Interview by Alessandra Cognetta
Wardruna‘s insight on rune lore and Scandinavian culture has attracted an important following in the last few years, especially among metal fans. I had the chance to have a deep and enlightening talk with Einar “Kvitrafn” Selvik, the mind behind Wardruna. With the release of the last album in the Runaljod cycle approaching, Einar has talked about ends and beginnings, working on “Ragnarok”, using ice as a musical instrument and collaborating with Trevor Morris on “Vikings”. Wardruna seeks a deeper level of understanding. It’s not about reenacting traditional Scandinavian culture, but about carrying over what can still have a meaning today. As Einar explained to me, it’s about being fruitful, even when it seems like everything stays still.
Hello and welcome again to Femme Metal Webzine, Einar. How are you doing?
Nice to meet you! Everything is going quite well, it’s a hectic period. But it’s good, I like to work, so…
Wardruna‘s third album in the Runaljod trilogy is set for release on October 21st. We’ve heard one song and some snippets here and there, but from your perspective, how would you describe it as a whole?
I feel it’s a quite natural progression from the previous albums. I think both encompass the first album in terms of its monotonous parts, but it also takes a step forward in terms of melody and poetic structure.
As a “natural progression”, do you see any differences in your approach for the composition of the songs, compared to the previous albums? How did you go about it?
I would say the creative process is a seamless thing, it follows the same path of creation where the aim is basically to get as close as possible to the different themes. But of course the runes themselves, they are different in what they represent and of course that makes it a very different album. I would say the approach has been the same all along. I followed the same procedure the same recipe, but worked on completely different themes. I also introduced some new musical elements, such as new instruments, I used a children’s choir… my children performed on one of the songs, on “Odal”. That’s sort of a natural thing, because the whole creative concept is about using instruments or sounds that compliment or enhance the given subject. This rune in particular was about inheritance, heritage, family and ancestral land, so it definitely felt like a very logical thing to do, to include the family in it. I’m very happy with how it all turned out.
You often talk (even in our previous interview at Femme Metal) about how “Ragnarok” is the end, but also the beginning, it is dark and it is light. What is the darkest and the brightest song on the album?
Uhm… (laughs). I think they all have both, perhaps. I would say, in general, due to the title “Ragnarok” and due to the fact that people often focus on the destructive part of transformation, many people expect a very dark album. But I think that would be very one-sided and it would make it not very interesting, to only focus on the destruction. But I feel that this album is very much about what rises from the ashes. It’s a lot about growth and transition. Of course you have songs like “Tyr”, which is perhaps the most warrior-themed song and you have songs like “Pertho”, which is in many ways about amusement and games. That’s a much more lighter song, I would say. The song called “Wunjo”.. The word basically means “joy”, or represents emotions in their purest form – whether it’s joy or ecstasy or sadness – it can be both tears of joy and tears of sadness. I kinda feel that many songs have both.
I think that’s very interesting. Sometimes we think too much in black and white, but a more balanced outlook… you get a lot more out of that.
Balance is definitely the key. I think that is what makes it interesting all in all, the term “Ragnarok”, which is speaking about a twilight, something that is both dark and light, it’s the transition. Something gives room for something else. Something dies, something lives.
The album covers share a similar design, but with different colours. Does the color choice have a particular meaning in relation to the music?
I can tell you, generally speaking, when it comes to Wardruna, nothing happens by chance (laughs).
That’s what I thought (laughs).
They are not chosen for design reasons only.
Do they represent something? For instance on the “Ragnarok” cover we see smoke…
Yes, it’s an ash cloud. The rune is in gold or fire, I’d say gold. The time of balance is represented by gold. It represent the fruitfulness that comes out of destruction. That is what it means if you boil it down to essence. The first cover is about potential, where ice is of course standing still, but it has the potential to change. It contains the seeds. When it melts it becomes a fruitful thing. The first album is about creation and sowing the seeds. The second one is about growth and strengthening the roots, therefore the cover has a leaf. On both those covers the rune is in red, the colour for blood, for life. The last one is definitely about the different poles and the fruitfulness of these strong transitions in life, whether it’s a volcanic eruption or just a winter, a season passing. It can be so many things, so it’s a bit difficult to just put it into a few words.
It’s also up to the listener to pick something up from what they see and hear, without following a “tutorial”.
