Thomas Dybdahl's "Just a Little Bit"
Recording artists from non-English speaking countries traditionally have a difficult time breaking in the U.S., but Norway’s Thomas Dybdahl already has a strong track record.
Thanks to his facility with English, he released his second U.S. album, The Great Plains, in July, and quickly garnered over one million streams of its single “Just a Little Bit” on Spotify—where his songs in total are nearing 50 million streams via 500,000 monthly listeners.
He’s opened for Tori Amos and recorded with both Judy Collins (his song “From Grace,” on her 2015 album Strangers Again) and electronic band Morcheeba (he sings prominently on their 2008 album Dive Deep), and co-written, on The Great Plains, with the noteworthy American songwriters David Baerwald, David Poe and David Hurst Batteau.
The new album follows What’s Left is Forever, his first U.S. album, which was released here four years ago and also debuted at the top of the Norwegian charts while earning a Grammy nomination for best engineered album. Dybdahl is additionally represented in the U.S. by the 2011 compilation album Songs, culled from his five preceding Norwegian albums and issued here as an introductory release.
“I grew up listening to English and American pop music, and that’s one reason why singing in English is for me like playing an instrument well,” says Dybdahl, who actually sees himself “first and foremost” as a guitarist.
“That’s where my musicality started,” he continues. “If one is a guitarist, then one thinks musically as a guitarist. As you evolve, you may go on, as I did, to singing as well. However, you have started as a guitarist.”
But on his U.S. recordings, he’s “making melodies out of words instead of what I’m used to doing,” he says, and Larry Klein, who produced What’s Left is Forever and is now working with Dybdahl on what will be his third U.S. album release, observes that “he has this very individual sonic sensibility and fingerprint.”
“Thomas has his own way of seeing things,” says Klein, who’s worked with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Tracey Chapman and Madeleine Peyroux. “He uniquely processes organic sounds and turns them inside-out and backwards. I often find that people who come to English as a second language have a very reduced and oddly visceral way of expressing themselves—and Thomas certainly has that in the syntax that he has, and the manner in which he puts words together lyrically.”
Dybdahl, who’s won a pair of Norwegian Grammys and cites everything from Mozart’s Requiem to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Tim Buckley, Colin Blunstone and Serge Gainsbourg as influences, understandably speaks of his “eclectic approach” in infusing and balancing “the whole spectrum of music—not only songwriters and singers but contemporary and classical music” into his compositions, “so that I don’t limit myself--or listeners--to the notion of being just another guy with a guitar.”
His richly textured music also shows an atmospheric quality alluded to by Klein that Dybdahl readily identifies with his homeland.
“There’s a melancholy that a lot of artists from Scandinavia have, growing up in a country where it’s cold and rains so much that you go crazy sometimes!” says Dybdahl. “And the winters are long and dark: By three in the afternoon the day’s over—and that obviously has an effect on the way we express ourselves.”
Dybdahl notes that his western Norway coastal hometown Sandnes significantly experienced “massive migration” to the U.S. at the turn of the last century.
“They ended up mostly in Minnesota—and must have been drawn to that place for a reason,” he says. “Even though I’m from the coast, we also have plains, so maybe they were comforted by something that reminded them of home.”
But besides having a large population of townsfolk descendants in the American Midwest, Dybdahl’s best childhood friend was from Ohio.
“We were mostly known for herring until they found oil in the early ‘70s and didn’t know what to do with it,” he relates. “So they imported thousands of people to help out, and I had the luxury of having an American friend who didn’t want to learn Norwegian, so I learned English from him.”
Like other foreign artists, Dybdahl later learned that the U.S. “is just a gigantic country.”
“You go to New York and L.A. and think you’ve seen it—and you really haven’t. It’s just a very daunting task trying to get your music heard over there! You have to focus on trying to get traction in those big cities where if you do well, there might be a career there for you that translates to other cities you can tour. But it’s definitely hard.”
