Intro and interview by Hilary Saunders
Pål Moddi Knutsen has been an established singer/songwriter in his home country since his 2010 debut Floriography cracked the Norwegian Top 10. Performing under just the family moniker Moddi, his quiet poetry rings clearly over soft folk—warm as neighboring Iceland’s Lopapeysa sweaters with zigzagging piano lines, sustained harmonium drones, and subtle string accents.
But on his fourth studio album released last month, Unsongs, Moddi takes his music in a new lyrical direction. Each of the 12 tracks on Unsongs represents his interpretation of a song that has been (or currently still is) banned or censored in its country of origin.
Moddi first began conceptualizing this project first after cancelling a tour date in Tel Aviv as a means to protest Israeli occupation in Palestine. Shortly thereafter, fellow Norwegian singer Birgitte Grimstad introduced him to the song “Eli Geva,” inspired by an Israeli officer who refused to lead his unit into Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War. From there, Moddi worked his own cover of “Eli Geva,” which saw passionate, if mixed reactions during performances.
Moddi, who has a history of social activism as a member of Socialist Youth and Young Friends of the Earth, eventually found more than 400 songs and poems from all around the world. They inspired him, made him question his own beliefs, and eventually led him to choosing the dozen to rework on Unsongs. The selections range from both Israel and Palestine to China to Russia. But, Moddi also includes classic pop songs by Kate Bush and Billie Holiday that have been banned in seemingly progressive societies like the U.K. and U.S.
We checked in with Moddi to learn more about the process of making Unsongs and what we can learn about censorship and power just by listening.
Tell me about your research process in finding these songs and presumably others that you considered that didn’t make the final album cut.
I could have included everything from Cyndi Lauper (one of the first to receive the parental advisory sticker), any song from Mali including an electric guitar (which is forbidden) or anything sung in a Kurdish language (which is illegal in Turkey). The sheer amount of music to choose from for this project was just overwhelming. Therefore, I tried to spend as much time in the research phase as possible, making sure that I had understood the breadth of the phenomenon of censorship before finally choosing 12 songs that could show censorship from 12 different perspectives. But of course, I could have made 12 albums with this material. Maybe I will.
What’s a song that you decided to heavily rework the lyrics and melody? If I understand correctly, Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” is an example?
In many cases, the songs have been reworked so heavily that I think you will almost have to be the composer himself to recognize the similarities at first glance. Take Los Tucanes de Tijuana, for example, a Mexican narcocorrido group with a style that is very far from mine. In order to make their “Mis Tres Animales” available to my audience, I couldn’t only translate the words and leave it at that. The whole melody and feeling of the song had to be “translated,” too, in order to work in another cultural context, and with my own voice. Mario Quintero, the songwriter himself, was very fond of the new version, although he thought it had lost a bit of its childish appeal.
The important point though, was that although I would allow myself artistic leeway in both form and style, I have done my best to make sure that the forbidden core of the songs remains intact. In other words, I want my versions to be as bannable as the originals.
Why not sing in the original languages of these songs? How did you find translations?
The whole point of the album was not only to find the banned songs, but also make them accessible to a wider audience. Most Norwegians, and Westerners for that matter, do not speak Vietnamese, Hebrew or Spanish. I wanted to make it possible for them to dig into the message of the songs without spending a month just to find out which dialect it has been performed in.
So you can say I went into the project as a listener, and chose songs that in one way or another teased my own curiosity and made me want to dig deeper.
I have worked closely together with people from all over the world in order to make sure I have understood the song, its background, its message and its style. In the end, it is I who have done the reinterpretations into English, based on hours and hours of reading and talking and studying up. Still, I know that no translation can be perfect, which is why I have also made the webpage Unsongs.com where I have met with some of the original songwriters to try to understand the background of the songs on the album.
Why was it important to you to sing songs with messages you don’t necessarily believe? How difficult was it to detach yourself from the emotion of those songs while performing?
I tried approaching this project in an academic way, asking myself, “What gets a song banned?” and accepting the answer no matter how uncomfortable it was. On the way I bumped into Russian neo-Nazis and anti-Semites and all sorts of terrible things. I wanted the album to reflect that. On the other hand, the lyrics of these songs are so well written that it is easy to connect with them. I think that was what got me curious about the songs in the first place.
What did you learn about censorship through this project that you wouldn’t have otherwise known?
I was amazed to learn about its omnipresence. Wherever there is power, there seems to be censorship of some kind. This album only scratches the surface.
What do you hope to share with listeners?
The stories and the original versions of the songs. My renditions may be nice to listen to, but the songs do not really blossom until you sit down and try to understand where they came from. Both as a listener and as a musician, these 12 songs have given me faith back in music as a weapon. After all, they were considered to be so dangerous that they had to be silenced. I think that, almost by definition, bears proof about their strength.