Anna Ternheim comes from Sweden, that hotbed of new and interesting music that goes beyond the techno pop. While she's already an accomplished singer-songwriter in her native land, she's been making a name for herself in the states. Her latest, Leaving on a mayday, has the added bonus of Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John working production duties, as he did with Lykke Li.
Her third album contains many fantastic elements like strings, groovy basslines and wonderful harmonies to add on top of her distinct voice. When I saw her at Joe's Pub, I found out how she captivates an audience.
The current NYC resident is always in motion. This fall, she'll do a lengthy tour with Asobi Seksu and Loney Dear. Before she did, we talked about working with Bjorn, strange places to play and wax monkeys. I'd like to welcome Anna to this space.
How was your summer?
It was fine, fun and busy all at the same time. I played a lot of the European festivals. There's was this small German festival called Haldern Pop Festival. It was very relaxing. There was a lake nearby where people can swim and listen to the music.
Do you come from a musical family?
Not at all. My dad brought me to a lot of concerts growing up and he had a large record collection, but nobody could play an instrument. It's something that I stumbled on.
When did you know that you wanted to be a musician?
It wasn't a conscious decision. It was so much fun making the first album that I felt I needed to continue on this path. It's kind of funny because I feel like I should get a real job just in case making music doesn't work out. I don't think about it everyday, but it pops in my head once in a while.
Looking at your list of achievements, you won a lot of awards back in Sweden with that first album. Did that freak you out?
Yes, very much. It was a lot of attention put upon me, which made making the second album a very difficult process.
Is it difficult being an acoustic singer-songwriter in Sweden when the country is dominated by bad teenage pop music?
I don't think so. I sing in English and that automatically narrows my audience. Luckily, there are people who look for the music I make.
What prompted the move to America?
When Decca picked up my second album for distribution, they had me do a lot of promotion in the states. I did a big tour with Joseph Arthur. Then, there were so many people I wanted to work with in New York, I felt the move was necessary. Also at that point in my life, I was -- you know -- unattached, let's just say [laughs]. So for me, it wasn't big a deal to move.
How do go about songwriting? Do you have to isolated yourself or do you walk around with scraps of paper?
There's no easy process for me. The writing comes and goes. I can go for a while without thinking of any vocals. When I got together with Bjorn, he had a lot of ideas, and that inspired me to come up with my own ideas. I think what it comes down to is being open to ways to write my songs.
Let's talk about some of the songs on the album. For the first song, "What Have I Done," did you have all those strings arrangements in mind when you demoed it?
Noooooo [laughs]. That's all Bjorn. He loves that heavy bassline.
I'm sure that's why you wanted to work with him. He tends do those things well.
He's very good at refining the sounds. He works with simple elements and makes them all blend together and not overtake the song.
I like how the strings were used in "Terrified." They almost sound Asian.
I know, that was cool. I played that melody on the piano and thought that would be on the song. When we got to the studio, a lot of weird things happened to that song. It morphed into something that was much more fast, then I didn't feel comfortable with that. When we made the drums more muted and eerie, that changed the whole vibe and made it sound ancient. I'm not sure if I should say this, but sometimes I just don't know how things work out.
"Make It On My Own" is my favorite song on the album. It sounds like a cowboy song mixed with a Kate Bush song like "Running Up That Hill". Did you have to play around with that one to see if the keyboards and backing vocals worked?
That was an easy song to put together. I did have cowboys in mind, that sort of driving beat. The harmonizing was stuck in my mind when I wrote the song. I'm glad you liked it.
Is there a particular song on the album you're most proud of?
I just like the album as a whole. Each song has a unique character and that sort of what the goal was to make an album with varied colors. I also liked how the songs can mean something different over time and I realize now what I was trying to do.
Now the monkey on the album cover -- is that a real monkey or some sort of robot monkey?
Neither, it's a wax monkey. A lot of people ask about that, it's pretty funny. I can assure everybody that no real monkeys were harmed.
How many days out of the year do you think you are on the road?
Hard to say, but by the end of this year, I'll have done around 150 live dates. I'll have breaks in-between and not work much during Christmas time.
Are there any particular ones that stick out?
There are so many, I tend to remember the extremes. I've played shows in front of 20,000 people at night and during the day time. I've even just played piano by myself in front of 20,000 who don't even know the songs. That was during my first album. Then I'll go play shows in basements where you can hear people from the bathroom. I think that's why I like to play, the weird experiences and different circumstances. I've played fancy rooms with nice dressing rooms. Then I've played places that smell funny and there's no dressing room.
Leaving on a Mayday is out now, and check her myspace page for tour dates.