The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here.
Front and Center: 7-String Guitarist, The Commander-In-Chief
by Gabriella Steffenberg and Pauline France
Norwegian guitarist The Commander in Chief is without doubt a leading figure in the 7-string guitar world. But owning up to her name was no easy feat.
In the early stages of her career, she was discouraged by teachers saying she had no musical ability. Despite the naysayers, the guitar slinger forged ahead building a name and following for herself.
Fast-forward to today, The Commander in Chief is readying for the release of her second album The Metal Years!, due April 14. She has appeared as an expert judge on her native country’s talent show Stjernekamp, and has earned the respect of many media outlets including Guitar World, Total Guitar, and many more.
Learn about this fearless guitarist’s journey to stardom, her choice of gear, her biggest obstacles, and more in the interview below.
Follow The Commander in Chief on Facebook here.
WiMN: What musical projects are you currently working on?
CIC: On April 14 of 2016, I’m releasing my first metal album, The Metal Years. I’m also ready to record 30 tracks that I finished arranging and writing in January of this year, and I’ve got gigs with classical music coming up. In other words, I’m busy which is always good :).
WiMN: What’s your favorite part about meeting and talking to your fans from all across the globe?
CIC: I find it very flattering that there are people out there who take a genuine interest in my music, that people pay for it, and that there are fans spreading the word and showing up to my gigs.
It depends a bit on the fan what my experience is like, but in general I always enjoy spending time after concerts signing autographs and posing for pictures. I also interact with fans on social media.
WiMN: How does it feel to have created the first professional guitar duel between a metal guitarist and classical guitarist on “Zigeunerweisen Op. 20?”
CIC: I actually did this type of a thing twice, as I also recorded the first electric and classical guitar duel of “Introduction & Rondo Cappriccioso” as well. The greatest challenge for me was that I didn’t know if what I wanted to accomplish was possible, if it was doable.
Classical musicians don’t record with a metronome and I had to listen to violin players which is totally different than using another guitarist as your guide. It was difficult sometimes to find the motivation to keep on pushing forward as it was quite painful, time-consuming and repetitive.
I think my greatest obstacle ever since I started playing was that mentally I didn’t really accept how good I actually was. So I never felt that the playing was good enough and doubted whether or not I would be able to do what I wanted when I eventually ventured into virtuoso territory. My mentality was negative and silly and didn’t add up to the level I was on technically. Learning to accept what I can actually do has been a big deal and I believe the greatest barrier that stood between me and recording those two pieces.
WiMN: How was your experience as expert judge and vocal coach on the TV show Stjernekamp, and working with 10 established Norwegian musicians, all in competition to be The Ultimate Star?
CIC: I’ve had the great honor of being involved with national TV in my home country on several occasions and it’s a treat every time to be part of a big production. Stjernekamp is THE show with the best rating on Saturday night in Norway, so it is the biggest production that I’ve been involved with so far and I loved every second of it.
I wasn’t quite sure how it would be like to give master classes in singing as I had only coached people on guitar before. It was a great relief to experience that everything my singing teacher taught me was there, and that I was ready to pass that information on. I think that my vocal coach and manager has done a great job coaching me, but you don’t notice that until you are thrown into certain situations, where an interview is stunted on the spot with a major broadcaster or you find yourself doing something new live on TV in front of a whole nation.
Ultimately, if you are going to coach, you have to be able to be genuinely happy for other peoples’ success and for their evolution as performers. It makes me very happy if I can help and encourage others, the joy and gratitude that you feel when you can help someone with what they are passionate about is amazing.
I was proud when I saw the results on Stjernekamp; very proud of those whom I coached. And I was well-liked as a judge, since I gave technical reasons for why I liked certain things or not, and gave positive feedback or constructive criticism. I was not there to slaughter anyone; I was there to encourage, motivate and bring out the best in people. That should be your aim when you are dealing with talent.
WiMN: Are there any songs you listened to growing up that deeply influenced you to pick up guitar? If so, what are they?
CIC: No, I was a music fan my whole life but I picked up the guitar because I had so many ideas for songs that I felt it was time to learn an instrument.
When I was 11 I started a pop duo with my best friend and wrote all our music. My problem was that I couldn’t play an instrument, so I wrote down the lyrics and had to sing through the songs often to remember them, but the more music I wrote the harder it became to remember it all and at a certain point I just let the whole thing go.
