I’m wearing onstage, so I do admit that I miss that a bit.
I’m starting to sweat a bit. I was unsure of how he would react to the next question, but I decided to take the chance anyway. I picked up my things, spotted the front door, got ready to run – just in case.
- You strike me as a relaxed guy... and yet a while ago you had a bit of a dispute with a politician. What was the reason behind it all?
- The reason was that this politician and his pals during their election had expressed a number of grotesque racial expressions. To me it was painful, these are members of the parliament, and the media turned this into politics. To me that’s not politics, it’s mocking.
- I have tried to fight racism in different ways since I had the possibility to be on a stage. At one point this politician sat down next to my friends and me. We had a long conversation, and he repeated these racial expressions, and started harassing a Palestinian friend of mine.
- After about an hour I had about an inch of beer left in my glass, so I just poured it over his head. And I’m proud of it. I won’t do it again, though. Once was quite enough.
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. He only took a drag of his cigarette and kept his calm, even though this is probably the only thing that’s ever pissed him off.
Oh, and he promises his audience a new album by the end of the year.