One day back in 2015, a 17-years old Norwegian singer and songwriter named Hans-Marius Johnsen, better known as HM Johnsen, was boringly sitting in high school, wishing to be somewhere else: the boy was thinking hard, was thinking again and was literally struggling to find a way to finance the recording of his first music album.
Out of lack of resources and options, he eventually ended up doing something extraordinary: he managed to convince the whole of his local community – a tiny village outside of Bergen, on the West Norwegian Fjords – to finance a trip to London for him to record his debut album at the Abbey Road Studios, the glorious location famously used by The Beatles to record their music.
The terrific story drew the attention of the Norwegian State Television, and Hans-Marius eventually got an NRK TV crew following him to the UK, filming his amazing experience and airing it nationwide in Norway.
HM Johnsen’s first album, Chased was released in 2017, when the artist had just turned 20, and the whole thing he did is just extraordinary: out of a remote town in Norway with a dramatic shortage of mainstream options, he created a new way of doing things, a way that involves neither The X Factor nor taking his clothes off, and he ended up winning international music awards and being booked for over 50 international gigs, for a German tour and also for an American tour.
We spoke with Hans-Marius several times over the years, the first time in October 2020 to promote Stay Within Range, an excellent single recorded during lockdowns and to discuss his music, career, plans, the Paul McCartney is Dead conspiracy theory and whether Norway is really not in the European Union.
And then we talked with him again in June 2021 and March 2023 to present the latest releases Build The Sky and Black & Gold; the latter is being released in May 2023 and includes the beautiful single Stay Alive as a tribute to HM’s late grandfather and his life of dedication to family.
If you love some good old-school indie rock, you should definitely give HM Johnsen’s songs a listen
Hans-Marius, where does Black & Gold come from and what does it mean to you?
I started thinking about making a new album as it had been a couple of years since giving up on full records, and I had a lot of recorded demos and ideas on file, so I picked something I had some experience with. In 2020 I started writing a lot of songs about materialistic overwhelming values and how many of us tend to forget and lose track of what we really enjoy in life, and also how little it takes to live a good life; whilst wiring about this, I began to remember my own childhood and how I grew up in a very “materialistic” environment. Today, I am glad to have travelled, experienced and lived a versatile life as an artist whilst running my own business part-time on the side, selling services and solutions to the automation industry, which gave me the chance to meet people from different countries and with so many different stories to tell. I wrote this album like a book with many stories in it – all linked together with a red thread throughout the whole album. I have written songs from my life from childhood until this day. The way I look at the world and the person I am today has changed; coming from a place that overemphasized work, money and education, I got to understand that I want only the simplest things in life. Family members who are no longer with us and stories of people I have met along the way inspired some of the songs on this album, which is titled Black & Gold as a reminder that the harder we fight to fill up that black hole that we fear so much, the bigger the hole gets, and the more gold we own, the darker we get. This can mean a lot of different things, it is for people to decide and discover their personal meaning around this through my new album.
How about your previous records Build The Sky and Stay Within Range?
When it comes to Build The Sky, I was sitting down playing the guitar in the wintertime and thinking about my musical career until then, and I came up with some melody that at that time I thought went very well with the riff I was playing. I decided to write a song to match that melody, and I felt like sharing my own thoughts and meanings regarding my way of trying to reach my goals slowly and steadily. I have always had the line “The Sky Is The Limit” in the back of my head, but I feel like I have always been forced to do the “heavy lifting” myself, on my own. For my whole life, I’ve felt like I’ve been trying to “build my own sky”. I have been lucky enough to have a handful of good people around me, but in the end, I have always been the one motivating myself; I’ve started from scratch over and over again, I spanned across different genres, I booked my own shows on my own, I found a way to get finance from local sponsors to support my music… and again, I’m still motivating myself all the way up, and I don’t give up. So that is what this song, titled Build The Sky, is about. As for Stay Within Range, here is the backstory: one night, I woke up from a dream that was like kind of seeing myself from above. And I saw that I was really, really focused on myself, my own stuff, my own music and my own career. And when I was not focusing on my music and musical career, I was sitting on my phone all the time, scrolling through Instagram, being updated on the latest news, seeing what my friends were up to. And, they kind of saw me from above, and I saw that Helena, my now-wife, was getting so tired of it, so in the end, in that dream, she left me. After I woke up from that dream, I decided that I wanted to write a song about it, as a reminder of not being that occupied with things that are really not that important, to live more in the moment, and to focus and spend and using my energy on people that are important for me. I wanted to have a song to open the EP with, I really wanted to build a wall of sound and well, it may sound a little bit weird, but I wanted to sort of punch the listener in the face. It is like: listen up, I have something really important to tell you!
