Myrkur: Norse myths and the story behind the progressive folk of Folksange

Myrkur portrait against a white background of the artist wearing black with her head down
(Image credit: Shawn Brackbill)

In 2017, Amalie Bruun posted a video of herself on YouTube, performing the traditional Nordic folk song, Gammelkäring. It’s an ethereal piece of film. Bruun sings while playing a nyckelharpa – an ancient key harp – on a lakeshore in northern Denmark. The positive reaction took her aback.

“When I saw the response to it worldwide, I realised that maybe it’s not just me who’s interested in this kind of music,” she tells Prog. “I’ve always played folk music, it goes back to my childhood. It’s such a deep universe that you can dive into. There is an endless amount of it, from all different times in our history. And I’m definitely still in the learning process with all that.”

Gammelkäring now forms part of Folksange, the latest album from Bruun’s alter ego, Myrkur. The Danish singer-songwriter has thrown herself into the realms of Scandinavian folk, balancing traditional tunes with original ones. It’s a brilliantly assured collection, marked by evocative string arrangements, drones and the use of ancestral instruments including the mandola, lyre and, of course, nyckelharpa. The crowning glory is Bruun’s bewitching voice, a weightless thing that sounds like it may have filtered up through the ages.

Progressive folk isn’t new to Bruun. But she’s never sustained it on record like this before. Folksange is certainly far removed from her previous album, 2017’s Mareridt, which brought together howling black metal and hymnal symphonies. “For me, it’s been in the works for many years,” she explains. “Folk music has been present in my other albums too, but I felt the need to create something different with this one. I wanted to really study these songs before I picked which ones to record, because folk music is fluid. It’s very important to go out and perform it with other people, or to have the audience singing along. It’s less of a singer-songwriter thing and more of an interactive, community feeling. Folk music is meant to be played live. That’s what the songs are there for.”

So was she ever tempted to chuck some black metal into Folksange, for old times’ sake? Rock out a little, maybe? “Not at all,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted the listener to put on the first song and enter this universe. Then you don’t leave until the album’s over. There’s nothing that takes you anywhere else. And I think me and Chris [Juul, producer] succeeded.”

Just as folk music can be seen as a living connector between past and present, Folksange provides a link to Bruun’s earlier life. The daughter of guitarist-producer Michael Bruun, who first came to prominence in Denmark with rockers Thors Hammer and Sensory System during the 1970s, she was playing classical piano and violin by the age of five. She grew up surrounded by folk tradition and the sun stories of Nordic legend.

“I went to this unorthodox school where it wasn’t so much about rules,” Bruun recalls. “We learnt about Norse mythology and things. I don’t want to say it was a hippie scene, because it wasn’t, but there was room for everyone and they would rather have you play music than be bored doing maths or whatever. So folk music came to me through my teachers and also my mum and dad, who were interested in it too.”

Her deeper journey through folk music is an extension of that formative education. “Some of the songs on Folksange have been with me for a long time, others I’ve only discovered over the past few years. It really is like going to school. I’ve met a bunch of experts and teachers along the way: some of them are good on certain instruments, some of them know the history, others understand the meaning behind certain songs. It’s something that takes years. But then it’s also an artistic or creative outlet that you interpret for your own life, which is why these sagas or folk tales are so universal. They’re all to do with humanity.”

Prior to reinventing herself as Myrkur six years ago, Bruun released a self-titled album under her own name followed by a string of EPs. She moved to New York in 2008, aged 23, where she formed Ex Cops, alongside Brian Harding. The dream-pop duo released two albums, the second of which (2014’s Daggers) was even executive produced by Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan. 

Aside from featuring in a Chanel advert, directed by Martin Scorsese, her time in the States also broadened her musical outlook. “I lived in New York for several years and there’s a real love of prog there,” she explains. “You can sense that it’s part of the city’s history, it’s a kind of natural development. So that’s when I was exposed to prog. It’s definitely something that I’ve been able to appreciate. In the end, it’s all just music, right? As a songwriter, you have a skeleton of music and chords that get into your bones. And that’s what you can tap into.”

At the same time, Bruun wasn’t able to fully assimilate all these diverse interests until she’d quit Ex Cops and returned home. Part of her reasoning for starting again as Myrkur – Icelandic for ‘darkness’ – was a need to cast light on a particular strain of Nordic folk music that she feels has been neglected over time.

