Interview: Malin Pettersen Talks About Songwriting, American Music, And Her New Album “Wildhorse”

Malin Pettersen / Photo courtesty of Jonathan Vivaas Kise


Malin Pettersen is a Norweigan singer – songwriter / musician who is a rising star in both Nashville and the Nordicana movement. She has shared bills with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Brad Paisley, Jim Lauderdale, Colter Wall, Charlie Crockett, Kelsey Waldon, Mollie Tuttle, Erin Rae, Nikki Lane, and Jaime Wyatt and has toured as support for Sam Outlaw, Whitney Rose and Joshua Hedley. Her new album Wildhorse , which was recorded in Nashville and features an all-star band of musicians including Aaron Goodrich, Misa Arriaga, Ryan A. Keith, and Eddy Dunlap, is due to be released October 16. Recently I spoke with the charismatic and talented Pettersen about her songwriting process, her love of American music, and her new album. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity is below.

Americana Highways: How would you best describe your songwriting process?

Malin Pettersen: It often differs on how long it takes for me to write a song. Some are written in hours, some in days, weeks, or years. And the process itself used to be pretty monotonous in that I would just sit down with my guitar and start playing something and try to sing something on top of it, making up the words as I went along. But after a long writer’s block in my early 20’s I decided to start exploring different techniques and that has definitely helped make me a better and more diverse songwriter. Sometimes I’ll improvise melodies and see if something appears that I like and that I can work with. Sometimes I’ll look through old notebooks and look for single lines to see if they spark something. Sometimes I’ll sit down with my guitar and just start playing to see what comes out. Sometimes I’ll slap a capo high on the guitar to see if it brings new melody ideas to me. And sometimes, if I’m in a period of writer’s block – I’ll just write all the bad songs in my head, and then something worth moving forward with will suddenly reveal itself.

AH: What is it that fascinates you about American music?

MP: One of the things that fascinates me the most is that it tells actual stories, that it conserves history. Not always, and not always factual – but in its core, and at its best, it does. I am very interested in the origins of the country/Americana genre and how it came to be in the first place – and how it came to be what it is today. There are so many parts of that story that I feel is not common knowledge – even for people who love country music. I have set out on a personal mission to educate myself more about it, and hopefully help spread the word. What happened as the European and African musical traditions met in The New World is such a big part of country music – and unfortunately, I feel like only half of that story has been told through the narrative most people know. And through all of those different circumstances, backgrounds, and lives that met, so much was born that shapes our lives today that I think it’s in everyone’s interest to know more about it. Not just country fans – but fans of all music.

AH: Can you describe the moment when you first knew you wanted to be a singer?

MP: I know that I sang before I spoke, but I am not sure when I thought to myself, “This is what I want to do” for the first time. I know I was up on stage at the age of 2 or 3 singing “Tomorrow” from Annie, and I remember that I loved that song so much because I felt like it had so much emotion and hope in it. I think that communication, that thing which lies within a song and in the meeting with the person singing it, conveyed to other people who might feel the same, was a very strong motivation in me. It’s why I still do it today.

AH: What was it like growing up with a parent who was a musician?

MP: The fact that my dad took me out to do shows and sing with his band was a very important factor in me ending up with actually joining a band and going out touring. The people I grew up playing with, I grew up playing with thanks to him. My mom is not a musician, but she loves music a lot and always encouraged me to sing. She has been and is still one of the most important people and supporters in my life. So I have a lot of gratitude in my heart for both of them. It still means the world to me when my mom comes to a show or if my dad asks if I want to do a song. They are my heroes, each in their own way.

AH: Who do you consider to be some of your biggest musical influences?

MP: There are so many, but, of course, the classics like George Jones, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Emmylou Harris. And newer voices, like Brennen Leigh, I’m With Her, and Our Native Daughters. I love jazz and my singing would not sound like it does if you took Ella Fitzgerald out of the loop. I love Swedish folk music. Iris Dement. Joni Mitchell. Gillian Welch. Neil Young. And I am hugely inspired by drums, and by piano and bass, guitar lines, etc – those can be huge parts of why I like certain recordings or songs. Some of my favorite albums are instrumental ones. Oh, and I fell in love with music again at 14 when Norah Jones released “Come Away With Me.”

