Moddi Explores Each Track of His Politically Charged New Album “Unsongs”

Pål Moddi Knutsen

Pål Moddi Knutsen. Photo by Jørgen Nordby.

As Pål Moddi Knutsen (known simply as Moddi) explains it, it was never his intention to become a political musician. Until Unsongs the Norwegian singer/songwriter’s catalogue had consisted mainly of emotive folk. Love, loss, and learning your place in the world figured heavily into his delicately-orchestrated tales, particularly on his 2013 high water mark, Set the House on Fire. The album is an exercise in delivering heavy statements with grace—but all of its songs described what could be considered “universal experiences.”

That changed two years ago, when Moddi was invited to perform in Israel. Given the region’s heated political climate, Moddi ended up canceling the scheduled show. He was unsure of what to do, feeling like he was unable to contribute to the narrative.

“After that, I had a period where I didn’t have a lot of faith in my own music,” he confesses. “It’s natural if you hit a wall. It was after that year, in 2013, when I released two albums and did a million concerts. I was really tired as well. At that point, I basically didn’t know what to do. I felt so incredibly tired and powerless at the same time. And disillusioned with music.”

Nevertheless, a seed had been planted. How could he lend his voice to the political conversation? Finding inspiration in the Norwegian musician Birgitte Grimstad, who included a specially-written protest song in her set when she toured Israel in the 1980s, Moddi began to seek out songs that shined a light on the dark corners of society—songs where a musician who sang them was censored, imprisoned, or harmed for their art. This music formed the base for Unsongs, a collection of covers from around the world.

“I thought I was going to make a side project thing,” he explains. “This was just something that I realized I needed to dig deeper into, because it was just endless. Every country on earth has a history of censorship. That’s really what surprised me. There is no place on earth that hasn’t censored musicians or art. It seems like an inherent feature of nationalism.”

We asked Moddi to unpack each track of Unsongs, which resulted in a compelling trek across 12 different countries and several decades of political unrest.

“June Fourth 1989: From The Shattered Pieces Of A Stone It Begins”

This is probably the song on the album which is going to cause the most trouble for me. It is written by Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. He is an extremely controversial figure in China, and should be a very controversial figure in the West as well. He’s won the Nobel Peace prize for encouraging democracy in China. But he has also supported the invasion of Vietnam. He wrote a book in commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre that occurred on June 4th, 1989. Every year on the anniversary [of that event], he wrote one poem and later realized that the poems were really vague. If you didn’t know that it was about the fourth of June, then nobody would understand it. If somebody else released that book and didn’t call it June 4 Eulogies like he did, you wouldn’t actually understand that this was a voice that was counter to the Chinese government. It’s a very grotesque form of poetry that has very little connection to anything. It can be interpreted to be about anything, really. So it’s strange to see that, because of that collection of poems, he got two years in a Chinese labor camp. That was his first sentence. His first punishment. Now, he’s in prison for doing other things. Basically, for just writing about something that the Chinese government wants everybody to forget.

Since the Nobel Peace prize is handed out in Norway, my country already has a tense relationship with China. There have been trade embargos. There’s been a lot of hassle with diplomats. Anything, really. So now that a Norwegian artist released this song with the support of the Norwegian culture counsel, it’s going to be a lot of trouble. I’m not going to be able to go to China after this. I’m quite sure about that. Which sort of sucks since, as I said, I’m not on Xiaobo’s side in most cases. But at the same time, I didn’t want to find 12 voices that I agreed with. I didn’t want the 12 singers or writers [on this album] to suit my agenda.

“A Matter Of Habit”

This one is from Israel. We met the leader of the organization Breaking the Silence, an organization of ex-soldiers that records testimonies about the everyday aspects of living in occupation, not the extreme cases of mass shootings and soldiers going wild. They talk about what it does to the mentality when you’re handed a gun. In the beginning, it is exciting. It is something new. It is something scary. But with time, you become numb. That’s the word they use, “numb.” You stop seeing Palestinians as equal human beings. You see them as objects of your work as a soldier. The lyrics of this song are directly based on quotes from testimonies from ex-soldiers from Breaking the Silence. It’s a really strong statement, the whole song and the whole text. It really is overwhelming. It’s so real. More than a thousand soldiers have testified to Breaking the Silence so far. Just thinking that there’s a song here that over a thousand people have been a part of writing—it really gives me the creeps.

