[Interview] Cliff Isaksen @ Kaia Bar, Tromsø

by Emīls Vilcāns


On the rainy evening of 13th of October, with a beer in hand at the Tromsø’s center-based bar/bistro Kaia, I come across Cliff Isaksen. For the next 3 evenings this is the man whose voice and guitar, accompanied by Trond-Helge Nordli on drums, is going to make all those beer sobbing listeners shake their gate. After a brief talk, I find out about Cliff’s up-coming solo album and we both agree on an interview.

Spending an evening in a live-music bar one rarely tends to get acquainted with the musical backgrounds of those controlling the mood and the overall party. The so called bar musician is the person that casts the musical liveliness upon the room, playing covers for a crowd that’s not there to intentionally listen. Hopefully packed with huge performing experience, vast knowledge of songs and fun charisma, these people are the ones that will either net their beer loving audience or make them head for the door. Finding yourself amongst the bar-crowd, the thought of looking up the musician and maybe finding their original stuff afterwards is somewhat far-far away. Yet, sometimes, right past the Friday-Sunday bar routine, some of these musicians give in to their own little musical voyage – writing, composing and recording. Cliff Isaksen, a 34 year old fellow from Lofoten, Norway, currently from Tromsø, Norway is a blind, full-time bar musician, who, over the years, has worked his way towards his own debut solo-album, due to release in 2017. Fusing his bar musicianship’s pop-music influence with his jazzy side from the days in Tromsø’s music conservatory, Cliff’s original songs gain that up-beat funk sound that pulls you back to the 80’s and draws you towards the dance floor. Having 18 years in his musical tale, HTA went for a two session interview with the man, first at the bar/bistro Kaia and second at Cliff’s own homestead, where, joined by his soul-mate Mette. Read the interview below! [Official]

Who are you Cliff?
I’m a 34 year old from Norway. I have been blind most of my life. I come from Røst, a little island furthest out in Lofoten, 60 nautical miles from the mainland. I’ve always been interested in music and since sixteen I’ve been making it as well, so, altogether, it’s eighteen years of music. I’m also a husband, lover, father and a musician. I have also worked as a journalist in Nordlys, have had my own radio show on radio Tromsø and my own talk show on Nordlys TV.

What is a bar musician?
There’s a long scale for that. You have to know a lot of songs. It’s a guy who doesn’t know half of the lyrics [laughs]. I myself am a half-educated bar musician and I think it’s a very stereotypical profession.

What were the first songs you learned?
I guess, American Pie was pretty early on. It’s a Don McLean song. Because I was playing with a friend of mine in Bodø, and that was one of his main songs – his great number! I had to study that song for a moment to pick-up all the chord changes. It’s not a logical chord progression, but it has easy chords. That was one of the earliest I can remember. When I started playing publicly, I was 13/14 years old, and I remember a Queen song that I used to play and sing back then. A good ol’ song called I Want To Break Free. But then I played in a band back in Røst with my uncle, so he brought me with him to parties and occasions where they needed music.

How do you balance your musicianship with other obligations, like your family, etc.?
It’s a bit hard, now…you know, everything has changed since my son was born. Earlier on, I was just traveling on the weekends, just having a great time. But now, it’s not all that fun anymore to go away every Friday. You know, he’s in the kindergarten on weekdays and we have a few hours before he goes to bed. And when he and my girlfriend has a day off in the weekends we usually meet at the door…and I go away on Friday and we see each other on Sunday again. So we start all over again.

How do you plan the set-list for a bar gig?
I don’t have a clue. I just shoot and see what hits. I always try to take a measure of what kind of people are going to be at the place. What age they’re at. So, I use ten seconds to find out what I will play next. I never plan a set or plan an evening. There are some songs that are more frequently played than others. But, usually, I just improvise, find songs pretty fast.

How many songs do you know?
Oh, I’ve counted them, maybe four or five years ago. It was around seven or eight hundred. But I haven’t learned so much new material, so it’s probably nine hundred or a thousand, somewhere around that right now. But there’s a lot of songs I haven’t played in like eight or nine years, which I know two verses of and the chorus, which I can manage to get through, but it’s not all the way through correct. Yeah, I guess I know around thousand songs.

