Nive Nielsen Puts Greenland on the Musical Map

Willona M. Sloan

Photo by Tess Griffin

Photo by Tess Griffin

Nive Nielsen has already achieved the type of career that most musicians only dream about—from touring by helicopter to playing gigs for heads of state to jamming with friends around the world.

Nielsen, who is from Greenland, started writing songs on her ukulele guitar, while at college in Ottawa, Canada. She quickly gained attention for her beautiful voice and the charming Inuit indie rock and folk songs of her band, Nive & The Deer Children.

Most recently, Nielsen played “Lady Silence,” the daughter of a shaman who must come into her own power, on the bingeworthy 2018 AMC show “The Terror.” The miniseries dramatizes the novel of the same name about a doomed 1845 British expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, in search of the Northwest Passage.

I first learned about Nielsen’s music through the website Nordic Playlist, for which she had curated a playlist of some of her favorite musicians from Greenland and beyond. I spoke with Nielsen by video chat, as she was traveling with her husband and their twin babies in Denmark.

When you started your music career, did you release a solo album at all? Also, I want to hear about your first live show, because it sounds crazy.

I started recording because I contacted Howe Gelb, who was my big musical hero. He has a band called Giant Sand, and I love them. I hadn’t recorded anything; I hadn’t done anything. I just wrote to him. Well, I had sort of recorded stuff at home. I sent him something that I had recorded at home. He heard it and wrote back to me, like, a year after I had written to him, and he suggested that I go record with John Parish in England.

We got invited to play my first show in Greenland, which was for the queen of Denmark. So, all of a sudden, I was like, “OK, well then, we will just release all of these recordings quickly.” We quickly made that CD. Then, I went up and played with the house band. We brought Giant Sand up to be my backing band.

How did you get invited to play for the queen?

A friend of ours took a chance because he worked at the government in Greenland. He had never seen me play live; he had just heard recordings, and he was arranging this whole thing because he worked at the government. He wanted something new and different, so I guess he took a chance. It was very nerve-wracking and awesome.

Really, that was your first live performance?

We ended up playing in the Culture House for about 500 people, and then the next day, it was the reception for the queen, and all the Nordic ministers. Technically, I guess it would be the second concert, and it was for the queen.

When did the Deer Children form? It seems like it’s a big group of people coming and going, so how did you sort of put those people together?

I was traveling a lot, and meeting all these musicians, playing with them and recording all over. I couldn’t really afford bringing a whole band everywhere that we went, and I knew so many amazing musicians in different parts where we were traveling. It ended up being musicians that would jump on and off, all over the place. We would bring a few over the Atlantic or the other way around.

The last few years, it has been more or less the same five or six people. Seven or eight people, sometimes. We will still get people onstage in different towns, if we have some of our friends around. But, yes, we are staying a little more stable in terms of band members.

You have two albums with the Deer Children?

 “Nive Sings!” and “Feet First.”

Are you working on a new one, or are you just touring “Feet First”?

We are working on a new one.

With “Feet First,” it seems like it was released again in the U.S.?

Yes, we have a publicity agency in the U.S. that is going to promote us and our release over there. Right now, we have our first digital release in the United States. That was in February 2018.

Who are some of your favorite Greenlandic artists?

I would say Sumé is definitely one of my favorite Greenlandic artists.

I just ordered the movie about them [“Sumé: The Sound of A Revolution”].

Oh, you did! Good. I am in another one that is about that movie. It’s a Swedish one about that movie.

It sounds like they were a huge influence on the country, in general.

Yes, they have been a very influential band. Also, in terms of politics, they were very political and were part of the movement for self-governance in Greenland.

Lyrically, they are very inventive. It’s hard to translate, but they are very amazing lyrics. Really good songwriters. Everyone in Greenland loves them. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t listened to them since they were children.

I also really like one of my good friends, Angu. He is a songwriter. He actually started writing songs a few years before I did, and we work together as well. He is on my first album. And there is Ole Kristiansen. He is another one from Greenland that I really, really love.

Photo by Tobias Wagner

Photo by Tobias Wagner

Tell me a little bit about trying to build a music career in Greenlandin Nuuk, specifically. It sounds like it’s hard to play shows anytime other than during festival season, so how did you get your career off the ground?

