For the past two decades, Grammy-nominated band The National has filled the airwaves with its melancholic indie-tunes and poetic lyrics – lyrics that often unveil a deep layer of existential Weltschmerz and political frustration with the underbelly of American consumer society.
They’re well known in Denmark, not least because The National’s principal songwriter Aaron Dessner happened to fall in love with a Danish woman, with whom he has two small children. Now his connection to Denmark is set to get even stronger, as Dessner embarks on some Danish musical entrepreneurship.
“I’m sorry, I’m a little hung over,” he says as he opens the front door of a massive Frederiksberg home.
Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Dessner partially relocated to Denmark after meeting his wife Stine. The family alternates between Copenhagen and a farmhouse in upstate New York, where Aaron records with the rest of the band. They just wrapped their new studio album, Sleep Well Beast, which is set to be released in the autumn.
Before then, Dessner will premiere a brand new festival in Copenhagen, Haven, that will take place in the post-industrial setting of Refshaleøen over two days in August, and will bring together music, food and beer.
In addition to his own band, Dessner has managed to snare a number of high-class acts to perform, including Band of Horses, Beach House and Bon Iver. The food and beer are being organised by his collaborators Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, co-founder of the microbrewery Mikkeller, and culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer, who is widely recognised as the founder of New Nordic Cuisine.
It’s actually Meyer’s house that we are sitting in now.
“I definitely didn’t buy this house! Claus bought it about 30 years ago. There’s a stable in the backyard! Upstairs there are five or six bedrooms. When I’m alone here, I lose it – like, yesterday, I lost my shoe and couldn’t find it until this morning,” Dessner says jokingly while sipping his coffee.
A bit of a bubble
Despite having lived in Denmark for several years, Dessner still feels out of place around Danes.
“People are good at English, but it’s odd because the better they know you socially, the more inclined they are to switch immediately to Danish as soon as you walk away from the table. And then you feel a bit on the outside,” he says about his experience with Danish friends.
“It’s not the same as in New York. I’ll be in New York with friends, and literally no one except me was born in the country, but the whole society is a melting pot – it’s easier to feel at home,” he says.
“I understand Danish really well, but I just can’t really have a conversation. Except with my kids. My five-year-old is fully fluent in both languages. She laughs at me when I speak Danish and she teaches me. She says, ‘Daddy, what do you want to know?’ I know enough Danish to act like I know a lot and then I’ll screw up and she’ll just start laughing. It’s not an easy language. When I hear people from Jutland it’s easier – it’s just the Copenhagen thing that’s hard.”
But it’s not only love that brought him to Denmark, it’s also the politics – more precisely, the Danish social system.
“The USA is the wealthiest country in the world, and we don’t have a basic social system that’s functioning,” he points out matter-of-factly.
“I pay a lot of tax and do everything right, but the schools where we live are not good, we have no healthcare because we live somewhere rural, and I don’t have a normal job, so getting healthcare for my kids is kind of complex. So when you’re married to someone who comes from a country that has this amazing social democracy that’s functioning…” he trails off.
“The decisions you make here in Denmark are not driven entirely by money or worrying about going bankrupt. It feels like a socially healthier environment. People are more content. There aren’t the same extremes as you see in America,” he says, but quickly points out that he simultaneously feels conflicted because he has a sense of responsibility to engage with the problems back home.
“Denmark is a much safer, cleaner, more environmentally-conscious place. The fact that people ride their bikes everywhere, the fact that you’re the leaders in wind power, and that the tap water is really good. You take it for granted, but I feel like it’s an unusual thing,” he says.
Dessner doesn’t feel that Danes always understand the gravity of the problems that the United States faces. He also finds that they tend to shy away from talking about politics with him.
“I feel like it’s a little bit of a bubble in Denmark. It’s not that people disregard the politics, but sometimes it feels like you can’t share that feeling of what’s going on in the United States.”
The members of The National have made a point of identifying as politically active since the band’s inception almost two decades ago. They have supported the presidential campaigns of Democratic candidates – the Obama campaign used their song Fake Empire for an election video – and they have raised money for range of causes, from HIV to civil rights.
“There’s almost a responsibility to speak up for what you believe in when you have an audience,” Dessner says.
The 9/11 terror attacks also had an impact on the band, taking place just a week before their very first tour. Dessner says he witnessed fear and anxiety arise across the country, and argues these were channelled by the Bush administration to push an agenda whose repercussions the world is still feeling.
“That political environment can be seen in all of our albums. Very early on, we decided that we needed to be engaged with charitable work. Right now it’s focused on helping people who are going to be active targets of the Trump administration – so women’s rights, refugees and immigrant issues,” Dessner says.
“Most important is Planned Parenthood, because they are defunding it,” he says, referring to the non-profit organisation that supplies reproductive care to millions of women every year. It is also the largest provider of abortion services in the US, making it a primary target of pro-life groups.
“Donald Trump is putting millions of women’s health at risk by defunding Planned Parenthood, because they won’t be able to get cervical and breast cancer screenings. I can pay for my wife and my daughter, but a lot of people in communities all over the country can’t. And the people who are doing this are wealthy, white men. It’s totally fucked up. Trump is a grotesque example of all the things that are wrong with our celebrity culture,” he says, adding that symptoms of American populism are becoming increasingly evident in Denmark too.
“I know that beneath the surface, some of the same things and intentions that are playing out on a massive scale in the United States are here as well – the anti-immigrant policies and the Danish People’s Party. I mean, it’s a pretty xenophobic party. But nothing here comes close to what the Republicans are doing to America.”
Haven was borne out of his experiences touring with The National for almost 20 years and growing tired of playing the same type of events – another muddy field or another urban setting. He wanted to create a new kind of experience.
“Certain festivals are cultural phenomena, like Roskilde or Glastonbury, it’s a rite of passage for people of a certain age. But as an artist, it gets boring,” he explains, adding that a few years ago he started to collaborate and experiment in creating new types of events with people from different artistic disciplines and crafts.
“In a way, Haven is my way of engaging with Copenhagen and connecting with the community,” Dessner says about his new endeavour.
“I’ve become friends with Claus and Mikkel over the years through music. I have a lot of respect for their sense of craftsmanship. It was an opportunity to create almost a lab or a living installation, where we go into an environment where there’s a lot of innovation and inspiration happening in different mediums. And that seems like an interesting way to spend a few days for the artist and the audience. It’s a ‘haven’ for creative expression. A festival for the senses – it’s more than just bands on the stage. Hopefully, over time, we can give Danish underground musicians the opportunity to perform.”
It remains to be seen whether people will choose to go to Haven over any of the other dozens of festivals in Denmark over the summer. But Dessner doesn’t see Haven as competing in the festival marketplace. Rather, he sees Haven as a community of people who will come together in a village of multi-disciplinary activities.
“What’s happening in the beer and food world is as significant as what’s going to happen musically. I’m excited about connecting with people from all fields. It’s a step beyond anything we’ve ever done before,” he concludes, now looking considerably less hung-over. M