False Starts And Eternal Sunsets: Molly Nilsson Talks

The synth pop auteur on how her latest album was nearly her last, the allure of internet anonymity, and the loneliness of machines...

False Starts And Eternal Sunsets: Molly Nilsson Talks

The synth pop auteur on how her latest album was nearly her last, the allure of internet anonymity, and the loneliness of machines...

Molly Nilsson has got a new album on it's way. Titled Zenith, it moves Nilsson's searing, poetic synth pop forward in surprising directions. Her intricate tales of love, beauty, loneliness and joy remain as emotive as ever, but this time her musical palette has expanded. Opener The Only Planet combines Nilsson's reverberating, end-of-the-pier organs with lilting reggae guitars, like a baroque, shell-shocked rendition of Carly Simon's Why? Further in she draws on piano melodies and 4/4 kick drums that are yearning for the uncomplicated, endless summer of Ibiza house, albeit Ibiza house half-seen through a haze of unreliable recollection. 

Unsurprisingly for an artist with Nilsson's lyrical depth, an interview with Molly proved to be an unpredictable dance. It's not often we get to discuss the potential animals have for nostalgia, the romance of orbiting satellites, and the intererplay between euphoric music and introspective lyrics, but then there aren't many people making music like Nilsson does... 

R$N: Personally I hate sending work out into the world, as I always struggle to accept it's finished. How do you feel when you finish an album?

I think it’s a great feeling. It’s something I look forward to the moment I start working on it. I always have a feeling of what I want it to be like when it’s finished and when I’m starting to get close to that feeling then I start to consider it finished. But this album I had more of a problem with finishing. I basically made one album and I thought it was finished, and I was about to send it off in the world, then I decided to take two months to think about whether I wanted to put something more into. So I went on holiday for two months, and when I came back I realised I had to make a new album.

Does that mean Zenith is an entirely new album from the one that got scrapped?

I’d say it’s probably 75% new. And also how everything comes together, it becomes a new album, even though some of the songs were included on the original album. The one before I had finished in January, and that makes such a big difference, to finish an album in January and to finish it in June – I needed that sunlight in the album.

So is the difference between the original album and the one we’ve got now is an increased amount of sunshine?

Mmmmm, not really. On the original one my idea was to make much more of a punk album with many short songs and a completely different sound which was more unpolished and rough. I had some kind of idea in my head that it was going to be my last album, and then I thought, if it’s my last album, I can’t make it a punk album – it has to be something way bigger than that. So this is what came, but of course now I’ve made it I have the feeling I’m going to be making a lot more albums.

Zenith's an interesting title, as it suggests both a pinnacle and a subsequent falling away - had you already thought of the title when you’d decided this was going to be your last album?

No I had a few different titles for it. I don’t know when I decided on this title, I think around the same time as I decided that the album wasn’t finished. I like it as a peak, but not in the sense that whatever comes before or after is not a peak – I wanted it to be like an eternal peak. On the opening song The Only Planet my opening line is ‘Give me an eternal sunset’ and that’s kind of the feeling I wanted to have – it is a peak, but as in a mountain that you can stay on forever.

It’s interesting you mention an eternal sunset – there’s a guy called Dr Bradford Skow who’s posited a new theory that time isn’t a line, it’s a block where everything co-exists simultaneously, and our perception just spotlights a limited part. Is that something you find an appealing notion?

Yeah, because we can’t remember the future and our only references are the past. We’re very nostalgic people, human beings. I don’t know how animals see it though. I don’t know if animals can remember the future. I’d like to think so.

Do you think animals are nostalgic?

I don’t know. There’s so many things we don’t know about what’s going on in other peoples minds in general, I’d like to think there’s endless possibilities. Time is very interesting.

And are you a nostalgic person?

Ummmm. Ahh, well, sometimes I’d see myself that way, but also I don’t live in the past, I live for all times. But I do enjoy memories, and if that’s nostalgic, then I guess so.

