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Behind the Scenes of Highasakite’s U.S. Television Debut

Music
Photo by Stian Andersen

Tagging along with the Norwegian band on the set of ‘Conan’

Ingrid Helene Håvik has just finished technical rehearsals for her U.S. television debut later that evening. Despite the men dragging cameras around in front of her, her performance of Highasakite’s hyper-romantic new single, “5 Million Miles,” was blissful; her off-duty outfit of a black jumpsuit, distressed jean jacket, and messy topknot looked glam in the studio light. Now offstage, the band’s primary songwriter-frontwoman has come face-to-face with the reality of her profession—the nosy journalist asking her to unpack her artistic choices.

“I don’t really want to talk about anything,” Håvik warns me shortly after we’ve sat down in the Conan greenroom to talk. 

Please note: It’s a caveat delivered with kindness. “I must be a really hard person to interview because I’m so cautious,” she continues apologetically, tucking into a plate of breakfast food as she speaks. “I think it’s really difficult that some people ask more questions like, ‘How I have grown morally?’ That’s really personal.”

This pressure is something Håvik feels more in her native Norway, where, over the last few years, she’s been quietly adding bullet points to Highasakite’s growing resume. Most recently those have included two Norwegian Grammys for Pop Group of the Year and Composer of the Year, a debut album that has spent more than two years in the Top 40, and being handpicked by Conan O’Brien to perform on his eponymous talk show after the comedian heard the group while hosting the annual Nobel Peace Prize concert last December.

I wouldn’t want to publicly describe my emotional belly flops either, I assure her. Instead, we slide into amicable small talk. The Keurig machine in the corner confounds both of us, but we agree it’s worth trying to get it to work for the caffeine jolt. She blushes when I tease her for wearing a Highasakite jacket, on loan from her tour manager because she wasn’t prepared for the air-conditioning. Håvik claims she’s never been described as optimistic. (I ask her how she views herself on the pessimistic-optimistic scale, and then realize I’ve already broken my promise not to ask anything I couldn’t answer myself). But, as she calls herself a fan of weird American junk food and thrills at the idea of ordering her In-N-Out burger “animal style,” it’s easy to see flashes of someone who is genuinely enjoying her weird ride. We pause to compose ourselves when video footage from the rehearsal on the main stage features a series of blurred-out cartoon penises.    

It’s easy to give Håvik a pass on the more expository interview questions, in part, because her songwriting has already said so much. Released last year, her band’s third album, Camp Echo, is a dense exploration of depression, loneliness, and living in a world viewed through a fractured mind. Singing in the first person, Håvik casts herself as the heroine, howling self-evaluating lines such as “I’m friends with sin,” against the fractured beat of "My Name Is Liar," and crying out to a savior she doesn’t believe in on the heartbreak ballad, “God Don’t Leave Me.” It’s an emotionally complex listen that goes down easily, thanks to a sea of synths inspired by The Knife and Justin Bieber and fleshed out by bandmates, Trond Bersu, Øystein Skar, Marte Eberson, and Kristoffer Lo. (For Conan, Håvik is flanked by Bersu and Oeystein Moen.) 

“There’s so many good writers now,” notes Propeller Recordings owner, Frithjof Hungne, of Highasakite’s unusual pop resonance. “You have all these excellent people writing, but it’s becoming almost a factory. At some point, people might get tired of empty calories. They’ll want something more substantial… I think that’s why Highasakite is working so well. People are discovering and connecting with them. At concerts I see people standing in their own worlds, crying or getting into it.”  

Inspired by what she describes as romantic pop, Håvik reached out to production duo Stargate (Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Charli XCX) for an assist—figuring that as a fellow Norwegians they might respond to a personal appeal. Together, they settled “5 Million Miles,” giving the track a romantic pop sheen. Fans of the band will notice it’s the most direct Highasakite song to date. While Håvik warns she’s not plotting a total reinvention, she does note the tone shift for the non-album single was intentional. 

“I feel like this is an affair,” she laughs. “A good affair in that I don’t feel guilty about it. I’m going to continue on working with Kåre Christoffer Vestrheim, who I have worked with on the previous albums. That’s the Highasakite sound. But I think it’s cool to do one-offs once in a while as well. I can get sick of myself. And my own ideas.” 

But there’s an unspoken question during our hurry up and wait afternoon, amidst a studio set tour (Friends and Seinfeld are still popular everywhere, including Norway) and appointments with the show’s hair and makeup team. Will this resonate with the American audience? 

For her part, Håvik offers up some unprompted pragmatism. They’re established at home, she reasons, this is just gravy. Still, it feels like another emotion better left unexplored before her big moment.  

When she appears on stage several hours later, Håvik is transformed—a long black wig donning her head and a short jacket covering her intricate arm tattoos. Her voice is strong, even in the face of the anxiety she’ll confess afterward. And “5 Million Miles” plays like delicate diary pop that's still commercial enough to hold its ground in a show featuring jokes about the narrowly averted writers’ strike, a blundered bit about obscure state laws, and Kristin Chenoweth’s sex life. The popularity contest is a question that will be played out in social media, sales, and streams in the weeks to come, but, for now, it seems enough that O'Brien wheeled his chair over to the edge of the stage in order to watch the band perform. 

“I was very nervous,” Håvik admits with tears in her eyes between hugs with her euphoric band and label bosses a few minutes after leaving the stage. “I was pretty sure I was going to just cry. When I opened my mouth, it was just like...”

She interrupts herself by pantomiming a Munchian scream. The tangle of post-show excitement, fear, and joy is thick, and it’s difficult to tell which emotion the act is meant to convey without being able to translate the stream of Norwegian commentary she offers her companions. But that hardly seems to matter. Highasakite is doing exactly what they were meant to do, and Håvik is feeling it—no question about it.