Unforgivable singer – meet Lene Marlin
Family: Engaged to Kåre Conradi
Career: Debut release “Unforgivable Sinner” was fastest selling single in Norwegian history. Has released four albums and is currently a judge on The Voice in Norway. Has also written songs for others, including Rihanna.
Awards: Won four awards at the Norwegian Grammys in 1999, nominated for Best International Breakthrough Act at the 2001 BRIT Awards
When Lene Marlin was 17 years old, she earned herself a recording contract on the basis of her songs and was thrown into deep waters. She finished her debutalbum Playing My Game, while still at school, releasing it in 1999 to almost immediate international success. But unbeknownst to the public, she was headed for a personal breakdown while traveling the world and enjoying two major hit singles, “Unforgivable Sinner” and “Sitting Down Here.” Luckily she came out on the other side wiser and stronger, but she paid quite a price.
Following an unsuccessful attempt at taking her own life, due to the pressures and expectations that she felt were crowding her, Marlin went off the radar for quite some time. After more than ten years, in 2014, she was finally able to share her experiences with the public, writing an essay that was printed in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.
In light of her own collision course with the phenomenon we call celebrity, does Marlin feel a special responsibility towards her charges in the televised music competition The Voice?
“I do feel responsible towards them, no matter what, regardless of my own history,” she says. “You can prepare yourself for a task as much as you want, but things never turn out like you think they will. Facing the public can be troublesome at any age, it depends on the kind of person you are. Some can climb onto a stage when they’re five years old, thinking it’s as natural as anything, whereas others may be in for a surprise, not taking to it at all.”
Many of the contestants in The Voice are around the same age Marlin was when her career got off the ground at 17. Was she too young?
“I don’t necessarily think I was too young, but I think it was too much too soon. I was still at school in Tromsø, Monday to Friday, then off to the studio in Oslo for weekends and holidays, back home again, more school, more homework. That’s the way it was, but I was full of energy and had lots of fun. It was the next phase that took its toll on me, where all you see are hotel rooms and airports, radio studios, television studios and so forth. The amount of work and a lack of sleep over time – you don’t need to be in the music business to feel that one. So I don’t think I was too young. It was just a pile of stuff adding up.”
Entering a competition like The Voice can be a daunting, intimidating experience. There is one thing Marlin tells the members of her team that she considers the most valuable lesson of all: “This competition is not necessarily about winning. By this I mean that it’s just as much about what you do during the time you actually stay in the competition,” she says. “Hopefully, the contestants have good overall experiences, feeling they’re being taken care of and discovering things about themselves. When that journey ends, and at one point it will, hopefully they’re all pleased. Making it to the finals and winning is one thing, but finding your way there should be just as rewarding.”
In this year’s Norwegian version of The Voice, Marlin shares mentor duties with an even bigger international star than herself, Morten Harket of a-ha. But her own credentials include writing songs for the well-known Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjebø and co-writing the 2007 song “Good Girl Gone Bad” for R&B superstar Rihanna. She has also worked with Stargate, Espionage and Mike Hedges to name a few.
Would the 17-year-old Lene Marlin have stood a chance in The Voice?
“She wouldn’t have dared enter The Voice. That I can guarantee you,” she laughs, talking about how she admires the courage needed to take part in the competition.
Does she see herself reflected in any of her team members?
“Yes, I do. Especially now that I have known them for a little while. There are elements within all of them that I can relate to.”
It must give you a certain empathy as well?
“Definitely! Prior to all the programs I have a pep talk with the team, telling everyone how this is going to be really difficult for me. Luckily they already know what they’re in for by choosing to participate in the show, but it feels brutal pitting them against each other in pairs. I’m trying to make them understand that they really are good, that it’s quite an achieve- ment having come as far as they have, however things may turn out. And let’s be honest about one thing – winning The Voice is not going to make you or break you. If singing is what you really want to do, you should consider the show as an experience to learn from. Then it’s up to you what you want to do with that knowledge.”
How come you wanted to be part of The Voice?
“That’s a good question. You’re approached with a lot of things. I’ve even been asked to be a mentor on The Voice before, and turned it down. But this time it occurred to me that of all the TV concepts out there, I like this one, because you don’t know a thing about the contestants. You have no idea what they look like, you don’t know how old they are, you don’t know anything about their background – all you hear is a voice. That’s a very nice way of doing it. So this time I thought, ‘Why not?’ and I haven’t regretted my decision for a second.”
When Lene Marlin wrote about her breakdown in 2014 she was applauded for her openness. She received several awards, and being a celebrity she helped pave the way for others to talk more freely about their illnesses. One issue that concerned her in particular was the expectations of others.
Regardless of her own history, does she have the impression that life is more demanding for adolescents today than it used to be, in particular because of all the pressures surrounding them?
“Social media may give you more information than you want and makes you extremely aware of things around you. We were more ignorant about our surroundings 20 years ago, whereas today everything is very visible. Things are written about you, people talk about you, and you’re often reminded of your own inadequacies. But maybe what you regard as expectations are incorrect? Many people seem to believe more is demanded of them than what’s actually the case.
“Then again, it’s not always easy to find your own voice early in life. You don’t know what you want and may do things that you think are expected of you to satisfy others. Or you do things you think you want to do, but really don’t. An important question to ask yourself is ‘Who am I doing this for?’ Not in a selfish way, but in a way that makes you listen more closely to your own voice. If you don’t like what you’re doing, then why do it?”