Playing in Greenland is kind of a challenge, mostly because of the geography. It’s a huge island, and all the towns are not connected. You can’t drive between them, so you have to take a boat or a helicopter or a propeller plane to get to the next town. They are kind of like little islands on an island.

It gets very, very expensive. There is only one airline that flies, and it is not really profitable because we are so few people. Flights between towns can be expensive, and also when you have to fly in helicopters, that just jacks up the price.

I feel lucky every time I get the chance to [tour in Greenland]. You get to experience things that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. You fly helicopters in, and you get to see these small, remote villages and small towns. They are very excited to have people over, because not necessarily a lot of bands get to come over. It is kind of like a special event. It is special for us, too. Greenland is so beautiful. To get to see all of these different places is really special.

It is not very often that we get to tour a lot in Greenland. We have been to most places; we are just missing east Greenland.

Are there festivals in most places, or are there clubs in the small towns?

Some of the bigger towns have festivals. Otherwise, there is the Culture House in Greenland, who, with government support, gets bands around, all over Greenland, so that culture can reach to the more remote areas, as well.

In the capital, Nuuk, are there several bars and clubs where you can play, or is it more like house shows?

There is a Culture House in the capital. There are a few stages in there. Otherwise, there a few bars where you can play, but they are not very big, so it is not very often that we play bars.

How do bands get to the international stage? How do you get the word out if you’re a Greenlandic band on the rise?

It is going out and playing, and going to the showcases, and just really being out there and traveling. Being willing to get around and play a lot. It is the only way that we have been able to make a living doing this.

You have also moved into acting. Tell me about the series you were just in, “The Terror.”

That was kind of a coincidence. I was in Greenland when I heard on the radio that they were searching for an actress for this TV show. A casting agency from Alaska was searching, and I had just come back from a long tour. I hadn’t been home in Greenland for almost a year. I was really tired, so I wasn’t going to audition, even though I was interested. Later on, my friend tagged me on Facebook with the link to the article from the news. I thought, all right, I’m not as tired anymore. I’ll give it a shot, just for fun.

I kept getting callbacks, and I kept auditioning as we were on the next tour. As soon as the tour was over, I pretty much just moved to Budapest and shot for half a year: five months in Budapest and one month in Croatia. It was big soundstages, huge green-screen stages and full-sized ships. They made all of the exterior and interior of the ships. It was amazing.

I enjoyed it so much and had so much fun that I would definitely love to do some more acting. I’m not going to quit music, but I really enjoy acting as well.

It looks really scary. Were you scared, or did you feel like you could separate from what was happening?

I was thinking I wouldn’t be able to do this because I am so easy to scare, but once you see it—once you are there—even though it looks really real, as long as you know how it’s made and what it is, it is less scary.

It was very cool to see all of the prosthetics. They made full-on copies of the actors and then [bodies] with, like, the head off or whatever, and they looked amazing. It was incredible to see.  

What languages do you speak?

My first language is Greenlandic. Inuit language is considered the same language all through the Arctic, from Greenland all the way to Alaska, but it’s all different dialects. For the TV show, they wanted me to speak the dialect of the area where Lady Silence would have been from, and so that is Netsilik [Inuktitut is the root language], and that is a dialect that is different from the one that I speak.

The roots of it are the same and they are very similar, but the grammar and the pronunciation is different in certain things. I had a coach who would record translations of the script of what I was supposed to say and pronounce, and put it in Dropbox. I would listen to it and repeat it.

I speak English, Danish and Spanish.

When you are writing music, how do you write your song lyrics? Do you write in one language first and translate, or is it just as it comes?

I usually write it in the language that I’m thinking at the moment. Usually, we are traveling a lot, so a lot of the songs are in English, but if I am home in Greenland, and I’m talking and thinking in Greenlandic, then it comes out in Greenlandic.

What is next for your music? More touring? Another album?

Yes, definitely. More touring; another album. We are on our way to Canada, we are going to play in Montreal, Ottawa and Whitehorse, and then we are going to go and have a little break, and visit the babies’ American grandparents. Then, we will be touring in Europe. We will be traveling with two little babies and playing music all over.

Does your husband [Charlie] also play music?

Yes, he plays electric guitar, banjo and saw, and sings in our band as well. That is how we can bring our babies along.

Listen to Nive & The Deer Children here.


Willona M. Sloan is a writer, editor and literary host.