At this point the Skype connection crackled and died. After some shifting of wires we reconnected...

Are there plans to take the album out on tour?

Yeah, first I’ll be doing some shows in Europe, then in the US and Canada, then more Europe, then I haven’t really decided for next year. I try to plan things per year – my last show is December 23rd, but I can’t even think of January 1st.

Wow, That’s very delineated.

Haha. Exactly.

Despite being something of a cult figure, I was interested to see you don’t have a Wikipedia page. Is that deliberate?

No, I don’t really know how it works. I suppose anyone could write a page about me, but nobody knows what they would write. Hah!

You’re mentioned on other people’s pages though, it’s like a trail that hasn’t got an end-

Ha. When I was younger I’d think wow, when you’ve got a Wikipedia page, then you’ve really made it, and then I was always hoping I’d have one one day. But now I think it’s kinda funny when I see other people’s wikipedia’s; it’s just a page. It doesn’t really… I guess all the information that people need to know about me is out there so I kinda like that people don’t necessarily know my  birthday, or where I was born, or where I went to school.

In seems to me that in terms of presenting some sort of enigma, it’s far cooler to have less online than more.

I think it would be super cool if I only had a website and I didn’t have a facebook or twitter, but out of purely pragmatic reasons I found I had to have some communication to the world. I think it would be amazing if one day I could shut down my complete online presence and still function. That’s kind of like a utopia to me.

So I take it you’re not big on twitter?

No, I mean, a part of me would love to do that, because sometimes you think if things that you like and you just want the whole world to hear it – but then this is a feeling everyone has had their whole life. But now there is actually a medium like twitter, you realise that it’s actually a really bad idea sometimes, and that communication is far cooler between people who are in the same room, who can hear each others voices and see each others faces, rather than this anonymous mass communication.

Talking of communication, your lyrics are often directed towards a ‘you’ figure – are you often writing to someone specifically?

In most cases I write to myself, and it’s often conversations I would have with myself. But it usually involves other people and sometimes it’s very specific towards one person, and it’s directed to a person that represents something in my life, but not necessarily the person in and of themselves. But there’s always a receiver, and there’s always someone on the other end, either myself, or a friend or some kind of stranger.

Do you ever wish all your communication could just be taken from music?

Haha- then I would be Paul McCartney or something… I don’t know, that would be really funny if I just walked around with a keyboard and when I ordered food in a restaurant I would just play them a song... For me I think it’s very separate, there’s two different ways of communicating, there’s this dialogue you can have with someone for hours, and it’s not the same as you would have with yourself in your mind when you’re just projecting on someone else. For me, if I have something important to say it’s easier to sit down and write a song where I can embed all my emotions, all my perspectives, from my viewpoint rather than face to face; that’s a more vulnerable situation. But there’s nothing better than having a great talk with a friend for hours, drinking beer or having a long walk.

What I like about the album is that there’s a lot of music that seems happy in its structure – you’ve got tunes I’d call house music in there, and the opener has got reggae guitar running through. At times the record feels like, musically, it’s intentionally complicating the downbeat vibe of the vocals.

Yeah, that’s something I think about when I write songs. I don’t think about how other people would perceive it, but just for myself, I’d get very bored if I’d write a song that had sad and melancholic lyrics and sentiments in them, then have the music the same. It would be too much for me – I wouldn’t even be able to listen to it . Usually when the songs that are quite sad I have happier music. Also, my voice is always interpreted as quite sad, and I guess that’s just because I sound like that – that’s my voice. And a lot of the times when I’m recording songs I’m just having so much fun, but I’m playing with that, being like, ‘oh give me a bowl or something I can cry in….’ There’s a lot of jokes in there that are sometimes lost in the context, but I try to have one joke in each song. They’re very well disguised, but I know them each time I hear them. I would never be able to write a sad song, for me that would be impossible. For me the melancholic songs are filled with so much hope and happiness, because for me melancholy is this feeling of trying to hold onto time as much as you can, hoping to be a time millionaire, y’know with your bank account filled with time, but knowing it’s impossible.

