When it comes to his craft as an artist and songwriter, there is no one as capable and high-minded as Fredrik Saroea. The frontman for the widely acclaimed Norwegian electronic rock group Datarock, Saroea has branched out in a big way with the release of Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions (Live at Grieg Hall, Bergen), a musical collaboration between him and the award-winning string quartet known as BIT20 Ensemble. The partnership brings together Saroea’s introspective indie rock with the distinctive qualities of a chamber orchestra. The album is a re-envisioning of his Rona Diaries album, released last year, as a live piece, with the added dynamics and dimensions of a brilliant string quartet.

The album was recorded last year at the infamous Grieg Hall during Norway’s 69th annual Bergen International Festival on May 28th, 2021. Grieg Hall is widely regarded for its exceptional sound and acoustics, which made it the ideal location for Saroea to see through his vision. The challenges of combining such diverse worlds of music seem apparent, but nothing about this collaboration seems forced or out of place. You’ll be able to hear it for yourself once the album sees its official release on June 10th via YAP Records.

To discuss this fabulous new release, Saroea joins us today for a special track-by-track rundown of each song on Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions (Live at Grieg Hall, Bergen) in which he dissects each track in intimate detail.

1. “I’m a Rock”

“This track is one of the totally naked songs on the original Rona Diaries album, meaning just three strings on a guitar plus vocals. On the various songs on the album, I play layers of rhythm guitar, leads, bass guitar, drums, percussion, and a bit of keys, but on a few there’s only minimal rhythm guitar and vocals, like on ‘I’m a Rock.’

“This orchestrated version totally captures what I tried to do with those limited means, but the new version adds and elevates the original ‘loner tune’ solo version to a totally different beast. The original is pretty depressing to say the least, but the new arrangement totally embrace the energetic, low end, rhythm pattern of the original guitar, but also capture the little glimmer of hope –  emphasizing a hint of optimism.

“I guess the difference between the two versions stems from the fact that the original tune was written, arranged, and recorded during the total COVID lockdown over here, while the orchestration was written to be performed live in front of an audience at a festival!”

2. “Battered & Bruised”

“This is the only track that I added fake strings to on the original, so in many ways I guess this is the reason why we ended up making this entire orchestrated album.

“The arrangements are pretty similar to the original, and we even kept the original bass riff, slightly inspired by Madness’ ‘Our House. A serious song about the left and disowned, served on a bed of beauty, presented by arranger Bjørn Morten Christophersen and the amazing BIT20 Ensemble.”

Artwork for the album ‘Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions (Live at Greig Hall, Bergen)’ by Fredrik Saroea with BIT20 Ensemble

3. “Bulletproof Vest”

“I guess this is one of the tracks where you can hear how the orchestrations were slightly informed by the wonderful arrangements on David Byrne’s Grown Backwards. And yet again the beauty of the strings alter the song from max depression (about the nature of a toxic relationship) to emphasizing the original’s minute element of romantic optimism.

“We left out both the hint to Bowie’s ‘This Is Not America’ and the twin guitar movement of the original, however, and though I’m really fond of the original too, this orchestrated version is one of my personal favourites on the new album.”

4. “The End”

“This is yet another naked original (Blonde Redhead and The Smiths inspired) track taken off to a very different place by its delicate arrangement, but this time with slightly dissonant, falling string movements on top of a sturdy and strict harp. It’s almost like BIT20 are acting like backing singers agreeing to the lyrical content, supporting the message so to speak: ‘I would like to take a walk inside your skull, smash everything around me, break you like you broke me again, we’ll make up and break up in the end,’ with an end tail of saddened strings concluding (like a Mandalorian) that ‘this is the way.’”

5. “A Matter of Dying”

“Equally sad, again the strings are falling in their movements over a sturdy harp, but also offering beauty and nuance to the lyrical statements while agreeing to the simple truth of the statement that ‘life’s just a matter of dying.’

