album review and artist reflections
review and interview © Russell W Elliot 2005
photos: Riitta Supperi 2005
images © Delphic Recordings 2005 | used with permission
formatted for 800 x 600 or larger windows
last updated: 24 July 2005
In an overcrowded singer/songwriter landscape, 23-year-old Astrid Swan defies easy categorization. Perhaps the confessional tones of Laura Nyro or the orchestral swwp of Rufus Wainwright might lead you to draw your own conclusions, but you'd never come close to realizing Astrid Swan's unique vision. Already her solo work has been compared to Tori Amos and Kate Bush but her material also offers allusions to Heather Nova. Critical acclaim for her solo album expands outside Finland in this article.
Astrid Swan got a piano at age six and began to improvise songs immediately. By fourteen she turned to guitar and started writing songs displaying a strong personal perspective. Playing solo shows at open mike nights in the USA while an exchange student at age seventeen helped Astrid hone her songwriting and live performances. Over the intervening period, Astrid has recorded several of her own songs with Treeball, returned to play in North America and sung on other people's Recordings. Subsequently she has developed into a considerably talented artist in her own right.
We caught up with Astrid not long after her solo album was released in Finland. Read the results of this extremely insightful interview below. We explore Astrid's musical foundations, her approach to songwriting and feelings about both live performances and being a young and emerging artist in Scandinavia. Our review of Poverina concludes this article.
Musical Discoveries: How about we begin with a little bit about your musical background?
Astrid Swan: I was born and grew up in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. I went to a Waldorf School from grade one until graduation. When I was seventeen I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan and went to high school there. It was also a Steiner School. I was placed in a a family which became very dear to me, they are my American parents and a brother! And they were extremely supportive of my musical ambitions.
My family in Finland was also very supportive. My grandparents got me a piano at the age of six and I started lessons. Later I switched to studying clarinet instead of classical piano. There was always music around, my father is a multi-instrumentalist and we used to record my own little songs ever since I learned to speak/sing. Who knows which came first? Jazz was often played in our home, and although I used to say I hated it, it seems something has rubbed off onto my songs.
What were your musical influences as you grew up?
As I became a teenager, I fell in love with rock music and found role models such as Suzanne Vega. She was a big reason why I picked up the acoustic guitar and started writing pop songs and singing in English. I also decided to learn English by reading dictionaries and learning all the lyrics to whatever music I was listening to. Before the 9th grade started I knew English quite well and was writing and reading everything in English!
At fifteen I also formed my first band named Fluff--a word chosen from a dictionary completely by random--with my then boyfriend, my cousin, my best school friend and my boyfriend's brother. There were three girls and two boys and a lot of talent and ambition.
And how did you get into songwriting?
I gave up studying classical music at nineteen when it was clear that my own compositions and style were much more important to me--and worth developing--than trying to fit into a given, old, patriarchal structure which I felt was more about perfect imitation of emotion, than expressing anew. Not that I hadn't enjoyed playing classical and I do think that those years gave me experience and discipline, and allowed me to realize that I could create music myself. Time was also a consideration: there just isn't enough time to practice many instruments and compose and study other stuff all at the same time and really get something out of everything.
Who did you hook up with to make your debut album and what it as been like working with these people?
I had worked and known some of the people for a couple of years so it was natural that they would make my album with me. The producer Nick Triani is also a part of the label that released my album in Finland, and so he has really been supportive and crucial to Poverina. There were also players that I had played gigs with before, but then there were about ten additional people that I asked because I knew they were outstanding players in their own fields, but had never met before.
For example, Jimi Tenor, who arranged horns and strings on three tracks and plays flute and other things on many other tracks, was asked because I wanted these arrangements to be something different from the usual. I wanted a fairy tale-like soul-music influenced arrangements rather than classical approach. I also worked with Tuomas Tuovinen from Giant Robot, on the more electronic tracks, because he is an expert on analogue old machines!
Then I was lucky to play with some of the finest jazz players in Finland like Tapani Varis (double bass) and Jukka Eskola (trumpet) and Mongo Aaltonen (percussion) to mention a few. We had a tight schedule when we recorded so everything had to be well planned and timed before hand, but playing was wonderfully smooth with these people. They certainly are the reason why my rather detailed production ideas worked in the final mixes.
Is there meant to be a theme running through the album?
