2017 is almost over and it was certainly another very satisfying year for music in general. In the blues and rock scene, in particular, there have been several records shining and impressing both fans and worldwide press, thanks to a perfect blend of originality, great production, outstanding quality of musical and vocal arrangements, the lot.
One of the artists that has left a strong mark in 2017 is, undoubtedly, Danish blues and rock King Midas Thorbjorn Risager and his collective The Black Tornado. Their current album, called Change My Game and released early this year, is the ultimate statement of an artist and a band at the top of their game. An album packed with great songs, first class arrangements and some of Risager's best vocal performances ever recorded by the Danish artist in his career, Change My Game reflects as well, through its sound and the vibes emerging from the record, the atmospheres and the colors typical of the Scandinavian Region, adding a cinematic effect to the musical dynamic of the whole album, a bit like watching a Nordic Noir movie.
We meet Risager in his motherland Denmark on a cold but sunny day, to talk about his latest album, its making and also to what music means to the Scandinavian artist.
BBR - Hi Thorbjorn, your new album, Change My Game, it's a little play on words, perhaps, about the fact that many were expecting you to follow the same musical pattern of your highly acclaimed 2014's album Too Many Roads, but you didn't. Did you feel under a particular pressure, while you were working on Change My Game, given the huge expectations of fans and worldwide press?
TR - Well, actually not really. When I wrote the songs for the new album, I did so in the same way I have always recorded songs on previous records. Maybe, on some songs, I was focusing a little bit more on creating something that could reach a broader audience. But either than that, when I wrote the songs of the album, I didn’t feel any particular pressure at all.
BBR - Your new record is a total display of musical ability. As a songwriter and as a singer, your artistry reaches new and inspired highs on Change My Game. The Black Tornado as well, as a collective, are one of the coolest and hottest music machines in the world at the moment. Was the making of Change My Game particularly laborious for you and the band, on the arrangements and production side?
TR - The key factor that we did differently, on this album, was the fact that we recorded the whole album ourselves, this time around. We produced also the previous record Too Many Roads but we did not mix it, while on the new one, we actually mixed it too. We also recorded most of the album in our Rehearsal Room. Soren (Bojgaard), our bass player, he has learned through the years the whole technicality of how to self-produce and mix records therefore, when it comes to the recording process, I would leave him in charge of this aspect because I trust his ability implicitly. In the past, when it was the time to record a new album, we would have rented a studio for 2 or 3 weeks and complete the whole process of recording and mixing the record throughout that period. By working in our Rehearsal Room mostly, while making the album, it gave a longer time span to us to work on the album on a lengthier pace. It took in total about seven-eight months to do the whole work on the record. We started in January 2016, when we recorded 5 songs, together with doing some pre-recordings for other songs too, then, every so often, whenever we had the opportunity, we would go back to the Rehearsal Room and try different guitar parts or maybe changing one or two things on the arrangement side. During the summer, we then recorded the rest of the songs included in the album and we took the time to listen to all that we had recorded, which gave us a much longer window of opportunity to apply little corrections here and there. To work in such environment, it was much more relaxed for us also because we knew that we could call our bass player Soren anytime, asking him to come and help us recording those little variations and overdubs we felt we wanted to apply on some of the songs. It’s a great feeling to know that you have time enough to experiment a bit more on songs that you have recorded, without having to think that the clock is ticking and you must finish the job on time, when you rent a studio.
BBR - One of the many highlights of Change My Game is Lay My Burden Down, a song that feels really personal to you. Your vocal delivery, in particular, comes across as very passionate and emotional and the lyrics are some of the best you have ever written so far in your career. Can you please tell us where the inspiration for Lay My Burden Down came from and whether the song was one of the most challenging ever for you to sing?
TR - It was inspired by one song in particular by Tom Waits, called Alice. Initially, I thought about doing a cover of that song but then I thought that I should have made an extra effort to make a song by myself that would resemble the style that Waits used on that song. In the past, many people had asked me to record songs in which I could use a bit more the deeper tonality of my voice, because it is rare to hear nowadays singers singing with that particular tonality. For what concerns the lyrics, I don’t like to talk about them too much, I rather prefer that the fans have their personal saying on what the lyrics may mean, either to me or to them.
BBR- The opening track of Change My Game, I Used To Love You, has got a similar pattern to the album cover, which is very noir-esque and slightly crepuscular. How often, in your opinion, does the more dark side of Thorbjorn Risager emerge when you write songs?.