Horrible music teachers when I was a little child had convinced me that I had no musical ability when it came to playing an instrument. I always wanted to be creative, but that was not encouraged. I had to sit completely still and rigid on the piano stool, play what I was being told and was shouted at whenever I made a mistake, which made me make even more mistakes.
My teachers made me so nervous and scared that after two years of “failed piano lessons” I was the only student who was not allowed to perform in front of the parents when we all picked up our diploma. The worst thing was that I was grateful that I was spared the humiliation as I by that time was convinced that I had NO talent. I begged my mother to stop taking me to the lessons and that was that.
The year I turned 16 I made a decision to give music another go and to pick up an instrument, which happened to be the guitar. I wanted to get all these songs and ideas that came to me documented some how. I wrote my own songs from day one, and developed as a musician since I constantly wrote songs that were too difficult for me to play at the moment, I would spend weeks and months working on a song, sometimes even years. I’m glad that I made the decision to go for music and follow my passion, just sitting by myself and playing my instrument gives me enormous joy, everything else I experience with my music is a bonus.
WiMN: What is it about the Ibanez Falchion 7-string guitar that you like so much?
CIC: I used to play the Falchion 7, now I’m playing an S-Prestige 7 string made in Japan. I had to change Ibanez model as the Falchion was too thick in the neck and too heavy for 8-hour practice routines with classical music.
I had six months to prepare for my classical-crossover album (Two Guitars: The Classical-Crossover Album) and to do the impossible (playing Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso). This meant that I had to get the most out of every single day, up until we hit the studio. There were also other fairly challenging tracks on the album, such as Paganini’s “Caprice 24,” so I had to be in the best shape I could possible be.
I had to technically peak by the time I hit the studio. I was so tired of my guitar after the months of preparation and the recording, that I honestly hated my instrument when I was done. So I toned down my practiCe hours considerably afterwards.
Whenever I listen to the album, I’m reminded of how painful it was physically to drive myself as far as I did to make it. It’s impressive to listen to, but something like that doesn’t come for free.
Back to the Falchion – it was a great guitar that I liked, as it was a 7-string. It had a cool tone to it, it looked bad-ass, and there was only one of it in the world. Once I started working on virtuosos material though, the guitar gave me physical problems. I dislocated my collar bone for example, and I couldn’t risk any injuries when I was going to record such a massive and expensive guitar album in 2014, so it was replaced.
WiMN: You visited the NAMM trade show in 2015. Was this your first time? What was your experience like?
CIC: I visited the NAMM show for the first time in 2014. That time I signed autographs only. Llast year I also performed which was really cool.
My schedule was hectic and busy which always makes me happy. I also attended the She Rocks Awards which was very inspiring :).
WiMN: Who are some of your biggest role models in the music industry?
CIC: I think that Lindsey Stirling is the one I currently admire the most in terms of the modern music industry. Anyone who can build a fan base on their own using social media and YouTube is a role model for modern artists.
When I look at my younger siblings they practically live on YouTube, and all these bloggers are their idols. It’s the same with my younger cousin. Things have changed and you have to follow or be ahead of that change, so I look up to anyone who succeeds in the “new” show-biz industry and makes it work.
It gives hope to other unsigned artists that you don’t need a record label in order to succeed ;).
WiMN: Have you ever faced adversity for being a female guitarist in a heavily male-dominated industry? If so, how do you deal with it?
CIC: It’s a mixed experience. On one hand people are very welcoming and think of it as cool, on the other hand there seems to be a great dose of denial when it comes to female musicians in heavy music, a conclusion I’ve reached from what I’ve experienced myself and what I’ve read in interviews with other female musicians in the scene.
People will actually wonder if a guy recorded what I recorded, and once they find out it’s a woman, the attitude change to “Oh, no way she can do this live.” When I started gigging I knew that other musicians would come just to see if I could actually sing those high notes and play the guitar like I did on the recordings. I was encountered with total shock when I delivered and played and sung just like on the studio recordings. The disbelief when it comes to genuine female talent in the scene was something I honestly didn’t expect. It is equally insulting as it is ignorant.
It absolutely infuriates me that I go on stage thinking to myself “I better not make a mistake now, because then people will think I can’t play.” I mean, what kind of twisted thing is that? Look at classical music, there are so many female virtuosos and no one doubts them, so why doubt women playing rock ’n’ roll and metal when those genres are way easier than classical music?