How do you think, which is the newest song that you actually play?
Ooh…[Mette] Cold Water! [Cliff] Oh yeah, the Justin Bieber song. [Laughs] You shouldn’t mention that! [Mette laughing] That’s why I did! [Cliff] Yeah, it’s probably the Cold Water stuff. It’s a great song! Oh yeah, and Charlie Puth – One Call Away! It’s a pretty new song. [Mette] From this year. [Cliff] There are some new, but the thing is, people always like to hear songs to which they can bunk their beer glasses and sing along, and have some fun. So it has to be some songs that have saddled. So people can remember the choruses. That’s why I play a lot of old goldies, which everybody knows and remember the lyrics for. And, you know, there was a time when I played a lot of songs which I liked myself, very much, but that wasn’t always so well-known to the audience. I had to stop and think about what is my job exactly, at the bar, at the pub – which is my venue at the moment. I had to think about…my main goal is to sell beer in the bar. And how can I do that in the best way – for me it’s to make the people as happy as I can, and make everybody be in a good mood, because then they buy more beer and they stay. But when I’ll start my own songs in a while, hopefully…that’s another different story. Because then people don’t come to sing along or necessarily to know the songs, they come to listen to the songs. In Kaia people are not mainly to listen to the artist, they’re there to drink and have a good time. So, that’s why I’m just a musical prostitute at the moment. [Laughs]

And how long have you and Trond-Helge Nordli (drums) played together?
We have played together for 10 years now. We don’t really rehearse, we just play through sound communication. Each time we play the songs turn out differently, since we do a lot of improvisation on all of them. Sometimes we yell to each other, to give notice about drops, rhythmical changes, etc.

How would you describe your original music?
It’s pop with jazz influence and it’s my way of expressing my emotions, whilst growing up in such a rural place as Røst.

Which musicians or bands are your main influences?
Hard question…in the cover music there’s a lot of influences. I was a huge fan of Queen and Kansas. Then I started listening to harder stuff – Pantera and Dream Theater. Also the time in the music conservatory of Tromsø is a huge influence. Musicians – Scott Henderson for the guitar part, Mike Stern, Pat Metheny and Greg Howe. From the vocal side of things – Stevie Wonder, Freddie Mercury, John Farnham (an Australian singer), Lyle Mays. Also my old piano teacher from Bodø – Jan Gunnar Hoff, he has played with a lot of famous people, including Mike Stern.

Do you dedicate your music to someone?
It could be, but it usually isn’t. There are a few songs for my girlfriend, friends and characters. It’s mainly dedicated to the people that can associate themselves with it. The instrumentals usually come first and the lyrics afterwards. It’s my sole expression.

If it’s alright, how did you lose your sight?
Not a worry. It’s a birth defect, so I was born with it. Now, I’m almost completely blind, yet I can still see some lights – that helps me navigate in the bar. There’s usually some lights around the beer towers at the bar, so I can navigate there and back to the stage where there’s lights at the piano or, like in Kaia, candles on it. Up until the age of sixteen, I could see ten percent, and then my sight started decreasing.

How long did it take you to learn each of the instruments you play?
Oh my god, I started playing piano when I was about 3, I think. And I’ve practiced some piano. My main instrument is the guitar and I started playing guitar at around 7 or 8. And I’ve always practiced by myself, but I went to music school when I was 15 years old. I moved from Røst to Bodø and started more serious studies. So, I’ve played for quite some time, but I still don’t think I have quite the hang of it. You never get fully experienced with an instrument. There’s always new stuff, new areas to cover. I moved here to Tromsø in 2003 to study at the music conservatory. I went there for one and a half year, had some trouble with NAV and accessibility equipment I didn’t get, so I quit. I always wanted to pick it up again, but I never did. But, while I was studying there, we played a lot of jazz and fusion, so it expanded my horizon quite some.

And what about the bouzouki that’s featured on the album?
I taught myself. It didn’t take long, because I tuned it just like the 4 lower strings on the guitar. So it’s mostly the right hand technique that’s different. You have to strum it differently from normal guitars. Its four groups of two strings, so it’s 8 strings.

Can you describe your very first instrument? Did you give it a name?
Oh, I didn’t give it a name. It was a red keyboard, it had only two octaves. It was pretty small and it was my first reminiscence of an instrument I had. But my main memories are from my guitars. I was never into naming them. I had an Ibanez Joe Satriani model, so I just called that one the Satriani guitar. I guess that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to naming any of my instruments.