Your music style is a blend of pop, blues and rock – which genre do you feel most represented by?
I definitely love the guitar, so I’m definitely more of a rock musician, especially when it comes to live music and being on stage, where I perform a lot of guitar solos. This is what it is always been like, in my career: everything started with a guitar, I started playing The Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Def Leppard when I started out, and then I grew up into blues, and after this, I started experimenting with jazz. And then I started singing. And when I started singing, I was really interested in singing more pop-ish tunes, but somewhere along the way, I ended up making indie-punk rock music!
Is rock music dead?
Musically speaking, there has always been good rock music. Always, but rock has worn different clothes all along at different times, in the 1960s, in the 1970s and the 1980s, and also after the 2000s. I definitely think that rock music today is just as good as it has always been, and today is just so much easier for people to get their music out there via Spotify, iTunes and, of course, YouTube. I think rock music today is very, very good, and I like that there are a lot of bands, and a lot of artists blending modern sounds and modern arrangements into rock. I think it’s awesome. And there are also a lot of new genres, too, but I believe that today it might be more difficult to reach success worldwide because there’s just so much new music out there, and I think rock music doesn’t catch as much of the big audiences as it did before because people have so many opportunities to listen to other music.
What kind of music do you listen to, these days?
I really really enjoyed the Coldplay album “Reimagined”: the lyrics, the range of the arrangements, the sound and the vibe of this album are just amazing. And I’m also listening to a female artist from Iceland. Her name is Eva, you should really check her out. She’s just amazing. She just released a new album, which is fantastic. She’s, she’s a pop pop artist, but she’s mixing pop with, like these original old Icelandic Viking films. I’m also listening to a progressive metal band called Tesseract, and I’ve also been listening to a lot of John Mayer lately, actually. But last month, I had this crazy just period when I was only listening to two instrumental jazz pieces that last for over 14 minutes. Yeah, I have these moments, but now I’m in the pop-metal thing again.
What do you think of live-streaming events?
For me, live streaming is not that interesting anymore. I feel that it’s old news and a bit overused. I released my latest EP, titled Serenity, in November 2020. Stay Within Range was one of the five songs on that EP. And since we were obviously not able to go around and play in front of people at the time, which was quite sad, we just started planning to do something alternative to playing live. It’s possible to make a music video, it’s possible to make an HD filming of concerts with interviews and stories about the meaning of the EP, and we have produced a movie out of the album here in Norway with two actors, a film crew and a sound crew. It is titled Serenity – Live From Somewhere in Nowhere and is a short movie that lasts 30 minutes and was shot in a very special Norwegian building, which is 250 years old and quite unique. The filming location is a unique place in Norway: nature, calm surroundings and peaceful landscapes. I’m very happy with the way it turned out in the end, and everything is in English!
In 2015, your hometown community in Norway financed your recording trip to the Abbey Road Studios in London, and the national TV broadcaster followed you there. Anything to say about it?
