JOWST (stage name of Joakim With Steen, Norway, 1989) was a sound engineer in a well-known studio in Oslo, until he decided to quit his job to become the producer, composer and artist that he is now. He participated in the Eurovision Song Contest of 2017 with one of his first songs: Grab the moment. The song was sung by Aleksander Walmann. A conversation about burning bridges and the joy of Eurovision.
So, do you now classify your life in ‘before 2017’ and ‘after 2017’?
My life didn’t change completely, but my career and my job are entirely different now. Before 2017 I was only doing things for other artists. I recorded their songs and made them sound good. But then I got tired of that and started making my own music. My first song, or actually my second, was Grab the moment. I had always been composing for myself, but more like a hobby. Grab the moment was the first ‘real’ try.
How did this song come into being?
It started with me just playing around, trying out a new synthesizer. After a while I put an instrumental demo – which sounded completely different than the end result – in a Facebook group with a lot of musicians from Norway. I asked everyone if they knew someone to write lyrics for me, to that beat. Jonas McDonnell was one of the few that said he would like to try it. He showed me a reference to a song he had done earlier, and I thought it was great, so we met in May 2016. After the first day in the studio I realized I wanted the song to attract some attention when it would be released. You know, I have worked with a lot of people who just came to the studio, recorded their song, published it on Spotify and iTunes and everything, and then they had to start from scratch, putting all their effort into promoting the song. It’s so hard to make people listen to new stuff… I wanted to make something that included people from an early stage onwards, so that they would feel some ownership to the project. I was hoping they would want to share it when it was released and that they would want it to be successful. That’s why I started a project called Making a hit, which was like a blog in a Facebook group for friends and family. There I showed them what I was doing. I read their comments and afterwards I’d try to fix the song.
Did the song change much?
It changed a lot. I analyzed all the comments and then made a change that I myself liked as well. For example, people would say something like: I don’t like the guitar. And that was it. But I knew that they were listening to other music that had guitars in it, so I kind of understood that it was not the problem that there was a guitar, the problem was that the guitar was taking up too much space. So I didn’t remove the guitar, but I made it less prominent, and things like that.
At what point were the lyrics finished?
The first edit of the lyrics was finished a couple of days before Jonas and I met in the studio in May 2016. He wrote them on his own, after I had told him that I didn’t want the song to be about sex, love, having a party, picking up girls or anything cheap. I wanted it to be about something people could recognize. You know, sometimes I had… well… I had this anxiety problem. I had it under control, it wasn’t that bad, but I heard about a lot of other people that had a lot of worries as well, so I wanted him to make a song about that. About being not good enough, about being too old for doing the stuff that you want to do, things like that. A song that they could relate to. So Jonas got inspired and made a text that is about ninety percent the same as what it is today.
So it was mainly the music that changed, not the lyrics?
No, it was mainly the production and a little bit of the composition. It went from being a bit Massive Attack/The Prodigy, alternative electronica, to more of a pop song. And originally there was rap in the verse, and only the chorus was sung. But one of the first comments that we got, was that people didn’t think the rapping worked in this song. So I told Jonas we should make new lyrics that were ‘singable’. He said no, we can use these lyrics, and he made a version where he sang them. That’s why the verse is a bit fast. Another thing that changed was what you could call the perspective. Because the song was about a ‘you’, at first. A general you, like: the listener. But I asked Jonas to rewrite the lyrics, and change ‘you’ into ‘I’. Because I believe that people can relate to people singing about themselves more easily. If the artist sings about everyone else it doesn’t feel honest enough – because he doesn’t know everyone else’s feelings. He only knows his own.
What has the Norwegian ‘Janteloven’ to do with the song?
Do you know this law? In English it’s also called ‘The law of Jante’, and it’s about a typical Norwegian way of thinking: you should not say or think that you’re better than anybody else. The few artists that do well outside Norway are the ones that don’t care about that unwritten ‘law’. The song was supposed to be about that, but it turned out it’s more about something else. Except maybe for the ‘I’m gonna grab the moment’-line. And ‘don’t be afraid of falling’. Because people sometimes don’t do the things they want to do, because they are afraid what happens when they don’t succeed. But the main part of going against the ‘Janteloven’ was me creating Making a hit. Telling people that I was going to make a hit, that is not something Norwegian people would do. But I felt: this will help me to complete my task. If I call it Making a hit, I have to keep the promise.
It was a promise to yourself?
Yes, but to the people as well. Because I break a lot of promises to myself, but I don’t break promises to other people.
