The Strength of a Farao

Published September 22, 2015

PHOTO COURTESY OF KRISTIN SLOTTERØY.

Born and raised in the remote town of Ulnes, Norway with a population of hardly 500, it wasn’t until moving to Trondenheim for university at the age of 18 that Kari Jahnsen embraced music. Following graduation, Jahnsen, who goes by the stage name Farao, lived in London for five years and is now based in Berlin. However, in the past two years, she has made at least nine trips to Iceland, where she records nearly all of her music. Earlier this month, she released her debut album ‘Til It’s All Forgotten via Arts & Crafts, and tonight, she plays at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

The album showcases Jahnsen’s hypnotic soprano vocals, which she considers her strongest instrument. Aside from beautifully wavering lyrics on songs like “Bodies” (“Close your eyes / And feel the hunger / Taking over everything / Warning bells are loud as thunder / I can never hear them ring”), intricate arrangements are composed of instruments that range from synths, to horns, drums, guitar, sitar, piano, and bass—almost all of which Jahnsen plays herself.  Her self-titled EP, released last year, shed light on what was to come, but ‘Til It’s All Forgotten takes her previously mournful lyrics to a place of passionate darkness, focusing on inherent human miscommunication and the fact that we’re often too scared to face our own shadows.

Before the release and before her New York show, we spoke with the multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter over the phone.

NAME: Kari Jahnsen

HOMETOWN: I grew up in a really, really tiny place called Ulnes, and to be honest, it was really boring to grow up in a place like that. The music I listened to wasn’t popular there. People weren’t interested in music that much, so I spent time in my room listening to and playing music. A lot of times I’d do it because there was just nothing else to do.

CURRENT LOCATION: Berlin. I moved here in May. I was in London for five years, so I was sick of it and wanted to try something else.

THE NAME: Farao the Norwegian spelling of “pharaoh,” like the Egyptian pharaoh. I chose it because it’s such a powerful word. I really like the way it sounds and the way it looks. It’s really beautiful for me, mostly because of the powerful meaning of it.

TRUE CONNECTIONS: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the first CD I ever bought, when that came out. That was definitely the first time I listened to an album and really felt this connection to music that I had never felt before. I just couldn’t stop listening to it and wanted to show it to my friends and my family, but they weren’t as interested in it as I was. I felt like, “Am I the only one in the world who likes music?! What’s going on?!”

HER FIRST TIME: I didn’t play in a band until I was 19, when I moved away, because that was the first time I met someone to play with. I felt I was quite far behind. I met people that had grown up in Oslo who had played in bands since they were 12. They knew how to do it. [It took] a long time to get to know myself, and who I wanted to be as a musician in my room.

MY FIRST INSTRUMENT… Was voice. I sang in the choir at school, and sang in church growing up in this village. So voice was the first thing that let me express myself in a musical way. But then guitar was second. [Now], anything percussion-based, voice, guitar, bass guitar, anything like synths, keyboards, or piano-based as well. Singing, I feel like I know how to do that. Everything else, it’s kind of just pretending. On the album, I played sitar for “Anchor,” and it was the first time in my life I’d ever touched a sitar. I just played it in some way, and it sounded cool. Now everyone thinks that I can play sitar. [laughs]

‘TIL IT’S ALL FORGOTTEN: It’s still about loss, but it doesn’t have that mourning aspect anymore. It’s more about wanting to change a part of your life that you’re not happy with, and instead of sitting at home and expecting things to just magically change by themselves, you have do it yourself. That’s what I decided to do with this album: I’m not going to do this anymore, this is a waste of time, and I’m not happy. So it’s kind of a motivational album. Certain things about your life, you realize that’s how it’s always going to be; it’s never going to be perfect, but you have to keep on striving for it anyway.

The title is inspired by my favorite film ever, which is The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with Jim Carrey. They erase their memories when they don’t want to deal with something anymore, which is kind of how I got inspired to write this album. The title is basically me going to Lacuna, Inc. and erasing my memory, like they’re doing. The temporary album title was actually Lacuna, because of the film.

ICELAND… makes me feel confident in a way that I’ve never experienced in another place, mostly because it’s such a small city. It’s not money-driven in the same way as London or any big city would be, so all of the musicians that I’ve gotten to know there, it’s music first and money second. Not everyone does that. It’s amazing to record in a circumstance like that because it reminds you everyday why you’re doing what you’re doing, and it gave me an extra boost—going my own way and not caring about whether it’s commercial, or if I can make money off of it, and all that stuff people think about.

My favorite place to go is Húrra, which is the Icelandic word for “Hooray”. It’s my favorite bar, favorite place to end up. Everyone goes there; I’ll meet all my friends and you don’t have to schedule it with anyone, because everyone’s just there.

TO DECOMPRESS AND RE-CENTER… I like to go for long walks in huge parks in the middle of the city, where I know that I can go back to my everyday life if I want to. I can go to a gig or go to a bar, and I know that that’s a possibility. If I don’t have that as a possibility I get very claustrophobic. When I go back to my hometown it’s really nice, but then I get really panicked: “Oh my God, there’s nothing to do! I can’t relax because there’s nothing to do!” [laughs] For some people, that might be the perfect place, but I can never be relaxed if I don’t have the option not to be. So I guess if I really need to center myself, I go on really long walk, have a coffee at my café, and that’s pretty much it.

FARAO WILL PLAY AT MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG TONIGHT, SEPTEMBER 22. FOR MORE ON THE MUSICIAN, VISIT HER FACEBOOK.