This album is not a concept album as such. The oldest songs that made it to the album were written in the year 2001 and the newest were written just before we went to record. Some lyrics were written during the recording. But despite this, it is quite easy to find lose lyrical themes; chilhood and waving goodbye to it, or seeing the past from an adults perspective now. The usual ABC of relationships can be found as well, although I attempt to always combine such simple themes with more layers than "I love you babe/sorry it didn't work out." Lyrics are important to me, I view writing them to be a similar process to writing poetry, but Poverina is not my political manifesto. Ultimately the listener/reader will construct the meaning of any writing.
So is this album your very first recording?
I have recorded in professional studios for many years now. I did backing vocals as a session musician and I'm in a band called Treeball and we have released two albums. Right now we're in the middle of recording our third record, which will be available in October. So going into the studio to record my solo album was not my first time recording albums, but it was very different because I was producing with Nick, I was playing half of the instruments and singing and I had also written the stuff. The pressure to stay on schedule and to record true emotion, and good playing was combined with excitement and disbelief that I was really the one doing it!
What musical artists, especially female singers, do you think have influenced your work?
I already mentioned Suzanne Vega. After being introduced to her music, I went looking for female singer/songwriters because they were most exciting to me. Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Dusty, Aretha Franklin and Kate Bush have been very influential. As a teenager I was more into the American male-oriented rock-tradition and went through a serious Sheryl Crow - phase for example. Of course we live in a world were women's music is still marginal and most of the music I encountered--and continue to hear--was/is played and written by men. I admire Elliott Smith's craft, David Bowie's theatrical songwriting and Beck's postmodernist cynicism.
And are there any female singers that you particularly admire?
I could mention so many, but I'll choose to mention Laura Nyro because she has remained fairly unknown despite the fact that she wrote many songs that became hits with other artists and especially despite the fact that she was an amazing artist. Laura Nyro uses the language of music with instict and daring emotion. Her uncompromising style is propably why she never became a huge star like Joni Mitchell, Nyro refused to fit into the narrow shelf that was allowed to females in the music industry.
I only found Kate Bush's music a couple of years ago and I fell in love. I also heard Tori Amos for the first time not that long ago. I like her earlier albums and I love a woman who speaks her mind and divides people into lovers and haters. I am not familiar at all with the other artists that you mentioned.
Please tell us about the making of your album.
I had worked with a manager and my producer for some years before the actual making of Poverina begun, so in a way it was a long process leading up to the recording. Once we had reached that stage though, everything had to be done fast. We had two weeks to record everything that you hear on the record and then two weeks to mix.
In November 2004 the first week of recording was spent at Soundtracks studio in Helsinki. This studio was chosen for the recording of grandpianos, orchestra, drums and bass and basically all instruments on the album. As I mentioned earlier, there was no time to waste, so we had prepared by scheduling every day. There were about twenty different musicians playing with me that week.
Almost all of the vocals were left to the second week of recording. This took place at Petrax, a wonderful studio located in the mid-region of Finland. That week was spent with me constantly in the singing booth, or me recording keyboard overdubs and many other additional things. Jimi Tenor came by and recorded some flute and Hammond organ one day, otherwise it was just me.
It was January, heaps of snow outside and usually always very very cold. The atmosphere was perfect for concentrating intensely on singing and being very quiet. There were no temptations to sidetrack me from what I was there for.
Mixing also took place at Petrax. Jyrki Tuovinen did most of it on his own as me and Nick Triani played pig-pong, watched movies and ate in the middle of nowhere. All in all the making of the album took about 10 months because we had a couple of days recording in May 2004, and the album was finished in February 2005.
What has the reaction to the new album been like?
I did not know what to expect in Finland because there haven't been many artists like me releasing Recordings here, especially not women. So I was surprised how serious the interest from the press was even before the album was out. I have also found out that there are many people in this country who follow the kind of music I make, and they've embraced my music.
Who do the critics compare your music to?
The press have compared me to Tori Amos a lot, and to Kate Bush. Both comparisons are easy to make; we're all women who play piano and write their own music. Because this type of music has not been well presented in this country before, there are no domestic artists to compare to. I don't mind being compared to these artists anyway, it is definately the right map for me to be placed on.
Have you been affected by the publicity of your debut album?
Of course it has meant many interviews and photographs, and the thought in my consciousness that someone might recognize me when I'm taking a walk through the town on a Sunday. But really it hasn't affected anything on a practical level. Except now there are more people at my gigs!
Every interview has been strictly about my music and this album, I'm not looking for publicity to get attention, but I'm glad to speak of music and what might relate to it--life and this planet in general, I guess. The fact that I'm a woman has been an important issue for the press and publicity here, and has propably been part of the reason why my album has gotten so much attention--this is both good and bad, as you know.
Please tell us about your live performances.
