Fredrik Saroea released his first solo album, Rona Diaries, last year after recording it during 2020 as COVID-19 stopped live music. Recently, the musician unveiled a live video for “Bulletproof Vest,” which was recorded on May 28, 2021, at Norway’s 69th annual Bergen International Festival. At the festival, Fredrik offered a special performance with the award-winning BIT20 Ensemble. Both acts performed the majority of the album, including previous singles “Bergheim” and “Understatement Lovesong.”
The entire concert will be released in a live album titled Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions Live at Greig Hall, Bergen. Consisting of 12 tracks, the record brings Saroea’s original work to a whole new level. If you’re familiar with Fredrik’s music with DATAROCK, you were most likely surprised by Rona Diaries. Similarly, the live album will dazzle anyone who listens to it. Not only is the sound in Grieg Hall extraordinary but Saroea’s voice and BIT20’s string quartet also bring an exceptional touch to each performance.
With not only Fredrik’s beautiful voice but also with Martin Shultz on violin, Liene Klava on viola, Agnese Rugevica on cello, Johannes Wik on harp, and arrangements by Bjørn Morten Christophersen, Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions is set to release on May 13. Watch the live video for “Bulletproof Vest” here:
Soundigest chatted with Fredrik Saroea and Liene Klava about the collaboration, playing at Greig Hall, and the songs in Rona Diaries. You can read the in-depth interview below, and remember to follow Fredrik and BIT20 to keep up with all the news.
What drew you to perform the album with BIT20? Did you know them previously, or did you first meet them thanks to this new project?
Well, I knew about them forever, and their artistic director (Trond Madsen) is an old friend from music high school who actually conducted the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra for us when we performed and recorded DATAROCK: The Musical back in 2013. He’s the one who suggested I work with these particular musicians (as BIT20 is a group of many more than these four), and what amazing advice! Collaborating with these exquisite and accomplished musicians has been nothing but good times and a thrill from the get-go. Super positive, enthusiastic, and creatively engaged, and teaming them up with the arranger Bjørn Morten Christophersen was just perfect. [It was] like old friends meeting up after years apart though none of us had even met prior to the two short rehearsals before premiering the entire body of work at Bergen International Festival for the recording.
What was the audience’s reaction to your performance at the festival?
Very positive indeed, including a few rave reviews. I think everybody knows this could be a total disaster or at least something that wouldn’t appeal at all — given the fact that a “DATAROCKer” teaming up with a string quartet from one of the very finest contemporary art music ensembles sounds pretty far out —, but you could almost feel a sigh of relief in the audience when they decided that this new side to “the DATAROCK guy” wasn’t too bad. Perhaps they expected nothing and just got something, and so the distance between expectation and experience took them just enough by surprise to make it seem like an amazing concert merely due to the shock. At least that’s how they responded, hehe.
Did you ever feel doubtful about recording Rona Diaries as it differs from your previous work?
Totally. Till now, pretty much everything I’ve recorded and released has been some kind of “home-made cover” song, a homage — paying tribute to an artist, a riff, a song, an album, a film, or an author — made in almost like a cosplay kind of way, mixing up found objects into our own take on someone else’s “thing,” if you know what I mean. Often, very serious, but, usually, with a substantial level of distance — at least in time and place; NYC in the late seventies, Manchester in the late eighties, etc. With Rona Diaries, however, I’m just doing my own thing, not able to hide behind the back of a reflecting mirror or the pretense of just pretending to be a songwriter/musician/producer. Even this material is of course very much inspired by tons of my favorite artists, but the lo-fi, minimalistic production, recorded and mixed in our own little studio offered little to no protection or armor. What made me comfortable about recording the album was my low expectancy in regards to exposure and critique, but you can’t imagine how happy I was to read positive reviews and even praise by everyone from DEVO’s Gerald V. Casale to The Sydney Morning Herald’s in-depth music nerd connoisseur deluxe, Bernard Zuel. Less stressed out by the upcoming collaboration with BIT20 though — because, as we all know, those guys are amazing!
