Serious Persson tries to lighten up
With the Cardigans in indefinite hiatus, Swedish leading lady Nina Persson tells TONY CLAYTON-LEAabout being in the driving seat with three-piece A Camp
NEW YORK, MARCH. It is freezing, and flurries of snow whip and wind their way through the streets and avenues. It is tempting to imagine that Nina Persson’s description of the weather sums up the very type of person she is: “cold and gorgeous”. Sweden’s Persson has had a Scandinavian ice queen thing going on for some years now, firstly with the Cardigans and latterly with her side project, A Camp. If the Cardigans’ Persson has the skill to make light of melancholia via a blend of scatty pop and canny rock, then A Camp’s Persson seems to take a far more focused and personal approach in how to balance light and dark.
A Camp’s 2001 self-titled debut album showcased a collection of languorous ambient pop/folk that trickled with Persson’s not inconsiderable strain of sadness. The recently released, much delayed follow-up, Colonia, offers up a lighter side to the singer and songwriter, but only just. It might be a byproduct of the Scandinavian mindset or, indeed, an integral element of it, but a level of seriousness seeps its way into virtually everything Persson puts a creative hand to.
She has been living in New York for several years now; she divides her time between her home in Manhattan and her point of origin, Malmo, but you guess that she’ll never go back to Sweden on a permanent basis. She has around her in New York a close coterie of friends that are by turns emotionally comforting and creatively stimulating (these include long-time friend Joan Wasser, aka Joan as Policewoman). And besides, why would she want to go back to Malmo when, as she says, “I grew up in Sweden with the full blast of American culture in my face, so New York isn’t too different to what I was experiencing, anyway. I still have a lot of work in Sweden, so I keep going back. But home? My home is here.”
For the moment.
THE CARDIGANS ARE on an indefinite hiatus. Persson, in what sounds like barely contained ennui, says she doesn’t really know what’s going on. “I know that I’ve spent over a year working on the A Camp record; the guys in the Cardigans have kids, so they are taking time to be with them. We have decided to leave doors open for the Cardigans.”
But doors also close, don’t they? Silence. Next question, if you don’t mind.
Persson is a curious mixture; in some quarters, she is viewed as a less threatening Shirley Manson – a rock-star dominatrix with cheekbones to die for, perhaps, but also a songwriter who fixates beautifully on the sombre side of emotions. Others view her as an arch, typically Swedish creative type whose theories rarely get realised without some of them getting confused or lost in translation. What Persson has a talent for is the ability to pin-point the shift between love being built up and love falling down.
She admits that the first A Camp record was quite introspective. “And sincere,” she adds, “more mature, perhaps, while the new one is bolder, more aggressive, cynical. The first album was quite a natural thing, whereas the new one has more chemicals floating around. We also wanted the songs to be geographically widespread without wanting to be explicit about exactly where things take place. Most of all though, it was important to us to make this A Camp record different from the previous one. We wanted to make this the silly record, rather than the serious one.”
To say she hasn’t succeeded isn’t necessarily a criticism. She is what she is: a precise, focused songwriter whose artistic bent veers more towards the ruminative ballad than the rum’n’coke knees-up. A Camp came about because the male members of the Cardigans – the markedly Swedish-sounding Bengt Lagerberg, Peter Svensson, Magnus Sveningsson, and Lars-Olof Johansson – went off and became husbands and fathers almost simultaneously. Nina went off to work on a creative tangent, an experiment that, in her mind, had to be something quite distinct from her work in the Cardigans.
“The first A Camp record was that, definitely,” she affirms, “but that’s something that goes for all first albums, I think. If you have a new project, you do a template for it because you have nothing that refers back to it. When you do a second record you have a little bit of history, a reference. So the debut album is all about finding your sound, your intensity. For me, it’s difficult to have a completely different identity in A Camp from the one that I have in the Cardigans because the band is still very personal to me. In A Camp, I show off some other aspects of me.”
How easy is it to distinguish between the two? Here comes the mathematical reply. “Each have different sets of people, and from that point alone they have to be different due to the differing viewpoints and creative skills. But I’m very much myself in each area, albeit with some crossover and some different angles that nonetheless is wholly connected to my aesthetics. In A Camp I’m very much in the driving seat, whereas in the Cardigans, at least in the songwriting department, I’m comfortable in the back seat because Peter Svensson does most of the writing. I love his songs, they are the identity of the band, but in A Camp I stretch forward a bit more.”
Strictly speaking, this isn’t true. On the Cardigans’ most recent album, 2005’s Super Extra Gravity, she wrote the lyrics to four songs, and co-wrote the lyrics to the remaining eight with her producer husband and non-Cardigans member, Nathan Larson (who also provides integral assistance in the A Camp projects). In other words, we reckon Persson is more in the driving seat in the vehicle that is the Cardigans than she cares or wants to admit. Perhaps she’s playing safe these days; after all, this is the woman who got into a spot of difficulty when doing the promotional rounds for the Cardigans best album to date, 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight. While the album died a commercial death (it barely cracked the UK Top 50, while the sole single “hit”, You’re the Storm, hobbled into the UK Top 75), it remains the band’s crowning achievement. The problem? Persson’s lyrics to And Then You Kissed Me, which, in a “did-this-really-happen?” scenario, related a (possible) personal tale of domestic violence.
“I have learned not to write about topics that I’m not willing to talk about,” she comments shrewdly on the dubious matter surrounding this particular song. “I’ve done records long enough by this stage to know that lyrics will be scrutinised, and that questions will be asked as to the reasons for writing them. I don’t want to discuss certain things with strangers, so I don’t write about certain things. But lyric writing is an editing process, anyway. There is a natural limit about what you would talk about to people you’ve just met, so you’re conscious of that, also. And, you know, I don’t want to be too confessional; some songwriters lay bare their soul, but not me.
“I’M NOT NECESSARILY private or shy, but I like to feel comfortable by keeping parts of my world to myself. It’s a matter of being careful. What you write about can get you perceived and treated incorrectly in certain ways. You have to be in charge of your own happiness, yes?” We couldn’t agree more. In fairness, Persson, who once told this writer that she couldn’t list 10 songs she loves that are of the “happy” variety, comes across as your typically highly skilled songwriter whose worldview is enhanced by her insights into misery and melancholia. It suits her very well, she says; and besides, happiness is but a perception, isn’t it?
“If you want to lead the life of a musician,” she imparts, “you can’t be a person whose life needs roots or structure, because then you’re going to be very unhappy. My life is a mixture of being incredibly busy and having lots of downtime. My preference? I live my life in chunks, and I’ve gotten used to the particular tempo of the work. I love to have a long stretch of time off, a week is too short, and just stresses me out, so I love the long chunks of nothing to do. And then I love knowing that I’m going to be away for a few months, that the work is piling up, the gigs are coming along one after the other.
“At the moment that lifestyle works for me. Having kids is a whole different situation, but right now, when you can live with your own happiness, it’s a brilliant way of living and working.”
Colonia is on Reveal/PIAS Distribution. A Camp visit Dublin’s Academy on Apr 29 and Belfast’s Spring Airbrake on Apr 30