An Interview with Musician Kjersti Kveli

December 4, 2014 • Music

I first met Kjersti working for artist (and former rock star) Tori Wrånes in a performance last year for Performa. This means we made all kinds of high-pitched noises together, and ultimately sang long tones on bikes in near dark for the performance. Kjersti screeched like no other. I had to get to know her story.

Angeli: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you arrive in New York?

Kjersti Kveli: I came to New York because of a Masters Contemporary Performance Program at Manhattan School of Music. And my boyfriend– at the time, also a musician and also from Norway– wanted to come to New York and I wanted to go with him. This was 2007. I moved here in 2008. I was looking for a program and the only two good options for me were: Early Music and Contemporary Music. I did not want to do anything Romantic, or in-between, or all over the place.

So I went into the Contemporary Performance Program and did two years of that with Lucy Sheldon as my teacher. I got the tools that I was missing. That’s the program that really made me a musician. So that’s how I came here. And stayed here, since my mom’s American.

I went straight into the dorms for a few months and then moved to Harlem with Tor for two and a half years or so, which was much better because you can have your own kitchen! No, but really, we also wanted to be in New York for real and dorms didn’t really do that.

We actually moved here from Germany, but we’re from Norway. Harlem is a great place to come to when you’re coming from Scandinavia and Scandinavian thinking and living because it’s the complete opposite!

Culture-wise, it was really different and I was looking for something different in my life. Germany didn’t really offer too much difference for me. We were in Northern Germany, Hamburg and Bremen. The culture was very similar in a way to Norway’s, and I was looking for different cultures. We didn’t have the guts to move to any place more radical than New York, so…

A: What was the transition like?

K: Well, I was going through a lot of different things with myself so it was interpersonally difficult in many ways, but I did feel that coming to New York was part of the— the energy and the spirit here, not just the energy which is what a lot of people focus on, there’s so much going on, so much passion, so much drive, but it’s not just that, it’s also a more subtle thing. I call it spirit. What’s hidden within the people here was what helped me get better at being me.

So the transition was not just the culture clashes that everybody notices: “Oh, wow, people talk loud here,” and, “It’s okay to talk about yourself for an hour.” In Norway it’s not.

So it’s hard to crack out of the culture shell you’re put into, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just how culture works.

For me to be happier to with myself, it was good to learn how to talk about myself. Even more so because I wanted to be an artist, and how can you figure out anything if you’re not even willing to talk about yourself? So that was a big step for me.

In New York you have to have your elevator speech. Putting yourself out there is so present here, and everybody we meet has to do auditions and go through quite challenging things.

It’s good to see the extreme to know that it’s there. People feel like they have to do that just to get by. I did it to feel okay with putting myself out there to the degree that I felt was enough.

But even to get there, I needed to see the extreme to be okay with my inner extreme.

Kjersti in Variations IV, ‘63, by John Cage at the Fifth Avant Music Festival 2014 at the Wild Project in the East Village.

A: So, how did this and the transition impact your creative process as a singer?

K: I had to make more conscious choices about what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be, because if you’re going to start putting yourself out there, you need to know what to say. So you need to sort of think about it 2 or 3, or 15 or 215 times to come to a place where you can do that.

Through that you can also then make a choice about what you actually want to do with your music, like what repertoire you want to choose, what type of singing you want to do, what kind of teachers you want to seek out, you know, all these things become clearer. Here, I could finally aim to be as good as or better than I was.

A: Could you talk to me about what contemporary music is like here?

K: Contemporary music is a big term, which, in my world might mean whatever composers are nowadays writing. But, it can also include composers who have passed. Mostly people think about contemporary music as music written after about 1950.

You could also go further back to when romantic music started to break apart and the harmonies would get so broad, moving towards big, fat jazz chords. They had so much content that it would start deteriorating and almost fall apart, because it would expand so much and float out and become so fully loaded. And then after a while it just seemed like it broke. The broken music is what we call contemporary music.