“Feather in the Cap” sounds even more incredible in the live record. What was your favorite song to perform at the festival?
I guess “Feather in the Cap” is the one where you hear really clearly that the arrangements are specifically written for these BIT20 musicians. In fact, during rehearsals, we even decided to reduce some of the noise elements written for the harp, as on others we decided to reduce some of the most intricate and elaborate rhythmical patterns in the violin and viola. The arranger, Bjørn Morten Christophersen, concurred though. It’d be hard to choose, but a personal favorite is definitely “Bergheim.” With me not singing any lyrics on that “song,” you really get to focus on the interplay and hear the quartet’s exquisite, lyrical interpretation of my melodies and chord progressions. I also think “Bulletproof Vest” got a wonderful variation. That said, I think all the songs sound better performed with BIT20.
The sound at Grieg Hall is astonishing. How did you feel while performing your own songs there?
I kinda grew up at the Grieg Hall. [The] first “pop” concert I attended there was The Monroes (Norway’s Madness) at nine. During music high school, I used to go every Thursday to hear the philharmonic orchestra. I even got to see the last performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Robert Wilson, Rufus Wainwright, and Bertolt Brecht’s legendary Berliner Ensemble there. And, on top of all, this is where Radka Toneff’s amazing Fairytales was recorded, and, on the other side, all the classic black metal albums by Mayhem, Gorgoroth, Emperor, Immortal, Burzum, Enslaved, and Taake. To be honest, DATAROCK had already performed there twice (once at Bergen International Festival with a choir of 420 kids), and I once performed a part at a fellow YAP Records artist — Morten Traavik’s theatrical performance — at the same festival a few years prior, but going on stage to debut my own super stripped down and honest new material in front of a full house (after a year of live music shut down by covid) with an international live stream AND an album to be recorded was humbling to say the least. I think I drank 10 glasses of water during sound due to nerves. However, my oysters, pizza, and natural wines joint (Hoggorm) is right across the street, so I got to relax a little before the show, and I’m happy to say that the experience ended up to be such a positive relief and release. I mean, Mark Rankin has masterfully mixed the recordings (by Kings of Convenience’s sound engineer Andre Luciano Trebbi) in Los Angeles, but what you hear is what you got live in Bergen on that first ever performance on May 28th, 2021, and it’s almost shocking to me how well it turned out on this debut. I give BIT20 all the credit!!!
What’s your favorite song from Rona Diaries and why?
I always loved songwriters who managed to do something super interesting with a stand-alone guitar, vocal melody, and a piece of confusing or interesting lyrics delivered with just enough pathos to pull you in. Like, one of my favorite live experiences was Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt performing live as a guitars/vocals duo without any additional arrangements. Same with Mark Kozelek all alone with an acoustic guitar and his own voice, or something like John Martyn’s “Small Hours” from ’77, so that’s what I aimed for, but as I had drums, amps, synths, electric guitars, bass, and percussion so easily available in the studio, I just ended up banging the drums on top of most of them, and one thing led to the others. However, a few of the songs are still just vocals and guitar, and I love the fact that I kept both “The End” and “I’m a Rock” true to that idea. However, I guess it’s thanks to the MIDI strings I arranged for “Battered & Bruised” that made me lie to Bergen International Festival pretending I had string arrangements to all, and, ultimately, led to the collaboration with BIT20, so I guess that had to be my favorite.
In future shows, will you take the orchestral vibe to your performances, or will you stick to the original versions?
Oh, I’d definitely prefer the orchestral version. Also, on Rona Diaries, I play all instruments myself, so that’ll be hard to do live, hehe.
You recently launched your own company — Norwegian Soda Company — with Stig Bareksten. What’s the best thing about being part of that business?