Today, I can say that I would never do it again, and I would never do it now simply because I don’t have the energy to go through what I did back then; I was 17 when I started planning this thing, and my ego was on top, I was like the centre of the universe in my head as we often are, when we are 17, especially in my case. And I had this idea that if I just kept sending emails and calling different companies, then I was going to find a way to finance this project. And I started this, even before I’d written the music. I was sitting at school, and when the other students in the classroom were doing what they were supposed to do, I was sitting writing emails to different TV stations and to different companies, I wanted to see if they could sponsor me with some finance to complete this project and complete the album. From there, I got very little response, of course, so I started calling different entrepreneurs and different companies in different industries, everything from the fish industry to the mechanical industry to the clothing industry. I was calling everyone, and I eventually got some positive feedback there.
You called people in the fish industry to finance a music album?
At some point, I actually ended up visiting the companies themselves: I just walked into the door asking for the manager and they’d let me in. Yeah, it was crazy. And after I sent all the emails to the different TV stations with a very low response, I remember I saw that I got actually a reply from a guy in NRK, which is like the Norwegian version of the BBC, the National Broadcasting. He was like: ok, you’re a young guy with a lot of energy, you sound a bit crazy but that’s cool, it’s just that I don’t see a story here. And so I said “Ok, what if I get the money? What if I get, let’s say, over 30 different sponsors helping me out, and we go to the Abbey Road Studios to work there, would you have a story there?” He said, “Yes, but good luck with that!”.
You actually did get lucky in the end.
When I went and negotiate with the sponsors, I’d say: I guarantee you that if you sponsor me with this much money, I will guarantee that the NRK will follow us to England to do this and your company name will show up!”. So at once, I think one and a half years into the project, I got enough money, enough funds to actually do the recording. And very, very luckily the guy we were recording with, was born in London. He is a Norwegian citizen but he was born in London, his mom is from London and related or something to someone who knew another woman at the Abbey Road Studios: and so within that network, we had the opportunity to do the mastering sessions at Abbey Road, and the NRK was there with us with their TV crew. I was just 18 at the time, and for an 18-year-old kid to have all this, to go to London followed by a TV crew… I mean, can you just imagine the amount of energy and self self self? It was quite incredible, but when I look back at that I think that I would never ever spend that much energy on something like that because now I’m spending more energy focusing on my music and the writing itself because I’ve grown more in the musical direction rather than in the music business direction.
How did it feel to record your music when The Beatles recorded theirs? Are you a Beatles fan?
The Beatles were the greatest band that’s ever walked on this earth. And of course, I’m a huge fan of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison, but I’m even more into Pink Floyd, they have been my go-to band when it came to learning to playing the guitar and writing music. My favourite writer ever is Roger Waters from Pink Floyd. So, for me, the Abbey Road Studios were more about Pink Floyd than The Beatles. I was looking at all the different couches we were sitting in, and there were these pictures of David Gilmore and Roger Waters sitting on the same couches, and it was just incredible for me to think that Pink Floyd had been there. This was bigger than The Beatles – but then, of course, when you think about them, it’s also a shaky feeling. I remember the nice old lady working in the cafeteria where you can buy yourself this Abbey Road Martini special thing. There is a picture of her on the wall in her 20s when she was much younger: she was serving Martinis to John Lennon and Paul McCartney! It’s cool that there is this same lady today, 40 years later, the same who served Lennon and McCartney.
Yes, I’ve heard about that. I’ve actually recently heard a podcast about that conspiracy theory. I think it’s funny. But in my opinion, of course, I think there is maybe 1% that this was actually the case. For me, it’s impossible. But I believe that some people actually believe it. But are they believing the right thing or not? No, I don’t think so, and I don’t see the reason why. I mean, why would somebody want to replace him with another guy and do the things that he does, musically? I think it would have been more or less impossible to just find a guy that looks like him and has the same musical skills.
The alleged imposter is said to have won a lookalike contest in 1963 that was awarded by Paul himself. There is also a video titled Paul and Faul Together you can watch about it.
