There’s an Elizabeth Hardwick quote I love that comes to mind every time I leave the country: “Your first discovery when you travel is that you do not exist.” When you leave home, you strip yourself of your own context. You find yourself free and invisible in a place where no one knows you and where the everyday rules you take for granted don’t apply. That disorientation is powerful even when you’re doing something you do all the time, like watching bands play for a few thousand strangers as the sun sets over a city.
Before I came to Norway for Øya Festival, I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic since I was 18. I had never been to Scandinavia, though I revered it in an abstract, mythic way because of people like Björk and Karin Dreijer Andersson. The image I had of Norway was that of tall, blonde women hovering effortlessly across meadows at night.
As far as I know, everyone in Norway walks through their meadows, but there is a feeling of magic and whimsy among the musicians who call the country home. I saw a tall, blonde woman play a ukelele at the top of an Olympic ski jump, for what it’s worth, and I saw plenty more tall, blonde people (and some shorter brunettes) play post-metal and electro-pop and jazz and dark disco — the usual range. Øya Festival has a strong sense of national pride, with a huge fraction of its slots going to locals, including the last day’s headlining spot. It’s also the most gender-balanced major festival I’ve ever attended; while I haven’t crunched the numbers, I think that if you took all the acts with no women off the poster, you’d still have about half the fest left over.
Because festivals in the United States are increasingly fraught with corporate monopolies and actual deaths, I’m always curious to see how other places do things. Øya’s a big festival, hosting about 10,000 people a night, but it’s a slick and pleasant affair, cleaner than most minor street fests here in the States and surprisingly light on the substance abuse. The only major corporate sponsor I noticed was Pepsi, who set up a big tent in the middle of the grounds. A few Norwegian companies advertised products with names I couldn’t understand at smaller stations across the campus, but none of the music felt indebted to non-musical entities. Øya was a self-sustaining environment where everyone recycled and nobody lost their shit.
As a city, Oslo seems to follow a similar maxim. It’s quiet and clean and lovely, and its winding streets and ocean air remind me of my home city Boston on a good day. I got to watch Scandinavian women sing from the top of a steep hill and swim in one of Norway’s fabled fjords. It was a good place to find out how little I exist.
Tuesday, August 11th
Oslo’s Central Station is 50 kilometers away from the airport, and the express train into town takes just 19 minutes, which means it moves at 150 kilometers an hour, or about 93 MPH. The Flytogen is an amazingly smooth ride nonetheless, gliding past green country in silence. My hotel is the Comfort Grand Central and it’s technically attached to the city’s main train station, though when I arrive at the transport hub I have to go outside to get my bearings and find the entrance to the building I’ll call home for the next few nights. The hotel has high ceilings and a slate-grey industrial theme accented with hot pink. My room is airy and minimal, a hyper-efficient Scandianvian studio apartment with a mural covering one wall.
I head to the city’s visitor center, also situated inside the sentralstasjon, for a meet and greet with the other international delegates who have been invited out by Music Norway, the country’s own PR firm for Norwegian acts. They’re handing out citrus cocktails and filets of raw salmon; I grab a vanilla sugar-dusted drink and wait in line to pick up my fest credentials. No one here is speaking English. With my wristband and lanyard in hand, I slink against a wall and check Twitter on the visitor center’s free wifi. My friend from Canada tells me that one of his friends is also here in Oslo for the fest; I’m in the middle of replying when a North American-looking dude looks up at me from the same wall and says, “We’re tweeting at each other.” He books shows in Canada, and together we decide that we’ve just brought up the total number of Jews in Norway by a statistically significant percent.
A few Music Norway reps take a few of the North Americans out to dinner at a Peruvian restaurant called Piscoteket. My new Canadian friend and I figure out that we have also upped the number of vegetarians in Norway by a statistically significant percent. Piscoteket is a small plates kind of place, and all of our specifically meatless small plates turn out to be quinoa-based, which gets hilarious by the third round of vegetables and grains. They’re delicious, though, especially the risotto; I’m not especially jealous of the carnivores, who are apparently eating horse.
