There’s a word that Norwegian singer/songwriter Aurora Aksnes repeats when she reflects on the past year and the attention that her dark folk-pop has earned her: strange. The soft-spoken 19-year-old, who uses the stylized AURORA as her stage name, is still getting a grip on the fact that she has fans in other countries that will come out to see her and her band perform on tour.
“I don’t really understand why people like us so much, but it’s nice,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a very strange thing being recognized or looked upon as someone special.”
In her music and as a performer, AURORA projects contrasting characteristics that make her an enchantingly idiosyncratic artist. She acknowledges that she writes mostly sad songs, and the title of her debut LP, All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend, out March 11, is an idealistic encapsulation of the innocence, gloom, and empowerment that imbue its 12 tracks. She’s an emotive live performer, her hands undulating freely about, but between songs she’s shy, and there appears to be a moment of trepidation at the conclusion of each one, before she’s overwhelmed with loud approval.
“Luckily for me, people don’t scream at me that much in my everyday life,” she says, whimsically. “It’s very unnatural to be someone for so many people. But of course it’s very nice. I think I have the nicest fans in the world, and I quite like being surrounded by people if we’re all feeling the same emotion in the same room.”
Most of her songs are folk-based in melody and structure, and ornamented with electronic touches that heighten the mournful romanticism of her lyrics, evinced by the enrapturing choruses of “Runaway” and “Running With the Wolves.” Whereas the Celtic-tinged “Through the Eyes of a Child” is gentle and wistful, “Murder Song (5, 4, 3, 2, 1)” is ominous and grim. Her purest pop song, the recently released single, “Conqueror,” is a highlight of the live show and elicits elated high-stepping from the singer. The album’s last two tracks, “Under the Water” and “Black Water Lilies,” allude to the depths of the ocean but are not clouded by a fear of drowning.
“It is horrible, of course,” AURORA says of drowning, “but in my head it seems like a beautiful way of dying, somehow. I just love the water. It’s so delicate and so big and dangerous at the same time. I guess I use the water as a metaphor for many things. It’s a great unknown as well.”
AURORA grew up in the coastal town of Os, just south of Bergen. She still lives in her family home, which overlooks the water. Field recordings of ocean, rain and nature were incorporated into her album. Her mother is a midwife, and her father is, in her words, “a salesman of some kind” for a German firm. In his spare time, he works on the house and builds furniture from wood. The youngest of three sisters, AURORA developed a vivid imagination as a child and enjoyed spending time alone either in her room or amongst the trees and bushes near her home. When she was three years old, she caught a glimpse of Titanic on TV, and for days afterward, she layered herself in several gowns, walked over to the stone on her neighbor’s lawn, pretended that it was the edge of the ship and sang “My Heart Will Go On.”
At age six, she went to the attic to recover an electric piano that belonged to her eldest sister, Miranda, because she missed the sound of it after Miranda stopped playing. The on/off button was falling off and needed to be taped down.
“I was very into classical music when I was a child, and I’m still very into classical music,” AURORA says. “One of my favorite composers is Edvard Grieg. He’s wonderful, and he has this song, ‘Morning Mood.’ It’s a really beautiful song. And when I found the piano, I pressed the keys by accident, and suddenly I found out that I could recreate that song in my own way. That is kind of why I got so interested in piano. In the beginning, I just played classical pieces I love. I tried to figure out how to play them by ear, and then after a while, I just started making my own classical pieces. Then, when I was nine, I added lyrics, and they became songs.”
Her first composition with lyrics was entitled “I Had a Dream” and addressed how harsh and sad the world can be. She got that notion partly from watching the news. AURORA admits to being especially sensitive, and to this day, she refrains from watching TV news.
“I am a very emotional person,” she says. “You can just ask my band. I think I’m happy most of the time, but I am very emotional. So if I’m angry or if I’m sad, I will cry and I will shout, and then I will be happy again like five minutes after. So, I’m not angry or sad for a long time, but I’m very explosive. If I get angry, I will get really angry. I like to express my emotions. It’s important.”
When she was 11, AURORA spotted a drunken man who had been sleeping on the streets of Os, and her sadness compelled her to write about him. Around the same time, she also wrote “Runaway,” the opening track on the forthcoming album. For years, she didn’t share her songs with anyone, including her family.
“I didn’t have any need to sing or show people what I was doing in my room,” she says. “It was just a thing that I did for myself. It was like reading a book or painting. It was just really satisfying. It felt healing, almost. Nothing can make me happier than to write a song. And that’s still the case. In the beginning, that was enough, to just sit in my room and write, and I didn’t have a need for anyone to hear it.”
The young songwriter also had become enamored with the music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and in June of 2012, on the last day of 10th grade, she performed in public for the first time, singing “I Had a Dream” while accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. It was the culmination of a music class requirement. The way she remembers it, a girl from school posted a video of the performance to Facebook, and after that girl’s aunt shared it, someone from AURORA’s current management saw it. In December of that year, a friend posted AURORA’s track, “Puppet,” to the Norwegian music site, Untouched, without her approval. The singer was upset about it at first but then surprised by the positive responses.
Nothing had prepared AURORA for such enthusiasm. Her discovery was thanks to others feeling inspired to share her music, so it’s understandable that she continues to find the adoration strange. A year ago, she woke up in bed to her phone buzzing because Katy Perry had tweeted a link to the gorgeously wintry video for “Runaway,” telling her millions of followers that the song made her heart flutter. Three months later, Perry came to see her perform in Los Angeles.
“She really didn’t wear any makeup,” AURORA remembers, “or wigs or big dresses. She was just herself, and she was beautiful. It was very nice to see that she’s kept her feet down to earth after all the things that she’s done in her life. She’s also just a human, and I don’t get starstruck that much. It was very nice to see that she’s just a woman who enjoys music, and she seemed genuinely interested in our plans and if I liked what I was doing.”
For now, AURORA doesn’t want to think too far ahead. When asked what she’s looking forward to the most this year, she says the next show.
“I’m trying to take it day by day,” she adds. “If I take it year by year, I’m gonna explode, I think—like a balloon.”
For her, the highest compliment comes from listeners who have been moved by her music. She might not be accustomed to having fans yet, but when she engages with them on social media, she tries to foster strength and inclusion, referring to them as Warriors and welcoming Weirdos.
“When I grew up, weird was a negatively loaded word, which is sad,” she says. “I think we are all weird, unless we have managed to find a way to hide it, and I don’t think we should hide it, ’cause it’s human. When you meet a new person, she or he seems quite normal, and then you get to know them, and you find out that they’re just as strange as you, which is a nice thing. And you fall in love with this person even more when you realize how special they are. And it’s nice to encourage people to show that the first time they meet someone, to just be themselves and embrace our inner weirdness, because we are strange, all of us. It’s just about not hiding it.”
AURORA loves animals and heavy metal, collects dead bugs, and is an avowed fangirl of the sci-fi and fantasy institutions Star Wars and Harry Potter. She gushes over The Force Awakens, even though she thinks that Rey’s Jedi prowess progressed too quickly, and she hated that Han Solo died. She began reading the Harry Potter books in Norwegian around the age of eight before transitioning to English. Since then, she has read the whole series three times. She even owns a broomstick.
“I know everything about Harry Potter,” she says. “It’s so important to have the opportunity to read books where everything is more interesting than this world. I love magical things. It gives me so much joy.”