AH: What do you think are some of the unique challenges that artists who are not based in the U.S., like yourself, face when trying to break into the American market?

MP: I think at some point you really want to start having a presence there. Which can be challenging because of many things. Money, time, distance, etc. Also – why should people give you a spot on their line-up when there is an endless line of fantastic American acts ready to play? Personally I have always had a global mind, so it feels very natural for me to travel, but I feel very thankful that the US has been so open and welcoming to me, a stranger. I don’t take that for granted. And I respect my fellow US colleagues a lot. But back to the question – I do think the market is different from many of the European ones, which are the ones I know the best, so you kind of have to learn the US as you go. You have to be persistent, you have to do your best at all times, and you have to be able to see an opportunity when and if it presents itself. I feel like sometimes they are more “sudden” in the US than they are where I am based. I don’t know if that’s fact or not… You always have to work hard no matter where you are of course, but I think the US has its own way of doing a lot of things and to be able to work with that you have to figure out what that is. To break into any market you need perseverance – things like that can take a long time, many radio promotion tours, etc, etc.. and to do that on several continents can, of course, be a challenge.

AH: Your new record Wildhorse comes out on October 16th. Would you say there is an overall theme for the record and if yes, what is it?

MP: I think, without even knowing it, it has become a record about journeys. Both literally, like flying, but also as a more transferred idea, like the journey through life. It has songs written while I’ve been on road trips through California, on a plane to Nashville, songs written while looking back at where I’ve been and where I am today and one about my funeral.

AH: How did you come up with the title Wildhorse?

MP: The title is drawn from a line in one of the songs on the album, and the title from that song: “Wildhorse Dream.” I’ve always felt like a risk-taker and a breaking boundaries kind of person, but I’m not sure how many boundaries I’ve actually broken, or how many risks I’ve ever really taken – and that was why, when the idea came to my head of getting on a plane all by myself to go record with a bunch of people I barely knew – I felt I had to do it.

AH: What are some of the challenges you are facing because of Covid – 19 when it comes to promoting it here in America?

MP: Well, the lack of presence is the first thing that comes to mind. The actual physical presence of being there, going to shows, meeting people, playing shows, writing, and getting to know the way things are done. With the situation being what it is now I feel very fortunate that social media is a thing. It gives us a tool to work with when we can not actually be there. The Internet in itself as well. You can communicate with people and try to spread the word there. Hell, maybe you even “meet” people you would’ve never met in real life. I’m also glad, with everything that is going on in America right now, which is so important for the future history of the country, that I don’t have to do the “Hey, here I am! Listen to my stuff! Me!” right now. It would feel strange for me as I don’t think my music is what needs attention right now, from an outsider’s point of view. I do know people who are releasing music in the middle of it all and I do want to say I think they are doing a great job of actually using that to amplify the voices that also need to be heard. And that, I think, is fantastic!

AH: Did Covid -19 affect your release plans for it at all?

MP: We moved forward with our plans the way we planned them. Because of that, with summer festivals being canceled, we suddenly found ourselves in a time gap where nothing was planned release-wise. And we just took that extra time to try to be extra prepared when things finally do come out, and when we can actually move about the world again. I personally took the time to listen and to learn a lot about our world and the history of its people. I took the time to mold the promotion of the album, making things that can accompany the vinyl when that is released, and just really trying to get into a lot of things I didn’t have time to do when stuff moved as fast as they did before. I think about how privileged most of us have been through these months, being able to help just by staying inside. It has given me more time with my family and my heart breaks for those who have lost parts of theirs.

AH: If you could transport yourself back through time and work with one musical artist from the past, who would that be and why?

MP: Ella Fitzgerald. I just think she would have had an infinite amount of knowledge and skill that I could learn from and be inspired by. Everything she must have experienced, good and bad, the music, the way she phrased her lines, the way she makes it impossible not to be drawn in by the story when she sings. Some of my favorite recordings of her are live ones – when you can hear the crowd go wild, the joy you can hear in that room when she comes out on stage because she’s the one they’ve been waiting for. Then, when she starts singing: that voice and that presence. Gets me every time.  

Wildhorse ,the new album from Malin Pettersen (Die with Your Boots On Records) will be available October 16th across all of the major music platforms.

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