It’s time to take the headphones off.
For the last five years, Loney, Dear’s Emil Svanägen has been spending much of his free time holed up in friends’ apartments and his parents’ basement, headphones on, all alone, making fragile, melancholy pop songs that explode into synthesized orchestral profusion. Working solo, he has crafted four delicately beautiful, densely instrumented CD-Rs that skitter with the euphoria and tremble with the uncertainty of being alone. But now, as indie giant Sub Pop has purchased all four CDs and released the fourth Loney, Noir, Svanägen’s songs, and Svanägen himself, are shyly entering the wider world.
Svanägen says he has been making music for as long as he can remember, first teaching himself piano, then picking up the clarinet in elementary school. Early on, he could be found in local music stores, trying out various keyboards and synthesizers on display for sale. Then as now, he was fascinated by electronically enhanced pop—the songs of Depeche Mode and A-Ha in particular—and the way that synthesized sounds could amplify and carry human emotions. But it was within the last several years that he began to craft the sweet, sad pop that makes even loneliness seem achingly beautiful.
As a songwriter, he says he needs very little—a quiet place, a computer and a reasonable amount of time. “When everything is working as it should be, that is, when I have somewhere to sit and work and when I have a computer that is working, I write music and arrange music and do everything in the same period of time,” he explains. “I try to write the music at the same moment that I record it and arrange it.”
“It’s a way of working where you don’t really know what’s going to happen or a least you don’t have time to think what’s going to happen,” he adds. “You just sit there working and time flies and something is being created. That’s a very nice way of working with music, to just let the things happen, have an opportunity to just keep up the work.”
Let other songwriters deal with intrigues and cliques and band members who sleep with each others’ girlfriends; Svanägen says he likes working alone. “I can sometimes miss the social part about it,” he admits when asked about his solitary creative process. “I don’t miss it in an artistic way ... But it would be great to have someone to have coffee with when I have a break.”
So, though he lives in the rather large city of Stockholm and has, on occasion, collaborated with bands like I’m From Barcelona, Svanägen has little to say about his own local scene. When he goes out, he mostly goes to jazz performances—several members of his touring band got started in jazz—and mostly he seems to long for a clean, quiet peaceful place to work.
That’s all changing, though, as Svanägen is increasingly called on to translate his home-recorded melodies into full-blown live performance material. Since last year’s SXSW, Loney, Dear has evolved from a digital pipedream into a real functioning band. Svanägen says his main challenge, after finding talented, compatible musicians, has been to learn to let go. “In the beginning, I gave them the songs and instructed them how to play, and it didn’t really work out,” he says. “Instead, I started recording the music and then they could listen to the songs and I didn’t say anything about how they should play it. Of course, I have opinions, as a bandleader, of how they’re playing, but that was better.”
The process of sharing his songs, first with the band and later with audiences, was an eye-opener for Svanägen. “When you get on stage, in a small venue, you really realize how music should be played,” he says. “That you don’t want to sit with a computer ... some things just matter when you’re on stage and that forms you in how you want to play music live.”
One lesson Svanägen learned from performing was that sadness had to be balanced with joy, a difficult mix that flourishes in songs like “The City, the Airport”. “In the beginning I only made melancholy songs,” he explains, “and it didn’t feel so good to be on stage playing that music, because people want to dance. That made me interested in some more rhythmical influences in the music.”
But though Svanägen has worked on making his music more celebratory, he is not in any hurry to dumb it down. “I definitely think that music should be complex,” he says. “But I want to make complex music for everyone. I really don’t like music that’s made for being simple. I don’t like it at all. But for me I want to make complex music that everyone can like. So it’s a combination of pop and art.”
Loney, Noir, Svanägen ‘s fourth album, came out of a stressful period. The songwriter had been working hard on his music, making three home released albums in rapid succession. But as he started writing songs for the fourth, he felt real life pressing in on him. “I felt that I just had a couple of months and then I would have to get job to get some money,” he remembers.
To make things worse, Svanägen had no consistent place to live. “I moved around between four different places, but all the focus was on the record,” he says. “That made me create some kind of focus on the record being my home instead of having somewhere to live, maybe. I don’t know if that sounds crazy. But yeah, I think ... I don’t know how I managed to pull it together, but it turned out to be quite an interesting album. And I think a quite happy one as well.”
Svanägen says that he often becomes fascinated with specific sorts of sounds as he makes a record, using them over and over again until they lose their charm. “Loney Noir was kind of an odd album in that way, because I used more horn instruments, saxophones, and a proper snare drum with brushes on it, and I hadn’t used that before,” he says. “On the other albums, I’ve been using an organ very much, that I enjoy. It’s almost like a pipe organ ... but in my computer ... a synthesis of an organ. But I really enjoy the kind of organ that you hear in hymns, the kind you would have in a small church. That’s one of my favorite sounds.”
Indeed all the sounds on Loney, Dear’s albums, except for the vocals, come from Svanägen’s desktop. And while he says that he can always tell the difference between organic and synthesized sounds, in the end it makes no difference. “If it’s sounding beautiful, it’s no big deal,” he says.
Loney, Dear is touring the US this winter with Of Montreal, in a series of dates that will wind up at SXSW. Asked if playing for months on end with a real band will change what he does at home, with the headphones on, Svanägen pauses for a moment before answering. “I’m working on a fifth album now and at the same time, I’m doing some mixing of some of the old stuff. It feels like it would be interesting to have a different perspective on how to write music and record music. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens after I come back,” he says.