Yizhar Ashdot, an Israeli rock star, released it. He’s the Bruce Springsteen of Israel. The reason why this song is on the album is because the army radio stations are the main radio stations in Israel. That’s what people listen to. He was presenting his new album on the radio, just a few days after the album came out. He was tuning his guitar before going to play that song when the station commander ran into the room and physically tore the guitar off him, because he wouldn’t accept that song being played on his channel. There were many newspapers that supported the ban of the song. It’s an anti-military song. The radio station stated, ‘We should avoid celebrating a song that demonizes our soldiers.’ It’s probably the song on the album for which the censorship has garnered the most support. Because the army in Israel is such a necessary part of society. Anything that has to with the Middle East is a beehive.  On the other hand, it’s a beautiful song. It’s an important statement. It’s fantastically written.

“Punk Prayer”

There were many other songs from Russia that were more obvious to cover than this one. Yes, I had heard about Pussy Riot and yes, they are iconic. But at the same time, I didn’t consider their music to be music at all—it’s just noise to me. It’s punk. Secondly, the way they perform and the way they act sort of gives the impression that they are mainly after the attention. That’s what it looks like anyway, to someone who doesn’t know Russian, who doesn’t know them, and who doesn’t know their message. I was profoundly surprised to learn that the lyrics they write are full of fantastic poetry. It may not be music—I still don’t consider it to be music. But the lyrics and the message and the way that it is written is extremely precise. A very poetic translation into English. It could be done more literally, but this is great.

We recorded the video for “Punk Prayer” in April. We realized that it would be too dangerous to take the song to a Russian church and perform it there, like they did. So I requested the easternmost parish in Norway, inside their easternmost church line, 500 meters from the Russian border, as a symbolic act. But they refused. That was a bit surprising. The Norwegian church is usually very open, very liberal, and very welcoming. But the message turned out to be too strong for them. So we went there anyway and filmed it outside. It’s a one-and-a-half hour snowmobile drive from the closest town. The wind was super strong, and minus six degrees. It was difficult to do the video on the steps like we did. Because we didn’t break into the church. We wanted to meet them halfway.

“Open Letter”

I didn’t know that there was a Berber population in the world. I didn’t know they had 20-something different languages. I didn’t know that they considered themselves to be the original population of northern Africa. I definitely didn’t know that there was serious conflict between the Berber population and Arab countries. Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Mali. So basically this man [who wrote the song], a poet secularist, very French inspired secularist, dedicated his whole life to saving the Berber culture, languages and identity. This song shows how far he would go in challenging the government. The song is called “Open Letter,” but I think that the literal translation of the original title would be something like “Open Letter to the High Lords.” It is a direct encouragement to the people to stand up against the government. I’m not sure if it calls for a violent struggle, but nonetheless it calls for a separate state in Algeria. He insults Islam, he insults the French, and he insults the Algerian government. He’s at odds with absolutely everybody at the same time. That’s probably why he got assassinated in 1998. Nobody really knows if it was radical Islamists or if it was the Algerian government who got him killed, or if it was both. Anyway, he was a very controversial figure, because he didn’t want religion to be part of the state apparatus.

“Army Dreamers”

There aren’t that many people who know that “Army Dreamers” was ever censored. There aren’t that many people who know that music gets censored in the western world at all. But “Army Dreamers” was hugely popular in the ’80s after Kate Bush released it. But in 1990, when the UK went into the Gulf War, that song, along with 67 other songs, were blacklisted from the BBC—from broadcast, from TV, from radio.They also removed songs like “Back in the USSR,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Killing an Arab,” “Rock the Casbah,” “Hunting High and Low” by ah-ha. It seems almost random. It seems like they chose a lot of songs that might related to acts of war. “Army Dreamers” was removed from airplay because it has an anti-war sentiment. It tells the story of a young soldier who comes back to his mother in a coffin. It’s understandable that the BBC, in time of war, do not want people to think about war. But, on the other hand, it tells us something about how sick our society is, when we can go off bomb Syria and bomb Libya and have 500,000 soldiers go into the Gulf War and never think about the negative consequences. We only speak about the mission. The quest of freeing or the quest of whatever it is we do. When have you ever seen documentary that takes the perspective of an Afghani family being bombed with no reason? Losing their uncle or their son or their grandmother to a bomb that hit 200 meters too far north? When have you ever seen a documentary about a young American soldier who went to Iraq and came home dead? It doesn’t happen. It’s just something that we do not talk about. That’s why I chose that song. It so brilliantly captures the grief of this mother. Each soldier has a life and a family waiting for them.

“Our Worker”

Víctor Jara’s is often portrayed as the archetype of banned music. He was outspoken, explicitly left-wing, and was eventually killed. He represented a movement, the Nueva Cancion, which was absolutely banned during the dictatorship in Chile. So I included his song on the album because it forms a sort of historical backdrop that most people accept. But the important point of the album is that, although Jara’s story is a good doorway to the history of censored music, it is really just the tip of an iceberg. Censorship happens everywhere! Not only in far-away authoritarian regimes, not only in the ’70s and ’80s, not only against left-wing musicians and social activists, not only through imprisonment and killing. I included Jara because it represents one form of suppression of art, but a particularly conspicuous and perhaps even romanticized form. In reality, it is so much more.

