The Symphonic Truth: A Conversation with Midnattsol vocalist Carmen Espenaes

Let’s face it: Here in the States, the term “gothic/folk metal” is somewhat of a head scratcher. On the surface, “folk” and “metal” are as polar opposite as black and white; it’s Woody Guthrie,  Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell on one side; Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Metallica on the other, with seemingly not an inch of common ground between.

But the sonic fusion of heavy metal and traditional folk music (along with the genre’s instrumentation and singing styles) that initially took shape during the 1990s is a legitimate and flourishing genre, as fans overseas can attest. While bands such as Equilibrium, Finntroll, and Turisas may only be familiar in the smallest of hardcore circles in the U.S., European audiences have been embracing the genre for decades.

Another of those bands has been Midnattsol, co-founded in 2002 by Norwegian singer/songwriter Carmen Espenaes. Espenaes, the younger sibling of one of genre’s more renowned vocalists, Liv Kristine (ex-Theater of Tragedy, ex-Leaves Eyes), has teamed up with her sister and guitarists Alex Kautz and Stephan Adolph, and keyboardist Daniel Fischer to deliver Midnattsol’s fourth full-length album, “The Aftermath,” (Napalm Records) on May 25, ending a seven-year gap since the release of 2011’s “The Metamorphasis Melody.”

Carmen Espenaes said in a recent email interview with ListenIowa that the period between “The Aftermath” and “Metamorphasis,” although lengthy, was everything but quiet.

“Midnattsol was still there, but not so present in the scene,” she said. “There were huge private changes in our lives such as getting children, building houses, new work, etc., and the song writing process was extremely inefficient. We had so many ideas and couldn’t finish the songs, because we focused on different things and different musical directions. We also had different ideas how the songs should be written. All in all, the years went by, and I started to focus on my other Norwegian band, Savn.”

LI: Talk about your personal and professional life in this interim period that led to “The Aftermath.” Some big changes took place.
CE: When it comes to my personal life I got two kids, a big house with a garden, and I guess I have developed personally. I feel a lot stronger and more confident, I will not let anyone step on me any more. I think a lot about the world today, and even though I’ve been concerned about this since I was a small kid,  these thoughts were coming over and over into our new songs, and I felt that the time was right to make an album about it. The thing is that we are heading in a total wrong direction. We are destroying ourselves, other people, the nature, the animals, the whole earth, and are focusing on our looks, material things, power and money. The cover, the title and the songs are connected together as in a circle, and should remind us of this message of all in all together. We (don’t) think that there will be consequences of our actions, and we can’t continue like this forever. One of the goals of this album is to bring out the message, bury your ego and wake up before it’s too late.

The new album, “The Aftermath,” is a collection of songs that displays your folk influences more than “Metamorphasis.” How did this musical evolution come about?
Very good question! Yes, there were folk elements on the other albums as well, but on our new album, I definitely think it’s more. I guess this is a direction where we definitely are heading more and more. I feel inspired by folk songs and tales, and I love learning more about the earlier days. But it’s difficult to say exactly why, because we didn’t have any restrictions  or special plans when we were writing the album, just total freedom to let the creativity flow. We sang and played things we haven’t done before. That was a fantastic feeling. I really loved writing the songs together with the other ones.

Any tracks on the album that you are particularly proud of?
Musically I am very proud of “Forsaken” and “Syns Sang.” “Vem kan segla” is also very special to me, because I sang this Swedish folk song my whole childhood and it has always been one of the most beautiful folk songs I know. It has a special part in my heart, and I always wanted to make my own version of it. And now we finally made it!  I think you hear it in my voice and my emotions. It’s great that I can show my children my version of the song, and they can sing it for their children again. Lyrically, I think I’m most proud of “Ikje glem meg.”It is a Norwegian song written in my dialect. I started to write the song after I had watched the news the whole day about the horrible and extremely tragic terror attack on Utøya in Norway on the 22nd of July 2011, which came like a huge shock! It was first an attack at the government quarter in Oslo, and then the attack started on Utøya where lots of young people were gathered for a political meeting where they wanted to discuss how to make the world a better place. Sixty-nine persons were killed by one man. They tried to hide and some swam for their lives while he was shooting. Lots of civilians were risking their lives to save them with their boats. The song means “Don’t forget me.” I want us to not forget the terror attacks that happened, and I want us to think how this could happen and try to avoid such attacks in the future. It also means that we should not forget the poor victims. In addition, it should also be the cry for help of the person who is trying to flee in the song:  “Please rescue me, don’t forget me.”  I can’t imagine how the victims must have felt — the panic, the fear, the pain …. indescribable.

When you’re a founding member of the band, it’s almost as though it’s your baby. When you worked so hard in creating this from scratch, then had to put it on hiatus for many years, did that put a damper on your spirit at all ? Were there ever any thoughts that Midnattsol was through?
It has not been easy these years and many stones on the road, but we never wanted to end Midnattsol. We always had the faith that we would give out more albums. But we sort of waited for the right moment, something had to happen in order to push us closer to the goal. And now, when the album is out, it is a big relief and a huge goal is achieved.

