Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjebø, whose last name (pronounced SHU-sha-ba) means “church hill,” became a star in her native Norway in 1985, when she was 16 years old. After breaking Norwegian sales records with her first four domestic albums, she made her international debut by singing at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Olympics. She first topped the American charts in 1997 as the ethereal vocalist on the soundtrack of the hit film Titanic, and went on to record her first American solo release in 2002. Often compared favorably with the Celtic-influenced singer Enya, Sissel sings in a blend of Norwegian, English, and Latin. Her music has been called by turns ethereal, angelic, and haunting. She herself resists such labels, however, telling Billboard’s Chuck Taylor, “I’m a soprano, I like singing classical, I like singing classic al I like singing more ethnic music.”
Sissel was born in 1969 on the western coast of Norway in the town of Bergen. She started her career in music when she was 14 by singing in local choirs. One of her performances, in which she sang a solo, was televised throughout Norway. After that, invitations to perform poured in, and her fame began to grow.
When Sissel was 16, she landed a recording contract with the Norwegian label Noah/Kantate. Two years later she was approached by music executives in the United States who wanted to introduce her to American audiences. She didn’t feel ready for this step, though, and she turned the offer down. Sissel first reached a larger, international audience when she sang at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
In 1994, following her Olympic performance, Sissel cut her first recording for the Polygram label, Innerst i sjelen (Deepest in my soul). Featuring mostly Nordic folk songs, it soon became one of the best-selling Norwegian albums ever recorded. Concert tours followed, including performances with the Irish band the Chieftains. By then Sissel had broken Norwegian sales records, with more than two million albums sold—an astonishing achievement considering that the country’s population was only slightly more than twice that figure.
In 1997 film composer James Horner, who listened to 30 singers before finally settling on Sissel, tapped her to sing the haunting, wordless melodies on the soundtrack of the film Titanic. She flew to Los Angeles to discuss the project with Horner, and “fell in love” with the film score, as she later told Steve Morse in the Boston Globe. This was not the first film on which the multilingual Sissel had worked; she had previously recorded voiceovers for the animated feature The Little Mermaid, giving voice to the film’s main character, Ariel, in the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish versions of the film.
The collaboration proved a fruitful one; the Titanic soundtrack hit number one on the Billboard charts, marking the singer’s first appearance on American charts. The album sold more than 600,000 copies in the United States in a single week, breaking film soundtrack records, and sold millions of copies worldwide. Sissel was modest in her assessment of why the album sold so well, telling USA Today that Horner’s music deserved all the credit: “When I first heard it, and he was just playing it on the piano with one hand, I was crying.”
Sissel’s haunting vocals on the Titanic soundtrack have often been mistaken for those of the Irish singer Enya. But Sissel has insisted that the similarities lie mostly in the atmospheric music surrounding her voice. “I’m not really influenced by Enya,” she told USA Today’s Andy Seiler shortly after the soundtrack’s release, “because I’ve always been singing the way I do long before I ever heard her.” She attributed any similarities between their voices to the Viking heritage common to both Irish and Norwegian ancestry.
Until this time Sissel was largely unknown in the United States—none of her five European-released albums had received American distribution. She had performed on American soil in only three concerts on tour with the Chieftains, with whom she had collaborated on an album. By this time, however, Sissel was a star throughout Europe; in 1997, she collaborated with California-based rapper Warren G and the group Rapsody on a song featuring a striking blend of hip-hop and opera music in a rendition of Alexander Borodin’s classic “Prince Igor.” The song became a hit in Europe, with its music video becoming the second-most-played video on MTV Europe. “I loved the mix between opera and rap because it was fresh,” she told Taylor.
Born Sissel Kyrkjebo in 1969, in Bergen, Norway.
Sang at Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, 1994; released albums in Norway, including her debut, Sissel, on the Noah/Kantate label, 1986; Glade jul, 1987; Soria moria, 1989; contributed to soundtrack of the film Titanic, 1997; released Innerst i sjelen on Polygram, 1994; Gift of Love, 1999; released All Good Things, 2000; released Sissel in Symphony, 2001; released U.S. debut album, Sissel, on the Universal label, 2002.
At the start of the millennium, Sissel’s record company Polygram merged with the United States-based Universal. Executives at Universal realized they had in Sissel an artist whose potential was largely untapped in the American market. By this time Sissel, now in her early 30s, felt she was ready to take the leap. Chris Roberts, the head of Universal Classics Group teamed Sissel with New York-based engineer/producers Elliot Scheiner (who had previously worked with James Taylor and Steely Dan), and Rob Mounsey (who had produced and engineered for Paul Simon, Donal Fagen, and others). The three of them headed for the studio, and the result was a blend of covers and original tunes in a range of musical styles that included pop, folk, and classical. Twelve songs were brought together to form Sissel’s first solo album intended for American release. Sissel hit stores in October of 2002.
The album opens with “Sarah’s Song,” which Sissel cowrote to evoke the joy of motherhood—from the infant’s perspective. Other songs include a rendition of the traditional American folk song “Shenandoah,” a cover of “Solitaire” by Neil Sedaka, and the reggae-influenced “All Good Things.” Sissel was very pleased with the album’s lineup, telling Taylor in Billboard that they were all songs that she was “very fond of and related to.” She expressed hope that they would make people listening to them as happy as they made her singing them.
Following the album’s release Sissel toured several major American cities, performing in chain bookstores, appearing on national television with opera star Placido Domingo, and singing on National Public Radio (NPR). She also geared up to do a one-hour television special the following year. The schedule was an easy one for Sissel, who was used to performing in major European venues. She said that performing in more intimate venues, such as bookstores, was a refreshing change from the more intense touring to which she was accustomed.
Following her return to Europe after promoting her American album, Sissel again went on tour, performing from Norway to Moscow, where she sang with Domingo and Jose Carreras. She also sang at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring award recipient Jimmy Carter. Speaking to Taylor in Billboard, Sissel expressed delight at the direction her career had taken. She said that she would enjoy the ride as long as she could continue to stay relaxed and have fun.
Sissel, Noah/Kantate, 1986.
Glade jul, 1987.
Soria moria, 1989.
Gift of Love, Polygram, 1999.
Innerst i sjelen, Polygram, 1994.
(Contributor) Titanic (soundtrack), Sony, 1997.
All Good Things, 2000.
Sissel in Symphony, 2001.
Sissel, Universal, 2002.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 15, 1993.
Billboard, February 7, 1998; November 23, 2002.
Boston Globe, February 8, 1998; October 11, 2002.
Daily News (New York), January 20, 1998.
New York Times, January 1, 2003.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 10, 1998.
USA Today, February 16, 1994; January 28, 1998.
“Sissel Kyrkebø” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 4, 2003).
Sissel Official Website, http://www.sissel.net (February 12, 2003).
"Sissel." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 10, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sissel
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