The tentative intro to “Featherbrain” made for a low-key, lo-fi start to this, Hanne Hukkelberg’s latest London concert. Backed by a skeleton band of two, the Norwegian singer strummed her guitar where the strings are at their least resonant, on the headstock, producing a dry, plinky thrum. Guitarist Ivar Grydeland and multi-instrumentalist Mai Elise Solberg likewise kept their accompaniment simple.
Given the skilful composition and instrumentation of her new album, Featherbrain, it struck me that Hukkelberg’s technique, or what she displayed of it, appeared to be much more limited than I’d supposed, and how simple her song’s arrangements really are. But this spartan aesthetic suits her material. Under-dressing it allows Hukkelberg’s magnificent, unstressed voice to carry the weight of songs that are variously confessional, yearning, and rawly emotive. The set takes an increasingly dramatic arc through all these moods, and the intimacy of their delivery forges a real communion with the audience – a gratifyingly full house. “I love that about London”, Hukkelberg says; “so beautiful; and so many people.”
Featherbrain is perhaps Hukkelberg’s most satisfying work to date, but it’s a brave one. Her last, Blood From A Stone (2009), with its overt nods to the indie rock of Cocteau Twins and Pixies, was a more expansive and rhythmically direct affair. Featherbrain also has its crowd-pleasingly direct moments—“Too Good To Be Good” (which ends in a flurry of handclaps) and “The Time And I” are particularly well received—but at times it also harks back to the quirkier, more introspective style of her 2005 debut, ‘Little Things’, which incorporated found sounds for textural resonance. In concert, the various strands converge. After playing three songs from Featherbrain Hukkelberg lifted the mood by dropping songs such as “Blood From A Stone” and “Salt Of The Earth”, both from Blood From A Stone, into the set.
With Hukkelberg playing keyboards and occasional glockenspiel as well as guitar, Grydeland extended his guitar’s range with an array of effects pedals including a Roland pedal synth. Solberg played keyboards and additional guitar, but made her most vital contributions as a percussionist on those more emphatic numbers, beating out martial rhythms and emphases on a couple of floor toms and a ride cymbal. All three had laptops to hand, but I’m not sure what they were there for, except in Grydeland’s case perhaps to augment that pedal synth; there wasn’t much evidence of prerecording.
The trio were perhaps too restrained to really galvanise the night—with a more conventional band a song like “You Gonna” would have real ruckus potential—but overstatement isn’t Hukkelberg’s style, and it’s the sense of her music unfolding a personal psychological dramaturgy that holds her audience in thrall.
The concert ended with the forthright “I See You” eliciting the night’s must unconstrained applause, but when the band returned for a two song encore it was to bring the night to a subdued close, as on the Featherbrain album, with the eerie Nordic lament of “Erik”.