As the roots music scene gathers in Nashville for this week's Americanafest, there's renewed evidence that the Americana scene in Europe is expanding well beyond the U.K. In fact, when it comes to music inspired by the U.S., 'west coast' now signifies another address: the west coast of Norway.
On Aug. 30-31, Norway's second city played host to the Bergen International Americana Festival. It welcomed independent British artists Hannah White and Jess Morgan as well as Americans Miranda Lee Richards, Maesa Pullman (daughter of actor Bill), her cousin Rosa Pullman, Sarabeth Tucek and Clare Means. Sited at local clubs Ole Bull Scene and Underlig, the event fostered a spirit of genuine collaboration with Norwegian musicians to an enthusiastic and attentive local audience.
The festival was the brainchild of the Norwegian producer-artist H.P. Gundersen, whose life-long love of the Americana sound has led him to champion up-and-coming artists that he believes to be the genre's next generation. His previous credits include work with Sondra Lerche and Ane Brun, and since 2010 he has also been the force behind the eclectic ensemble The Last Hurrah!, with whom both Maesa and Rosa Pullman have recorded; Maesa is chief vocalist and lyricist on their 2018 album Los Angeles.
Gundersen has recently produced and played on a forthcoming album – recorded in a bread factory in Bergen — by London-born Hannah White and the Nordic Connections, on which the British singer-songwriter and her guitarist husband Keiron Marshall join forces with crack Norwegian musicians. Its lead singles “City Beats” and “My Father” have both attracted BBC radio play.
It's a long-term affair, too: ten years ago, Gundersen invited Jess Morgan to the city to record her debut album there. "It's a circle that started with Jess and ended with Hannah,” he says. “I was so impressed with the Bergen audiences at the festival, who took in marathon concerts with artists and songs that were all new for them.”
Gundersen calls the music he loves “cosmic Americana,” and the festival had long been a goal of his, especially with his links to White and Morgan, and to the American artists from his days in Los Angeles. “It was possible to assemble a band in Bergen that can play and feel that kind of music,” he says, “so I was able to put together a festival that presented seven of my favorite artists of today. Women that are as honest and gifted as it gets, with thoughtful words and wonderful melodies far away from the 'industry' sound.”
The union underlines how, even in uncertain times for Britain's political relationship with Europe, its musical interaction remains alive and well. This summer, the Nordic Connections have travelled to the U.K. to play with White at the Black Deer and Larmer Tree Festivals and will do so again for the British Country Music Festival in Blackpool on Saturday (Sept. 14). The Anglo-Norwegian alliance is the result of White's frequent visits to Norway for live engagements.
“I love Bergen,” she says, “not just because I've developed a fan base there, but because the city itself brought me to my band, rather than the other way around, so I owe it a lot. Americana music in Bergen is like a magical immigrant community that you come across — unexpected, but as authentic as it gets, and the festival was just as magical as I had anticipated. I’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up in this relationship with this rainy city, but it’s a very special one and I am so grateful for it.”
Morgan, based in Norwich in the east of England, made her own Nordic connection when Gundersen and Daniel Birkeland produced her first record, 2010's independently-released All Swell. “It was a wonderful thing to see my friend of ten years in his element,” she says of Gundersen. “When I met H.P., I had no contacts or connections or any clue now to ride the fast-becoming digital wave.
“I couldn't get into festivals or clubs, and some people were even sniffy about the guitar I played. H.P. was the first person who saw something in me that was worth exploring. I owe him everything, really. Outside of the studio, I've always enjoyed gigging in Bergen and in other cities in Norway. The appreciation of lyrics is astounding, even with the language barrier. It makes playing gigs feel like the prize and privilege it's meant to be. Returning year after year is like a tonic."
The U.S. artists who played at the festival were similarly energized. Clare Means observes that although all of the acts come under the Americana umbrella, “the styles were distinct, and different enough to keep the three-hour evenings exciting from beginning to end.” Miranda Lee Richards, who performed songs from her five-album catalog, adds: “H.P. Gundersen is a huge champion of Americana artists. We are lucky to be in his path, because there are so many more not being recognized throughout the U.S. and U.K., and perhaps Scandinavia as well.”
Richards, who like the Pullmans, was backed at the Ole Bull Scene show by The Last Hurrah!, believes these international ties are here for keeps. “Norway has the infrastructure and funding for music and cultural events,” she says, “and if Norwegian musicians are involved, then there are more financial resources allocated for such festivals. But ticket sales were also good, so that was a wonderful indication of the enthusiasm for this type of event. It encourages us on many levels.”