HM Johnsen writes an exclusive feature for Female First
HM Johnsen writes an exclusive feature for Female First

In short, I found something I loved, I was enterprising and kept pushing forwards and asking for (and got!) support- and ultimately, I listened to my instincts and was unafraid to change direction when I needed to. I’d definitely encourage young, aspiring musicians to do the same. It continues to be an amazing journey! I’ll start from the beginning...

The start of my journey was at my friend’s house. We spent a lot of time with godparents when I was young, their son was eight years older than me and he had cool monster posters on his wall. I was seven or eight with no interest in music, but he told me that I could get one of these posters - all I had to do was listen to the music. The posters were Iron Maiden, and the monster was Eddie (Iron Maiden’s emblem). So, I got my mum to buy me a CD, it was Seventh Son of a Seventh Son - in my opinion the best Iron Maiden album. To start with, I thought it was a lot of noise, but after a few weeks I had the sounds and melodies in my head, particularly the guitar sounds. I became addicted to Iron Maiden!

The same guy that introduced me to Iron Maiden played the guitar. He inspired me to begin playing – as I wanted to be just like him. I took some guitar lessons at the local music school and quickly shifted from taking lessons to learning to play from YouTube. I started playing with friends at school and we formed a heavy metal band. I became increasingly interested in music and playing guitar.

The first time I played in front of people was at the school party for the last day of seventh grade. My teacher had found out I was playing the guitar and had asked me to play. I was really stressed just thinking about it, but there was a girl I liked so I decided to say ‘yes’ because I wanted to impress her, I played Wasted Years by Iron Maiden. I remember my Dad and I bought our home stereo and I had some playback but no pedal board - so when I was switching I had to stop playing and put my finger on the amp, and I had this special move I had been practicing. It was then I decided music was what I really wanted to do. It was my first steps towards expressing music to others.

I began travelling everywhere with my Dad and the small amp and speaker, playing the birthday parties of my parent’s colleagues and friends. I was playing Dire Straits and music of that era as well as instrumental tracks at cafes and restaurants.

I read in the newspaper that my hometown was hosting a blues festival and I wanted to get involved and join the jam. I knew I could improvise in different keys – I called and asked if I could play. When I arrived, I think they thought I would be older, as I was only 15 or 16 at the time - but I was full of confidence. I was on stage wearing my suit and hat, playing really fast to impress people and thinking I would take over the world!

From there I became part of the blues environment. I was 17 and moved to another side of the country because I was studying. I couldn’t afford to rent an apartment, so I borrowed my parents' caravan. I had no neighbours and had little to do when not studying, so I played guitar and started singing every day and experimenting with writing. At some point I decided to write an album.

I had seen a documentary about this Norwegian ski star and how in the sporting industry its usual to have sponsors. I decided that should be possible for me too. I got the crazy idea to try and raise £10,000 in a year to fund my album and I started writing lots of emails. Initially I got no response of course - I was 17 years old, sitting in the classroom while my colleagues were working, and I wrote to fisheries asking for sponsorship. So, I started following up my emails with calls, booking in meetings or even just turning up! I had no filter and a lot of courage. Eventually I realised it would be easier to get sponsorship if I could promise my sponsors something in return.

I contacted a TV station and newspapers and after a year of sending over a hundred emails and making countless calls, I got a reply from NRK (like the Norwegian BBC). They said, ‘It's cool that you are trying to do something, but we need a bit more to make this a story’, so I panicked and said, ‘What if I get over 30 sponsors and we do the album at Abbey Road?’.  They were like, ‘Ok, yeah, good luck!’  So, then I started telling sponsors we would have coverage from NRK. There was no formal agreement, I was full of bulls**t really! A year later when I was 19 years old, we managed to put together a team at NRK and filming started. I got to travel to London to Abbey Road to master the album. So many coincidences helped make that happen. There was hard work involved... but also some luck.

I came home to Bergen and NRK aired the story the day before my album release. We had a release concert in my hometown. Phone calls started coming in from labels and management, I was on fire! I wanted to say yes to everyone and jump on every opportunity. But I was dating the girl that I will soon be married to, and she calmed me down a bit, and made me be thorough about my decisions. I met with a blues agent, who would set up shows for me. I was so used to booking all my own shows, so I was excited and had high expectations.

Me and the band started touring across the country. We were booked into the biggest blues festival in Europe, which happens to be in Norway, although were not part of the main festival line-up, but pubs and cafes within the festival area. The final gig my agent had booked us into was a blues contest, which I had initially told him I didn’t want to do - competition in music doesn’t feel right to me, but he left it booked in and convinced me it was regular show. The prize for the winner was to go on tour in Norway, Germany and the US. We played and we won. I was totally shocked. Today, I am extremely happy today that we did all those shows. At that point though I had experimented with pop and rock and was moving on from the blues sound. I ended up feeling like I was travelling around playing the wrong genre for me, so I never did go to the US. It was my epiphany really. This was a huge decision, but it felt completely right to trust my instincts - and now it is paying off!

I went off to Berlin with my girlfriend and started recording the kind of music and songs that feel true and right to me, moving in a more experimental indie rock area. And now I am on the right path, with the right music and I have completed my E.P. Serenity which comes out this November. I am really excited to release this music. I can’t wait to tour with it too, once it is safe to do so...

My latest single Stay Within Range is about waking up from a dream I had during the recording of my EP. All the songs I was writing at the time were from my own experiences of being incredibly busy on the business side of things and having different jobs to do alongside being a musician, and the relentless drive to succeed at everything. The dream showed me I was losing sight of what was important to me and I was too focused on things like work, money, social media... In my dream my girlfriend left me because I had no time for her.

I began reading books about mindfulness and tried to turn my life around; spending time with the important people in my life and focusing on the essence of creating music rather than concerning myself with the business side. I feel I started at the wrong end – as I found the business side of music very stressful. Instead of quitting I am glad that I went back to my roots, focused on my sound, was able to be true to myself and find the right balance. You can do this too.