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AURORA: ‘Online crucifixion is the modern witch burning’

The enigmatic Norwegian pop artist opens up about death, her relationship with Billie Eilish, and her fated plans to leave the music industry

Not long before the first of our two interviews with AURORA, the musician takes to Twitter to denounce societies’ sexualisation of women. “We get sexualised by the world, and yet shamed for being sexual,” her post begins. It concludes with the hashtag #ourbodyyourchoice, with a link to her track “The Devil is Human”. Backstage at BST Hyde Park a few days later, the diminutive 26-year-old is the picture of tranquillity as she settles into a quiet corner of the artists’ enclosure. She will shortly take to the stage to showcase tracks from her outstanding new album The Gods We Can Touch, alongside earlier hits, including viral TikTok sensation “Runaway”. 

For now, though, she is keen to reveal what’s on her mind. Unexpectedly, this includes where she sees her music career headed and where it is likely to end. “I'm going to make eight albums or eight chapters in my whole life,” she confides. “I know how all of them are going to sound and what they are going to be called. Now I have three chapters, [but] I’m going to have eight.”

AURORA makes for a compelling and idiosyncratic pop star. So far, she has encompassed Nordic electro-folk, snappy synth-pop, and atmospheric chamber balladry across three bewitching albums – a mix which has beguiled legions of fans, including Billie Eilish, who announced that the video to 2015 single “Runaway” inspired her to make music

If you map AURORA’s musical DNA, you will likely hear traces of Lorde, Bjork, and even Enya alongside her beloved Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (“I wanted to write in English because Cohen wrote in English,” she says). There are shades of Kate Bush too. When the latter is put to her though, she admits to not being particularly familiar: “I kind of feel like I know [her] already even though I haven’t heard much [of Kate Bush’s material]. One day I will listen to her music… I never really listen to music,” she says. 

Lyrically, AURORA often digs into the big topics. She has criticised human greed (“When the last tree has fallen/And the rivers are all poisoned/You cannot eat money, oh no” – “The Seed”), railed against conversion therapy (“Cure For Me”) and laid bare her despair over the state of the world (“I fall asleep in my own tears/I cry for the world, for everyone” – “Warrior”). 

The singer’s aesthetic is fiercely individualistic too: think Scandinavian forest-dweller crossed with someone plucked from a Waterhouse oil painting. Today, she is wearing a medieval chemise underneath a corset top, and her trademark lack of make-up ensures her alabaster complexion is dazzling under the glare of the sun. 

We return to the social media post that the artist made a few days before. “This last child of mine, album, I mean, is inspired by suppression in society,” she says. “Often, I think about the way religion makes us judge ourselves – our sexualities, our bodies, and our mistakes. I don’t like anyone telling human beings they should be ashamed of natural things. I find that very sad, and so I wrote a song about it.” That song is “The Devil is Human”, and the lyrics posit a series of pointed theological questions. When asked if they are a swipe at organised religion rather than the concept of a higher power, she is unequivocal: “Oh, yeah definitely, because I don’t think that about faith or spirituality. I think about the God we made after and the book that we wrote and rewrote many times. I find it sad that we let this chosen truth ruin people’s lives, especially the freedom for people to express themselves; be who they are and fall in love [with who they want].”

“I think the world struggles most when people forget how to think for themselves. We forget because it’s so easy to get influenced… and online crucifixion is the modern witch burning. Women get the worst of it” – AURORA

The concept of judgement troubles the musician. She stresses the importance of people getting to know their “deep place” and learning how to think for themselves. “I think the world struggles most when people forget how to think for themselves,” she explains. “We forget because it’s so easy to get influenced… and because online crucifixion is the modern witch burning. Women get the worst of it.” Asked as to why she thinks this is so, she says that the world is “used to criticising women” because “they can”.

When we resume our conversation a few weeks later, AURORA is home making the most of a small window of downtime, during which she intends to undertake some “naked swimming” and unwind with “some champagne” in her apartment. “It’s raining in Norway, and I’m very happy about that,” she says, and flips the camera around to showcase the multitude of plants that she intends to take care of while at home. “It’s a perfect holiday for me.”

Born in Stavanger, Norway, Aurora Aksnes discovered music early. The piano became her first instrument “by accident” when she was six (“I just pressed the keys, and kind of taught myself by ear,” she recalls). A few years later, her first original composition emerged, and the subject was pitch-black. The song “A Hunter in the Dark” was about “a serial killer who had no regrets, so it doesn’t make any sense to be angry at him, because he’ll never understand you”.

School was not her happiest time, despite having some friends and doing well academically. “I think from the outside it could seem like I was doing OK, but my internal experience of school was awful. I remember just being very stressed; very anxious. I grew up in a very small place, and I was constantly overwhelmed by everything. I always felt out of place. I didn’t relate to the kids. I thought they didn’t make sense. I didn’t understand why I was there. I was very confused and lost… but only at school and only with other people.”

