Who is Jarle Bernhoft? That’s what many wondered when the little-known singer appeared among this year’s crop of nominees for the best R&B album Grammy.
The 38-year-old doesn’t have a massive following, a hit album or even a song on the radio. And while he may certainly look the part of a swoon-worthy soul crooner - sleek suits, finely coiffed hair and thick-framed glasses - his homeland of Norway doesn’t exactly register on R&B radars.
The singer-songwriter, who performs under his surname (stylized as Bern/hoft), is nominated for his third solo effort, “Islander.” Released in June, the set of retro soul and disco grooves flew under the radar (it sold only 1,600 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Soundscan).
FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2015
The Norwegian musician has been steadily building buzz in the States since 2011, after his single “C’Mon Talk” earned more than 4 million streams on YouTube. His viral hit and one-man band performance style led to well-received appearances on both “The Ellen Show” and “Conan,” along with a buzzed-about set at South by Southwest in 2013.
Pop & Hiss reached Bernhoft during a break from touring via Skype from a pub in Oslo, where he talked about his surprise nomination and finding his way to soul music.
When the nominations were announced you took to Twitter and wrote, “I was confused myself, but Grammy has spoken. I make R&B music.” Why make that statement?
Honestly, I’ve always been confused on what kind of music I make. My first album I said, “OK, I’m going to try to make soul music.” But I didn’t know if I succeeded or not. On the second one I still felt confusion; it was something in the soul vein and I was trying to sound like Sly Stone. But at the same time I didn’t know if I nailed it. [“Islander”] was an evolution, of course, but I still had no clue. I’m always confused about genres.
You made history as the first non-American nominated in the category’s 20-year history. How is the genre represented back in Norway?
Put it this way: Norway is an indie rock and country music land when it comes to American influences. We have a couple of people, like DJs, that have upped the soul and R&B scene on club nights. But I wouldn’t say it’s a widespread phenomenon. We get the Rihannas and the big hits but no undercurrent of acts, which to me is where the real rich and fantastic music lies.
When were you introduced to soul music?
Maybe 15 years ago. A friend of mine lent me a vinyl version of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Fresh” and says, “I think you’re going to like this.” I played it and “In Time” comes on, and I was crucified. I couldn’t get off that cross. I played it over and over. I mean still, to this day, it’s one of my favorite Sly albums. The way he lets that voice rip? You can’t top it.
The term blue-eyed soul has always been the identifier for any white artist doing R&B music. Have you felt any dismissal of your music because of your race?
Of course. I know that it exists, but it shouldn’t be based off any type of skin color. Obviously, America has its history with skin color that you can’t grasp until you dive into it. I moved to New York [in 2013] with an optimism thinking this country had progressed since ’92 and the L.A. riots. But then Travyon Martin happens and Ferguson and [Eric] Garner happens.
There’s a feeling I get coming here. When I go through customs and they see on my visa that I’m a musician and they ask what kind of music I do, and I say R&B, and they go [twists his face]. I deal with that, but it’s nothing compared to getting killed because you look scary. I hate the term blue-eyed soul. I just want to be based off my music solely.
“Islander” didn’t reach audiences the way the other albums in the category did, and plenty of R&B fans had no idea who you were prior to the nomination. How do you think listeners, and voters, discovered the music?
I guess it’s what we call the jungle telegraph, where it’s word of mouth. That’s my main fame. I played shows and people saw it and the word travels. But for me to get in the top five albums for nominations, I didn’t see that coming. I thought I was properly submerged in the undercurrent for years and years to come. I don’t know. I’m confused.
But it’s got to feel great being the small guy making the cut.
Yeah. But I mean Jarrod Lawson is not in there? Come on. I don’t think my album is that great. It’s really strange ... I feel like I made the podium but I shouldn’t be there.
How has the nomination changed things for you back in Norway?
By my second album, everything had lined up. I had this TV show where I played my solo stuff. I had a couple songs on radio that worked and then I did “The Ellen Show” [in 2011], and one of the songs became a YouTube semi-phenomenon. But “Islander” didn’t quite connect, initially. It didn’t shift volumes. Songs were played on radio, but reviews were pretty blah. Suddenly the Grammy nomination turns it all over. It’s pretty weird what’s happening in Norway at the moment. For a year they went, “Nah.” And then it’s “What? A Grammy nomination?” - including me.
Follow me @GerrickKennedy