When the singer and producer Aurora Aksnes was growing up in a small town in western Norway she didn’t know much about the world. But she knew she loved Enya with all her heart. Only later did she discover the ethereal Irish artist had for many years been dismissed as naff and cheesy – regarded, essentially, as a scented candle in human form.
“She taught me as a child the value of my voice. And she proved to me how music can be medicine. She’s been medicine to me my whole life,” says Aurora speaking from her home in Bergen. “I guess the world likes to undermine what feels soft and female. If you’re a woman who loves football you’re cool. If you’re a man who loves nail polish you’re not cool. Enya to me is the sound of Mother Earth and motherly love and spiritually and serenity. It’s not cheesy at all.”
In Greek mythology the gods were both men and women. And we changed that and started burning witches. There’s been a lot of painful history
Enya is one of the pop icons to whom Aurora has been likened since breaking through with the haunting single Runaway. She has also been hailed as a successor to Bjork (predictable given their shared Nordic heritage) and to Florence and the Machine and The Knife’s Karin Dreijer. However, on forthcoming third album, The Gods We Can Touch, the 25-year-old demands to be heard in her own right and not to be compared to other artists.
The Gods We Can Touch is an operatic exploration of religion and the dynamic between gender and faith. Yet these heavy subjects are offset by Aurora’s mellifluous croon. And by her talent for combining multi-faceted lyrics with tumultuous electronica.
“Religion fascinates me because it’s been a part and a need we’ve had for as long as humanity can remember,” she says. “I don’t always understand it. But I have a lot of spirituality in myself.”
On The Gods We Can Touch she investigates the idea that our deities were created in the images of men. That the female side of the spiritual has been erased. “In Greek mythology the gods were both men and women. And we changed that and [started] burning witches. There’s been a lot of painful history.”
She delves these subjects with gusto on single Cure For Me, a slab of dark disco inspired by her study of gay conversion therapy. This, she was shocked to discover, has yet to be made illegal in Norway (it likewise remains unprohibited in Ireland).
“Isn’t that shocking?” she says. “Because obviously it’s not [common practice], I guess. It’s not something I assume anyone would be talking proudly that they want to send their son to conversion therapy. But still it just blew my mind.”
Aurora wrote Runaway age 11, though it would be many years before she truly understood the meaning of her own lyrics. Composed for a school assignment, it is an ode to discovering your place in the world. Running away can mean physically removing yourself from a difficult situation. However, that change can manifest mentally or emotionally, too.
“Take me home/Take me home where I belong,” she sings on the chorus – confirming that the track is as much about finding somewhere you belong as it is about turning your back on a life you’ve outgrown.
Runaway was released in 2015, becoming a top 30 hit around the world. In the past year it has had a new lease of life as a social media anthem. The single, which Billie Eilish has said inspired her to write songs, returned to the UK top 50 and has been clocking up 300 million viewers per day on TikTok.
“It was very strange. And it made me really existential and to reflect on all the time that has passed [since she wrote it]. And also [to realise] you never know when the world chooses to like something collectively at the same time. The world agrees that right now we like this and tomorrow we like something else,” she says. “It scared me also how big something suddenly can become. And I’m not sure I’m liking it.”
Aurora is softly-spoken and lives a life of contented reclusiveness in suburban Bergen. And while she doesn’t lack for confidence she is clearly not a natural born hobnobber. She used to hate the glad-handling that is bound up with every successful music career: the post-show meet and greets, the flesh-pressing with record label executives.
“It’s taken me a lot of time to deal with it. It is a huge part of my life – these situations. It’s ironic – it is always artists that maybe are the least suited to these things. You know, as sensitive beings. But it has become easier.”
If Runaway brought her to the brink of the big time she finally crossed the threshold three years ago when providing backing vocals on Disney’s Into the Unknown for Frozen 2. She speaks warmly of singing alongside Frozen’s Idina Menzel while being upfront that it was a completely different universe. It wasn’t her first experience of the corporate music world: in 2015, she had covered Oasis’s Half the World Away for the John Lewis Christmas ad. Disney and Frozen, though, was far bigger.
“It’s always more daunting to have to do something on someone else’s piece of art, someone else’s baby. I enjoy being a bit scared of something and then doing it anyways.”
With lockdowns, she hasn’t been able to tour. She did, though, travel to Glasgow for the Cop26 climate conference, performing at a fundraiser for Brian Eno’s EarthPercent charity. As with religion, she feels our approach to the environment has been hijacked by toxic machismo and is crying out for a more feminine perspective. This cycles back to the theme of the new record: that many facets of human existence – religion, the environment, our attitude to Enya – could benefit from an infusion of feminine energy.
I’ve actually been quite inspired by seeing the internet react to Greta Thunberg. She so deeply tries to warn the world of a battle we’re close to losing
“During the witch burning, I would have been burned so quickly,” she says. “I’ve been reflecting a lot about this – I’ve been thinking about Mother Earth. And then I was thinking about how easy it is to make a woman sound crazy or feel crazy. I’ve actually been quite inspired by seeing the internet react to Greta Thunberg. She so deeply tries to warn the world of a battle we’re close to losing. And I find it a really emotional topic – not a political one.”
Emotion will, in the end, be what saves us, she feels.
“Maybe we’re reaching a point where it’s to late to fix it [the environment]. And also [we are] not listening to the activists who are speaking about this in an emotional manner. You have to be strict and, based on statistics, to be considered believable. [But] that way of speaking doesn’t encourage the people to care. And then you are not being believed and you are told you are being crazy because you are speaking about it in an emotional way. And that confuses me so much. Forever in our history it’s always the underdogs who are hurt the most. It’s always the same people being hurt. And that’s so sad.”
The Gods We Can Touch is released on Friday, January 21st
– Grammatical errors in an earlier version of this article have been corrected