“Very different to the slightly Strokes-like arrangements on the original, and we didn’t keep any of the melodic ornaments, but again, even though I’m very fond of the original, I think this turned out especially well. Especially considering the fact that this is the very first time any of us performed any of this material.”

6. “Bergheim”

“This is one of the two songs that are exclusive to this album, so this is the original version, though of course originally written for guitar and vocal melody. I realized there were similarities to the feel of (Italian composer) Ennio Morricone’s amazing music from the wonderful film Cinema Paradiso, so I named the song after the Cinema Paradiso of my own childhood.

“You see, as a kid growing up on an island in Norway we had our own provincial cinema called Bergheim, and that cinema too served as a community house, a gym for indoor soccer practice, a concert venue, and even housed parties and discos. So I guess the song is a wordless sentimental gaze back to an innocent childhood in the 1980s. And the orchestration enhances that, in a cinematic, score-like kind of way.”

7. “Understatement Love Song”

“This is the second original.

“I guess I felt the urge to add something a bit cheerful to the live album, yet not overly positive, so an understated expression of joy and happiness in a relationship felt like the way to go. I guess there’s a hint of Bertrand Burgalat in this one. Perhaps even a bit of Pizzicato Five. There’s tons of pizzicato at least. Like a crooner tune backed by a gentle TV orchestra. Light and easy, balancing the grave seriousness of the remaining material.”

8. “Stray Cats”

“Following the note that it’s nice to balance the heavy nature of most of these songs, this is the second positive tune, yet sort of set in a musical-like scene (including the style of the orchestration) where a couple of stray cats face a life of supposed hardship with an unrealistic, optimistic go-getter approach that the arrangements kind of support, yet in an almost saddened, realistic sentiment of empathy. So darkness does cloud even these shiny, blue skies.”

9. “Dragging You Down”

“Back to the heavy… This is about a bad guy, and a victimized partner, and again the arrangement kind of works as opinionated supporters of the message the voice so desperately tries to convey to the belittled partner.

“On the original, I was thinking there’s a bit of Sam Prekop, The Sea and Cake, but that’s somehow totally gone as the arrangements take a totally different direction. And that’s the beauty of collaborating with the wonderful arranger Bjørn Morten Christophersen; how he adds, elevates and/or totally changes the course and enhances the most signature strong aspects of each song.”

Fredrik Saroea with BIT20 Ensemble by Thor Brødreskift

10. “The Family You Got to Choose”

“This song is actually equally about recording artists and all the world’s bartenders as trusty companions to saddened or uplifted souls. I guess the arrangements capture the spectrum of the spirit mentioned throughout the lyrics; at times almost hysteric, others with falling motions of sobbing sorrow and grief, even joyously playful, comforted, and uplifted. And of course all exquisitely executed by BIT20 at first try.”

11. “Feather in the Cap”

“On this track, the arranger Bjørn Morten Christophersen quite obviously wrote the arrangements specifically for BIT20, knowing their masterful competence and experience with executing contemporary art music in all its complex, emotional drama; like modern dance performed by 59 strings (47 on the harp, four on the cello, four on the viola and four on the violin equal 59. And then 65 if you count the guitar!).

“And what a song to max their skills; originally arranged and recorded with a hint of punk rock and hard core, this pretty aggressive display of a badly handled break up is so well captured in the arrangements and the performance by BIT20.”

12. “Heaven Knows Those Songs Weren’t Heaven Sent”

“This is the last song on Rona Diaries, basically pardoning the fact that I wrote such a sad and depressing album that the listeners obviously just endured to the bitter end. Originally imagined to be inspired by stuff like Neil Young’s Harvest Moon or Mark Kozelek’s Rock N’ Roll Singer, or even his What’s Next To The Moon, the orchestrated version took a totally different, more unique direction – heaven sent by Bjørn Morten Christophersen and BIT20.”


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