Frida Hyvönen Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Punk Planet’s March-April 2007 issue.

Frida Hyvönen didn’t hear many records when she was growing up in Robertsfors, a town of 3,000 people in the north of Sweden. Hyvönen, who was born in 1977, did hear her parents performing their own renditions of songs by Bob Dylan and other American and British pop stars. She doesn’t remember hearing any songs by Laura Nyro, but her debut album of piano-based songs, “Until Death Comes,” has prompted a lot of comparisons with the influential ’60s musicin.

In her videos, this blonde strides purposefully through Scandinavian landscapes and dances without any sense of inhibition. Like her songs, her movements are sometimes awkward, but she appears to revel in the awkwardness. In the climax of the video for “The Modern,” Hyvönen plays a piano engulfed in flames.

In “Once I Was a Serene Teenaged Child,” she doesn’t sound the least bit bashful as she casually drops the track’s opening lines: “Once I was a serene teenaged child/Once I felt your cock against my thigh.” In the same song, Hyvönen tells of feeling intoxicated by her power to drive a man wild, while pleading, “Don’t take your pants off, ’cause I don’t want to see it.” (That wasn’t one of the songs she played when she warmed up a crowd for the Dalai Lama at a Swedish convention for cognitive psychotherapists.)

Hyvönen has a Finnish last name, which she inherited from her Finnish paternal grandfather. She’s now teaching herself to read and speak Finnish, hoping that she will someday read Finland’s legendary epic poems in their original language. Meanwhile, she continues to write and record songs in English.

“Until Death Comes” came out in Europe in 2005, released by Licking Fingers, a label run by the Swedish band The Concretes. Secretly Canadian released the album in the United States last fall.

As Hyvönen works on her second album, she is also releasing what she calls a “side project”—new orchestral arrangements of some songs that she originally wrote for Danish choreographer Dorte Olesen’s 2005 dance piece “Pudel.” Hyvönen explains, “I wrote all of the lyrics from an alter-ego perspective. So it’s not really me, you know? It’s quite mysterious to me.”

She recently spoke by phone from Sweden.

What was childhood like in a small town in Sweden?

You didn’t see much connection to anything else. It was the countryside, very old-fashioned. There wasn’t really much to do, but you didn’t question it when you were a child. I had horses. I was a horse girl. And then as I grew up and became a little older, I noticed that almost everyone started to do sports of some kind, like football or handball. But I was scared of balls, so I didn’t do that. So I think, when I became a teenager, I started to feel like I wanted to move away from there, because I wasn’t good at sports.

So what did you move toward when you were a teenager?

My feeling was that I wanted to move away, because there was nothing. No one was playing music and no one was doing art, and those were the things I was interested in, mainly. When I left elementary school, I went to school in another town, Skellefteå. I went to the gymnasium there for two years, and then I moved to Stockholm when I was a teen.

What exposure did you have to music when you were young?

I didn’t listen much to records, just a few records here and there. There was a record store in the town, but it was sort of small. There was no popular culture, almost, I think. Just one hour away in Umeå, there were all kinds of things going on. I know that now because I have friends who grew up there. The whole vegan movement, the straight-edge thing started there, that’s where it happened first in Sweden. But I didn’t know anything about that. On the weekend, we went to couples dancing. It was so old-fashioned. But we had a lot of instruments at home. My dad plays folk music. We sang a lot.

What instruments?

Violins, and piano, guitars, key-harps.

How old were you when you started to play piano?

I think I started when I was big enough to climb up on the chair. It was just something we did at home. When my parents would have parties, they would get together at the piano and play.

Did you take lessons?

My dad and I used to sit by at the piano and play a lot. I think he taught me how to play chords from songbooks. And then, when I was 9, I started to take piano lessons. But that was sort of strange to me. I couldn’t really learn how to read sheet music very well. I didn’t like that way of playing as much as just playing songs and singing.

When kind of music did your family sing?

It was a mix of a lot of popular songs from the ’60s and ’70s. American songs—Bob Dylan or the Stones or whatever. People would sing that.

So you’d heard the family singing a Dylan song, but you might not have heard the actual Dylan record?

Yes. It sounds so strange when you say “the family singing.” It sounds so Christian or something. But, you know, they were the age I am now, and they had friends and had parties. Some person would have maracas, and one would have a tambourine, and someone would play the guitar badly, and someone would sit at the piano, and everyone would drink wine and sing. They weren’t hippies, but they were like prog people. In their generation, it was a lot of artists and people like that.

Once you left your hometown, did you become more exposed to pop culture?

