Words By: Steve Yates
What would you do if, one decade into your career, you suddenly saw your latest release named album of the year by one of the world’s most influential music websites? If you’re Karin Dreijer Andersson, formerly singer with ‘90s pop hopes Honey Is Cool and now one half of The Knife, the answer is to take a couple of years off and return as a solo artist under a new name.
Fever Ray is the title, of both project and album, an evocation of the music’s sound, intense and anxious, yet luminous. It’s the culmination of work that began in 2007 when Karin and Olof, the brother-sister duo who are The Knife, decided to take time out following a handful of incredible live shows. Their first two albums did well in their Swedish homeland; their third, Silent Shout, went to Number One, won six Swedish Grammys, underlined their reputation as an act capable of the truly extraordinary and was pronounced the best record of 2006 by Pitchfork. Karin needed a break – she was about to have her second child – but couldn’t stop writing.
Small wonder the post-natal period proved so fertile. She composes best in that state any new parent will recognise, awake but exhausted, where reality blurs into imagination and ideas flutter in and out. “Half of what the songs are about is the subconscious,” she says, “ideas of things happening. A lot of it is like daydreaming, dreaming when you’re awake, but tired; a lot of stories come from that world. I try to write when I‘m in that state – I’m very bad at remembering later, so I have to do it right away.”
Eight months of the most productive daydreaming later, Karin had a batch of new songs and the raw materials for the production. Unsure how to get them over the finishing line, she took half to Christoffer Berg (who mixed The Knife’s work), half to Stockholm production duo Van Rivers & The Subliminal Kid for a final brush and tickle.
The result is Fever Ray, an album that, while recognisably the work of the same artist, is dramatically different from The Knife. It’s still constructed on electronic foundations and embellished with traditional instrumentation (guitar here, congas there), but Fever Ray is starker, moodier, in places quite sombre – less an invasion, more a slow process of colonisation. Not that you’ll find anything so literal in the lyrics.
Her distinctive writing process is at its most striking in ‘Seven’, where a succession of stories – some real, some imagined, but all tangentially related to that number – are obliquely referenced. That’s the way Karin writes; just enough detail to sketch the outline and splash some colour without becoming mired in anything too specific. As she says herself in the song: “I know it, I think I know it from a hymn/ They’ve said so, it doesn’t need more explanation.”
“I prefer lyrics that are like that,” she says, “I like to keep it as minimal as possible. I like films the same way, ones with very little dialogue, such as the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (Leningrad Cowboys Go America), I think he’s fantastic. It’s very important to keep the magic and the feeling of something you can draw yourself. You don’t want to be too literal.”
Thus ‘I’m Not Done’, one of Fever Ray’s more upbeat moments, only reveals its true meaning in its title, a gesture of defiance against Karin’s own thoughts of retirement. “That was the last song I wrote and in contrast to many tracks that are more about anxiety and depression, that one is very full of life,” she says. “Sometimes, when you’re as old as I am now, you think you’re going to quit, and people around you think you’re going to quit. But then you have days when you realise how good music can be, there’s so much left to explore and so much left to do. That’s why I sometimes feel I’ll never quit.”
You can figure out for yourself whether a song such as ‘If I Had A Heart’, which sings of “Dangling feet from window frame/ Will they ever reach the floor/ More give me more give me more”, is inspired by observing her young children. Or if ‘Concrete Walls’, despite its ghostly demeanour (that seemingly masculine vocal is, as always, Karin working the voice transformer) and sense of entrapment, is actually about new motherhood, as revealed in “I live between concrete walls/ In my arms she was so warm/ Eyes are open and mouth cries/ Haven’t slept since summer.” Or whether the regular references to snow reflect anything more profound than the national climate.
One thing’s for sure – in a country with a wealth of leftfield pop artists, Karin Dreijer Andersson sounds like no one but herself. Constantly inventive, restlessly emotive, Fever Ray swaggers, broods, intrigues and dazzles without ever making concessions to the soap opera demands of modern media. “I think the music should be able to stand for itself without interfering, like what the artist looks like. That’s something you find out during the process, it’s a steady ongoing process about how you survive. When you work with music, you have the possibility to create magic.”
Opportunity taken, Fever Ray works its magic. Here’s your chance to fall under its spell.