"Can you try and make it as interesting as possible?” asks Leona, “And short? Because it's not like I grew up in a nunnery and then stole a car and started doing crack and started dating Kurt Cobain. You know, I personally would rather shoot myself than listen to my own story."
Ms Naess should probably look away now. Because for all her protestations, the story that leads us to her fourth record, the exquisite, extraordinary Thirteens (Verve Forecast), is far from uninteresting. She was born in New York, grew up in London, returned to America, studied anthropology, got a record deal at 22, modeled for Calvin Klein (as have, among others, Kim Gordon and Liz Phair) and dated Ryan Adams.
By 2004, Naess had acquired an enviable reputation for both her lyrical deftness and her soft, misty voice, both displayed to perfection on her debut Comatised (2000), its follow-up I Tried to Rock You But You Only Roll (2001) and the Ethan Johns-produced Leona Naess (2003). But in early 2004, Naess' life changed quite devastatingly: her father, Norwegian mountaineer and business magnate, Arne Næss, Jr., was killed in a climbing accident. "Did you ever have a day where it all just came apart?" she sings on “Learning As We Go.” This, one suspects, was that day.
In a short space of time, Naess' life unraveled: she stopped promoting her new record, was dropped by her label, fired her manager and moved back to her mother's house in London, a city whose vastness and inaccessibility she found overwhelming. She also began to question her involvement with music. "At that point I stopped reading music magazines, I even stopped listening to any new music, I listened only to Bob Dylan and Debussy," she recalls. "I kind of decided that getting back into music was just not going to happen. And thought maybe I'd go back to school, maybe I'd get married and have kids, do something that would fill up the loneliness that had set in."
Thankfully, Naess did none of these things. What actually happened was that a friend introduced her to producer Sam Dixon and, desperate for something to occupy her thoughts, Naess took to visiting Dixon on a daily basis. At Dixon's house she began to gently re-engage with music again. "We would just sit and talk about music," she says. "And then we would sit and play music. And Sam had a laptop and a microphone, and he just recorded the songs we played." Over the two or so years that followed, Leona recorded a wealth of material not just with Dixon but on her own and with other musician friends. The result was thirteen albums’ worth of music, hence “Thirteens” – the best songs from this prolific time.
Naturally, many of these songs were based upon Naess' grief: "on death and growing up and all that sort of stuff," she recalls. "I think the one thing about something huge like that is it kind of lessens everything else: what people think of you, or whatever it is that can consume you, they're just so unimportant. And getting dropped by my label and moving back home none of it mattered, and when you create from that place, there is a purity that comes out.”
These are indeed astonishingly pure songs; songs of mourning and realization and muted joy. Sadness has rarely sounded so sublime. From the slow, beautiful drift of “Ghost in the Attic,” a song she calls "the cornerstone of the record" to the soft perfection of “Not the Same Girl” – a song about "the fact that when something like death happens to you, you become less frivolous, you become harder … I don't watch movies any more and think that it's going to happen to me, that Prince Charming is going to ride in on his white horse," via the quiet wisdom of “Learning As You Go,” about which Naess says: "I think you blossom in loss. I think I had in my life a chance to take a long time to grow up because nothing bad ever really happened to me – yes, my parents divorced and I've had really terrible break-ups, but death came like a real slap in the face, a real awakening: you gotta grow up." But the record holds happier moments too: the giddiness of “Lipstick,” the rollicking “Un-Named,” written drunkenly just before her father's death, and the spirited, rabble-rousing “Leave Your Boyfriend Behind,” (an alternative version features the vocal talents of Mr Ryan Adams): "It's about the fact that a lot of my friends are becoming grown up people and having children of their own, and I'm still a child myself, I'm still saying 'Come on! Can't it be like the old days?'"
The songs, she notes "go from being quite mature to being a child. It's almost like a mix-tape." The variety of moods, and the lo-fi production troubled Naess at first, and so she sent the recordings to "the hardest critic," Ethan Johns, who had produced her last record. "I said ‘here, here are the demos,’ and he said 'Do not fucking touch them, they’re perfect. You don't need to do anything with this.' “ Leona’s confidence was given another boost when Ray LaMontagne asked her to support him on a handful of dates in early 2007 after having heard and fallen in love with some of the new recordings. In turn, Leona has contributed vocals to two songs on LaMontagne’s forthcoming new album Gossip In The Grain (RCA).
Naess says she sees Thirteens as both the beginning of her second career in music, and more importantly, as a fitting tribute to her father: "His death was so painful to me because I still needed him," she explains. "And I still had all these unresolved things. I think basically what the record is, is me trying to resolve these things on my own. There are so many things I never said. And in some ways it's kind of a love-letter to my dad. But it's also me falling in love with music again."