Sure, the Mary Onettes fit nicely into the tradition of sleek, well-crafted Swedish indie-pop, but it’s never a case of style over substance with the veteran band, which manages to strike the right balance between earnest feeling and a polished sound. Hailing the Mary Onettes’ 2009 effort Islands as one of the best indie-pop albums of that year, PopMatters Associate Music Editor Dave Heaton wrote, “I am getting older by the second, and this is the perfect soundtrack for every new wrinkle and gray hair.” That same emotional depth and complexity are on full display with the Mary Onettes’ new album Hit the Waves, which will be released on 12 March 2013 via Labrador. PopMatters caught up with thoughtful frontman Philip Ekström to discuss Hit the Waves, writing songs in two languages, and how to deal with losing the hard disk—and the back-up—that stored all your songs.
Photo by Tom Tom
PopMatters: The press release for Hit the Waves mentions that this is the first album the band has made with an outside producer and that the experience was “everything but smooth.” Can you tell us more about the process behind creating Hit the Waves?
Philip Ekström : We are control freaks and have always been very careful with who we are working with. With Dan Lissvik as an outside producer, we knew that the result would be different and even surprising for us! And that’s what we wanted. We wanted to stir the pot! We knew that he does things different from others, so that’s why we asked him. He doesn’t care about our past and what we come from, and we thought that could be very challenging and good for us.
And of course, the process was hard sometimes. I didn’t know how it was to work intensely with someone else like that. I realized that I can be hard working with and that I have very specific ideas, and I also realized how valuable the work we’ve done with the Mary Onettes is so far.
PopMatters: The first thing you notice about Hit the Waves is how polished it sounds. Yet as sleek and put-together as Hit the Waves is, there’s a sense of earnestness that comes through. What kind of tone and sentiment are you looking find in your music?
Philip Ekström : Well, that’s pretty interesting, because some people say that this album is a more uplifting or even a polished happy story. But to me it’s one of my darkest musical moments. Mostly lyrically then.
I was not in a very positive state of mind when I wrote it. I guess I never am when I write music…It’s some kind of melancholy in life that gives me the strength to write. I’ve felt it since I was a child.
I want to have a certain personal gravity in the songs, a feeling that the melodies and instrumentation are bound to each other. Addicted to each other. To me, darkness and melancholy is always a part of that gravity.
Also probably it’s the way we play the instruments that makes people think it is a brighter or a more positive album. Maybe the chords or even the melodies sometimes. We wanted the instruments to be a bit slick, but in a right way, if you know what I mean. But also, add a skewed or even awkward feeling to it sometimes. On the whole I think we managed to make a pretty balanced album with the typical Mary Onettes tone, but just in a different costume.
PopMatters: There are hints of darker moods in many of your songs, evident in titles like “Evil Coast” and “Black Sunset”, among others. Those undertones seem to add more emotional depth and complexity to your music.
Philip Ekström : Yes, as I wrote in the previous question. The darker mood is a part of me that never disappears obviously. Sometimes, when I hear chords, that for many people is kind of “feel good” chords, I perceive a huge sadness. For example, Sade, [whom] I’ve listened to since I was a kid. Many people think she make slick, easy listening music. I hear a great sadness in her music. That feeling is always there. I think it’s the same with the Mary Onettes. No matter how the sound appears, we will always have the same depth to it! The same feeling that goes along with the music. At least that’s what I hear.
PopMatters: Apparently, the Mary Onettes have a Swedish-language alter-ego called Det Vackra Livet. How different is to write and perform in English from working in Swedish? Are there things your music can convey in Swedish that it can’t in English, and vice versa?
Philip Ekström : Lyrically, it’s a lot different. The Swedish project was more like a separate outburst of feelings. It was really personal. And that is probably what makes different from English. Every word feels heavy in a way, or must feel heavy. It’s like you cannot hide behind another language.
When I write in English, it’s always real. I mean what I say. But you can escape into another world somehow, a world where metaphors sound much better. In Swedish, it’s more like I use the writing as a poetic diary. So yes, in a way, it’s two different way of writing. And it’s very inspiring to have both.
PopMatters: You’ve told about the terrible—and uniquely modern—story of how a hard drive with all your recordings was stolen from your car in 2009. How has that experience affected the way you go about making music?
Philip Ekström : I really don’t like the way I have to manage files nowadays. It makes me stressed when I realize that all my songs are just a bunch of invisible audio files on my computer or hard drive. I’ve learned that I have to make back-ups. So I make several back-ups now. But still it feels unsafe…I wish that I had everything in my head. That every little word or instrumentation was there in my head. But that’s just not the way I work. I really have problems with remembering what I do. There are so many songs that [are] laying around in different hard drives that I have simply just forgotten that I’ve written. And every time I want to go through all those songs, I get anxiety when I realize that I have to dig into all the audio files.
Sometimes, I feel like going back to tape. Just have everything on tape. I used to have a portable tape recorder and it feels more safe somehow.
PopMatters: What else do you have planned for 2013, now that you’ve released Hit the Waves?
Philip Ekström : Well, the plan is to release more stuff. This album was almost a little bit like an obstacle on the way. A bit tricky, but still very inspiring. I’ve learned a lot on the way making Hit The Waves, so now I feel eager to make more stuff. Produce more and play more live. I’m working on new material right now.