With two albums of piano-driven pop songs, singer-songwriter Astrid Swan has gone from a sassy indie princess to an edgy and ambitious artist. Now she wants to have a bit of fun and make music that the world would hear.
Four years ago Astrid Swan broke into the Finnish music scene as a solo artist with a most auspicious beginning. Her debut album Poverina caused ripples on both sides of the Atlantic and established her as the piano-stroking girl poet with an edge. On the follow- up, Spartan Picnic, Swan transformed into something altogether more mercenary. The belligerent and severe album earned her again more praise and more forays abroad.
Since then swan has dumped the piano, picked up the guitar again, compiled a band with a proper name (The Drunk Lovers) and written an album full of heartfelt pop songs (the upcoming Better Than Wages).
Born and raised in Helsinki, Swan says she grew up with music. When she was six years old she started playing a piano her grandparents had bought for her. By the time she was 11 she had moved on to the clarinet and was studying in a local music institute. Through the early 1990s, listening to Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman records, teenage Swan taught herself how to play the guitar in order to make up her own pop songs – always in English.
Growing up, was your family very musical?
My father plays several instruments and he played in bands when I was a kid. We used to listen to music and play together. I liked the soon-to-beclassic Finnish stuff: Hassisen Kone, Tuomari Nurmio (Judge Bone) and pretty much all the artists who made good records at the time. We sang them together. My father listened toa lot of progressive rock and jazz, stuff that was even a little scary to me.
You started recording your first solo demos at 17. Why did the idea of becoming a solo artist appeal to you?
I made my first demo just before I left for the US as an exchange student. Back then I just had to do everything just the way I wanted. In our band at the time we had several people whose visions we were trying to bring into reality, and in the end it was a compromise that didn’t match anyone’s vision. But I had been a pretty influential founding member, so I guess I somehow felt it was my thing, even though it was a kind of democracy.
It took quite a few years before you got to make your first solo record. How did that come about?
I made four demos by the time I was 18. When I was living in the States I made some contacts with a few fellow musicians in Finland who would play them to some people, record company folks and so on. By the time I got back, there was even a large record company showing interest, but they wanted me to sing in Finnish. I was young and headstrong: I just wouldn’t do that. Around that time I met Nick (Triani) and Paul, another Brit living here. They set up a record label that would publish my first album. One early vision was that I wouldn’t even sign with a Finnish company, I’d go straight for an international. That didn’t quite happen though.
Where did your infatuation with the English language begin?
I must have been prepubescent when I somehow got it in my head that it’s a really beautiful language. It was a romantic notion, in part brought on by the fact that the artists I adored were mostly American or British. At school I studied other languages but not English, so I decided I would learn it from dictionaries. I would read dictionaries and pick up the pronunciation by listening to records. I wanted to articulate like Suzanne Vega.
Have you ever considered singing in Finnish?
I get these proposals every now and then to do that. I did seriously consider it a few years ago, I thought of doing a song in Finnish for a compilation record. But in the end I didn’t find the right song. I have to admit, I am not very well cultured in Finnish language music.
Who are your favourite songwriters?
Well, first of all there was Vega. She is a magnificent lyricist but a really difficult one, I don’t think I really understood much of her lyrics at first. She uses a lot of abstract concepts. But that’s what makes her a great songwriter. Another one was Joni Mitchell. I admire her, though we’re nothing alike as songwriters. I think, for example Richard Yates, though he’s a novelist and not a lyricist, has an impressive style – a simplicity I’ve somehow aimed for on this new album.
Singing in English is usually considered a disadvantage in the Finnish music market. Has it hindered your career?
Things started to change in that respect right around the time my first album was released. People were interested in the music although it was in English. But I think it has held me back from attaining general mass-appeal. Even music journalists don’t always know the language very well. Some reporters have told me they didn’t listen to the lyrics at all when they reviewed my record.
You’ve often mentioned your ambition towards an international career in music. Why is that so important to you?
Partly because by doing this I wouldn’t be able to make a living here in Finland, I’d need another career. Then again, I have dreamed about it well before that reality became apparent. There’s a need thatcomes with making music to communicate it to as broad an audience as possible, and I think the choice of English is very much connected to that. I don’t want to say what I have to say to a prospective audience of five million, out of which about one thousand show any interest in my music.
How has the music industry changed from the time you recorded those first demos?
Music export has become an everyday thing, for one. People don’t think you’re being ridiculously overconfident if you want to go overseas, you can even get funding and support for it. When I was starting out the first Finnish bands broke internationally. In a way I think we’re still enjoying the fruit of that period. Of course, now the whole industry is undergoing a crisis, records aren’t selling and so on. We’ll see who actually survives this next phase.
There’s a song on your new album called Finland in November. Those words conjure up a pretty bleak image. Do you feel a need to escape this country in some way?
Yeah, I had it pretty strong when I was younger. And then I got stuck here because of my man, who is actually not Finnish. If I wasn’t with him I wouldn’t still be living here. But as you grow the longing becomes more abstract and it’s enough that you get out every now and then. You learn to see all the great things about Finland.
You said you couldn’t live on music alone in Finland. What other career plans do you have?
I got my MA in women’s studies. It interests me a lot and I’d love to do something involving that. I would be interested in academic work as well, but that’s another passion vocation, and I already have one.
Talking about female artists, how do you feel about the way the press tends to bunch female singers and songwriters under one label?
On a more general level it reveals the way women are still considered as a kind of subculture of their own. The music media in particular is culpable to it. They don’t seem to be professional and cultured enough to see what they’re doing.
I would imagine there’s also a lot of pressure to look a certain way and have the appearance of a pop musician. Are you interested in the whole visual and style aspect of pop music?
Sure, you’re always thinking about looks. I’m sure I would even if I wasn’t a performing musician. Fortunately I’m a bit lazy when it comes to exercise, and an all-round epicurean. Quite soon after my first album I realised I’m not in the same business as Madonna. So I’m not going for that level of visualisation. But I am affected by visuals, and they offer new possibilities to my performances. So far I’ve tried different looks in my album sleeves and promo shots. There has always been a motif behind the way those looks have been selected. This time I wanted to make a record that is not reaching out anywhere and is quite honest about what it is, so I guess I’ll have to think about what I can wear.
On your upcoming album you have a new band behind you – The Drunk Lovers. Who came up with the name?
Birthplace and date:
I did. (laughs) The name of the band has always been a bit of a problem. It stinks to be on stage and go “Good evening, I’m Astrid Swan,” and then say nothing about the rest of the players. So I’ve always wanted to have a name for them. This time I wanted the record to feature me and the rock band, and the name came up when we were in the studio. It was partly just me taking the piss out of them. But in a friendly way. They loved the name, though afterwards there were a few second thoughts. But it fits the mood of the record so well! It sounds like a classic band name, like Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers or Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band.
How about the name of the album, Better than Wages?
It was taken from the movie Misfits. In the film the cow boy shave to give up their old ways. So they retort, “anything is better than wages.” I’m sort of in a similar situation. My career in music is so important to me that it keeps me from becoming a regular salaried person.
There are a few songs on the album that deal with growing up, approaching 30. Is that a current topic in your life?
Not yet, fortunately. I can still rub it in that I’m not even 30. In fact this is the record where I wanted to just have fun. Spartan Picnic was so dark and heavy that after doing that I figured I didn’t want to communicate any grand message, I can just have fun and make more music. Of course, my fun and easy is not necessarily pure bubblegum.
Better than Wages is released 2 September