19. Feb. 1998
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Who is Sissel?

Americans have Mom, apple pie and baseball. Norwegians have Sissel.
Fortunately for us, they're willing to share.


by Robert A Jones

Sissel, long revered by Norwegian audiences, has made her way via Titanic to American shores.
 
Who is this "girl from Norway" everyone is talking about? She is the 28-year-old singer Sissel Kyrkjebø and she's quite a phenomenon in her native land.

Her voice is crystal-clear, smooth as cream and can make you melt. Is it global warming causing glaciers to thaw in Norway? No, it's Sissel's serenade. Some describe it as perfection.

Sissel's last name, Kyrkjebø (pronounced Shear-shuh-buh), is difficult for non-Norwegians to pronounce, so, for her international career, she's decided to use her first name only.

Sissel isn't entirely unknown to Utahns. She has, in fact, thousands of fans here. Most of them have lived in Norway, Sweden or Denmark for one reason or another and brought her albums with them to Utah.

More than likely, you've heard her without realizing it. You may have even bought the most recent album she's on, not knowing it was her.

Hers is the voice you hear throughout the movie Titanic, whose soundtrack is currently number one on the Billboard charts.

You may have thought it was Enya singing those lilting, Irish melodies, but Sissel is forgiving.

"I understand why they think that. For me, it's not the voice, but the whole atmosphere the music brings out ... that is very Enya-like... It has this very Irish touch. So, that's not strange," Sissel said in a recent telephone interview from her hotel in Manhattan.

Sissel is not highly profiled on the album, with only a small credit inside the liner notes, but it doesn't bother her too much.

"I was hired as a musician. James Horner wanted me to sing together with the flute and the bagpipes. So, on the album, I'm part of the score," Sissel said.

Since Sissel was a major part of the soundtrack, you might expect her to be a little miffed she didn't get to sing the title song, "My Heart Will Go On," which Horner wrote for her. The song was actually performed by Celine Dion because the soundtrack was released on Sony Classical and Dion is a Sony artist. It doesn't faze Sissel, though.

"Celine Dion does a great job on the song. I think she has a beautiful voice and she is the best-selling female artist," Sissel said.

She's not upset about not being listed on the Titanic album cover, either, because she's getting a lot of exposure from the press. Recently Sissel was featured in articles in USA Today, Newsweek, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, just to name a few, as well as on CNN's Showbiz Today.

"I have the same feeling as when a little girl from the outside comes to the big city and sees all of these opportunities... I feel that Titanic has opened so many doors. I had such a great time recording it and to be part of such a huge success, you can't describe it," Sissel said.

A central theme in Titanic is romance and Sissel not only sings about love, but she's experienced some romance of her own.

Sissel left Norway for Denmark because of love. She married a Danish comedian/singer, Eddie Skoller, in 1993. The couple have a daughter, Ingrid Kyrkjebø Skoller, who turned two years old on Monday. Her daughter has positively affected her life.

Having a child "makes everything about yourself not so important. It takes the focus away from yourself and the things you are doing. It also helps you that the time you have to do your work is very concentrated. So, when you're working, you're definitely working," Sissel said, "For me, when I come back home, I am absolutely devoted to my family. So, there's nearly no time for work and my mind is filled up with my family. I think it is very healthy."

Sissel's idea of relaxation and enjoyment is spending time with her daughter going for walks and playing, just doing normal everyday things.

Christianity is integral to Sissel as well, and she's been actively involved in church worship most of her life, which is rare among Norwegians, but she doesn't preach much, as religion is a personal, sacred thing for her.

Although relatively unknown in America, Sissel has been incredibly famous and immensely regarded since she was a teenager. It all started at age 14 when she became a regular soloist on the Norwegian TV show, Syng med oss (Sing with us) -- a program where a choir and soloists perform songs that the audience at home sings along with.

In 1986, at the age of 16, she first performed on international television during the intermission of the Eurovision Song Contest held that year in her home town of Bergen. Eurovision is a huge event annually drawing a TV audience of nearly half a billion viewers in Europe.

Immediately following her international television debut, she released her first album, the self-titled Sissel, which sold 700,000 copies and followed that with her first Christmas album, Glade Jul, selling 900,000 copies -- which still holds the Norwegian record for most albums sold.

Since then, Sissel has sold around 3 million albums in a population of just over 4 million Norwegians.

Sissel seems to pop up at all sorts of international events. In 1992, she performed on the back of a giant (fake) polar bear during the closing ceremonies of the Albertville Olympics -- to help introduce her country's games.

