By Andrew Catania
A classically trained opera singer, a self-taught guitarist, these are some of the many talents of The Commander-In-Chief possesses.
The Commander has a new album coming out on July 9, 2020, and I had the pleasure of catching o with her to discuss her latest record
When did you start playing guitar? Who influenced you?
CIC: I started to play the guitar in 2005.
I had lots of ideas for songs, but I couldn’t play an instrument. Initially, I wanted to play the drums, but since I started late and wanted to be a songwriter, I figured that I had to concentrate on one instrument. The guitar was the best choice since it could be used as a songwriter’s tool. I also picked it because it was more practical to carry around than a piano.
In other words: I moved and traveled a lot with my family, so I needed something easy to pack.
Where you ever in a band during your youth?
CIC: I started an extreme metal band with my high school friends in 2006 when I lived in Chicago; however, we ran into a common problem: we needed a drummer, and hardly anyone played the drums.
I was warned by a music store owner in Norway (right after I’d started playing ) that they were selling too many guitars. He tried to talk me into playing something else since the guitar market was oversaturated. At the time, I assumed that the man was sexists and that he didn’t want me to play because of my gender. Once, I started looking for other musicians to start a band with; however, I realized that he had been right.
I realized that if I’d picked the drums, I would have been much in demand; instead, I was desperately looking for someone to complete our line up so that we could become a proper band…
I started operating as a solo artist way before I officially became one. I wanted to focus on my brand as a creative person because I thought to myself that that would make me stand out and increase my odds of finding someone to play with. When I looked at ads of severe bands who were looking for guitar players, they were always looking for someone who was 21+, could drive and had top-notch gear. I was underage, did not have a car, couldn’t drive, and hardly had any equipment. So when reality hit me as an aspiring musician, I started working on how I could make myself more employable.
Are you self taught or had lessons? Is classical music something you studied? How would you describe your playing?
CIC: I’m mostly self-taught as a guitarist. I started writing songs straight away but felt that everything sounded typical and that something was lacking. I realized that I had to spend sometime reading guitar magazines and play other people’s music, even though I didn’t want to do that. I would sit with a Norwegian-English dictionary and read the explanations in Total Guitar Magazine, trying to figure out what the English descriptions meant. I would go on the internet and print out tabs, but I didn’t have my computer, so this was not something that I did often. Mostly I worked on developing my ear. I would stand with two pairs of headphones, one from my practice amp and the other one from my CD Walkman and play along to my favorite songs, which was mostly punk music. I also invested in a Tascam, slow downer, which was one of the smartest tools that I got myself.
I also remember drawing a paper piano so that I could sit and practice chords. I seriously wanted to become a musician, regardless of how many obstacles I had to overcome. I spent a year playing other people’s music. By the time the year was up, I was all into extreme metal, uniquely Norwegian Black Metal. After a year of self-education, I set out to start an excellent metal band and was stunned when I realized how difficult this was.
I tried to take lessons with an acclaimed jazz guitarist in Chicago, but he couldn’t teach me what I wanted to learn. He also seemed puzzled at how my mind worked. All of his students wanted to sound like their favorite guitar player, and all of his students wanted to play other people’s music, but when he asked me, “who do you want to sound like?” I replied, “myself.” He did not know how to handle that.
I ran into the same problem when I tried to take lessons with a proper guitar professor in London. He had a conveyor belt system for all of his students and was used to lecturing everyone. He started hating me when I showed up to my second lesson and revealed that I hadn’t been practicing. Since he rudely interrupted me, he never got to hear the rest of my explanation, which was that I was preparing myself to go into a proper recording studio to record one of my very first demos. I had been busy practicing those songs and coming up with solos for my first release. He never heard that part because he was so lost in his world, lecturing me. He started treating me with contempt since I wasn’t a serious musician in his eyes. I had also crumpled the exercise papers that he had given me something that freaked him out. He hated me ever since that moment. We didn’t see eye to eye at all. In his opinion, you can only be creative and write different songs if you first learn every single guitar technique under the sun, he said, but my view was different: creativity comes first, and that leads the way. Technique follows.