What are your finest musical memories?
Oooh…you know, some years back I was at a Pat Metheny concert with an orchestra from Trondheim, and it was really good…it was here, in the culture house. That was one of my most pleasant memories from concerts. I also was at a concert with a now dead saxophonist called Sigurd Køhn,, he played in a band called Køhn Johansen Sextet, and they had Jarle Bernhoft – one of Norway’s most famous soul and r&b artists.

Have you ever participated in any music competitions?
[Serious] Ouh yeah…bad question.

Bad question?
Yeah…I was participating in Idol, back in 2004, I think. But I messed it up. I was nervous like hell and I thought it was a funny thing to sing a Stevie Wonder song, so I was singing Isn’t She Lovely [sings chorus]. I started one octave too high and I knew the tune was rising in pitch afterwards…so I started thinking: “oh no, it’s too high already and when I’ll get to the next part, oh no…this will be crap!” And it was. So I was kicked out of the competition.

So, how do you handle mistakes during a show…in particular, how did you deal with that one?
You know, that was an unusual setting, so I was pretty bad. I was in a pretty bad mood for a while, because the thing was…every time I peeked my head out the door, some crazy guy was coming up to me and telling me all about what I should’ve done and what I should’ve sung. And, you know, I already was making a living out of playing music. I still had a lot of gigs afterwards, but always on the gigs, people came up to me during the brakes and started saying: “you know what you should’ve sung/you know what you should’ve done?” So I never got really finished with it.  But, I did it good again back in 2009 when I was participating in The Great Quire competition (Det store korslaget). I was participating with a quire and was one of the solo vocalists. I think we were four or five who sung solo. I was in a team with a famous guy from Tromsø – Jørn Hoel. He has a lot of famous Norwegian tunes.

How often and how long do you usually practice?
[Laughs]…let me see, somewhere around 0 minutes a week [laughs]. I don’t have time for that, and I practiced a lot before I went to music school. I practiced 6-7 hours a day at the most. But now…I’m usually setting the guitar, letting it stay in the case on Sundays when I get home. And then I pick it up, go to a gig next Friday…that’s my practice. I’ve done it so much, so I’m a bit tired for playing in the weekdays. But now I, actually, tried learning some new songs the last few days, normally, I don’t do that…maybe twice a year.

Have you ever taught music to anyone?
No…just a hobby, I think. Yeah, I had a few hours teaching at the music conservatory, but it was so little, that I almost can’t remember it. But it was part of the school.

As an assignment, then?
Yeah, when I was getting through the school…after 3 years there, I would’ve been a music teacher – guitar teacher, basically. So that was one of the assignments which you had to do, while under education there – teach other students. But, mostly, I’ve been teaching people licks and stuff. So, nothing serious.

Have you ever toured – being on the road for a longer extent of time?
Not in that way, I think…I was once playing at Hurtigruten, and that was a week. [Mette] And, when we met, you were gone for like a month. [Cliff] I was? Oh, I forgot that. [Mette] In Bodø and in Trondheim…I don’t know, where you were, you were gone for a month. You don’t remember?

That sounds like a proper tour!
[All laugh] Yeah, yeah I guess it does! Okay, so I did. [Mette] Yeah, because we just met, a few days before. [Cliff] Okay, I guess I will just have to believe her. [Mette] You don’t remember, seriously? [Cliff] No, I don’t remember. And I was gone for a month? [Mette laughing] Yeah, Jesus! [Cliff] Ok, crazy! Wow! What a life I’ve had! Ok, I’ve done it then!

Ok, cheers to the tour you don’t remember!
[Laughing] Must have been a great tour!

Are you nervous before doing pub gigs?
Oh no, I’m always ready. It’s been a long time since I was nervous before doing pub gigs. I’ve just done so many of them, I’ve counted and I think I’ve done over fifteen hundred gigs the last fifteen – eighteen years. So, I’m not nervous for that, but I’ve done some concerts with bands. We’ve played jazz concerts, played west-coast music. At those times I’m nervous when I’m at a place where I’m not used to be. There’s a clip out on YouTube when I played Billy Jean, the old Michael Jackson song, I was playing with a Symphonic orchestra in Bodø, in the culture house. I remember that time I was a bit nervous. It was an unusual setting. I get nervous when I do new things.

Ok, thank you very much for the interview!
Of course, thank you!