Norwegian artist Ora the Molecule just released her debut album ‘Human Safari’ via Mute Records earlier this year. As soon as you hear the haunting chorale on the album’s opening track “The Ball”, you know that you’re in for a treat. Blending her keen ear for pop melodies with vignettes of electronica, world music, and constant experimentation, Ora the Molecule crafts intricate, entrancing worlds throughout her songs. ‘Human Safari’ is a bold project with a clear vision, introducing us to the sprawling creativity of this exciting artist.
Ora the Molecule, aka Nora Schjelderup, has had a fascinating life, from joining a marimba trio in high school to working with musicians from all genres. But the most striking thing about Nora is the way she radiates joy and curiosity, constantly pondering about the way humans work and celebrating the confusion and exaltation of being alive. Throughout our chat, we sat in stitches, laughing about everything from aliens to comically large marimbas. All of these traits come through in her music, and we’re so excited to share our conversation where she dives into the making of ‘Human Safari’ and more!
Hi Ora, it’s so nice to see you. Where are you right now?
I’m in Oslo!
And you’re originally from there right?
I am, but I haven’t been here in like 7 years. Now I have the Corona reunion.
Where does the name Ora the Molecule come from?
Well it started off as just “Ora”. My first experience making music was with 2 other girls and we all had “ora” in our names, so I was Nora, and then there was Nora and Aurora. We split up, but I asked them if I could continue to use the name for my music because that was the only “safe name” I’d ever used, and they said that was fine. So I kept “Ora” and then later on more musicians joined.
They were all jazz musicians and were playing very loud while rehearsing so I was like, “Damn! We need to work together like molecules!” I say so many strange things in these rehearsal rooms, but that one stuck and they started calling themselves “The Molecule”. It started off as Ora AND the Molecule, but Ora is also a molecule so we put them together.
It has such a nice ring to it, I can’t imagine you just being “Ora”. I also think it’s interesting that you started off working with jazz musicians in your band, because I would describe your sound as distinctly avante-pop. Was that just by coincidence, or did you intentionally look for that sonic influence?
Well the way the album is now is years after I stopped working with the jazz musicians. It’s more my untrained brain now. But that’s where I feel the magic is, because melodies come very easy to me. I was actually living in LA when I was working with these jazz students at USC, and I remember wanting so badly to be able to make music like them, especially because jazz performances are so crazy. There’s like no coherent melody. I’m like how do they do it! I feel like I always fall into melody, I guess that’s just pop brain.
It sounds like often, melodies just come to you! What does your writing process look like?
They definitely do, sometimes too often! I always have a melody on my mind, even now. That whole album is a constellation of ones that have come to me throughout the years. One of the songs, called “Pocket Universe”, I actually dreamt. I dreamt that my producer sang it to me and then he showed me this big Moroccan house where he had eight brothers or something. He’s German so that didn’t make much sense, but the way he sang that melody to me is almost exactly what’s on the album. I woke up and remembered it right away and had to sing it into my phone so I wouldn’t lose it.
What was his reaction when he heard it? Did he think it sounded familiar?
No, he had never heard it!
He’s like “Nora I would’ve never come up with this!”
Haha exactly, but he at least he thought it was pretty funny, especially when I told him that he was wearing women’s underwear in the dream.
Well hopefully that part wasn’t as vivid as the melody…
I’m still trying to understand what that meant.
Does that happen often, where music comes to you in dreams?
I’ve never had a dream that was so clear, but I find a lot of lyrics in sleep. The phone is my biggest recording device, at all times, like even on the bus I’ll have to pull it out or go to the toilet to record something at a party. It’s great for when you go into session mode because you have a whole bank to pull from if you’re not feeling inspired in the moment.
I’m still hung up on the dream thing, especially because I know that happened to some of the greatest musicians in modern music. One that specifically comes to mind is Paul McCartney, because he heard melodies come to him mystically like that. Do you think that some people are born to be musicians in that way?
That’s interesting, I think everyone is a musician. Some people can tap into it better, but I think every newborn child has music in them. Babies sing, it’s like the first thing they do. You never say that a baby doesn’t sing clearly. You just say it’s cute but it’s actually singing with clear tones! I think it’s more about cultivating that instinct in the right environment.
I think it’s actually pretty random that I’m a musician. It just happened to be that there was a guitar around while I was growing up, so I was able to cultivate it. You’re actually touching on something very interesting because there’s a reason why it can be more difficult to come up with songs in the studio. When you’re there, you’re trying to use your rational mind and navigate all the electronics or maybe there’s other people there…
You get into more of an engineering mindset than creative.
Exactly! You’re like I’m going to do work now, I’m an adult who can think. But then it doesn’t come to you. You sometimes have to be in a safe space where you don’t have to think, you can just play, which is why it’s so important to capture those in the moment. It’s the same thing with the dreams; every human dreams every single night, and maybe they’re dreaming of music too. But we just forget them so easily.
So what you’re saying is that you’re just good at remembering your dreams!
Haha maybe that’s it! I think of my brain like a melody catcher, because if I didn’t have music in my mind I wouldn’t pay attention to the music I hear around me.
