The Norwegian singer-songwriter Vilde Iris Hartveit Kolltveit (AKA Iris) makes music of exquisite balance. Deep emotions play out on a backdrop of warm, minimalist electronica. Stories of love and connection vie with a desire for solitude. This is coming-of-age music, capturing all the intensity of early adulthood. And it sets out the stall of an idiosyncratic writer who, at just 22, has a kind of self-knowledge that reaches far beyond her years.
Iris was born into a music-loving family near Bergen, with four older siblings who all played instruments while she was growing up. One of her earliest memories is dozing off on her father’s shoulders at a Metallica concert, only to be woken by the pyro. Raised on the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (“Norwegian Wood” was a favourite), Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, she traces her own creative endeavours back to the seven-minute, a cappella songs she’d record on her first phone in the bedroom she shared with her brother. “Ten verses, no chorus. Not impressive at all,” she says, “but at least it was something...” Long-since erased in embarrassment, the tracks were the first sign of her vivid, novelistic approach to making music. On her debut EP A Sensitive Being, five songs of intimate, electronic beauty are brought to life with the cream of London and Norway’s young producers.
A self-confessed “supernerd” in middle school who wanted to be a doctor, Iris changed tack when she attended a specialist music school in Bergen at the age of sixteen. After just two months, she knew that music was her future – but opera and classical never gave her the same satisfaction as writing her own songs. With the indie pop duo Hage (it’s Norwegian for garden) she found her own means of expression, writing ultra-melodic dream pop with her best friend. Their colourful 2015 song “The Taste” has been streamed 100,000 times on Spotify. “But I loved writing so much and I couldn’t keep putting my words in her mouth,” she explains. The band ended one year ago and, energised by interest from Made Management, Iris entered a period of solitary creativity. She wrote so intensively that by the time Made asked her if she had any material, she had a dozen songs to show them.
The first of those tracks, From Inside A Car, was recorded exactly a year ago. This painterly, synth-driven stream-of-consciousness arose from a session with Bergen producer Askjell Solstrand (Sigrid Raabe, Aurora) and was based on a formative trip to Paris. Having never travelled on her own, Iris lived in France, working on farms, and experienced for the first time the energising power of loneliness. The old cliché, looking around a beautiful city and wishing you had someone to share it with, was flipped on its head: “My best friend and my boyfriend at the time came to visit, and I looked at all these beautiful places and thought, no matter how close I am to these people, we can never see the same beauty,” she says. “From Inside A Car summarised my inner world. Sometimes I feel like a moment is magical - but I look over at the friend I’m with, and I know we’re not seeing the same thing.”
In France, she came to relish her solitude. Her impressionistic lyrics capture both the desire for connection and the impossibility of truly ever finding it: Every situation is a concert. I’ve got front row tickets, and I hope you can make it… I’m lonely here, but it wouldn’t be the same if you were singing it too…
She knew exactly what sound she wanted for her debut release: “Electronic but acoustic too. Electronic drums, something that drives it a bit, with some surprises in there – but minimalist. And I wanted warmth. It needed to be very close and intimate…”
Brought to life in London and Norway over the course of one year, with the bulk of the recording completed in Bergen’s Lydriket Studios, A Sensitive Being doesn’t tell the story of one relationship or set of characters but instead seems to chart the development of Iris’s own inner life. Of working with Solstrand she says, “It was super-fast. Everything worked together like we were solving a puzzle.” He also produced the wry Hanging Around You / Crackers, about “a complicated friendship” and the frustration you feel towards yourself getting caught up in behaviours you know are no good for you. Like eating crackers in bed, or hanging around with someone who does you no good… “I was trying to find a new way to insult someone,” she laughs. But her characters are veiled: “I’m afraid that I will hurt someone by being too honest, so I try and cover it up…”
A deep sensitivity permeates Iris’s song-writing. The exquisite Repose, produced by Vetle Junker (Verdensrommet), is more of a mood than a song. “I wanted to let my loved one know that he doesn’t have to stress about anything. I can’t do anything more than tell him ‘I’m yours’,” she explains. The song is a declaration of love, utterly relaxed, and unconventional in its structure. Rich synth chords splash around Iris’s delicate vocal in a musical illustration of less-is-more. “It doesn’t really have a chorus, it’s just a vibe,” she says. “That song is my feelings translated into music.”
Repose came quickly, like all the songs on A Sensitive Being. Giving In arose in just one day after a song-writing camp in Bergen, where she met the London composer and producer Ian Barter, a former MD for Amy Winehouse. The lyrics, about an old love, were a couple of years out of date, but when she dived back in to the story they made complete sense, “because it is also about forgiveness. The song came full circle.”
She writes visually, poring over trailers and imagining her songs as little films. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stunning Romance Is Dead, conceived during a two-week stint working in London. In the studio by day, but alone by night, Iris once again experienced the solitude of being by herself in a big city. Each day she’d head to the Book Club in Shoreditch, a café that turns into a club when the sun goes down, and sit there during the “transition phase” with a coffee or a red wine, watching the evening’s revellers – or lost souls – descend. “Those nights sitting in the corner, I wrote every thought down,” she says. “I was fascinated with the people. All of them were looking for something. I felt so much compassion for them, because in my head they really just wanted to be loved! Some of them seemed pretty broken. Maybe I just put my emotions on them, but they felt so real, they had all these needs and dreams, and they were so whole in themselves. I think I wanted to be superwoman and make everyone happy. Like Cupid…”
After one four-hour writing session, she showed her notebook to the London-based producer and artist Couros Sheibani and they lifted lines directly for a song which, despite its deep backstory, is the height of minimalism. The entrance of a simple acoustic guitar comes as a complete surprise – exciting and organic on the electronic backdrop.
Two years ago, Iris says, the thought of being in the music industry was impossible, and making an album was as distant a dream as the novel she hopes one day to write. Now, she’s sifting through thirty five songs for her debut long player.
A lot has changed since that trip to Paris. “It feels like I’m ten years older,” she says. “This year has been so intense, I’ve been working so hard and I feel so much stronger, yet I am also very blind. I have no idea what I’m doing. I feel very different. My mother would say I’m the same, but I think I’ve changed – into something better, I hope.”