I think it’s funny to listen to this, I think it’s quite interesting that people have actually put their effort and time into figuring all these things out. But maybe it’s true. Nobody knows. I mean, what do you think?
You know, in addition to the different physical appearance, The Beatles stopped playing live after 1966, that his reaction to John Lennon’s death was absurd, that George Harrison called him the new fella in The Beatles Anthology Series, and that Olivia Harrison told him Hello Billy in 2019.
Okay, I’m going to tell you a secret now, Silvia. I am Paul McCartney. It’s happened as a reincarnation there. We met in Berlin and then we exchanged some DNA.
Just like The Beatles, you also moved to Germany for a while at the beginning of your career. Why was that?
I went to Berlin because I needed to take a break from the normal day life here in Norway. This was in 2019. I packed my bags, emptied my savings accounts, rented a small studio in Berlin and ended up writing the whole EP there. It was quite random, but I’m glad I did it, I’d never been so productive before. I actually do believe it’s just because I actually went to a new place with new vibes and new people. Yeah.
What do you think of The X Factor?
For some people, that’s a really, really nice platform to jump into the music industry and to show themselves. And my own personal opinion is that I would never ever sign up for that, because I don’t believe in that way of making it into the industry, especially not in my genre. If I were a pop singer and only wanted to sing pop stuff, maybe I would sign up, right, because the reason for being in The X Factor show or these other talent shows is that people just want to reach success. But if your only goal is to reach success and fame and money, I think you’re doing it for the wrong reason. And I personally feel uncomfortable with competing in music because music is so subjective. If you just go from one to 100 in a month, if you go from singing in your basement, or in the shower to being a national pop star, well, it’s a bit like working out: there are no shortcuts to being fit or being fast. You really have to work out and train, you really have to. That’s just my personal opinion, though.
What was your dream job as a child? Did you have a plan B?
As a child, I wanted to be a chef, I wanted to make Italian and French food. That’s what I wanted to be when I was a kid, then I started playing the guitar when I was 9, only because I have this friend in the family who was a little bit older than me who played the guitar, and I wanted to do everything he was doing. My mother told me that I could get posters of The Iron Maidens on my wall only if I really liked their music, so I listened to their music and I became kind of addicted. At the age of 11 or 12, a teacher asked me to play on our last day of school, I accepted only because there was a girl I was so in love with who was really into music and instruments, but I was terrified and nervous. After I played she came over to me and said that I was really, really good and that I should continue with this. And remember that from that day on, I was just like, “Hey, this is cool. I really, really want to do it” and I got immediately rid of the stage fright. This is how I decided I was going to become a musician.
You are from Norway, a country that never joined the European Union. What do you think of Brexit and the EU in general?
Okay, don’t be angry with me. But to be honest, I have actually no idea what the Brexit thing is.
It’s the UK leaving the European Union after 47 years of membership.
I’m not that into politics.
Your country is also outside the EU, so I thought you might have an opinion about that.
Thank you for asking, it’s a good and serious question, but to be honest, I have actually no idea. As far as I understood, the UK is kind of sailing its own ship and they don’t want the negotiation deals with the rest of Europe. To me this is not good – I mean, I don’t see the reason, but again, I’m not a UK citizen. I know that Italy and France and Poland and Denmark and Norway are into this together as a big strong union.
Not Norway. You were never in.
I know that Norway is having this deal, which is called… what is it called? It’s that some countries in Europe have this agreement with Norway that they can come without a passport and they can work. Something like that even if we are not in the UN. Is that right?
It’s not the UN, it’s the EU.
I see that you know much more than me about this. To be honest, I actually didn’t know that Norway was not in the EU. But yeah, I think you’re right. I think it’s true. I think Norway is not in the European Union. I don’t know if it’s positive or negative. I’m kind of into my musical little bubble. So maybe that’s the reason.
Unless stated otherwise, pictures were provided from HM Johnsen’s private collection © belongs to their respective owners
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