Since the album came out in Finland in May, I've played many solo shows totally own my own. This fall there will be more shows with a band. If you only play in Finland, there will never be many performance opportunities due to the smallness of the country, so I'm certainly looking to play all around the world.
I'm constantly learning to enjoy playing on stage more and more. It is definitely the straightest way to connect with your audience and it is always new and different. It has also been exciting to play alone, because I've learned to carry the performance myself and not think that other players will take some of the pressure off me. I'm only starting to get a following, so it's hard to say how the audiences react.
Last time I played a club-show, the audience was 80% young women. They were very attentive, intensely quiet but they smiled! Next Wednesday I'll be supporting Jamie Cullum and playing to his sold-out audience. It will propably be a different kind of intensity!
How would you contrast the performances to the album?
My intention when I play live is not to repeat the recorded versions of the songs. It would become boring quickly and it would not even be possible with some of the orchestrations and things on the album. At the moment my band consists of piano, drums, bass and one guitar, plus some additional instruments played by the four of us. I like to keep it simple and concentrate on the delivery and the feeling. In the future I hope to experiment with different players, and when there's a chance I'd like to play with an orchestra.
Please tell us about the influences in your songwriting and vocal style.
My songwriting is influenced by the many artists that I've listened to and many different styles of music from classical to jazz and folk and rock. Influences are becoming less obvious to myself the longer I write; I tend to just play everyday and things outside of music may be the more important influences to new songs nowadays. I have taken singing lessons for a year in my teens, so concider my vocal style pretty organic and uneducated.
I've been blessed with the will to express myself through singing from a very young age. This means that I've always sung a lot and my singing has evolved naturally. Also the many years spent on playing a woodwind instrument have tought me how to breathe. When I was younger I used to study the singing on my favorite Recordings, such as Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects Of Desire, and to learn through imitation. Ultimately things like vocal style or the way I write songs, are unconscious processes which I don't spend that much time analyzing. Maybe I should?
From what do you draw inspiration for the music and the lyrics?
I think that there is a basic drive in me that tells me to always sit down and try and write a great song. It is an adventure which I have to go through if I want to know what the outcome is. And there seems to be a foolish belief in my head that I can always excell my previous work. Lyrically I'm inspired by observations that I make about human life and death on this planet. They can be both small and personal, or grand and general things that I notice. I believe that music can express the emotional and instinctual that is suppressed in the mainstream culture that we encounter today, and that is why I don't want to write lyrics just to go with the music for linguistic reasons.
What is it like being a young musical artist in Finland?
As I mentioned in an earlier answer, there haven't been many, if any, people that make the kind of music that I make in Finland. At least not anyone who sings in English and is a woman. I have been a kind of freak entering this buisness here, because I refused to sing in Finnish, I refused to perform other people's songs and I had a vision of what I wanted to do.
I know that no matter what country one is in, the road to releasing uncompromised music is not an easy one to choose. In some ways the fact that Finland is small has allowed me to find the right people to work with--many of them not from Finland originally. There are millions of bands here nowadays and women are embracing the 'rock world' in increasing numbers.
It is hard to make a living in Finland from music, especially if it is not heavy metal or sung in the Finnish language. Chicago has more people in one city than Finland in the whole vast area, so the potential audience is certainly limited. My dream is to travel the world playing music, Finland is just a natural place to start.
What about Scandinavia has caused the incredible growth in the number of talented musicians?
I had to answer this question last week on a TV program and I didn't know what to say. We would propably have to look at the resent history of the Western society and Scandinavia's place in it as a close outsider. What happened in the Anglo-American culture with rock'n'roll and popular culture from the 1950s onwards, has happened somewhat slower in Scandinavia.
Now the Scandinavian countries have consumed the Anglo-American popular culture long enough to take part in its creation. Classical music has done well in Scandinavia for centuries and there have been many talents in that area, so it is only natural that the young talented musicians growing up now, choose to contribute to the pop-tradition.
Do you have interests outside of music?
I love reading and in fact study English at the University of Helsinki. I am obsessed about shoes and stylish dressing, luckily I'm not rich enough to drown myself in shoes and clothes ... yet.
How do you think the internet has influenced your musical career?
I'm not an expert on computer technology, but I do use the internet everyday and realize its possibilities today. The internet has made it possible for my music to be found by people anywhere on this planet, even though there have not been proper releases anywhere apart from Finland. Web sites and logs are a great way of spreading the word and everyone has a place to express their views quite democratically.