Tonality has not been a priority anymore in the same way. I’m not saying they don’t care about how it sounds. I’m saying they don’t care about it sounding nice, or someone experiencing it as pleasant. Or portraying emotions like misery and pain through misery and pain sounds. Now you can just have sounds that we would usually call misery and pain but as its own language. And within that, there’s a new line of emotions.

So within the non-tonal music, or atonal, there’s a new set of emotions. There’s a new language that came out of it seemingly breaking. And, there’s this new breed of those who listen and hear things differently.

A: How did you break into the contemporary music scene here? How did you get yourself out there— is there a scene?

K: There is a scene. I’m not really out there! I step in and out of it. I haven’t been so active in keeping myself in the scene, mostly because I have so many other scenes that I also like and want to be in. I’m most of all a singer-songwriter right now. I compose things that are bluesy-rock. Some of it is more experimental, and some of it is more accessible and pop.

With some music, I try to put contemporary stuff in there and sort of trick people into experiencing more of what I’m experiencing through my other music that’s more accessible. Because I think there is so much beauty in listening to sound as that, just sound with its own inner language.

But actually, the lyrics and the poetry have become more of an issue for me as an artist. It’s become a bigger part of whom I am. On a day-to-day basis, I don’t really practice my sound, my singing, but I constantly work on words, more so words in a certain sound world. So, poetry and song lyrics. That’s basically what my soul is obsessed with right now.

And you know now, actually, the contemporary scene has opened again. Now you don’t have to be atonal or hard to listen to to be contemporary music. Some of the more popular stuff that we call contemporary is actually very tonal, like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. That‘s its own field of contemporary music with a lot of repetitive sounds.

People even have Philip Glass at their weddings. It’s become mainstream, but he’s a contemporary composer. And the way he works and the way he does things, is still within this contemporary field, but it just happens to sound like some pop music even. It’s all mixing together.

A: Is singing a job?

K: Um, (laughs), that’s a good question! I think that a lot of people have this secret voice that says, “Art shouldn’t be a job,” or at least, “Singing shouldn’t be a job.” It can be a job, but most people don’t have it as a job.

But well, personally, I am one of those people who do feel that art shouldn’t be a job, and that you’re not supposed to make money off these things.

Art is so fleeting that it’s strange to be able to trade it. It’s not really a tradable thing in my world. It’s something that travels. It hits you and then you make something new out of it. And what you made of my song has nothing to do with me, nothing to do with the money you gave me, or the record I gave you.

As much as I do want to make a living off of this and make it so to speak, there’s a little voice in me that says that’s not the natural part of this world we’re in and that’s not really the nature of art.

A: Yeah, so I know you have worked various other jobs to make singing possible, not just as a monetary pursuit but also as an artistic endeavor. What have you done to make it work?

K: Yeah, I made a conscious choice about not working within singing to make a living early on because I didn’t want my artistic activity to be strangled by money. Because it would indeed in my field as I’m in a contemporary experimental field where there is no money. That’s just sort of how it is for a while. You have to establish yourself as an artist. This takes time. It also takes a lot of awareness.

So I knew that if I chased all these other jobs, like singing for musicals, doing demos, or writing pop songs and performing them to make money— if I did that too early on, it would limit my development as an artist.

So I made that decision and said to myself, “You’re never going to go to an audition. You’re not allowed.” And I don’t. I don’t do auditions. If people want me, they have to call me.

So in order to do that and make that space for my own development, I chose to do other jobs. For a short while, I was doing the very common waitress thing. And that doesn’t make enough money, you know. You have to have extreme stamina. I’m in all awe of anyone who is in that business on any level.

And then I started doing something that I did like for two years. I met a lady who had her own cleaning company and she was hiring all these Estonian girls.

(She was Estonian and her friends were Estonian.)

Estonia is a relatively poor country. People come here from there and they seek a better life. Through persistence, they make good lives for themselves and they have integrity doing it, which made me think I could do that.

I met her for an interview and I was desperate for work, and she just gave off such integrity in her self. She talked about the girls she worked for who were doing the cleaning. She was cleaning too but she was mostly coordinating, and she just impressed me so much as a person, so I felt, “Wow, I can do this and feel good about myself. And actually I want to do this, and not feel my identity is based on what I do.”

