Susanne Sundfør has one of the greatest voices I have ever heard, and at this intimate, understated gig in Cardiff’s much underrated New Theatre, there are moments it feels as if it might crack open the walls and bring the house down. Her last album, the sublime Music for People in Trouble (2017), in the end only hints at the texture, depth and power of the primal instrument to which her hosts, the Festival of Voice, have dedicated these 10 days of gigs and theatrical performances. If the theme for the festival seems broad and diverse, nobody can argue that Sundfør is something of the traditional “voice”, employing it in various ways to offer both colour to narrative journeys and to do that other thing – simply blow you away. It’s one of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard.
Sundfør takes to the stage in gothic black lace, accompanied by instrumentalist and vocalist Megan Kovacs, and delivers an hour of searching, precious musical moments. Music for People in Trouble is given a good outing, mixed with a few of the more ethereal moments from Ten Love Songs (2015), the electronica-infused album that preceded it. Tracks such as “Silencer” from that album, which drift away from upbeat-but-sinister synthesiszed sound that dominates the record, sit here very comfortably – they are perhaps more complex melodies than what are to be found on Music for People in Trouble, but there is a real evolution to the evening when they are brought together here. Now Sundfør has realised her destiny as a writer of serious talent, and her songs now spar with the voice on an equal footing. And it’s one of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard.
“Good Luck Bad Luck”, “Bedtime Story”, and “Sound of War” are extremely sophisticated laments that owe as much to Schubert as they do to Laura Nyro. And she keeps bringing up the ghost of Nyro throughout the evening, only to startle us all into realising Sundfør’s voice goes further and her songs are better. “Reincarnation” is a masterpiece, and is one of those songs you’re sure was a hit in the 60s. It lingers in the back of the mind – a song that seems to have come from that eternal peat bog from where all great musical magic emanates. “Undercover” may have a cousin in Fiona Apple’s “Never is a Promise” but it lifts into a place that makes this not just a good gig, but a privilege. Another classic. Carole King would kill for hooks like this. Sunder is doing much like what King did, as if she too has a Tin Pan Alley schooling. Although those great women songwriters of the 60s and 70s are there, drifting through Sundfør’s music like half remembered aromas, she also has that innate ability to turn a melody into something really cutting, really in-your-face, like all good Scandi-Pop. Sundfør has west coast jazz, east coast folk, and a good helping of that European sensibility. And she has one of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard.
Away, for the time being at least, from electronic music, Sundfør cuts an alluring figure on stage, moving from piano to guitar to synth with a somewhat ghostly glide. It is depressingly reductive to compare female artists to those who have gone before, but there is a bit of Stevie Nicks up there, as well as Nyro – it only feels comfortable to refer to these legends now Sundfør herself is such an assured presence, carries such a bag of songs, and has one of the greatest voices I’ve heard.
Festival of Voice is doing a good line in taster-gigs this year. Sundfør, like a few others, teases playing for just an hour – a festival set – but perhaps this might be a toe in the water for a proper return to Wales when more people are aware of her. She may never be interested (we pray) in the beige universe of mainstream vocalists, but she won’t pass under the radar for long if she continues collaborations with artists who have such dedicated followings as John Grant (he appears on Music for People in Trouble, and she gigs with him at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham later this year). Susanne Sundfør is a high point for Festival of Voice this year. And did I mention she has one of the greatest voices I have ever heard.
(photo credits: Raquel Garcia)