Biography - Unni Wilhelmsen 
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I sing what I can't say. In music, I find myself. I get to know me a little better for each song I write. Music plays a part in almost every aspect of my life and has done so from an early age. As a kid I wanted a piano more than anything in the world. We didn't have room for it, so I grew up pianoless. For many years I avoided the guitar I was given as a substitute. In stead, I spent my time (becoming better than most kids my age) drawing.

As a young illustrator, I was more technically skilled than expressive and exciting. At the age of twenty I finally let the guitar out of the closet for good (yes I literally kept it in my closet not to feel bad about it). Through playing and singing I found genuine, personal places, and finally a voice of my own. I quit drawing and started writing my own songs. I became an observer, inwards and outwards. I write about what I see and what I feel, and I tell other peoples' stories. I have a natural, crooked view of the world, and I'm amused by how my mind translates boring, general info. It turnes out I sometimes see things quite different from others, and my lyrics often contain more humor between the lines than officially perceived. Writing, playing and listening to music bring me pleasure, challenges, wisdom and comfort.

The creative universes of Suzanne Vega, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin, Nick Drake, Tori Amos, Imogen Heap and many others have enchanted me for years. I feel like I’m part of a musical inheritance that recognizes itself in their music. Something in me has something in common with something in each of them. I write about myself meeting other people. About people I meet. Of how they make me feel and react, or about their reaction to me. And a bunch of other stuff that comes in handy when I need to illustrate a feeling or a situation that puzzles me. Joni Mitchell ones said about songwriting: "It takes time to peel the onion". To me, making music and writing lyrics is like peeling my onion. Music makes me look closer and seek other angles. Above all, music provides a place to be.

Like a painter chooses her type of paint, English was the language I chose for my lyrics from the start, even though I’m born and bred in Norway. It provides me with the distance and atmosphere I need, to be able to be honest the way I prefer - sometimes with ironi, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes with a veil of mystery, sometimes dead on and very concrete and literal.

Maybe it's a young thing, trying to hide in language while you try to be honest with yourself. Now that I'm older, writing in Norwegian is much more fascinating than it used to be, but also harder. I released an album in Norwegian (Til meg, St. Cecilia Music) in 2006.Terje Borg wrote most of the lyrics, while I composed and told stories we could write about. It was an intense and rewarding process, and for the first time I also produced parts of the album myself. My kitchen serves as my studio, and I've now got a beautiful, huge Rönisch piano to explore while the pasta turns al dente. Finally the dream came true and I've started writing piano songs, and I now play them during concerts.

Harmonies from the singer-/ songwriter tradition often inspire my compositions, but sometimes my guitar and piano take on exciting quests of their own. I just try to follow, pick up the impulses and turn it into something beautiful, different or 'true'. When something possesses a genuine element of truth or honesty, I can smell it. Different truths for different people, - I follow mine relentlessly. I guess I'm all about capturing and processing stuff. I try to turn small fragments or devestating, life changing events into something I can hear, see, wear or enjoy. I started out only to explore and to please myself. To me, creativety was a private matter. I never seeked out anyone to get my drawings or my songs validated. But before I knew it, others took a closer look at the results of my exploring, and voila: I had an audience.

Growing up, music didn’t exactly play a prominent part in our family life. The magic of music as I discovered it, soon became a private adventure. I listened to Roger Whittaker at the age of 4, and I new every breath and phrase of the album without understanding the words. The resonance of his voice, the sound of his acoustic guitar, the finger-picking style, the secretive melancholic stories of his songs made a serious impact on me - it must have.

I probably recognized something from that first encounter when I wore out my Simon & Garfunkel records later on, given to me by my ten year older sister. I was about twelve years old, and the harmonies of their landscape and the storytelling of the genre appealed to me like no other musical direction so far. Only the sound of a piano could compete with that revelation.

It was clear my parents wouldn’t get me a piano (we didn't have room for it), so I ended up with a guitar instead (for my 12th birthday). I never accepted it as a substitute for the piano I still wanted, but when I turned twenty and had lived by myself for a year, the guitar and I sort of came to terms with one another. I gave in and started playing for real. Rather late, all things concidered.

I had been writing stuff for a while. Pieces of thoughts, comments or quotes from books I'd been reading. Stuff that gave me associations to be curious about. But the words seemed naked to me. Something was missing, even if some pieces surely could pass as poems. I'm often uncomfortable around them. Didn't want to do poems. So when I grew friendlier with my guitar, I could supply the words with music.

I found that what I'd been writing had been song lyrics all along. It had something to do with jigsaw puzzle. Solving them became songs. I had become a songwriter, and I didn't know it. I just tried to find the best place I could to preserve memories and emotions. Internal heavens and hells I knew would fade but that practiclally reigned my days at the time. Songs and music became the best coffins I could find. Meanwhile, I sang covers in piano bars with the show men playing, just to see if I could. Just the singing, no guitar and never my own songs. I picked up on microphone techniques and got a clue on handling an audience. I grew more familiar with my voice by singing covers, trying to resemble the artist I was covering.

