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Nive Nielsen Sings: the Greenlandic chanteuse talks about songwriting, adventuring, and life in Nuuk

Posted August 10th, 2009

A couple of years ago on a visit to Nuuk, Greenland, I had dinner at the house of Nive Nielsen and her boyfriend, musician Jan de Vroede. It was early November, there wasn’t a whole lot of daylight, and there was a fresh coat of snow. The dinner—steak, onions and Greenlandic potatoes—was delicious. But the highlight of the evening was when the guitar was passed around and Nive performed some of her songs. Her voice has a pure, even haunting quality that manages to be quite personal and distinct, like she’s singing secrets quietly into your ear, telling stories of the everyday, often with humor and touching insight.

I’ve kept in sporadic touch with Nive who has been plugging away in music studios for more than a year and will soon be releasing a full-length album, nive sings! in Europe this fall and later in the U.S. An advance EP (called nive sings! as well) is available on iTunes. Filter magazine named Nive the undiscovered band of the month in June. She has plans for a U.S. tour in the spring of 2010 with a few earlier dates thrown in this November. Listen to some of her tracks here.


Recently, I interviewed Nive, 29, on her music, her filmmaking, life in Greenland, and her awesome house.

Can you tell me a little about the new album?
I recorded in Montreal, Bristol (UK), Tucson, Ghent, San Francisco, and Nuuk. The record is produced by John Parish (of PJ Harvey and Eels fame) and Jan and I wrote and arranged all the songs. We have quite some friends/guests on the album—Howe Gelb, Ralph Carney, Eric Matthews, people from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Wolf Parade, Alela Diane, Evangelista, Tom Waits’s band, and The Black Keys are on, too.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Nuuk. It’s the capital of Greenland, and nowadays a big city (for the Arctic at least) with about 16,000 inhabitants. Back then it was way smaller. It’s pretty up here—big mountains, a huge fjord system, the sea. Nuuk has pretty rough weather; it tends to change on a whim from freezing cold to sunny to snow fall to T-shirt temperatures. In the winter it’s very cold. In the summer there’s midnight sun. Loads of northern lights, too. Yeah it’s cool here if you dig nature.

What’s Nuuk like as a place to live?
At once real nice real boring, real fun, overtly familiar, totally frustrating, and a home I love. It’s a safe and caring environment I grew up in. I dreamt of being an adventurer when I was little—thought that was an actual job. So musician seemed a good second choice. Growing up here means really feeling that you’re on the very end of the world. Everything’s really far away and unless you travel you learn about the outside world mostly through TV. Most people I know up here dream of traveling, meeting other people, seeing other places and life styles and what not. Yet most people, me included, would always choose to live here—it’s relaxed, pretty, healthy, honest . . . ha, I sound like a new age guru gone tourist guide.

Nuuk used to be a really close-knit community—more back in the day than now; it’s a little too big nowadays for knowing literally everyone. . . . By all accounts Nuuk’s a modern city—small, but we don’t exactly live in igloos either. There’s a culture center, cinema, swimming pool, bars, and restaurants, cell phones, Wi-Fi, etc. The peculiar thing up here (and for Greenland itself) is that there’s this weird combination of old and traditional (plus the inescapable nature) with the new and modern. There are no roads between villages so if you want to go to the next town you need to take a helicopter or plane, and in the summer when there’s not too much ice you can sail. Plus the only way to go abroad is by flying to Denmark. There’s no real underground scenes, there’s no record stores, internet is so slow and expensive that downloading is just plain frustrating, there’s hardly any visiting foreign artists and so on. On the other hand there’s a notable interest abroad in Greenland. We travel. We bring home music and films and books and share them. So it’s not as if we’re totally oblivious of what’s going on either. Mostly people abroad want to hear about icebergs and polar bears and Eskimos and perhaps social problems like alcoholism. Which is kinda annoying since we’re many up here who make stuff, music, film, art, and so on which is not immediately “Eskimo” (I mean how many icebergs can you paint, huh?) yet people tend to be not aware of that. So most of what happens up here, art-wise, stays here.

After the jump, see a video of Nive’s song “Room” plus see her documentary about the Greenlandic kayak.

What did your parents do as you were growing up?
My mum’s the one who’s raised me—never really saw my dad that much. My mum did everything and is my biggest influence. My mum works for the municipality in Nuuk. My dad’s a teacher. He used to be a hippie folk singer in the sixties.

