FARIDA BOLSETH BENOUNIS IN OSLO, NORWAY AT ØYA FESTIVAL, AUGUST 2016. PHOTOS: VICTORIA STEVENS.
Sultry R&B isn’t what one would expect to arise out of Norway. Yet from among the fjords emerges Farida, poised to break down those preconceptions. Farida grew up with an array of influences—notably, the blues and the Norwegian landscape—and crafts what she calls “R&B mixed with Scandinavian melancholy.” Her soulful tracks are anchored by their vulnerable lyrics and her commanding voice. An apt introduction to her sound is The 25th Hour, the mixtape she released in April 2016. It’s a refreshing set of 8 tracks that embraces synths and even pop sounds, at times rousing and exuberant and at others unhurried and introspective.
Farida is currently at work on her debut LP and performed at Øya Festival in Oslo, Norway last week. When we met her on the first day of the festival, she spoke to us about her start at singing, the impact of Norway and Algeria on her music, and that time she danced on stage with Ne-Yo.
FULL NAME: Farida Bolseth Benounis
HOMETOWN: Gjøvik. It’s two hours outside of Oslo by train. It’s the place where I grew up and I relax there. It’s not that little, actually; we have about 40,000 people. It’s kind of split, so you have the city, and then ten minutes away there are farms. I’ve lived everywhere in the town, in the city and outside. It’s just the best place in the world. I feel like everyone needs to go there. It’s such a tranquil feeling when you’re there. At home, I feel like everything is connected, like, “Wow, this is what life is about.”
BASED: Oslo for four years. I was traveling back and forth before that because I was working as a dancer and teaching here.
THE 25TH HOUR: Every song on the mixtape is written at the exact time when the things happened, which if you listen to the lyrics you’ll understand. I wanted to do it that way because I feel like everything that I write at that exact time is going to come out more sincere, even through a microphone in the studio. I felt like, “I have this feeling and energy in me right now, and I really needed to pay it forward.” The reason I named it The 25th Hour was firstly, because I was 25 when I made the whole thing, but I also always felt like I needed another hour because I had so many ideas. When you’re creative, you lay up all night thinking, “Just one more hour!” The third is that I felt like I was revealing my whole story in 25 hours. The mixtape is not 25 hours long; it was more the feeling of revealing your whole life in just 25 hours.
PUTTING IN THE WORK: When I grew up, I was into dancing and singing, but I think every child is into singing. I knew that I wasn’t born with an Aretha or Beyoncé voice. I had to work. When I was 13 or 14, that’s when I started to think, “Okay, maybe I can hit a note.” I did some singing shows and stuff. Even my mom was like, “If you want to do this, you need to put in work because it’s a muscle.” To me, it was really about always focusing on getting my voice better. I felt like in the beginning it was kind of hard because you want to sound like everyone else. You wonder, “Why can’t I hit that note?” But as I got older, when I was 16, I started performing arts high school and something happened, and it felt like, “Okay, I’m going to do this and I really want to.” The passion was everything. I didn’t really care if I was going to make it or not. When I was starting to take the vocal lessons, as I got better, I got more motivated. It’s that feeling, when you work for something—and it wasn’t like running and getting muscles—it was actually inside, like, “Oh wow, this is really cool, I’m actually getting better by singing all the time.” That was basically my start but it was also my focus for many years. I knew that there were a lot of people who were like, “Yeah, you can sing a little,” and you don’t want to hear that.
FIRST SONG: I was 12 and it’s called “The Cabin.” I was at a cabin with my friends and their families. I was really, really shy, and they got some visitors from somewhere, and I didn’t want to go down to the other cabin because I was shy and I was afraid. My friend just went and I was really mad at her. The whole song is about, “I’m at the cabin by myself / And she just went / And I’m angry / And she just went / And I’m angry / But I’m at the cabin by myself.” [laughs]
THE SOUNDS OF YOUTH: My dad, he’s from Algeria, and my mother is Norwegian. My mom used to be a dancer, so we listened to a lot of different types of music. We had a lot of Frank Sinatra, I remember this one hit wonder guy, Lou Bega—that song [“Mambo No. 5”] was so dope. We listened to a lot of Craig David; I got my first CD of his when I was 11, it was the Born to Do It album. My dad, he did play a cultural drum, but he listened to a lot of blues, like Elmer James and Ray Charles. We also listened to a lot of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone. That’s inspired me with my own music and it’s just developed from there. I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t really heard when it comes to a genre. I think it’s a good thing, and that’s my responsibility as a musician as well to know what’s out there, because I can be inspired by anyone and anything.
DANCING WITH NE-YO: It’s funny because people are actually saying that I was opening up as an artist for Ne-Yo, which I did not. It was in 2010 and I was hip-hop dancing. He’s really cool. It was only a few words [that we spoke], because he was on tour. We were opening up for him because he didn’t have his own act [in Norway]. We were really lucky. It was so much fun and he was so hot at that moment.
DAY JOB: I only have time for two days or one day a week. It’s at a clothing store for older women. To be honest, it’s the best job I’ve had in my life. I’ve had a lot of jobs but just the women that I work with, they’re so wise, so intelligent. Also, doing something other than music, it’s important to me to keep that balance. Yes, I love to do [music] and it’s my job now, it’s supposed to be my job, but I need to maintain that childish approach or else it’s just going to get boring and I’ll stop.
IN THE WORKS: I’m working on my album. It’s so fun! I love it. The reason I made a mixtape was because I really wanted to have that freedom, so the critics wouldn’t say, “Oh my god, it’s not a red thread.” The focus now is bigger and better productions, and better lyrics, just experimenting with different elements of R&B, also taking things from my other cultural side, from Algeria, which is in North Africa. You know, trying to mix things, but still the same, but just bigger and better I hope.
NORWAY VS. L.A.: I was in L.A. in April and in June to work on different stuff for the album, but I think the difference is that I don’t feel like I’m being influenced there. Here, I’m being influenced in a way where you don’t shut it off. I feel like I’m creative in my own space with the people I’m working with. In the U.S., it’s an American market. When I was there I was learning so much about that. I think the reason that we got the chance and have people actually recognize us is because we’re different—[the music] is from here. That’s what I’m getting told all the time, “Don’t change that.” I feel like here I’m safe because I’m actually creating in the environment that I’m in. When I’m there, it’s harder because I don’t have all those things around me that influence me. But it’s also something that you learn as you go, to take it with you. I think you can create anywhere, I just love Norway so much.
THE 25TH HOUR IS AVAILABLE ON SOUNDCLOUD. FOR MORE ON FARIDA, VISIT HER INSTAGRAM.
For more Norwegian acts to know from Øya Festival 2016, click here.