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Norwegian Singer-Songwriter Bern/hoft Talks Making R&B Music and Only Collaborating With One Artist 

Wednesday, May 18 2016
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It would have sucked if Jarle Bernhoft won the Grammy.

In 2015, the Norwegian R&B singer — who performs under the name Bern/hoft — became the first non-American artist to be nominated for the award show's Best R&B Album category, for his 2014 album Islander. But though Toni Braxton's Love, Marriage, and Divorce took home the Grammy that night, the 39-year-old Bernhoft is not bitter. As he sees it, getting nominated — and having a 1-in-5 percent chance of winning — was award enough. And besides, there might have been a backlash had he won, given his race and country of origin.

"If I had gotten that award, there would probably be a certain discussion around it and understandably so," Bernhoft says. "There would certainly be allegations that 'The Grammys are so white,' and I think there are some valid points to that."

Because Bernhoft didn't win, he wasn't blasted on black Twitter and lampooned with claims of cultural appropriation, even though his jazz- and soul-infused music pulls inspiration from a number of black artists: Prince, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and Sly & The Family Stone. Before he was nominated, Bernhoft hadn't even considered himself an R&B artist. "I was confused myself, but Grammy has spoken," he tweeted. "I make R&B music."

But unlike Iggy Azalea, who was nominated for Best Rap Album at this year's Grammys (and who opened a fried chicken restaurant in Miami last year), Bernhoft, who wears thick retro eyeglasses and a bouffant faux hawk, is not trying to be, look, talk, or even eat black. Giving credit where credit is due is a main tenet for Bernhoft, who feels that the Australian's downfall is that she's "not perceived to be respectful enough of the shoulders she stands on."

And though cultural appropriation does happen, it's something that Bernhoft feels can be avoided by giving credit where it is do.

"On the condition that you're acknowledging the shoulders that you stand on, art should be free," he says. "And one should be free to do whatever."

Bernhoft has been doing "whatever" for as long as he's been making music. His first band, Explicit Lyrics, was a nu-metal duo that released three albums within the span of three years in the mid-'90s. In the early 2000s, he started to get more notoriety in Norway with his next band, Span, a trio that specialized in hard rock or "pop songs that were played really loud." The band released two EPs and two albums, but broke up by 2005, to the dismay of its legion of fans. To this day, Bernhoft says he is "still pestered on social media forums about why we won't reform from die-hard fans who got Span tattoos before we disbanded."

Bernhoft's shift to R&B was both gradual and immediate. For years, he'd been interested in the genre, ever since he heard Sly & The Family Stone for the first time at the age of 17.

"That kind of kicked me in the direction where I really wanted to dive into the history and the roots of African-American music," he says. "There was so much music that I hadn't heard that is very dear to me now that didn't cross over into European mainstream radio."

Bernhoft began combing through vinyl at record stores, hunting for older material, while at the same time expanding his knowledge of traditionally black genres, including gospel and West African music.

He started incorporating some of the sounds and styles he picked up into his own music, and a few years after Span broke up, he had an entire album's worth of new material. Because he had "no desire to become a solo artist at all," he tried to form a band, but everyone he asked was busy with other commitments. Left with just himself, Bernhoft reluctantly decided to go it alone, ultimately leading to the creation of his 2008 solo debut, Ceramik City Chronicles.

Eight years later and Bernhoft is still a solo artist, with three albums and one EP under his belt, and enough fame and notoriety in his home country that "If I hadn't been myself, I would have been pretty sick of myself because I am kind of all over the place in Norway," he says. (In fact, between 2014 and 2015, Bernhoft, his wife, and his son relocated to New York City just to escape his overwhelming celebrity for a bit.)

Though he now occasionally tours with a band — as he is on the U.S. leg of his current tour — Bernhoft is for the most part still a lone wolf. Out of all of his projects as a solo artist, he's only collaborated with one other artist: the Grammy-winning R&B/neo-soul vocalist Jill Scott.

After performing at a Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo in 2011, Scott offered Bernhoft her services as a backup vocalist if he ever wanted a featured artist on a song. Bernhoft took her up on the offer while working on Islander, and the two appear together in a duet on the jazzy, piano- and organ-laced track "No Us, No Them."

To date, however, Bernhoft has collaborated with no other artist, nor does he plan to.

"It's not that I don't have personal connections or musical inclinations towards other artists, but I feel like there should be a very very strong reason within the song and the music for a collaboration to take place," he says. "And with Jill, that was pretty clear."

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Jessie Schiewe

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