After 30 years together as a group—with a total of 19 albums, countless appearances on others as guest artists, thousands of live performances, and hundreds of thousands of touring miles under their collective belt—the innovative Swedish folk band known as Väsen has learned many lessons, and one in particular.
When it comes to folk music, if an audience is happy, the players are happy, regardless of how tired those players might have been when the concert began.
“It’s true, it’s true,” says Olov Johansson, nyckelharpa player and a founding member of Väsen, along with 12-string guitar master Roger Tallroth and violist Mikael Marin. “Our audiences, when they leave a Väsen concert, always seem very uplifted, very happy and satisfied, and that leaves us uplifted too, whether it’s at the beginning of a long tour or at the very end. Some of that is the kind of music we play, and some is just what happens when the group of us comes together, in whatever variation we might appear.”
He’s referring to the fact that Väsen does shake up its personnel from time to time. When in Europe, drummer André Ferrari is often part of the team, though when touring, especially overseas and in America, he generally sits out the trip. In Väsen’s current tour of the West Coast of the United States, Marin is absent as well, the victim of an increasingly complex international-work-visa process.
“Yes, his visa was not approved,” says Johansson. “But Roger and I have performed as a duo many times, and on this part of our 30th-anniversary tour, I think our fans are enjoying seeing us in this two-person configuration.”
In many ways, since Väsen originally began with Johansson and Tallroth jamming together in a crowded house on a freezing cold winter day—the story’s become a bit of a legend among their fans—it’s quite fitting that this leg of the group’s anniversary tour begins as a showcase of what these two renowned musicians might have sounded like on that cold day in Norway three decades ago.
Johansson is among the world’s leading players of the nyckelharpa, a traditional Swedish instrument sometimes known as the “keyed fiddle,” and which is rarely heard outside the world of European folk music. Played with a bow, but with hurdy-gurdy-like keys, the nyckelharpa looks like something the inventor from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang would have devised in between making toot sweets and flying cars. Tallroth, an accomplished composer and multi-instrumentalist (bouzouki, mandolin, fiddle, oud, ukulele, and double bass), is known for his unusual guitar tuning configuration and distinctively rhythmic playing style.
This morning, Johansson is in Eugene, Oregon, where he and Tallroth performed the night before. They will shortly be heading out for Portland, and another concert this evening.
“Last night was really fun,” Johansson says. “It was a nice hall and there were a lot of people there, with a big crowd of high school kids, who traveled from Idaho. They must have really good teachers in Idaho, because those kids were really hooked on our music. They were extremely enthusiastic.”
In addition to spending the remainder of the year touring around the globe, Väsen is marking its 30th anniversary with the release of a new album of original music. Titled Rule of 3, the CD was released in April by Väsen’s American label, the Minneapolis-based NorthSide. The recording was completed in December of 2018, and features an array of new tunes, including violist Marin’s own composition, “Hållfastmarschen,” a beautiful wedding march he wrote for the marriage of his son.
“This is a busy year, a celebration year,” says Johansson. “In our live performances, we’ve been focusing on the new record, but we’ve been doing a lot of retrospective work, too, tunes from the past, revisiting things we haven’t done in a long time. It’s been great fun.”
Part of that fun has been revisiting Väsen’s entertaining origin story. Though it’s been embellished on occasion by certain ardent fans and followers, the basic detail—that if Roger Tallroth had successfully taken a shower, Väsen might not have ever been formed—is very definitely true.
Everything has happened around the music, to make it wonderful, and to enjoy each other, and never make too many plans.
“That actually happened,” confirms Johansson, who goes on to describe the moment before he and Tallroth, whom he was aware of at the time but barely knew, joined their musical fates together. “It was at a winter festival in February, in Norway, in Røros, a little mining town, and the temperature was far below zero. A friend of ours had a house he’d rented over the weekend, and the place was packed with young musicians. At one point, I saw Roger, and I was suddenly curious what it would sound like to have the nyckelharpa and 12-string together. I told him I thought maybe this would sound great, and I asked him if he wanted to come jam with me, right then. I said, ‘It will be fun.’
“And he said, ‘No. I’m having a shower,’ and he went away,” Johansson says with a laugh. “But fortunately for us, there was only one shower in the house, and it was occupied at the time. So instead, he got his guitar and came out to play with me for a while, and it was wonderful. We were really finding interesting ways to play together. There was a young musician who was there and he listened to us and said, ‘This is the best music I’ve ever heard.’ And then he said we should record together, and that if he could not find a record label that would make a record of us, then he would start his own record label and do it himself. It was just one of those things people say when they are enthusiastic. But then he actually started a record company.”
That “young musician” was Olle Paulsson, and the company he founded was Drone Music, which did indeed release the first-ever Väsen recording. Though technically, Johansson points out, the band wasn’t actually called Väsen yet.
“We weren’t really a band yet, either,” he admits, explaining that the first record was released under the title Olov Johansson: Väsen, intended to capitalize on Johansson’s having been proclaimed the nyckelharpa world champion at the 1990 Nyckelharpa World Championships at Österbybruk, Sweden. Of the album’s use of the Swedish word Väsen (pronounced “vessen”), Johansson adds that it means an ancient woodland spirit, a mysterious essence of nature and old magic. It was chosen to accompany the cover art, a primal, slightly unnerving image of some owl-like
forest creature. “Väsen was originally meant to just be an album title,” Johansson says, “but soon people were calling to book the band Väsen, and the name stuck.”
Early on, one of the primary appeals of the band was the sound, a blend
of traditional and modern, with Johansson’s distinctive nyckelharpa often causing people to ask, “What kind of instrument is that?”
“The nyckelharpa has been around for many hundreds of years,” Johansson says. “But it wasn’t very well known in a lot of places, and then it had a revival in the late ’70s, when it became much more popular.”
Johansson was 13 or 14 when he began to show interest in learning to play the nyckelharpa, taking his cue from his uncle who played.
“I felt challenged by this instrument,” he says. Coming from a musical family, he’d experimented with other instruments, including the fiddle, but there was something about this one that captured his full attention. “Not until I laid my hands on a nyckelharpa did I get the energy to play hour after hour, for days on end,” Johansson says, adding that the instrument’s popularity has spread enormously since he started to play it. “There are education programs teaching the nyckelharpa in Germany and Italy, and there are some very good American nyckelharpa players now, too.”
Asked which is harder to play, the fiddle or the nyckelharpa, he laughs a moment before answering, “Well, I’d say that in the beginning it pays off better to play the nyckelharpa, and then pick up the violin, because you have six places to put your fingers. After that, it’s like any instrument. It’s not easier or harder, it still takes thousands of hours of practice to learn to play it.”
He does allow that one spends more time tuning and adjusting a nyckelharpa than a violin or a cello. “But when adjusted properly,” he says, “it sounds quite wonderful.”
Since Väsen was formed out of an impulse to have a bit of musical fun, it seems logical to ask if the members of the band are still having fun, after all these years. Johansson replies that the answer is an unequivocal yes.
“From the beginning, it’s been always fun,” he says, “and to this day, it’s still fun. Everything has happened around the music, to make it wonderful, and to enjoy each other, and never make too many plans. Just to see what happens next, what lies around the turn of the road. That road has taken us to where we are now. I would says it’s been a good road for us.”
For now, he adds, Väsen’s immediate plans are to continue celebrating their anniversary with as many people as possible. That will include a return to North American in the fall, with a tour planned for the East Coast and Midwest.
“We just hope,” Johansson adds with a laugh, “that Mikael’s visa will be granted by then.”