The first guitarist who ever understood where I came from was the legendary Ramon Ortiz(Ankla), who became my guitar mentor when I lived in Los Angeles. I saw him perform at Ozzfest a couple of years earlier, and was pretty starstruck when I realized that I knew someone who was working with him. I got an introduction, and before I knew it, we were working together, which was pretty amazing! He is the only guitar player who gave me life-changing advice and the only living guitarist I was a massive fan of, so having him as my mentor was a huge honor. His playing and the exercises he gave me started influencing my lead guitar playing tremendously.
I’m classically trained as an opera singer, and I grew up with classical music in the house since my mother was/is an opera singer. She was trained in the bel canto technique in Italy, by Aida Meneghelli, a fantastic soprano who had the same teacher as Maria Callas. As a guitar player, I’ve mainly developed by writing songs that were too difficult for me to play when I first came up with them. I would then practice like mad so that I could play and record what I had created.
My playing is rooted in metal and punk. That is my background. So transitioning to fast classical shredding wasn’t that difficult. The challenge was wrapping my head around the dynamics that are inherent in classical music and the feel that is needed when you play something that beautiful. The distortion also had to come off since it ruined the tenderness and beauty I was aiming for. Without distortion, you can even hear if your muscles are too tense. Every detail becomes very auditable, which is why it is crucial to be relaxed in your arms and shoulders. Dynamics stemming from your fingers become very expressive, with distortion on people won’t be able to hear it. It was also a challenge that I didn’t know how to read sheet music. I memorized everything because that is how I roll, but the process of figuring out where to play things was not an easy task. Mental training was also a big deal because it is pretty nerve-wracking to go out there and play pieces that nobody else can technically play, especially as a woman. It took me years before I enjoyed playing live mainly due to the general disbelief from people when they heard my demos and official releases. Ever since the beginning, people always doubted that I could do live what I did on my recordings. I found this puzzling. It made me hate playing live, though, because I always felt that everything had to be perfect and that people would think that I was a fraud if I made one mistake.
How did you get the name Commander-In-Chief?
CIC: I bumped into Barack Obama when I lived with my family in Hyde Park, Chicago. We used to live in an apartment complex called Regent’s Park, and he used one of the apartments there as his safe house. Everyone knew that he was coming and going in the building, allegedly he used the gym there. As his fame grew and his victory became more and more likely, he still came there. Once we had left Chicago, I remember seeing a photo of him and his bodyguards in the news using the same back entrance to Regent’s Park, where I ran into him. So he did come there quite often. I remember very well how the artist’s name came to me. I had just left Regent’s Park and bumped into him. I was waiting for the bus to go downtown. On the side of the bus, there was a commercial for one of the presidential debates, then I turned around and saw a newspaper cover where it said: “who will be our next commander-in-chief?” How stupid are these people, I thought to myself as I sat down in my bus seat, everyone knows it will be Obama. And that’s when I grabbed my cellphone and called my mom (who is my manager) and just said as she picked up her phone, “The Commander In Chief.” “That’s it!” Was all that she replied. She did a global search to see if anyone else using the name, no one did, so we took it and had been using it ever since.
Can you explain what happened when and how you got ill?
CIC: On Thanksgiving eve 2016, I all of a sudden got so ill that I had to lay down. I couldn’t eat anything. It felt like I was being stabbed in my gut, and from then on, things just got worse. Somehow I managed to catch a parasite called Cryptosporidiosis or Crypto. I was deadly ill for two weeks and could have died at the age of 27. I was living on electrolytes and couldn’t even stand up straight. I was a total wreck. I could also hear the electrical noises coming from my head. However, after two weeks, the parasite was officially gone, and I guess I thought that things would get back to normal quickly. When I walked over to my rehearsal space in January 2017, I should have paid more attention to my body. I sounded like a walrus while breathing when I walked over there and struggled. I also started to have some infernal pain in my shoulders and had to have a whole week off from playing. Yet I’m a professional musician, so I’ll keep on going no matter what. All of a sudden, my left shoulder went south. Something made an ugly noise in there, and all of a sudden I had a swinging arm that was pretty much useless, I couldn’t function properly and had to be nursed. Then the rest of my body fell apart because of the Crypto, and I ended up bedridden, with extreme fatigue, almost like I was narcoleptic, in addition to a whole bunch of other issues. It has taken me 3,5 years to recover fully. It’s been a nightmare. The hardest year was 2019, since I was desperately trying to establish a proper routine. No matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t able to.
