Alexander Rybak: His own chaos pilot

Alexander Rybak has learned how to handle a racing mindset and depression

He experiences an eternal mindset, can suddenly be depressed. And smiles less than before. Still, Alexander Rybak (31) has never felt better.

Source: VG Published on VG+ 26.02.2018 – Updated 02.03.2018. Published in VG paper issue 3.3.2018. Text by  Lena Storvand. Photo: Gøran Bohlin
Translation by Jorunn Ekre and TessalA. Revision Anni Jowett
A few hours more now, and it will be over . Then the forehead suddenly will feel so easy. Then the heavy mind will be replaced with joy. He knows it well, it’s like this every time the soul darkens. He never knows when the light is muted, that’s what sucks, that there’s no explanation for it.

LESS SMILE: But more joy, is the key for Alexander right now. Photo: Gøran Bohlin

Like in the TV show “Hver gang vi møtes”. He was really looking forward to perform a song, the result excited everyone, including himself. And afterwards, he could be really depressed, without knowing why.

But a hug can help. The warmth of an embrace can remove the mindset for a few seconds, be the kick-start for a quieter breath. And an inexplicable, intense joy can come as abruptly as the darkness. Maybe on my way to a funeral.
– It sounds completely psycho-like, but my well-being is in spite of that. There I clash with the rest of the world. 
– Often I’m happy when it’s raining, because I can escape the expectations that come with the sun: “Come, let’s take some prawns at the dock.” When it’s raining there is no pressure on me, and I am the  gentle guy, the one people expect me to be.


Step by step: It’s about having faith in your own ideas, and realizing these steps, says the multi artist. Photo: Gøran Bohlin


The one they expect is this one: the high energy, classically educated, musical multi-artist with the big smile. He who won the Eurovision Song Contest with “Fairytale” nine years ago, and who next weekend returns to the Norwegian Melodi Grand Prix final in Oslo Spektrum.
MGP-COMEBACK: Next week Alexander Rybak will be on stage in the MGP final in Oslo Spektrum. Photo: Gøran Bohlin

Clearly he is hungry for victory. But the biggest dream is this: If the racing mindset going at full speed, he will still manage to talk nicely with the make-up artist, take time with the stage manager, focus on those around him, yes, actually enjoy the musical party the MGP really is.

Being here and now is so easy when you’re easy-minded, but a big achievement when you’re not.

Alexander wishes sometimes he could only feel, and not think so much. But the on /off power switch in the mindset is not connected like that. And it does not help when people say:

“Now you are over thinking. Don’t destroy this by thinking so much.”

On the contrary, that’s when the shame grows, he can almost feel bad, who feels it this way: “Shame on you, Alexander, now you should be happy.”

INNER STRENGTH: Alexander Rybak has learned to handle the racing mindset and depression in a different way than he did before. Photo: Gøran Bohlin
It’s nothing new, he has had it like this for as long as he can remember. Young Rybak  didn’t for example handle very well watching the Daily News. It became so bad that his parents – the pianist and the violinist from Belarus – shielded their son from the news til he was far up  in his teens.
The impressions went in loop on the “top floor” (his head). Tsunami. Famines. War. So torn by all these destinies, so in despair of his own powerlessness, and so ashamed that, despite the knowledge of the suffering of others, he still had his own concerns: “How will I do at the school concert?”

That feeling still strikes, right here right now:

– The more I talk about the mindset and the more you write about it, it’s very important to say I’m fully aware that there are many people who are actually seriously ill, he says.

– I won my first award as an 18-year-old, handed over by Ingvar Ambjørnsen. Jury’s reasoning was that I: “did a lot of funny things”. It was the self-confidence boost of time for a shy youth. Photo: Private

One thing is to struggle with a racing mindset, I know it’s a small thing compared to how other’s  life  can be. But that does not mean you should not take your own problems seriously.

A lack of self-esteem were also pushed forward with the racing mindset in the teens.

– The feelings lay in layer upon layer upon layer. And I was very aware that, even if I had tried to get help, if I had started at a help organisation, I’d have given up halfway. Because I have a feeling that music, that’s what I can do. My self-esteem is due to the music, really, and that’s it.


I have a wise and patient father, Igor, who brought me along to weddings and worship services in Nesodden Church, where I could play in front of people. Photo: Private

Throughout his life he has heard: It’s the violin you can do, Alexander. And he began early  to prepare for success: Practised writing autographs.He had noticed that Arve Tellefsen gave away autographs.

But he did not take up much space in other arenas. For example in football. It took a year before the other students at Nesoddtangen Primary School realised that he was actually a good defender and chose him to be in the team. He quickly accepted that he was not the first choice. 

I quickly understood that the violin impressed the ladies less than a guitar, especially at school camp etc. So I quickly joined the boy-band trend and learned to play the guitar. Photo: Private 

I’ve never really stood up for myself. I could often react on behalf of others when I saw that they were bullied. I didn’t feel strong enough to intervene myself, but soon to reported to the teacher: “Someone is being soaked now and I think they don’t find it okay.” But I should have been a bit better to assert myself, really.