You almost made it impossible for yourself not to make a hit.
I had to make thirty different versions of that song before it was ready. And I really believed it was finished after number fourteen. And then I was certain number fifteen was the one, and so on. It was at after number twenty-two that we got a record label deal, and that was also the version we sent to the Norwegian broadcasting company. For Melodi Grand Prix, our national final for Eurovision. But we adjusted it still a bit more afterwards.
When it comes to the lyrics, do you have favourite lines?
Ehm, I do. I feel that the second verse is the strongest. The part where it says: ‘I’m quiet in the corner, seeking action. I want to be bold, but I’m only getting old. I need to stop drowning in distractions.’ Jonas wanted to describe how people are hiding away with their laptops, trying to have an exciting life on the internet, while there are a lot of things that you have to go outside for, if you want to grab the moment.
‘I’m coping with a map that is roadless’ almost won our Eurostory Award.
I like that line as well. We don’t know where to go to find success or happiness, but we’ll just have to go, even though our map doesn’t show roads. I guess that… if you can’t find the right road, you shouldn’t go on the main ones. You have to go off-road.
How about the three minutes on stage in Kyiv? I guess you had a strange perspective there, because you were wearing a mask.
I could only see what was right in front of me. If Aleksander saw 8000 people in the audience, I only saw 200.
Did that help you with your performance?
Yes, I think so!
What were the reasons to wear the mask?
There are many things that made me choose to wear the mask. One thing is the image. And the artists that I get my inspiration from. One of my first favorite bands was Slipknot, the hard rock band. They are always using masks. And Kiss, for example. They also hid their identity with their painted faces. The same with Daft Punk and DJ Marshmallow and Deadmau5. But it wasn’t only the fact that it looked cool, it was also to deliver the message in the lyrics. To make people identify easier with the song. The project and all the things I do have always been about inspiring other people like me. People that also want to be on a stage, later, when they feel they are good enough.
So the mask tells them: this could be you.
My intention at the beginning of the project was that the mask would be more like a Snapchat filter. I actually wanted to wear a green hood, and then have the production use that green screen to project all kinds of faces on it. Faces from the audience. So people would literally see themselves on the stage. But it was too hard to produce within the budget and the time.
How did it physically feel to wear the mask? Wasn’t it extremely sweaty?
Yes! It was, it was. The mask is made of hard leather. And then I have the hood on, which is made of the materials they use in a wetsuit, and that fabric doesn’t breathe. So after three minutes my face is totally wet, and my hair as well.
So your main memory of Eurovision is: being sweaty.
All the time! All the time! And I didn’t get to wear make-up. Everybody on the stage or in the green room, wears make-up to make you look natural on screen. Except for me, because if I had make-up, I would get it all in my eyes. So I was the only person in the green room with a red face.
In all your projects your main goal seems to be working with other people. And it also seems that’s what Eurovision meant for you, because there are so many pictures of you with other participants. And recently you told the press that you are going to cooperate with eight other Eurovision contestants from last year. Eight!
My only intention is to make great songs. For another artist, or myself. I start on a song not knowing what I’m doing. And I’m giving my demos to different people, like those singers form Eurovision. If they like it they will help me finish the song, and when the song is almost finished we will see if the song fits me or them or both or someone else.
You did a writing camp with Naviband, the 2017 singers from Belarus.
We made three songs together. I worked with them and a few others. One of the songs will probably be a Naviband song soon, and one of the songs will be for someone else, because we made something that didn’t sound like either of us. I’m not sure yet what will happen.
Do these cooperations start with a personal connection between you and the other artist, or with a musical connection?
I guess it’s more personal than musical, but the musical click makes it complete. I’ve spoken with a lot of them and started working with some of them. Norma John for instance, the duo from Finland. We tried different things. As persons we do match, we like each other and we like working with each other, but it’s hard to find a project that we can work on together. Our musical styles may be too different.
This must have been different with Kristian Kostov, the young Bulgarian singer. You published a song together: Burning bridges.
Actually, Kristian Kostov was probably the strongest match in music, but at first not the strongest personal match, because I didn’t talk too much with him during the festival. Probably because of the age difference. The artists I talked to were the ones I went out with and drank some beers with, and Kristian is seventeen, so he doesn’t go out and drink. We did meet a few times, and that was cool. But Kristian is always so polite with people, so at first I thought: that’s just the way he is to everyone. But after a while I got to understand we could work well together, not only musically, also personally.