“Parrot, Goat & Rooster”

This is a very funny one. It is a ballad from Taiwan, which didn’t actually get censored. It was a hugely popular song when it was released because it appealed to both children and grownups. If you listen to it as a child, you hear it as a song about farm life—about playing around with your animals, your parrot, your goat, and your rooster. But if you hear it as a grownup, you hear it as a metaphor. The parrot is heroin, the goat is cocaine, and the rooster is marijuana. You hear it quite differently. So it became a party anthem for the ex-pats—for Mexicans in the U.S. But it was one of the first Narcocorridos that really became famous. With time, the Mexican government has been working harder and harder against that genre as a whole. In certain states, not only are Narcocorridos are banned, but they have banned the whole genre of corridos, which is basically banning ballads. Because they can’t tell if it’s a Narcocorrido or not. You can argue that “Parrot, Goat, Rooster” is a perfectly legitimate song about farm life. About animals. And so the government has decided to ban the whole genre, so that they don’t have to deal with the ambiguity of words. That’s a quite special or interesting case. To me, including this song on the album—I don’t necessarily agree with the people who write these lyrics. I don’t necessarily support drug trafficking. But rather than silencing the whole genre, it seems to me that it’s important to have music that reflects the attitude of the people who live there. And they don’t do that. Corridos aren’t just music, they’re a part of the culture. You can’t censor that.

“The Shaman & The Thief”

This is a traditional song from my own country. For centuries, the Norwegians have discriminated against, and tried to assimilate, the Sami people. It’s our little national project. We have banned the Sami language altogether, both in the songs and official use. The reason it was the last song on the album was because it was so difficult to find, because we had almost succeeded in making the Sami culture go away. It is something that most Norwegians don’t think about. When I tell them I have a Sami song on the album people go, “Hey why don’t you look to Afghanistan, Why don’t you look to Pakistan, why don’t you look to Iran, where censorship is actually happening? It doesn’t happen here.” I say, “Have you considered the assimilation of the Sami?” And they say “What assimilation?” It’s definitely something that we do not think about as cultural censorship, but it is. Norwegian schools tell you that for ages we’ve been living in harmony. By some God-given development, the Sami have been fewer and fewer. Some of them have started drinking, and some of them have become Christian. That’s just “something that happened out of the blue.” But it’s been rough, and it’s been an on-going colonization of the land. It’s been ugly, when seen through Sami eyes.

This song is from 1840. It’s really ancient, because there aren’t any other songs left. This specific song was written down by a priest that was a little too interested in the Sami culture. It was transported to Sweden, and from there to a German archive where it was kept for almost 100 years before anybody published it. If it had been stored in a Norwegian archive, it would have been destroyed. It would have been torn apart and thrown away, because it would be seen as in inferior culture and not worth preserving. So basically everything we have left is this text that was written down by a man that didn’t actually know Sami, from a dialect that is long gone and had to be completely reinterpreted by us, and by a professor at the University who knows the Sami language very well. That was digging deep—not only into our own history but into our dark history. There’s so much stigma and negative feeling surrounding that culture that even parents today force their children not to take up any of the Sami cultural heritage. Because it’s still seen as inferior. It’s still seen as native—primitive.

“Eli Geva”

This song is when the baby steps of this album started. Four days after the cancellation of the concert in Israel, I got an email from Birgitte Grimstad, a very famous Norwegian singer, 79-years-old, who told me that when she was my age, she had been in the same situation. She did an Israel tour in 1982, which was the year when all hell broke loose in Lebanon and Israel. What happened was that she had already put up this tour, and people begged her not to go. She was determined that this was the right thing to do, to go there and to actually play.

This is where it gets good: She also realized that she needed to bring something political, something which would show where she stood politically in the conflict. She’s a stout anti-militarist. She totally despises everything that has to do with weapons. So she dug up this story about an Israeli officer in the Israeli army called Eli Geva who had decided not to lead his forces into Beirut. He refused a military order to attack Beirut. And he was dismissed from service. The story is longer than that, because he was somehow able to sneak out of it—disobeying a military order in war usually means death penalty. He was somehow able to prevent being charged.  I don’t know how he did it, really. The day after, he was all over the news. He was the youngest leader in the Israeli defense force. He was a bright star, everybody knew his name.

