Though modeling might sound like a dream job to some, Carmen Hillestad looked the part in front of the camera, but was all the while dreaming of another fantasy occupation. Music was always on her mind, beckoning her to abandon the silence of magazine shoots and finally unveil the songs that had been incubating in secret for six or seven years.
Her earliest musical endeavors involved classical piano and clarinet lessons but upon falling in love with the electric guitar, she turned lo-fi multi-instrumentalist, eschewing perfectionism for the beauty of off-kilter beats and bent waves of distortion. Her otherworldly vocals and noisy cut-and-paste experiments that pile layer upon layer of wandering guitar lines, hypnotic loops and primal beats eventually caught the ear of Emil Nikolaisen (of the Oslo noise-pop band Serena-Maneesh). He soon joined forces with Hillestad, co-producing and playing drums and keyboards on her entrancing debut album Sleeper and subsequently connecting her to the venerable Oslo indie label Smalltown Supersound.
Hillestad now technically lives in London, but she’s spent much of the last three years in Norway recording, mixing and performing. While Hillestad was winding down from a music festival in Oslo, she spoke with Amre Klimchak about her love of lo-fi rock, finding her voice, and making the leap to full-time musician.
On becoming an experimental multi-instrumentalist:
I’ve always played instruments. I started learning the piano when I was about eight or nine, and I also played the clarinet, so I learned a lot about musical theory. I stopped playing piano when I was about 15 because I got bored — I was a stupid teenager. I wasn’t necessarily bored of the piano, but I was kind of bored of the restrictive method I was learning. It was very classical training, and I was more interested in learning the pieces quickly so I could sit and improvise, or play the pieces a lot faster and keep the sustain pedal in — because I like reverb a lot, as you probably can imagine from listening to the music now. What properly brought me into writing music again was being given [an electric] guitar [at age 19], and sitting by myself and playing on it and experimenting with different pedals.
On being influenced by American hip-hop, ’90s guitar rock, experimental post-punk and world music:
When I started playing the guitar I mainly listened to hip-hop. It was very much Wu-Tang and that whole crowd, the kind of slightly darker, a little bit psychedelic hip-hop, as well as the popular stuff like Dr. Dre. I was really into the beats. Guitar music was always around as well. It was the ’90s, and there was a lot of great stuff going on like Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the whole New York thing. And after a little while I started discovering stuff like This Heat and Sun City Girls and world music, and it all came in bits and pieces.
On being attracted to lo-fi music:
For a long, long time, even as a young teenager, I was always drawn to the stuff that wasn’t perfect, that was slightly off or a bit dark, something slightly weird and lurking around. I find the less perfect things are, the more beautiful and effective they are. Sun City Girls, especially, a lot of their stuff is so terribly bad that it’s admirable that they just went for it and put it out there anyway. I always like something that’s on the edge rather than something that’s perfect and produced too well.
On leaving modeling and becoming a full-time musician three years ago:
I decided to become a musician, to take that step, because I felt like there was something that might be worth trying for. Before that, I wasn’t sure whether it was good enough yet to risk leaving a well-paid job for, because it’s kind of crazy. But at the same time, I was very tired of that whole job. It was a decent work life for a while, and it was interesting for a couple of years. But I didn’t feel like I was learning anything new anymore, and I didn’t feel like I was providing anything that mattered or of substance. You’re meant to be silent all the time, and I was tired of it.
On being introduced to Emil Nikolaisen:
I showed a couple of my songs to a really good friend of mine, and she was like, “That’s cool. I’m doing an art exhibition, and you should play.” And I thought, “Oh, Jesus. How scary.” So I had to throw myself out onto it. Her show was in Norway. I played and a friend of a friend of mine saw it, and he’s in music. He thought there was something there. So we started talking, and I sent him a few more tracks, and he was like, “You have to meet Emil.” I was like, “Who’s Emil?”
So he talked to Emil Nikolaisen, who is basically the mastermind behind Serena-Maneesh, and Emil listened to the tracks and was like, “This is actually quite good.” In the beginning, he was a bit skeptical — as I would be as well if I was told what I did. A month after we met for the first time, we started recording. I was really lucky to work with him, because he is incredibly passionate and goes into the project like there’s no tomorrow.
On recording with Nikolaisen in a decommissioned nuclear bunker:
I was in a weird place in my life, so it was almost like a live-or-die situation emotionally. Emil’s very intense, and I think I’m pretty damn intense, so the combination of the two of us…A couple of sessions went from 10 in the morning to 5 or 6 the next morning, and we went all night. The other thing was that we were recording in this old bomb shelter in Oslo, and we didn’t see the sun, so we forgot what time it was quite often. It was a great experience, actually, the whole thing. And I guess there’s definitely a feeling of entering a slightly different world in quite a lot of [the music].
On the inspiration for the album title Sleeper:
Lyrically, the album’s about detachment and this need to sleep and escape everyday life, because I just felt very detached for a long time. So “sleeper” is a small joke toward my family and friends, but also it just felt like the right title for the theme of the album.
I was just mentally not in the right place in life, and I didn’t feel like I was doing anything particularly of substance. I felt a bit detached, and there was always a sense of not belonging somewhere.
On choosing the name “Carmen Villain” for her musical project:
I felt like I needed a sense of detachment from my previous name, because there’s a lot of judgment based on what I’ve done before. I felt like I needed a bit of distance from it. There wasn’t that much thought that went into it; I [just] wanted something different from what my name might represent to some people. I just like the word [villain]. It’s a word that I’ve always loved since I was a tiny kid. It looks great, and it feels good. It’s just a vibe, I guess.