Aurora Aksnes is a singer-songwriter who crafts dark pop music of rare depth. Aged 18, she is an autodidact and has been writing songs for almost half her life. âIâve had lots of practice, but I never dreamed about standing on a stage or being famous," she says. "That wasn't what I wanted. All I knew is that I needed to write music for myself."
While she was growing up in Bergen, Norway, Aurora's parents never pushed her to pursue music either as a career or even as a hobby. "I guess thatâs why I liked it so much," she says. "I was the only one pushing myself. I was doing it purely for myself, and I think thatâs a good thing when youâre a child."
Her earliest musical memory is of finding a tiny electric piano in her parents' attic and being fascinated by the enchanting music she could produce from such an unassuming instrument, and by her own ability to learn classical songs by ear. She was just six years old. "That experience made me really curious about the piano as an instrument," she says, "and it was fun to be able to play songs again myself after hearing them. I didn't have a piano teacher. I just taught myself by ear. I still can't read notes. I would just play by ear songs that I thought were beautiful."
Even at a young age, Aurora found herself drawn to the great singer-songwriters rather than pop music. "The first album I fell in love with was by Leonard Cohen," she says. "It was one of those Best Of albums. I really liked "Suzanne". I've always loved that song. It really spoke to me, even as a kid. I think it was just the sound of the guitar. There's warmth in it, like a hot summer day. It made me feel very relaxed. The way his voice sounds. Heâs almost talking, and then just singing a little bit. I really liked the calmness in it, and I still do."
As she grew older, Aurora moved on from mimicking classical music to composing her own tunes. When she was 10, the same age that she was learning English, she began writing songs for the first time. "That was the time when I started to feel the need to express myself in some way, so I started writing songs," she says. "I was learning English at the same time so I started to write them in English. It would be easier for me to write them in Norwegian, of course, because it's my mother language, but I think it's too close and too personal. When you speak in a foreign language it's kind of like you're not yourself, so it's easier for me to sing in English."
Until she reached her teens, nobody else had ever heard Aurora play her own music. She was 14 before her mother realised that she had been spending her time squirreled away in her bedroom writing songs and insisted that her daughter play them for her. "I don't think my parents even knew that I wrote songs until then," says Aurora. "When my mother found out she made me perform my songs for her. She really liked the lyrics and the message they carried. She told me that it wasnât right to keep them to myself. She told me I should share them with people, and that then they might find that the songs can help them. That's when I decided to do start playing my music for other people."
While she was armed with the idea that her music could help people who needed it, this didn't help Aurora to deal with the shock of the stage fright that struck her when she tried to perform her very personal songs in front of an audience. Her first public performance was at her school when she was 15, and it playing to a crowd didn't come naturally to her. "It took me a long time to perform in front of people," she says. "It was nerve wracking. I almost died it was so scary. It was not fun at all. I didn't enjoy it. It was horrible. Nowadays, it's not as scary as that first show was anymore, but in another way it's still scary because I know that when people come to your show and some of them know who you they have expectations of you. Fortunately I don't feel like Iâm almost dying before I go onstage anymore. It's more fun than it was. People told me that I wouldn't be nervous at all by this point, that I'd be over it, but I still get nervous. I'm hoping it will go away soon."
It was one year after her debut performance at school that Aurora first came to the attention of anyone outside of her school assembly hall. It was coming up to Christmas, and she had recorded a song so that she could give it to her parents as a gift. One of Aurora's friends heard the song, asked for a copy and then uploaded it onto a Norwegian streaming sit. "A lot of people liked that song," says Aurora, "and so did Made management. They're my managers and I've been working with them ever since. It started to feel serious when I signed with them, but it got really serious when I signed with Glassnote and Decca."
That deal with Decca and Glassnote, signed in October 2014, has given Aurora the opportunity to start work on her debut album. She recently returned home to Bergen to film the video for her debut single âRunawayâ, which she says "was written a long time agoâ¦. well, two years ago. I was 16 when I wrote it. It's about wanting to go out into the world and experience things. The song is about a person â a girl or a boy - who does that, but the world becomes too much for them. The world is too hard and too big for them, and they really just want to go home and be safe."
Work on her album continues, with Magnus Skylstad and Odd Martin SkÃ¥lnes taking on production duties. The pair also play drums and bass in Aurora's band, and she describes recording with them as the "natural thing to do." As to what the album will sound like, don't expect too many modern affectations. "I'm quite old fashioned, I guess," says Aurora. "I'm quite bad at discovering new music. I don't know what's âinâ or what's âhotâ. I still listen to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and that's about it. A few music soundtracks when I want to listen to music without words. Oh, and I do love heavy metal. I love bands like Mastodon. In some ways I think I'm influenced by metal. Itâs very heavy and dark, and Iâm fascinated by that. My songs can also be heavy and dark, especially lyrically."
With a string of festival showcase dates lined up for 2015, Aurora finds herself caught between excitement at people being able to hear her music and the same nervousness she's always associated with live performances. "I just want people to hear my music and I hope they can find something useful in it," she says. "I hope it can help people if they need it, because my music has helped me so much in my life. I'm a very sensitive person. It doesn't really matter if I've experienced something horrible, or my friend has, or someone on the news has, I'll still take it in and think about it and feel it. I need to write about everything I feel, and it doesn't matter whether it's my feeling or someone else's. I feel it anyway. That's why writing is so important to me. I just want to keep doing what I'm doing and making songs that help me on my way. I never want to lose the joy of making music."