So she gathered information about him, and cut out newspaper articles about him, and handed it over to a Norwegian songwriter named Richard Burgess, and he wrote a song about it. She went to Israel to play her concerts and included it in her set. But after having performed it at first a very liberal kibbutz, and then in a very conservative kibbutz that thought it was not okay at all, her third concert was with a war veteran club. Rumor had traveled about this Norwegian singer who was hailing a military deserter, which was incredibly controversial at the time. The message was quite clear: That song was completely unacceptable. They started spread a rumor about this song. Throughout the tour, she received more and more negative feedback. People told her that if she continued singing it, she would be shot. It even got to the top levels of politics. The tour finale was supposed to be in Jerusalem. Before the concert, the Norwegian ambassador came up to her before the show and told her that if she played that song, he would have to leave the room in protest.

That was how this whole project started, with one song that had been censored. Before, I had been looking inward—writing about myself, about my own life. All of a sudden, here was a song that that opened up the world. It was about something on the outside. It was never-ending. Any story that takes place in the Middle East is never ending. It felt so relevant to me personally at the time. But it was also a way to get to know a place, to get to know a history. If one song can contain so much history and be left in a drawer, what else can be out there?

“Strange Fruit”

I started looking within this whole movement of parent advisory stickers, of Clear Channel black lists—all the things that get labeled out of the market. Because the free market is the only place you can distribute music, the way things get censored in America is that they get denied access to the free market. With explicit lyrics labels, you won’t get your music distributed through Walmart for example. The problem is that I didn’t find any interesting music.

I had to go all the way to 1937 to find an interesting song. I know it sounds quite silly. But at the same time, I couldn’t find anything in modern American history that I found interesting. When I was reading the words in addition to melody, it became very obvious that this needed to be a part of the album. Especially as I started reading about the story of Billie Holiday and how she wanted to record this song, but her record label refused her, because they were afraid of the repercussions from the white southern states, and from radio station owners and record label owners and distributors who were also white. What happened is that she recorded this song outside of her record contract with an independent label and, as we all know, it became one of her greatest hits. But what would have happened if she wasn’t allowed to do that? What would have happened to the song? Would it have just disappeared? I don’t know. Both with that song and with “Eli Geva,” both are the songs on the album that were the closest to just disappearing.

“Where is My Vietnam?”

This song is by a Vietnamese singer who got four years in prison for writing it. His fate is similar to fate of Pussy Riot. He challenged authorities and lost. He didn’t have a huge following. He didn’t have a huge network. Therefore, it was easy for the Vietnamese government to persecute and imprison him for having written and recorded a song where he basically says that the Vietnamese government is corrupt. That they are incapable of leading the country. That they are incapable of dealing with the border dispute with China. That they are incapable of feeding their own population, and that they are bought and paid for by foreign investors. That’s something that doesn’t go unpunished in Vietnam. That level of dissent. Still, it sounds like an anthem. That’s probably also one of the reasons why they reacted. It really is a song that inspires action. People did take to the streets and sing this song together with him. But as soon as he was imprisoned, it disappeared.

“Oh My Father, I am Joseph”

This is the most tragic incident of a song resulting in trouble. It’s a beautifully-written song inspired by a text from the Koran. But you can also find the text in the Bible. It’s basically the same story: the story of Joseph, the youngest of 12 brothers, the boy who could interpret dreams. He was fairer; he was wiser, stronger than any of his brothers. His father loved him. His brothers hated him. This should have been a very uncontroversial story for anyone, either a Christian or Muslim. But because he cites one verse from the Koran, he got examined in court in Lebanon three times in one decade. Religious authorities didn’t approve of that. So, a song that so beautifully conveys the story of the Palestine people for who it’s written—it faced a lot of misgivings. It’s such a shame. I put that song on the album because it’s so beautiful, not necessarily because it’s incredibly important. The singer said that the reason the religious authorities were afraid of that song was because it connects people emotionally with the holy writing of the Koran. The religious authorities of Lebanon don’t want people to connect emotionally with the Koran. They want people to do as they say. They want people to interpret it the way they do. They want to control people. They’re not interested in having people read the Koran in their own way. That’s the reason, in his opinion why they got so afraid of this song. It gives the people a way to enter the holy writings without the interpretative layer of the clerics. I can see that. It’s so beautifully written that anyone would get interested in reading more from the Koran. It sums up the album quite well. Joseph himself was a whistleblower of his time. He dreamt things that turned out to be true. When he told people what he saw in his dreams, not only did they laugh at him, they scorned him. In the story, they throw him in the well and his brothers sell him as a slave to the Egyptians. That’s basically the way whistleblowers get treated today as well. You can see the line going all the way back to the Old Testament.

Laura Studarus

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