stina nordenstam

Showing 24 posts tagged stina nordenstam

Introduction

Hello, Internet — including, but not limited to:

  • devotees!
  • newbies!
  • people who clicked a link in a Pitchfork column by Tom Ewing!

I’ll keep this short and sweet because I’m sure some of you really, really hate autobiographical natter, and I’m not so keen on it myself. 

My name is Katherine; I write about music. You can find me at PopdustThe Singles Jukebox and Wears The Trousers, as well as wherever else the fickle winds of writing (seriously, they can be quite fickle) might take me.

Like all self-respecting Internet musicky types (what, you didn’t know that’s our title?), I have a Tumblr and a Twitter. Actually, I have two of those; the former’s for work, and the latter’s personal.

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But enough about me. We both know why you’re here — for Stina Nordenstam, a Swedish singer-songwriter best known for “Little Star” off the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack.

Stop. You’re forming a schema as you read these words. You know what she’s like now, don’t you? Sincere, but not complicatedly so. A pleasant spirit with pleasant songs. There are entire genres formed around this. Of course, less charitable readers would substitute “twee,” or “wish-fulfilling,” or “manic pixie dream girl,” or possibly “the ‘a Japanese woman fries an egg and asks you about your day’ effect (that is, if the less charitable reader happens to be Cecily Nowell-Smith or someone with remarkable similar schemas.)

You’ve probably discerned by now that I’m going to tell you none of this is true. I mention this because it’s the first impression you might have of Stina Nordenstam, as well as of Swedish artists in general and Swedish female artists in particular. The stereotype is acknowledged; now forget it forever.

Granted, this is less damning than the first impression most people actually have once they hear Stina Nordenstam’s music, which is to hear her sing one syllable, promptly WTF and press skip, never to return. You’d be forgiven. At times, Nordenstam’s voice seems deliberately calibrated to shut listeners out; at others, she’s so diffident you get the sense calibration was the last thing on her mind. She’s mixed right up front so you can hear every pause and crack, but were the microphone only a couple inches away, you’d likely sense nothing. Or as David Raposa put it:

She doesn’t hold notes, there’s no melisma or scale exercises, no multi-octave pyrotechnics. She sings the way a 10-year-old girl would sing— if the 10-year-old had a sore throat and was afraid to annoy her parents.

First impressions are first impressions, though — that is to say, often uncharitable and rarely valid. Keep listening. Listen to multiple songs. Persevere. Eventually, you’ll begin to discern her influences, as well as her particular vocal flourishes — yes, she has flourishes — and the melodies she returns to, and the inflections that convey joy and sadness and emotions more complicated than a single word could hold. There’s devastation in her voice, and resignation — and when you expect it least, hope.

Part of One Week / One Band’s goal is to highlight underappreciated artists, and few artists are more deserving of the title than Nordenstam. She’s distinctive from the beginning of her career and masterful by the end (her last album, The World is Saved, was released in 2004, and despite scattered “coming soon” announcements, no follow-up seems to be forthcoming.) Her arrangements grow far more lush and daring with each album, her songwriting more precise, her scenarios more mature and emotionally devastating. And she’s had a quiet influence on a surprising number of peers — a few you might not expect — not to mention a singularly devoted fanbase and, eventually, myself.

But we’ll get to that later. First, a little prehistory.

Two things:

- This video caused quite the stir among fans when it surfaced. By “quite the stir,” I really mean “apeshit.”

Why? Stina Nordenstam does not perform live. Part of the mystery, or the introversion, or maybe simply being uncomfortable. In fact, she’s famous — for some value of fame — for not performing live. Oh, maybe she did back in the day, but the Internet is stingy with such videos. This may well be the only one extant.

- You’ll recognize the song, of course; it’s “One for My Baby,” a standard covered by just about everyone. It’s a fairly traditional performance, all things considered. You’ll see echoes of Nordenstam’s jazz background throughout her work, on some albums more than others; here’s where it all started.

Memories of a Colour — 1991

I’ll be frank: this is my least favorite Stina album, and most fans’ as well. Few reviews exist; the one you’ll probably find first is an All Music Guide blurblet of one sentence. If I gloss over the album, it’s only because I know what comes later.

Simply put, Nordenstam hasn’t yet found her sound. Well, not entirely. Stina Nordenstam does sound like herself on Memories of a Colour, but only if you know what to listen for. If you don’t — and nobody did at the time — then she sounds exactly like Rickie Lee Jones.

Reviewers, in trying to pin down Nordenstam’s voice, almost inevitably compare her to Jones (along with Bjork and Kate Bush, because she’s a female singer-songwriter and that’s evidently house style.) It’s not quite right, but this is as close as you’ll get. Take this, the title track; the “me and my boat…” verse is uncanny, and it’s far from the only such moment. Such mannerisms recede more and more the further into Nordenstam’s career you get, taking these keyboards with them, and the jazz saxophones… you get the idea. 

