Q&A: Einar Selvik of Wardruna bridging old Norse myths to today’s audiences

Wardruna (Einar Selvik center), Courtesy: Kim Ohrling.

Einar Selvik was once known as “kvitravn,” which translates from old Norse to “the white raven.” That was back in his days as a drummer in the Norwegian black metal scene. Since the early 2000s, Selvik transitioned from black metal to something that was more challenging and brought him closer to his love of animist ideas once popular since before the Viking Age.

Norse Music, Jan. 22

As the chief composer and songwriter of Wardruna, the 41-year-old Norwegian fell down a deep rabbit hole of the old Norse oral tradition, poetry, myth and history. Wardruna writes and, in normal times, performs new songs closely examining old stories using only recreations of traditional and historic instruments used hundreds of years ago: lyres, talharpa, sootharp, langeleik, crwth, bronze-lur, moraharpa and more.

Wardruna has seen a surge in popularity and interest over the course of group albums (the Runaljod trilogy; the finale of which charted at No. 1 on Billboard’s World Music chart) and a 2018 solo effort, Skald, by Selvik. The bandleader has also had success lecturing at universities throughout the world about his process, history and his discoveries; songwriting for History Channel’s “VIKINGS,” on which he even appeared as a musician; and most recently, for composing original music for the video game “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.” Also in 2020, he was awarded the Egil Storbekken Music Prize, a Norwegian national honorary award for his work with Norwegian folk music.

The group’s fifth album is also called Kvitravn—not in honor of Selvik’s old stage name but for the same reasons that first drew him to the legends. The album again focuses on sacred animist ideas, old Norse spiritualism and interpretation of mythology.

“All my music is very much about animistic ideas and ideas of depicting our relation to nature, to each other and to something that is bigger than yourself, in a sense,” Selvik said in a video call from Norway, where he’s been working on music during the pandemic. “This one is perhaps more closely related to the human aspect of it, and how we use it to define ourselves as human beings; different concepts regarding soul and spirit and that kind of thing. Also, of course, it’s very much about our relation to nature.”

RIFF: How did Wardruna come not only to learn to play, but also find or build the instruments that you use?

Einar Selvik of Wardruna: When I started to work on this project full-on, I started to dive into the history, the musical history and the musicology of it, what instruments were used. At that point, there was very little information and knowledge out there. So, it meant talking to instrument builders and visiting museums, talking to music archaeologists and regular archaeologists, and so on.

And even more so, how to acquire them. In a sense that was also quite a long process because you couldn’t find a builder who still were making some of them, but some were still produced by a handful of people. Some of the instruments I basically had to build myself, and some I got built by other people for me. Of course, that’s a slow and interesting process. I made quite a lot of shit instruments along the way, I have to say. I’ve learned so much from it. Of course, these days, the interest for a lot of these things have just exploded, like the last five to 10 years, so now the level of knowledge and the amount of builders and so on has really come far.

So would you say that if you weren’t making music, you could probably do pretty well as a wood worker right now?

No, I wouldn’t go as far as that. I would do OK, perhaps, but it would be very specific things.

How did Wardruna write music for this record, and was it different at all from your solo record?

The new album feels like for me a continuation of the Runaljod trilogy that we did. It follows the same kind of creative concept where the themes themselves sort of define the instrument needs, the recording needs, the sounds I use, where I record, when I record, etc. That’s sort of the defining factor. Also, thematically, it moves in the same universe and the same concepts and ideas, but here I would say the difference is that I zoom more into the specifics; I go more in detail and into certain subjects. …

Not understanding language you sing in, I’d love for you to pick a song and describe what’s being communicated on it.

One of the songs is … called “Munin.” One of the recurring themes on this album is of course the raven. And this one is also about the raven. Muninn is one of the ravens owned by the god Odin. He has two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, meaning basically “mind and memory.” The raven is sort of the animal embodiment of the spirit and of the mind and the memory, in a way. That’s how we know it from the myth. This song goes into the myth with Odin and his ravens, and of course I could just recite that beautiful poem that we have from that myth, but for Wardruna, the concept is not just reciting or copying the past. It’s more about going into, “Well, what does this mean?”

Every day, Odin sends out his two ravens, mind and memory, and when they return to him, they keep him posted on what’s happening out in the world. He says that he fears that Huginn won’t return, but even more so, he fears that Muninn won’t return. And why is that? So the song goes into sort of a memory study, you can say, because of course it goes into old ideas about what memory is, how it was defined. It’s understandable why he fears more for his memory, because without memory, there is no mind, in a sense. Memory is such a defining element in so much of our lives, of our culture, etc. That’s kind of what that song dives into.

The new Sigur Ros album also tells the story of the ravens reporting back to Odin.

Yeah, I’m very familiar with that musical piece, Odin’s Raven Magic. It’s been a very long-awaited release; I’ve seen the piece [performed live] several times. I really enjoy it. And if you know the “Hrafnagaldr Óðins,” that poem is a very beautiful poem. I love it. I haven’t worked with Sigur Rós, but I’ve worked with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Steindór Andersen, who did this collaboration with Sigur Rós for this album. … I’m a fan.

