- Doug Johnstone
- 22 May 2008
She’s a rainbow
Running contrary to the current fashion for affected 80s isms, Ida Maria is a genuine rock’n’roll force of nature. She sees songs as colours and excels at drunken singalongs and, as Doug Johnstone discovers, she even has a choirgirl past to boot
How do you solve a problem like Maria? Don’t worry, we’re not talking about any scary Saturday night television show featuring melty-face Andrew Lloyd Webber. No, this is a much nicer problem, in fact, this Maria isn’t really a problem at all, she’s a star-in-waiting, and if there’s any justice she’ll be a hundred times more famous than the winner of any cheesy reality show.
The Maria in question is Ida (pronounced ‘Ee-da’) Maria Sivertsen, a 23-year-old Norwegian force of nature. She sings, plays guitar and writes songs, but that’s where any similarity to other female singer-songwriters ends. Would you see Norah Jones splitting her head open or cracking her ribs during rowdy gigs? Would you see Katie Melua biting and fighting and drinking and screaming and falling over and pouring her heart out, all in the space of one hour on stage?
Of course you wouldn’t, but these are just some of the antics already attributed to Ida Maria, who is fast developing a reputation for larger-than-life rock’n’roll excess and extraordinary and compelling performance. It’s all a million miles away from Nesna, the tiny town in northern Norway where Maria grew up. Nestled inside the Arctic Circle, it has a population of less than 2000, meaning Maria found herself growing up with typical teenage frustrations.
‘There’s just mountains there and nothing else,’ says Maria with a croaky laugh. ‘Everyone I went to school with is still there, married with kids. I couldn’t stand it, I had to get out.’
The way out was music. Maria’s parents were teachers and musicians, and she grew up listening to an eclectic range of stuff ranging from classical to jazz to punk. While her current sound owes its biggest debt to the last of these genres, there is a breadth of musical vision in what she does that suggests she spent her formative years as a musical sponge.
Her parents tried to get her to play the piano, but Maria rebelled and picked up the guitar instead. She was diagnosed with synesthesia, a condition which means the senses get all jumbled up. There are different kinds of synesthesia, some people get taste sensations when they hear certain words, or see patterns in numbers. In Maria’s case, she sees colours when she hears sounds, particularly music.
Synesthesia is closely related to creativity, with artists as varied as David Hockney, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Liszt and Kanye West all using their condition positively. For Maria, it’s part of everyday life.
‘I don’t know what life’s like without it, as I’ve always had it,’ she says. ‘As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen that it has definitely been a bonus in terms of what I do. When I started to play guitar, I made this colour sheet for all the chords. I didn’t know what they were called, but I knew exactly what colours and shades they were. So I made songs with colour palettes which was really cool.’
So when she plays her music, she actually sees colours? ‘Absolutely,’ she says. ‘It’s hard to describe but, like, my song ‘Oh My God’ is black and white with a hint of green, while ‘Queen of the World’ is very colourful, it’s a bunch of colours all over the place, like a rainbow.’
Those two songs have both been released as singles in the last few months, and highlight Maria’s range. ‘Queen of the World’ is a glorious, drunken singalong anthem with a big stupid grin plastered across its face (‘Whisky please,’ it starts, ‘I need some whisky please’. It’s an order, not a request).
‘Oh My God’, on the other hand, is a visceral howl of a thing, her band rattling along like The Stooges in their heyday while Maria unleashes a cracked and savage vocal somewhere between Janis Joplin and Bjork. ‘Oh my God,’ she screams, ‘do you think I’m in control?’
The answer is clearly no. Maria’s music constantly sounds on the edge of collapse, and is wondrous to behold. Her debut album, Fortress Round My Heart, is due in August and is jam packed with what will soon surely be mini-classics.
At least half the album could be hit singles, such is her way with a snappy lyric and catchy melody (and a nice title – ‘I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked’, for example). And it’s all imbued with the 100% proof spirit of rock’n’roll and a restless energy which is utterly infectious.
‘I never thought about that until other people started mentioning it,’ she laughs. ‘I mean, it’s rock music, it’s supposed to be full of life, isn’t it?’
And yet it might never have been. At 16 Maria moved from Nesna to Bergen, the musical melting pot of Norway. She was still playing demure acoustic songs at local gigs, until one fateful night at an open mic event where she got so irritated with the tedious tune by the bloke from Kings of Convenience on before her, that she lost it on stage.
‘I let out all that anger, and somehow my voice just broke,’ she says. ‘People came up to me after and were raving about it, so I realised I might be onto something.’
At this point, Maria was also still singing in the Norwegian Youth Choir during the day, a fact which beggars belief when you hear her feral yowl today.
‘That was the most amazing experience,’ she says. ‘I think I learned more from that than anything else musically, because it was so physically and psychologically demanding.’
I mention that I can’t quite see her as a quiet choirgirl, which makes her laugh heartily.
‘You can’t? Well, I was the one who was always hungover and drunk and made a mess of things, so I wasn’t really welcome there after a while. And anyway, after I broke my voice, I couldn’t go back.’
And so the path to rock’n’roll mayhem was set. How do you solve a problem like Maria? You don’t, you just revel in it.
Ida Maria plays King Tut’s, Glasgow, Sun 1 Jun.
Ida Maria hails from the tiny Norwegian town of Nesna, situated inside the Arctic Circle, a place she regarded as having a profound effect on how her music turned out. We assess just how where you’re from can affect your music.
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