Things just didn’t go to plan with Daniel Norgren's new record. The Swedish songwriter lacked the focus to fuse a collection of songs into a bigger story. After a barren period, a traumatic event in his personal life convinces Norgren to throw his album in the trash and start over when the air clears. Then he and his band move into a nineteenth-century textile farm, deep in the forest. It turns out to be the perfect birthplace for the playful yet thoughtful Wooh Dang.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photo: Larry Limp
Daniel Norgren has been making a name for himself over the past ten years with blues and folk that are clearly inspired by American traditions, but from which the Scandinavian darkness never completely disappears. The thirty-something debuted in 2007 with Kerosene Dreams, an album that Norgren largely recorded with homemade instruments. In the years that followed, he broke through with Outskirt and Horrifying Deatheating Bloodspider, albums that conquered the hearts of roots lovers from all over the world, but that always remained connected to Norgren's home base.
That home base is located in the forests of southern Sweden, around Norgren's hometown Borås. He lives there among the tall trees and runs Superpuma Records with his trusted producer Pelle Nyhage, the label on which all his albums have been released. His wife Petra is the label’s art director and his brother Christian is his tour manager. A while ago, the company discovered a gigantic house during a walk, not even that far from Nyhage's own studio, but completely hidden within the greenery. “It was completely untouched, like it was frozen,” recalls Norgren, who just got home from a visit to the factory that is printing his new album. “When we entered the house, it was like traveling a hundred years back in time. You could smell that it had been abandoned for a long time, but everything still worked. The heating was just on.”
Norgren is immediately in love with the house. For hours he peers out through the crooked windows and marvels at the way they seem to distort the landscape. Soon Norgren instructs his bandmates to move all their belongings from the studio to the house. For a few months they spend large parts of the day there. “It kind of felt like we were on vacation.” The group settles in the large living room, where a large piano turns out to be left behind. “That was one of the reasons I wanted to record there. I pinged on it a bit and fell head over heels for it. It was a bit out of tune, but you can hardly blame it, it's been in that house for a hundred years." Not only does the piano not always sound the way it should, the guitars on Wooh Dang also sound a bit crooked at times. “That was because we initially forgot to bring our tuners with us,” explains Norgren. “But after that we decided that we wouldn't bring them anymore at all. To trust our ears, our guts, and not rely too much on all kinds of equipment. Here and there the guitars sound a bit out of tune, but that's exactly how I wanted it."
“There are even a few first takes on the album,” Norgren says. Nyhage, who has built an impromptu production room a few courses away, records them without the band noticing. “It was just like rehearsing with my friends for a gig. The first time we were in the house together, we were like puppies wagging their tails with excitement. The only rule was that there were no rules. Of course I was hoping to make an album, but it was more important to have fun.”
Things are very different two years before, when Norgren is also trying to make an album. He plays around endlessly with a collection of demos, but time and again he runs into a brick wall. “I felt like I'd already decided what the album should sound like, so it was really frustrating when I couldn't make it happen. I started to overthink everything and doubt my decisions.” At the same time, Norgren is working on the soundtrack for a Swedish television series, but his own musicianship is also starting to feel more and more like a job. A job Norgren takes no pleasure in, to make things worse. “The first time you pick up a guitar, you feel a certain crush, you don't really want to let go. But then things change. Sometimes it can be difficult to find your own voice and discover what you actually want to say. In the end we decided to stop recording and throw everything away. That was a huge relief, because I had been telling myself for a long time that it would get better if I just kept going.”
Norgren makes the decision after his personal life is shaken up. A little over a year ago, dark and light meet in a heartbreaking way. On the moving 'When I Hold You In My Arms', Norgren does indeed sing about his fatherhood, but the birth of his child coincided with the loss of an important family member. “It was a strange coincidence,” he recalls. “You know people are born and people die, but it's still a shock when something like this happens. Becoming a father also changes so much, in your head and in your heart. In your eyes and your ears. It confused me a bit. I couldn't concentrate on my music long enough. I see my albums as worlds I dive into, hoping I can hold my breath until the album is written and recorded. Then I can gasp for air again. When I was working on the album I threw away, I just felt short of breath, I couldn't stay underwater long enough. This time, I could.”
Norgren describes the change in ‘Let Love Run The Game’, one of Wooh Dang's singles. Or actually, he lets a bird do the talking. It suddenly starts talking to Norgren as he takes a walk through the forest. “I see you here every day now,” the bird says. “You must be looking for something?” His wise advice: “Just put your heart-shaped glasses on boy. And something will come looking for you too.” It's a lesson Norgren actually learns through long walks around the house. He makes field recordings of birds, the water and the wind, recordings that will eventually end up on the album. For example, on lead single 'The Flow', in which Norgen sings about waiting for that all-important flow, a stream that runs under the house can be heard. “I had a set path that I always followed,” explains Norgren. “It was the same path every day, but there were always new things that struck me. Especially in the spring, when a crocus can just pop up. It is meditative, a kind of medicine for the soul. I am not a person who can sit at a desk from nine to five. It is during forest walks that I get my best ideas. It sounds cliché, but I try to be honest about it.”
The weather also has a lot of influence on Norgren. He is very sensitive to it. When the sun shines, he writes sunny songs, and when it rains, he conceives of rainy music. “I'm a bit of a weather forecaster,” he laughs. “Today I am in a great mood, because the sky is completely blue. Not a cloud to be seen. But even if one cloud pops up, I change a little. We recorded the album last summer, during the hottest and sunniest period of the past hundred or two hundred years. The light, the sun, the weather, everything played a part in the process. At night the sky was pitch black and full of stars. Sometimes you are that lucky.”
Now Wooh Dang, the record that was recorded in rustic isolation, finds its way out into the wide world. It is a special sensation for Norgren. “But that's probably the case for anyone who makes music and incorporates personal things into it. As long as I'm happy with the album, I'm happy it's coming out. It may not be the best record ever, but it's my record, where I tell my story as honestly as I can. If I can draw that conclusion, I feel invincible. If I'm honest with myself, I can say anything. I don't count on other people to feel connected to what I've made, hidden in my own bubble, deep in the woods. But sometimes they do. That humbles me very much.”
Wooh Dang is out through Superpuma Records. At the end of August, Daniel Norgren will play at Into The Great Wide Open.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.