“Centuries ago in Denmark, because of the king and Christianity, they set up certain rules about what music is,” Bruun explains. “And this became church scale choral music, which basically consists of 12 notes. Before that, there were many more to choose from, which is why there’s so much expression in old folk music. You hear it in the same way that you do Persian music, for example, or Indian music. Or even blues. When you listen to a blues singer you’re like, ‘Is that minor? Is that major?’ You don’t know. So it was an expression of a more folksy, pagan way of life, but suddenly people decided there was no room for that kind of music. In a way, it was seen as uneducated music. People can be so dogmatic about religion, or at least their version of it.” 

One of the most striking pieces on Folksange is Tor I Helheim. It’s a perfect illustration of Myrkur’s ability to shape something fresh and vital from archival sources. “I had these lyrics from an old poem about the Icelandic sagas,” says Bruun. “The whole history of that was reinterpreted during the national Romanticism movement of the 1800s. Adam Oehlenschläger was Denmark’s national poet and there’s a book about these brutal sagas called Guldhornene – The Golden Horns – which he rewrote in very artistic tones. Tor I Helheim is taken from that. I ended up writing a melody and chords for that poem. Norse mythology is in my blood, it’s just part of who I am.”

The softer panorama of Folksange isn’t the only point of difference between the new album and its immediate predecessor or Myrkur’s 2015 debut, M. Bruun has undergone some major life changes since Mareridt. Two years ago she married Keith Abrami, drummer with US black metal bands Artificial Brain and Shredded. Now they have a baby son, Otto.

Understandably, this brought its own challenges in the studio. “Becoming pregnant and having this baby is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says. “It’s extremely overwhelming and empowering, but there’s also the physical aspect of it. Because I was pregnant when we were making the album, I felt quite bad for most of the recording. I felt so nauseated sometimes.”

As much as Folksange burrows into traditional song, some of it, by contrast, is deeply personal. None more so than Gudernes Vilje, which translates as ‘The Will Of The Gods’. Bruun wrote it after suffering a miscarriage before she became pregnant with Otto. 

It’s a difficult subject for her to talk about, but she wants to address it. “I still don’t want to listen to that song,” Bruun declares. “‘The will of the gods is a saying that we have here. However you want to turn an event like that into something bearable, not everyone would turn to the gods. They would just say, ‘This wasn’t meant to be.’ I don’t know how other people get through it, but that’s how I got through it. Luckily, I’ve met so many women that have had this experience, so you get welcomed into this sad, very loving kind of club. There’s a very strong female community around that. It’s certainly something that helps if you’ve been through it.”

Bruun talks about the importance of somehow finding peace with the situation. It helps that her maternal bond with Otto is so strong, as is the lineage between Folksange and the women in her family. The album cover, for instance, is taken from a painting by Norwegian artist, Hans Dahl. It depicts a blushing girl, knitting basket over her arm, strolling through a summer mountainscape. The picture itself hangs on Bruun’s wall at home, just an hour’s drive from Copenhagen.

“I inherited it from my grandmother,” she reveals. “It’s something I loved as a child, because I imagined it was me in that painting. And I feel like it planted some early seeds of Myrkur itself, in a way. I was having a discussion with Chris over what the album cover might be and when I told him about this painting, he just lost it: ‘That is what you should do!’

“My grandmother was pretty awesome, but very politically incorrect,” continues Bruun. “She’d smoke cigarettes out of a holder made of ivory and would wear fur inside the house. She’d be drinking gin and tonics at 10am. My other grandmother, on my mother’s side, was one of the first people I ever talked to about Icelandic sagas. She was a teacher and very well read. Very smart and independent. She was always encouraging me to play music. She’d say, ‘You don’t need an education, just go out and do it. Don’t waste your time.’ It was so great to have that kind of support.”

The very wonderful Folksange may soon be upon us, but Bruun isn’t yet ready for the rigours of touring. Aside from a few European festival dates in the summer, including Germany’s Summer Breeze, she says she’s in no great hurry to get back out there. “I think this album is a good one to send out and allow people to get to know it,” she says. “I just want to see how I feel. In the metal scene, people release albums just so they can get out there and tour. I don’t really care for that. Right now, I really am just
a mother. I’m still in that bubble.

This article originally appeared in Prog 107.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.