Interview: KEiiNO Talk ‘Monument’, The Impact of ‘Spirit in the Sky’, Tough Filming Conditions, and Eurovision Favourites

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Tom Hugo and Alexandra Rotan of KEiiNO to find out about their entry for Norway’s MGP Monument, the extremes of shooting the beautiful music video, and the lasting impact of the Eurovision 2019 sensation Spirit in the Sky. You can watch the video of the interview above or read the transcript below.

Be sure to connect with KEiiNO on their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. You can tune in to KEiiNO’s performance in the final of Melodi Grand Prix on Saturday the 20th of February on NRK.

Culture Fix: You’re back at Melodi Grand Prix. Congratulations on your first performance of Monument – it was quite spectacular. How does it feel to be back?

Alexandra: We are so happy. We love everything about Melodi Grand Prix and Eurovision. We kind of decided immediately in 2019 after we came off stage that we wanted to come back because we love it so so much. When we made Monument we felt like this could be the song to return with.

Tom: It’s good to be on a stage with a full production, it’s been so long, it seems like forever. We are publishing our documentary clips every Wednesday now and when I see these clips from a year or two years ago, it seems like another time when we were allowed to be on a big stage. So it’s really good to be back.

Culture Fix: Being back in such a high profile environment like Melodi Grand Prix and thinking of your past experience at Eurovision, how do you keep your nerves at bay before large-scale performances?

Tom: Whisky! I think for me, even though I’ve done it quite some time now, I still feel a slight anxiety when going on stage. Especially now because it’s been a while, but the good thing is when we are three we can gather strength from each other and focus together. The most important thing is to focus on the fact we love doing this and we know how to do it, we’ve done it so many times, and to try to bring strength from within.

Alexandra: We actually have a ritual that we have done before every concert when we stand in a circle and we shout “Čajet dan čuovgga” which are the Sámi words that we sing in Spirit in the Sky.

KEiiNO performing Spirit in the Sky

Culture Fix: Spirit in the Sky was such a big moment that connected with fans all over the world – even non-Eurovision fans. It must be quite remarkable to look back at the impact that has had?

Tom: Definitely. None of us knew what was going to happen because we were a new band and this was our first song. We had no idea about the reaction because we felt we were kind of gambling with what we did because it was the first time somebody had mixed Sámi-joik with accessible, camp some might say, pop and that’s never been done before. We didn’t know if the mainstream audience would like it or if the traditional Sámi musicians would think it was really not cool. Especially for Fred, but he always says Sámi-Joik, Joik is always in development and if you want to preserve something then you have to follow how the culture develops or evolves – if not, it would be some rarity that you find in a museum. Luckily most Sámi musicians felt the same, this is something different but we like it. It’s still honouring the culture and traditions, but still is something very different from what has been done before. To see that our mix of Sámi-Joik, the Nordic melodies, and the Schlager inspired pop sound got such a big audience in Norway, Europe and the rest of the world which was a bit surprising but very fun.

Culture Fix: Thinking of your album OKTA, are there any tracks that you felt deserved singles treatment or tracks that never got their time to shine?

Alexandra: I think Black Leather is a song that I feel shows a different side of us. We’re a bit edgy but also very honest with the music video and everything. It kind of drowned in the pandemic as we released it a week before lockdown.

Tom: It’s the worst video and song to release when we are about to go into social distancing. The video has 150 people all mingling! It was the worst timing ever.

Alexandra: I feel like that song will have it’s a time a bit later.

Tom: I agree that that song that deserved another time.

Fred, Alexandra and Tom in the video for KEiiNO’s Black Leather.

Culture Fix: Thinking back to Tel Aviv in 2019, can you explain some of the feelings that were coming through when watching the results come in?

Alexandra: I feel like it was a rollercoaster that night, because we were so happy with our performance and we were so energised and felt so loved feeling the energy from the audience. So when we got back in green room we were like “Okay we had fun and this was amazing” and then the jury votes came and we were like “Okay this is not a surprise that the jury doesn’t like us, since the same thing happened in Norway.” Then the audience votes came and the entire arena were screaming and we cried. That kind of made us feel we achieved something big – bigger than ourselves. We had spent so much time travelling, meeting new people, and performing our song all over Europe and to see that maybe affected what happened that night – that was just so beautiful. To see that we have an audience out there – we can tour and have concerts. My cheeks hurt that night because I had smiled so much. It was amazing

Culture Fix: The music video for Monument is so striking and such a fantastic advert for anyone to visit Norway. [Joking] That was so cruel because we can’t!

Tom: It will open up soon – we trust the vaccine! Hopefully summer time or at least autumn.  This was filmed in the first week of October. If you ever go to Norway and really want to see beautiful landscapes go in fall in the beginning of September/October.

