"I like you so much better when you're naked/I like me so much better when you're naked"
Like the Norse warrior maiden Freya, 24-year-old Norwegian rocker Ida (eee-da) Maria is a force of nature, a goddess of love, fertility and sexual desire who led the Valkyries into battle, a fearless fighter who, paradoxically, has a passion for romantic music and flowers. Mirroring the weather in the tiny university town of Nesna in Norway, where she grew up, Ida Maria is a raging storm one moment, a blinding ray of sunshine the next.
That dichotomy is perfectly captured on Fortress Round My Heart, her debut album for Mercury Records, and a description of the armor she takes into warâ€”the songs which form her defense against the world, but also reveal the raw, honest emotions that she put into creating them. It forms the kind of full-bodied attack Ida and her powerful Swedish bandâ€”guitarist Stefan Tornby, bassist Johannes Lindberg and drummer Olle Lundinâ€”exhibit on the U.K. hit single, "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked," which catapulted the critically acclaimed Fortress straight into the British Top 40, prompting comparisons to female vocal sirens like Janis Joplin, Nico and Chrissie Hynde.
"I hoped that song was going to be for the alternative kids while I wrote it," she says of "Naked." . I wanted to see how catchy I could make all the songs. I hadn't really grown up on anything but rock music, so I tried to see if I could do that." About the song's unusual lyric, Ida says: "It's very much a shout-out to all those who objectify women. I wanted to turn it around and make the male body an object. I think I succeeded and I'm very happy about this."
The tune uses as its indelible hook a sing-song nursery rhyme that sounds like a "Shortnin' Bread"-style standard you've heard before, but can't quite place. "I used the simplest kind of melody to get my message across, so that people would sing the words out loud, and then maybe discover the message later."
The rambunctious "Oh My God," the album's second single, received a four-star review on Rolling Stone.com, landed at #3 on Time's "Top Ten List of Everything in 2008" and was used in on-air promos for the current season of Gossip Girl. Ida Maria says the song, in which she rails, "Find a cure/a cure for my lifeâ€¦Put a price/a price on my soul," is about "talking to myself, trying to figure out what this is all about. It was originally a very slow, soft ballad, that just became more and more angry, like a panic attack."
"Morning Light," which she describes as "an answer song to Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst," has the dance-punk rhythms of Franz Ferdinand crossed with the elemental power of the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll," accompanying universal sentiments like "What's easy in the night/Is always such a bite in the morning light."
"Stella" imagines God offering "the best of drugs" and "the world" to seduce a 43-year-old hooker, a song Ida Maria explains is based on a real-life woman from Copenhagen, "who was very strong, fascinating, colorful and beautiful, a painter," which ends with a gut-wrenching, Joplinesque yelp from the back of her throat and depths of her being.
It's all part of Ida Maria's discovery of "the inner beast that was hiding in my vocal chords," the incredible yowl that turns order into chaos, then picks up the pieces and attempts to put them together again.
"I've always been a very quiet person, until I discovered alcohol," says Ida, whose own musical background began with her dad, a bassist "very much into black music, soul, funk and jazz," placing her in front of the home stereo speakers as he put on albums by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. "When I started playing with this band, we rehearsed in the basement of this church with the worst equipment. I was afraid no one would hear me, so I had to scream," she recalls. "Of course, when we started playing gigs, I had stage monitors, but by then it was too late because I'd already been singing like that."
After learning to play the guitar at 14, she left her small hometown, moving to the other side of Norway to Bergen, an eclectic community with burgeoning local musical scenes in jazz, metal, electronica and bluegrass, known for bands like Royskopp and Kings of Convenience, where she proceeded to soak up those influences like a sponge.
"When I first picked up the guitar, I found a new world," she explains. "I just played around with it, made up my own chords and wrote songs. But I never really thought seriously about becoming a musician. It was just fun for me."
Unsatisfied with her progress, Ida Maria "randomly" picked up and headed to Stockholm.
"I arrived with my guitar and a very naÃ¯ve wish to find a band and get them on the road touring," she laughs. "And that's exactly what happened. I got lucky and found three fantastic musicians."
Joining with guitarist Tornby, bassist Lindberg and drummer Lundin, who remain her band to this day, Ida Maria started playing gigs after less than a week. Those performances became legendary, as a sometimes plastered Ida would hit the stage, which just as often hit back. "I have gotten drunk before going on, but I wouldn't recommend it," she says. "I only do that when I'm tired or out of myself. It's nothing I want to do or promote."
On one of the band's very first shows, Tornby's guitar smacked her in the forehead, splitting it wide-open. As she croons in "Queen of the World," "I bump into things/I spin round in circles/And I am singing."
"I didn't realize I was bleeding until afterward," she says. "Everything was just getting a bit out of hand. I thought we were really good because the crowd was going crazy, but I didn't realize people were screaming because of the blood."
Like the mythological Freya, though, the very real Ida Maria has a softer side, which one can hear on the sensuous "Keep Me Warm" or the smoky, jazz-inflected vocals and acoustic guitar of "In The End," where she claims, "I hope we meetâ€¦ With wrinkles like the divas/and we'll dance again and again and again."
"That's a big part of my writing," she says of that more introspective feel. "I just didn't have that much room on the album for it. I've listened to all kinds of stuff my entire life. I even studied classical music at university. I've just been taking it all in raw, whatever I came across. I'm a very big fan of music in all its forms."
With Fortress Round My Heart, Ida Maria presents her artistic vision to the world. "What I want to do with my music is have people react, make them think and go crazy," she explains. "Why that is, I don't know. I've always had the need to make chaos out of order. If anyone puts me in a white room, I'd start painting the walls right away because I can't stand simplicity. I like to shake things up. I have a born need to do it.
"I like to take that chaos and put it into music, structure it into something listenable. That structure is the fortress. It's raw material, very honest. I don't pretend. I cry, I get pissed-off on-stage. Music gets to me. I'm a very emotional person."
And now that Ida Maria and her band are about to embark on their maiden U.S. tour, it's time for American audiences to see the performer bare her soul every night.
"This is gonna be a helluva fantastic journey," she enthuses. "And it's already started out so well, I can't see how it could go wrong. I just wanna play, have a good time and see this country."
And hopefully live to tell about it.