TR – Wow, that’s a difficult question. I wouldn’t be able to give a specific answer on that. It’s maybe something that I may express unconsciously but honestly, I never thought about that aspect of my songwriting, when I write songs. Obviously, someone’s personal mood might influence the way a song is written, sometimes, but in my case, when I sit down and write songs, I often tend to do so by approaching the songwriting in a more emotionally detached way but still using my own style, thinking that I have to record a new album and finish the task at hand. I have guitar riffs that I record on my PC and when I feel that some lyrics may reflect the mood of a particular riff I pre-recorded, I use that platform to finish off the song by adding the missing lyrics. I would say that the lyrics I write reflect mostly myself, my style and my personality as an artist but seen and lived through the eyes of the characters and the stories I build in my songs.
(Photo by Gio Pilato)
BBR - You share the songwriting on a couple of occasions, on the album, with your guitarist Peter Skjerning (Holler 'N' Moan and Dreamland). I am aware that, within the band, Soren (Bojgaard, bass player) is generally the one that comes with a lot of musical idea when working on a new album but when it comes to songwriting, how often does any band member take off the songwriting duties off you?
TB - Apart of the exception you just mentioned, the sole songwriter within the band is only me, the majority of time. Naturally, everyone participates to the making of the record through their musicianship in what then become our songs but I am the chief songwriter. To be honest with you, I prefer it in that way because it is difficult for me to sing other people's songs. As you said, Peter contributed on the songwriting side on a couple of songs of the new album and he did a great job but I always find hard to sing somebody else's song, especially if I don't feel the lyrics or the melody emotionally. I just can't stand the idea of walking on a stage and sing a song to which I cannot relate to and that explains also why I write at least the 95 per cent of the songs on any of our albums. That may also explain why I find increasingly difficult to record covers. In the beginning of our career as a collective, we did few covers but it is something that, through the years, I am struggling to do on records, purely because I don't feel enough emotional legacy to other artist's songs.
BBR - Of which aspect of Change My Game are you most proud of, Thorbjorn?
TR - From a song perspective, I guess it must be the song Lay My Burden Down. For me, that is a song that came out really well and it is a song that I feel has touched people in many ways. On top of that, for an artist, to know how powerful that song sounded to the fans, it's what exactly what you want to achieve as a lyricist and I feel I have fulfilled that through that song. But to be honest with you I am very proud also of the way that the whole album sounds like.
BBR - How much does life change for an artist in a country like Denmark? When you walk in the streets, do people look at you like Thorbjorn Risager The Rockstar or more like, say, Thorbjorn, their next door neighbour?
TR - Not at all, trust me, I don't feel that I am that hugely famous as you kindly suggested (smiles). I feel like our band still belongs, somehow, to the blues scene in Denmark, which rather unfortunately, it is not that big in my country. Denmark has always been, historically, more a jazz-orientated type of country, musically speaking and because jazz is that big, I sometimes feel that there is not a huge amount of space left for blues and blues artists. But coming back to your original question, I don't feel that I am that well known, in Denmark so I can get out, do my walks or shopping, without being recognized, which in the end is absolutely fine for me.
(Photo by Søren Rønholt)
BBR - You have always been very keen to show, in each of your albums, the extensive musical background that you possess and Change My Game is no exception. Which were your music heroes 20 years ago and which kind of music are you listening to right now?
TR - My musical heroes of two decades ago are still my current heroes right now, believe it or not. I still feel Ray Charles, B.B. King as my all-time heroes exactly as they were during the last quarter of a century for me. Every time that I listen to their songs, there is a special vibe that goes straight to my heart. I do not believe that music, at its best can't get any better than coming from those two incredible artists. As more contemporary artists, the only names that come to mind right now are Tedeschi Trucks Band or Seasick Steve, musicians for which I have great respect and admiration.
BBR - Thorbjorn, in a world of variables, where things change every day at the speed of light, your music and your artistry, although constantly evolving as well through time, remain a solid, beautiful and constant certainty. How much has the music changed you and how much do you feel you changed the music, throughout your successful career?
TR - That's a difficult one. I have not got something special or highly profound to answer your question. All that I can tell you is that I love to sing and that is for me the most important thing of all, when it comes to music. I haven't got also anything that I want to change, with my music, to be honest. As long as people will feel entertained or inspired by my music, then I shall be happy, because there is no job in the world that I'd like to do more than to be able of singing my songs. I feel very blessed that I can make a living out of what I love to do the most in the world. Music has gifted me with the love for music and I am just trying to give that love back, through my music, as best as I can, simple as that.