The other Americans at dinner are managers and bookers and PR folks. We’re all jet-lagged but everyone’s friendly in the way you get friendly when exhaustion wears down your walls — everything is funnier than it should be. The festival proper doesn’t start until tomorrow, but Tuesday is Club Day at Øya, meaning that Oslo’s small venues are filled with dozens of official pre-parties. I mention that I want to check out someone called Phaedra, a composer and performer who looked interesting on the fest’s website, and a couple Norwegians recommend another group called Amanda who’s playing at a club around the corner. After dinner we walk to John Dee, an industrial-looking space with high ceilings and black pillars and exceptionally nice bathrooms for a rock club. Amanda is a local synthpop group, named, I think, after the singer. The room is full and the locals are digging it. We stick around for a rock band called Up Against the Phantom, and then my Jewish vegetarian/Canadian booker friend and I take off in search of Phaedra.
Phaedra plays Kulturhuset (“culture house”), a cozy coffeehouse/bar with college vibes. It’s full of people and there’s an outdoor stage right next door, too. I guess from the program that there are two stages at Kulturhuset but I only see one at the back of the bar. Phaedra’s start time rolls around and I don’t see anything that looks like the act I read about. I wander between the indoor stage and the outdoor stage until I finally hear a bass line from a third space, and then I finally notice an unmarked door that opens into a warmly lit stage with seats where Phaedra’s playing. We go in and watch the second half of the set, which features flute and violin and lovely vocal harmonies. Phaedra sings in English but her stage banter is in Norwegian, which sounds enough like English to make me think I’ve momentarily lost my ability to comprehend language. It’s late, I’ve been up for two days, and I’ve signed up for zip-lining in the morning, so once Phaedra wraps we walk back to the hotel and crash.
Wednesday, August 12th
Wednesday is Øya Festival’s official kickoff, but first Music Norway is sending a bunch of journalists down a zip-line. The most recent incarnation of the Holmenkollen ski jump was built in 2010 for the Olympics, and now it’s a zip-lining tower for tourists. We walk through Oslo’s ski museum and take the elevator to the top of the jump, where the views of the city are incredible. We’re served coffee as we wait to fly very fast down a very tall hill.
The jump is only for press — the industry folks have a mandatory networking event — so we’re treated to a mini-concert from one of the Norwegian artists playing Øya. We gather outside by the top of the zip-line and wait for the artist to arrive, which she does by strapping herself in at the bottom of the jump and getting reeled in all the way up to us.
Thea Hjelmeland is wearing the same gauzy white dress she’ll later wear at her festival set, and she hops up to sit at the top like it’s no big deal. “Just a normal Wednesday in Norway,” she says before someone hands her a ukelele and she plays a song called “Perfume”. When she’s finished, she says, “That’s it for now. I have to go,” and zip-lines right back down without missing a beat.
Then it’s our turn. Nothing fosters bonding like waiting to fall several hundred feet, so I chat with a few English journalists in line. It’s pretty much everybody’s first time in Norway. We’re getting quite the greeting. I don’t feel nervous until I’m actually flying down the line, and then it’s four seconds of pure body panic that gives way to adrenalized bliss. The air is cool and smells great, and flying through it feels amazing.
When everyone’s down, a bus takes us from the ski jump to the festival, which is located in the green hills of Tøyenparken. It’s a bright afternoon and most attendees are still sitting down, drinking pilsners and taking in the music from afar. I pass a ska band called Razika on my way to the club stage at the back of the grounds, where Norwegian songwriter Sondre Lerche is about to interview American songwriter Shamir in the first installation of the fest’s Q&A series.
Shamir also seems bewildered by the change in scenery. “I’ve never done anything like this,” he says. “It’s very awkward.” I get the feeling it’s hard to explain Las Vegas to a crowd of Norwegians, who have no equivalent, but he talks about the sentiment behind the opening track on his album, “Vegas”. He mentions that it was co-written with his aunt, his mom’s twin, who’s not a musician but helped him become one as a kid. Lerche asks about Shamir’s first single “On the Regular” and Shamir says that he never wanted it to be released. The party rap jam was written as a way to politely use up a beat from his producer that he didn’t want to reject, but everyone ended up loving it.
After the interview, I head to the Sirkus stage for Enslaved, the Norwegian metal band that’s been shredding since 1991. The tent is packed with headbangers hiding from the mid-afternoon sun. Enslaved has a lot of presence and a lot of riffs and a lot of hair; they look like there’s nothing they’d rather be doing than ripping up fretboards in a park. I catch a few minutes of Caribou, who sound amazing in the tent, and then I go to see Shamir’s set, which has people dancing even if they don’t know the words like the crowds did at Pitchfork Fest last month.
