Greenland’s Nive Nielsen talks Music, SXSW, and more
This week, I caught up with Nive Nielsen (Nive Nielsen and the Deer Children) in the East Village just after her arrival in New York from Savannah’s Stopover Festival and just before her performance at Scandinavia House. Nive Nielsen is an Inuit singer-songwriter from Nuuk, Greenland who just finished her debut album, Nive Sings! which was self-released off her label tuttu recordings. Although Nive only started playing live in mid-2009, Nive and her evolving band have already played more than 120 concerts in both Europe and the U.S. Her cheerful demeanor, creative instrumentation, and clear vocals contribute to a musical style that is warm and genuine.
When did you first get into music?
Well, when I was studying political science in Canada, I didn’t know anybody. It took a while for me to get to know people, so I was also kind of bored for a while. I got through school, but felt that the direction I was going in wasn’t really true to me. Then my boyfriend (Jan de Vroede) gave me the red ukelele guitar. He said, “Try and write a song,” and I was like “Yeah, right.” But when I started playing that ukelele, it turned out to be really fun. I was surprised at how quickly I picked it up, too.
What is it like to live in Greenland by the way?
Well, we are Inuit people, and we are about 55,000 people in all. There are like 18 towns, which are all on the coast because the center of Greenland is all ice. There are no roads in between these towns, so to get anywhere, we have to sail or fly to other towns – by helicopter or propellor plane. There are like three international airports in Greenland. And it’s really pretty and mountainous… no trees, though…. but lots of icebergs and lots of nature… If you like nature, it’s great there. I guess we have more boats than cars. It’s really nice in the summertime because we go out fishing, hunting, and camping. There are lots of sports, like skiing. But it’s very expensive to get there.
Is there a music scene there?
Yeah, people love music. Everyone has a guitar, and they’re all singing. But there’s not really an indie scene; many people there might not even know what that is. But there aren’t proper record stores. You can buy CDs in electronic stores… that’s about it. On the radio, there’s probably a lot of Greenlandic music and mainstream music. That’s about it. One artist I really like is a guy named Ole Kristiansen. He’s a singer/songwriter who started in the late-80’s/early-90’s
What is it like to travel as a musician from Greenland?
Well, to travel anywhere from Greenland, we usually go through Copenhagen. Fortunately now there are flights to Reykjavik. That’s indescribably better, especially when traveling to North America…when I used to travel to Ottowa, I used to have to fly from Greenland to Denmark, and then from Denmark to London, and then from London to Ottowa! Even though there are only two hours of time difference between Nuuk and New York, I would have to fly for about two days to get there… so frustrating. But no more!
Recently, we focused a lot on getting to South by Southwest. It was a lot of work. Since we are a band of nine people, eight of whom are not from the U.S., we had to get visas for everyone before we came here, which is a really hard and long process when you’re from Greenland. If we lived in Denmark, for example, we could go to Danish Music Exports; they have their own system and could get us visas more easily. However, since we don’t have an address in Denmark, and since Greenland has no Greenland Music Exports, we had to work really hard and spend a lot of time and money on lawyers and translators. Normally, one of the requirements for a visa for musicians is that they must have played at least 60 concerts a year to prove they’re musicians… but that’s impossible in Greenland. So we had to find alternative ways to show we were artists. We each had to apply as a “Person of Extraordinary Ability” and prove this. We barely made it – even a week and a half ago, we were pretty sure we’d have to cancel Savannah and New York. But the government of Greenland pushed the prime minister and ministry of foreign affairs and had the American Embassy help push it through, too. We even drove to Amsterdam for an interview. Normally we wouldn’t be able to get the visa straight away, but this time they managed to quicken the process. We got the visa literally the day before we flew here, so we were like “Phew! We made it!” We also had to apply for some money because traveling with this many people is really expensive.
I’m sure it is. How was the recent Savannah Stopover Festival?
It was really nice. That town is really pretty, and the people are so kind and friendly! We were lucky to find a great place to stay through Better Than the Van. All of these people on there were like, “Come stay at my house!” Then we found a great couple, who let us stay in their big, beautiful house. The girl plays amazing harp, so we got her onstage at two of our concerts! We liked her so much that we asked her, “Do you want to come to South by Southwest?” She was like, “YES!” We are so amazed and excited by the fact that she’s just going to drive there to play with us!
How does it feel to be playing at SXSW for the second year in a row?
I am so glad it’s our second year because we know what to expect. Last year was pretty shocking for us. There were so many people, it was overwhelming. Since they closed down the streets, there were lots of traffic jams, so trying to get our gear to the venue required us to get there like two hours early. I remember one powerful moment from SXSW 2010. Just before one of our shows, we found out our guitarist and some other band members couldn’t make it because they were trying to park the car. I remember standing onstage with half of the band, and just as we were about to start, people started going “Woo hoo!” The rest of the band then ran in and plugged in, and we started playing.
I find that your songs are really down-to-earth. Describe the songwriting process for you.
Well, I was really shy about writing songs and singing them at first. The first time I played a song, it was for my boyfriend, and we were sitting in a hotel room. I had to turn off the light and turn my back to him. I was shaking and sweating, and I had to whisper the whole song through. It was really hard, but he really liked it! And after that, the songs kept coming, and I was recording and writing them down all the time. Later on, I found I could sing in front of two people, then three people, and so on.
Where do you get your inspiration?
That just kind of comes pretty much on its own. Most importantly, I have to have something to record with. When I was writing my first songs, I was really careful not to lose the melody or the lyrics, so I’d have to repeat the parts again and again so I wouldn’t lose them. That was really a lot of energy to remember the whole song. If a song comes now, I immediately record it on something – a dictaphone, a cell phone, a computer…whatever I have around me. After I record it, I’ll have to relearn it… and maybe if I’m not totally satisfied with it, or if it’s not totally done, I’ll adjust it. Or maybe if it’s half a song, I’ll leave it for a really long time, until I find it again. And then when I’m playing around with my guitar, the second half of it comes. I know I can’t sit down and decide, “Now I’m going to write a song.” That doesn’t work. It just comes, and I learn it.
Explain the meaning of your band’s name.
The reason we’re called Nive Nielsen and the Deer Children is because there are so many people. These Belgian guys and Canadian girls currently on tour with us have been playing with us for nearly half a year now. But before that, there was so much change. Sometimes, there is less change, and sometimes there’s more. That’s why we acquired the harpist in Savannah. It’s fun like that because it kind of keeps it all alive and challenging.
What are you listening to these days?
I’m listening to the Black Keys a lot; I think they’re awesome. I’m also listening to PJ Harvey’s new album; it’s really great. I like listening to a bunch of old stuff, too. Actually my boyfriend is the music fanatic. He has so much music that I don’t know half of the songs that I’m listening to, even though I can sing along to them and know them really well. He has a little apartment in Belgium, which is like a library with CDs and records. I tried to keep up, but I gave up a while ago. We listen to so many things, anything from doom to folk to rock to jazz.