In London’s most expensive street a Grammy-nominated superstar is singing, strumming, tickling the ivories and looping it all in the building where the liberation of Norway was declared in 1945.
It’s not an everyday event but neither is it the most remarkable moment in the eventful life of Jarle Bernhoft.
It is approaching the end of summer (August 24), and Bernhoft is at the residence of Norway’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, in Kensington Palace Gardens. The occasion sees him playing new songs for an audience for the first time in preparation for a European tour and a new album, Avenue Of Loveless Hearts, which will be released on October 6.
Among those songs are the acoustic rock of No Place Like Home and the gentle soul of Carry You. The tracks on the new album are packed with pop hooks, made for the airwaves, none more so than the standout Let It Go, which seems destined to inhabit radio playlists for years to come.
The songs have a more ‘singer-songwriter’ feel than some of Bernhoft’s solo work, but they remain deep in the soul sphere.
No Place Like Home is the latest single, ahead of the album’s release on October 6, and he says it is specifically about his family home in Oslo.
“I hold said people higher than the house itself, but they’re in the walls so to speak - in pictures, in odours - and through Astor the cat that strolls around my slippered feet,” he said.
“Leaving my people shakes me good. Right before I left for LA, to write what would become this very song in October last year, I saw my youngest son look inconsolable upon learning I was gonna be away for ten whole days. He’d never encountered such aeons of separation before. My oldest experienced stints like that constantly when he was little, and reflecting on that shook me even more.
“Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen has written lucidly about the tightrope between life at sea and life at home in coastal fishing villages. And it resonates strongly with me; substantial longing both ways, a constant sorrow but even greater joy of reconnecting with the home side.
“I’ve tried living in other cities, but Oslo has something very special. Both London and New York City have a certain stressful level of ambition attached to them, the same type that have inspired the lyric line that became the title of the album: Avenue of Loveless Hearts. There are numerous cold streets void of compassion in metropoles. I’m kind of the just-shy-of-a-million-urban type, with fisherman's blood running through my veins.”
Spanning the decades
In the late 1990s Bernhoft became involved in the local music scene in the suburb of Bærum, releasing three albums. It was with the band Span, and spending time living in north London, that he found success with albums Mass Distraction and Vs Time.
But then in 2005 Bernhoft went solo and moved away from rock and towards soul and R&B. In 2011 he found a viral hit with C’mon talking, using a loop pedal on vocals and instrumental parts.
The 2014 album Islander was a breakthrough, making him the first non-American to be nominated for the Best R&B Album Grammy. Over those years, appearances on Conan O’Brien and Ellen De Generes helped cement his reputation.
Then what should have been a big US tour to build on the momentum, instead met with the tragedy of the death of manager Per Eirik Johansen.
“I lived in New York City for two years. Then my manager died,” he said. “My ambitions have always been more about music and less about success. He took my music and was ambitious. He had the brains, I had the music.
“There was a postponed grief process. At the start of a big US tour, I found I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning-a total physical, emotional, psychological collapse. Then my eldest son was starting school, home was the way to go to rebuild my family life and myself from scratch. The music reflects where you’re at. And I am in a much better place now, it’s reflected in the songwriting and the style of songs, I guess it might have a more commercial appeal, just because I feel better about myself.”
A new album and tour
In 2022, Bernhoft starred on the hugely popular Norwegian television music show Hvergang vi møtes and he was due to start on the Norwegian version of The Voice as a judge. In between, he travelled to Los Angeles to write some songs.
“I was over there for a week, aiming to get one or two songs out of it,” he said. “I came home with five. They were the type of songs that I hadn’t written before. I went back for a second week. Five new songs came and I thought: ‘Well, if this isn’t an album, I don’t know what it is.’”
He said that before that, he was thinking of “going into hibernation” - but he is now focussed on the record. And he retains an old-fashioned respect for the album as an artform in itself.
“I still build tracklisting and think in side A, side B,” he said. “But these people don’t think like that at all, they are into songs. But we found common ground. That’s the essence of the album - a willingness to change my mindset, and way of looking at life.”
He said he has had another change of heart: “I’ve had this feeling that the world is full of love songs. I didn’t want to pollute them with mine...boy meets girl, girl leaves boy...but I’ve had a number of conversations with good friends recently that has changed my perspective on myself.
“I’ve re-discovered myself as a deeply emotional guy. I’ve changed, I guess.”
Bernhoft plays the Jazz Cafe on April 21, 2024. The latest single, No Place Like Home, is out now and the album, Avenue Of Loveless Hearts, is out on October 6.