Sondre Lerche plays his own set right after Shamir at Vindfruen, one of the main stages whose name apparently translates to something like “wind maiden.” He’s wildly charismatic and clearly beloved here, hopping around the stage and singing out the dregs of his heartbreak. There are a few dozen girls in the front row who have probably been in love with him for years. When he’s done, Nile Rodgers and his band CHIC take the next stage over. They play medleys of songs that the legendary guitarist has produced, in addition to a few new originals. It’s fun as hell and Rodgers is every bit as magnetic in person as he is when he’s riffing in Daft Punk videos. He almost doesn’t look real.
Back over on Sirkus, In Flames close out the night. Mastodon was originally scheduled but canceled at the last minute, and luckily Øya was able to book one of the acts responsible for how Mastodon sounds. In Flames are classics; you can hear a whole roster of American hard rock bands that have sprung from them over the last two decades, and in person they’re singular and powerful Scandinavian pioneers. Some of the Enslaved headbangers were still packed into the front of the tent, headbanging.
Øya ends at 11 p.m., but the city fills up with after shows once the park drains. I go to a club called Blå for Iceage. A Swedish band named Pig Eyes opens and their frontman wears a shirt emblazoned with the words “Declare Class War” over a picture of a machine gun, while one of their two drummers wears a shirt that says, “My Life Is Going Under.” They play hefty, powerful post-punk; their tall, grizzled singer has a nervous energy that carries his stage presence even while he’s dancing silently through the instrumental tracks that they open and close with.
The venue fills up for Iceage, who come on late and drunk. “Iceage is the best band in the world!” somebody yells in English. It’s hot in the club but Elias Bender Rønnenfelt wears this olive green wool coat the whole time, letting its weight slow his movement. He sips whiskey until it’s gone and then he swigs white wine, first from a glass and then straight from the bottle. The band carries him, and the crowd screams at singles like “The Lord’s Favorite”, which Iceage performs with a raw and wry edge.
A polite mosh pit breaks out and someone politely crowd-surfs through the small club. Iceage finishes the set. It’s nearly 3 a.m., and everyone walks home through the chilly Oslo night.
Thursday, August 13th
All the international delegates are required to board a cruise through the fjord Thursday morning, which is about the best kind of mandatory event I can think of. We meet in the hotel lobby and walk over to the boat, which circles a few of the islands before docking on one of their beaches. There’s more free coffee in tiny paper cups with tiny paper handles, and once we’re settled in all the delegates are split up into teams for a kind of team-building exercise. Most of the stations test our knowledge of the bands that are playing Øya, but there’s also a timed skiing challenge across grass and a ping pong relay. I’m garbage at ping pong but I manage to knock the founder of a well-known American booking agency off his winning streak. We get a barbecue with vegetarian options and then we take turns venturing into the water, which is cold and salty and sparkling with minerals. The bright midday sun dries us off when we crawl back on land.
The boat takes us back to the mainland and then we walk to the festival in time for Lianne La Havas, the English soul singer whose performance is as polished as her latest album. Then, at 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday, I walk over to the Sirkus stage to see Sunn O))). Sunn O))) is from America but might as well be from Norway or the north pole or from space. Before they come on, a semicircle of amps towers over the crowd like a henge. Then a cloaked figure appears from a fog cloud. Then another, and another. They play guitar and Moog and surf a roar of feedback. Finally, Attila Csihar rises from the floor and sings, though really it’s more of a snarl, then a bellow, then a guttural crack like tectonic plates shifting. The fog glows pink. The ground vibrates.
When I leave the tent to catch the end of Run the Jewels, Sunn O)))’s drones follow me, underscoring Killer Mike and El-P’s verses. They reverberate all the way up the hill to the international area. The whole park quakes with Sunn O))).
Next in the Sirkus is Thea Hjelmeland, now on land, playing her melancholy orchestral folk songs with a full band. She jams out some tracks to seven or eight minutes as a mostly local audience watches, starstruck. Most of the crowd leaves when she leaves, but I stick around for a rendition of some lesser-known Arthur Russell instrumental compositions performed by a batch of Americans. It’s a left-field slot of brainy disco, more of a curiosity than a destination, but the people who filter in end up dancing. The set flows as a continuous piece, lively and unassuming, Arthur Russell at his most crowd-pleasing.
