Jarle Bernhoft: “We need to be more exposed to discomfort”

27. April 2019
Minna Sild

Jarle Bernhoft is back at Jazzkaar, this time together with his band, The Fashion Bruises. The Grammy-award nominated Norwegian multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter has gone back to the basics of music making with his 2018 album Humanoid as opposed to using the latest digital solutions in his previous work. He had a chat with Minna Sild from the Jazzkaar media team before sound check and shared his experience with confidence, discomfort, human connections, burn out, defining success and his recommendations for songs and great live gigs.

How does it feel to be back in Estonia?

I’m excited to walk around the town! Last time I was here I walked a lot in the Old Town and wow, it’s beautiful!

What are the routines and rituals that you do before your live concerts?

It feels new tonight as it’s been three months since we’ve played together with the band. I’ve played some solo shows in between. Doing solos and playing with the band is my ideal scenario, they go hand in hand. I think tonight is going to be perfect, because we’ve played together a lot, but now we haven’t really seen each other for three months, so we’re excited and the energy is up!

In 2016 when you were playing at Jazzkaar for the first time solo and I wrote a review about the concert saying that you are the “Scandinavian latino” as you heat up the room so powerfully in three seconds and all of the Estonians were instantly lit up and dancing.

(laughs about the latino remark). Yes, I remember it was a good feeling being there. Thank you! I’ll take that latino part with me!

What can people expect from tonight, now that you’re back with The Fashion Bruises?

It’s going to be louder (laughs). Different energy for sure. This is more of a rock’n’roll band. I feel very strongly that when you play with other people you should play with other people, not having them act as puppets to your own routine. We are very much a collective.

The latest album Humanoid by Bernhoft & The Fashion Bruises is out since 2018 with a powerful message about the importance of human connections. How do you feel people have received the message?

I feel my core audience latched on to that message very nicely. I feel very much attuned to the people I play to. I think most of us share the same sentiments about the issues like how we feel about this phone that we are constantly looking at. I think people who are drawn to my music are drawn to the human element of it. Whether I’ve managed to gain tons of new fans with that album, I’m not sure (laughs). But that was never the point either. I thought about it this morning actually – if the definition of success is to be a world stadium playing artist, then that’s not my definition. I’ve played a few shows to 10 000 people and it feels like I can see only 200-300 people, the rest is just a faceless mass. I very much enjoy looking at everyone’s faces and have the communication going in a smaller setting. The album only had the intention to be a statement of where I am at the moment and if it speaks to people, that’s good.

We are synchronized in this, I was planning to ask you if and how you define your own success.

Yeah, think about some of the comic books, I’m a big comic fan. If you would meet Alan Moore on the street, who made Watchmen, a very important comic, most people wouldn’t recognize him. But to a group of people he is massively important. I would like to be like that as well. Not in the spotlight, but every now and then when I walk in a town that’s not my home town, people recognize and acknowledge me. That’s massively satisfying to me, to have some people around the world know what I do and feel enriched by it. That’s success to me.

When you walk on the stage, how does the crowd and the feeling in the room influence you?

I’m torn between whether one should play along with the vibe in the room or whether one should try and conquer the vibe. Sometimes if I’m playing at a festival in the daytime it’s almost pointless to try to get people to dance along if they’re sitting on the lawn, drinking their beer and having a good time in the sun. Then I might change the set list, play slower songs and try to woo people where they are instead of trying to get them somewhere else. But in a place like this (refers to Vaba Lava – author) it’s important to try and contaminate people with the energy that we have and I believe tonight we are (enthusiastically) THERE. Most times it works, sometimes it doesn’t work, but we’ll do our best to get people.

Does performing on stage feel like work to you?

To be honest, I’ve had a bit of a down-period, maybe a little bit like being burnt out. It’s very regular for me to have the post tour blues. It’s almost like a drug to go on stage and have people say that you’re a cool guy and then you get home and you’re not so close to your kids because you’ve been away. I love my kids and they love me, but they don’t really care about my stage presence. I had quite a few weeks after the tour sitting at home and solving crossword puzzles and at that point travelling felt like really hard work. But I just needed time off and it was so good to be home.

Actually, I’ve even felt guilty doing something full time that I love so much. Almost like it doesn’t feel like I’m doing a service to anyone, but at the same time I present my music to people who care about it and that’s important. But look at people who work for the United Nations or Amnesty International. That’s proper work, I should probably do that. But I think it’s only human to have doubts about the worth of what one is doing.

It sounds like you are thinking more than just yourself and about your contribution to the world as such.

True, I’ll take that to heart. I feel that doubt has always been a central part of me. I almost envy those who are fully self-confident.

Do you think these people really exist?

It’s a fair question. I’m not sure myself. They just seem so confident in what they do (laughs).

How do you create these real connection to other human beings in your own life? How do you avoid getting caught up in the digital world?

Basically, I avoid having the digital world as my exclusive source of information. I think it’s important to lift your head and talk to people. There’s a beautiful project happening in Norway right now by a newspaper and a foundation called The Free Word, it’s called “Meet someone that you disagree with”. They invite people who have fundamentally different views on different topics to talk to each other face to face in a library for 30 minutes. And I think about my life, how often do I speak to someone who ragingly disagrees with me? It’s not comfortable and I think we need to be more exposed to discomfort. We need to train ourselves not to feel so uncomfortable about the lack of consensus.

I create connections by doing what I do and do it to the best of my abilities. I want to show not only my skills, but my heart behind it as well.  The best compliments I can get are “That was really cool and it’s not my kind of music at all” or “I didn’t think music was that important to me, but I really love what you are doing.” Then I’ve shown someone something new in a very comfortable way, almost like inviting them to my soft pillow and help to transport them somewhere new. My breakthrough period 7-8 years ago was the time of the financial recession and at that time it was especially important for people to have maybe just an hour of something else than everyday struggles and heartbreak. It’s so important to have the opportunity to go into a room and watch someone – hopefully me (laughs) – who is immersed in what they’re doing and it contaminates people. I’ve had that myself with really great music, like Bon Iver’s Re:Stacks. I was eating an apple while my friend put that song on for the first time and mid apple I felt like the sound produced by chewing that apple was a violation to that extreme magic that was going on, so I just sat there, couldn’t eat my apple and we listened to the song several times. That’s the kind of mood I want to create.

It happens quite often that I get sick of music actually. I just want to go to a city like Tallinn and listen to the sounds that the city produces. Or listen to some real specific songs that move me like Elegy by a Canadian singer-songwriter Leif Vollebekk. You should definitely check that song out. So it’s my goal with every gig to provide people the feelings of celebrating life and enjoying the moment.

Who are the artists who are really good at creating human connections in live concerts that you get inspiration from?

I’ve seen two gigs lately – one was Unknown Mortal Orchestra from New Zealand and the way the engaged with the audience was very humble and modest. The other was Tedeschi Trucks Band. I hugely recommend to go watch the two bands. And if you can see Anderson Paak live, you definitely should, it goes straight to my heart. I just like watching great musicians do their thing in an intimate setting, that’s where the magic happens.

Jazzkaar Festival is turning 30 this year. What would you recommend your 30 year old self as life advice looking back?

Enjoy the next 10 years, they’re going to be the best of your life! When I was 30 I started studying English literature, I was thinking about growing up and becoming a teacher. I finished doing a rock-band that was semi-successful and wanted to stop doing music as a way of living. But then one thing led to another, I started writing songs again and my first solo album came out when I was 33. I got married, had kids, so many great things happened. Everything came together in my 30s.