How I spend it: Jo Nesbø on his side jostles like a rock ‘n’ roll star
Even though I have been a singer and guitarist for the group Di Derre for 30 years, I am a terrible guitarist. Even the guys in the band will be okay with that. When I was growing up, my younger brother was in a band, like most of my friends, and I wrote the lyrics for them. But it wasn’t until I was in the army, at 20, that I picked up the guitar. The guy who lived next to me had a 12-string Yamaha, which is definitely not the kind of guitar you should learn to play on. I had to start composing my own songs to try and find easier chord changes. We were in a very northern part of Norway where there is no sun in winter. There wasn’t much to do, so I would just sit in my room in complete darkness and write songs – sad songs, of course.
After that I bought my own guitar. It was a Watson, which is a copy of the Gibson Jumbo – the guitar Elvis used. He ended up with a friend of mine. He calls me sometimes and says: “Do you want to get your guitar back?” I hear in his voice that he hopes I will say no. I do.
It was this Watson guitar that made me join a band. At first I only played guitar, then I started singing. After I finished my studies I returned to Oslo and started playing with my brother. We formed a group with friends from Molde, our hometown. It was just something we were doing for fun, but people got it and we were offered a recording deal. It was the start of my career as a songwriter. The writing of the novel came later.
My philosophy in life is: don’t own the things you don’t use. I passed a lot of guitars through my hands. My first electric guitar was a Squier. Then I bought a Fender Telecaster. I also had another Fender that I gave to my daughter’s boyfriend – he just had to promise he would learn to play. Hope he did. But my first major guitar was a Takamine EF341. It’s kind of a workaholic guitar. I think Bruce Springsteen has one; he plays a lot of Takamine guitars. I gave this one to my drummer.
In 1998, I went to Sydney, Australia, where I wrote my first novel. I got a little lonely, so I went to a music store. I had to choose between a Takamine Santa Fe and a Martin. When I was scratching the Takamine, I saw a guy stop on the way out. I could tell he really liked the sound, so I said, “OK, I’ll take the Takamine!” It was a case of mimetic desire – if someone likes something, you will like it too. Takamine has been with me ever since, and most of the songs I wrote afterwards were written on it. It has a very small rosewood body, so it’s perfect for traveling with. When you write songs, you want to have your guitar at a low volume. The Santa Fe is good for that.
The opposite is a Taylor 810ce. If the Takamine Santa Fe is a reliable and modest friend, then the Taylor 810ce is a prima donna. It’s really loud and when you scratch it it fills the entire frequency spectrum. It looks like an organ. And like many prima donnas, it can be unpredictable. The mic system on mine let me down on a few very important points during concerts. I just keep it at home and watch it every now and then. If I want to have a full and rich sound, I will scratch it. I now use a Larrivée on stage and I’m really happy with it.
With a guitar, you can quickly learn to play something that sounds like music. It was important for me to be able to invent stories and make simple songs. I’m not the kind of musician who wants to learn songs from other artists. I don’t have the patience for this. I no longer tell my own stories through music. And for that, the guitar is perfect. For example, we have a song called “90-Meters Bakken” or “The 90-Meter Hill”. It is based on a true story from my hometown about ski jumping, which is of course very important in Norway. A boy was jumping at the end of December when the spotlight went out. We could hear it flying through the air in total darkness. The song describes those seven seconds – how it must have felt to him. I chose chords high on the neck and a recognizable riff. Every time I go on stage and start this song, people start screaming as soon as they hear the first chord. It is very rewarding.
When you write a novel, you plan ahead. You spend a week wondering if there’s a story there, and then you write a synopsis. It can take at least a year, maybe two years. With the guitar, you know you can sit down and write the greatest song of your life in 10 minutes. In fact, all of the band’s biggest hits were written in 20 minutes or less. You know there’s a song out there – you just have to find it, catch up with it. There are some very glorious moments when you write a song. It is happiness.
The kingdom by Jo Nesbø is published in pocket by Vintage