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 and airing his amazing experience nationwide in Norway.
HM Johnsen’s first album, Chased, was released in 2017 when the artist had just turned 20, and what I really really really like about it is just how heavy the rock influences are.
Possibly more than punk, rock music seems to have died a long time ago, and when you see how weak and confused these new generations of musicians look, then it’s not surprising.
As late Motörhead leader singer Lemmy Kilmister once famously said, if you think you are too old to rock ‘n roll, then you are.
Today, this seems to apply more to the youngsters than the elderly.
Young people seem to be afraid to rock ‘n roll in every aspect of their lives, but rock is not for the faint-hearted: rock is a statement and a decision, and you can just tell how undecided people are these days when you think that two or even three genders don’t seem to be enough to identify yourself.
Maybe we are so angry because today’s music sucks so much.
I don’t know.
All I know is that this modern world is all about options, and good music is rather about not having that many options and still coming up with something spectacular.
Look at what this boy has created for himself, for his community and for the progress of rock music, out of coming from a remote town in Norway with a dramatic shortage of mainstream options: he found a clever and inclusive way to produce great music, 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.
I love how truly rock HM Johnsen‘s music sounds, I love how much work, drive and energy he put into his journey to success, and I love that he’s not afraid to say that the first band that comes to his mind when he thinks about the London Abbey Road Studios is Pink Floyd and not The Beatles.
I spoke with Hans-Marius for the first time in October 2020 to promote Stay Within Range, an excellent single recorded during the Covid pandemic 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 I talked with him again in June 2021 to present Build The Sky, a new track out today whose cool rock vibes that just confirms how talented the man is.
If you love good old school indie rock, you should definitely give HM Johnsen’s songs a listen.
Hans-Marius, where does Build The Sky come from? Is there a story behind it?
I was sitting down playing the guitar in the wintertime this year and thinking of my musical career until now, 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 the melody, and I felt like sharing my own thoughts and meanings regarding my way of trying to reach my goals slowly and steady. I have always had the word “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, to not give up. So that is what this song, titled Build The Sky, is about.
How about your previous single Stay Within Range?
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 my, my own stuff, my own music and my own career. And when I was not focusing on my own, you know, music and musical career, I was sitting on my phone all the time, scrolling through Instagram, you know, being updated on the latest news, you know, seeing what my friends are up to. And, and they kind of saw myself from above, and I saw that Helena, now my 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 be more in the moment, and to focus and spending and using my energy on people that are important for me.
What are the things that are not important?
And I mean, it’s about not spending so much energy on Snapchat and Instagram, this was kind of a wake-up call. Stay Within Range means that whatever happens, you know, with me or my musical career, or if I get addicted to Instagram or whatever, it’s important that I remember to, you know, focus and, and live in the moment and then and try to spend more time and 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 I started singing often, somewhere along the way, and I end up making indie punk rock music.
Is rock dead?
Musically speaking, there has always been good rock music. Always, but rock has worn different clothes all along at different times, in the 60s, the 70s and the 80s, and also after 2000. 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, a lot of artists blending modern sounds and modern arrangements into rock. I think it’s awesome. And there’s also a lot of new genres, too, but I believe that today it might be more difficult to reach success today. Because there’s just so much 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 are you listening to, right now?
I really really enjoyed the new 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 periods. 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 are obviously not able to go around and play in front of people, which is quite sad, but that’s just how life is at the moment, we’ve 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 Concert 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 with us, a film crew, a sound crew. It is titled Serenity – Live From Somewhere in Nowhere and is a short movie actually, it lasts 30 minutes and will be shot in a very special Norwegian building, which is like 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!
Your hometown community in Norway financed your recording trip to the Abbey Road Studios in London, and the national TV broadcaster followed you there too. Anything to say about it all?
Today, I can say that I would never do it again, I wouldn’t, I would never do it now. Simply because I don’t have the energy to go through what I did back then. Because 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, as we often are, when we are 17, especially in my case. And I have this idea that if I just kept sending emails, and you know, calling different companies, then I was going to find a way to finance this project. And I started this, even before I’ve 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, you know, I wanted to be 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, different companies and 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 an 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 I 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 BBC, as the National Broadcasting. He was like: ok, you’re a young guy with a lot of energy, you sounds a bit crazy but that’s cool, 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 year 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’s in a Norwegian citizen but he was born in London, his mom is from London and related or something to a guy who knew another woman at the Abbey Road Studios: and so with 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-years-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 for something like that because now I’m spending more energy to focus 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 had 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. I’m a huge fan. But I’m even more into Pink Floyd, they have been my go-to band when it came to learning to play 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 in the same couches, and it was just incredible for me to think that Pink Floyd have 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 when you can buy yourself this Abbey Road Martini special thing. There is a picture of her on the wall in her 20s where 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.
That’s so very British from you. With regard to Paul McCartney, what do you think of the conspiracy theory according to which Paul McCartney was replaced by an imposter called Billy Shears Campbell in 1966?
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 music skills.
Billy Shears Campbell, the alleged “impostor”, is said to have won a lookalike contest in 1963 and was awarded by Paul himself, there’s 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 in figuring all these things out. But maybe it’s true. Nobody knows. I mean, what do you think?
Apart from the fact that he doesn’t absolutely look the same before and after 1966, that The Beatles stopped playing live after 1966 for no apparent reason, apart from his reaction to John Lennon’s death, apart from George Harrison calling him the new fella in The Beatles Anthology Series, when you also witness Olivia Harrison telling him Hello Billy in 2019, well then, of course, nobody knows.
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.
In fact, 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, before the Covid pandemic. 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 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 signed 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, and if that was only what I wanted to do, maybe I would sign up, right, because the reason for being in that The X Factor show or these talent show is that people just want to reach success. But if your 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 for 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? If you didn’t make it into the music industry, did you have any plan B in terms of career?
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 that 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, and 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 then I should continue with this. And remember that from that day on, I was just like, “Holy shit, 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 has never joined the European Union. What are your views about 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.
I’m not that into politics.
Your country is also outside of the EU, so I thought you might have some 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 their own ship and they don’t want like 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? You know, 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 about this than me. 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.
Never mind. Would you like to add anything else about your new projects and plans?
We are still looking out for live gigs, and trying to book something, but at the moment we do not have any specific touring dates or plans – other than we want to play as much as possible when the world starts to open. And so my plans and projects for this summer are to get started recording demos for a new album, and I am also releasing another single later this summer. I have a collection of songs and ideas that I want to put together to an album, with some 1980s pop-ambient vibe!