After two decades of rocking in their native Hallingdal dialect, the popular Norwegian band Hellbillies is about to take a radical step: Releasing their first album with lyrics in English. While the move could enlarge their audience, some music industry experts think the unexpected switch is risky.
The Hellbillies’ 20th anniversary release, scheduled for November, will be unusual these days as a double vinyl album. And not only that: One of the records will have English lyrics and the other one Norwegian – to the same tunes.
According to lead singer Aslag Haugen, moving between languages makes a big difference to his music.
“Something dramatic happens when you move from Norwegian to English, or vice versa. Something happens to my voice when I sing in English, it takes on a different sound, a change in expression,” he told newspaper Dagbladet recently.
Haugen should know, since he’s written songs in English since he was a teenager, but those songs have never been released.
By switching from Norwegian to English, Hellbillies is going against the flow. When Norwegian acts decide to switch languages, most drop the English lyrics and head for their roots, said Asbjørn Slettemark, host of a popular television show called Lydverket.
“Moving from English to Norwegian is also the hardest thing to do. By doing the opposite, Hellbillies actually risks alienating their audience,” he told Dagbladet. “What’s charming in Norwegian could be banal in English.”
Several popular Norwegian artists including Madcon, Vinni and Tone Damli Aaberge are releasing albums in Norwegian this year, after starting their careers with mostly English-langugage songs.
In earlier years, members of Hellbillies have said it’s important to the band to sing in Norwegian, asserting that it eases communication with their audience. Fans and media were surprised by the news, as the Hellbillies always made it very clear that their roots are in the rural town of Ål in the valley called Hallingdal. Their debut album from 1992 is called Sylvspende boots, which is not only a striking combination of nynorsk (“new Norwegian”) and English, it’s also a reference to the silver clasp on a traditional Norwegian bunad shoe, and the preferred footwear of a true rock ‘n roller.
Hellbillies has won several honor prizes for using their local dialect, most notably Målprisen which is awarded by the influential nynorsk organization Noregs Mållag.
Disaster struck in 2009, when Aslag Haugen fell off a poorly built stage on a concert tour, breaking his neck and both wrists. But to almost everyone’s surprise, the band made a stunning comeback just a year later.
Hellbillies builds on a long and strong tradition of playing country rock with lyrics in local dialect. This style of song-writing began in the 1970s with the trønderrock of Åge Aleksandersen from Trøndelag in central Norway, a reaction to the massive influx of translated international hits. Several other acts followed suit, most notably Stavangerensemblet offering their challenging Rogaland dialect, and Vazelina Bilopphøggers, using the crude humor and thick dialect from Toten and the Mjøsa region.
Hellbillies has had the same six-man lineup since their humble beginnings as a country cover band. They’re touring Norway extensively this summer and autumn and will finish their anniversary year in Oslo Spektrum, the capital’s largest venue.
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