After a couple of years in a steady relationship with my guitar, I played my first gig at a club in Oslo.

A small group of people had organized amateur nights once a week at a restaurant. I knew them from hanging around different clubs, taking chances during 'open mics' with various results, and in May 1995 I qualified for their flyer: Two other singer-/songwriters and I would get 30 minutes each, our names printed on a small poster. Original material only. A music journalist came by and he liked what he heard. Without letting me know, he recommended me to a major record company. Out of the blue they called me at home and invited me over. They wanted to hear some of my music.

It was early summer 1995 and I was 24. I had three different part time jobs, rented a small studio apartment and spent my nights working, attending concerts, or hanging out in piano bars. I didn't know what I wanted to become, but I knew many occupations and jobs I did'nt want. I worked as a roulette croupier at night, a museum guard during the day, and I washed dishes in the Oslo main hospital kitchen in the afternoons. In addition I was a free lance illustrator. Now I was on my way to a place I hadn't even heard of: the A&R office (head of artist and reprtoire) at Polygram. I had taped a couple of my first songs at a friend’s house. I brought the cassette with me to the Record Company Castle. The King awaited me in his quarters, and I was Cinderella, wearing my Superman T-shirt and clogs.

I was suspicious and not very optimistic.

After quietly listening to the tape (I was counting cars outside through the window), the King offered me a record contract and half the Kingdom. On the spot. Uh? I was skeptical and confused, and had to go home and consider for a while. He sent me a draft, and I tried to imagine and understand what changes this contract could bring to my life.

I had never wanted fame. I wanted - or had - the music, but I hadn't formed a concrete wish or plan to 'become' anything. I liked my jobs. Did I want everyone to hear my songs? Were there any clauses in the deal that would make me unhappy or restrained in the future? Could I quit if I wanted to after signing the deal? Were these people the right ones to release and promote my type of music, the songs that was written just for me? Would I be able to keep my jobs at the same time as recording an album? if not, what would my economical situation be if the record didn’t sell?

My life changed that day.

After a doubtful while I signed. We recorded the album in the fall, laid plans during the winter, went to Miami for the cover shoot in January, and released the first single for sale and radio. I became the new Princess of female singer-/songwriters in Norway. The King, his Court and I released my debut album 'To Whom It May Concern' in February 1996. It was a success. Yep.

The album was awarded 2 Norwegian Grammies, 'Best Female Of The Year' and 'Album Of The Year' 1996. And I had become a musician.

How motivated are you in the advancement of your career?

I find myself doing things for music’s sake that I wouldn’t do otherwise.

It starts with my personal relationship with music: Writing it, playing it and listening to it. I don’t think of music as work but as the source that makes it possible to live my life the way I do. I think of myself as one of the luckiest people in history, and I work hard to keep it that way.

Much of what I do is actually hard work not even remotely connected what you would think musicians spend their days doing. Making music, recording records and playing concerts, yes. But mainly time flies releasing CD's, being exposed, doing interviews, traveling up to a hundred and twenty days a year, answering mail from all directions including listeners, receiving demos from hopeful young musicians that I haven't the capacity or interest to take on even if I run my own record company, dealing with economy, going through contracts and papers, learning more about my occupation every day, and taking care of business as professionally as I can. While trying to learn the piano. Making music and playing it, is my passion.

What I get paid for is making my music available to others. As long as people want access to what I create, I can make a living out of it. I'm thankful to those who let me. It's not an easy thing.

To provide my 5th album with the best chances I could, I started my own record label, St. Cecilia Music. I have never worked harder. Taking control of the entire process myself was a real challenge. I had to raise enough money. I had to learn the technicalities and the formalities. I was the composer, the writer, the artist, the musician, the secretary, head of the record company, the accountant, layman lawyer, the art director, the management, the receptionist, and the performer. In addition to everything else I hadn’t thought of initially. I hired qualified help from a producer, a promotion company, local distributors, a photographer, my band at the time and more. As a team we planned and prepared a record release that competed successfully with every other release in Norway this year.

As an established artist I couldn’t risk any quality drop, visibly or soundwize. I sort of wrote in my label’s manifesto that I would not compromise from the standards of my four previous albums, all released on major labels, Polygram and Universal Music. I don’t see the point in doing everything myself just to be in control. It’s not that. It’s more about knowing me and my audience. Norway is a small country. I’ve got a good picture of it. I don’t believe I’ll find someone here significantly more capable than myself in taking care of my music and my future. I've chosen not to have a manager in Norway, but could do with some help on the outside. Many chances pass abroad due to lack of assistance. I had the big guys on my side once, preparing releases in America, England, Germany and a handful of other European countries. The whole process was wiped out when Universal Music bought Polygram and laid the promotors and involved executives off, two weeks before the international release.

But I have my hands full here, playing concerts as much as I can. I wish to stay happy with my work and my music. That means hangin' in there, learning and create new plans. But writing and playing concerts are the best parts.


Unni Wilhelmsen © 1996 - 2024