Interview with Norwegian rockstar HM Johnsen

HM Johnsen Norway singer with a guitar

HM Johnsen © to the owners

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 at school, wishing he was somewhere else: he was thinking hard, was thinking again and literally he was 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 achieving something extraordinary: he managed to convince the whole of his local community – a tiny village off Bergen, on the West Norwegian Fjords – to finance a trip to London for him to record his debut album at the Abbey Road Studios, which were made famous by The Beatles.
The 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 Norway singer with a guitar

Hans-Marius Johnsen © to the owners

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.

He is in today for an interview about his music journey, career achievements and good old-school indie rock vibes.

HM Johnsen Norway singer

HM Johnsen © to the owners

Hans-Marius, 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 in 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 it 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 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.

Your music style is a blend of pop, blues and rock – which genre do you feel most represented by?

HM Johnsen Norwegian singer portrait in black and white by Bjarte Løvaas Haugland

HM Johnsen by ©️ Bjarte Løvaas Haugland

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. 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.

What kind of music do you listen to, these days?

I really enjoyed Coldplay’s 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 a pop pop artist, but she’s mixing pop with 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. But last month, I had this crazy period when I was only listening to two instrumental jazz pieces that last for over 14 minutes. I have these moments, but now I’m in the pop-metal thing again.

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. How was the experience?

HM Johnsen recording at the Abbey Road Studios in London © Roy Hilmar Svendsen, NRK

HM Johnsen recording at the Abbey Road Studios in London © Roy Hilmar Svendsen, NRK

Today, I can say that I would never do that 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. 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 eventually got 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!” And so when I went and negotiate with the sponsors, I’d say: 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 to fund 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 comes 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.

Just like The Beatles, you also moved to Germany at the beginning of your career. 

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 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 had this family friend 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 I 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.

What do you think of The X Factor?

For some people, that’s a really nice platform to jump into the music industry and 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 do you think of event streaming as opposed to live 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!

How was your album Black & Gold born and what does it mean to you?

Stay Alive by HM Johnsen

Stay Alive by HM Johnsen

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 writing 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 have 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 two previous records Build The Sky and Stay Within Range?

Build The Sky by HM Johnsen

Build The Sky by HM Johnsen

HM Johnsen Stay within range single cover

HM Johnsen Stay within range single cover

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 the time I thought went very well with the riff I was playing, so 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 career, I was sitting on my phone all the time, scrolling through Instagram, being updated on the latest news, and seeing what my friends were up to. And, they kind of saw me from above too, 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 use 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!

HM Johnsen

HM Johnsen

Unless stated otherwise, pictures were provided from HM Johnsen’s private collection © belongs to their respective owners

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