Rebekka Bakken: Genuss Factor

The Scandinavian singer-songwriter brings her uplifting brand of jazz back to Vienna

On The Town | Janima Nam | June 2013

Rebekka Bakken is enjoying a lovely spring day in one of her favorite places, the beautiful wine valleys of the Wachau. As she strolls up to a café by the Danube with friends, a bewildered old man spots this tall, radiant, uninhibited woman with long, flowing hair and large sunglasses as she walks by and stops her in her tracks with an odd question:

"Sind Sie von der Gruppe ABBA?" She can’t be the first striking Scandinavian woman to visit the Wachau, but perhaps this local fellow doesn’t get around much. Rebekka explains that he’s got the right profession but the wrong country. "But close enough," she adds, with a warm, friendly smile.

Originally from Norway, singer-songwriter Rebekka Bakken has lived in Sweden, New York and Vienna, and only recently moved back to the capital of her homeland, Oslo. Encounters such as the one in the Wachau are probably routine for someone who has honed a long career performing on stages across Europe, but by no means taken for granted.

"In concert, she is completely there for her audience," says Wolfgang Muthspiel, the world-renowned Austrian jazz guitarist whom she met and collaborated with during her time in New York. "She knows exactly where everyone is sitting and is completely present for each and every song."

Although she will be headlining alongside the likes of George Benson, Bobby McFerrin and Bonnie Raitt at this summer’s JazzFest in Vienna, Ms. Bakken does not necessarily categorise herself as a jazz vocalist. "Jazz is a broad term these days," she says, "and these days everybody plays at jazz festivals."

Indeed, according to Muthspiel, in the last five years, "jazzfests" have not really been actual jazz festivals anymore, as they need to sell out big venues—like the Vienna Staatsoper, where Bakken will be playing in July—and few "jazz" musicians can do this.

"When you come home from a Rebekka Bakken concert, you feel uplifted; when you come home from a real jazz concert, you have a lot of questions."

Aside from collaborations with Muthspiel and a few others that could be considered jazz in her early career, Bakken has gone on in her solo career to establish herself as a unique artist and voice that is difficult to confine to one category.

She has been placed under the folk, country, funk and adult contemporary genres, but she’s most at home with the title "singer-songwriter", which is probably the closest category to no category – and that suits her just fine.

Her multiple-octave, alternatively ethereal and earthy voice has been compared to the likes of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King, but in the end, it’s "eigentümlich" (as it’s described in the JazzFest program) – "unique" or "singular".


Work and pleasure

Under the musical label Universal Music Austria, Bakken has toured heavily in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and has a loyal following in the German-speaking world, although her songs are in English. Several of her albums have charted in the Top 40 in Austria. Vienna, where she lived for five years, holds a special place in Bakken’s heart.

"What I love about Austria is the ‘Genuss factor’ – the food, the wine, the humour." Zu genießen is a high priority for Bakken, and when in Vienna, "enjoying life is just a part of daily activities."

Learning to enjoy life is a skill the 43-year-old artist has developed over the years, and being a musician has played an integral part in this process.

"Music has taught me so much about other aspects of life," she explains. "In my 20s, I asked myself, why do I feel a certain way when I’m sitting at the piano, and another way when I’m not? So I started to apply this feeling to my daily routines in life, I stopped doing things that I don’t like to do. Now I have freedom and a sense of pleasure, even when I’m not making music."

That’s not to say that work and pleasure don’t go hand in hand for Bakken, who never tires of touring. "I still like to tour and play everyday," she admits. "On tour, it feels like there’s no yesterday or tomorrow. I get the most inspired when I’m working a lot." And working a lot she has been: She recently took on the songs of Tom Waits in a collaboration with the hr-Bigband and Jörg Achim Keller in Frankfurt, which perfectly suits the emotional range she can access in her craft.

For every great singer, emotions are an essential tool, something that Bakken has refined over her long career.

"In my 20s, I remember being exhausted if I had to be angry or sad. But emotions are like colors; I learned the Zusammensetzung ("composition") of emotions, to use the emotions, but not let the emotions use me." Perhaps this developed parallel to her mastery of Genuss: her only pre-performance ritual is enjoying a glass of wine or champagne with her band. She learned to get over being nervous a long time ago.

"What do I have to be nervous about? If I make a mistake, so what? The part of me that’s concerned with making a mistake has nothing to do with the part that makes music.


Rebekka Bakken will be playing at the Vienna State Opera on Thursday, 4 July as part of the Vienna JazzFest.


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