Thomas Dybdahl

TAS Interview: Thomas Dybdahl

Singer and songwriter Thomas Dybdahl is a platinum-selling artist in his native Norway, winning the equivalent of his country's Grammy (Spellemannprisen) several times. He's even borne quick comparisons to Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake and Justin Vernon, but surprisingly, Dybdahl remains relatively unknown outside of Europe. That might change dramatically thanks to the release this month of his new album Songs, his debut in the States and his second album in the UK.

The record, released on producer Larry Klein's Strange Cargo label via Decca/Universal is really a compilation of carefully chosen tracks from Dybdahl's five albums over the last decade, including 2002's  ... that great October sound and last year's multiple award-winning Waiting for that One Clear Moment. Klein, who has a storied career nurturing artists like Joni Mitchell and Madeleine Peyroux, discovered Dybdahl's music accidentally and was smitten.

On songs like "All Is Not Lost" and the majestic and sorrowful "From Grace," Dybdahl's shows off his strength as a folk-leaning songwriter who can be tender, but not sentimental or overtly soft. Shivers of alt-country course through some of his compositions, like the ramble "Cecelia" while other songs are buoyed  by thoughtful, string-driven asides and jittery, yet sophisticated, arrangements. There's edge, bravado and muscle to his quiet demeanor, demonstrated skillfully on tracks  like "Love Story" and  "The Great October Sound." 

Dybdahl kicks off his North American tour at  New York's Mercury Lounge tomorrow, July 13. He caught up with The Alternate Side over email this week and not only discussed what it's like to start anew ... but also revealed his past life as a devoted Metallica fan:

TAS: You're touring in North American through the end of the month. It must be a bit surreal to "begin again" when you've got such an established career in Norway. Is it rather fun - or challenging or odd or a relief - not to be recognized and to be a "new artist" again?

Thomas Dybdahl: I think it's probably all of those things at once. It's fun to see how people react to the music without knowing anything about me or the music to color their opinion. And it's definitely challenging to get into these songs again as if they were new, but me and my band have been looking forward to touring the US for a while now. I think we are prepared for just about anything.

TAS:  I suppose the inevitable question is - what took you so long to release an album here?  

Thomas: We have always been a small team in Europe and breaking into new territories has taken a lot of time, as we have done it city by city, playing small shows and then trying to build by word of mouth. I can't really regret anything. I have had a good career in the places where we have focused our energy and have a good relationship with my fans in these places. Another thing is the fact that it wasn't until now, with Larry Klein's involvement, that we have had a solid team behind us, making it possible for us to give it a real shot.

TAS:  Songs is a compilation of tracks from previously released albums; in a sense, it's a greatest hits album. Why was that the choice for your debut here as opposed to an entirely original album? 

Thomas: This was a decision by the label. They felt this would be a good way to introduce me to an audience in the US, as I am basically unknown to an American audience. The songs were picked by Larry and it was my job to try and make sense of the different picks and put together a coherent album.

TAS: You seem to be stepping into the States at a time when there's a drift towards more contemplative music, like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and Junip. But I read that you - quite wonderfully - began playing guitar because of Metallica! So where did you take a left turn into quieter music, from your early days as a hard rocker?

Thomas: Ha ha, you read that, did you? Well, yes, I was a shredder, spending my whole adolescence trying to play the Kirk Hammet, [Joe] Satriani and [Steve] Vai solos. I don't really know how or why I drifted into more melancholic music, but I think it was always there as a part of my personality. I always liked the more quiet and melodic songs anyway, even if I was listening to metal.

TAS: Are you hoping to really focus on breaking into the States and touring here quite a bit? And how do you balance your solo career with your work as frontman of The National Bank?

Thomas: Well, if we are going to give it a shot and try to find an audience for my music, it's going to take time. Nobody cares what you have done other places or how many awards you have. It's pretty brutal that way, but it's natural. We start from scratch here. The National Bank is something that happens when there is time and everybody is psyched about it.

TAS:  How did you connect with Larry Klein?

Thomas: He got in touch with me after having received a song of mine called "A Love Story" from a friend in France. Two days later he was at a show we did in Dammen, Norway and a week later we were in business. It was all very good timing for everybody, I think.

TAS:  It's inevitable, given your beautiful vocals on "From Grace," that you will be compared to Jeff Buckley because of the eerie similarity of your voices ... especially given the title of Jeff's album, Grace. Was "From Grace" a deliberate homage or quite accidental?

Thomas: It was very deliberate, but I don't really see any similarity in our voices.

TAS: You cite Jeff's father, Tim Buckley as well as Colin Blunstone and Serge Gainsbourg as influences, but in terms of what contemporary bands or artists inspire you at the moment, who are you drawn to?  

Thomas: I am a big fan of Gillian Welch, but also other bands and artists like Dirty Projectors, Beach House, Kanye West, Ben Folds and on ....

TAS:  You have an older song called "John Wayne" that didn't make it onto Songs. Are you very influenced by film?

Thomas: I am a huge movie fan, that's true. I was a clerk at a video store for three years when I started out as a solo artist. We were actually three friends who all worked together in the same store as well as living together in the same house. We used to have movie marathons every night, going through 2-3 movies. But I have a very wide taste in movies and find as much joy in a true Hollywood monster as in more arty films.

TAS: Is there any film, past or present, that you wish you could have scored and what would it be?

Thomas: It would have been nice to have scored "The Shawshank Redemption."

TAS: You've collaborated with Morcheeba in the past; any plans for more collaborations? Who do you wish you could work with?

Thomas: I don't know. I like it when collaborations go across genres though, like Bon Iver featured on Kanye West's album.

TAS: Tell me a little bit about your town of Sandnes - do you still live there? Do you have a strong childhood memory that involves music whilst you were growing up?

Thomas: It's a mid-sized Norwegian town (tiny in US scale, though, about 6000 people) and lies right outside its bigger cousin, Stavanger. So musicians and artists tend to gravitate towards the bigger cities as there is always more happening. I live in Stavanger. It's a very nice place, pretty quiet but quite international. Stavanger was where the big Norwegian oil boom got its start in the late 60s because of its geographical position on the West Coast. It was a natural base for all of the oil companies. Norwegian companies at that time didn't have the expertise that the American and other foreign companies had, so a lot of people came from all over the world to be a part of that adventure. So despite its size, it's got a little bit of an international feel.

Thomas Dybdahl Tour Dates

07.13 - New York, NY - Mercury Lounge
07.14 - Washington, DC - DC9
07.15 - Philadelphia, PA -  World Cafe Live - Upstairs (w/Gaby Moreno)
07.16 - Cambridge, MA - T.T. the Bear's
07.18 - Montreal, QC - Casa Del Popolo (w/Tristen)
07.19 - Toronto, ON - The Drake Hotel
07.20 - Cleveland Heights, OH - Grog Shop
07.21 - Detroit, MI -  Magic Stick
07.22 - Chicago, IL - Schubas Tavern
07.23 - Minneapolis, MN - 7th Street Entry
07.26 - Vancouver, BC - The Media Club
07.27 - Seattle, WA - Chop Suey
07.28 - Portland, OR -  Doug Fir Lounge
07.29 - San Francisco, CA -  Brick & Mortar Music Hall
07.30 - Los Angeles, CA - The Satellite

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