Yeah, I think it happened when I moved away from home, at first, when I came to Skellefteå—because it was a pop city. They had a lot of bands. They had a record company there called A West Side Fabrication. There was a lot of indie music.

Did you hear particular musicians that influenced you?

I’m quite picky with music. I didn’t like any of the local bands very much. Of course, you would go to the concert and think it was fun to hang out, but I think at that age, I mostly listened to Suede and Björk.

By then, had you thought of becoming a singer-songwriter?

No, I hadn’t. I wasn’t really interested in that. I like to sing, but—I can’t remember if I wanted to become something. I guess I just wanted to be around, go to clubs.

Describe your life in that time.

I worked in a second-hand clothes store—two, actually, for a couple of years. And I worked in some cafés. And then slowly I started writing songs. And, I don’t know, doing strange collaborations with people. Some house producer wanting some girl to sing, and I’d go there, and drink beer and sing. And then, I don’t know when it started, really, but at some point it became my identity—that I was always doing music—but I don’t know how it happened.

How did the recording of “Until Death Comes” come about?

I had some songs that I wanted to record. I applied for money from the Swedish Council of Cultural Affairs. And they gave me some money to record it. I put one song up on my Web site, and (Concretes members Victoria Bergsman and Lisa Milberg) contacted me and said they wanted to release it, that one song as a single. And then I asked them if they could release the whole record. I told them I’d recorded a whole album.

You’ve been compared with Laura Nyro. Were you familiar with her music or is the similarity coincidental?

A lot of journalists told me that, and I checked her out. I hadn’t heard about her before I wrote and recorded the album. I don’t think the comparison is very accurate. We have different languages, almost. Of course, the instrumentation is sort of similar.

What’s your process for coming up with a song?

That’s a huge question. I do it all the time, in one way or another. I work all the time.

Does it start with words or music, or does it go both ways?

Yeah, it goes both ways. I would say the most successful times, it comes at the same time. That’s when I really like it. I usually write quite fast. I travel around a lot, so I collect ideas. I just do it like everyone does it. I collect ideas and melodies, and I record it into my camera, actually. It has a voice recorder. And then, when I end up at a piano, I sit down and make a song out of it. Some songs are written out walking, singing quietly and hearing in my head. Hopefully, I have a camera with me or at least a pen, so I can write it down.

All the words on “Until Death Comes” are in English. Do you write songs in Swedish, too? Did you feel it was important to sing in English for an international audience?

When I made the album, I never thought anybody would listen to it, so it’s not like I thought I would have an audience. I think English is a very good language to sing in, much better than Swedish. Swedish is a very self-conscious language. It’s really good when you read it, but it’s not so good when you sing it. As soon as you put melody to it, something goes lost and something horrible comes. I write a lot in Swedish, but that’s more toward poetry and things read, not heard.

Are most of your lyrics based on actual personal experiences?

Yeah. I think it’s a mix between actual experiences and actual experiences in my head. Everything you imagine or everything you hear someone else tell about, they blend together and they become songs.

I understand that your song “Straight Thin Line” is about the Canadian-American abstract painter Agnes Martin.

Partly, yes. She has a very special style. I read a book of her lectures. It was really inspiring. Something about how she talked about things and art really spoke to me. I could really find myself in it.

The parts of the song that say, “Here’s what Agnes said…”—are those actual quotes or paraphrases of what she said?

No, it’s not actual quotes. I imagined her saying that.

But it’s the spirit of what she was saying?

Yeah, how I saw it at the time—concerning the body and the flesh and the big problem with being both a consciousness and a body in this world.

Did you think the song Once I Was a Serene Teenaged Child,” which contains the lyrics “Once I felt your cock against my thigh,” would be shocking to people, or are you just comfortable discussing things like that?

I was shocked when people started—I have gotten so much response to that song. A lot about that sentence, and also a lot of women who thought it was a something they recognized from their own life, but that they hadn’t been able to put in words. Which is really extremely flattering. But that sentence? People sing about genitalia all the time, I guess. I was surprised that people would react so strongly to it.

What is your attitude about relationships?

Ooh. [Laughs.] I think relationships with other human beings are so complex. I mean, it’s complex to have a relationship with yourself, on the first hand. And to have it with someone else, I mean, it’s a source of endless confusion. I’m not very good at relationships, but I think they’re really interesting.

So it ends up being subject matter for some of your songs?

Mmm. Yes, absolutely. For almost all of them, I think. [Laughs.] As someone pointed out to me. And I thought about it, and I think they were right.

Photo by Robert Loerzel