Take a wild guess as to the first-ever musical influence of Norwegian 25-year-old singer-songwriter Thomas Dybdahl. Nope, it’s not Tom Waits, though that answer would fit Dybdahl’s weighty baritone vocals on tracks like “B A Part.” It isn’t Jeff Buckley either, though Dybdahl mirrors that legendary crooner’s high-octave falsetto with songs like “U.” It’s not even Bob Dylan. Although Dybdahl does admire the legend and emulates that singer’s lyrical stylings throughout his work, Dylan didn’t reach Dybdahl first.
Music first won over the young Norwegian with “Enter Sandman” and the rest of Metallica’s Black Album.
“I started with metal, just trying to get really good on guitar,” Dybdahl says. “Then my tastes broadened, but I was still into a lot of rock. When Live released Throwing Copper I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
Given the popularity of that album the truth isn’t an altogether shocking one, but it is surprising because of how beautifully Dybdahl interprets his more recent influences over the course of his four full-length albums. It was after his rock phase that he started to go “back in time,” as he says, to examine the roots of rock and roll and began to adopt his hybrid singer-songwriter style that shares traces of Buckley and Waits and even Curtis Mayfield.
Dybdahl broke through in his home country of Norway with his album … That Great October Sound. Even while writing for the album in his parents basement, where he lived at the time, Dybdahl knew he was onto something. He shares this “Eureka”-type moment after penning the tune “From Grace”:
“I came running upstairs and told my parents that this was the track that was going to get me out of this dump,” Dybdahl recalls with a laugh. “And I was right. That song did a lot for me in Norway.”
The song did indeed propel Dybdahl out of his parents’ basement (they ultimately forgave him for that little “dump” comment) and into the public consciousness. “From Grace” helped propel the album to No. 8 on the Norwegian charts and his follow up album Stray Dogs bettered it, reaching No. 6. When Dybdahl released his third full-length album One Day You’ll Dance For Me, New York City, it went straight to No. 1.
Loaded with strings and pedal steel the albums bore an incredible, natural sound, almost amorphous, like a liquid when paired with Dybdahl’s wide-ranging voice. While the music and vocals might remind of a peaceful stream cascading over the edge of a Norwegian fjord, Dybdahl’s lyrical content usually recalls more of an isolated puddle, hoping to find some tributary, but ultimately soaked up by the ground. In the ironically-titled “All’s Not Lost” off of … That Great October Sound, Dybdahl writes “In a bad motel / is where I fell / I found honest love / whoa, I got stoned! / In a bad motel / is where I fell / I found true and honest love at last.”
While his latest album, Science, may be similarly filled with downtrodden tunes and melancholy stories, Dybdahl says it is “a little bit of a detour” from his previous three LPs.
“Some of the elements point to stuff I’d like to do in the future, more improvisational, free jazz, some soul elements,” he says. “I consider the album to be transitional. I feel like I’m going somewhere, but I’m not there yet. It’s like, I, as an artist, haven’t landed in a genre where I’m totally comfortable with yet. But here you can see hints of where it’s going to go.”
The evolution shouldn’t really surprise, given his initial inspirations and all, but those fearing a drop in quality need not worry. The album may be “transitional,” but it is also acclaimed. Having just won Spellemanspris [the Norwegian Grammys] for best male artist. He also won the award in 2003 for best pop artist.
“[Science] isn’t as quiet as the other albums,” Dybdahl says. “This goes in every direction, with really upbeat songs and some really slow songs.”
Currently Dybdahl is spreading his sound around America in a rather leisurely fashion, serving as support for fellow Norwegian Sondre Lerche, Dybdahl has been treating audiences to half-hour sets while spending the rest of his day wandering around and checking out towns. This is particularly true on the West Coast, where he has never before visited.
“Eugene in Oregon was a really cool town,” he says. “There are remnants of Woodstock still lingering there.”
Dybdahl and Lerche come to Virginia on Thursday, April 5 when they play the Birchmere along with Willy Mason. Tickets are $19.50.
• For more on Thomas Dybdahl, visit www.thomasdybdahl.com or www.myspace.com/tdybdahl.