Florence and the Machine headline Thursday night, and as I wait for their set to start in the photo pit, I notice that the biggest Florence fan in the whole world is here. In between the teenage girls is an older man, maybe 40 or 50, in a bucket hat and a spray of glitter face paint. He cheers as loud as the girls as the Machine takes the stage, and when Florence herself runs on, he gazes up euphoric, as if in prayer. He is transcending. He is no longer here. Florence sings ballad after ballad, running barefoot across the stage, twirling and headbanging and having the time of her life like she does every night. And this guy, maybe twice my age, maybe there by himself, has the happiest, most grateful, most awestruck face I’ve ever seen on a human. There’s nowhere else he’d rather be in the world.
Friday, August 14th
We’re halfway through the fest and we have the morning off from our tourist adventures, so I sleep in a little and edit some photos before walking over to Tøyenparken. Jenny Hval plays an early set at the Vindfruen stage backed up by three Americans she called “the Apocalypse Girls.” They take the stage in white painting suits and rub red paint all over each other’s bodies, then pass the paint to Hval, who’s singing stoically from under a pastel blue and pink wig. The Apocalypse Girls kick bright pink beach balls around and loop a bright pink lifesaver around Hval as she runs through cuts from her latest LP, Apocalypse, girl. At one point the Girls do a bad karaoke rendition of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” before Hval cuts them off with a squall of synthesizer noise. It’s beautiful and surreal and fascinating; it’s also way too early for a set this weird.
I hear Laura Marling play a few songs before walking over to catch Holly Herndon at the Hi-Fi Klubben stage. I just saw her play Chicago but her set was so good I wanted to catch it again, perhaps to see how the Norwegians would take it. The tented-in club stage has a hot, black, rubber floor, and the midday sun beats down hot. Herndon plays a few songs before her gear starts to malfunction from the heat. She bats at her touchpad while her projectionist keeps us amused with some typed-out stage banter. Ambient backing tracks play for minutes on end; it sounds cool, but it’s not the fluid, put-together set I just saw in Chicago. Herndon deals; eventually, she gets her laptop working and she closes out the set in a flood of relief.
One of the American managers recommended I see André Bratten, so I stick around Hi-Fi until he takes the stage from behind a cloud of fog. His music is heavy and thick but still danceable, a weird strain of dark disco, like a goth Todd Terje. He doesn’t sing or speak but the stage’s LED screens flash bright with geometric visualizations. He finishes, so I trek down to Sirkus for Jaga Jazzist, a band of Norwegians who make funked-up electro-jazz like Ratatat run through with prog.
Beck headlines the night from the Amfiet stage, but the international delegates are waiting for another show. We’ve been promised a secret midnight concert, and when Beck plays his last hit, we get rounded up onto a bus, and shipped to an undisclosed location. The bus drops us off somewhere forested. Then a group of people dressed up as vikings carrying torches meets us. They ask us to follow them. They walk us up a hill on a path lit by candles.
None of us has any idea what we’re about to see. “Is it black metal?” we whisper. “Are we going to die?” We get to the top of the hill and sit by a reflecting pool. Someone introduces Einar Selvik, who writes and performs music with the group Wardruna. His songs are based on Nordic mythology and spiritualism; it’s viking music in a sense, but not strictly lodged in the past. “It’s not about reenactment,” he explains. “What I’m trying to do is make something new with something old, use old ideas that are in many ways still relevant today. It’s about man’s relationship to nature, to each other, to something bigger than yourself. It’s quite universal.”
He plays a replica of the oldest string instrument found in Norway and sings. Torches and fire pits flicker around him. Everyone is silent as he plays through a handful of songs, which ring rich and deep from the hilltop. I am bewildered and also a little in awe. Everything feels peaceful. When Selvik finishes, most of the group descends the hill for an afterparty, but a few of us check out Skyspace, an installation by American artist James Turrell lodged in the side of the hill, which is also a public sculpture park. The first room of the underground structure, which used to serve as old water tanks, shines bright colored light onto two smooth, painted walls. It’s impossible to see how far out the walls stretch — the plane looks infinite, the space unmarked by anything that would ground any sense of perspective.
The next room is dark except for a hole in the ceiling that lets a few stars shine through. A bench encircles the round space; we all sit down and find that the stone walls are warm compared to the chilly night air. We gaze up at the purple sky, snug against the rock, our whispers echoing through the chamber. We stay for what feels like hours but is only minutes, then walk down to join the others at the base of the hill.