Culture Fix: In terms of the video, it really captures the spectacular nature of the Norwegian landscape. Was it quite a pleasant experience to film?

Alexandra: It was a lot of fun. First of all we got to go places we have never been as a band. Up North it was freezing, Fred had this reindeer coat which keeps you super warm, he was sweating! I had a cape so I was okay – it was made of wool, but Tom had a leather jacket and thin blue thing underneath!

Tom: We didn’t think it too well through because the idea of the video is that we start in different places in Norway. I start in the South where the lighthouse is – that’s the Southern tip of Norway – and Fred starts up in the North and Alexandra starts on the Western cape. The idea is that we all meet at the same point as Fred. You need to wear the same costumes and of course it was perfect for down South in Kristiansand when it was 5-10 degrees. It was only about ten degrees minus in Kautokeino even though the wind made it feel thirty-below zero. Nevertheless we have been so lucky with the weather because really it is a week too late for outdoor filming. The weather forecast changed all the time so we had to rearrange where we were going, firstly we had to start one and a half days earlier because it was going to snow in the mountain.

Alexandra: I think I calculated over all we spent over thirty-five hours in a car in the week!

Tom: Then we flew up North to do the snowy parts. The conditions were definitely difficult – especially when we had to hike seven hours from the car to the mountain where we were ending the video. 1548 metres above sea-level. We didn’t have any crew so we did everything by ourselves – carrying 10-15 kilo rucksacks with all the gear and costumes, make-up etc. We went up when it was raining and cold, but the weather forecast said it was going to be okay in the afternoon – and it was! The weather was good! However we wanted to have a beautiful light towards the end so we had to really rush down before it started snowing.  Then the very next day it started snowing.

Alexandra: I did not know what kind of adventure was going to be and we are still best friends even after a trip like that. We can go through anything together.

Still from the video of KEiiNO’s MGP21 competing Monument

Culture Fix: Monument feels very KEiiNO and a natural progression for the band. Can you share some of the themes and message at the heart of the song?

It all started when Fred asked the question “What’s left of us when we are not here anymore, what traces do we leave behind?” That inspired Alex, the main lyricist in our group to write about that, all the monumental things in your life. It could be relationships that you will remember, the moments, the people that you meet – and to write a song about that. It’s also something that Fred mentions in his Sámi lyrics when he says “All we see is created by the past, all you hear is the echo of yesterday.” Everything you see here now is because of what other people or nature has done. It’s about looking back and it’s one of our deepest lyrics so far. We felt it was maybe the pandemic with us sitting at home thinking quite a lot about life and the people around us, what’s important when you don’t have the things you usually have.

Culture Fix: There’s quite a gap between your first MGP21 performance of the song until the final, how will you be preparing and are there any changes you can tell me about?

Alexandra: The benefit of being in the first semi-final is that we have been able to see the show and performance, to see what we like and don’t like, so we will make some adjustments. I like surprises so I don’t want to say too much.  I suggest that everyone turn on their TV on the 20th to see something awesome!

Tom: We had one suggestion that Fred will only be in body paint. I think he refused to do that! It’s the new take on artists making sand paintings, we are actually painting Fred [laughing] There will be improvement. We are happy with the first run through. It was also the first semi-final for NRK in a new studio.

Culture Fix: The talent this year in MGP21 is fantastic. Are there any other artists that are standing out for you guys?

Alexandra: I like that so many different genres are represented. So many different ages and looks. I think the final is going to be very cool.

Tom: I think there have been really good shows and songs this year and some really great vocalists. KiiM, from the last semi-final, his voice is amazing. Also Raylee’s show is fun to watch – she’s a really amazing dancer and singer. I hope that Big Daddy Karsten will get the wild card because I love his performance. He’s such a great guy.

Culture Fix: Will Monument perhaps be the lead single of a second full length KEiiNO album?

Tom: It’s definitely the first one! I’m quite definite that we will release song by song, then maybe save a few songs that haven’t been released before as singles for the album. Especially now when we want to give our fans little treats every now and then, when we can’t do so much outside – for us to shine some light in the different lives, that’s important for us.

Monument single cover

Culture Fix: Just to wrap up, I’d love to hear each of your favourite all time Eurovision acts?

Alexandra: I think we can agree on that one. Euphoria!

Culture Fix: How about from 2020?

Alexandra: Daði og Gagnamagnið.

Tom: I love The Roop as well. I like their new song as well. I think it’s really progressive, Discoteque, I think On Fire was more in your face for the mainstream audience, and personally I like the new song better.

Thanks for taking the time to chat KEiiNO. You can enjoy the video for Monument below.