Oh Land: slipped disc to compact disc

What kind of teenage rebel leaves home to train as a ballerina? And how does she end up as pop's most inventive new singer instead? Oh Land tells all to Michael Cragg

When Nanna Øland Fabricius, aka Oh Land, was 16 years old, she told her parents she was leaving the family home just outside Copenhagen to move to New York, alone, to study ballet. When they told her she couldn't, she compromised, telling them she would enrol instead at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm and there was nothing they could do to stop her. Three years later, after years of over-training, Fabricius suffered a slipped disc and a fractured spine, ending her dancing career in an instant. For months she lay prone on her bedroom floor, staring at the ceiling and composing songs in her head. Singing had always been something she'd done in secret when she needed to escape from the pressures of being a dancer.Suddenly she had nothing to escape from.

"When you're 19, you don't think serious things like that can happen," she says, backstage at XOYO in London before a headline show. "A slipped disc is something adults get or old people. I felt I was immortal." There's a song on her self-titled second album that explicitly deals with the moment her doctor broke the news. The lyrics run: "He said: 'Sorry but you're never going to dance again,' but my feet just keep me moving … and I feel like running and I feel no pain." It's clearly a moment that haunts her. "It was devastating. When you dedicate so much of your time and life to one thing and you lose that, it's very easy to feel like you've got no identity. I always thought that if everything else went wrong I'd always have dance, like if I didn't have any luck in love I'd always be a good dancer. It was the only thing I knew for sure that I was good at, so when that disappeared, I had to start from scratch."

Once the shock had ebbed away, however, Fabricius began to see the accident as an opportunity.

"I realised I'd already had one career, so then I started to change it into something positive and started thinking, this is actually a gift," she says. "I was starting to see my life from outside and be a little bit aware that this could be an opportunity to do something else."

Fabricius was born in 1985 and refers to her childhood as simultaneously "idyllic" and "different". Her mother, an opera singer with the Royal Danish Theatre, would often walk around the house singing at the top of her voice, usually in full costume ("I didn't want to bring boyfriends home," Fabricius observes). On their quiet street, the Fabricius household became known as "the party on the road". Often, the young Nanna would spend her evenings backstage at the opera, hanging around with the dressers and set designers. "I was always really upset that she had to leave every evening because you want your mum to be there when you fall asleep, but then when she brought me to the theatre and I saw what it was that she needed to do it was like entering a sacred place."

Everyone expected Fabricius to follow in her parent's footsteps. Piano lessons were booked and family friends would urge her to sing, expecting, as she puts it, a voice "like Maria Callas or something". Her rebellious streak kicked in and she decided that ballet would be her focus. It seems an odd kind of rebellion to move to ballet, a means of expression that demands an almost inhuman level of perfection within a strictly controlled environment. "I think I chose ballet because I'm a perfectionist and what thing is more perfect for a perfectionist than ballet?" she explains. "It's all about perfecting shape, form, it's like the dream for a perfectionist." Having been raised in a household bursting with creativity and a delicious sense of the haphazard, what could signal rebellion more than a move into something so controlled?

After the accident, Fabricius moved back to Denmark to recuperate. Slowly, the songs she'd written in Sweden started to take shape and Oh Land was born. "I wanted this to be my music. I wanted Oh Land to be the music that comes from me, I didn't want it to be the product, Nanna. I see a lot of artists where their persona becomes a product and I didn't want that to happen. It's like, you read the book, you don't read the author." Fabricius started to record her songs in a makeshift bedroom studio, eventually putting a couple of songs up on MySpace. From there she was signed to a Danish independent label, Fake Diamond Records, which released her debut album, the introverted, minimal Fauna, in 2008. Strangely, an album she'd made more as a gift to herself started to take on a life of its own, a meeting with the Crown Prince of Denmark being the unlikely climax. Buoyed by the reaction Fauna received, Fabricius decided to leave Denmark again, this time for America. Having played only one live show, she booked herself on a mini tour, including a show at SXSW.

The showcase was attended by seven people. One of whom was her boyfriend. Lurking at the back of the club, however, was a small contingent from Epic Records. Among them was Amanda Ghost, a songwriter for the likes of James Blunt and Beyoncé, and the newly appointed head of Epic Records. "I walked into an empty nightclub and there was this girl with a big bow on her head, with two girls behind her doing this choreographed routine with umbrellas," Ghost remembers. "I sat down and I didn't leave the gig – normally I leave gigs after five or 10 minutes. She reminded me a lot of Fever Ray and Björk when I first saw her, but she wasn't cool. The thing about Oh Land is that as crazy, mad and quirky as we think it is, for her it's completely normal. She doesn't see anything weird or mad in her life." For Fabricius, using soap-bubble machines on stage or painting her face blue was a way to express a theatrical side that had been there since childhood. "I'd never been in the music circles so I didn't know what people did. I'd never really been to a gig so I just did what I thought was good for my music."

At the end of the show, Ghost strode out of the darkness and introduced herself to Fabricius. "There was this article in Q about me, about how I'd just taken this job and they called me the most powerful woman in music, which I'm so not, and I think she read that on the plane [on her way to SXSW] and was like 'I'm going to meet her one day' and that night she did," Ghost says. "I walked up to her and said: 'Hi I'm Amanda Ghost,' and she nearly fell off the stage." Ghost signed Oh Land immediately, despite the protestations of many of her colleagues and the disbelief of Fabricius herself. "There are three qualities for a great artist; it's a face, it's a voice and it's a song. If she's baffled as to why I signed her, she has all three."

Ghost advised her to sit at the piano to write the songs that would become her second album, Oh Land. To strip back all the electronics and just focus on the songs. It's a stunning collection of pristine pop with an alluring mix of the electronic and the organic. Uniquely for such a new artist, it's an album that perfectly reflects every aspect of her personality, from the exuberance of We Turn It Up to the lovelorn swoon of Rainbow, via the spooky introspection of Wolf & I. At it's heart is an emotional pull and a sense of extremes – that trick of hiding sadness in a pretty melody that all good pop can pull off. "It's a little bit like when you laugh really hard, you start crying. Extremes are very close together. I feel like meeting between contrasts is often where something gets interesting."

It's this ability to work within these extremes and not be afraid to be instinctive that Fabricius looks for in her collaborators. The album was produced by Dan Carey (Franz Ferdinand, Christina Aguilera) and Dave McCracken (Beyoncé, Ian Brown) and she's since worked with John Legend and Pharrell Williams. In fact, Fabricius has found herself in the strange position of turning things down. A Shakira support slot at Madison Square Garden was felt to be too soon, and a chance meeting with Rihanna in a London studio led to a request for a song. "I got so intimidated that I didn't give a proper response," she giggles.

For the cover of Oh Land, Fabricius stands, arms outstretched, in the middle of a ring of tiny interconnected houses, part of an art installation by Eske Kath. For Fabricius, it's part of her story so far. "The house represents the home and to me music was my home [after the accident]," she explains. "It's a symbol of how quickly something can be taken away from you. We build these houses to kind of protect ourselves and make our own little worlds and we think that outside of these houses nothing bad comes in because it's a shield. But it's easy for things to get destroyed. Those walls can't protect you."

The single Son of a Gun is released on Sony on 4 July, followed by the album Oh Land on 5 September.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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