I was a bit struck dumb, to be honest. It was relatively early doors at The Great Escape (2014 edition), but not so early that I couldn’t sink an ale at Brighton’s Green Door Store. Primarily I was there because there was little else on at the time – but when the diminutive, hooded figure – who, before she took to the stage, I half-mistook for a truant-playing school kid – opened her mouth (careful, now) and began to enchant me: thump, right in the feels.
The clad-in-black girl at the centre of the performance was – is – one Ellen W Sundes, and Sea Change is both her group and solo music-making identity. The name does have some roots stretching back to the Beck album of 2002, as the Norwegian singer-songwriter was a fan – but it also stands as representing “a big and profound change, as that’s how I make music – I need things to change”.
Sundes continues to explain how the moniker is a sign that listeners to her imminent debut album, ‘Breakage’, shouldn’t settle into thinking that what comes next will follow the same, as she calls it, “dream pop thingy” template: “My next album will be different from this, and I want Sea Change to be a symbol of an artist who can do a lot of things.”
For Sundes, “a lot of things” began by playing around in her Oslo bedroom, where emotions could lay themselves bare, free from the scrutiny of others. ‘Breakage’ is not a particularly happy listen, as appealing as its make-up is on even a cursory investigation – it’s full of crystalline synths and skittering micro-beats that carry words of broken-hearted reflection, diversions into territories characterised by deep, dark hues.
“I rarely sit down and write a song when I’m in a mood for a party,” says the architect of these arrangements, whose work has already been compared to material by Fever Ray and Lykke Li. “That just doesn't strike me as an intuitive or natural thing to do. So I guess the songs appear when I’m a bit blue. But Robyn always makes songs about unhappy love and turns them into the most beautiful dance electro-songs ever. So even good party music has some melancholia in it.
“I guess I don’t find happy music all that interesting, or at least it needs to have a deeper layer of something else [for me to like it]. I feel the stuff I write about is very universal – freedom, alienation, love, insecurity… you know, all that crap.”
Such a curt dismissal there, “all that crap” – when, obviously, we wouldn’t be featuring Sea Change on these pages if we felt her music was anything of the sort. ‘Breakage’ is a supremely confident debut, a set that flows with the coherency and competent sequencing of someone who’s done this several times before. But then, Sundes’ writing always leaned towards the long-form experience.
“An album is so much more than a collection of songs. It’s a piece of art. In Norway there has been this big discussion about whether the album is dead or not, considering the way people listen to music nowadays, with all the digital streaming going on. But I don’t think it is dead at all. I think the album will stay strong, because that’s the one arena for musicians to show what they are able to do – what they want to do with their art besides the singles.”
I know I felt that depth when first encountering these songs – in the flesh, beer barely touched as Sunde and her band went through the sublime motions of recruiting new members of a steady-growing fanbase. These are studied songs, built up over time – “In a way I feel this album is almost overdue,” says its maker, commenting on the fact that some songs have been kicking around a while. (Though isn’t that the case with all debuts?) I also felt that immediate connection to something foreign, sounds that can only come from a frozen north. I can’t quite put my finger on why it is that Sea Change simply feels like Norway, but maybe Sunde can.
“I guess the weather in Norway allows you to be a loner and more melancholic than other places,” she says. “There is so much nature. And, of course, it has an impact. I’m writing these replies while taking the train ride to my hometown, and looking out the window it’s all a winter wonderland. Snow everywhere in the woods, the train running past lakes that are all iced over. I mean look, I took this picture with my phone…”
Beautiful. And the music’s not bad, either.
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WHERE: Oslo, Norway
WHAT: Understated but powerful electro-indie that comes saturated with palpable feelings
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Words: Mike Diver
‘Breakage’ is released on February 23rd. Sea Change online. See Sundes play live as follows:
27th Sebright Arms, London