In 1994, she sang the Olympic Hymn at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Lillehammer Olympics and she performed again that summer during the opening of the '94 World Cup soccer tournament in the United States.

December 1994 she performed with Placido Domingo and Charles Aznavour on the TV program "A Christmas in Vienna," which was seen around the world. Later, Sony Classical released a CD worldwide of the live concert titled Vienna Noël.

In 1995, she performed for England's Prince Charles and TV viewers across Europe at "A Royal Gala" commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Last St. Patrick's Day, she performed with her friends, the Chieftains, on the David Letterman show and in May she appeared on Good Morning America when the show spent a week in Scandinavia.

Besides Titanic, she's performed on several other soundtracks. She sang the part of the princess in last year's The Adventures of Pinocchio, as well as on the Long Journey Home soundtrack -- a documentary about the Irish in America which aired on PBS this month.

In 1989, she was the voice of Ariel in the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish versions of the Disney film, The Little Mermaid.

Sissel has performed so many Irish-related songs lately one wonders if she's turning Irish.

"Well, Irish [music] is not so far from Scandinavian music. When I first sang with the Chieftains, it felt quite natural singing the Irish songs. It's part of our culture family. The Vikings were everywhere," Sissel said.

And speaking of the Chieftains, Sissel has been a fan of the Irish folk band since long before she met and performed with them.

"I think they are wonderful, great musicians, wonderful people. I really like that. I like them very, very much," Sissel said.

Besides performing the gaelic folk hymn, "An Raibh Tu Ag An gCarraig" (Were You At the Rock?), on the Long Journey Home soundtrack -- produced by Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains -- she will be appearing on the Chieftains' next album, Tears of Stone.

She's done a lot of side projects in the five years since she recorded her last solo album, Innerst i sjelen.

Most notably, she performed with rapper Warren G. on the single "Prince Igor."

BMG-Germany and Def Jam Records came up with this idea to make an album with opera songs creating a lush, melodic backdrop on which American hip-hop stars could rap.

The album, The Rapsody Overture, already available in Europe, will be released in the U.S. later this year. "Prince Igor," the first single off the album is currently a top-10 hit across Europe and the most requested video on MTV Europe.

Sissel has an almost angelic prestige and it seems strange she would be associated with a rap song. In 1994, she said in a USA Today interview that she sang all types of music except rap. Ironic in light of her involvement with "Prince Igor," although she doesn't exactly rap on the song.

"For me to do the 'Prince Igor,' that was a challenge. I thought the mixture between opera and rap was so very interesting and it was very well done. I think it was done in a very delicate way to mix the two styles. It's two different worlds; it's the new world meets the past. I was fascinated by it, so, that's why I said yes."

But why hasn't Sissel been working on another album of her own, instead of all these side projects?

"Well, I was waiting for Rick Chertoff, [her producer] to finish his projects," Sissel said, "I'm now working with Rick because he has done so many things and he has been through so many musical styles and I think that is very fascinating and he is a very good producer."

Chertoff has most notably produced albums by Joan Osborne and Cyndi Lauper.

Sissel is currently working on her new solo album which is set for a worldwide release -- which includes a domestic American release, unlike her previous albums which were released everywhere except America -- probably due out later this year or early next year.

Sissel has said she wants to maintain her Norwegian identity on her new album, although it will likely be mostly in English. But, it won't just be an English version of her last album, Innerst i sjelen.

"I guess it will be a development from Innerst i sjelen. I like that album very much," Sissel said, "I have changed a bit. I don't know how, but you know you change. It's five years since I recorded that album and a lot of things have happened. It's important to explore, to cross some borders that I had on that album."

The style for the album is still developing, she said.

She's performed a little opera (with Placido Domingo and José Carreras -- she was invited to perform once with the third tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, but had a scheduling conflict) and some jazz, so one wonders if she would ever consider doing more of those styles of music.

"Well, opera I think is very hard. If you want to sing opera you really have to train and I'm not so good at [training]," Sissel said, "It's fun to do things that are a little different from what you usually do. I think that is inspiring. I love to listen to opera and jazz, but I don't think I will be a jazz musician or opera singer. Of course, I sing it a little bit at home just for fun. So, maybe one day."

Sissel is commuting (for two weeks at a time) between her home in the suburbs of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Philadelphia/New York where she is working on her album.

Several of Sissel's albums are available at The Scandinavian Shop, 65 W. South Temple, in downtown Salt Lake City just south of Temple Square.