Music

Our Hearts Still Beat For You: An Interview with Anna Ternheim

Kirstie Shanley

Last fall, Anna Ternheim sat down with PopMatters to discuss her music, Sweden, and being on the road before her show at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago. Pictures by Kirstie Shanley and Thomas Hauner

Anna Ternheim’s van has broken down. It’s a classic touring blunder that is an inconvenience at best or tragedy at worst. But Anna is committed and undaunted. She takes an emergency flight to Chicago in order not to miss her show at the Bottom Lounge later that evening—which has now officially become a solo one—or our interview.

It turns out to have been a small blessing. Performing solo, Anna is in her purest state without any distractions competing against her. Her sound is bare, just her and her acoustic guitar, thus enabling her soothing voice to take over and lyrics to resonate more deeply—especially since they’re all true she says. “In order to explain exactly how stories come about, I have to start with myself or I can’t write. I can’t fake emotions”. “Though I don’t have to make my personal life a story for everything”, she adds. “Such a Lonely Soul”, performed later that evening, is one such song. “This is a song about having a love affair and cheating on someone” she revealed to the audience. However the song’s innate intimacy was lost on some.

Like Peter Bjorn and John before her (whom she said she enjoyed catching on tour with Depeche Mode), and Frida Hyvönen, Jens Lenkman, Jose Gonzalez, and Loney Dear now (the latter whom she was touring with), Anna sings in English. As part of this burgeoning group of Swedish troubadours Anna is equally adamant about the value of not expressing herself in her native tongue. “Words get stronger in English and I feel in English speaking countries the audiences might be sucking in every word” she explains, not blind to the size of English-speaking markets. While she is certainly not the only successful Swedish import employing this model, people still want to know why? To this she responds that music is not just about literal words but “also the expression and presence of the songs. Things can be said in very few words and you can still capture the essence of what you’re feeling.” And feelings Anna conveys.

As she sang “Let it Rain” that evening, its light thumping cadence aptly captured the burden of time the song’s protagonist faces. Furthermore, sung a cappella the audience froze mesmerized, remaining piously quiet. Performed a cappella the song was completely reinvented without losing its underlying urgency.

Visually striking with white blonde hair and all black garb, Anna’s soft features compliment her gentle voice and demeanor. But her poise by no means diminishes her music’s intensity. Seeing her perform “Black Sunday Afternoon” later at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, this time with a full band, the room shook behind the song’s potency—not to mention its beguiling melody. The song also captures the balance that reigns in Anna’s songs. Acoustic ballads aside, her songs are at once complex and simple, inert and dynamic, defeated yet powerful, lost yet hopeful, frail yet sonorous.

Though she released two albums in 2008--Halfway to Fivepoints and the enchanting Leaving on a Mayday--Anna began her set at the Bottom Lounge with “Better Be”, from her 2004 debut Somebody Outside. Its declarations and convictions were an apt start for the impromptu solo gig.

With a history of reinterpreting popular classics (her renditions of “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Little Lies” are gorgeous) I hoped for a cover. Wish granted: Anna played David Bowie’s “China Girl”, stripping all semblances of its pop affability and transforming it into something sublime. Similarly ethereal and transcendent, Anna ended her set at the Bowery Ballroom with “My Heart Still Beats For You”, an open annunciation of lingering love. The song is a perfect example of what Anna calls “learning the gaps” in her songwriting. Broad strokes capturing the big picture “make it even more real than going on about the details”.

And a van breaking down is a minor detail to Anna. When she tells me that she prefers to “gather impressions during the touring to use [in songwriting] after it’s finished” I wonder what kind of sentiment her van’s reliability will contribute to her next record.

Anna at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City on October 16, 2009

Anna performing at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago on October 10, 2009

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