Stina press article 2001

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Stina press article 2001

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It’s a wonderful, if unnerving experience to hear that familiar tiny voice in your ear. Even on the phone, Swedish songwriter Stina Nordenstam speaks hesitantly, nervously pausing and constantly clearing her throat. Her discomfort with doing interviews means she has always remained a mysterious figure, with precious little known about her beyond what one can glean from listening to her music. In her view “a piece of art doesn’t often benefit from a lot of information. It’s best if you just experience it and fill the rest in for yourself.” Her child-like voice combined with her atmospheric jazz-influenced instrumentation, and the beautiful fragility of songs like the haunting suicide ballad, ‘Little Star,’ make Stina a fascinating proposition.

Her albums, including And She Closed Her Eyes and the pitch-black Dynamite, paint a picture of a mythical solitary creature – one who spends most of her time working with fierce intensity on her music, in between bouts of standing sadly on railway platforms in the rain, or wandering waif-like through the woods. I seek evidence of a more prosaic existence. “I work most of the time,” Stina replies. “When I’m not working I just go for walks a lot or go running. I like to be outside in the woods.”

Her new album This Is Stina Nordenstam has the usual cinematic intensity but with a far more robust and positive sense that reflects Stina’s recent emotional outlook. She explains, “Over the last year I’ve been really happy. In fact I feel that I’m more optimistic than most people, but it was very well hidden in the beginning.” She says she was depressed until she was “about 27.” I never thought I would have a career in music, not even after the first record. If you’re depressed enough, you’re under the surface, and don’t consider what you’ll do for a living, just take it day by day. For a couple of dark confused years I had lots of shit jobs for very short times, like washing dishes and cleaning hotels. I was a waitress for one night, then I quit, because it was just terrifying.”

She retreated to live on an island in the mid-’90s. “I’m not very good with time, but it was before Dynamite. I used to swim in the ocean and not have any social contact.” The turning point came when moved back to Stockholm. “I broke up from my parents and had therapy. I was in a situation where I felt there was nothing good in my life, so I had to start from scratch. And I’ve been slowly going upwards.” She is now estranged from her family, who were Communists who had difficulties reconciling their conservative upbringing with their political views. “I had a bad start. I was unlucky, it wasn’t a good family. Being a bit obsessed with feelings of being exposed and alone has a lot to do with my background.”

She says her apartment in Stockholm is “small and covered in enormous amounts of books.” Her favourite writer at the moment is a woman called A.L. Kennedy. “She’s from Glasgow. I like all of her books except maybe for the last one, which is on bullfighting.” Stina also tends to buy a lot of clothes. “I like some expensive stuff. When I was a kid, I liked dressing in new, strange things and I still do this thing with wearing wigs. I’m a bit obsessed with my surface. I guess I’m not happy with my image.” This is tied up in her abiding fear of fame. “I think fame destroys your own meeting with the world, because people have preconceptions about you. I find that really scary and that’s what I’m trying to avoid by giving out a controlled image of myself.” Does she find it difficult to form close relationships with people? “No, it’s a paradox. I’ve had lots of love relationships, because I needed to repeat this feeling of being very exposed. It’s better now, but when I was younger, I felt drawn to this thing of being emotionally exposed.”

Stina has always found it easier to relate to men. “I have very few female friends,” she sighs heavily. “Maybe it’s because I had a bad relationship with my mother, and she managed to have an okay relationship with my sister who is two and a half years younger. When I was born she just wasn’t able to be a mother to me, but she was a bit better for my sister. There was a feeling of being outside the female community.” Her songs are written in English, because, “growing up, the Swedish language wasn’t relevant for me. I didn’t communicate with the world, because what I wanted to communicate was a mystery. There was no one listening to me anyway. Once I started writing I wanted to invent my own language, and it was English. There was a truth in English that Swedish didn’t have.”

Suede’s Brett Anderson performs vocals on a couple of the new songs. “On ‘Trainsurfing’ I felt to tell the story I needed a male voice. I wanted it to be human, more than feminine. I needed either Bowie or Brett Anderson, because that’s what I heard in my head. I didn’t even get through Bowie’s secretary, whereas Brett said yes straight away. He adapted very naturally to my song. We became friends and I usually see him when I come over to London.” Stina has a reluctance to perform live, which she hasn’t done for about ten years. “I’m very fond of the studio situation. I really like editing and rearranging things, so the studio process to me is very exciting. That’s not something you can do live. To me it’s strange how you’re expected to do both, because they’re so separate. Playing live is more like theatre, while being a recording artist is more like writing fiction or editing film.”

She commissioned young filmmakers to create videos to accompany the new album. “I chose ten directors, and sent them the record saying pick any song and do what you like, as long as I can see the treatment first. I don’t have to be in it – preferably I’m not in it! I only appear in two of them.” The shorts were edited into one long film, which will be shown in selected European cinemas and film festivals.

Her previous album, People Are Strange, was a collection of curious cover versions including ‘I Dream Of Jeannie’, and ‘Love Hurts.’ “My initial idea was to find songs from the musical backyard, some that were considered bad songs, and see if I could turn them into something good. I went through books like The Hundred Best Pop Songs and Heavy Metal Ballads, reading the music sheets. I wanted to see if you could say as much about yourself by singing words that are not your own.” She doesn’t listen to other music very often. “Because I listen to my own music manically when I’m working on it. There is one record that I always come back to, that is The Goldenberg Variations by Glen Gould, the Canadian piano player.”

The new album is her most positive record yet, but fans or her heartbreaking vignettes need not worry that Stina will ever become too happy-go-lucky. “There’s a happiness and warmth about the album, but it’s still quite melancholic. I’m not going to change that much! There’s always going to be a darkness.”

Fiona Reid ~ Hotpress 2001.

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