“I have phases where I just bunker up on food and drinks, don’t shower and just work – that’s the best time of the year!”
The Swedish, Berlin-based DIY queen Molly Nilsson visited Vienna for the third time to play a sold-out show at brut Wien, supported by local sound-poet Oskar May. We met Molly in between indoor palms for some photos and a little chat before her performance.
When you’re performing on stage, you play your music from CD. Is that a way to create intimacy or is it a pragmatic decision?
I think because I made all the songs myself and it is my work and my world and it’s something I do in solitude, it makes more sense for me that I’m alone on stage and I know that everyone in the audience are also by themselves during the show, even if they come with their friends. It’s obviously like a conversation between me and many people, but I want it to be for everyone, a dialogue between two people. A band is a unit, like a group of friends playing with each other. It can be amazing, but when I see bands, I feel like I’m watching someone else’s interaction rather than them being there for me. But there are of course bands and performers who manage to get that across. I’m not sure if I’d be able to do that. I’d be more concerned with what’s going on around me.
Does touring alone come easy for you? Obviously to every city you go, there are people you meet, but in the long run of a tour you’re pretty much by yourself.
For me, that’s a really great time to write and to be in my own world. When I arrive at the show there are lots of people. When I leave, when I’m flying, during that time I can be just completely by myself and when I get home it’s like “Oh yeah, I have a life, I have to maintain relationships with my friends and family.” I need a lot of alone time. I get along with myself very well. When I travel with people for sometime, there’s this point where we get really tired of each other (laughs). It can be very straining.
I’ve been touring quite a lot the last few years and it’s become a part of my life. I didn’t play so many shows last year and I missed it a lot, it felt strange to be home so much. Travelling is really inspiring for me. Ideas come from meeting people that I wouldn’t meet otherwise. When you’re travelling by yourself, you’re more exposed.
Are you writing lyrics when you’re on tour? Are you recording as well while travelling?
I don’t record and I don’t really write lyrics, I rather just write down whatever I’m thinking about or reading and that often ends up in a song. So the time when I’m travelling is a time when I’m absorbing a lot, like a sponge. And then I come home and I’m like (splash noise) and press everything out.
‘My Body’ has this empowering quality, this body positivity. How are you aware of the listener when you’re writing and making music? Is there an intention behind your lyrics?
I try not to be conscious about it because I would start censoring myself. I would be thinking to myself if it were okay to say that, or how this or that comes across, if it is embarrassing. I mostly write songs towards myself, like a conversation with myself. But I have certain songs that I write for, not necessarily a specific person, but for a certain kind of person in my life, about what they mean to me. I have them in front of me while I’m recording or writing, but I try to really not think about other people because I would become self-conscious and it would be less good. A lot of my favourite lyrics are kind of embarrassing, or naked, saying things in a way that is not always flattering. But once I’m done with a song I can think about how other people would hear this and hope it brings a lot of positive power to whoever hears it.
Did some songs change for you through performing them? Is there a difference between you while performing and you in the moment of writing, between you as a performer and you as a musician?
I think so. When I’m recording the song, is also when I’m writing the song. I don’t have the final lyrics beforehand. I start channelling something. In that moment it’s more important that I get the song out and not so much how well I’m singing. I just try to make it acceptable. But when I’m touring and I’m playing the songs over and over I get better at singing them and I’m able to do it better. When I’m recording them by myself it’s all just directed to myself, but when I’m on stage I try to direct them to everyone else, it’s a different starting point.
How do you maintain curiosity about yourself and your creative process considering your prolificacy?
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll stop having things to say or stop having ideas. It happens that I write a song and I’m like “Nooo, I’ve already written that song, fuck that.” But usually every song feels brand new to me. And I’d like to think that songs are like a family and parts of every song are transmitted to the next song, like generations that have similar themes or expressions. They all belong together but at the same time they bring something new in. Just like how I am a product of hundreds and thousands of people who made my family. I’m new, but everything of me is old.
Do you change gear or try to change your song-writing process from album to album?
At least I try to have a new keyboard for every album, because once I’ve finished it, I feel like the keyboard is empty; there are no more songs inside of it. Then I start working on the new album thinking that nobody’s gonna hear it, that it is only for me. In that way I can feel more freely about how I do it and I try to think of the different taboos that I have as an artist and I try to break them. If there’re expressions I never use, or a sound, a rhythm, a theme, I always try to challenge myself so that at least for me it’s like “Woah, I can’t believe I sang that!” But once it’s out there it’s like “Of course, it’s like totally normal, of course I’m saying that.” That keeps it exciting for me.
That’s very refreshing. I have the feeling in the past few years there’s been this fetishism of musical gear. You just have to look at the market prices for vintage synthesisers.
I get a lot of questions from other musicians about what kind of keyboard or program I use and I think it doesn’t matter. The keyboard I made Zenith with, I found on eBay, costs 25 euros and is really shitty. When I brought it home I was like “What am I gonna make with this? I can only make like punk demos or something.” It took me a while until I got to know it and then I figured out how to make the best of it. A lot of people would spend loads of money on expensive gear and think it’s gonna make masterpieces. But it’s all about ideas. If you have ideas you really don’t need anything. You can write an amazing song and just use the software in Garage Band, if you have the feeling for it.
In a lot of reviews and descriptions of your music, people are talking of a retro or nostalgic sound. A review of History positively describes that your sound has ‘a comforting patina of false age’. What do you think of that? Are you nostalgic?