At what point did things begin to come back together again?
Yes, it was when our keyboarder, Daniel, in early 2016 said, “Guys, now we need to finish these songs; it’s now or never.” He called us, some emails were written, and we made a plan for the coming process. It was this kind of push that we needed, and it motivated us a lot that our record label, Napalm Records, was so eager to hear new songs from us.

Your sister, Liv, has been cited as one who helped bring about the “beauty and the beast” stylings in symphonic metal. Brutal and beautiful. What was it like for you as the younger sister of the more well-known singers in the genre?  Did you have aspirations to be like your sister, or did you want to make an entirely different path on your own?
There are 8 years between us,  and when she started in Theater of Tragedy, I didn’t think so much about it. Liv and I have a fantastic deep relationship; it feels like we are soulmates, which we also were when we were children. I never tried to follow her footsteps, and I have always gone the path that felt right for me. I have never tried to live from the music, and I have never tried to be famous. I just want to inspire people with my music, give something with my music. By that I feel 100 percent myself and alive and can cope with things myself at the same time. Some people from the press compared us, though, and thought that I wanted to be her. In the beginning I was hurt, because I wanted to be seen as Carmen, not Liv’s sister, and I started writing songs long before she started in Theater of Tragedy. I have always been a musician sitting in my room writing songs and singing, and I even had to help her with some notes when she also started to sing. After a while, I didn’t care about the comparison anymore, and I even thought it was nice when people recognized that we are sisters. After all, being the sister of Liv has only given me benefits, so why think about it in a negative way. And believe it or not, some people have said: “Wow, Liv! You are Carmen’s sister! (laughs)”

Were there ever any hopes of being in the same band with her?
We have sung on several songs together, so the cooperation was not a new thing for us, but it never crossed my mind that we should join each other’s bands.

How did Liv come to finally join the band, then?
It was clear from the beginning that Liv was going to sing on a song or two on our album. We discussed that many years ago. What I didn’t know was that she would join us as a full member of the band, and I was completely surprised when she suddenly called me and asked if I wanted that as well. I was actually in the shower while she called me on FaceTime, so I was surprised in every way you could say. (laughs) And of course I wanted to; it was like a dream coming true. She has such a beautiful voice, and to be able to write music and sing with her and create memories for life will be huge fun.

You performed “I Am Free” on-stage in Wieze in 2016, and told your sister on stage, “Remember, Liv, you are always free,” and she indicated in another interview she was moved to tears by the gesture, which then served as sort of a push to join Midnattsol. What do you remember about that night?
It was magical, a very special night, and we had so much fun together! I felt that this happening brought us even closer together. I wanted to show everyone how much I love and support her.

Liv also made the comment in the same interview that the two of you avoid American-izing (or dumbing down) lyrics and song meanings just so more people can understand the true meaning behind them. She sounded passionate about staying authentic. Do you share that train of thought?
Yes, I see as lyrics as a piece of art in a way, and I think they are more beautiful and interesting when you can interpret the meaning for yourself in your special way, and hopefully they can change or give you something in your life.

Birgit Öllbrunner, Chris Merzinsky and Matthias Schuler all left the band in 2017. What brought that about, and what the process in finding replacements?
All the three members decided because of different reasons at the same time to not follow us in the “now or never” plan. When it was clear that it was only Daniel, our guitarist Alex, and I left in the band, we needed some more musicians. Daniel asked his good friend and skilled guitarist, bassist and producer Stephan if he wanted to join the Midnattsol family, and he fortunately wanted to and started straight away writing songs. We started going through all the material and ideas that we had (which were a lot), decided what we wanted to use and rewrite, and we wrote some totally new songs as well. And the process went very well this time and made a lot of fun.

At this point in Midnattsol’s career, how important is it to gain a larger audience in the U.S.? Or are the States so fragmented in their listening tastes now and not buying records that it’s no longer become a priority?
Oh, we have fantastic fans in U.S. that mean so much to us, it’s absolutely important for us to keep our fans and friends there and gain new ones. So spread the word about us and follow us on Facebook so that our music can reach new people in your country.

What are your touring plans behind “The Aftermath”?
Besides our release shows in Germany, there isn’t a planned tour yet unfortunately. We want to meet our fans and play the new songs live, and like both occasional concerts and tours, but right now it’s a bit difficult to go on tour because of our small children. But as they get older it will get easier, and hopefully we will play a tour, or at least at some festivals, next year.

Where do you want to take Midnattsol from here?
 Our absolute main focus is to make sure that the next songwriting process is the shortest one in Midnattsol’s history so that the fans should not have to wait so long for new songs. We will do everything in our power. Hopefully some more videos as well, and as the years go by, I guess it will be easier for us to go on tour, despite jobs and children. (laughs)