The reluctant rock goddess whose songs are a perfect fit

2011-11-04

“I’m a singer, first and foremost,” declares Nina Persson, the front person of one of Sweden’s biggest pop acts since ABBA. “Songwriting, to me, has always been a way for me to get to sing songs I can stand for.”  

The tinge of innocence mixed with melancholy in her in distinctive voice and the heaps of attitude mixed with vulnerability with which she delivers her songs has proven to be such a potent combination, resonating with millions of people all over the world, that it’s hard to believe she had never really sung before joining the Cardigans, at the age of 18.

Their first album, Emmerdale (1994), built them a solid fan base in Sweden as well as Japan, but it was their second one, Life (1995), that broke the band worldwide, selling over a million copies and going platinum in Japan. At the time, all the band’s music was written by its guitarist, Peter Svensson, with bassist Magnus Svenningsson helping out on lyrics. “I didn’t have the confidence to write back then,” explains Persson.

That all changed with the third album, First Band on the Moon (1996), and, judging by its success, it seems she shouldn’t have worried. Its single Lovefool was included on the soundtrack of the blockbuster movie Romeo + Juliet, which catapulted it to the top of the US Billboard charts. She says she wrote the lyrics to the song at an airport while waiting for a plane, adding that, at the time, the song had “a slow bossa nova feel”. “I do find that the biggest hits are the ones that are the easiest to write,” she concludes.

The accompanying album reached platinum status in Japan and gold in the US, and was followed by Grand Turismo (1998), which sold over 3m copies worldwide and went platinum in the UK. By now Persson was writing the lyrics to all but one of the songs, including the hit My Favourite Game, which was featured on the PlayStation Gran Turismo 2 soundtrack, and the single Erase/Rewind.

By 2000 the band was exhausted. The endless schedule of writing, recording, promoting and touring had taken its toll on Persson, and she needed a break from the band. “The first 10 years, it wasn’t a problem living in the cocoon of the touring life, but eventually, when I came home trying to live an ordinary life, I found it difficult – I felt I’d become very single-minded.” A few years earlier she’d met Niklas Frisk, of Swedish band Atomic Swing, and during a drunken evening they’d written a few songs together, giving them the inspiration to work on a record together. At the time, her commitment to the Cardigans got in the way, but now she insisted on making the project a reality, calling it A Camp.

Together with Frisk, her husband Nathan Larson and, eventually, Mark Linkous of Sparkle horse, she embarked on making the act’s eponymous debut album.

While Grand Turismo had a difficult birth, with the Cardigans spending what seemed like endless months trying to deliver their musical “baby”, the A Camp delivery was relatively painless. Matter of fact, the first single, I Can Buy You (about soulless sex with famous people), came as easily to Persson as Lovefool – though this time she wrote the lyrics while strolling back home from the studio.

“With the Cardigans I usually got a demo of the song to which I would write the lyrics, but with A Camp we’d write the songs together from scratch,” she says, adding that this collaborating process helped her. “I find songwriting quite anxiety inducing, as I demand a lot of myself and am very self-critical. This makes me work very slowly and prone to procrastination. Having a co-writer there that I trust, who I can bounce ideas off of, relieves some of the anxiety. I don’t mean to sound creepy, but Nathan is like an extension of me. He understands my means of expression.”

The album, released in 2001, gained plenty of critical acclaim, as did the follow-up, Colonia, in 2009. and the Cardigans albums Long Gone Before Daylight and Super Extra Gravity, released in 2003 and 2005, respectively.

“Writing lyrics is nothing like writing poetry,” says Persson, when pondering the craft of songwriting. “They need to fit perfectly, seamlessly, with the music – it’s like trying on a pair of jeans.” That’s why it’s difficult to stray too far, sound-wise, from the gibberish lyrics one sings while coming up with the melody, she explains. To illustrate, she points to Svensson’s original lyrics to You’re the Storm, from the album Long Gone Before Daylight. “On the original demo he sang ‘she looks just like Sigourney Weaver, and I wouldn’t like to leave her”. The final lyric I wrote said 'cause you're the storm that I've been needing, and all this peace has been deceiving’.”

Persson sees being a Swede writing in English as an advantage to lyric writing. “It’s as if it’s my right to write wrong on purpose. It makes the lyrics different and unique – I write English lyrics with a Swedish mind.” That – and her voice – is, indeed, a potent combination.

Helienne Lindvall

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Photo: Rickard Eriksson