As a musician who wishes to be able to concentrate on making music and a living out of it, the idea of illegal downloading is confusing, because it is both a great marketing tool and a way of bypassing musicians rights organizations and never getting anything for the work you've done. I think that the internet will prove to bring major changes into music as a business.
What are your musical hopes, plans and dreams?
I wish to play music live and record albums for a long time to come. I wish to reach audiences all around the world. My plan is to keep at it as long as it takes to fulfill my wishes or as long as I am given time.
Are there any parting thoughts you have for our visitors?
I want to congratulate all the visitors of this page for choosing to take part in the creation of an alternate reality where music made by women matters and is appreciated.
Astrid Swan's debut solo album is entitled Poverina (Delphic Recordings (Finland), 2005). Released in mid May 2005, the album is comprised of thirteen tracks all individually penned by Astrid Swan herself. As well as showcasing Astrid's versatile and tender singing voice, the album includes extensive instrumental contributions on grand piano, synthesizers, rhodes, hammond organ, clarinet and electric guitar.
The lineup is rounded out with some of the finest musicians around including, mucial innovator Jimi Tenor (flute, sax, organ, string and bass arrangements), jazz player Tapani Varis (double bass), Janne Lehtinen (bass) and Heikki Tikka (drums) from Mummypowder, sonic experimentalists Giant Robot's Tuomas Toivonen (electronica), Mongo Aaltonen (vibes, glockenspiel, timpani, persussion) and Mikael H (guitars), Hannu Risku (drums) and Michael Mcdonald (lap steel).
The album was a collaborative production between Nick Triani (Sister Flow, Giant Robot) and Astrid. Recorded by Jyrki Tuovinen (Leikki, The Crash) and Triani over a two week period at Soundtrack Studios and Petrax Studios, the album was mixed at Petrax by Tuovinen and Triani.
Poverina opens with "The Need You If They Think You Will Love Them." Sparsely backed primarily by piano, Astrid's evocative voice leads and provides backing harmonies. The quirky nature of the tune and vocal delivery does draw a loose comparison to Tori Amos. One will make similar references in "Good Girl" and "Ten Degrees/To The North" however more robust guitar arrangements break through on Astrid's material.
The title track that follows echoes piano melodies from past Laura Nyro classics. An upbeat ballad, lush vocal harmonies work against the rich arrangements. "Rock'n'Roll Blonde" begins to reveal Astrid's vocal energy with alternative style piano arrangements carrying the tune but with additional percussion, string and bold brass completing the arrangements' texture. Astrid breaks well loose of Tori's sound here with cabaret-style vocals a la Emily Autumn.
Clearly an album standout is the brief, upbeat and somewhat quirky tune "Life In a Container." The robust and fast-paced arrangement is comparable to the tunes of Rachael Sage. Jazz and blues influences emerge in the sax arrangement of "Old-Fashioned Couple." Astrid's vocal style continues to develop and with excursions reminiscent at times of Kate Bush and others of Heather Nova. The allusion to Heather Nova is perhaps most evident in "War," a heart-wrenching ballad sung atop dissonant arrangements.
The album takes on a distinctly brooding nature in the final tracks, beginning with "Dad Said." Astrid's vocals search her range atop further self-backed harmonies and sparse yet rich arrangements. The piano melody is clearly evident but further instrumentation seems to wander in support. The soft rock track "The Kinda Tea You Like To Cry In" begins with rhythmic guitar and keyboard backing Astrid's bright vocal delivery. A distinctly memorable melody develops underneath Astrid's vocal excursions.
Crisp piano and warm keyboard washes underscore Astrid's broody yet powerful lead vocal in "Second Chance." Lovely harmony vocals add further texture. Listen for the dramatic acoustic guitar solo during the midsection. Piano and electronica provide support for the everso gentle ballad "Daddies." Astrid's whispery vocals provide perfect delivery of the heartfelt lyrics. The album concludes with "The Day I Got My Pony." A final broody yet evocative tune, the track builds upon the last two with Astrid's serious and powerful vocals sung atop a gentle piano.
Astrid Swan's debut album Poverina caught the attention from our editorial staff immediately and it is an extremely valiant debut effort. While the range of material is outstanding and the allusions to other well known artists is certain to draw further critical acclaim, we thought the collection may have worked better if the broodier tracks were spread further across the album. Some of our listeners thought the album fell off after the tenth track. Poverina would likely be appreciated more in its entirety if one of the memorable melodies concluded the album. The album is only available from European sources at this time. Visit Astrid's website for sources. Astrid Swan is a stunningly beautiful artist with a very bright future and certainly a woman we are keen to hear more from very soon!
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