Talking to Aurora about her new album, quitting Snapchat, and writing the perfect song
With late-night shows and a Katy Perry endorsement under her belt, Aurora tries to figure out what's next
I’m walking down a street in Tribeca with Aurora Aksnes when she suddenly swerves across the sidewalk. Her destination? A fruit stand, to buy some strawberries. She pops open the carton immediately and, after trying one herself, offers a berry to each of us. This is just the kind of person Aurora is. The 19-year-old musician (who records under her first name), seems to move through the world without any particular pattern, drifting to whatever entices her. Before we met, she told me she went on an aimless two-and-a-half hour walk around the city, like a weary traveler insistent on living in the moment.
Aurora’s debut album, All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend, also seems to be inspired by some unseen energy. Her songs sound like they’re bending toward a light; her melancholic ideas and moody vocals are seeped in an electro-pop sound. The album single, "Conqueror," has the friendly, crunchy vibe of something that might soundtrack a Prius commercial, but its lyrics are surprisingly dark: "Broken me and broken them, and / You are broken too." This complexity seems to resonate with people. Over the past year, Aurora has performed on Conan and The Tonight Show. Her cover of David Bowie’s "Life on Mars," appeared on a recent episode of Girls. And this past March, Katy Perry tweeted Aurora’s single "Runaway," saying, "finally, new music that makes my heart aflutter."
In person, Aurora doesn’t seem broken. She’s friendly and thoughtful, measuring her answers to my questions with soft, careful precision. Her fingers flicker in the air as she talks, as if she’s literally trying to grab words out of the sky. The way she speaks feels parallel to the way she makes music: scrupulous, aware of every detail, but also full of ideas she needs to get out as quickly as possible. Now, nearing the end of a massive world tour, Aurora is ready to head back to her tiny hometown of Os, Norway. Before she does, I caught up with her in a park in New York City, where we talked about All My Demons, the mystery of Snapchat, and the default state of being sad.
Now that the album’s been out for about a month, how do you feel about the reception it’s gotten?
I was a bit surprised that people like it so much. It’s very nice, because when you make an album, you feel like you have to grasp this huge chance of making a masterpiece. You want the album to be everything, to be exhausting, to be fantastic. I’m very picky, I’m never happy with anything. It’s so hard to give the record away and accept that you’re done. And people are going to have it in their homes. I struggle so much with being satisfied, it’s very nice to see people being satisfied. It makes me think maybe there’s something good after all.
So when you start to write a song, where do you usually begin?
Well, it depends. Now I’m traveling all the time, I can’t really bring a piano with me, because that would hurt my back a lot, and my knees probably. But I have all these books in my backpack, and I write all the time, and that’s how I get so carsick, because we drive from state to state and I’m writing and I get carsick. I usually write lyrics first, and then when I get home or close to any kind of instrument I usually make a melody for those lyrics. But usually when I’m home, and I have a piano or a guitar, I’ll start writing a melody and then the words will come, like little bees into a beehive making honey. So it depends on what kind of tool I have in front of me.
One thing that’s interesting to me about your album is that it feels in awe of the world but also a little bit world-weary.
I have this feeling that the world is not in balance. And people are afraid, but we’re also starting to be really brave. We’re protesting against what’s unfair and we’re trying to fix problems, at least as many as we can, and we’re so much more aware of animal abuse and women abuse, and we’re so much more aware. Which is great, but it’s hard, and I’m definitely affected by bad energy. And energy, in general. And that’s why I write mostly, to get rid of these energies so I don’t have to carry them around with me all the time. Because I’m already carrying the weight of my books. I don’t have the power to carry more.
Do you feel like once a song is out in the world then you can really let go of what it’s about?
I feel like I can let it go, but most important, I feel like it’s okay, and that I deserve to let it go. Because if I see a problem or hear about something awful, I feel kind of guilty for not doing anything about it. I feel kind of guilty to be so lucky. And then if I write a song, I can bring back that emotion when I sing it, instead of feeling it all the time. It’s kind of justifying myself. It’s okay to not think about these things all the time if I write a song about it.