Do you improvise while playing live?
CIC: No, not really. I like to plan things and map things out. I’ve never been into jamming. The first time I did it, I was being filmed for a TV Show, talk about pressure! So I’ve proven that I can do it if I have to, but I prefer to have my routines and plan everything.
Do you have endorsements? If so, who are they?
CIC: I have lots of endorsements. The first one I ever got was with Ibanez back in 2011. They were the primary industry people whoever said yes to me, so it meant a lot to me when they sent me the prototype Falchion 7 string guitar. I also remember that we took screenshots of how cool it was to be on their website. I still have the Falchion, but I haven’t used it since the “Zigeunerweisen” recording in 2013. I switched guitar for “2 Guitars: The Classical Crossover Album” since I had to have something lighter. It’s great to have a slim and light guitar; I love my Ibanez Prestige. It sounds great. So I’ve been using that one since 2014. I also have a seven-string acoustic guitar. I was overjoyed when I got that one since I had wanted a seven-string acoustic for a while. I use both guitars on “Berit, Vol.1” and also on my new album “Berit, Vol.2” 🙂
These days I consider my Presonus endorsement to be my primary endorsement since I’m now making my recordings. It wasn’t always like that; for years, I used Studio One (Presonus’ Digital Audio Workstation) for demo recordings and practice purposes. Now I’m all of a sudden sitting in front of my computer for hours on end recording my songs from the bottom up, even mixing it and mastering it myself. Elisabeth (my manager) is the boss or executive producer. She is very instrumental and has even come up with some guitar parts and solos; she is crucial for arrangements, etc.; She is also fantastic as a vocal coach and vocal producer. I’m the one sitting in front of the computer, however, so I’m very excited about what I figured out regarding Studio One as I worked my way through “Berit, Vol.2.”
I’ve now gotten so used to logging into Studio One that is just seeing the logo makes me happy, because it means that I’m actually getting my music out there and that I’m moving forward! I can picture myself getting increasingly integrated with the software and with where music is heading. There are a lot of tools that I don’t need since I’m a very skilled craftsperson as a musician. But “playing computer” is essentially an instrument in this day and age. You can create your instruments and your own sounds, etc.; I find this most interesting. The options are endless, but you need time obviously to figure things out. The idea of having a portable studio, which is what I have now, and just wraps things up and goes wherever it is lovely. I can work from anywhere. My goal now is to become a proper digital nomad and do what all these cool online people do.
Everything that we’ve done with The Commander In Chief has been possible due to the digital age that we live in. Everything was built up by using social media platforms and social media marketing. Now we’ve transitioned to email marketing since social media marketing is dead. These days we make our recordings and music videos by using Apple and Presonus products. Many times I’ve thought to myself that I’m incredibly lucky to live now with all the tools that are currently available. Any person with a computer and an internet connection can start a business. Things are harder now than they were when we started, social media-wise, but the truth is that you can easily have your own production company. You can still upload music videos to Youtube and efficiently distribute your music everywhere.
My guitar tone is now 100% Studio One. I just plug my Ibanez prestige into my Presonus Firestudio. I add the following inside Studio One: Room Reverb (slightly tweaked), Beat Delay (tweaked somewhat), Analog Dealy (tweaked somewhat) + Pro EQ (tweaked slightly). And that’s literally my tone! My guitar has never sounded better! I also use EMG pickups, DR strings, and Jim Dunlop guitar picks. When you go clean, then everything is auditable. Any changes are massive changes since it doesn’t take that much for the sound or tone to be affected.
I also consider my Audix endorsement to be right up there with Presonus since you need good mics if you are going to capture sound. Last year I was overjoyed when I got my first professional studio mic. It’s a CX212B, and I used it for all of my vocal tracks on “Berit, Vol.2” and also on the acoustic guitar. I also used an i5 mic on my guitar. The CX212B also comes in a neat case! I’ve been an Audix artist ever since 2012. That’s when I got most of my endorsement deals.
