On the eve of his 70th birthday, Jonas Fjeld looks at least twenty years younger, perched in his living room in Norway. On a Zoom call halfway across the world, he smiles in the dark night, happy to talk about his new, evocative, English-language folk album, To the Bone, out everywhere September 16.
The disc features songs that Fjeld co-wrote mostly with his longtime friend and collaborator, and Nashville mainstay, Hugh Moffat. There are also plenty of contributions from Hatch Show Print’s Jim Sherraden and Chatham County Line frontman/songwriter Dave Wilson.
When I ask Fjeld how much he contributed to the stirring poetic lyricism on the album, he laughs and says plainly, “Nothing.”
“I just gave them a musical landscape to get their imagination [going],” he adds. “I used a nonlanguage that sounds like English, that gives the tone of the music, and they kind of have to translate it. That’s the way I’ve been working because I’m absolutely not a lyric writer. Hugh Moffat, I met and I know him from the ‘80s. Jim Sherraden, I know him from the ‘70s. So, they know me. I just give them a musical landscape. It’s an inspiring way to work.”
It’s also an inspiring thing to listen to.
The songs on To the Bone run the gamut of rootsy sounds, cast occasionally under a shroud of cold north wind. Album opener (and lead single) “Dust in My Wallet” evokes John Hiatt and the Pogues. “Vi Viet Aldri” is one of the disc’s finest moments, a banjo-and-fiddle-laden Norwegian-language bluegrass bop. (That is a string of hyphenates unlikely to fall from keyboards regarding many other releases this year.)
“Distant Drums” is a sad rumination on death that feels almost Leonard Cohen-esque in its balance of light and dark, hope and hopelessness. (“I will not rush, I will not wait. I’ll take the time I have to take.”) “Stubborn Flowers” is a paean to persistent optimism—another easy highlight as the U.S. enters its colder months. The album’s title track is equally as ruminative, a gathering of lessons and understandings. “Alone is skin-deep,” he sings. “Love is to the bone.”
Indeed, it’s possible to consider Fjeld’s entire career as a gathering of lessons and experiences. He is the first to recognize the grace in the series of coincidences that launched him into this work to begin with. For starters, in 1976, Fjeld went to see JJ Cale perform in Oslo, Norway. Somehow, he managed to cross paths with Cale’s producer, Audie Ashworth.
“So we asked,” he recalls, “‘Can you admit us Norwegians to come to Nashville and [make] a record in the studio?’ And Audie Ashworth said, ‘Yeah, come on.’”
The result was the Jonas Fjeld Band’s American debut, Tennessee Tapes (1977). It included a number of songs written by North Carolinian songwriter Don Schlitz, whose song “The Gambler” would become a monster hit for Kenny Rogers a year later. To boot, the sessions gave Fjeld a taste of the American music market, which is where part of his heart resided anyway—ever since he was a young boy listening to his father play American folk and country albums.
“I love the American music,” he says. “I mean, I love American folk music. That’s how I grew up, listening to my father’s 78s of Gene Autry.
“That is to the bone,” he says with a smile, bringing it back to the new album. “I remember in the ‘70s being a little ashamed that I loved folk music, when [most people thought] the guitar should be on 11. I had to admit: This is the music I love.”
Nonetheless Fjeld followed his music into rock and roll, punk, pop, and back again, recording a number of English-language records throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s. Then he met Eric Anderson in Oslo. “We started singing together, had a few cold ones. [We were] sharing licks and harmonies and melodies. Then we started a trio with Rick Danko [of The Band] in 1990.”
Danko/Fjeld/Andersen recorded two albums as a trio, garnering praise in Canada, Norway, and the United States alike. But after Danko died in 1999, the collaborators split and Fjeld went back to Norway to focus on making music in the Norwegian language for Norwegians.
He recorded a half-dozen albums in his native language during this time, further cementing his status as one of his country’s finest artistic exports. Then—another unexpected occurrence—Judy Collins called, wanting to work with him on an album of songs for the winter holidays.
Collins had recorded Fjeld’s “Angels in the Snow” five years earlier and was enamored of his work. The disc they made together, Winter Stories, was released in 2019. It topped the U.S. bluegrass chart and revived Fjeld’s interest in recording in English. (He also recorded a small handful of albums with Chatham County Line, who appeared as the backing band on Winter Stories, strengthening his collaborative friendship with Wilson.)
That brings us to To the Bone. “I had a lot of good songs,” he explains. “So I decided … let’s try to do it in English. I got help from some of my best friends … to write the lyrics. But it’s been on the shelf for three years now because of the pandemic.”
Of course, nobody could have predicted the way the COVID-19 pandemic would impact the lives of touring musicians. Much has been written about the way American artists are still feeling the effects of that big pause on the touring industry. However, in Norway, Fjeld says, he was compensated by the government for the missed work and was able to perform in 1,000-seat theaters for just 100 people at a time. “We did pretty well here,” he says. “[We] got support from the government so most of us survived.”
With the direst days of that era behind him, Fjeld is excited to finally unleash a creative statement that continues to stir up meaningful emotion—for him as well as his audience. “It’s deep,” he says with the simple-is-better spirit of a true folkie. “I love it.”
To the Bone is available HERE.