When you played in black metal bands, your stage name was “white raven.” Is there any significance between what you called yourself and this album?

First, I have to say that the album, and the song, is not named after me. It’s more about the ideas behind it that inspired me to take that name in the first place. I have always had a very deep fascination for ravens and almost like a totemic relationship to that the animal. So, I guess that’s the connection on a personal level. I find them to be very inspirational, and of course it’s an animal that is so much connected with Norse tradition.

I think if ever the Norse region had a totem, it would be the raven, which is actually also described in several places. It’s a central figure, but of course this goes also not only into the myth about the raven; it goes into ideas that you find globally. The white raven is central in several Native American myths, as well, and in African myths you have the white elephant, then you have white lions, you have white serpents, you have white reindeer. This is a something we see globally; these mythic white messengers from the other side, often seen as something prophetic, and I just find them interesting. The combination of the white ravens fascinates me, especially.

How was writing music for “Assassin’s Creed?” I’m sure you tried to create something appropriate for the era, but were there additional rules or limitations you had to contend with?

It was very enjoyable to work with the Ubisoft team; the music team there. We found out very early that we had a lot of the similar ideas. When I told them my visions for it, they shared a lot of those ideas and ambitions to have that authenticity level. We are three composers on this game, and we each have our own kind of tasks. They do the more regular soundtrack; whereas my job was more into writing songs that are more connected within the Skaldic or the oral poetic tradition laid very much at the heart of the Norse society and culture. For me it was a really good opportunity to be able to give voice to that part of the culture, which is very often forgotten when Norse culture is being portrayed in popular culture. The fact that they were really keen on exploring that part of the culture as well felt like a really, really cool thing to be part of.

Do you feel like your music is the bridge between modern times and Norse mythology? Is there a place you think it fits?

I think that’s a good description of it. For me, Wardruna has never been about trying to recreate music from any specific time period. It’s more about diving into the past, figuring out as much as possible about what we can say about the music or the themes themselves. And then create something new with it within a contemporary soundscape. So a bridge is definitely what it is.

Have you ever been watching a period movie and then been completely taken out of it because the score felt inauthentic to you?

Yeah, but not only the music. It can be all sorts of things. And of course, I understand that such productions are made to entertain the masses, not to please history nerds like myself and other academics. Sometimes it can be painful to watch these historic depictions. But on the other hand, popular period drama—whether or not it’s a game or on TV or movie—there is a need to not only try and get things historically correct; you also need to cater to the popular notion of that time. I’m quite sure if you’re gonna make a 100-percent authentic production about [the] Viking Age, it would be a lot more farming, you know? And I don’t know how interesting that would be for most people.

Is there either a TV show or film other than “Vikings” that does a really good job of representing the culture?

Well, there aren’t that many. But there are some really old movies. There is one called “The Outlaw,” or “Útlaginn;” that’s the Icelandic title of it. If you want an authentic Viking Age movie, that’s the one to go to, because they stay really close to the saga it’s trying to tell the story of. You have “The Last Kingdom” as well. It’s a BBC series about the same time period. I would say they also do a lot of things correct and a lot of things incorrect. That’s just the way it will always be.

Is there one thing from the old Norse days you wish was present in the modern age? It could be physical or metaphorical.

Just more information about it, I guess. Our history is very much fragmented. The traces we have of this history is very much fragmented. There are so many things we don’t know for sure; we only can assume and make educated guesses into how it was. It would benefit us all if we had animistic ideas more implemented in our own culture. These ideas of viewing nature as something sacred, something to be respected, something you are a part of. That’s the thing I wished we had more of in our modern day. But then we would have to travel further back in time than the Viking Age.

Do you ever see yourself playing metal again? And do you still notice an overlap between Wardruna fans and black metal fans?

I don’t like to close doors. So who knows, maybe at some point I will feel like doing metal. I don’t do at this point. I’m so into what I’m doing now that it doesn’t really pique my interest that much. But of course, if you have something to say, and you wish to say it in a specific way—who knows—maybe that’s metal at some point in time. In terms of the fans, we see a very diverse audience when we do concerts. It’s anything from metalheads to all sorts of people; all ethnicities, all ages and so on. One of those parts is definitely the metalheads.

It must be a kick to have parents bring their young children to see you perform now. Black metal isn’t exactly the type of music that most parents support their kids listening to.

Yeah, and a lot of kids take their parents as well, and the parents also enjoy it. I find it very fascinating that our music is able somehow to bridge a lot of the language barriers and age barriers. It doesn’t matter what social or cultural background you have. Apparently, it speaks to people regardless of these borders and that’s, of course, truly fascinating and fantastic.

You’re known for your history in metal and for Wardruna. What might surprise your listeners that you’re really into? Do You have time for anything outside of all that?

Not much! There is little gap. I don’t really see my work as something outside of myself. It is very much who I am and what I do, and what I think; what I’m passionate about.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.

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