Norway, on the west side of Scandinavia, has a Petri dish of a music scene. Under the microscope you'll see grisly patches of black—the country's infamously hardcore death-metal bands. And that non-threatening cluster over there? Experimental pop and electronica, which includes exported acts like Kings of Convenience and Röyksopp.
The most curious thing you'll find when you peer into Norway's Petri culture, however, is a 24-year-old phenom named Ida Maria (pronounced “Eeda,” née Ida Maria Børli Sivertsen). Her 2008 debut, Fortress Round My Heart, hit the U.K. charts at No. 39, and earlier this year, the album's single, “Oh My God,” landed in racy promos for the smash show Gossip Girl.
“For a long time, Norway only had one international big pop group,” Ida Maria says. “That was A-Ha in the '80s, with ‘Take On Me.' The subject has become a bit painful.”
Whether Ida Maria will become a chart-topping redeemer for her nation remains to be seen. “I'm doing my best,” she laughs, “but I'm not sure Norwegians in general would like me as an ambassador.”
Because here's the thing about Ida Maria. She's punk at heart, a wild child who swills copious amounts of booze and injures herself on stage. Think Courtney Love with youthful dignity. But Ida Maria is punk with a marketable pop sheen. Her Joan Jett-esque songs are so hooky they're unshakeable. Even blogger-king Perez Hilton thinks she's fierce.
As for Ida Maria's place in Norway's eclectic music scene? “I've always felt like a freak,” she says. “I think I'm just going to continue with that.”
“Freak,” of course, is a relative term. Ten years ago, a Norwegian documentary, Satan Rides the Media, detailed the gory story of Varg Vikernes, a Satanist musician who committed church arsons and murdered a member of another black-metal band. That guy? A freak. Ida Maria? Not so much. She's more timidity than terror, even if she flails around a lot on stage.
“I am a very shy girl,” she explains in her husky, accented voice. “I had to decide to come out of my shell. That wouldn't happen sitting in the corner. I try to write songs that challenge me personally. On stage, I am the same person, but I get to work that other muscle, the one that's not so scared of everyone. For me, that's a very healthy thing.”
Ida Maria first caught Norway's notice by sweeping two national talent competitions for unknown artists (Zoom urørt in 2006 and Urørtkonkurransen in 2007), but before that, she was another small-town girl trying to make it big. Growing up in Nesna, a podunk in the north, she admits it was often difficult to find good tunes.
“I did not listen so much to the radio, because in Norway, it is quite boring. My dad has a lot of records, and our local doctor, when he moved from Finland with his family and his record collection—suddenly, there was a library of records, popular music from the '50s and up to today. That's where I discovered most of the music. And when the Internet came, that was a revolution.”
Learning to play music had its challenges, too. Even though she inherited natural talent from her dad, who gigs in a ska band, she had to overcome a condition called synesthesia. When Ida Maria hears sounds, she also sees colors and shapes.
“My brain is wired with some things jumbled together,” she says. “I don't find it so distracting now that I know what it is. It was more distracting when I didn't know my way around it.”
She also had to figure out how to write lyrics in English, which is not her native tongue. “I don't have an encyclopedia in my head of all the words I would like to use, so I just took the easy way out. I take the main word for all occasions. I just realized I can't be a poet in English, so instead I'll be some sort of billboard lyric writer.”
If only billboards were so cheeky. Take Ida Maria's “I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked,” which she performed on Jay Leno in April and dedicated to fellow guest Hugh Jackman. The lusted-after actor blushed on camera and later told her she rocked.
“When I wrote that song, my mom was the first to hear it, because I was home on vacation. I played it for her and she said, ‘It's very catchy, but I don't understand the lyrics. Why do you have to do the lyrics that way?'”
“She's an English teacher,” Ida Maria adds for clarification. “But then later, when we were playing concerts, my mom would be up in front with all the grown women, dancing.”
Also a solid supporter is Ida Maria's grandmother, who lost a couple of prudish pals over the song.
“The culture I come from, everybody's really shy and nobody dares talk to each other,” Ida Maria says. “Unless they drink a lot of vodka, that is.”
And she should know, given her hard-drinking reputation (by the bottle, not the glass), which she doesn't deny.
On the other hand, as Ida Maria's current tour takes her band all across the United States for the first time, she feels like she's learned something important about her American fans, even those who are fully clothed.
“People here are so wonderful and socially gifted,” she sighs. “Everyone's so open. They're nice even when they're sober.” Ida Maria plays at The Casbah on Monday, June 29. www.myspace.com/idamaria