Daniel Norgren :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview
Daniel Norgren grew up in Sweden driven by an idea of America, a composite of our country built on the films he saw and records he played. You can hear it in his music, a lonesome blend of blues and folk, in which synthesized Americana sounds mingle with a naturalistic Scandinavian aesthetic.
I first heard Norgren at the Pickathon festival a few years back, where he played his springy guitar on the lush Woods stage. But soon folks all over the country will get their chance: he’s hitting the American highway this month — sharing stages with William Tyler, Joan Shelley, My Bubba, and the Drive-By Truckers — in support of Skogens Frukter, a collection of songs from his last decade out via Vinyl Me Please. With more reissues of his extensive back catalog due soon, we rang him up to discuss how he found his way to American blues, the thrill of the musical chase, and got into a little back-and-forth about human nature.
Aquarium Drunkard: Your music feels very inspired by Americana, a broad definition of that term to encompasses the blues, country, and gospel. Were you drawn to American music growing up?
Daniel Norgren: I was. I think it started because my dad’s been a musician for his whole life. He played American music. I got into that and I dug deeper. I had to know where it came from. It feels like a lot of the music I listen to — almost everything — has its roots in the blues.
AD: What kind of music did your dad play?
Daniel Norgren: He played British music. Stones, Kinks, stuff like that. But that kind of music, of course, comes from the blues. I started to dig into it and found out all these great [musicians], these old blues guys and women, and also country music. Everything’s very connected.
AD: What kind of blues did you first identify with? Delta, Hill Country blues, Chicago blues?
Daniel Norgren: Everything. [I go through] phases. I like the really old one-man blues —- Son House [style], a singer with a guitar. It’s the core. I don’t know how to explain it…it has some special shimmer in it I fell in love with. I’ve been drawn to that total, naked core that you can find in old blues music. I also love Hill Country blues and Memphis, everything. But I would say my personal [preference], where I end up almost every time, is one man or woman with a guitar singing the blues, straight up.
AD: How did you hear that stuff? Could you go to record stores or libraries?
Daniel Norgren: Record stores, libraries. We didn’t have the internet when I started to find these guys, before Spotify and everything. I think I’m a little bit of a record collector, just running around in stores trying to [discover] new finds.
AD: I understand American westerns are an influence as well. Did the landscape presented on screen make an impression on you?
Daniel Norgren: Of course. I have this romantic picture of America…I’ve been to San Francisco once, to Portland to play at Pickathon, but more than that, I’ve never been there. Everything I’ve consumed is a romantic picture of America. But of course, I’m a movie fan — everything I’ve seen [of America] has been on the screen and through the speakers.
AD: Your music is tied to your home soil as well. Listening to a song like “Green Stone,” it feels like the landscape you grew up in had a profound influence on your lyrical sensibility. Where did you grow up in Sweden? What was it like?
Daniel Norgren: I grew up in the countryside. I still live in the countryside — I’m not a big city fan. I love nature. I have a big love for the nature around here. It’s relaxing. I love the vibe, the sounds. To walk in the woods, without any opinions coming at you. That’s when the ideas start to pop up. I grew up outside a little town, Borås, which is not far from Gothenburg.
AD: You mentioned not being online to find music. Is it a rural place?
Daniel Norgren: We didn’t have the internet until 10-12 years ago. When I get into blues, I didn’t have the internet. If I had it, maybe things would have turned out differently [but] I love the chase. I love trying to find a record and having to wait for a record [after] you order it from the U.S. I think that’s kind of a romantic part of it. We had one or two great record stores…but if you wanted to go and try to find special records, you’d have to go to Gothenburg. That’s the way it was before Spotify. I really love Spotify, but you just write the name and everything’s out there. Spell it right and you’ll find it. But those days, you really had to dig in and try and find it.
AD: It’s great to have access to all this stuff, but there is something less romantic about it.
Daniel Norgren: And you don’t give it the same time. If you don’t like the record, you just skip it and listen to something else. But when you bought the record, you spent $20 or $25 and you give it a second chance.
AD: You want a return on your investment.
Daniel Norgren: Yeah.
AD: This year Vinyl Me Please released Skogens Frukter. What does that translate to?
Daniel Norgren: Fruits of the Woods. It’s just a silly name, you know? I thought it was appropriate to do it because we’ve never released a record with a Swedish name, so the first record released in America should have a Swedish title. [Laughs]
AD: It’s a blend of tracks from your last couple years, plus some new ambient field recordings. Was compiling something like a greatest hits package or “introduction to” an interesting process?
Daniel Norgren: It came naturally. I like doing playlists and mixtapes, stuff like that. I was doing this film score for a series [Colin Nutley’s Saknad] here in Sweden. I had those soundscape songs taken from that. I didn’t really think about doing a hit record, I was just trying to find a vibe, a flow in it.
AD: My favorite song from the record is “People Are Good.” You sing, “Strange as it seems, people are good.” I agree with you. It can seem very strange to believe that people are good sometimes. It often feels like people aren’t good — there’s a lot of cruelty and darkness in people. Do you ever struggle with that idea?
Daniel Norgren: Yeah, you know. I think so. I don’t remember exactly how it came out. I had the melody and the phrase came. “People are good.” I was thinking about it. It’s a good thing to say, but [I thought] “Can I stand behind it?” I went back and forth for a couple of years. It’s hard. I don’t necessarily think everyone’s good…it’s a strange song to sing sometimes. You go on-stage sing it and sometimes you think, “People aren’t good. We’re not good.” But sometimes if you say it, you scream it out, you can kind of convince yourself into believing it. It might be like that. I think if you give people what they need in term of help and support, there’s a lot of good things in almost everyone, I think.
AD: You say it, in part, as a way of convincing yourself of it. You have to believe that people can be good in order to see that people can be good. It’s a beautiful notion and a beautiful song — I like that it wrestles with a conundrum.
Daniel Norgren: I think it’s a cute song. A pink butterfly song. I really want to believe that. It’s the same with belief: if you believe in something really hard, it comes true to you. If you live with that thought, that everyone might have something good in them, the world might be a little lighter. I don’t know. It’s just a silly song I sing. When you talk to yourself, that kind of thing. It was meant for myself and my own belief, maybe. words/j woodbury