Culture / Music

Hearing Feelings: In Conversation with Fever Ray

Karin Dreijer takes my call from their home in Stockholm. They are a little bit jet lagged, having returned from New York to work on a different project (one that has more than piqued my interest but remains shrouded in mystery for now), although very excited to make their Australian debut.

The Swedish singer-songwriter and producer started making music in a band known as Honey is Cool before forming The Knife with their brother, Olof, in 1999. Given the timeless quality of The Knife’s electronic music, it is hard to fathom, with the release of Dreijer’s first solo record in 2009, the length of their career as it continues to be deeply progressive, introspective and personal. Their self-titled debut album, Fever Ray, was released in 2009 via Rabid Records, which is now run by the two siblings and an alter ego – Frau Rabbit – who voices the siblings when they do not wish to. 

Dreijer’s next Fever Ray record, Plunge, was released in 2017, and saw them deal with even more personal themes, particularly their coming into a newly-expressed queer sexuality. It is an urgent and rapid record that embraces and explores queer identity with accompanying probes into kink culture via their videos. Last year saw the release of Radical Romance, a record of love songs without a single love song being on the record; however, the tone is decidedly calmer than Plunge whilst maintaining Dreijer’s electronic sound and layering of characterised vocals. In former interviews, Driejer has said that “I felt very much that these were love songs. But then Martin [Falck], who I work with on the videos and visuals, said, ‘There is not really an actual love song on the album’. Maybe then it’s more about finding out what it is to love.” 

Radical Romance saw the birth of ‘Main’ and ‘Romance’, characters created by Dreijer that inhabit feelings or concepts with their songs that “make it more clear about the stories [they] are telling”. The characters are then brought to life through music videos and theatrical stage shows. When asked what we can expect of the live show at Vivid LIVE, Dreijer explainsWe have a show that is, I mean, it is very theatrical. We work with a great light designer and Sarah Landau and Martin Falck, who is the creative director that I've been working with for a long time, so it's more of a theatre performance in a way, but it's still a concert. We have performed it in theatre venues as well as concert halls, so I think it does fit in a theatrical space like the Opera House.”

Dreijer is very keen to clarify the feelings they wish to perform. Whilst their characters might seem like a step away from themselves, Dreijer explains that, “I think when I start making music, it's more about a feeling or a feeling that needs to come out. And a feeling that I maybe have to just stay in, and be there, and do some research. And to do that [using characters is] more a way to make it more clear, to embody the feeling. I am performing, so I want to perform this feeling. And then I do it through character. Because I have always been super into film. For example, film and visual art. And I think the visual aspect of the music, which is the videos and our shows, it's just a way to be more clear about telling the story.”

However, Dreijer’s multiple voices that they use to weave like a sexual-textual tapestry is one of the most intriguing parts of their music. They pitch shift and layer to create moments of tenderness set against moments of almost surrealist horror. I’m curious to know how language has affected their writing process,  as English is not their mother tongue. Dreijer explains the choice to sing in English  is partially due to their Swedish upbringing:

“I mean, it is strange in Sweden. When I grew up – I was born in the mid-seventies –  there were American politicians in Sweden, there to implement Western culture in the sixties and seventies. So, everything on TV and at the movies was American. I mean, I am brought up in a super imperialist culture. I think Sweden didn't do as much as many other European countries to put their own language on top of film and TV. Everything was in English. A lot of the music I listened to was in English. For me it was very connected. And also, I think I wanted to get out of Sweden. I just wanted to go somewhere else.”

Given the invasion of American culture in most parts of the world even now, I wonder if the theatrical elements of Dreijer’s are an escape from the world in which we all inhabit now? “I've talked and I've been thinking about this. Like, why do we make music in these hard times? There is so much horrible stuff going on right now. I think music offers us the possibility of talking about other worlds, and to suggest other solutions and create a space where you can feel free.”

Whilst Fever Ray may be a way of processing Dreijers’ world, it is also a way of creating community for them. They explain: “There's a lot of queer people coming to our shows and together and they feel a community strength together. I think it can be an act of solidarity. It can be a place to come together and just to find strength within a community. So I do think art and music is an important element in a struggle, in an activist movement”.

However, when Dreijer writes, it comes from themself primarily as a member of a queer left-wing community in Sweden. They “write out from what they feel and what [they] find important” not considering how it will be received, but knowing that their queer community and beyond will connect with it. Dreijer notes that “since the last album was a lot about love and romantic relationships and the struggle around that, I think within a capitalist society, I think there is so little room for relationships today”.

Dreijer’s touring party is all non-binary or female identifying, and has been for some time. They are very keen to fight imbalances within the industry, saying “it's something I think we've worked on for a very long time to change. I mean, the imbalance within the music industry is still really bad, but it's an area where I have the possibility to at least change it within my workspace”. However, whilst they are deeply political, Drejier has picked their band out of people they “can have fun with and live together with for a very long time”, which seems equally important and practical when setting out on global tours.

Dreijer’s mood can change how they feel about their art, but after such a long career, they are still feeling the impulsive need to tell these stories, especially with the rise of Neo-Nazi groups in Sweden.  Music is their tool when “there is so much that needs to be done”. However, fighting the world’s atrocities is not easy work, or for the faint hearted, so I am curious to know how Dreijer keeps themselves motivated, who do they look to when things get tough? Dreijer hates name dropping, but very kindly spells Akwaeke Emezi for me, the name of an inspiring LGBTQ+ writer from Nigeria who writes about queerness in a “very beautiful and interesting way”.. Dreijer also mentions looking to Jeanette Winterson and revisiting Kathy Acker with their child.

As an artist that seemingly has multiple voices swimming under an electronic surface, Dreijer still manages to maintain a central self, or as they put it to me: “all of them are my central self”. They explain that “when I think about something, and when I think about singing it, I have many different sounds in my head, so this is about finding the right vocal. I use various different plugins and some hardware, and it differs a bit, but I think mostly I have a strong feeling about what kind of voice this feeling has. I can hear it or feel it. I don't know what the difference is”. Dreijer cites speed and simplicity as their way of getting out the feeling. “After that,” they explain, “the hard work starts to make it listenable”.

Fever Ray will be performing at Vivid LIVE on 5th and 6th of June, more information is available on the Vivid Sydney website.

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