She started her first family band at the age of 5, and later toured the world with her brother and their alt-rock band Serena Maneesh. Now Hilma Nikolaisen is out with her newest solo record, Mjusic. We spoke to the songwriter about music as a transformative force, motherhood and making peace with Jesus.
For Norwegian Grammy nominee Hilma Nikolaisen, music has been the golden thread entwined throughout her 36 years. Growing up as one of seven siblings, she was immersed into the world of Christian rock through a faith-led upbringing and started playing with her elder brother, Ivan in a childhood punk band at the tender age of five. But it was her collaborations with brother Emil that ramped up Nikolaisen’s musical output from tentative teen groups and into the bass backbone of alt-rock shoegazers Serena Maneesh.
So when Nikolaisen took the decision to release her debut, Puzzler late in 2016, it was really just an explorative phase for her as an individual artist away from the glare of Serena Maneesh’s global touring schedules. The record received critical acclaim from her peers and even bagged her a nomination for the Norwegian Grammy, Spellemannprisen. Spurred on by the support, Nikolaisen headed back into the studio and released her sophomore effort (fitting entitled Mjsuic) at the end of last month.
As this is an introducing article for Norwegian Arts, let’s get the introductions out of the way. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Hilma Nikolaisen. At this moment, I’m only doing music. I’d previously been studying social work. I went to school for five years because I was in this band Serena Maneesh and then I just thought I should’ve done that…You know, considering the things you should’ve done whilst you were playing music. I figured I’d just get that done and start doing my own music.
So I was done studying in 2013, then I started focusing on my own music. I’ve got a child who has autism so he requires some extra effort. The music and the home situation is taking up my energy and time and it’s a really good combination actually. I had my son when I was 21. My whole music experience is influenced by the fact I had a baby really earlier. Before that, it was not very serious. I was in different punk bands with my brother not Emil from Serena Maneesh but Ivan who is four years older than me. We used to be in really crappy but cool punk bands. Then I started this girl trio when I was maybe 15 and we kept playing until I was pregnant actually. That’s when we stopped.
A lot of your formative years as a musician were as part of your brother Emil’s band, Serena Maneesh and you became an iconic part of the band’s visual identity. What was behind the decision to step out as a solo artist? Was it something you’d always considered?
I’ve always written songs since I was really really young and in different, not very serious constellations but I always kept writing songs. When I had my baby, it was like I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do. I was just starting to make some plans of my own when my brother, Emil asked me to join his band because he needed a bass player. He needed someone really fast because he had a few gigs set up that summer like Øyafestival [laughs) Yeah, quite big gigs actually.
I thought it might’ve been a one-off thing but it worked really well. Serena got a hype then and we started touring. I think we kept on doing it until 2010 or 2011 so it took up all my time and I didn’t really think about doing my own stuff because it was quite stressful just keeping the whole home situation under control. So then finally in 2013, I started focusing 100% on my own stuff. I think it’s very different to do it when you’re thirty plus compared to being sixteen or seventeen.
In my latest album, I’ve been trying to get some of that same inspiration that I had when I was really young. Trying to keep the same approach in a way, trying to be spontaneous and capturing the core ideas. Not overthinking it. Because when I did it two years ago, I was obsessed with making something I would stand for in ten years time because I didn’t know if I was going to do more records. It could’ve been just that one so I wanted it to be really sober and not too impulsive. I’m trying to think differently now, seeing what inspires me and trusting my instincts.
Your debut album Puzzler was released in late 2016 to critical acclaim and was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy (Spellemannprisen). Can you remember the moment you found out you’d been nominated?
I was quite surprised because I’d been keeping really low expectations all the way. As long as I love it myself and I stand for it, and my closest friends and musicians around me say they like it, I’ve got this basic trust so I didn’t expect the reviews to be as positive as they were. It was a nice surprise but I’m really happy that I kept my expectations low because that doesn’t mean you’re not ambitious. I think what made me most happy was that it was received in a serious way. It seemed like people listened to it, they really listened. It’s like they caught the message in a way. I think that was the most important thing for me.