I also think it’s really interesting how you associate creativity with play and childhood curiosity. I once read a quote that said, “if a child wouldn’t like your art, it’s bad”
Haha that’s perfect!
And I think a child would like your art, and I mean that as a compliment, because the way you play with pop music is so whimsical yet dimensional.
Thank you very much! I have younger siblings and I would always play them my demos so they could tell me which songs they liked.
So they’re the real visionaries on the album
Yes, yes. They have the final say.
And tell me more about ‘Human Safari’. What inspired it and where does that name come from?
Human Safari started as this idea of creating a safe space for the music to be performed. I think of it as a celebration of wonder and some of the misunderstandings we have about life. In a way it comes from a place of recognizing the barriers that prevent some people, even myself, from reaching their potential, whether that be feeling overwhelmed or being thrown off by things I can’t understand. There’s lots of things in the world today that we have to figure out how to handle. I wouldn’t say it’s escapist, but I want to take the fear out of navigating the complex world we live in.
I called it ‘Human Safari’ because I was imagining someone coming into our world without any predispositions or cultural bias, and looking at how humans treat each other and our environment. What we consider important, what we consider valuable, and what we consider trash are all questions I was thinking about while writing the album. When you look at it from a distance, it feels sort of surreal seeing the ways we act. Like the concept of money, we can’t really do anything with it but we love it so much!
So the broad idea was to give some intergalactic creature a tour of humanity, specifically the West because that’s just what I’m familiar with. I imagine they would be critical, but also amazed in a way.
And what role do you play in this safari as the artist? Do you see yourself as a sort of tour guide, or as one of those outsiders looking in?
There’s a part of me that can do that, but it leaves me paralyzed as a person because I feel like I can’t act. But I found it really refreshing to imagine these creatures looking at us without thinking about gender, or race, or whatever, and just being fascinated with the way we’ve built things.
I can see why that would be such a refreshing lens to adopt, especially because so much of our everyday lives navigating society and culture involves simply buying into the bit. In order to go along with it you have to accept that “that’s just the way things are”. It’s a great way to ward off existential dread, but imagining these alien beings is also imagining a world where you don’t have to just play along.
Exactly, I think that’s spot on. They are just there chatting amongst each other, in the same way we would if we were in a zoo.
In real life, I am one they’re observing. I’m just another zebra in the zoo. But I guess “Ora” is the guide.
I love that concept, I think only you could come up with that. I’m also fascinated by your life. I need to ask about this marimba trio/train performance you did when you were younger.
This is a funny story. That was the first band I was ever in, that was Ora. I was in school and I never played live music before because I wasn’t classically trained. But we were assigned to groups for a school show, and I got randomly assigned to the band. I met this other girl in my class, who I’d never heard a single word from. I was also pretty shy in class, and we became good friends!
One day, she told me she had this huge wooden piano at home which piqued my interest. She said it was called a marimba, but I called it a million different things because I hadn’t heard of anything like it before. I went over to her house one day after band practice, and it was this massive instrument that completely took over the whole room. It probably took up more space than her bed, and it just blew my mind. She was really good and could play this jungle music with four sticks.
I went to a conservative Catholic school where everyone wanted to be lawyers, so it was very heady. It was the most refreshing thing all year to see her room with this instrument! Because she had that, I was like we need to make a band. The other girl who joined was a standup bass player.
What did you play?
I played Flamenco guitar!
What an interesting trio, a marimba, flamenco guitar, and standup bass! Did you guys have a lot of fans?
We were not the cool guys in school, we were the weirdos!
You weren’t the hot senior boy with the electric guitar playing Nirvana covers?
No it didn’t fit in well with the other performances. But on the cable cars, they loved us. We got some attention and a little newspaper wrote about us. We definitely were not in the cool teenage world though!
I feel like that’s such a big part of growing up though! You go through your teenage years so worried about someone discovering the weird things you’re interested in, but then you realize that’s what makes you cool when you’re out of high school. It’s actually cool to be different.
Oh definitely. It was very cool, the marimba girl’s mom was an artist but she made her living being a tram driver. So we were allowed to go set up the marimba before the train left to get passengers. It took almost an hour to put the whole thing together.
Since you said it took up the entire space of her bedroom, I can’t imagine you all walking through the station with that thing!
We had bags and bags of wooden sticks and we had to build the whole thing! It was hilarious.
Looking forward, what are you excited for in the coming year?
Well I am hoping that I’ll still be able to tour safely! I would love to come to San Francisco and play in the States. We had some shows in Eastern Europe that were cancelled, but I’d love to play there and Africa, and Asia.
Ora the Molecule is taking over the world!
It’s kind of funny having your band name be a microorganism right now, I don’t think I’m the one taking over the world now.
Luckily you’re the positive kind of microorganism at least.
Yea we won’t be changing the name to Ora the Virus any time soon. I wrote a big apology on behalf of all microorganisms at the beginning of the pandemic.
Well I think we can accept that apology. Nora, thank you so much for being here. We love Human Safari and can’t wait to hear more new music in the future.