There’s quite a precedent for rave music that’s musically euphoric but lyrically heartbroken

It’s something with dance music, the moments when you listen to it, even considering a lot of sad things in your life, or things you’re not happy with, you’ll have this feeling that right now it doesn’t matter, I’ll let go of everything, I’ll cry later. There’s an element of losing yourself in music.

I noticed on H.O.P.E. you use the line ‘all watched over by machines of loving grace’ did that come from the Adam Curtis film or the poem?

I know about the film, but I knew about it after I knew the poem. I was looking for Richard Brautigan's reading of it and I found the film. I’m familiar with Adam Curtis from another film, I don’t remember its name, but I remember it was very heavy and I thought I can’t watch another one of these for ten years! They’ve got so much information and there’s so much you have to take in about the world that you feel over whelmed. You don’t really walk out feeling ‘oh yes! Let’s have a coffee…’

I took the lines from the poem, when I was on tour for the first time someone recommended it to me and then I bought it and brought it on tour, and it was the best company I had because I was travelling by myself, and it stuck with me. In general touring with poetry is the best company, because you want to read something every once in a while, but I have to be there enough not to be too inside of a book, so it’s good to have one poem you can travel with for a couple of hours in your mind and then when you need a new one you can get a new one.

Molly Nilsson smoking a fag

The song's fairly complex, it starts with this idea of computer surveillance then goes way beyond that -

I was inspired by this video that was circulating online of this ISS satellite that’s been circling the planet for I don’t know how long. They published these videos of it flying over cities at night, and it showed how it sees the world from above, and also things like Northern Lights or storms, or how its blinded by the sun coming over thee horizon once in a while, and I thought it was beautiful . And I started thinking about that satellite who has no emotions for what it’s seen, but I imagined if it had emotions it would be seeing how beautiful the world is, but it’s not a part of the world. So that was my starting point, and then I started thinking in general about how many satellites are out there, and how were always looking for life within ourselves, on our planet, but also in outer space, but we’re also being watched over by big brother or whatever – there’s this idea of privacy, but we’re also looking for each other everywhere. There’s a lot of different levels for me in that song.

I wanted to ask you about recording everything yourself. I think it might be one of the defining features of 21st Century music – now an artist can do everything for themselves in a way that would have been impossible 40 years ago. Do you sometimes feel that if you had compromises forced upon you, you might benefit from it?

Mmmmmm. I don’t think so. This is the way I started making music. I don’t think I would have started making music if I hadn’t had that opportunity to do everything myself. If I compare for instance with friends who are coming from this ’band’ background, they have a completely different approach to what they’re making and how they’re making it, and like this community feeling, and bands switching members between each other, and stuff like that, which I think is a really great thing, but I was never part of that. When I started making music it was just something I did for myself, and also a way to pass time. If I’d been socialising or hanging out with people I probably wouldn’t have been making music. Berlin is a very solo city, because there are all the DJs sitting at home with their headphones, so that really adds to the infrastructure of the music industry in the cioty. I wish there was more interaction and collaboration, also for myself, but it’s something you can’t really force. I dunno. I’m not a very social person I guess.

And we live in a very individual age

It’s a very anti-social time. Im just waiting for solo movies. That would be really interesting – I’ve been playing with the idea myself, but I think I need to record about 10 more albums before I change direction.

And would you play every part in a solo movie?

Well, I imagine – I’m not gonna give away my whole ideas here because someone might be reading this and they might beat me to it – but I imagine a solo film would working the same way as solo music, with sampling. I can’t play the trumpet but I can play a trumpet sample on a keyboard. We’ll just have to wait and see. I mean all you need is ideas and love.


Molly Nilsson's Zenith is available on vinyl and CD via Night School/ Dark Skies, order from here.

 

 

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