Burning bridges is received very well. Was it considered as a Eurovision song for Bulgaria?
Daniel Kostov, who is Kristians older brother and his manager and producer, has been involved a lot with the production of Burning bridges, and he has a good connection with the Bulgarian Eurovision committee. These people helped Daniel with some feedback, but it wasn’t meant as a song for them. And I don’t think it could have been, because I believe they only accept composers from Bulgaria.
You said that the lyrics of Burning Bridges have a deeper meaning to you.
The lyrics were written by a guy called Jesper Jenset, and when he started making that song he already had the title. Although initially for him it was supposed to be about a relationship, the metaphor for me was inspired by several other experiences. One of them is from before Grab the moment, when I worked in this fantastic studio, which was like a dream come true for someone that works in recording, mixing and mastering. But I didn’t feel I was doing the right things. So at one point I decided that I didn’t want to be there anymore. After that I had the time to make my own songs, and I started on Grab the moment. I also had another job. I was a teacher at a music school. I was supposed to work there for a year and the year had passed. After that I wasn’t fired, but my time was up. I had been hoping I could get more work there, especially because I knew I was becoming a father. As an artist it’s hard to have a stable income, and that had become really important. At that point I could have started to work in a job that everyone could do, but I told myself: I have to grab the moment and not to be afraid of falling. So that was the bridge I burned.
You made a remix of Martina Bárta’s My turn, her Eurovision entry for the Czech Republic. You changed the song completely. Did that cooperation start at Eurovision, or afterwards?
No, it happened before. In Riga, because there was a pre-party for Eurovision. Martina was actually the first contestant that I got to know in person, and also her delegation members. We hung out and I said it might be fun to make a remix. They really liked that idea. So I tried it, showed it to them and then they asked me to finish it, mainly for an event they were going to organize to officially announce their participation in Eurovision.
The last song I want to ask you about is Talk to the hand. Your Melodi Grand Prix entry with Aleksander Walmann for this year. What is it about?
The lyrics to this song were mainly written by Jonas, just as with Grab the moment. He’s a book author, trying to write his first novel and trying to get published. He had an interested publisher, but received a lot of feedback. So he reworked it and showed it to them again, but then they didn’t like it as much as he had hoped. He then found another publisher, who had new feedback. He got different opinions from everywhere and he got tired of all the ‘mumbo jumbo’ as he calls it. That’s where the lyrics came from.
Did you hesitate to be in Melodi Grand Prix again?
No, I really wanted to! I thought the first time was so cool, and being in Eurovision internationally was even more than cool, it was awesome. So that was my goal. Well, it didn’t work out, ha ha.
Why did you decide not to be on the stage for this song?
Because I think it’s important for an artist to make songs that their earlier listeners could like. And I think Talk to the hand is too different from Grab the moment and Burning bridges. It was too happy, too snappy maybe, it was too ‘something’ for JOWST.
On Twitter you did promise people to be in Eurovision 2019, even with two songs!
Yes. I will do that!
I will have to make nice songs and I will have to make the delegations of the different countries choose that song, or have it in their national final, so the people can choose that song. I’m not hundred percent sure that I will succeed, but I will do everything I can.
Another one of your tweets said: ‘A lot of people think that Eurovision is ‘funny’ and not a serious music show with real musicians. But isn’t an artist that has been in Eurovision a real artist anymore?’ Why did you write that?
It’s a little bit silly, because… Ah, it’s a complex thing. One of the things it’s based on is Britain and the idea many British people have about Eurovision. At least fifty percent of them think that Eurovision is silly and funny and like a circus. Same thing for Norway. Most artists and labels and managements and booking agents think that Eurovision is kind of cheesy. That it’s too easy a way to get your song played on a main stage for the whole world. And sometimes it’s hard for artists who have been to Eurovision to get a record deal or a publishing deal. This is true in Norway and in Britain – but not everywhere.
Don’t you feel this general opinion about Eurovision is changing?
Yes, it is, a little bit. And Britain should do what The Netherlands do: send their top artists. It’s almost an unwritten law to avoid this, as an artist, a bit like Janteloven. But artists have to jump in, and realize that their songs will be played for more than 200 million people. And what artist in the world wouldn’t like that?
During the Norwegian Melodi Grand Prix of 2018 a symphonic version of Grab the moment was played: The Symphony & Drumline Edit with JOWST, Aleksander Walmann and Didrik Solli-Tangen, who sang for Norway himself in 2010.