I thought it would be good for me to do because I have a practical background. Being Norwegian, I know how to clean. If it’s one thing we know how to do in Norway, it’s how to clean. Very few people hire people to clean there. That’s just not part of the culture. Didn’t used to be that way anyway.

I did it because I wanted it to be a personal project to separate my identity from what I do. It did come in handy for my artistic work. Even if my songs are about me, they don’t define who I am. They define something that happened at that moment. It helped me figure out a lot.

So, yeah, I worked for this woman for one year, and then I started my own cleaning company because I wanted to do it in a more sustainable, eco-conscious way. It hurt me so much to use all the chemicals. I used more milder stuff and didn’t use paper towels.

It was hard work because it’s so hard on the body. I almost made myself sick. I sort of had to back down.

And the more I backed down from it, I couldn’t use my addiction to making money as a thing to push me forward.

As I was weaning off the work, I would then fall more and more out of love with it.

I knew that I couldn’t keep up, and I had learned what I was supposed to learn from that about myself.

And I always knew that that wasn’t my work. 

Kjersti's eco-conscious company.

Kjersti’s eco-conscious company.

A: How did you get back into music then?

K: I would find little pockets of time between these jobs in which I could focus on my music. It’s always been in bursts and project-based, so not super regular, which I don’t see a big meaning in anymore.

When I was training and learning my instrument, I needed to be more consistent with my work because that was all I was doing.

When I was done that, I could then see that practicing and doing my work on a regular basis was not really the main point anymore.

I actually spend more of my work time on the computer, you know, trying to get gigs!

And most of the time you play for free. So when I say gig, I mean you go to a venue where you play for an hour. Then you go home broke, often having spent more on the subway than you got in the tip jar.

So that’s gigging in New York City, right?

The thing about doing this life of so many other things than what you really want to do— yeah, I know why I am doing it at any given time, but it can break you a couple times, a month or a week. It can make you sad that, oh, you’re not living with your passion every single day. It’s not a given that people are allowed to do that.

A: Very true! Why don’t you tell me more about your music? How would you describe it?

K: I like to call it folk music because it’s very lyric-oriented. Most singer-songwriters are concerned with learning how to write a good song. I think I’m trying to learn how to write a good poem. To me, the poem has all the sounds in it. It’s not just the words. There’s music in the words, so to put it into music, I relate to the music I hear in the words.

My style can be considered very mainstream actually, but I love to do more experimental things when I can because it keeps me on my toes. It keeps me present. Repeating a song over and over again can make you disappear from what you’re doing. It becomes a habit. To keep things fresh is tricky. 


A: How did you end up singing for Matthew Barney in his latest film River of Fundament?

K: The composer for the film probably had his assistant look for people. I’m not sure. I assume they were just looking for a contemporary soprano who was located in New York and found me on Google. I thought I was doing an audition when I was Skyping with them, but it seemed like they had already made up their minds. I didn’t have a CD out or anything at that time, so I was surprised. I didn’t even know how they found out about me. I’m just assuming that it was due to some sort of confusion!

But then again, there aren’t so many people in New York in our age group who do what they were looking for, as far as contemporary music goes.

Kjersti and Megan Schubert as The Wake Ensemble Sopranos in Matthew Barney's film River of Fundament.

Kjersti and Megan Schubert as The Wake Ensemble Sopranos in Matthew Barney’s film River of Fundament.

A: Could you tell me about the process of working on the film?

K: We were mostly working with the composer, Jonathan Bepler, as musicians and he was mostly working from an improvisatory angle. By the time we worked with Matthew, the music was already recorded. We would do some of it again live on set because they wanted it to be part of the action so to speak.

We recorded for, I think, 2 weeks. We were in a studio they built doing long improvisations. Sometimes the improvisations were over an hour long. Jonathan would be directing them and showing us where he wanted the rhythms to be. And then we did a week in the studio with all the cameras, actors, and extras.

Co-Wake Scene performer Kat Delph. Photo courtesy of Kjersti.

Co-Wake Scene performer Rachel Lowski. Photo courtesy of Kjersti.

