Nina Persson dreams of houses.
It’s one of the more intimate moments of our conversations together, and also a major theme on Nina’s first solo LP, Animal Heart. But there’s also her voice, which anchors the entire LP down in a sultry, smoky wave of coolness. The singer for the wildly popular bands The Cardigans and A-Camp, Persson is in a different place now, making decision about her career based around family and her primary instrument: her voice.
With a little help from Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats, The Shins), Persson makes a bold statement on her most engrossing album to date and sounds completely comfortable with her spot in the hectic business of music. Besides, if she ever tires of it, she can always get back to those houses and rooms that permeate her dreams. But here’s hoping she stays around much longer, especially after Animal Heart has faded and she’s on to her next musical venture.
Stereo Subversion: This is your first solo record. Why did you feel like this was the right time?
Nina Persson: This time it was kind of out of necessity because I had a kid and I still want to work. If I did it a solo record I had more flexibility and I didn’t affect people by my family decisions. And there’s fewer people to go to, of course.
SSv: There are certain influences that I hear on the record. It sounds very much like a Nina Simone or an updated Ella Fitzgerald record. Were those influences or did you just want to focus on your voice as a primary instrument?
Nina: It’s amazing that you say that because one thing I did strongly think about when I was thinking up this record is that I did want to do it as a “singers” records. Just let the vocals be the guide for everything, but still have some production behind. I didn’t really want it to be a jazzy record or a showtuney record, but it’s all I’ve got, really. I write some songs and lyrics and do part of the production, but vocals are my instrument. There are the only thing I can promise and deliver. That was my thought, too.
SSv: You had some help with instruments on this record. You hooked up with Eric Johnson, correct?
SSv: How did you all meet?
Nina: We met because he and my husband were working on a movie soundtrack here at my house at a time when our baby was very little. So I was home all the time. They were here and working and we had lunches together and hung out and really hit it off. We just hung out and I sang a bit on the soundtrack and we decided to do something together soon. And by the time I decided that a solo record was the way to go for me, I just asked him if he was available. He came out to New York for a time and we spent four days together just writing at our house. Eventually we booked studio time in Brooklyn, then Sweden, then Portland. Everything was shorter stints because that’s what our lives allow these days. But it was really fun because we would bring our son along to all these different places.
SSv: It must be a challenge juggling motherhood and a solo record to promote.
Nina: Yes, it is just a little bit, just because it required so much traveling. It just can’t happen without me traveling all the time. It’s one thing to work a lot—lots of parent work all the time, I know—but it’s just so heartbreaking to have to leave when I do.
SSv: I can’t imagine being on tour.
Nina: Yes, I’m about to go away for three weeks, but it works really well with my husband. Without that support it would be really frustrating.
SSv: When you were writing the tracks, did you feel like they weren’t right for A-Camp or The Cardigans, or that this was just a more pure representation of what you had to offer?
Nina: No, I look for the project next, what band is going to happen next, and I write for that situation. I don’t have piles of songs sitting around waiting for a home. And I have to be a little bit more realistic with all my work decisions now. There will be a time when I can be more spontaneous in my life in the future. But right now, it feels like, “What can I do?” And I write songs to fit the situation. But it was good for me to make a solo record and be in charge of most of the decisions.
SSv: Some artists speak of putting limits on what you can and can’t do as a artist and that it makes the songwriting process easier. Did you experience that at all?
Nina: Yeah, I did actually. Well, like I said the time limitations. In New York we have to work before my son comes home from school. And it is good to have time clearly devoted to work and also good to have time clearly devoted not to work. It makes everything cleaner, otherwise it’s like being a kid with homework and you just have it hanging over you constantly.
SSv: I don’t miss those days. [Laughs]
Nina: Me neither! It sucked. [Laughs]
SSv: As I was listening to this record, there are two themes that really stick out to me. One is animals, per the title of the record, and the other is houses and rooms. Is that something you have a deep connection to or something you wanted to explore?
Nina: Both, I think. First of all, it’s something that I feel a very strong connection to. Since I was a kid, really, I’ve been into houses—building houses, making houses, drawing houses. I wanted to be an architect. I still want to be an architect or do set design, something like that. And I dream a lot about houses. I’m sure a lot of people do, too, but for me its so prominent and I wake up sad when I have to leave the houses I was dreaming about. And it has nothing to do with interior design, but everything to do with set design — how you choose shapes, colors and what you surround yourself with, or if you don’t care what you surround yourself with.
The settings of my dreams are very symbolic, often. It has a lot to do with psychology, too, I know; rooms with open doors or closed doors, moving in with my parents again, buying a house. It’s super interesting and fascinating and I often wake up with a a very strong spatial feeling.
SSv: There’s a lot of space on the record, too. The instruments and the vocals inhabit their own space and have lots of room to breathe.
Nina: Yeah. Music is like that, too. It doesn’t have limitations, but it is a surrounding. The same thing with art, too. It gets really dodgy when I try to talk about it, that’s why I write songs about it. But it really is a strong scene in my life.
SSv: So you would rather sing about it than talk about it?
Nina: Yeah. Or just think about it. Sometimes I think we don’t need to communicate about it all.
SSv: Thinking about The Cardigans, are you still surprised by how popular they still are? Did you think they would create such lasting impression?
Nina: No, no. You can never know that at the time. But I was really pleased. Just in November we did a tour in Japan and China, where we had never been before, and Russia, and it was amazing that we could do a sold out tour. And it was fun rock clubs, not weird Las Vegas kind of shows. It was great and fresh and kids were coming out. I never could have imagined that, but it was really fun and really nice just to be able to enjoy the work we put into it. It feels like it was totally worth it.
SSv: Are you worried about carrying around the mantle of “Lovefool,” or do you embrace it and go with it?
Nina: Well, I feel differently about it at different times in my career. Right now, I’m very grateful for it because it did open a ton of doors for us. It’s a beautiful song with really annoying qualities. I get so tired of having to perform it sometimes. [Laughs] But I also have learned to appreciate the response it gets from the crowd. When you play it, it’s really sweet to have something that is such a card to play. It makes me happy and that’s a big value. It’s just like anything else, really. Anything can get washed out and repeated. But I enjoy it, actually.