Saturday, August 15th
I’m in the same city that Edvard Munch called home, so I go to his museum to see The Scream. The Munch Museum’s current exhibition is a side-by-side look at the influences and evolutions of Munch and Vincent van Gogh, so I’m in for a lot of post-Impressionism. Walking through the exhibit, I think about how Munch’s high contrast, mouthless figures must have stirred the invention of comics in America. One van Gogh self-portrait stares out at me so intensely I forget where I am for a minute. The museum’s climax is, of course, The Scream, which is technically one of three Screams in Oslo (Munch made a bunch). This one is crayon on cardboard, less vivid than the reproductions I’m used to seeing, but haunting all the same. Munch saw his great scream in nature while standing over the same river in Oslo I’ve been crossing all week.
I have about an hour until the festival starts, so I walk through the botanical gardens next to the Munch Museum. They’re picturesque in that classic European sense: lily ponds, miniature waterfalls, bright flowers, lots of bees. I take a few dozen photos and then cross to the adjacent Tøyenparken for a Norwegian band called Slutface.
Slutface’s lead singer wears a Makthaverskan shirt, so I know I’m in for something loud and feminist. I’m not disappointed. These four kids are young and bubbling with energy. It seems they have a solid core fan base here in Oslo; people know the words to songs about bad parties and anger. One song includes a cheerleader chant of the letters “A! N! G! S! T!”
After Slutface I walk further up the hill and lie down on the grass while a local post-metal group called Krakow plays. They’re heavy and slow, with intermittent raspy vocals, good for day four dozing. Recharged, I walk to Hi-Fi Klubben for Pharmakon. Margaret Chardiet is also having gear issues in the hot tent. She tests out a drum pad a few times during soundcheck and swears audibly, then goes ahead and starts her set anyway. If she’s rattled by the malfunction you wouldn’t know it once she starts playing. Orange lights glow around her as she stokes industrial noise up from her gear table. She screams, prowls the stage, screams some more. By the second song, she’s hopped the barrier into the crowd. She walks right up to a few individual dudes, looking at them with pleading eyes that turn angry without warning. It’s a short set, probably because of the gear issues, but the most intimate one I’ll see all week.
Vince Staples performs in Sirkus next, and while he’s got a good turnout, he’s not used to Scandinavians’ stoic festival demeanors. He tries to rile the crowd up multiple times. The hip-hop heads in front are feeling it, but the back stays passive, even when Staples instructs his fans to turn around and flip off the stragglers. He draws a chant of “fuck the police” from the crowd, even though I get the feeling that police in Oslo are far less trigger-happy and less hated than our own footsoldiers back in the States.
I watch most of Torche’s set, enough for them to play my favorite song off their most recent album, then head back into Sirkus for The Julie Ruin. This isn’t Bikini Kill, but Kathleen Hanna still bounces and screams like it’s the ‘90s. She has so much energy and she’s having so much fun. “Being old is awesome,” she says at one point. “I’m 46 and I’m loving it.” They play Le Tigre’s “Eau D’bedroom Dancing”. Their keyboardist wears a shirt that reads “Everything Is Problematic.”
The sun sets late in Oslo during the summer and its light still streaks the clear sky by the time the festival’s last headliner comes onstage. I had never heard of Susanne Sunfør before researching this festival but she’s clearly a known property in Oslo. Thousands of people gather in front of the Amfiet stage before she appears. She’s wearing a fringed leather jacket and long blonde hair, and her songs oscillate between quick dance tracks and slow melancholic numbers. She’s a hell of a singer. I take my photos and then trek up the hill to watch her from a distance. The air feels calm across the park. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to describe another festival’s closing set as “serene.”
I think the US works in extremes in a way Scandinavia doesn’t. Americans endure so much stress just staying alive that our recreation has to match the intensity of our work. I’d just been to Lollapalooza a few weeks ago; the contrast between Chicago and Oslo at each of our biggest festivals is amazing. Everything in Norway feels more stable, more peaceful, less chaotic and extreme. Øya’s weather was perfect and its crowds blissfully took in the music — no trouble.
It’s dark by the time Sundfør wraps. There’s no encore. Thousands of people walk out of the grounds unhurried, with plenty of personal space to spare. Outside the park a few young people crack open a bottle of Bombay Sapphire to keep the night going. I walk down the quiet streets and pass the festival’s cryptic parting sign, lit up in white neon over the exit: “THE LIFE TO COME.”
Photographer: Sasha Geffen