Absolutely, that is why I often write quite obscure lyrics. I think it’s one of the reasons people are able to connect to Wardruna‘s music on such a personal level. That’s the reaction I get a lot from fans, that they really connect in a personal sense, and one of the reasons is that there is room for that in the songs. They’re not pampered with my personal interpretations, they’re not served any truths on a silver platter. There is always room for their own interpretation and that’s really important.
I completely agree.
Art should not be bound into too many words.
I’ve read that you used ice percussions on this album. Is there a particular reason you chose them? It makes me think that it’s something that melts away but also works as the source for something new, whether it’s music or water. Is the choice of the instrument related in that sense?
Yes, I would say it has many layers to why I would use it. First and foremost it goes back to the creative concept. The rune that is portrayed is called “Isa”, which means ice. So having the sound of ice is something I really found essential to it. There is this guy in Norway, Terje Isungset, who is quite famous for using ice percussions or making blowing horns out of ice. There’s a lot of contemporary music with it and you also have this ice festival in Norway that uses ice instruments. The idea to do something similar to that for this song has been there since I started the project, that has been the plan all along. You have to have special ice. This is ice from deeper than the glaciers, very old ice. The reason for that is that it needs to be very dense, it needs to have frozen very slowly. Therefore it has a sound that you can tune from its size. I think it has a perfect mix between something hard and standing still but it can also resemble a dripping sound. It was the ice that made the song, so I let it dictate everything else in the song.
Wardruna played some new songs at Midgardsblot, which is a peculiar festival set in a burial mound.
Yes, there is a lot of burial mounds in the area and the stage is close to one of them. It’s a nice festival and I’m glad that there is a festival in Norway that uses the old history as a concept.
Yeah, I was wondering about that, because I think that music can sometimes help in this sense. Music can bring attention to these places that are deeply embedded with Scandinavian culture. I think it’s really nice to see that music can kind of bridge and bring attention to these kind of places.
Yes, definitely. I think music has a unique ability to carry meaning and if you use that… in many ways you can call that cultural education. Personally I definitely prefer festivals like that against just the plain industry of festivals which is more about money.
You are also part of the Skuggsja project with Ivar Bjørnson from Enslaved. As you explained in the past, this was a commissioned project from the Norwegian state to celebrate the 200th anniversary of your Constitution. How does the music reflect this important historical moment for Norway? Is there something representative of the Constitution or the country?
I have to say that when I was asked if I wanted to be part of this my reaction was “Yes, if I can criticize the Constitution” and that we were. I would say that the piece in its whole is in many ways about truth. Skuggsja means “mirror” or “reflection”, so we are mirroring history, ourselves as a people, as individuals, and as a country, through the eyes of history. We focus on truth and on how both truth and history are often dictated by political or religious reasons. We are addressing a few of these historical truths, because they are not truths and everybody knows they’re not. But still, they are allowed to be so. There are things from Norse history and the transition from a polytheistic, heathen land to a monotheistic, Christian state. I’m very glad that the state, they wanted to be criticized, in the name of freedom of speech.
I don’t think it they would have called a big Italian metal or folk band to do something similar in Italy.
No, but they wanted something that represented their Norse history. And if you look at Norwegian cultural life, metal has been a custodian of Norse history through its music. And of course, my work has been noticed with Wardruna, which doesn’t have to do with metal.
Since you said that this was also a chance to criticize the Constitution, if you could change anything about it, is that something that you think could really be improved, or that you find problematic?
Definitely, and that is linked to religion. I don’t think that the state should have anything to do with religion at all. Politics and religion should be absolutely separated and that was part of what we criticized.
I’ve read in a recent interview that you held a workshop on rune lore in the USA. Can you tell us a bit more on how that worked? Is that something you’d like to do more often?
Perhaps workshop is the wrong word. I do lectures, at Midgardsblot, at Oxford University. I do lectures on runes and other esoteric traditions. You can basically call it “graphical and verbal esoteric traditions”. I do talks on that and on ancient Nordic music and instrumentation and my approach on it all. From a practical point of view and from a scholar point of view, since I am a bit of both. This practical and scholarly approach perhaps makes it interesting for the scholars who invite me to speak as well. That is why I was invited to speak at a conference on Norse poetry at Oxford University.
I think many people would be interested in attending that kind of lecture.
