In the opening moments of Ragnarok Film’s austere but gorgeous video for Kalandra’s 2020 single ‘Borders’, vocalist Katrine Stenbekk awakes on a stretch of black sand whilst guitarist Jogeir Daae Mæland explores dark caverns by firelight and Florian Bernhard Döderlein Winter washes up on the shore amidst icy waves. It’s a captivating introduction to a fierce but poignant song, one that it’s easy to assume, with a name like ‘Borders’, holds an overtly political message, but the track itself in fact explores the borders of our civilisation with the environment around us, examining the inherent value of the natural world but also the apathy of nature itself. “On the borders of safety, that’s where I find peace, where the black sand meets the raging seas,” cries Stenbekk over soft, ambient music that feels as infinite as the ocean itself.
As it turns out, the song is an excellent starting point for a discussion about Kalandra’s debut album, The Line, a record that explores borders and boundaries in all forms, be they physical spaces like where beach meets water or less tangible but no less powerful mental blocks that stop us from fulfilling our goals. The track was inspired by a painting that Stenbekk has hanging in her home, which she shows us when her and Jogeir Daae Mæland join us for a Zoom call from their native Norway. The painting, created by Stenbekk’s mother, depicts raging seas like those near where Stenbekk grew up in South-West Norway before moving to Liverpool to study music.
“‘Borders’ is definitely about that bridge or that gap in nature, and how lovely and warming and welcoming it can be as well as being completely unmerciful and brutal,” Stenbekk explains. “But it can also stem back to how you feel in your own mind. How you’re constantly being confronted with your own boundaries, so to speak, and asking when is the right moment to stand up for yourself. And that’s also the theme of the album, The Line, kind of trying to balance everything out evenly, mentally.”
“You mentioned that political first instinct,” adds Daae Mæland, “and you could argue that there’s some political meanings there, that borders are not real, but I think in a larger sense, and coming back to nature, the borders we make are a human construct in a sense. We’re not really separated from nature, we’re a part of it. And there aren’t really any borders, we are making the borders. They’re still real in a sense, but it’s also nice to know that it’s partly imagination.”
It’s impossible to talk about borders broadly without touching on political issues, and Stenbekk tells us that she did have images of Syrian refugees in mind when writing and even took some inspiration from rapper M.I.A.’s song ‘Borders’, but The Line’s overarching theme, one that the band say wasn’t planned so much as picked up as a thematic throughline along the way, explores boundaries in a broader sense, examining them wherever they appear and in whatever form. “It’s that ‘on the edge of comfort, that’s where you find love’,” says Daae Mæland, paraphrasing the song. “Like you have to kind of break some borders and in order to break some borders you have to know about them, you have to be aware.”
Perhaps a similar examination of musical boundaries is what has aided in the creation of Kalandra’s unique sound, which straddles multiple styles seamlessly, echoing the enchanting nature of traditional Nordic folk music (fans of Wardruna may find lots to love) whilst also boasting infectious but epic melodies reminiscent of modern singers like Aurora or Eivør. Even this description falls short, though, as touches of alternative rock can be found too, and the atmosphere is at times akin to that of doom metal.
“Our music is a good mix of a lot of things,” says Stenbekk, struggling to nail it down to one particular genre. “I know some artists say they don’t listen to a lot of music to get their head in the right frame of mind but that’s the complete opposite for us, we listen to pretty much everything. There’s obviously inspirations from way back like Pink Floyd and Kate Bush and then Eivør is inspired by Kate Bush, which you can hear in her vocals, and I’m inspired by Eivør. I’m also inspired by folk songs; Mongolian folk songs and Peruvian, Bulgarian and obviously Nordic folk songs.”
“That’s the vocal background, folky in a sense,” adds Daae Mæland. “The harmonic structures might be more Radiohead-ish and then the drums might feel more like certain metal genres, so there’s a lot of individual inspirations put together in a mix.”
That open and varied approach was initially somewhat of a worry for the band, who were unsure which festivals and venues to pitch to, but it’s become perhaps their key strength. “It’s hard to do anything else other than what you like,” admits Daae Mæland. “It’s not that we try to be different for the sake of being different, it’s just that that’s the music that interests us the most and there certainly are a lot of people way more interesting than us in terms of breaking boundaries. Our music is still very much traditional structure-wise and there are hooks and there are links to pop as well. I think most important for us was finding out what we enjoyed writing, because that’s how you keep going.”
For Stenbekk, the non-musical influences are key as well. “Where we come from is an influence too, and the weather and what we’re surrounded by, like nature, and how we all came together and brought that into a good old stew. There’s a lot of influences from our childhoods probably that we’ve also brought and it seems to come out in musical form.”
