Conceived as a way of honouring her most loved versions of other people’s songs, Portrayals is a new compilation from Norwegian–Swedish singer-songwriter Ane Brun featuring thirteen classic covers, each remade in her own distinctive emotional language.
Over the past two decades, Brun has quietly established herself as one of the great northern interpreters of song. Just as her own songwriting has grown more ambitious, so has her approach to taking on a cover. “It’s still a creative process, to record a version of someone else’s song,” she says. “The whole concept of doing a cover that’s just like the original is not interesting to me.”
Inspired by artists like Cat Power and especially Nina Simone, who had an almost supernatural ability to wear any song as if it was her own, Brun fashions her covers at first through intuition. Rather than let the original lead her, she’ll find the chords and lyrics online and feel her way into the music without listening back. “That way, parts of the song tend to stick out my mind,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a riff that becomes the main bassline. Sometimes I totally strip it down and change it into a waltz. Anything to be able to sing it in a way that I feel is right for me.”
The title Portrayals implies a more holistic process of artistic representation, as opposed to portraits, which are often only head-and-shoulders deep. When it comes to covers, Brun sees some similarities with painting. “But I’m not a Rembrandt,” she says. “I don’t paint what I see in front of me. I paint what I feel and move into it that way.”
Brun’s music came of age at a time when cover versions didn’t have the same cultural cache that they do now. At best they were a phase to grow out of. A way of honing one’s craft, at first through mimicking and then gently reshaping. At least for serious singer-songwriters, and Brun took her music very seriously at the time. “I had so many conflicting feelings about my career and fame and what it meant to be an artist,” she says. “But somehow I came to a point where I let go of a lot of shit. I’m so much braver and more playful than I used to be.”
It’s certainly a bold move to take on some of the songs that have found their way onto Portrayals. Whether daring to reinvent a borderline untouchable hit like Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ or digging for gold beneath the bluster of an ‘80s power ballad like Foreigner’s ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, Brun dives in undaunted, revealing each song in a new and intimate light.
As her most streamed cover, with almost 65 million listens on Spotify alone, it’s funny to think that Brun’s version of ‘Halo’ was sitting around on a hard drive, overlooked, for years. “It was something that Linnea Olsson and I did for fun, in just a couple of takes,” she recalls. “We might have forgotten about it completely if it wasn’t for putting together the Rarities collection in 2013.”
In total, the twelve previously released songs on Portrayals have been streamed over 250 million times, boosted by appearances on film soundtracks, adverts, and landmark TV series such as ‘Normal People’ and ‘Peaky Blinders’. Brun’s enduring versions of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’ and Alphaville’s ‘Big in Japan’, first released as bonus tracks to her 2008 album Changing of the Seasons, continue to have legs way beyond what Brun could have imagined when asked to record them.
‘True Colors’ was a request for a global campaign for Swedish fashion retailer Björn Borg, who wanted an Eva Cassidy-style song for their wedding themed advert. “It’s really beautiful,” says Brun. “When it starts you think it’s a typical romantic wedding between a man and a woman, but then it’s revealed that it’s actually two gay priests getting married, and the woman is the one marrying them.”
Originally recorded for a Swedish reality TV show of the same name, ‘Big in Japan’ became Brun’s signature cover for many years and is still finding new ears 15 years later. “It’s funny how that song continues to spread,” she says. “Maybe because it’s so different from the original, almost a whole other song completely. It’s weird how it happens. Like, suddenly a song is #1 in Kazakhstan and we can only wonder why.”
It’s strange, too, how often Brun’s rough sketches have ended up being among her most popular covers. Of the songs on Portrayals, Brun’s version of ‘All My Tears’ was a test recording for an Emmylou Harris tribute show in Gothenburg, and ‘Feeling Good’ was something she made just for fun at home, sitting on her sofa. “That’s the irony of the music business,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the cheapest recordings, the ones I did on the fly, that are the ones that end up being the most successful, while others that have strings and a big production are like album tracks.”
Another living room recording here is Brun’s sunny version of The Beatles’ ‘From Me to You’, which first appeared on Rarities. “I honestly didn’t think that one would be in the top twelve,” says Brun. “It’s really cool to look back on all these songs and their stories, because some of them are ones that I would never even think of doing,” she says. Songs like ‘From Me to You’, which was a request for UK radio, and ‘Always on My Mind’, suggested by Swedish TV producers who asked her to perform it for Children in Need.
Other covers have come from more personal circumstances. At the request of his widow, Brun performed Sade’s ‘By Your Side’ and Radiohead’s ‘How to Disappear Completely’ at the funeral of Crispin Bevington, one of the five people who were killed in a terrorist attack in Stockholm in April 2017, and recorded them later that same day. Released later that year on Leave Me Breathless – until now Brun’s only covers record – it’s clear they’ve struck an emotional chord with her fans. “I’m really happy they’re included on Portrayals,” she says. “I think they turned out very lovely and I’m so grateful for being pushed in their direction.”
Then there are the songs that Brun chose herself, like Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’ and Nick Cave’s ‘Into My Arms’. Songs that fit her loved-up state of mind in 2017, performed with a smouldering tenderness that far outlasted the relationship itself. “It’s so funny, when I recorded the Dylan song I didn’t even realise that Adele had done it and had such a big hit with it,” she says. “The person I was in love with liked Dylan and I wanted to do this song for him. I didn’t even think about what impact it already had out in the world. I was just feeling inspired in the moment.”
In the philosophy of cover songs, it’s argued that covers as we know them have only really existed since the 1960s. What came before were standards – songs from the jazz and folk traditions that can be found in hundreds, if not thousands, of variations. Written by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart in 1934, ‘Blue Moon’ is the definition of a classic ballad, though Brun’s reason for including it on Portrayals has more to do with the song’s later context as the fan anthem for Manchester City football club.
“It wasn’t until I met my partner, who’s a big Liverpool supporter, that I really understood how much songs mean to football fans,” she explains. “I recorded ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ for him as a present, and then I realised that I could do the same thing with ‘Blue Moon’ for my manager, whose love for Manchester City has been a constant through all the years I’ve known him.” Recorded in secrecy while on tour in Hamburg, Brun surprised her manager with it for his fiftieth birthday. “He was shocked and then so, so happy. It was a good moment,” she says.
Portrayals is the first of four planned retrospectives for 2023, each marking out a different time or path in Brun’s career. She sees her covers as something almost separate from her own songs, a career within a career that has its own dynamic. “Maybe that’s one thing about getting older,” she adds. “I’m not so stuck on my old ideas of what it means to be an artist. I’m happy when people love my covers, because I feel that there’s still so much of me in these songs, and that’s something I can celebrate.”
STREAM/ORDER THE NEW ALBUM HERE
- Halo (performed by Ane Brun & Linnea Olsson)
- All My Tears3. True Colors
- Make You Feel My Love
- Big In Japan
- By Your Side
- I Want To Know What Love Is
- Always On My Mind
- How To Disappear Completely
- From Me To You
- Feeling Good
- Into My Arms
- Blue Moon
19.11 BERGEN Grieghallen