She’s sung in front of queens and princes and shared stages with superstars of every musical genre - tenors, punks, pop idols and rappers. She’s performed at the Winter Olympics and the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. And she’s on the biggest-selling film soundtrack of all time.
Defying labels and categories simply to be herself, Sissel is truly a one-off. With her unique voice she can turn her hand to any style of music, from operatic arias and centuries-old classical melodies to traditional folk, modern jazz, pop, punk and hip-hop. “My heart is in beautiful music,” she says. “Music that touches me.”
Sissel’s music has already touched millions. A child star since the age of 11, she is now a national institution in Norway and has sung all over the world, selling six million solo albums since her recording debut at the age of only 16 and featuring on the 30-million-selling soundtrack to Titanic. Somehow she’s also found time to bring up two children along the way.
With a repertoire ranging from Schubert and Chopin to Lloyd-Webber and Morricone, Handel and Bach to Lennon and Lord (that’s Jon Lord of rockers Deep Purple), Sissel was a crossover artist long before marketing men invented the term.
“I like the variety of doing a bit of everything,” she admits. “The style of music is not important to me as long as it has good melodies. Sometimes at concerts I like the music when it is groovy and other times I like when it is haunting. A lot of classical music has that element and folk music has it too.”
Sissel’s new album ‘Into Paradise’, recorded In Norway with the internationally-renowned Trondheim Soloists, reflects her passion for music in all its many varied forms. Mozart and Bach rub shoulders with Puccini and Abba jostle for attention alongside Norse folk tales that have been handed down from generation to generation. “Who will it appeal to?” Sissel muses. “People who like beautiful music.”
It’s an album that will be enjoyed equally by classical aficionados and pop fans alike – and especially those who enjoy the growing ‘classical crossover’ style popularised by performers like Russell Watson and Katherine Jenkins, Charlotte Church and Hayley Westenra.
So who is Sissel?
Sissel Kyrkjebo was born in 1969 in Bergen, gateway to the fjords on Norway’s west coast. It’s a place where she has always found her muse. “The Norwegian countryside is my inspiration. I am very proud of Norway and its fantastic nature. All through my childhood we used to go hiking in the mountains every Sunday, whatever the weather.”
When she was only nine Sissel joined a children’s choir under a New Zealand-born conductor and stayed with them for seven years. “That was my musical education. We sang everything – classical and jazz and even Maori songs. People said we sounded like an angels’ choir because we had this very clean pure sound, almost like an English boys’ choir.”
At 14 she made her television debut in another choir on a children’s show, and went on to become a popular child TV performer with a repertoire including Streisand’s You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.
Sissel’s biggest break came at the age of 16 when she was invited to sing during the intermission of the 1986 Eurovision Song Contest staged in her hometown of Bergen. Her first album was released when she was 17 and made her a national star overnight.
A rich and varied career spanning almost 20 years has included singing the Olympic hymn at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, representing Norway at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and performing at the first Christmas concert in Moscow with the great tenors Plácido Domingo and Jose Carreras.
Domingo later invited her to sing at his Christmas concert in Vienna and recorded Ave Maria as a duet with Sissel in 2002, a tune she would re-record a year later with Welsh tenor Bryn Terfel (and a third time, solo, for a Japanese car commercial!).
She has given gala performances in front of both Prince Charles – twice – and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and shared stages with superstars such as Celine Dion, Sting, Moby and Charles Aznavour; she’s sung at Carnegie Hall with The Chieftains and appeared twice on David Letterman’s talk show in New York.
Other collaborators have included pop legend Neil Sedaka, jazz star Diana Krall and crossover favourite Josh Groban, as well as unlikely duets with Danish punk band Sort Sol (Black Sun) and rapper Warren G – the latter producing a hit single across Europe.
In 1996 Sissel was asked by composer James Horner to contribute the haunting, ethereal vocal tracks for his soundtrack to ‘Titanic’. The film went on to become the most popular of all time and the soundtrack, best-remembered for Celine Dion’s hit single My Heart Will Go On, sold some 30 million copies worldwide.
Since then Sissel has contributed stand-out songs to the soundtracks of The Adventures Of Pinocchio (1996), including a duet with Brian May, the Irish drama Evelyn (2002), and Vanity Fair (2004). More recently she has sung all over the world in Howard Shore’s Lord Of The Rings Symphony concert tour.
“I don’t think I can focus on any one particular style because I just love singing,” says Sissel. “I love all kinds of music. And as long as it suits my voice I will sing it. I feel very privileged and lucky to be doing what I do. I have so much joy, and if the joy disappears that will be the time to stop.”
That time, you sense, is a long way distant. The future for Sissel is only just beginning.
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