“Hey everyone,” two females, Tama and Nuka, introduce themselves for their audience: the folks at Cafe Hygge. “Tonight for you all, we are first going to play a rock n’ roll song.”
It’s open mic night at Cafe Hygge, a place that claims to be the “coziest cafe in Copenhagen.” The Norrebro shop holds the sour scent of body odor — the repercussion for housing an event of this caliber — but somehow the sweet aroma of coffee beans. Warmth emanates from the crowded bodies sardined in the tiny room but also from the candles, the comfort and the ease of “hygge”. Or perhaps the heat is turned up too high, I think taking off my jacket. With the warm amber ambiance, it feels as if a filter of gold is placed over the scene. Coffee cups and beer bottles are scattered on the wooden tables. A woman with dark curly hair and a Spanish accent holds her empty cup mindlessly between her hands, not realizing that it’s been empty for a long while. She’s been sitting on that antique chair for some time now, listening to the music as if no time has passed at all. She leans to her friend and whispers. The two chuckle comfortably and turn their attention back to the women on stage.
Tama and Nuka stand on the small coffee shop stage under a golden chandelier with a borrowed guitar and a bundle of nerves. Nuka is tall and lean with a fierce expression and heavy black eyeliner, a leather jacket and dark hair whisked over to one side. Tama has a similar vibe, so similar in fact that the two twenty-year-olds could pass as sisters rather than friends. They met at High Voltage only a few months ago. High Voltage is an edgy rock ‘n roll bar where Tama and Nuka both work and, on occasion, perform. But tonight is their debut as a singing duo and Tama’s first vocal performance ever. Cafe Hygge is cozy but I wonder, as Tama timidly tucks an emerald green hair behind her pierced ear, does the atmosphere calm the pre-performance jitters? Does an open mic night in a hygge cafe lessen the risk?
When I spoke with Tama afterward, she described these moments on stage at Cafe Hygge as a “nerve-wracking experience.” She stood on the stage holding her guitar and curling her toes within her boots — a skill her music teacher once taught her as a way to combat performance anxiety. “In the moment of the performance, it was just a good thing I wasn’t wearing flip flops,” Tama joked to me.
During the open mic night, I sit in the back of the room and watch the two performers, sipping my chai and listening easily. At the time, I am unable to tell that Tama is curling her toes, oblivious to the way she shakes and sweats and grips the microphone like it is her lifeline. I only know these things because she later admits them to me, revealing her insecurities with a bashful grin and mug full of coffee.
I think back to my own performances and my time singing on stage in high school and college. I wouldn’t curl my toes but my hands would sweat and my mind would race. In a way, a performance is one of the greatest risks you can take. I know the feeling well … you breathe easy and assure yourself that all of your hard work will pay off. But suddenly, you’re unsure. Your breath quickens and your head becomes clouded. “What if I …?” you think, and your mind roams to the worst possible scenarios: falling off the stage, forgetting the lyrics, getting the hiccups right as you begin to sing. And then, you’re there in front of the audience with a million eyes staring back at you and you decide to take that risk. You’re at the top of the highest hill of a rollercoaster, looking over the edge and as the car lurches forward, you begin to sing.
Nuka, too, feels the pressure of performing. The moment she opens her mouth to sing, she begins to sweat. In the past, Nuka has performed for countless audiences, full of people. She steps on every stage and visualizes herself as a rockstar. She thinks of her future performing for audiences all over the world, first in London where she plans to move one day and then, who knows? But this performance, singing a rock song at open mic night, she finds the small space of Cafe Hygge intimidating. “With an audience here, everyone is so close,” she tells me. “There are so many people to project to, to give yourself to.”
There is a rumble of voices in the cafe and a constant humming and buzzing throughout Nuka and Tama’s first song. Chatter around me ebbs and flows as the audience continues their conversations without respect to the performance. Nuka could barely hear herself. Her voice trembles and wavers, rising above the notes when it should fall below. “Something had to be wrong with the mics,” she told me. “I could only hear the people and the guitar and the muffled sounds of my own voice.” She didn’t realize how loud Cafe Hygge would be compared to the real stages of her past performances.
