Former Cardigan Nina Persson on knitting clever

She’s the singer with The Cardigans but there’s a lot more to Nina Persson. As she releases her first solo album proper, she mues on creativity, motherhood and being her own boss

Fri, Feb 7, 2014, 00:00

‘I had a child three years ago, and when that big change came into my life I started to think how the hell does a woman continue working as a musician and a singer?”

Nina Persson soon figured out that, as a mother, being a solo performer made her career more flexible in more ways that she had ever imagined – and that narrowing down her options for a while didn’t necessarily squeeze her out of the game. “It was quite a logistical decision, but when I really started think about the solo thing I began to realise how unafraid of it I was.”

You know Persson from her pop-star days in Swedish band The Cardigans (album-wise, on ice since 2005). More avid fans would know of her, also, from two superb albums by A Camp, a Cardigans’ side-project that features her husband, soundtrack composer Nathan Larson. However, since the birth of their son, Nils, more than three years ago, Persson, who is currently living in New York, has been in something of a quandary: should she stay or should she go?

“The big question I asked myself a few years ago was, okay, I don’t want to stop or have to change my job too much, but how do I figure out how to make what I do work? Being a mother makes you more efficient with your time, and that certainly isn’t a compromise. I would have loved to have that skill much earlier in my life. And being more independent is good for you, too.

“But does having a small baby inhibit creativity? I was wondering what it was going to be like, and worrying that it was going to be difficult. For the first two years of being a mother I took a back seat at the songwriting, but I still performed on stage, and it was fine to have that outlet. But, yes, I did wonder now and again what on earth was I going to write about? Responsibilities hijack you, in a sense, but I found my way back and fairly soon I was my old self again. It was a relief to be able to write songs that still, I hope, are interesting.

“And, no, I wasn’t compelled to write about my child! You’ve got to be sensible as a parent, but I admit I was relieved when I discovered the irrational part of my brain again. Yay, I needed that!”

Persson is something of an oddity, in the sense that although The Cardigans were hugely successful from the mid-1990s, she more or less jumped off the treadmill from 2001 onwards with the release of the first (and self-titled) A Camp album. Although she possesses of one of the best female voices in contemporary pop music, there’s a sense that she fits best into an alternative universe where there is less nonsense about pop stardom, less fuss about budgeting, less bother, less cosseting.

She seems, however, to have squared the circle regarding the anxiety that such a lifestyle engenders; now Persson is whatever she chooses to be – frontwoman of the still spasmodically operational Cardigans, a member of the domestic creative arrangement that is A Camp, and a bona-fide solo artist who does whatever she wants when she wants.

“I feel it’s time,” she reasons. “I’ve been a band member for more than 20 years, and it seemed right and correct to carry my own weight. Well, hold on, actually, I know I carried quite a lot of weight in both The Cardigans and A Camp, so being solo will be a walk in the park – or at least I hope so. It’s just The Cardigans are, you know, my siblings at this point. And in A Camp, my husband is very involved. I thought I needed to play with these people to continue working, but it turns out that even though I still love performing with them, I’m fine pretty much on my own.”

As regards making solo decisions, she says, some come easily and some don’t. The positives, she implies, include not having to get a committee to agree on things and being forced to trust your own instincts. And the fact that all three outlets for her songwriting and creativity – The Cardigans, A Camp, her solo projects – can be juggled so well means that Persson surely enjoys what each can give her.

“It’s also very gratifying in business or economic terms,” she says. “I mean, playing with The Cardigans these days is quite different to previous years because we’re not supporting a record, so all we have to do is play well. In some ways, that’s a joy because I don’t have to talk about new material. And the solo stuff is something of a solution, because I genuinely view it as the backbone to my career from now on.”

Of course, it’s all change industry-wise for someone like Persson; yes, she willingly stepped off the merry-go-round from the early 2000s, but prior to that The Cardigans were big news. These days, there is no major label involvement in any of her music projects.

“It’s super-different from when I started,” she confirms, “but this new economic climate has been around for the past 10 years, so I’m used to it by now. The current climate is something I like much better because you’re more involved with what fully concerns you. It’s more real, and I’m not as protected from things as I used to be. Interestingly, the last Cardigans album, Super Extra Gravity, was released in 2005, and at that point the entire music industry was changing. As a band, we were almost paralysed by it, because we didn’t really know what was happening to the record or us.”

Yet there is life still in The Cardigans, despite the fact that no new material is being written? “Yes, after a long time apart we performed shows last summer, and not too long ago we toured to places like Japan and Russia. So we’re operating, but as you say, we’re not doing a lot of new music. I’m into continuing with the band, because even though we’re quite unproductive, we’re adamant that we are still a band. We don’t feel like we’re done, it’s just that we’re all in different situations right now, different projects, families, and so on.”

The marketplace has stabilised slightly now, she accedes, but she recalls that almost 10 years ago the band simply didn’t know how to react to the changes.

“We worked as much as before, but we just weren’t making any money – we actually started losing money when we toured. It was crazy for people like us, who had been in the thick of the industry in the 1990s, when money was thrown at you. We were spoiled, totally spoiled.”

Not any more. As a solo artist, Persson, presumably, has to make far more pragmatic decisions in terms of lifestyle and career. Genuine effort has to be put into the planning of recording and touring schedules, while meticulous budgeting is crucial. Portable saws have to be brought across borders in order to cut as many financial corners as possible.

“Oh, yeah, you just have to be super economic and inventive about things. And if something works, you feel as if you’re surviving, despite the cuts.”

These days, Persson admits, the nuts and bolts of having a sustainable career – never mind a successful one – is more about asking yourself how much you have to spend. A case in point is the video for her single, the title track of the new album. Whereas years ago, in the halcyon days of the less-than-thrifty music industry, she would quite likely have been flown out to a small island in the Pacific Ocean (where the video’s director and stylist would have spent at least a week waiting for the sea to be the right shade of turquoise), now she opens the front door of her New York apartment, walks across the street, pops into her local shop for a carton of milk, and then promptly pops back home. Frugal? Yes. Pragmatic? Definitely.

“Whereas in the 1990s,” she laughs at the memories, “it was more about what do we want to do – and before, during and after you did it you just didn’t look at the bill. Now, you have to consider what things are worth.”