And so actually, much of the recording process involved a lot of gross things. Part of what happens in the film is that stuff starts to fall apart, like the furniture would show signs of aging and seem like it had been underwater for a while.

There was a roasted pig that was part of the dinner party scene. It was supposed to mold over time, so they would have all these different pigs that had been molding for different amounts of time, and they would bring them in for the different scenes. They stunk so badly, and the smell of rotting carcass is now forever imprinted on my mind!

We would wear masks whenever they weren’t filming, and put tiger balm in our noses to get rid of the smell. But, I guess it was worth it.

A: Oh, so what was your favorite part of it all?

K: I loved seeing the film when it was done. The way they put it together surprised me. It was like seeing a finely woven piece with things woven into each other exactly the way they want to be. That’s how it felt. I still don’t understand how they did that. And I’m speaking mostly music-wise.

There was a day when we were filming and we were just supposed to be on the table drooling wine out of our mouths and making little bubbles. That was the job for the day: lay on the table and pretend to be drunk or tired and drool wine.

Then Matthew would come over and place our hair that was laying on the table the way he wanted it to be. And I remember when I was just laying there and he was doing that, I felt like I was being sculpted like a piece of marble. That moment felt very sacred to me.

And I remember thinking, “Wow, nothing as good as this is going to ever happen to me again! This is as good as it gets, right here, right now.” 

Later bringing the Matthew Barney femme to a performance art collaboration.

Later bringing the Matthew Barney femme to a performance art collaboration.

A: So, let’s get specific about your work. I know that you’ve said in the past that your work has a lot do with longing. Could you talk more to that?

K: Longing became a part of my personal project… my self-development, which is a big part of my art and who I am. It’s something I have pursued in a very determined way. It’s always stayed with me. It’s always been a priority of mine to work on the self and to have self-development just a part of life.

Longing became a topic when I worked on allowing myself to feel, to think, to explore, to open up, to shelter, to close off, to protect, you know, all these things you can allow yourself to do.  A big part of self-development is noticing that there are so many things that I’m not allowing myself to do or feel or be aware of. We sometimes just shove it underneath our awareness level into what we call subconsciousness.

Longing is an essential way of allowing yourself to feel this pulling towards something. To me longing also has something to do with this everlasting sadness that has to be allowed somewhere. It needs to live somewhere. Where can it live? For me, it can live safely within this word “longing.”

I think some people just think longing is not great: “You should get to the end of it; you should get your release. You should get what you’re longing for, done.”

But to me, the longing is the goal in itself.

It’s the thing that not only pulls you further, but also pulls your wounds out. It heals you. It helps you pull out your sadness, your disappointments, your wishes, your hopes and dreams.

So it’s very connected to your ability to allow yourself to be you. It pulls you towards acceptance of bleeding or tears. That it’s visible. That you wish for something different. Or wish for something more. That it can be visible and you can feel it and detect it. That to me is of great value.

Longing to me is often depicted in sound. To me in music, that word has so much to do there.

In my writing and poems, there’s always this sense of longing towards yourself, I would say first and foremost. It feels like home.

A: What next risk will you take in your work?

K: The risk is always there: to be as present as possible in every process. To actually be present with myself when I’m doing a recording, talking about my art, or performing on a stage.

And by being present, I also mean actually inviting a sense of peace and beingness in that presence, and having that be with me in those moments. That’s always a big part of the project.

A new thing now would be to keep defying this everlasting fear of not making it and still go and do the things I want, because there’s always going to be a sense of wanting to give up and find easier ways. It’s always going to be there. It doesn’t matter how wise I can be. It’s just about practical survival and how hard you want that to be on yourself.

I’m at this point where I’ve tried this lifestyle for so long, and now I’m entering a new phase. And I think the new step is to always keep doing that, and find ways to interpret what that means.

For example, it’s not that I necessarily sell out if I do things that are more accessible. The question is rather: does it really speak for me? Does it really say what I need it to say? Because if it does, then it’s actually okay. But my old stubborn self would have said it’s not.

So, I think the new thing for me is to open all the doors, and see if there’s a common room somewhere.


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