With the antique chairs scattered around the room, the eclectic decor and the framed photos hanging from the walls, the interior of Cafe Hygge feels more like your grandmother’s living room than a coffee shop. It doesn’t feel like a performance space, that’s for sure. I remember performing on the “real stages” of my high school and college — the ones Nuka prefers. When I was in theatre, I’d step from behind the curtain into the spotlight and my stomach would somersault. These lights would ease my nerves; their harsh glare would blind me from the harsh gazes of my audience. I’d wonder what people were thinking of me, how people were judging my performance or how people were criticizing my voice. And my voice would squeak and crack on occasion. Once, I sang the wrong lyrics and then repeated them again and again. Once, I forgot my lines and ran off the stage. Once, I was so sick my voice couldn’t hit the notes I was trying to sing. But with the bright stage lights, I couldn’t see my critics. I could pretend I was performing for myself and myself alone. I could blind myself to my own mistakes and the witnesses to them. However, in Cafe Hygge, the lights are soft and hazy. The Danish low-lit atmosphere, flickering candles and hazy steam rising from the half-drunk coffee cups make certain that every set of eyes, fully on Nuka and Tama, are one hundred percent visible to them. Sitting in the back of the coffee shop, I can even make eye contact with the two women as they perform. Their critics are in full view.
“They’ve got the look, but not the talent,” my friend taps my shoulder and says. I set my teacup down and shudder at the comment. The judgment. During my time performing, one of my greatest fears was comments such as this. But the Cafe Hygge listeners didn’t seem to mind how the females’ voices faltered, how their words fell on the off-beat, how their fingers slipped while strumming the guitar. Their music — flaws and all — added to the ambiance of the place.
A twenty-something nods his head and taps his foot along to the beat. I recognize him from his own performance. He had stood on the same stage under the golden chandelier with his man bun and easy confidence. His voice had been deep and crackly, a notable complement to the candles glowing on every table. His talent was equal to the easy-listening Indie boys I often hear on the radio. When the girls’ first song is complete and they softly smile, the man-bunned vocalist claps his hands together in support.
Nuka and Tama’s second song is a folk song. It’s the type of song that lulls you into a slumber. A couple cozies up on a couch under a wool blanket; the folk song plays as the background noise to their intimate conversation. “This song is a kind of a dream,” Tama told me. “It is this dreamy world you’re entering into when you hear it.” The couple on the couch gazes up above them and I wonder if they’re staring at the red and white Danish flags draped from the ceiling tiles or if they’re pretending to look beyond the ceiling up to the stars. Maybe this is a romantic night out for them, coming here to cuddle and listen to the singers perform.
Nuka doesn’t even notice the couple or anyone else in Cafe Hygge during the folk song, a song that means the world to her. “I was too busy looking down at the lyrics so I wasn’t looking at any of the people,” Nuka admitted later. She had sung this song a dozen times and it fits comfortably into the notches of her voice. “I remember when I was younger, I wasn’t that good at English,” she recalled. “But, I’d look at these lyrics and think, ‘okay, I can understand what this is about.’” At this moment, Nuka doesn’t feel the nerves. She imagines she is sitting high up in a tree, glow from the summer sun rather than the heat of her anxiety or warmth of the stuffy, cramped coffee shop. She stares intensely down at the lyrics typed on the sheet in front of her, the same lyrics she has tattooed on her left calf: “How strange it is to be anything at all.”
Cafe Hygge is a place where your soul can breathe, where hours pass but you happen both to feel in the moment and forget that time exists. Anyone can play their music here — a curly-haired Spaniard, a stargazing couple, a first-time singing duo — and the audience will always applaud in support. Performers from all over the world had stood on that stage under the golden chandelier that night: an elderly Dane sang a song about revolting Scandinavian food, an Argentinian man came halfway around the world to tour his music, a teenage girl with a half-shaved head and a powerful set of lungs sang a Ukrainian song and two women with black and emerald green hair who just wanted to sing beyond their nerves.
“I don’t know why I wanted to come here and play,” Nuka told me. “I was so shy.” Tama laughed in agreement. “We came an hour before to just to process the space,” she said. Before they stepped onstage to sing, before a single person entered Cafe Hygge, before the coffee was drunk and the candles had melted, before the air became stuffy and the voices vibrated the air, the two women sat down on the antique, living room chairs. “Instead of just walking into the room right before a performance, I paused to calm my nerves,” Tama said. The two watched people walk in through the door as it would ding behind them. “It helped,” Tama admitted. “There was one person. There was five. And all of a sudden, the coffee shop was full and I was like, yeah, I’m good. I’m ready to perform.”