Today it’s no big deal, he thinks. Because something has happened to Alexander in recent years. Through a lot of thinking , he has found an inner strength, and has worked to turn the whole racing mindset into something constructive. He knows that not everyone will understand him anyway, no matter how hard he tries. At the same time, it helped to open up a little: Previously he could, for example, be stressed if people perceived him as absent minded.

I’ve learned to take it with humour and make the best of it. Now I say I’m absent minded, but that people shouldn’t take it personally. It’s because I think of three things while I’m talking. You hear that I stutter sometimes, and that’s probably because I’ve got so much on my mind all the time.

Occasionally, someone wanted to investigate. Not the parents, but people within the school system. No one has defined it as a problem, but they asked “Do you have something like this? Or like that? “. But Alexander doesn’t want to “diagnose it, or have “something like that.”

Then I would think; ” Okay, I’ve got this and that “.  No, I’d rather prefer to think I’m absent minded. I think  “live and let live”.


The greatest pleasure I have had in my life is the feeling of being loved by Mom Natalia and Dad Igor. They always took me seriously. Photo: Private

Little Aljaksandr Igaravitsj Rybak swung between his parents arms. His little hands in theirs. This is his first memory, he doesn’t know if it is from Norway or Belarus. Four years old, he and his mother moved to Nesodden, where his father had established after escaping from the Soviet Union a few years earlier.

In Belarus they shared a 40 square metre small apartment with Alexander’s grandmother on his father’s side and another family. Both grandmothers are still living there. He visited the grandmother on his father’s side a few weeks ago. She is 93 years old, living with her sister and loves to tell Alexander how clever he was to read the signs on the subway. When he was three years old, he had already learned loop-writing and wrote his first song.

How this background has characterised him is difficult for Alexander to know. He has nothing to compare with.

But we have that minor key in Russia. In Norway we have a key of major. Here it’s a bit like that; “Okay, even if we are a bit in pain, the sun is shining.” Or “It’s raining, but I’m fine anyway”. It is the Norwegian spirit. In Russia it is the other way around: “Although I’m happy, it’s unfortunately raining.”

Earlier he searched a lot for the sense of happiness. In the «Fairytale» period, from 2009, he toured Europe and thought: “Happiness must be somewhere.” Now he doesn’t stress with that anymore.

I am much more calm now. I feel that I can look for happiness all my life, but there are so many other small, nice things. And I have found that the absence of unhappiness is a great pleasure. Absence of arguing with those you love,  because it hurts badly the times it happens. The absence of throwing up, because it’s so horrible, he says.

It may be that you need a really bad day to understand that the normal days are quite good. But you can not wait for something bad to happen to make you happy again. So every day I check;  “Am I unhappy? No. Ok, I’m fine.”


I immediately realised what to wear to be a part of the Moscow gang when I was on tour with the orchestra in Russia.

It has been a long journey. Seven – eight years ago, Alexander found it difficult to understand many people. He thought the point was to go for something big, to be the best, because what was the point if it didn’t go damn good?

Musical seminars for kids, for example, was wasted if the closing concert was not amazing. He could not understand why so many took  so easy on it. Didn’t they have an ambition in life? He was completely exhausted by it.

At the same time he studied his colleagues. Elisabeth Andreassen, who he really looks up to, she was so nice and relaxed between the performances. She seemed to have a good time. And the Barratt Due buddy  Didrik Solli-Tangen, he could suddenly start talking with Alexander about cars. Admittedly he is from Porsgrunn, but they should hold a concert!

– Slowly, but surely, I saw this: I was not he who had understood something they didn’t. It was the other way around , says Alexander.

“Cindy was my faithful friend throughout the upbringing. I say “faithful” because she had to suffer through a lot of fiddling. Photo: Private

– It’s great to have such larger-than-life moments, and on stage I always try to do something special. But I realised that most of life is not what’s happening on stage. The important thing is how you have it along the way, inter-personally. Life is more what happens while you do the dishes. Then, it’s important to remember something nice from those moments, he says.

– However, I have taken a statement saying; ” Before I was stupid, but now I’ve understood it “. I feel I still have plenty to learn.



Alexander and Julie love to travel to the United States. Here the couple are on the top of the Empire State Building.

He gladly shares the everyday chores with his girlfriend, graphic designer Julie Gaarud Holm (23). They have been together since 2016 and met through the dating app Tinder, where Alexander had a profile for many years.

Many didn’t believe that: When he matched with someone, he often only got messages like:
– Hahaha, as if you’re Alexander Rybak! Get a life!
– And then they deleted me. Hahaha!

He isn’t very concerned with his former image as Casanova or “hopelessly in love”. He only thinks he’s been lucky with love.
Now it is the feelings for Julie that matters, he barely remembers what relationship he had with love before he met her. He found a true soul mate- on Tinder.

It was Julie who was eager to get in touch. Alexander enjoyed the eager attitude.

– Love is finding someone who speaks with the same melody as me. A soul mate who understands all of my sounds, whether it’s sulking or laughter, it’s not necessary with many words. When we’re both very tired and worn out, we use a lot more words to explain ourselves.

