“I think it’s important there’s European cooperation”
Karin Krog (1937) is perhaps Norway's pre-eminent jazz singer. Having made her recording debut in 1964, she appeared at many jazz festivals in Europe in the mid-'60s, toured the US as well as Japan. She released over 30 records over her career. She was interviewed by the Norwegian journalist and literary critic Erle Marie Sørheim.
Sørheim: I thought I should start by asking how you experienced your childhood, since you were a child during the Second World War. What are some of your earliest memories of that time?
Krog: I vaguely remember 9 April 1940 [the day of German forces invading Norway], and later on there were air raid sirens and sometimes they happened at night. We then had to go to the basement. It was very cold, uncomfortable and you were half awake.
Sørheim: Were you afraid?
Krog: No, not really. But there was a big explosion right next to where I lived, and I was very lucky. I just slept through that explosion.
Sørheim: What do you remember about the liberation [in 1945]?
Krog: Yes, I remember it, it was great fun. But mother didn’t let us go downtown to see the king arrive [from exile in Great Britain], because she was afraid something would happen.
Sørheim: Did you find people were bitter after the war, or what the atmosphere was like?
Krog: Well, yes, there were a lot who were bitter.
Sørheim: Especially against the Germans, or more in general?
Krog: Well, there was bitterness towards the Germans, but I remember mother saying: yes, but you know how it was, there were difficult times in Germany – after all, my father studied there. When you now read Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada you can understand why the common German folk didn't know more about what happened.
Sørheim: Did your father talk about how he experienced Germany in the early 1930s? Did he witness the rise of Nazism?
Krog: Yes, both he and my uncle said that there was seething unrest. They were aware of the developments.
Sørheim: How did you come into contact with jazz?
Krog: My father had played the drums before he moved to Germany in a Dixieland band in Oslo.
Sørheim: When did you notice that you had a talent for singing?
Krog: I don't know. Well, mother's mother was a singer. She studied in Dresden, because her father was a composer and a violinist.
Sørheim: Did you think a lot about which direction you should take musically or was it crystal clear?
Krog: No, Billie Holiday came along and then you just had to sit and listen and learn from her.
Sørheim: How old were you then?
Sørheim: When did you realize that you can be a musician, that it doesn't just have to be a hobby?
Krog: That was probably in the beginning of the 1960s, when I made my first album and it was well received in America, in Downbeat.
Sørheim: Wow, Downbeat?
Krog: Yes, three and a half stars in Downbeat gave you a good reputation. So then we were invited to Sweden with some other musicians that made very modern music. So that was nice, also because you got to see other things. And then Jan Garbarek and I were invited to festivals in Prague and Warsaw in '66, so we went, he and I, and a Swedish bass player I worked with; it was just a tenor sax, a bass and a singer. And that they didn't understand: ‘But we have a piano player right here’, they said, but I said, ‘No, it's just us!’. That was something new.
Sørheim: When did you first travel to Europe?
Krog: I was about 30 years old. I was offered work at the Norddeutsche Rundfunk, to do a TV workshop for them.
Sørheim: How was it for you to come to Germany, with the war so close behind you?
Krog: Yes, actually it was great. They had all the equipment, they were professionals, very good!
Sørheim: When did you first become a full-time musician?
Krog: That was at the end of the 70s, when John [Surman, Krog’s husband and British jazz musician] and I and some others each won our category in Downbeat and we were put together in a group.
Sørheim: Did your career unfold in a different way than you thought it would when you were twenty?
Krog: I didn't imagine anything close to what it became. But we did record an album in Berlin, and then I played at the Berliner Jazztage, in the Berliner Philharmonie, and that was huge.
Sørheim: So that was in West Berlin then?
Krog: Yes, that was in both the West and the East. And that’s important, because we were also in Warsaw and in Czech Republic, and East Berlin.
Sørheim: Were people content in the GDR?
Krog: I mean, they did want to leave! They wanted to leave and see the world. A good friend of mine wanted to come and visit us. But the border was closed.
Sørheim: Do you remember if you felt lucky when you were there, about the freedoms you had?
Krog: Yes, absolutely. I was also in Hungary when the wall fell in 1989. So we followed the events from there, from the other side.
Sørheim: What did you think when that happened?
Krog: That was gripping. What happens now? Will Russia now attack? Those were the questions we asked ourselves. We first went to Moscow, when Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
Sørheim: And how was Moscow, was it typical for a developing country?
Krog: There we were properly taken care of by an older man. He said that we had to be housed at the university, ‘That's the safest option’, he said. Because there was so much crime happening there in 1990. We did a concert in Moscow, in the Central House of Artists, and that was just great.
Sørheim: Did you feel like the 90s were very optimistic, like, politically?
Krog: Yes, I think they were. It was fantastic how the Germans managed reunification.
Sørheim: How was it to travel in Europe in the 60s, 70s, 80s, with all the borders and the different currencies? Was it complicated, did it quickly become difficult?
Krog: It was quite good, I think, I don't remember any big problems, apart from Poland, where you got złoty that you couldn't take with you.
Sørheim: Where do you think this enormous negativity from Norway towards the EU comes from?
Krog: I think that fishermen and farmers are very protective when it comes to themselves and their property. And of course, they have to be, those are weathered professions. But it was seen as treason (if you voted yes).
Sørheim: Do you have any thoughts about how Norway and Europe should progress? Maybe within the next 50 years, do you believe in a positive development? What will be the biggest challenges?
Krog: Yes. There's Russia. All of our Northern Hemisphere. If they want to have the Finnmark region, why didn't they take it in 1945?
Sørheim: They maybe didn’t have enough soldiers.
Krog: Yes, well, they could've taken it whenever, really. And then there's Scandinavia and there we're the ones that are part of the NATO, but not Sweden. We should be a part of NATO, we're so defenceless.
Sørheim: Are there some political events that meant more to you? Maybe something that was close to your heart?
Krog: I have to say that I think cultural – and musical – exchange between all the European countries is very important. And you can criticise the EU as much as you like, but that was the reason why I voted for the EU in Norway. I think it's important there's European cooperation.