‘There’s always music. I can’t get it out of my head’
“Many people approached me after I wrote the essay,” Marlin continues. “These were different people in different age groups at different stages in their lives, but they were sharing the same kinds of fears. I think that in general people are more open about their problems today than they were one or two generations ago. I’ve met people much older than me who’ve finally realised they’re not doing what they want in life, but at least they’ve come to this recognition, even though it took them a lot of time. And this is something that I touched upon in the article, that within the darkness that engulfed me I found out how I shouldn’t live my life. Absurdly, that is something I’m grateful for. Many people don’t follow their dreams, but I found my way at an early stage, thankfully.”
In the wake of her 1999 debut album, her dreams were seemingly fulfilled and things moved really fast. Playing My Game was a hit album in Italy, France, Sweden, Japan, and eventually in the UK, shifting 1.8 million copies worldwide, with sales of singles surpassing an impressive three million.
During this time she felt the pressure increasing, and after the Spellemannprisen show in 2000 she disappeared from public view. When she resurfaced with a new album, the 2003 release Another Day, she explained her absence by saying she was exhausted, needing time to herself. We now know that things were a lot more dramatic and that she even tried to end her own life. Here’s an excerpt from the essay, written three years ago:
“I was in my 20s, finding myself on an ice cold kitchen floor, dissolved in tears with my body weakened. I don’t know how many hours passed, but it’s actually true that you can run out of tears. That the body can’t take that much at one time.”
“I was exhausted. But I had reconciled myself with this being my last evening. I wrote a farewell letter, surprisingly calm and collected. I really wanted to die that night. When my eyes closed, it felt okay. But several hours later I woke up. Totally bewildered and in terrible pain. I didn’t have the power to try again. Ironically, I was too weak to die.”
Today, she embraces life and considers those dark days to be part of who she is, as so many others do.
“I live with it every day and will carry it with me for the rest of my life,” she wrote in the essay.
When Marlin returned from the void she impressed audiences and critics alike with the album Another Day. It may have sold less than Playing My Game, but was still a success. Lost In A Moment appeared in 2005 and in 2009 her fourth album, Twist The Truth, was released. She has not released an album since, and we’re still waiting. Will it ever happen?
“Frankly I don’t know. I have no idea,” she laughs, shaking her head. “I have loads of songs lying around. I write things from time to time, a line of a lyric here, a piece of melody there. But I don’t know. Only one thing is certain – never say never.”
It’s actually true that you can run out of tears’
So when you’re not mentoring the hopeful contestants of The Voice, how do you spend your time?
“There’s always music. I can’t get it out of my head. I can’t even begin to imagine my life without music. I still write a lot. Not necessarily lyrics, or essays for that matter. I constantly write in one form or another, but I think the need to express myself is different today from what it once was. You have lived a bit more when you’re 37 than when you’re 17, you know. I’m not sure how, but you change the way you write, you change your voice. Just a few days ago I sat down writing a small story or something, and it seems that some things are better expressed on a slightly larger piece of paper than in a three-minute song.”
Are you saying you could see yourself writing literature? Does that live inside you?
“Actually, I have had a few offers in the past, but knowing me of course I’ve turned them down,” she smiles. “Well, there is something inside me. I like writing, so I am interested. I read a lot, I love films and other things, so yes.”
In her songwriting, Marlin is inspired by everything surrounding her. But she prefers to let things simply flow rather than sit down to write purposefully.
“I never edit myself when I’m writing. It’s the same when a musician asks me what I’m looking for. I don’t want to put restrictions upon anyone, rather wanting people to do what they feel like. Then we can go back later to do the proper adjustments. That’s the way I like to work,” she says.
There’s a melancholy to your music that makes me believe you’re an autumnal person.
“I love the seasons in general. I like it when the seasons turn. I could never live in a place where there’s summer all year around. I just couldn’t do it. I like the colors, the air, the light – and what happens to us as human beings when the changes occur. But the autumn? It always makes me happy when it arrives with all its colors. Every season has its own charm, and although winter is not my favourite time of year, it too can be nice.”
What are you most proud of achieving?
“That’s a tough one. Proud may be the wrong word, but accepting that you have an influence on other people’s lives strikes me as very powerful. Many people have told me that through my songs and my essay, I’ve changed their lives somehow, that they’ve been going through a tough time and I’ve helped them ease out of their troubles. It feels good to have been of assistance, but let’s not forget that they’re the ones who’ve done the hard work. But proud…? Humble, maybe?”
“Yes, that’s it. Thankful is the word.”
On a personal level, Marlin also seems thankful. Her fiancé is the Norwegian actor Kåre Conradi whom she met ten years ago. She’s always guarded her private life well, but what we’re able to say is that they aren’t married yet, although they’ve been engaged since 2013. When asked if they have set a date yet, the answer is a short and poignant “No.”
It’s this journalist’s guess that it’s just as likely that Marlin will turn out a new album at some point in the future as find a suitable date for a marriage ceremony. Her songs are often deeply personal and seem to be what she’s really about. Her songs, basically, appear to be her life. Can any songwriter escape a burden like that? That’s the way of the trade, and that’s the way of Lene Marlin. If and when she returns with new songs, we can be certain of one thing – she will mean every word she sings. It’s the kind of person she is, and it’s the kind of songwriter she is. The two are the same.
Text: Erik Valebrokk