Songs In The Key Of… Nordic Folk

Nanna Barslev. Photo: Hvergelmir

On our latest playlist adventure, neofolk composer Nanna Barslev takes us deep into the land of werewolves, elves and mermaids

Thanks for the interest in my music and for letting me choose a list of Nordic folk. Since the 90s I have been listening to Scandinavian folk crossover genres – folk blended with rock, metal and electronica. In this list, I have focused on the Nordic medieval ballad tradition mixed with new genres. The genre already had its revival in the 60s. This list features bands who are rearranging Nordic medieval folk ballads in Scandinavia and who remain an inspiration for many bands and musicians.

I put these songs together because they have been inspirational for many bands since and I tried to find the common thread in the themes of supernatural nature, spirits and stories. The list also includes some of my own groups, as we are among the first in the genre in Denmark. The tradition of the Nordic medieval ballad is handed down orally through generations. In the tradition, the singer can compose a new melody and change the lyrics for a song, the result is different interpretations of the same songs from different countries. I have tried to gather variations of similar songs and songs in modern times and hope you will enjoy them.

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Sweden’s Garmarna was one of the first groups I listened to in this genre in the early 90s. Garmarna mix folk with hurdy-gurdy and violin, distortion, rock and electronica elements, all wrapped in a dark atmosphere. In my opinion, they are one of the best dark Nordic folk crossover bands. Emma Härdelin has this dark voice with a lot of feeling and you know she wants to tell you a story. I’ve seen them playing live and my band has supported them at Festival Medieval. Awesome musicians with presence in their performance.

This track is from their 1996 album Guds Spelemän and is about a woman being captured by a werewolf. It’s an old medieval ballad known in different geographical variations and this is Garmarna’s version. It still evokes the feelings of these old dark energies from folklore. It’s such an amazing arrangement and is from an album I will never get tired of listening to.

My folk metal band Huldre was among the first folk metal groups in Denmark mixing folk elements/medieval ballads, violin, flute, hurdy-gurdy with metal guitar, bass and drums and me singing both folky and with growling. In the tradition, I composed a new melody for the Danish medieval ballad Varulven, which I found out later was the same story about a woman being captured by a werewolf. The song can be found on the album Tusmørke from 2017. It was always a good experience to play that song live. I challenged the audience to sing along in the chorus at metal festivals such as Copenhell.

Nanna Barslev. Photo: Hvergelmir Photography

Nanna Barslev: The tradition of the Nordic medieval ballad is handed down orally through generations. Photo: Hvergelmir Photography

The Swedish folk band Hedningarna is one of the first pioneers of the genre, mixing folk elements such as hurdy-gurdy, violin, flute, Swedish nyckelharpa with electronica. The group got very popular in the nineties with their special ethnic style of Swedish folk and singing techniques and lyrics from Finland and Karelia.

Here with this tune from the 1997 album Trä about a woman turned into a fox. It’s just so groovy, made with rhythms and beats, joik vocals and riffs. This band have been an inspiration for many.

My band Asynje mixes folk instruments such as flute, hurdy-gurdy and nyckelharpa with electronic beats, sounds from nature, Edda poems and Danish spells. Here with our interpretation of the Danish version of the same ballad about Hr Oluf, but with a rougher variety of the story. From our album Galdr, Hr. Oluf is on his way to his wedding but is caught and killed by an elf woman. I made a new melody of the traditional Danish version of the song because I thought I was too happy with these dramatic lyrics. I always make people sing along on the chorus.

Valravn is among the Danish pioneers of the folktronica scene, sharing members from Asynje and Heilung. The vocals of Anna Katrin Egilstrød combine Nordic folk techniques and a Björk singing style which are quite interesting together. Here with their Faroe island interpretation of the Nordic medieval ballad Ólavur Riddararós from their album Valravn, the song has the same origin as Hr. Oluf who gets caught by an elf woman; as you can hear this version is more energetic.

Mike Batt at French House Party 2024

This Norwegian folk-rock band is amazing and in a league of their own. The song Margit Hjukse from their album Jygri 2002 is a really cool arrangement of an old ballad and has so much strength. They are mixing rock guitars and folk violin etc. with electronic elements. They are playing both traditional Norwegian tunes and their own interpretations. This song has the same theme with elves, but here it is about a woman being caught by an elf man. It’s very growy and with a lot of feeling and strong expression.

Norwegian folk-metal group Lumsk is one of the pioneers in the genre. It has this very Norwegian folk-metal feeling mixing heavy metal and folk elements such as violin, wooden organ and Nordic singing. This song from the album Åsmund Frægdegjevar is their awesome interpretation of the famous medieval ballad about Åsmund sailing Olaf Tryggvason’s Viking longship Ormin Lange (The Long Worm).

Nanna Barslev. Photo: Hvergelmir Photography

Nanna Barslev: In the tradition, the singer can compose a new melody and change the lyrics for a song, the result is different interpretations of the same songs from different countries. Photo: Hvergelmir Photography

These metal guys from Faroe Islands have been active since the 90s with their interpretation of traditional medieval hero ballads from Faroe Islands. Here with their version of a different variation of the ballads about Olaf Tryggvason’s Viking battleship from their album How Far To Asgaard.

A Norwegian doom metal band from the 90s with Kari Rueslättens in front. This atmospheric intro from the album Tears Laid In Earth is so wonderful and Kari sets the level high for the ethereal Nordic intros before the metal part sets in. It has inspired me a lot in my vocal style in metal. The song is not a medieval ballad but is inspired by lyrics about walking in the Nordic mystic forest, meeting with the underworld elves.

This folk-metal band is among the pioneers of the Swedish style in the genre, mixing heavy guitars, drum and bass with violin etc. The lyrics are inspired from folklore about the nature spirit character Huldre, similar to the Danish elves that lure people into dance and lust. This song is from their album Älvefärd. Very ‘growy’ track and a very good example from the Swedish folk-metal style such as Vintersorg, Feid and more.

We are going back in time here with Folk Och Rackare who were a Swedish-Norwegian folk-rock band active in the 70s and 80s. They are important in the genre because they have been inspiring many bands since as they started the movement together with Denmark’s Frode Veddinge and others re-arranging medieval ballads. The song Hr Olof Ock Havsfrun has some of the same themes with being captured by the underworld people, here a man is captured by a mermaid. The Swedish-Finnish band Gjallarhorn made their version of the song famous too.

I will end this list with Runebundet from my album Lysbærer 2022. It’s my latest composition and kind of the sum of my years of working with medieval ballads and the only song on this album with that style. The lyrics are a mix of my own interpretation of more traditional medieval lyrics. The story behind it is of a man casting runes on a woman to make her fall in love with him. I composed the melody on moraharpa along with hurdy-gurdy and percussion. The refrain is a bit more modern I think, from the style used to compose medieval ballads.

Nanna Barslev’s debut solo album Lysbærer is out now. For all the latest news, head over to her Facebook page

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