Stig is such a nice guy, and he’s so ridiculously knowledgeable, and, of course, also acclaimed with his 63 international awards for his gin and aquavit, so we’ve already had the most amazing experiences together; from developing the tonics and ginger beer in collaboration with our designers and the brewery 7 Fjell to attending The World’s 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony in Antwerp, and being invited to the most insane tasting menus. Personally, I’m a big advocate for food and beverage as socially and emotionally live quality enhancing on the same level as music and art, and that’s why I opened the restaurants and bars Lysverket and Hoggorm (and been involved in clubs since I was a kid), and, with Norwegian Soda Company, we get to offer the best of the best that happens to also be a sustainable, short-traveled, entirely organic product.
Do you have more non-music-related plans for the future?
Hehe. We’re soon launching a non-intrusive, ad-free app to monitor relevant cultural events specific to your individual interests. I’m about to become a co-owner of a design and communication company focusing on sustainable industries. I’ve been asked to act in an upcoming series — not sure if that’ll happen though —, and I now have to plan my family’s first summer vacation abroad since 2019, so there are already far too many non-music-related plans for the future, hehe.
What advice would you give to people who dream about becoming musicians?
As with everything else in life, align yourself with the best of the best, [the most] hard-working and focused people possible, but, most importantly, prioritize the nicest people you meet. Music is just a shit line of work like anything else if you’re surrounded by financially motivated, ambitious people looking for love and acclaim in all the wrong places. If money is what you’re after, there are a million better avenues, but if you love the art; the amazing, profoundly important, timeless history of music, it’s a collaborative nature. The beauty of the musical mathematics, or a perfectly bent note and kinds of true expression. If all the nerd aspects are what draw you to music, you’re likely to develop an individual, interesting to others, and personally gratifying means of expression that lends itself to the most rewarding kind of interaction, communication, and collaboration. But the best parts of this work are usually the least paying, so, besides practicing and working on your music, learn ways to live a max stimulating life with a fairly low income. And the longer you can enjoy life on a low income, the longer you’ll have reason to enjoy this life; it’s hard to take steps back down as soon as you climb that terrible financial ladder. So, do develop a distaste of all kinds of wealth, and don’t ever crave it; as soon as you’ve had a period of normal income, you kinda say to yourself that this is where you belong, and that just makes it harder to keep working in the wonderful, non-commercial music realms of little to no income. And those “reals,” my friend, are what fuel the little magic left in this world. Commercially successful music sometimes does manage to elevate elements from the realms of magic, but there’s more magic to be found the further away you get from that mainstream, so try to stay in those Gardens of Eden for as long as you physically can!!!
Liene Klava (viola BIT20)
How did you feel performing with Fredrik at the festival?
Very excited! Mainly because it was so different from everything else we do daily. It felt like a breath of fresh air.
Did you face moments of pressure or nervousness before performing the songs in Rona Diaries?
Of course! Always! But we are very well trained to fix that. The whole rehearsing process was quite intense because of limited time, and when you play never before played material, there are always lots of uncertainties, but I think we did pretty well, didn’t we? 😉
What’s each member’s favorite song on Rona Diaries?
Without a doubt, we all fell in love with the “Bergheim” piece. It’s just so beautiful. But to name a few, “I’m a Rock” and “Heaven Knows Those Songs Weren’t Heaven Sent” are on the top list.
Were you familiar with Fredrik’s craft before working with him?
We knew him as a member of his DATAROCK band. We love how different he is in his solo album. That for us is high artistry; to be versatile!
You’ve been musicians for a long time. How do you think your experiences have helped you develop your stage presence even more?
It must be the confidence we have built over the years. Constantly facing new challenges is what makes us better.
How did you know you wanted to become musicians?
Difficult to answer without writing a long essay. We’re all coming from different backgrounds; therefore, the stories are very different. Some are coming from musicians’ families; therefore, it has been a natural continuation. Some had no choice. Some could take their sweet time to decide what they want to do in their lives and become a musician later, etc, etc. Many different stories.
One of BIT20’s goals is to promote music through workshops and participant projects. What’s the best part of helping the community in this manner?
We get to educate our future audience. We show them how to listen to complicated, contemporary, at times brutal, disturbed, distorted, illogical, etc. music with an open mind. We show excitement about it. We talk and discuss it together, and THAT connects us.