I know your music usually contains field recordings. What’s your process for collecting those?
The sounds at home are very different from here. There’s no noise, or, a very different kind of noise. It’s almost so quiet that it’s a silence which has a sound. And I just go out and I record myself walking in dry leaves and I record all kinds of sounds. Metal, I love metal sounds. If I have a stick with me I just drag it across a fence. And all fences make different sounds, just like people when they laugh. I love recording things, and tweaking them around, and putting on all these effects. And then suddenly you have this massive sound which came from me doing this [flicks armrest on bench].
I think that’s a really interesting idea because you’re taking a sound from a specific place, but it’s still a universal sound because it’s recognizable for most people. Even if your hometown doesn’t sound anything like New York, people still know the sound of—
Dry leaves! And hitting a stick against dry leaves, and walking, and breathing. In Running With The Wolves, I have lots of field recordings, like breath, and the fence thing. I even recorded me hugging a tree, which had no sound, but it’s on the album.
What would you do if you weren’t a musician?
I’d probably be a dancer, because I’ve been dancing for many years of my life. It’s so liberating. Like trying to escape your own body, which in many ways can be kind of a cage because it’s really just something that you wrap your soul in. When you dance, it’s like you have no shape. You can be anything you want to be. So a dancer, or a painter. I love to write, I write small novels. Maybe an astronaut! I love everything about space and the universe.
I saw an interview where you said that if you were to write one perfect song you’d have to go back and edit it every day. So naturally I wondered if you had any thoughts on the way Kanye has been editing The Life of Pablo after it’s already come out.
That seems like a dream, but it would drive me crazy. I get so crazy in the studio, like really, I get manic, cause there’s so many possibilities. And you have this image in your head. I produce a lot with two of the guys from my band, Magnus and O.Martin. I don’t know all of the technical stuff yet — I’ve been producing for about three years — but I’m learning more and more. I have the ideas. So there’s an impulse to get the songs exactly as you want them to be, and that kind of drives me crazy. I change all the time. I love and I hate all my songs. But then I think, "Okay, this song has an important message." And for me, the lyrics are the most important thing.
What are you working on now?
I’ve written many, many, many songs. My first album had kind of been done for a year before it was released. So all the songs are kind of old, and I’ve had like a year already to make new songs. So have like 43 new songs that I want to record. I haven’t recorded any of them, but I’ve been writing. I’m going to try and have some days where I write with my bandmates, because then the songs end up being a bit more happy; I always write a bit sad. Things about death and violence, and about these problems that I need to get out. So I need that change of energy — to write with people sometimes — so we can just have fun, and not take music too seriously. Like "Conqueror" is one of those songs I didn’t write alone. It was just a fun day.
Do you feel like when you’re alone you default to a sadder place?
Oh yeah. And I don’t think it’s because I’m a sad person. I think a lot of people, when you meet people you put on a smile and you want them to feel good when they’re around you, and you want to give good energy to everyone. You want to give all you can of yourself to everyone you meet, because everyone is special and it’s nice for people to meet the best version of you that you have discovered until now. And then when I’m alone, I get a bit tired. I feel like I’ve used all of the smiles. So I can easily get quite melancholy when I’m alone. But I guess many of us are like that.
I know that you recently quit Snapchat. Why’d you quit?
I just find it stressful with all these things that keep you on your phone, because I hate my phone. I feel it’s a lot already to be on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram because that’s three places to write things, which, it’s part of my job, and I like to show my fans what I’m thinking about and get to know me a bit. I would’ve loved that if Bob Dylan did that. But, I dunno, I like Snapchat (I always say Snappitychat), because I have my mom and my two sisters on there, so it’s nice to see them on my phone when I’m away from home.
Photography: James Bareham / The Verge