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The L-Words: An Interview with the Cardigans

It was two years of hard work (both on and away from the music), but the Cardigans still made an album to last.

The Cardigans

Super Extra Gravity

Label: Nettwerk
US Release Date: 2006-09-19
UK Release Date: 2005-10-17

I've counted every entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, and I can tell you quite categorically that if you were to look precisely halfway between "languid" and "luxuriant", you'd find the word "lovely". "Lovelorn", of course, would be nearby.

The sound of the Cardigans has always been best described with L-words.

The rich and effortless beauty of Nina Persson's voice, complimented perfectly by the pop tones of her bandmates, has been one of the most recognisable sounds in pop music for fully a dozen years. And one of the most appealing. Yet Super Extra Gravity, the Cardigan's very worthy follow-up to the outstanding Long Gone Before Daylight, has languished in limbo, unable to find an American label, for almost a year after its European release. Guitarist and lead Cardigan Peter Svensson candidly explained the problem as we talked on a transatlantic telephone line.

"Frankly, quite frankly, this all goes back a few years to when we agreed our current deal with Universal.

"I don't know if you remember when Universal merged with Polygram, which was our record company at the time? But it all took place during the release of our fourth album Gran Turismo. And we had such a bad experience, especially in the United States, with this merger that it became really important for us that we find people who really wanted to work with us, and that we could trust, in the United States.

"So, while we were signed to Universal itself in Europe, we were able to strike a deal with the company that gave us the ability to pick our own label for each album in the United States. All within the Universal empire, of course.

"But then what happened was ... we made records that ... or the industry changed ... and then we weren't selling as many records as both we and Universal had probably expected. So our deal turned against us until it actually became them, the labels, who could say, 'Well, we don't want to release you.'

"So that's what has been delaying everything, Trying to find a label within Universal where both the label believed in the band, and the band wanted to work with the label."

The Cardigan's new label in the USA is Nettwerk America. Long Gone Before Daylight was released by Koch Records. As far as I can tell, both Nettwerk and Koch are entirely independent of the immense Vivendi Universal conglomerate. So we can perhaps draw our own conclusions about the Cardigan's Great Label Hunt and the aesthetics of Universal's corporate decision-making.

Here at PopTowers, however, we have quite the finest taste, and we're all very much enamoured of Super Extra Gravity. But it must be very odd for Peter to be promoting and discussing a record that, from his perspective, came out a year ago.

"Of course, it's a little bit strange. But if we had talked about the album a year ago, my answers would have been different to any questions regarding the album. Because, I guess, time changes your views. So it's OK for me, it's still an interesting experience.

"For example, I've changed my opinions on some of the songs. There's a couple of songs I like more today than when we actually recorded them, or at least at the time of the release. And maybe the other way around, there's songs I liked a lot when we were recording them, but now, when time has passed, I feel like maybe they shouldn't have been on the album at all.

"But I guess that's all perfectly natural when we've done something like 70 shows since the release. And, of course, that has an effect on your feelings as well, the touring."

I guess it's the same sort of effect that a fan would undergo?

"Yes, that's probably what I'm experiencing. When you buy an album you find certain songs immediately catchy, the singles, or whatever. But after a while that changes and you end up with other songs as favourites. Ones that weren't so obvious at first. And I guess that's the same for us in the band. Or for any musician.

The Cardigans -- Don't Blame Your Daughter

"My favourite song is actually "Don't Blame Your Daughter", but I think that's been my favourite throughout the whole process. There's one song on the album, though, that I don't like too much now. And if we had the chance to do it again, I'd probably rewrite it, or re-record it, or maybe try to avoid having it on the album at all. That's the song called "Holy Love". But I have to tell you that this is probably Nina's favourite song so I really shouldn't say bad things about it. It's just that after we've been playing it live every night while touring, it just hasn't lasted for me."

Super Extra Gravity is filled with great songs. From Persson's positively Jagger-esque performance on the rocktastic single "I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to Be Nicer" to the raw emotional confessions of "And Then You Kissed Me II", and then some; but "Don't Blame Your Daughter (Diamonds)" and "Holy Love" are clearly its two finest moments.

The former starts with a picked guitar line, adds a simple brushed beat and Nina's angry-sad vocals, and then builds up into a lush hook-laden arrangement as the story progresses through verse after verse of traditionally idiosyncratic lyrics.

Don't blame your mom,

For all that you've done wrong.

Your dad is not guilty.

You came out a little faulty

And the factory closed

So you can't hold them liable

A lachrymose musical letter, it would seem, to an ex of some description or other, "Don't Blame Your Daughter (Diamonds)" is lyrically almost the diametric opposite of "Holy Love".

You can really make anyone you want of me.

Anyone you need tonight, I'll be.

Whether you want empathy, animosity,

An enemy or company, call me.

I can even be nothing if you ask.

