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Before she moved to the UK from Norway to pursue a career in music, Anna Lena Bruland’s grandfather - a renowned conductor who travelled the world with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1950s and 60s - used to warn her against becoming a musician. “He had five sons and they were all very musically talented,” remembers Anna Lena, “but they all grew up to be doctors and vets and bankers because my grandfather always told them, ‘Never become a musician. It’s too hard.’ He wouldn’t allow it.”
His granddaughter, however, wasn’t so easily deterred. “People sometimes ask, 'Why did you decide to become a musician?', but I've never sat down and decided that. It's just something that you need to get out and share with the world. I had to be a musician because there's nothing else I could do."
Her debut album as EERA underlines just why that was the case. ‘Reflection of Youth’ is a record that exists in those dark spaces where our deepest fears and insecurities are hidden from the eyes of others, thrown open for all to see - a brave, candid and uncompromising album about finding purpose from confusion and strength in your weaknesses. If she set out to achieve anything, says Anna Lena, “it was to make an incredibly honest record that would give people a real sense of who I am. I think it’s important to be vulnerable, to not be afraid of showing emotion and be open about it with the people around you. We all face problems in our lives, so why not meet them head-on?”
Though she was writing songs almost from the moment she first arrived in the UK, Anna Lena spent most of the next few years as a hired hand in other people’s bands, culminating in a three-year stint playing synths with fellow Norwegian artist Farao. Eventually, however, “I started getting itchy feet and wanting to do my own thing. I loved Farao’s music, but she’s very much in the synth world, and I liked loud guitars.”
Taking her musical cues from the likes of Portishead, Deerhoof, Elliot Smith and Jeff Buckley, in 2015 she hooked up with the producer and musician Nick Rayner (A.K.A Farewell J.R.) to record the songs that would form the basis of last year’s much-acclaimed ‘EERA’ EP, whose eerie, atmospheric sound earned favourable comparisons to Sharon Van Etten and Cat Power. “I had no expectations, I just thought, ‘Let’s just see how this goes,’ and it kind of snowballed from there,” she explains. “Nick is the one who got EERA out of me - when I went into the studio, the songs were just guitar and vocals, very singer-songwritery arrangements, but he came in and was like, ‘Right, what can we do with this?’ The sound of EERA came from us exploring those songs together.”
With ‘Reflection of Youth’, which was recorded again with Rayner on a working dairy farm deep in the wilds of Pembrokeshire in West Wales as well as in his home studio in West Cork, Ireland - that sound has already evolved into something rawer, rockier and noticeably angrier than her debut E.P.- less Lana del Rey, more PJ Harvey. "It was really odd experience to listen back to the record and realise what I'd made," says Anna Lena. "I was surprised by how different, how much more powerful, it felt from the EP. Those songs sounded like I was quietly knocking on the door, trying to get in, whereas the album feels like I'm stepping through it."
Opening track ‘Living’, which builds from a whisper to a roiling alt-rock squall, sets the tone for much of what follows: “Make me stand, make me rise, help me feel alive,” pleads Anna Lena, who describes the song as “an apology directed to one of my best friends, for a time in my life when I was dealing with a lot of stuff and putting a lot of it on him.” It also establishes one of EERA's recurrent themes: learning how to work through your problems and take charge of your own life, instead of relying on others to do it for you.
Elsewhere, the album's shortest (and simplest) song, 'Christine', is also its emotional core - a delicate ode to Anna Lena's relationship with her sister, "a beautiful, amazing woman who still felt so insecure about herself. That song is me reaching out to her to tell her how much of a rock she's been to me." The epic '10,000 Voices', meanwhile, revisits a promise made to her by her grandfather: "He used to say if I ever moved back home I could become a conductor in Oslo and he would arrange a 10,000-voice choir for me. That was his backup plan.”
The stack-heeled howl of 'I Wanna Dance' keeps the pressures of modern life - financial, romantic, existential - at bay with good, old-fashioned hedonism, but the most striking moment of all may be the album's title-track: a plaintive, frustrated call to feel loved, whose lyrics - 'Your tongue follows the path of my spine/ I'll get down on my knees/ Pull me in/ Make me feel owned' - typically hold nothing back. "It's clearly about being intimate with someone, or wanting them to be intimate with you, and I think it's important to talk about that stuff," says Anna Lena. "Why should sex and intimacy be such a taboo subject, when everyone is doing it? Because I'm from the indie-rock world, writing about this stuff makes it seem so much more dark and serious, whereas if a hip-hop or R&B artist writes about it, it's a party song! But I wanted to be so honest that it made me uncomfortable, and I hope when people listen to it, they'll also feel uncomfortable."
You'll probably feel a lot of things when you listen to 'Reflection of Youth'. Perhaps you'll recognise mistakes you've made, destructive urges and desires you've given in to, abysses you've pulled back from. Its ten songs were largely composed in the small hours of the night and are arguably best experienced in that context, when soul-searching and introspection come naturally. For Anna Lena, however, 'Reflection of Youth' is a document of a tumultuous chapter in her life that - to paraphrase one of the record's most euphoric tracks - she survived.
“When my sister heard the album, she asked me, ‘Have you been really angry these past few years?’ And subconsciously, maybe I was. 'Reflection of Youth' is very much about living through your twenties, which in Norwegian society are the years when you’re supposed to figure everything out and to have all these materialistic things, and I got tired of listening to that. When I play an amazing show, or write a song I'm really proud of, I remember why I'm doing this, and I feel OK about choosing a different path. This is more important to me than anything else."