I’ve also had some odd experiences with so-called admirers. Twice I’ve had to call the police, on two other occasions I’ve been threatened. I think what amazes me the most is that people can work themselves into agitation, a person can convince themselves that you are like so-and-so and give you assumed characteristics that you don’t posses at all.
Nothing is more dangerous than someone who puts you up on a pedestal because they assume what you are like. All you need to do is to either say something or do something (usually unnoticeable and insignificant to most) that challenges whatever perception said person had of you. Once you do, your admirer will go from adoration to absolute hate and might even become dangerous.
It is worrying how many crazy, or unstable people that are out there. People assuming what you are like though, is the most annoying aspect of visibility and exposure.
WiMN: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received regarding being involved in the music industry?
CIC: I have plenty of advice actually. I believe that all of these could be of interest to young musicians:
- Play every gig with the same enthusiasm you had when you played your first gig and with the mentality that this could be your last. You never know when you play your last gig, so you have to make every one count.
- You never know when you are at your biggest, when you peak, so appreciate every moment. I’ve learned this from listening to, observing, hiring and working with session musicians.
- If you treat every gig like it is just another gig, then things will never become that great and mediocrity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because hey, it’s just another gig. You have to make what you put into this world count. Go that extra mile; you should have enough artistic pride to do this automatically.
- Also, stay loyal and be committed to a project. Way too many musicians go in and out of bands because they are just looking for an easy ride to fame.
Because of this mentality they usually miss out as they drop out of a band before the band starts making money. They don’t have what it takes to build something from scratch and see it grow. When they realize that one of the bands they dropped out of is going somewhere they become bitter and blame everyone else or try to get back into the band.
Seeing potential and being creative is, oddly enough, something that is hard to come by in the industry; that’s why people don’t get where you are going until you’ve reached your destination, which means that you have to do a lot yourself. Musicians generally also seem to believe that something greater is yet to come no matter what. By having that mentality you’ll never realize when you are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime moment because something has to be greater or bigger than this. Savor every moment and victory.
In terms of advice from others, here are some:
- GRAMMY-nominated producer Paul Richmond was the first person I worked with in the industry when I was 18. He convinced me that I should never give away my songs as people identify a track with the singer, and he convinced me to sing my own music and keep my work to myself.
- Ramon Ortiz gave me some lessons in solo guitar when I went through artist development in L.A. He told me about his major label band and how they had signed the first contracts that were offered to them, as they couldn’t believe that industry people were paying attention to them. By undervaluing themselves as a band, they signed shitty deals.
- My guitar mentor also said that his greatest regret was that he had stopped pushing himself technically at a certain point as he was tired of practicing and wanted to be a rock star instead.
Remember that your talent will be the only factor in the industry that will be constant in your career, unless you forsake it.
I also had some jam sessions with a successful session musician who was so bitter with the man whose name he was still using to promote himself. It taught me how ugly bitterness is and how ungrateful certain people are. If another person is the reason as to why your name is valuable in the industry, it is poor taste to spend every breath speaking badly of that very same person.
I’ve learned most of course from my mother, manager and vocal coach Elisabeth, as she had experience both from the corporate business world and the music industry. She insisted on me owning everything and being in control and has given me great advice all the years we’ve been working together. Many times I’ve had to admit that she was right whenever we’ve disagreed on something.
Don’t let your ego get in you OWN way – it is poor taste, bad manners and will prevent you from personal growth.
I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in the industry is not to be so trusting. This is a lesson that you sadly learn by making the mistake of trusting the wrong people.
Another one is that things take time, so be patient. In the beginning of my career I honestly thought that all I had to have was potential. That all it would take for me to be discovered was to upload some tracks online and that some record label would appear out of nowhere and make me a star (in my own defense, I was a teen and was raised in the era of reality TV and talent shows, so that can explain my ignorance).
You have to build your own success, and that takes time. Keep in mind that many of the greats were about to give up right before things took off.
WiMN: Which artists would you like to collaborate with?
CIC: Hans Zimmer would be cool, Lindsey Stirling would also be awesome, I’m also a big fan of the songwriters who write the majority of all the pop songs on the charts.
I’ve said for a long time that I would love to co-write music with others, or other people who can write catchy music. In general I would like to collaborate with as many people as possible in different genres as I think that this could be a great experience.
Thanks a lot for the questions 😉 🙂 :).