With such varied influences and so many differing sounds coalescing, it’s a wonder that The Line is such a cohesive and contained effort, and one that never feels bogged down by excess or overindulgence. As it turns out, it took the band a long while to get to this point. After forming in Liverpool, the band released their first single ‘Sell Your Voice’ in 2013. Work began on an EP soon after, with the band entering various studios and also recording at home where necessary, but the release was not completed until after the core trio of Stenbekk, Daae Mæland and Florian Bernhard Döderlein Winter had moved back to Norway, the band initially having been formed in Liverpool. Beneath The Breaking Waves dropped in 2017, and debut full-length The Line came three years later in 2020.
“We were students at one point,” begins Stenbekk. “We wanted to be a band and make music and we have balanced rocks as band members to get along and that’s tricky, and now we’ve become a family in a sense, a dysfunctional family at times but it has taken us a long time to define our sound and get everyone on the same wavelength.
“It’s also taken us a long time to build up the finances because we have chosen to do everything ourselves. We could go into a studio and do everything and we did do that in the beginning, we went to many different studios to record drums and guitars but we were just never satisfied and we found that it’s better if we rent a soundproof room and have all the time in the world to just experiment, record it again and again and again because we’re never happy.”
“I think part of it is also not knowing exactly what you’re looking for but definitely knowing what you don’t want,” laughs Daae Mæland. “So you have to go through a lot of shit and then suddenly you get it from extrapolating everything else. We tried to make an album earlier but then we ended up just releasing an EP because the songs weren’t good enough.”
Vowing not to release something they simply couldn’t be proud of, the band decided against releasing a full-length at that point, whittling down the tracklist into a shorter release that they could be happy with. “My songwriting wasn’t good enough,” says Stenbekk earnestly. “And it’s very hard to face yourself and look at yourself in the mirror and be like ‘it’s just not good enough, and I spent quite a lot of money recording this in a fine studio’. But it feels really good as well to be like ‘I know what my weaknesses are, I know what I have to work on’. And it’s a hard debate to sit down and be like ‘guys, we’re not going to do this, are we? It’s just not good enough, we have to do better’ but we all want to put that effort into the band so at the end of the day it’s good for all of us. But yeah, it’s taken its time. It wouldn’t feel right to release the debut album before, because we just weren’t ready, and now we are.”
Where many bands might have released all of their early work (and understandably so, given the time, energy and money it took to create) and then refined as they moved forwards, gradually progressing into their current form, Kalandra were willing to commit the time and resources it took to be fully satisfied and confident in what they were releasing every step of the way. “I’m not saying another way wouldn’t work for anyone else but every journey is unique and this is what made sense to us,” explains Stenbekk.
“Yeah in different songwriting traditions they tell you you should just write and write until you hit that one song that’s going to make you famous,” says Daae Mæland. “But then you release five albums that have maybe four good songs. And especially inside studio complexes they have this mantra of like, if it’s not a good song within two or three hours it’s not worth working on, which is really interesting and you get a lot of really instant songs and good hooks as well.”
“I have a friend like that,” adds Stenbekk. “She’s signed to this dude in LA who has written for Dua Lipa and stuff like that, and I was hanging out with her last night and she showed me some songs, and I was like ‘wow, this is really cool’ – it’s very pop, very clean but it’s nice – I was like ‘it’s great’ and she was like ‘oh you think? I wrote and recorded it last night’. And it’s like, you made it last night and recorded it! We are actually working on a song together for her and it’s honestly taking ages because well for one I’m really occupied with the band but two I like taking my time to reflect on things and be like ‘well, how can this be better?’ and she said she’s never worked like this. Before she was just like ‘scrap it’ and I’m like ‘why? It has potential, you should always come back to something that has potential’ and she’s like ‘yeah, but I just get tired, I just want to get something new out’.
“It’s a completely different business. She writes pop music and there’s never much time. I like to think that if the music is good enough then we have all the time in the world. The most important thing is that the music is good enough, everything else with the image and social media – that can wait. Just get the songs out that you’re really happy with and let it take its time.”
That considered approach is what has led Kalandra to where they are today, with a phenomenal debut album and a distinct sound that’s all their own despite paying tribute to various forms of folk, pop and rock music. The pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the band in terms of touring, given that they were finally ready to set out properly with a full-length’s worth of new material in tow, but it’s also been an opportunity for them to work on new music at their own pace.
“Personally it’s been a bit of a blessing in disguise to be able to just cancel everything except from what we can do as a band in the studio,” admits Stenbekk. “Like finishing that album, writing new stuff, maybe focusing on creating better merch for our webshop, fixing the website, putting out more YouTube content. Everything we can do to improve online. I’ve quite enjoyed the quiet time and not having any FOMO, but obviously we want things to go back to normal and to be able to tour because we were just at the start of getting out there to tour properly with a new booking agent, so that’s been a bit of a bummer, but it’s the same situation for everyone.
“When the world is ready to meet again, we will be ready.”
Words: George Parr