A quick scroll through the dozen nominees for the 2012 Nordic Music Prize (Lindstrøm, First Aid Kit, Choir Of Young Believers) should be enough to reassure you that the music scene in Northern Europe is in rude health. An arguably criminal omission from the shortlist though is Winhill/Losehill's Swing Of Sorrow. The double-album from the as yet little-known Swedish group was released at the start of 2012. On it, the Umeå six-piece combine staples of folk and indie rock with an unerring knack for orchestration, and a surfeit of addictive melodies. From the ten seconds of silence preceding orchestral opener 'Karin's Hymn', in which a mournful cello drops out of the sky like a Lancaster Bomber, to the perfect happy/sad crush of the Neil Young-esque 'The House Is Black' and 'Long Way To Next Stop', to the brilliantly funny Beirut-tinged stomper, 'I Leave You 'Cause I Don't Care', it seems like a band somewhere close to the peak of its vision; and it's only their debut.
Such a rigorously-honed sound can partly be attributed to the album's lengthy incubation. The first sessions took place in 2006, prompted by the illness of band member Jonas' mother. A series of ongoing therapeutic musical jam sessions eventually spanned the entirety of his mother's illness, and subsequent passing. The group naturally accrued members as they went, from two-piece to full band, and by the end of this unplanned burst of creativity they had amassed the nineteen songs that make up the extraordinary Swing Of Sorrow.
The 405 spoke with songwriter Jonas Svennem Lundberg (musical composer, lead vocalist and pianist) and lyricist Carl Åkerlund about the making of the record.
The music for this album was written under a terrible cloud of sadness around Jonas' experience. Is it important for listeners to know about these unusually fraught circumstances, or are you happy for the album to stand alone?
JONAS: I hope it can stand alone without the listeners necessarily knowing about all that. I mean, those things are the reasons we came together to make the record so of course it's really important for us, but my impression is that anyone who has been through something similar, like the loss of a loved one or any form of painful breakup, can catch up on that just from relating to the songs in themselves.
The band name is taken from two hills in Derbyshire, near to a place that Jonas visited as a youth. What are your memories of England?
JONAS: One of my memories is walking in the mountains just outside of Hope Village; the landscapes were very inspiring and beautiful. The strongest memory though is the music I experienced and learned during my stay at a folk music camp. English folk music has definitely been an inspiration for Swing of Sorrow.
Where does the album title Swing Of Sorrow come from?
CARL: The short answer is that "back in your wild swing of sorrow love" is the first line in 'Don't let the inside shine out'. But Swing of Sorrow was also the working title for another song way back, which we eventually changed. When we were to decide on an album title it suddenly came back to us. Partly because we felt that all the mood swings we'd been through during the grieving process was exactly that, a swing of sorrow. And partly because of the musical reference, a way of tying grief and music together.
What makes this record so special is that there are moments of terrible melancholy offset by a wonderful sense of elation and hope. Is that a fair assessment of your intentions?
JONAS: I find it hard to define intentions like that, composing is just so much more intuitive to me, but it's definitely a really beautiful and flattering assessment of how one can receive our music.
Some artists revel in abstraction, but your writing seems to be the opposite. For instance, "In these songs I have tried to make it clear: whenever she is close, there is no fear." That kind of frankness and lack of irony can be very moving.
CARL: I believe that sometimes a straight line can be the best way to say something complicated, and sometimes a queer abstraction is necessary to say the simplest thing. We're really into writing songs and telling stories that matter to ourselves in ways that move the listener, and I wouldn't want to avoid any methods of writing to achieve that. We write for ourselves and for strangers, so to speak.
Swedish music seems to fall in and out of fashion. Would you consider yourself part of any 'scene', and do you think it's a help or hindrance?
JONAS: I wouldn't really say we're part of a scene in that way. Of course there are some bands that we feel related to musically, but that's sort of independent of time and space, and some bands that are our friends, but that's mostly being from Umeå and knowing each other from way back.
'Karin's Hymn' is one of the loveliest instrumental pieces. Are you classically trained, and do you differentiate between one type of instrument and another when you're writing for the band?
JONAS: Writing that piece was a truly proud moment for me as a composer, and one of the songs I remember playing on the piano for my mother while she was sick. Writing music to record and playing music live are two very different things to me and I try to think as little as possible of the practical circumstances and different levels of training of the musicians when I'm writing, so that the creative process can be as free as possible.
CARL: As far as the band is concerned, everybody comes from really different backgrounds with various degrees of having studied or worked with music, but we've all been playing together in different constellations since about high school.
What's great about living in Sweden, and would you consider living anywhere else?
JONAS: The musical climate in Sweden is often very warm and supportive and it has helped me and the band a lot in the creation of Swing of Sorrow to have the kind of support we've had from other musicians, teachers, institutions and people around us.
CARL: What's great is the few remains of the welfare state, but that's unfortunately being dismantled more and more every day. If things don't change for the better soon, maybe we'll have to consider going into exile: preferably somewhere a bit warmer, less racist, and more fair.
There are many possible diverse influences in your music, such as Neil Young, Beirut, P:ano… Who really does influence you?
JONAS: Me and my co-producer Henrik Nybom (also our drummer) were listening a lot to classical composers while arranging and recording Swing of Sorrow, for example Igor Stravinsky and György Ligeti. Rufus Wainwright and Frank Zappa are two other important influences.
CARL: From those you mentioned, I've taken more interest in Neil Young again recently when it comes to writing lyrics. But during the work with Swing of Sorrow, and in general, I really find the most inspiration in writers and poets rather than songwriters. Lyn Hejinian, Forough Farrokhzad and Marguerite Duras for example.
JONAS: And in the end, just hanging around together is probably the most inspiring for all of us!
What new music did you enjoy in 2012?
JONAS: My greatest musical experience last year was definitely Bon Iver's performance at Way Out West in Gothenburg. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, all categories.
CARL: 2012 was such a good year for new music I think, it's really hard to choose. But Cat Power was really great, as well as Patti Smith and Rufus Wainwright. And I'd say some of the songs on Psychedelic Pill are among the best Neil Young's ever written.
What's next for the band, and when can we see you play?
JONAS: Well, we're back to writing new material of course, and we're really looking forward to play at By:Larm in Oslo in February, our first gig outside of Sweden!
This interview was originally published on Manhattanchester.