On her third album, Raging River, Norwegian Americana musician Benedicte Brænden delivers a remarkable collection of love and loss, of struggle and success, of connection and disconnection. Coming off a smashing show at the 2022 Stagecoach festival, the Norwegian artist’s Americana blends traditional songcraft, tight playing, and canny instrumentation, mixing in punchy brass and passionate strings, bluesy guitar solos, and soulful organ.
Raging River represents a new, more mature phase of Brænden’s work: “For the first time in my life,” she says, “I started calling myself a musician.”
The roots of this album go back to 2018, when Brænden upended her life, closing the yoga and Pilates studio she owned for 12 years in Norway and moving to Germany for her husband’s work. Yes, in addition to being a musician and a mom, she was a small-business owner. Prior to the move, Brænden simply didn’t have that much time to focus on songwriting; she started to write what became Raging River after arriving in Germany.
“It was such a great feeling to have time to be creative,” she says. “We were living a two-hour train ride from Paris, so I went there to get inspiration. I was actively searching, traveling, and checking out new music and artists.”
In 2019, Brænden headed into Studio Paradiso in Oslo, Norway, recording “Can’t Feel My Heart,” “Raging River,” and “Someday Soon,” a dark triptych about disappointment and being let down by life but still believing in love and family.
Of course, the rest had to be recorded in pieces, as the pandemic made it hard to travel from Germany to Norway. But still, she persisted.
Raging River features some of the same folks she played with on her well-regarded 2017 album Blood on Your Hands, including producer Christian Engfelt and guitarist Stian Sveen (Lucky Lips), but mixes in new players for new colors. A new rhythm section boasts Martin Windstad (Todd Terje, Kurt Nilsen) on drums and percussion and Yngve Jordalen (The Northern Belle) on bass. David Wallumrød plays organ and piano, while strings and rich horn lines round out the sound for an album that can move from sadness to joy in an instant.
Opener “The Last Place that Satan Ever Slept” feels like a statement of purpose, a sign that this is a new chapter in the Benedicte Brænden story, a big swing from a mature artist who knows good ideas are good ideas, no matter where they come from. Co-written with friend and co-writer Martin Hagfors, “Last Place” started off with different lyrics.
“Martin was bold enough to send me a new one, based on the text I had already written,” Brænden says. “After letting it sink in for a couple of weeks (and work on my ego) I realized that this was the only right text for this song. It turned out to be one of my favorite tracks of the album.”
(A fantastic example of their teamwork: “The air is burning, the trees are coming down/ What used to be a jungle is now a sinking town/ Turning the other cheek is not just looking the other way/ Ignoring is not the wisest thing we do today”) She follows it with “Can’t Feel My Heart,” a slow-dance heartbreaker, and “Heartbreak,” a remarkably upbeat song that finds optimism in a dark moment (“If it’s just a heartbreak/ I will be just fine”).
She’s also comfortable talking about the love and complexity of family. “Worth My While,” with its anthemic chorus, is an ode to her two sons, while “Till Death Do Us Part,” a duet with singer Luke Elliot is that rarity, a triumphant song about long-term love and marriage. “Crook of the Year” is a slow-burning blues (Knut Reiersrud’s thoughtful solos are a stellar touch). The album closes with the title tracks and “Someday Soon,” two songs that confront personal disappointment head-on but leave room for hope.
Raging River “is my most personal album so far,” Brænden says. “ It has been a process of trying to believe more in myself and to let go of thoughts that are holding me back. In a way, it has made me feel more free and sincere and more connected to my feelings.” Raging River is the sort of blend of country, soul, rock and emotional honesty that embodies Americana at its best.