They have their own separate apartments in Oslo, his at Aker Brygge. It didn’t take long after they became a couple before he said: “Now I need two days to myself”. Maybe he wanted to practise without anyone else in the room. Perhaps play a TV -game that only he enjoys (I have rounded Mario Galaxy, entered second division in FIFA).

It was zero stress, Julie understood, nice to give each other space to do their own stuff. It has continued this way. They have separate days with missing each other and longing, or spending time together 24 hours a day for weeks. Both are fine.

That his relationship to Julie has given him a career boost came as a cool surprise.

“But eventually I used my energy differently: to listen instead of smiling. Earlier I could be exhausted after smiling all day, now the evening often ends in a smile.”

One of the biggest tests to an attractive musician is perhaps to get a girlfriend. It becomes a test to see whether the fans in fact think the musical projects are exciting.

Despite of the new relationship status Alexander kept about the same amount of followers on YouTube and Instagram, where he promotes his music. Social media has saved his career. Alexander doesn’t release albums, but one song at a time. When he understood that his fans are faithful, he could let go a bit of the commercial way of thinking. He doesn’t have to think about showing off his biceps in a video, it’s OK without it. He is more free. In addition he writes more about joy, in fact he has been more positive and happy for many years now.

So why does he smile less? He is not sure, but thinks it has to do with listening more.

– We have been taught that a smile can change life. Smile and the world will smile back. People told me “you’re so great, you smile all the time”. It became sort of a circle: “Cool, that’s what people like about me”. But after a while I spent my energy differently. Listening instead of smiling. Earlier I could be exhausted after smiling all day, now the evening often ends with a smile.

But then the night comes. No cell phone an hour before bedtime. Perhaps a quiet trip to the veranda, just sitting there in the dark. Book in the bedroom. Paper and pencil next to the bed, to write the thoughts out of the head. Sometimes a whole chapter pours out for the children’s book he is working on, the second one. At other times a part of a song appears.

-I have learned to write down everything I have in my head. That’s also important in the song I will sing at the MGP final, “That’s How you Write a Song”. An encouragement to people to write down their ideas and work bit by bit. It helped me a lot. Believing in taking the first step in an idea, instead of just thinking about it and having no idea where to begin. Many people think that their idea isn’t good enough, because that’s not how everyone else thinks. But it’s the opposite: It’s extremely important to encourage all of the weird ideas. I know, because I get those all the time.


Theoretically it takes two minutes to go from the apartment to the store. In reality it takes at least three-four selfies with the fans. Alexander used to think that the sight of him-unshaven, coughing and with his hood pulled extra far down-was a bit deterrent. On the contrary. That’s when the boldest approach him. “Aren’t you the guy…”?

-I don’t like to postpone things, so I don’t avoid going shopping. I rather tell myself- OK, you may have many thoughts and be gloomy today and so on…You shouldn’t try hide your condition, but you can still be nice. Then they just have to accept that I don’t have the widest smile. I have learned to take things much more calmly and with humour, don’t bother to have that perfect image all the time.

I can have several layers of warm clothes, but still freezing. He is often freezing and gets sick a lot after hectic periods. He has no idea how many vacations that have never happened because he has had to stay in bed, deep under the covers. Dreams of a pill that can fix his bad immune system, so that at least 90% of his vacation plans can be a reality, not just 40.

-The doctors have said that the cold in the body may be caused by the intense heat in the periods when he has to perform. That the body compensates. When it’s been overheated it gets cold as ice the rest of the week.

“I cannot make everyone to understand me anyway. It doesn’t even make sense to try.”

-The doctors say it’s a healthy reaction, but I don’t feel it’s healthy, Alexander says.

The pattern has become so clear that he has learned to plan accordingly: Intense work, then time for a week when he may not be able to get out of bed, then a week where the doctors are trying to find out what’s wrong with him, waiting for that they don’t understand it, and in the end a vacation.


Other patterns he also knows well: On the bad days, those where he can not express himself clearly he can be angry with others – while he actually is angry on himself.

In the days when others are responsible for things going wrong, he just gets extra gentle and happy. In the days where he has messed up things himself, he may become unfair to others. Perhaps not so visible, but there is something there, in the smile, the look and the voice.

  • Watching: Disney movies. They wake up the child in me.
  • Listens to: People with experience
  • Tastes: Cakes. A bit too much.
  • Sensing: Absence of unhappiness

Sometimes he would wish he had a better poker face. Nevertheless, he thinks it’s best to be the true edition of Alexander Rybak.


I cannot make everyone to understand me anyway. It doesn’t even make sense to try. I have to stand for what I say and do. As long as nobody gets hurt, I’m happy.


– It worked well until I got famous, then I realised that there were very many formats I was required to fill, so strong expectations that I would follow the standard patterns. Then I got depressed.

But eventually I realised that it is allowed to say no to things and that you can control your life yourself and that the smile does not always have to come from the mouth but from the heart.

So now the curve has become a smiley. I’m on the right track again.

Alone: Practising and more practising at the apartment at Aker Brygge, where two big LEGO projects, which he built long ago, dominate the dining table. All the tiny pieces in the big project were just the right thing for Alexander.

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