Photography Maxime Imbert

farao bares her soul to the sound of soviet-era disco

On 'Pure-O,' the Berlin-based electronic artist tackles sexual desire, addiction, and the complexities of human emotion.

by Nick Fulton
19 October 2018, 3:22pm

Photography Maxime Imbert

When we met Norwegian electronic musician Farao (real name Kari Jahnsen) in New York this past summer, she was sitting in a windowless room in Greenwich Village. She’s not from around here and has the receipts to prove it. “It’s always really nice, but jesus it’s expensive now,” she says of the city. “I paid $6.50 for a coffee this morning. It was maybe the most expensive cup of coffee I have ever had.” The Berlin-based artist was in New York to promote her second full-length album Pure-O (out today via Western Vinyl), which riffs on sex, desire, addiction, and the complexities of human relationships.

Sonically, Pure-O is both a feast of noise and a meditation on the essence of modern electronic music. It’s packed with big, bold sounds and layers of synth, bass and vocals that form a rapturous sugar high. Jahnsen says the album was inspired by Soviet-era disco, the music of minimalist jazz composer Terry Riley, and the intricacies of Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda. Diving deep into Pure-O, you can hear how the fundamentals of those pioneering works have informed Jahnsen’s own music.

Single “Lula Loves You” contains harp and is directly inspired by Coltrane and fellow jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. The song itself is a reference to the relationship between Lula (played by Laura Dern) and Sailor (played by Nicolas Cage) in David Lynch’s critically acclaimed film Wild At Heart. Fueled by nostalgia, Jahnsen sings, “there will be times when your heart is lonely / there will be days when he never comes home / and there will be a point where you’ll want to leave him / but my darling please don’t turn away from love.” The king of industrial, Soviet-era synths known as Polivoks, of which much of Pure-O is built on, marks its territory on “Luster For The Eyes,” where it gives muscle to Jahnsen’s arresting vocal. It flexes itself again on final track “Truthsayer.” There’s unintended contemporary references, too. Opener “Marry Me” contains an Italo disco-inspired beat that was similarly adopted by Portland synth-pop duo Glass Candy in the mid-2000s. The melody on “Gabriel” is reminiscent of The Ruby Suns’ “In Real Life.” This isn’t to suggest that Jahnsen is making derivative pop music, but rather to highlight the scope of her work and to acknowledge her own musical roots.

What can you tell us about Pure-O ?
There’s not really one overall theme. I was inspired by everything from movies to relationships between friends and partners and family members. One of the songs — “Gabriel” — I watched this interview with a pornstar who was in a relationship with a sex doll. She called him her boyfriend. It’s real size, everything is supposed to be as real as possible. It’s the most sold male sex doll in the world and its name is Gabriel. I wrote the song about her being in a relationship with him. There was something she said that really stuck with me — ‘I just want a dick that’s not a dick.’ That to me was really sad but beautiful at the same time. This album is all over the place. A lot of it is about sex and addiction, but when I write a song, I’m never really the ‘I’ in the song. I write it from other people’s perspectives, so I put myself in someone else’s shoes.

The record was inspired by Soviet-era disco. Where did that obsession come from?
It just randomly happened one night when I was on YouTube doing the ‘Up Next’ thing. This song called “Electric Alarm Clock” started playing from a collection called Sports and Music 1, which is an exercise from the Soviet Union that was commissioned by the state to be used in gym classes. The series has four releases, Sports and Music 1, 2, and 3, and the fourth one is called Aerobic Exercises. It’s amazing electronic, synthesizer-based music. A lot of disco, but also weird electro stuff all made by jazz musicians. The state commissioned it. They got the best jazz players in the Soviet Union to make it, so it’s all really jazzy, and I love that. It’s super complex.

You were also influenced by Alice Coltrane. What attracted you to her music?
The way I was introduced to her was through Journey in Satchidananda. I was really inspired by her harp playing, and by another harpist named Dorothy Ashby. There’s something about the harp that really soothes my soul. It really is a healing thing for me, when I listen to it I feel really balanced and centered, and I wanted to bring this into my music because that space in my consciousness is really important to me. Also, I really loved the most recent Alice Coltrane compilation, which consists of her chanting (and playing a synthesizer and singing), along with a choir in her hindu temple that she started in LA. Oh my god, it’s the best! It’s called The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. I don’t remember when it was recorded — early 80s, I think — but it sounds like it’s from 2050.

You describe yourself as a city person, but you grew up in a really small town in Norway called Ulnes. How long did you live in that town for?
I moved away when I was 19. I think ever since I’ve only lived in cities as a reaction to my childhood, because I was so bored there. There was no one to play with and no one who really cared about music; the people who did liked Norwegian country music, which is huge in Norway. So I was pretty alone with my interests until I moved away. One of my favorite things about living in a city is that you can find someone who you share interests with. I really need that. I get really lonely if I’m not around people who understand me.

You started playing music seriously when you were 19, is that correct?
I did this one year called a folk high school, which is a very specific thing for Norway. You live in the school, and the whole school is music, dance, and art. There are no tests. You get food cooked for you every day and it’s just a year of doing what you love with no obligations and with friends who share your interests. It’s unbelievable. It was the best year of my life.

Did attending that school make you want to have a career in music?
Yeah. I was really confused as to what I wanted to do when I was growing up, so the reason I went to that school was to try it out. But I never ever wanted to be something else; music has always felt like my only option. I don’t know what else I would do if I wasn’t a musician. I would probably just work in a cafe, which is fine, but I never had a specific career goal outside of music.

Soviet Union