Ever since she was a little girl, Danish multi-instrumentalist Amalie Bruun — who records and performs under the name Myrkur — has suffered from bad dreams. Then, a couple of years ago, they became precipitously worse. She'd wake up shaking with fear and soaked with sweat. Sometimes she could barely breathe, as if someone was suffocating her. Other times, she was practically hyperventilating.
"I felt like I was going crazy," she says, at her home in the woods north of Copenhagen, Denmark. "I tried to calm my mind before I went to bed, or listen to classical music or something. But no matter what I did, I had these night terrors. I couldn't make them stop."
Bruun, who remains guarded about most personal subjects, won't discuss the details of her dreams, but she's channeled them into her second full-length album, Mareridt — the title is Danish for "Nightmares." Like all of her releases, Mareridt is a musically eclectic, haunting journey that combines elements of black metal, Scandinavian folk, doom, goth and soundtrack music in a way that's skewed, scary and seductive: Imagine Neurosis, Eluveitie, Darkthrone and Enya locked in a room and forced to write songs together.
While Bruun was suffering from bad dreams night after night, she decided to try to harness the negative energy overwhelming her unconscious mind and turn it into something positive. "I kept a pen and a notepad by my bed and, as soon as I woke up, I wrote down what I remembered from the dream and then I tried to turn them into songs," she says. "I hoped that would be therapeutic and, to be honest, it really was."
By day, she wrote dozens of musical passages on violin, guitar, piano and cello, then she wove the pieces together into complete songs. The process was challenging but cleansing, and by the time the mercurial artist had accumulated enough material for her second full-length, she had tamed her nightmares.
With dozens of songs in demo form, Bruun hooked up with producer Randall Dunn (Earth, Boris, Wolves in the Throne Room), who helped her tweak and rearrange certain sections to make the album flow better. "Mareridt" starts the album with a sustained nyckelharpa drone over an ancient "kulning" herding call (which sounds something like more alluring yodelling). The second song, "Måneblôt," indulges in black-metal tropes (blast beats, tremolo picking, growling vocals) before shifting into a buoyant section filled with violin and tribal drums. Most of the album hits a midway point between two extremes, offering trudging, doomy rhythms embellished with a range of folk instrumentation and vocals that see-saw between demonic growls and operatic crooning. For Myrkur, anything goes — as long as it sounds good.
"I've learned to not use any labels about myself because I don't care about genre," she says. "My whole point is to mix a ton of shit into this freak-of-nature sound that I think is cool. If someone wants to call it black metal, fine. But the people who like my music don't need me to be a black-metal wearing-corpse-paint person trying to be true. They don't give a fuck and neither do I."
The lyrics on Mareridt fit the dark, desperate music. "In my eyes, you always see a serpent," she sings on "Serpent." And "Børnehjem" features choral harmonies over the voice of a possessed child: "The demons have always lived inside me/They always watch me/They want to play."
Bruun's ascension within the metal world has been as unconventional as Myrkur's music. She never toiled away in dive clubs and didn't have to hit up dozens of labels to get signed. As soon as Relapse Records heard a home-recorded demo she made in 2013, they offered her a deal. Her debut came with the "Nattens Barn" single in July 2014, which she followed two months later with her self-titled EP. Mykur's full-length debut, M, hit in August 2015. Even before the album came out, she debuted the project live at the high-profile Roskilde festival. She also played the equally prestigious Hellfest in France and opened for Behemoth on her first U.S. tour.
"I didn't think about it all because I had been doing this kind of music for years, writing little folk songs and adding metal elements to it," she says. "I just wasn't thinking about releasing it before so I didn't know how the music business worked. I didn't know how unusual it was to suddenly play these big shows. Some people liked what I was doing right away, but I also got a lot of resistance and abuse."
Indeed, many "trve" black-metal purists declared war against her, viewing her success as an attack against the sanctity of their chosen style of music, even though she came armed with plenty of cred: M was produced by Ulver's Kristoffer Rygg, and Mayhem's Teloch plays lead guitar for her live. Even so, extreme black-metal fans gave her no quarter.
"People made hateful videos about me and put them on YouTube," she recalls. "I got death threats on Facebook and had to close it down. I was afraid for my life for a while."
It was a waking nightmare even more unsettling than the dark dreams that inspired Mareridt. But Bruun is no stranger to real-life horror, and she has channeled past traumas into her art. She at first skirts the issue, then agrees to talk about one such harrowing experience in vague terms. The incident that took place when she was in her early twenties and informed the 2015 single "Den lille piges død."
"The title means 'the little girl's death,'" she explains. "It's about a baby I knew that died. I was holding this baby and it was all blue and dead. I was with a close friend and it was awful. I had been introduced to death before in my life, but I never touched it or saw it up close. And it's so wrong when it's a baby and you don't know why. It doesn't help to talk about it. It just doesn't, so I write about it instead."
"I am not a happy songwriter," Bruun admits. "Maybe I'm not a very happy person sometimes. A lot of fucked-up things happen in my life, so I am disarming my unhappiness by letting it guide me in composing music. That seems to work for me."