You talked a bit about the two releases and how you felt they were quite different. You released your debut, Puzzler at a time when you weren’t sure if you would make another record or not so you poured a lot of credibility and authenticity into it. For your sophomore effort, Mjusic, is it true to say you feel a bit more liberated and able to explore more ideas?
From the very start, I wanted to do something more spontaneous. Maybe more spontaneous than it turned out because I’ve spent a lot of time making it! Still, I tried to do new things just along the way. On the first record, I made demos. Everything was decided and I wanted the record to sound like the demos in a way, to be really well planned. I recorded Puzzler in a really short time. Whereas Mjusic was recorded over the last year. I recorded the first song just before Christmas last year. I tried to renew the songs along the way. When it didn’t feel that fresh anymore, I added a few elements or I changed a few lines. I tried to make it fresh so today I still feel it’s new because I didn’t want to do something that felt like yesterday.
But there are a few things complicated about doing it like that. It’s hard to set a deadline for doing it. You have to make sure that things are done in time but that you’re not going to play it safe. When you do solo projects, you have the whole responsibility on your own you know? I used different studios so you have to gather all the files and keep the album in the back of your mind hoping that it’s not going to be too fragmented. It’s still got to be one unit. You take chances and you’re not playing safe. Not just doing what you know that people want you to be but focusing on what you could potentially add to the music of today. It’s a fine line.
The track ‘Election Day Blues’ speaks to that idea as has it that desire to have input into the climate and the conversation and global expectations of politics at the moment. Was that a topic you wanted to focus on with Norway in mind or more of a broader subject?
I remember I wrote that song just when Trump was elected. In a way, I wanted to release it really soon after that so it would’ve been connected to that time but it wasn’t only about that subject. It was also about other dilemmas in other parts of my life. The school system with my son and his autism diagnosis, for example. He needs special competence and support. It’s not easy to get a good school for him. So I was in the middle of this really hard process, trying to get him what he’s supposed to have. It was a real struggle. He finally got the school that he was supposed to have, but it highlighted to me that there are so many aspects of life and society that keep on disappointing.
But this song does have a positive undertone if you listen to it. We can do a lot of things better than we do today. The moment we get used to it, that’s when we lose. Like with the music industry, there are so many bands who complain about it. It is really hard. You don’t sell records if you’re not the most commercial act. It’s really hard to do it even with the DIY angle. It’s hard to find sensible ways of doing it properly.
It’s so important that we keep on speaking up when things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be and do something like I’ve been trying to do with music. Try and add some of that energy. Go back to the core of why we’re doing this in the first place. When you make music or art, I think it’s more important than anything else that you just keep focusing on why you do this because if you start on the other side, with a load of strategies and plans, then it’s all empty. Why bother?
You speak about Mjusic being transformative within your record, how has music transformed your life since you first discovered it back in that youthful punk band with your brother?
We grew up in a Christian home. It wasn’t strictly religious but Jesus was a part of every aspect. When I look back at it now, it sounds really freaky but there were a lot of good things particularly as music was a part of the religion. Sometimes it’s hard to see what is the music and what is the spiritual element of it but that’s something I grew to accept. I appreciate it now. It’s not possible to make music without doing it through that spiritual vein in a way. Even though it’s not connected to the belief that I had when I grew up, it’s in there somewhere. I think that’s the only you can appreciate a childhood that brainwashed you! We were brainwashed in so many ways [laughs]
It is a thread. It might have been tied up in your youth through the Christian element but the music part is still there and has shown itself in different ways throughout your career.
That’s a good way of putting it. If I was to analyse my childhood, a lot of people would say it was really destructive but it wouldn’t gain anything. I don’t think we would’ve done it if it wasn’t for that way of living. We were nine people, seven kids so we had different bands just in that family. It was like a scene. We had the punk bands here…That’s kind of a luxury to have as a foundation in a way.
What are you excited about for 2019?
I really look forward to playing these songs live in the future and trying to expand it and do new things with it. I think new songs will also appear. As we play these songs live, I often get new ideas. I hope it will be a creative year, making new music and playing this record in a new way. I’ll be trying to keep that open vibe. Trying to hold onto that inspiration in a way. Trying to hold onto that belief in my own thing.
Hilma Nikolaisen sophomore release, Mjusic is out now via Fysisk Format.