Ole Paus became the voice of a nation
Ole Paus was born in Oslo in 1947. He has also lived in Elverum, Trondheim and Stockholm.
Lives: Holmenkollen, Oslo
Family: Wife Benedicte, six children (from different relationships)
Occupation: Musician, composer, troubadour, author, poet, and actor
Career: A vast back catalog of poems, books, and music. After July 22, 2011, he became Norway’s national poet, with Mitt lille land dubbed the country’s new national anthem by the Norwegian press. He was named Musician of the Year 2014 (Årets Spellemann) for the triple album Avslutningen
Live long enough and you become respectable. Just ask Ole Paus, Norway’s take on Bob Dylan. No one, though, could have foreseen the tragic turn of events that would propel him, on the back of a song he penned 20 years ago, from scourge of the Establishment to universally embraced national treasure.
‘I’m just an ordinary singer. Straight down the line’
In a career stretching back nearly half a century the folk singer and songwriter has visited every fjord, traveled every stretch of road, and seen every rest stop in Norway. He knows every freshly scrubbed meetinghouse, worn-out gym hall, and budget-busting cultural building. And in every single one of them he has railed against the powers that be, chief among them the Norwegian royal family. But all that changed with the terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011.
No one could have imagined that Norway’s agent provocateur would provide the soothing balm for a nation’s wounds. His gentle song, Mitt lille land (“My Little Country”), has become Norway’s unofficial national anthem since the bombings and shootings in Oslo and Utøya. Even fewer people would have predicted that Paus would pay tribute to Norway’s king and queen at their 75th birthday celebrations as they wept on the roof of the Oslo Opera House just one year after the attack.
“Every generation has its turning point,” he says when we meet at Frognerseteren, the quintessentially Norwegian restaurant overlooking the city from the top of Holmenkollen. “A date that will always be a watershed between before and after. For my parents’ generation it was April 9, 1940. For my generation, it is July 22, 2011.”
Paus said as much in front of the nation’s TV cameras.
“The king and queen comforted their grieving people in the days and weeks that followed
July 22nd. They brought us together as a nation.
I will never forget the sight of the king embracing two girls who had escaped Utøya. No politician could ever have impacted them so powerfully,” Paus says.
But that requires a good king, doesn’t it?
“Yes, it does. And our king lives his job.”
On that fateful day in July, Anders Behring Breivik bombed government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. He then massacred another 69 – most of them teenagers – at a Workers’ Youth League summer camp on the island of Utøya. Several hundred other teens were saved by local boat owners and campers at nearby Tyri-fjorden. When the Red Cross later awarded these local heroes medals of honor for their bravery Paus attended the ceremony.
“It was so moving to see those 25 or 30 heroes receive their medals. They are the kind of people you might see next to you in line at the store or on the subway. That’s the way Norwegians are. When there are kids fighting for their lives in the freezing cold water because some crazy guy on land is shooting at them, then you get in your boat and you rescue them.”
Just like the medics who rushed to Africa to save people from the Ebola virus?
“Absolutely. These are the people who ensure that we survive as a nation. So it is important that we get to hear about the job they are doing. It makes you want to make a difference – and that’s something beautiful. Good deeds save the world.”
There is something of the preacher about Paus, who often uses biblical phrases to get his message across. Last year he united the nation around the TV for Hver gang vi møtes (“Every Time We Meet”), a reality show in which Norwegian musicians sing each other’s songs. His interpretations of other artists’ work made them (and the TV audience) sob like children who have finally been noticed by their parents.
Quiet, well mannered, and deliberate, Paus takes both cheering crowds and critical acclaim – he’s the recipient of several Spellemann awards, Norway’s Grammys – in stride. His voice rasps all the way down to his intestines after years of coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol.
“I’m just an ordinary singer. Straight down the line,” he says.
The son of a general, Paus moved around often when he was a child, living in Elverum, Oslo, Trondheim, and Stockholm. On the table in front of us is a world map with yellow tags showing all the countries he’s worked in or been involved with in some way. He traveled to Chile with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s Latin America correspondent Erling Borgen, composing enough music in a week to fill an entire album. In 1998, he traveled around France with author Ketil Bjørnstad and wrote a book about the soccer World Cup. He has recorded songs in Cuba and at the Church of the Resurrection in Moscow. In 2010 he joined relief efforts in Haiti after launching a charity campaign for victims of the 2010 earthquake.
“We have to give to those who need it. When we started the Haiti campaign, our target was to raise 100,000 Norwegian kroner from a concert at Rockefeller [Music Hall] in Oslo. It ended up being a live TV concert from the Opera House and we raised 25 million kroner in one night! [A-ha’s] Morten Harket got it right: it’s plain to see that we can make a difference."
Which place on the map makes your heart race right now?
“Right now, my heart races very fast for Syria,” he says. Last spring, Paus made a video for the Norwegian Refugee Council in the border area of northern Iraq.
“I stood by the Tigris and looked across to Syria. It’s so beautiful there, just next to the riverbank. I visited several refugee camps and walked around them with an interpreter. It had a huge impact on me. When you read about it in the newspapers, you get the impression that refugees in the camps are a miserable crowd, but they are doctors, teachers, engineers – people like us, who have had to abandon everything they own, with only a few seconds’ notice. They are ordinary people with jobs and a history. Suddenly everything has been taken from them. I can’t begin to fathom how they can face their fate with such incredible dignity.”
Paus may be respected by the establishment these days, but he’s still the same rebel he’s always been.
Paus has never been slow to criticize the powers that be. When the former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland boasted of Norway’s business and sports reputation, saying, “It’s typically Norwegian to be good,” Paus thundered, “I have not heard anything that was so boastfully meaningless in many years.” In other words, Norway’s success was a case of good fortune – read: oil wealth – and not because Norwegians are good or better than anybody else.
“Gro would still be Gro even if the mountains were to crumble. She is never in any doubt about anything at all.”
On May 17, Norway celebrated the 200th anniversary of its constitution. The Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian royal families gathered alongside government representatives at Eidsvoll House, where the constitution was signed. In front of 20,000 spectators, Paus sang Mitt lille land. When he was subsequently asked on TV how Norway should use its freedom, he replied: “We have to learn to be more modest.”
“It felt good to have said it, and it struck a chord with the 20,000 spectators, who applauded loudly while the government looked on,” Paus says.
“We must also not make ourselves out to be worse than we are.”
Text: Kristin M. Hauge
Take a look at the video below where Ole Paus tells us about his life traveling and how he feels about Olso.
Published: January 29, 2016