Dybdahl did catch a break when he "serendipitously" met Klein.
“I got out of a label deal in the U.K. and was sort of faced with nothing,” says Dybdahl. “Larry had gotten my music through the great French photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who shot the cover for my album Science —which was designed by an amazing designer, Philippe Starck, who was using my music as an inspirational tool and offered to design my next album cover.”
Klein, meanwhile, had secured an imprint label deal—Strange Cargo—through Decca Records/Universal in the U.S., essentially to release music he felt was exciting.
“I had this track of Thomas’s on my computer,” says Klein, “and I loved his talent and wanted to investigate more of it at some point. So I got my manager to get a hold of his manager, and before I knew it I was flying to Norway to see his show and it floored me even further! So from that one song on my desktop, Thomas Dybdahl became the first person signed to Strange Cargo.”
After releasing Songs on Strange Cargo, Klein produced What’s Left is Forever, “one of the records I’m most proud of.” And while his imprint deal fell through, Klein has remained close friends with Dybdahl, “a person I really meet with musically in a very special way,” he says, adding, “Thomas’s new record is just gorgeous—like all his records.”
The Great Plains was recorded in Oslo by award-winning producer Kåre Vestrheim.
“He’s done some pretty great records in Norway, including [indie pop-rock band] Highasakite,” says Dybdahl. “I’ve wanted to work with him a long time and was lucky to get to write with some of my favorite musicians.”
Besides Baerwald and Poe, Dybdahl wrote with Highasakite’s Ingrid Helene Håvik. The album’s songs, he says, “are mostly about being in a place in life where you suddenly have time to look in the mirror and into yourself, only to discover that you almost do not recognize the man looking back at you.”
Now 38 and the father of a nine-year-old son, “I’m writing a lot about growing up,” he adds, “finding out what kinds of things and events made me who I am today—a bit of a midlife crisis/retrospective.”
His favorite Great Plains track is “Moving Pictures.”
“It turned out the way I was envisioning the whole album: a Nashville recording substituting pedal steel and fiddle with synthesizers—sort of an acoustic folk base, building into a deeper kind of soundscape with lots of synthetic things that sound surprisingly warm. I wrote it with Nina Nielsen, a Norwegian-Canadian woman who’s an amazing writer and sings on it. The lyrics turned out really beautiful and I know I’ll be singing it on every show for quite a while.”
“Moving Pictures” is followed by another standout movie-related title, “Like Bonnie & Clyde,” which was co-written with Baerwald.
“We wrote it in L.A. in the middle of a heat wave when we were thinking of ways to get the hell out of there!” says Dybdahl, who has now completed a sold-out headlining tour of Europe in support of the album and is looking ahead to promoting it at radio in America in October.
“[Santa Monica public radio station] KCRW has always been good to me,” he says, “and I’ll stay in L.A. to finish the new album with Larry and [top engineer/mixer] Tchad Blake.
“It’s not an abrupt change, but it really does sound like an L.A. album,” he adds. “Larry’s Rolodex is pretty well-stocked with good contacts, and the musicians playing on it have had a pretty significant role in creating the West Coast sound of the 1970s up to now. And we did it ‘old school’ in three intense days at Sunset Sounds in June, so it’s a bit grittier and sounds like five guys in the room playing together.”
Klein reports that the new album is about Los Angeles and is “a different type of record, with each song having an individual personality to it.”
“We did a lot in a group writing situation with some greatly talented friends of mine, but very few artists come around who really bring something new to the table—and Thomas certainly does. I love that he’s come to another place geographically, but more important is that he has a degree of notoriety in his own country, but really has the quality of talent deserving of worldwide recognition.”
Dybdahl, concludes Klein, offers “an unusual and very idiosyncratic lens for looking at things lyrically and sonically. I hope he can do well enough recording and touring here to encourage people to investigate his other records from Norway.”