It is interesting how different Audio and MIDI files are. To capture good Audio, you need good microphones, and you also need to know what you are doing. This is one of the reasons as to why it took me some years before I actually went ahead and just recorded a whole album on my own. Sound engineers have turned Audio recording into science, and it is fascinating to watch the pros at work. In the music business, people play different roles and have different tasks that they are experts at. The way things are changing, however, you need to be just as skilled at writing music, playing various instruments, programming/engineering, marketing, crowdfunding, communication, customer service, packaging & shipment, sales, etc.; etc.; It is too much to expect lone musicians to master all of these tasks, I’m very grateful that I have my manager and mother Elisabeth as my battle buddy. Not only is she The Manager, but she also makes and edits all of my music videos. Both of us do a million different jobs, and it can, of course, be difficult juggling all of it. Having proper gear and working with amazing brands is much appreciated. We are grateful for all support!
How do you feel you’ve evolved as a musician?
CIC: Tremendously. I was a massive fan of punk music, then all of a sudden, I was into extreme metal. My songwriting has gone through lots of changes. When I first started, I wasn’t interested in playing leads or solos. I threw away whatever exercises that I received at a Steve Smyth masterclass because he played a seven-string guitar, and that was irrelevant to me! I had no clue that I had it in me to be a guitar virtuoso and did not see it coming that I would one day play Paganini and Sarasate. I’m fascinated that I can do the things that I can do. It is fun to be me. I can play whatever I want, but it is hard work. You need to exercise every day. You also have to lift weights. It’s no joke aiming for the top technology, and once you get there, it is hard work to stay in shape. You put your body under a lot of pressure. Maintenance is just as essential as practicing; the mental aspect is crucial too because when you go out there to play these types of pieces live, you need to be at peace and laser-focused. You are necessarily an athlete, and you have to live and act accordingly.
Do you feel being in a predominately male business that female guitarists have come a long way?
CIC: I’m not sure. It’s a bit of a two-edged sword the way I see it. Male session and tribute band musicians rarely become famous. Most female guitarists don’t challenge the musical Status Quo, and I think that that increases their odds of being accepted in a male-dominated industry. I think guys get excited if they can go and listen to a bunch of hot chicks who play their favorite metal and rock tunes. It’s a safe way to go about things where you play by the rules. I’ve never cared about what the men are doing, so when I finally did a couple of metal covers, I did re-writes, since that’s how my creativity works. That was met with a lot of controversies, and I instantly became a polarising artist. The amount of hate that I’ve been on the receiving end is incredible. Those who hate me find everything about me provocative and offensive. On the upside, most men have treated me with a lot of respect for being true to myself and focusing on being good at what I do. I have generally gotten along well with male musicians, but some have been a bit intimidated by my work ethics. I’ve gotten along really well with sound engineers, producers, and classical musicians.
My image never really conformed to how women commonly portray themselves either. That has changed over the years since I’m now making more feminine music, and I also feel like I’ve proven myself more than enough with everything that I’ve done in metal and classical, so I feel way more relaxed now than I did before. I love singing opera as well and love the fact that you get to dress up and look all fancy! The dresses and the flowers are an excellent argument for why girls should sing classical! It is delightful. It is also lovely to be treated well. Some music genres are more women-friendly than others, that’s for sure. Why would you want to be treated poorly? I do believe that women who don’t care and just do their own thing will be met with a great deal of hostility, in general. Women are supposed to be accommodating and to make men feel comfortable if you couldn’t care less because you’re just doing your own thing. A lot of people will naturally become defensive since they will perceive you as threatening or weird. I don’t think that much will change because most women will not be interested in shooting guns or shredding guitars. I like to do both. I also used to do Martial Arts and enjoyed that too. Most women the way I see it have different interests and is also very focused on how many kids they want, etc.; I’ve pretty much been married to my work, and never even questioned that until I got ill.
Do you have a favorite song out of your catalog you like the most?