When did you first travel out of Greenland, what was that like?
I’d been to Denmark a couple times as kid but that doesn’t count really. When 17 I moved to Spain for a year as exchange student. That really opened my eyes and my world and it’s been really, really good. After that I lived in Norway for two years to go to college. I was at an international Red Cross/United Nations college with people from over 80 nationalities—that experience definitely shaped and altered the way I look/looked at Greenland and at being an Inuk. I also studied in Ottawa and then in London—that was possibly the weirdest because it was the first time I had to live in a metropolis and it was really overwhelming, in a good way mostly. I love cities. For a while. Since Spain I’ve traveled a lot—being an adventurer you know.

What languages do you speak?
Greenlandic (my mother tongue), Danish, English, and Spanish.

Tell me about that awesome house you and Jan live in now.
It’s red, it has a huge porch right at the seaside and it has an attic, which we turned into a little music studio. There’s drums, too. I ‘m painting the walls at the moment—need to be coated for the coming snow fall, see.

How did you and Jan meet and then start working together?
At a birthday party here in Nuuk. I had seen him before of course (he played in the hottest rock band in Greenland back then and had girls follow him around yelling and occasionally even fainting, grin) but anyways we started talking at this birthday party. He kept raiding the hostess’s cd player to turn off anything he didn’t like (which was a lot) and put on all this weird stuff—this was the first time I heard 1920s rural blues on dusty old 78s, and Arthur Russell, and The Chills and I dunno what . . . so yeah I though we’d get along. Started talking and that same night we decided to make a band together. I ‘d never played guitar or sung or anything, but he didn’t seem to care. That’s when we started dating. Then I had to move to Canada to go to university. Jan came as often as he could—and for my birthday he gave me a little red ukulele. I was really bored in Ottawa and didn’t know anyone and he probably thought I needed a hobby, haha. Next time he came I’d made a bunch of songs. He really loved ’em—and that’s how recording came along. We’ve been together for 7 years now. Amazing, huh?

Can you tell me a little about your non-music career to this point?
I studied political science at Carlton’s and got a BA in that. Then I got an MA in visual anthropology from Goldsmiths College in London. I’ve been working for TV and radio here in Greenland—as researcher, host, presenter, and documentary filmmaker. My latest documentary is an anthropological research into the Greenlandic kayak. Been a whale safari guide, too—that was awesome! Right now I ‘m developing a children TV show for KNR—it’s fun!

Why do you write songs in English? Do you write in other languages?
English because I was in an English-speaking country studying in English so that made sense. Plus why not? I’m no believer in the view that one should only sing it their own language—you should do as you please. Also some songs were made for Jan, and he and I speak English quite often. And the music I like is in English, mostly. I do write Greenlandic language songs, too— on this here record there’s three. Perhaps interesting for you being a songwriter also: I find that by writing in a familiar language yet not your mother tongue you use a different approach and stumble into a different set of images or fantasy or whatever you want to call it—it’s like forcing your brain to think a little different and make connections or tap into something that you’d not do if just sticking to the normal language formulae.

You’ve said Greenlandic is a difficult language to write songs in–can you explain?
It’s difficult because it’s a difficult language with many ways of saying something or conveying meaning. It’s a beautiful language, with a sonorous quality that almost forces you to follow certain melodic patterns, rhythmical patterns also. You can mess with that of course. Also when I write in Greenlandic I want it to be perfect: grammatical, metaphor-wise, layered, challenging, and meaningful without being overtly direct or literal.

Can you describe the subjects of some of your songs/how they came to you?
“Coffee Boy” is about coffee, and doing the dishes. And boys, too. It’s a real silly song. But it’s also about relationships and how small things can get big, and big things can become small, how things that might seem to matter don’t, and vice-versa. Also it’s a song to tease Jan. “Aqqusernit” is in Greenlandic. I wrote it as reaction on yet another wave of young kids committing suicide. It basically says that though I know that my life might become tough I’ll always continue to struggle and believe in good things. It says so in a very indirect way and in imagery. So basically it’s a life might get shitty but make the best of it anyways kinda song without actually saying any of that. “Room” is about missing people and losing yourself. It’s also a love song, and a quest of sorts for acceptance. You can read into it whatever “Vacuum Cleaner Killer” is about—ghosts and bugs and ghost bugs. And the urge to kill ’em all. Also I got to really hit the electric guitar.

There is a storytelling aspect to your songs, is this something you are going for?
Yeah story telling is important. There’s that and then I like it when the meaning of the story allows for individual interpretation of sorts. I want my songs to be entertaining. I also want them to be about something—something I care for. . . . I believe in talking about big issues in a small and personal, almost quirky matter, through a story of sorts, with room for individual interpretation.

Do you enjoy performing?

God I love it!! Any day any time any place.

tusass nive

–Josh McIlvain

Photos of the artist courtesy of the artist. Photo of Nuuk coastline by Josh McIlvain.

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