I am a nostalgic person and I do listen to a lot of older music, which influences me. But I’m not trying to make music that sounds old. I try to write songs that are timeless, in the sense that if you put it in a different production it would sound today, or it could sound 1940’s. I’m not that interested in the idea of trying to make things sound contemporary, groundbreaking or avant-garde just for the sake of it. I don’t know how you would write a song about the future. Even if you are writing about the future you’re just referring to the past. It’s probably more about the soundscape. Some people hardly try to make 80’s music or 90’s music and that’s absolutely not what I’m trying to do.
Do you feel that there is a sort of expectation of professionalism when somebody wants to start producing music? I have the feeling that a lot of people are afraid to release something or go on stage because they think it’s not professional enough, they’re afraid to fail. There’s no appreciation for dilettantism anymore.
I know a lot of people who make music or anything artistic, who work on things for a very long time and end up never releasing or publishing anything. That’s a trap where you build up pressure on yourself. Then there are people who make something and immediately release it and might be really disappointed if it doesn’t go into the direction they wanted. I’m very happy with my own rhythm. When I release something for the first time, I feel like I’m ready to release it and then I realize that I need to release something every year. Time won’t automatically make it better, it’s not like cheese. Was that an answer (laughs)? What was the question again?
Would you describe it as more impulsive?
It used to be more impulsive but now I wanna be prepared when I release something. I stay with things longer but it’s also because there are more people who actually care if I put something out. Before that, I could share a video and was like “Oh yeah, great, nobody watches it”, there were no expectations. I had friends at that time who were much bigger and much more successful and they’d be like “Oh, there’s so much pressure” and I was like “Oh fuck you, I also want pressure, nobody’s expecting anything from me.” But once the pressure started building up I was like “Aah this sucks, I know I’m gonna disappoint people.” There are a lot of people who won’t be disappointed but I know that with every album it’s different. People love different things about different songs. I’ve come to terms with disappointing people, that’s ok, as long as I don’t disappoint myself.
The Facebook attendance for todays concert tripled since your last one here in 2013. Do you ever ask yourself how you were able to gain this big following? Is there ever a moment where you step outside to watch yourself as an artist that has now risen in profile?
I don’t really think about it that much. It’s great, I’m happy people are enjoying what I’m doing. When I was much younger I was kinda like “Oh, if Molly Nilsson was No. 1 in the billboard, like, if everybody listens to Molly Nilsson, the world would be much better, because it would be so peaceful, no bad energy or whatever.” That was my own artistic ego trip, but now I’m thinking more in line of “No, the whole world doesn’t need to listen to Molly Nilsson.” There’s a line in the song ‘1995’ I wrote: “I’ve gone so far/not even knowing how” and I really don’t know how that happened (laughs).
You only made your first album available on Spotify. Why?
I don’t have Spotify myself, but I wanted to see how it works. Also, I was really pressured by some friends in Stockholm who work for Spotify and they told me: “You have to be on Spotify, everybody listens to it.” First of all, I don’t need everybody to listen to it. Why should anybody buy an album if they just have it like that. I’m much happier with people who just download it illegally, because then at least they have the file on their computer and they to go through the effort of downloading it. But the Spotify thing just feels so like McDonalds to me. I don’t see the positive thing about it. So I didn’t put anything else on there, I just left the first album so that there’s something, but I don’t intend to put share future work on it.
Are you still on track to release an album per year?
I’m working on my next one right now. I thought I’d finished it in December, but then I felt like “Hm, I’m gonna let it rest a little bit.” With touring, I get so many ideas that I would like to add to the work. I’m planning to have it finished in April, so it probably will be out in fall, but I’m gonna release some songs before that. I was very happy with ‘Zenith’. I felt like it was a hard work for me but also a lot of fun. For the next one I want to do something different. My intention was to make a really bad album.‘Zenith’ was the masterpiece and now I’m doing a masterpiece of shit. But it’s gonna be great.
Have you ever had the feeling that your DIY approach has limits? That it can be too constraining for your vision? Have you thought about going out of that realm? Maybe because you think: Ok, I need an orchestra on that song.
I have grandiose ideas, especially for videos but also for music. If I was like Brian Wilson and went to a studio with the best musicians in the world, what would I do? But I see myself more as a songwriter and I can only make them this way. I would get so bored if I had to rerecord with the musicians all the time. If an orchestra were to pick my songs up and perform them, I’d be cool with that. (chuckles) But writing the songs is my work.
Is working as a solo artist a pragmatic decision for you?
Yeah, it’s very much about speed. If I were working in a studio or with other musicians, I’d have to slow down. If I wanna finish a song in one night I can’t expect that to happen if I’m not doing it myself. I just feel like I have to write as many songs as possible before I die (laughs). But it’s also about solitude, when I write songs. I think it makes sense that I do everything myself. People can hear that. In the studio things might get too perfect. There are so many flaws in all my songs. When I record them I’m like “Oh fuck, I’d wish that wasn’t in there” but then I get used to it. It’s part of my aesthetics.
Since you’re producing and making music all the time, I was wondering where this urgency comes from?
If I’m not recording for a couple of weeks I just notice how I become really sad or grumpy. It’s like a need. If I’m not producing, I don’t know what’s happening around me and I’m just like “Ah, everything sucks and I’m so stressed.” Then I sit down and make something and I feel so much better. I would keep doing this even if no one would listen to my songs afterwards. It’s something I need to survive and maintain my mental health.
I have phases where I work a lot, like a couple of weeks. I don’t see anyone, I just bunker up on food and drinks and I don’t shower and stuff – that’s the best time of the year! I did that last year during Christmas and New Years. But of course, I’m also thinking that maybe I’ll go crazy since I don’t see anyone and I don’t sleep. It’s like a manic phase and it’s the most fun ever. Even though I don’t leave the house it feels like visiting the whole world.