If you talk about runes, the modern rune lore was basically hijacked by British and American writers in the late 70s and 80s. It’s very fictional and I think people are starting to realize this. They want the real version of these things. People are really hungry for knowledge, but history is very fragmented, and our sources are also very fragmented. I think that gathering a lot of the sources and explaining them in a simple way is one of the reasons people attend these things and like them.
Actually this was going to be my next question, because as you said sometimes there is an oversimplification of Nordic culture in popular culture to appeal to a really big public. I think that your work with Wardruna is changing many people’s perspectives on this. They are starting to get interested in a deeper way.
Yeah, it is difficult to approach these things, because the material is so unapproachable in many ways. It’s like a giant puzzle. You need to be able to have a large overview to be able to see the patterns. I understand that people find it difficult to approach, or that they get miseducated. Even when we teach these things to our children in Norwegian schools, it’s so poorly done and I can understand why. The old tradition is so different from ours, you can’t just apply it to our way of thinking. You need to understand how they coded the world and then you can start looking at the myths. You can’t just put them into our Christian, monotheistic way of thinking and think that’s the way it was because that would be totally wrong. And I see even a lot of pagans to day that are just basically… Christian in their approach to paganism. Of course not all. I think knowledge has never been so available as it is now, so that’s a good thing. I have a feel that there is a deeper interest for understanding it properly. But you also have to remember that things that were important for them are not necessarily important for us because we live in a different time. That’s something that is very important for me and my work. It needs to carry a relevance today, or else I don’t give it too much time, because Wardruna is not about reenactment, about some romantic idea of the past. It’s not “everything was so much better in the past”, because it wasn’t, and I’m sure of it. Maybe some things, but some things definitely not. But there are things that are just as relevant today. Maybe even more relevant than when it was a living tradition. Those things have the right to live today, because they carry meanings. Those are the things that I want to highlight and sing about.
Looking at your work on History Channel‘s “Vikings”, it seems that Scandinavian culture and folk music have established themselves firmly in popular culture and to a really big public. The “Vikings” TV series also gave you the chance to work and share the stage with composer Trevor Morris. What kind of experience did you have with him? How did the presence of an orchestra affect the music?
My approach in working with “Vikings” is very different. It’s a different format, you have different, often very sharp time deadlines… that changes the approach and the result. Still, it’s me. The instruments that I use carry a sort of character anyway. Trevor is a really nice, talented guy. We come from totally different backgrounds and approaches to music. It’s always interesting to work with people who do different things, that’s refreshing and you learn a lot, both as a musician and as a studio producer. Some of the things we’ve done together, I’m really proud of.
Now that the Runaljod three-album cycle is ending, what is Wardruna‘s outlook on the future? I know you’ve been working on this project for many, many years, so what are you going to do next?
I’ve just started. I see it on the Internet and I get a lot of questions whether this is the end of Wardruna or not. I don’t understand why people think that, because it’s not the “Wardruna trilogy”, it’s the “Runaljod trilogy” and there are only 24 runes in proto-Norse. There are tons of things that I wish to do with Wardruna, so this feels like just the beginning.
How was it to bring the new songs on stage during your shows in the summer and how did the audience respond to them?
The response has been really, really great. We were lucky enough to do three concerts in Norway where we played “Odal” and my kids were on stage performing it. It was very special and I think the people who were there seemed to react very strongly to that. It’s been fantastic so far.
You will be playing some shows in November. Generally, is it difficult to find the right venues for Wardruna?
I’ve always been picky about where I want to play. I only want to do a handful of concerts here and there and the goal is to play in places that somehow complement the music. That makes the whole experience for the audience and us on stage much stronger. I definitely think that where you play has an impact on the result, but of course we cannot play on a burial mound or in front of a viking ship every time. It’s a balance, but we’re not a band that works really well in a plastic tent or a rock club. Very often we do seated venues in concert halls or historical places like castles or feasting halls. We’ve done a lot of different things outdoors, in the nature. I guess I will continue to be picky on where we play and where we don’t play.
I think that creates a whole different experience. The message of the music can be conveyed much better in that way, otherwise it can get on a more superficial level.
I think so, in the long run it’s a much more fruitful thing.
Quality over quantity.
It’s a clichè, but it’s true (laughs).
Well, that was our last question, Einar, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview!