It would be a stretch to say that Norway is a country known for producing soul musicians. Bernhoft, however, has set out to debunk this statement. His album, Solidarity Breaks has just the right blend of soul and modern funk, with a dash of pop sensibilities.
I phoned Bernhoft's hotel in New York City the morning of his Bowery Ballroom show with Sun Rai, which was the first stop on a tour of North America. I could barely get through the introductions; I was just dying to ask him how he discovered American soul music in Norway. He recalled, "I think I started listening to Michael Jackson when I was a kid; it was the one that had an audience on the radio in Norway. Sly and the Family Stone I discovered when I was 18; I saw a Woodstock video and I was blown away. So I went out and bought an album on vinyl. I wouldn't say that soul music has an audience in Norway." For Bernhoft, the draw to soul music in terms of his own songwriting and vocal style is found in the rhythm and the placement of the beat. These aspects are central to the songs. The experience of singing is also vital for him, "There's something about the soul music vocals that's about screaming, but trying to find the right note, it's very natural."
The excitement surrounding Bernhoft does not solely reside in his music, but in his performance. To paint the picture, Bernhoft is front and center seated on stage, a keyboard to his left and an array of pedals lined before him. He creates intensely dynamic compositions of his own songs by looping his guitar, keys, and voice. There's even the occasional beat box. Just when you think nothing more could possibly happen in the song, he flips his guitar over and uses it as a percussion instrument, looping that as well. More often than not, I get anxious watching musicians, like Kimbra, use looping and layering techniques to perform their music. It can be distracting to watch them put so much effort into making sure every rhythm is in place, overextending themselves to recreate a recording that had 6 or 7 musicians on it in the studio. Bernhoft does not fall into this behavior, he looks at ease behind his set up, allowing the audience to get the full listening experience.
I wondered how he found this comfort level working so many parts on stage. He let on that he's "a proper nerd. It's not something I even take pride in, but there's a lot of work that goes into making sure the performance is right. I want to make sure I know my instruments and my material -- that I'm prepared. Me being comfortable is a result of that. I get bored watching someone fiddle with knobs, I tend to want to go out for a cigarette or something. I don't want people to get impatient. That might transcend into something that is enjoyable to watch."
The music is bold and energetic, but grounded in the emotion found in Bernhoft's favorite, Sly and the Family Stone, and greats like Bernard Purdie, The Blues Brothers, and The Sonics. Bernhoft has brought a modern freshness to the genre and the live show surrounding the music. Read the full interview with Bernhoft here.
Bernhoft plays with Sun Rai, June 25, 2013 at Yoshi's in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit yoshis.com.