On her own, it was a different matter. AURORA says she was “very happy” in solitude. “80 per cent of my childhood was spent in the forest alone and I had a great time,” she says. AURORA’s parents had a “huge bell… like a cowbell” that they’d ring when they wanted their daughter home: “We didn’t have phones back then, so I would go into the forest, and they would ring the bell to get me back for dinner.”

Her parents were “very liberal and kind” and never forbade her from expressing herself, even though her behaviour was less conventional than that of her siblings. Dinner time would find AURORA sitting “on top of the table” where she would eat with her hands. “They just let me be,” she says, gratefully. 

At around seven or eight, she started experimenting with her clothing. This involved putting “a lot of things on top of each other”, “cutting up socks” and feeding her arms through them. She hesitates to use the term bullying when describing the reaction of her peers during her teen years, because she doesn’t feel “worthy”. Nevertheless, she claims the whispering, laughing and looks she endured helped shape her. “I remember feeling quite empowered by it. I was like, oh, it’s fun to liberate myself and realise I can still enjoy what I enjoy beyond the approval of people. It gave me quite an eye-opening perspective on life and myself. It was a huge part of me becoming who I am. It was important for me to go through it.”

Following a clutch of EPs and singles, AURORA released her debut album All My Demons Greeting Me As a Friend in 2016. The album received extremely positive notices and boasted songs that would be established as among her signature works, including “Running with the Wolves”, “Warrior”, and “Runaway”. When we touch upon Eilish’s love of the latter, AURORA gives candid insight into their relationship. “I have spoken to her and her family many times. We meet sometimes. The world pressurises her way too much. Because she acts and looks mature, I feel like the world forgets how young she is. And it’s very unfair. I think she’s doing a brilliant job in manoeuvring how the world treats her. But yeah, she and her family are brilliant. They’re just nice people. I think the way her brother [FINNEAS] produces and writes is very, very gorgeous too.”

Although only in her mid-twenties, AURORA concedes that she’s already known “quite a lot of loss” in her life. A friend was tragically murdered at the Utøya massacre in 2011, another friend passed away through suicide, and another by way of a fatal car accident. “I’ve seen a lot of people consumed by death, and it always surprises me how physical grief is,” she says. “There’s an actual pain in your chest. I’m going to write a whole album one day – a concept album – just dedicated to grief, loss, and sorrow, and how to cope with it.

“I wish we talked more about it [death]. Sometimes when I sit with my family, I say, ‘If I die young…’, and my mother goes, [mimics shocked exclamation] ‘Oh, No!’,” she continues. “I’m not going to die. I’m just saying that, if I die young, know that I’m very happy with what I’ve experienced in life – if that [knowledge] can give you some peace. I’ve already written my will too, with lots of letters to people just so there’s something to hold on to if I go early. It’s not because I know or want to [go]. I just want to make it as pleasant as possible.”

“I’ve seen a lot of people consumed by death, and it always surprises me how physical grief is. There’s an actual pain in your chest. I’m going to write a whole album one day – a concept album – just dedicated to grief, loss, and sorrow”

Following the success of her debut album, AURORA released her second album A Different Kind of Human (Step 2) in 2019. Less than a year later, the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The experimental, yet hook-heavy, The Gods We Can Touch followed earlier this year. Of her pledge to only make eight albums, AURORA confirms that it was established ten years ago when she first started out. “The first thing I did when I became an artist was to sit by myself and divide my life into what I feel I need to address in my time. And then, I started addressing them chapter by chapter. This chapter now, I knew I was going to address religion, freedom and sexuality.”

Is it likely that she’ll walk away from music entirely once her album quota is fulfilled? “Yeah, I think so. Because then I won’t have more to say, I think. I feel like I have spiritual stuff to realise... I also want to learn more about astronomy and physics. My dream is to have a bachelor’s degree in those things, so I’m going to go back to school. I feel like a lot of the spiritual conversations have lacked science, and scientific conversations have lacked spirituality. For the last 20 years of my life, I want to sit quietly and think, basically.” 

With our time almost up, and with the theme of a potential musical retirement hanging in the air, AURORA delivers one final revelation before we say goodbye. “I have a death album with one song from every decade of my life that I want to release after I die,” she shares. Make no mistake, AURORA’s beautiful brand of Nordic Noir is an intoxicating potion. The fact that she has everything mapped out only makes it more alluring. Does she have any doubts at all about a hard stop after eight albums? “It might change, but I doubt it. Weirdly, I feel like I know in my core my mission in life. And it’s very exciting.”