CIC: From my metal album “I Am,” I would say: “Evolution,” “Thou,” “Toxic,” “I Am The Commander In Chief,” & “Starving Artist.”
In all of those songs, I managed to communicate precisely what I was aiming for. Starving Artist is only available on one of my demo recordings, but it is out there. It’s about being an artist looking for funding. It includes a myriad of crazy high notes, aggressive guitar playing, and even blast beats. It’s hilarious! In “I Am The Commander In Chief,” I managed to capture the delusion and madness of a dictator type who want a totalitarian state but then start losing the plot before everything crumbles. “Thou” is a satirical metal hymn to the only God in society: money. Both “Evolution” and “Toxic” are about the dark side of science.
From my classical album “2 Guitars: The Classical Crossover Album,” I would say: “Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso.”
It’s a monster of a piece. We did the first-ever recording of it on guitars, so we wrote a little bit of history with that one. It took me six months to learn it. It is the absolute limit of what I can do as a guitarist. Once again, it’s a monster of a piece. It’s on an entirely different level in terms of difficulty than Paganini, but it is less famous, and again, no one else has ever done it on guitar. It is considered one of the hardest pieces to play on a tiny violin. Now imagine playing it with one guitar pick on a seven-string guitar!
From my 1st acoustic album “Berit, Vol.1,” I would say: “How Cheap Will You Sell Your Soul?” And “Why So Hostile?”
“How Cheap Will You Sell Your Soul?” Was inspired by The Doors. I think I managed well and that the musical influence is pretty apparent.
From my new acoustic album “Berit, Vol.2,” I would say: “Trailer Trash.”
I’m proud of that song, to be honest. It is very challenging to play on the piano and also to sing. The story behind it is pretty impressive as well. We had a manipulative and abusive neighbor who harassed, slandered, and stalked our family for more than three years, totally unprovoked. We were lucky to live in a beautiful Manor House that had been turned into multiple apartments, but the madness of the neighbors, and one woman, in particular, soured the whole experience. There is a huge story behind this because this woman was waging a one-way war against my family for over three years, just because she didn’t like my mom. She is the kind of a person who hijacks you if you run into her (no one can avoid her since she sees everyone coming and going from the property), and she will drag you into her apartment and go into a monologue for about an hour. She is the kind of person that you would run away from because you know that once she gets a hold of you, there is no escaping. So a neighbor from hell in other words.
She was obsessed with us. She has a 20+ year history of harassing other neighbors, but she went for the kill when it came to us. She even sabotaged my mother’s wedding. She also started believing that we were somehow spying on her when she installed illegal surveillance cameras inside the communal areas, and we went out of our way to avoid her. She even started to walk around with a go-pro camera in a harness, filming my minor siblings and us whenever we dared going outside to be in the communal park/gardens. So, this weirdo created a fake narrative that everything had been excellent on this property until we moved in and that we had somehow ruined everything. She recruited one of the tenants on the property as an actual asset (or a lapdog) so that she would come after us. Multiple times she tried to start a fight with my mom, the last time she came after us she was ranting non-stop for several minutes calling us Trailer Trash, Losers, you name it.
That incident was what inspired my song “Trailer Trash,” because that’s what she called us! I was outside in the park with my underage, younger brother, my other brother, and mom. All of a sudden, the lapdog just sat herself down, right in the middle of where the whole family was sitting, despite having an 8 acres garden available and no one else outside. All of a sudden, she went on this extraordinary rant. All she was spewing out were lies, fed to her by the primary harasser. Still, she believed that we as a family were the greatest calamity that had ever happened to the property, despite having been corrected many times before. She called us failures, losers, trailer trash, and every bad word in the book. We were all shellshocked, and my mom said nothing, she just recorded the whole thing on her phone. My minor brother is still talking about that incident since he had never seen such evil behavior before.
After this horrible experience, I sat for three days and wrote: “Trailer Trash” in a rage. Elisabeth didn’t like the lyrics I had written, so she wrote new lyrics for it. We both love the result.
When shall we expect new music from you?
CIC: “Berit, Vol.2” will be released on the 9th of July! It is possible to pre-order signed, physical copies through my website: https://www.commandermusic.com