Siobhán Kane talks with Molly Nilsson, who plays Upstairs at Whelan’s on Friday May 4th.
Molly Nilsson moved from her native Sweden to Germany (Berlin) around 2007, and in the last few years has been recording under her own name, and as “formerly known as White Bread!”. Her website Dark Skies Association (which is also her label/imprint) gives tiny clues into her world -the constellations that are signposts; dreamy and irreverent – as obsessed with the past as with the future. This preoccupation seeks its way into her work and comes out the other end as darkly lit pop music, marked out by her warm drone of a vocal.
She has released three records in the last while, but this year’s fourth – History is perhaps the most interesting of all. Although quite downtempo, it is replete with lovely synths, layers of vocals and a modern touch amidst vintage equipment. There is a tension present in this record, as with all of her work – a battle between the romantic, and a desire to stand outside the emotions that can overwhelm your life. All of her songs and lyrics in some way represents a kind of conflict, on “In Real Life” she sings “online I never feel alone, I never feel alive” – yet it is all couched in an atmosphere of wonder, however gloomy. The real beauty in her work is not just a sense of purity, but the lovely awkwardness in the production, and the attention to detail, however faltering it sometimes sounds. And while using many synthesised sounds, she manages to bring the natural world into her work, which is a tension worth listening to.
John Maus used a song of hers for what became the duet (with Nilsson) “Hey Moon” on his last record We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves. The original song had been written around 2008 by Nilsson, and had featured on her self-released record These Things Take Time. Interestingly, they both share a common ground in terms of process, but more than that – their impulse, and the results can often be startling and brilliant. Siobhán Kane talks to Molly Nilsson.
Can you expand on your journey from your native Sweden to Germany around 2007? What precipitated it, and how did you find the initial move? It’s a short story, in my life. But looking back now I have very little to say about it. Long story short – I wanted to find a job and a flat coming out of school and this was not possible in my hometown so I left for somewhere else. This is what we do. We go places. We try to sort out our lives. Life is much less about choices than chances.
How would you describe the difference between Germany and Sweden, in terms of culture and do you feel more free in Berlin? When I’m in Berlin I complain about this city and German culture a lot. It drives me mad from time to time, like any relationship. But when I go to Sweden I find it even worse! I imagine myself living there and I have to turn on the light. I was drunk in a cab a few nights ago going to a party and looking out the window I had to admit to myself how much I still love Berlin. It might have been partly the alcohol, but there is something else out there, a freedom, I cannot describe. And that’s why we stay.
In terms of Berlin, who is making interesting music there that you feel we should know about? I’m certainly no music guru, although people often mistake me for one. I pretty much stopped listening to new music since I started making it myself. I never go to shows and I have no idea what’s going on tonight! If I do something I go to my neighbours house and we listen to old stuff on YouTube.
Where did your relationship with music begin,and how do you feel it has evolved until now? I listened like crazy to music growing up, throughout my childhood and of course teens, although I’m not from a “musical” home. When my grandmother wanted a new radio she asked for “one without music”. My parents had records but I can’t remember them listening to music except in their studio maybe. My father listens to music a lot nowadays though, when he is working. Mostly blues, or my music. I was addicted to my walkman, but looking back I think I was only obsessing about music because people would not talk to you if you had headphones on. And this was a way for me to stay on my own and dream, which is something I’m still doing. I love any kind of music that makes me dream.
“Hey Moon” is a particularly poignant song, then when you and John Maus worked together on another version of it, it deepened that poignancy – what does that song mean to you? It really proves that idea that no song is wholly finite. What different life did John give it? It’s interesting how the meaning of that song shifted from my version to his, “duet”, which made it a kind of love song. I did not quite understand that songs popularity until I had grasped this [laughs]. I think I’m very unfamiliar with that kind of love song.
The recent “Middle Class” mixtape that you did was an interesting insight into some of the music you are responding to – why did you choose the crazed collaboration Dan Deacon did with Liam Lynch – “Drinking Out of Cups”? Do you feel every mixtape should have a weird moment like that, that is more of a statement? When I tell my friends I’m gonna “make a mixture” they know what I really mean is I’m gonna sit up late drinking beer and listen to music. I don’t know any Dan Deacon songs apart from “Drinking out of Cups” which is an audio track better described as acid-poetry. It fitted well with the video game score and the two things were just incredibly “middle class”.
You also put John Cooper Clarke, and Jerry Seinfeld on there. How important is humour to you, do you think it has seeped into your work? In the best of worlds comedians and poets would rule. The two are not very far apart really. I think the sensation of a great poem and a good joke tickles the very same parts of our minds. I think humour is the undiscovered depths of oceans inside us. Poetry too.
There are many connotations for the “dark skies” title of your collective/umbrella organisation, because there are so many “dark skies” out there, from dark relationships to the unknowable mystery of the universe. The emotional terrain of human existence is what inspires you the most – who else do you love in terms of artists, writers, musicians, thinkers – that pursue that sense of living, also? I’m often asked about my musical references and I guess I have many, too many to name, but I’m only truly inspired by words. I could name plenty of authors and poets who did more good for me than Cyndi Lauper and Alphaville. I can’t think of anyone in particular worth mentioning, but everything I heard and I loved has influenced me somehow. It’s like analysing a dream. You can. But it kind of spoils the fun. As for Dark Skies, I would not know where to start. The “DARK” skies should not be interpreted so much as “darkness” but the skies under which you can rest without distraction.
You pay such attention to detail, from the hand numbering of your tapes, to the delicate detail that is behind so much of your work. That real sense of DIY is obvious – seeing how small and simple can have powerful ripple effects if they have the right intention. I do things my way. And some people might find it crazy or senseless but I want to follow my “heart”. And my heart is a punk. When things feel tough I must only curse at bit at the establishment and then I feel better again. Anyone who would want my music must find me to get it. I like that.
What other projects are you working on at the moment? I’m going to keep doing what I do, as long as I must. I have so many dreams and ideas but I prefer to keep those things to myself. But if music ever let’s me go, I will have no problem finding a new way.