I'll turn invisible for you.

I'm the bird on your shoulder

Singing psalms through the night

Of holy love.

An apparently absolute statement of unconditional love enunciated with typical precision above guitars, a harpsichord(ish), and all the usual rock trappings, "Holy Love" is musically down, so lavishly so that you're tempted to start looking for some of that famous Scandanavian irony in the lyrics. Regardless, with a shared sense of constancy, these are the two songs that most effectively link Super Extra Gravity back to its predecessor, Long Gone Before Daylight. As a big fan of both records, I'm not quite sure which is better, but they're certainly both very strong records. Arguably, they constitute the best rock/pop output from any band this millennium.

Listening to the Cardigans' six albums to date, the word that leaps immediately to mind is evolution. The five Swedes have progressed from twee lounge pop with lashings of irony (Emmerdale, Life) through an increasingly dark and complex middle period (First Band on the Moon, Gran Turismo) and out into an era of perfectly conceived grown-up pop music. It's been a curious, and curiously satisfying journey.

"This is one of the things I value most about being in this band," says Peter. "That we allow ourselves to change direction, and that we're not afraid of stepping away from formulas or sounds just because they were successful. Maybe that was stupid, I don't know. But I'm really proud that once we had success with something, even if it was really popular, that if we didn't feel like doing it that way again, then we were never going to do it. I really enjoy that.

"It's hard, though, to comment on the whole process. And I can't really say I hear a straight line running through all the records taking us towards a certain place. I think it's a bit more complicated than that."

Perhaps there was an element of having to grow up in public? After all, Peter and Nina were both only 18 when they formed the Cardigans, and just 20 when they released Emmerdale.

"I think ... yes ... we've always been ...we weren't aware or prepared for what was going to happen ... and yet suddenly people start to judge your band or your work, and what you've said and what you didn't say. And we weren't prepared for that. At all. So I think that whenever we got a label, we wanted to get rid of it. And I think perhaps that's why we always make sure we don't end up with a new album that sounds exactly like the previous one."

While Super Extra Gravity certainly doesn't sound exactly like Long Gone Before Daylight, there is more consistency between this pair than previously. One possibility, of course, is that the band has finally reached a natural equilibrium. One that may have come from a change in the group dynamic.

"Lately I think, on the two last albums, the band has been working more and more together on the actual arrangements. I think we've spent more time in the rehearsal room before recording a song that we actually ever used to.

"To explain, a record like Gran Tourismo was very much just me coming into the studio with the songs pretty much completed, and we would just experiment with those songs in the studio, with no rehearsals at all. But now, we've become maybe more traditional in the sense that we prepare ourselves like a proper band before recording.

"Historically, you see, I wrote all the music pretty much on my own, including all the vocal melodies, chorus, and the core of the whole thing. Sometimes a song would come with a full arrangement and full production ideas, and sometimes it was just an acoustic guitar and me humming a melody line or a vocal line. But now there's much more opportunity for the members of the band to really have an input."

And Nina writes the lyrics, yes?

"Yes. Lyrically, I bring a few words or sentences here or there, like a chorus line, or the first line of each verse ... or something like that ... or maybe just a title, and then Nina would take it from there to write the lyrics ... while holding on to what I gave her ... if she liked it and if it made sense to her, I guess."

Although Super Extra Gravity has finally been released in North America, the Cardigans are unlikely to be touring to promote it. While Nina Persson has been quoted as saying that the band themselves cancelled the tour for family reasons, there was also a good deal of talk about the band's dissatisfaction with the budget for the tour. Peter is deliberately non-specific on the subject.

"Yes, the tour was ... um ... postponed. And I actually don't know of any new dates. But Nina's already in New York, I believe. She's married to an American (composer and musician Nathan Larson), and they were planning on spending some time there. So I'm going over to see her there, and there's talk of us doing some promotion and playing together acoustically, maybe at the CMJ in October or whenever that is."

The Cardigans came close to breaking up after Gran Turismo, taking several years off and pursuing a number of solo projects. Since they began recording together again, they've made their two finest records to date. Now, despite Nina's marriage and all the distractions it must offer, and despite her interest in acting, it seems that the Cardigans will be making at least one more album together. Eventually.

"Yes, we've talked about it. But we've just got back from playing in Brazil ... and it's been almost exactly two years of work on this album ... and we didn't really have much of a break after Long Gone, which was three years of work because we had a really long recording process. But we're planning to get together before Christmas to talk about it, to try some new songs, and to try to make a plan.

"I think we'll probably start recording sometime after New Year. But we're going to take it quite easily, take our time and make sure we don't rush. Because whenever you start the ball rolling in this game, it automatically means another two years out of your life. So we want to make sure we're really prepared before we tell the record company we're ready to go to work again."


This feature was brought to you by the letter L and the numbers 5 and 6.

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