It’s not a bad album, mind you. ”He Watches Her From Behind” sighs along pleasantly, sketching the relational complexity that’ll be filled in later. “Soon after Christmas” is a lovely solo piano number. The problem is the adjectives. Pleasant, lovely — that’s nice and all, but it’s not what you listen to Stina Nordenstam for. 

You can hear hints of greater things, though, in the sparse “Alone at Night,” built from massed strings and distant backing vocals, both of which have nearly disintegrated upon arrival. It’s a sign of things to come both in the short term (And She Closed Her Eyes) and long (The World is Saved; pay attention to that first line.)

Finally, a bit of trivia: Crystal Castles listeners will recognize “A Walk in the Park,” which the group sampled for “Violent Dreams.” This won’t be the last place Stina turns up.

 

We’ll get to And She Closed Her Eyes, the follow-up album, in depth tomorrow; for now, I’ll leave you to welcome the night — or the morning, I suppose, at this point — with a nocturnal song. That isn’t “Little Star,” damn it.

“Murder in Mairyland Park,” upon first listen, doesn’t seem too far removed from, say, “Soon After Christmas,” but it’s an entirely different song. Just compare titles — unless you’re reading your local newspaper’s page 4C, there’s no fucking murder, and definitely not so outright. And where the compositions on Memories of a Colour seemed to be trying, at least on some level, to be pretty or pleasant, with “Murder in Mairyland Park” prettiness is only incidental. It has a certain crystalline beauty, but the kind that only an uninvolved observer would note.

The previous paragraph was a tad unfair. “Murder,” as stated in the title, might be misleading. Or perhaps not! The lyrics are oblique; it’s clear there’s a death of some sort, but it’s just as likely to be a random car wreck (“if she’d looked, she would have seen it”) as something deliberate. Manslaughter, perhaps. Something accidental. Briefs, not headlines, and streets that don’t remember the next day. 

The performance is just as restrained. Take, for instance, the diffident tones that begin each verse — calling them a riff would ascribe too much — or the simple piano accompaniment that comes next. It’s not a virtuosic performance like, say, Tori Amos would give; it’s got none of the bulk of a piano line trying to replicate a full band. At times the piano barely sounds in tune. You could dig up an old keyboard right now and, given five minutes or so, play at least the main melody quite serviceably. 

But it’s a false ceiling; after verse two, things open up, in sequence: A snippet of a mass, semi-operatic vocals (not Nordenstam’s, I assume) closing it out. Then, the closest we’ve seen yet to a driving beat, albeit suited less to dancers than to patrols, or sentinels, or determined marches into or back out of some kind of underworld. Strings join in, both propelling the song and flitting above it, hesitant and faintly frantic. And then, at last, one diffident choral note to close things out with barely any closure at all. Nordenstam had similar arrangements on Memories of a Colour, but here the idiom isn’t merely contemporary jazz, but something more recognizably hers.

This applies to Nordenstam’s vocals as well; no longer does she strain to sound like Rickie Lee Jones. Trust that it’s a good thing; trust that it’s intentional. Notice, for instance, the hesitation with which she provides what you assume are the grisliest details the speaker can summon up — it’s not all the time that Nordenstam sounds this close to tears. Or how she sustains the melodic line, almost singsong, for “and the sidewalks will carry you home,” or how she seems to take about sixteen steps toward the microphone for the second verse in general, or how the last line peters out to summon a mass of voices that aren’t so clearly hers. Sometimes it’s melodic; the alto harmonies that close each verse drop off the melody wonderfully, brushing the least expected, most devastating parts of the scale as they fall away.

But it’s difficult, I’ll admit it, and here’s another admission: I chose it as the first of five audio posts purely because of vanity. This was my first Stina Nordenstam song. And if it worked for me, I’m sure I can shanghai you as well if you’ll let me.

See, I didn’t hear it sung by her. Everything I’ve just told you about intention was something I heard first myself. 

I heard Sarah Brightman’s version, derided by almost everyone except Sarah Brightman fans with all the baggage-laden terms you’re either anticipating or protesting with. Fake. Inauthentic. Pandering. There are a million problems with this, of course, primary amongst them being that if you’re aiming to pander to an audience and rake in cash and groupies, covering a Stina Nordenstam song is just about the worst way to do it. Your fanbase won’t have heard of her, and Nordenstam’s fanbase is certainly devoted enough but too small and too apt to lob adjectives. 

That leaves one alternative: she (or producer Frank Peterson, who [ahem plug] you can read all about intermittently on my other Tumblr) genuinely liked the song. And her cover’s certainly faithful; Peterson boosts the percussion at the end, as he’s apt to do, and he converts the strings into a guitar solo straight out of his back catalogue, but the lead-in is almost an exact reproduction. Brightman sounds eerily like Nordenstam, and it’s likely deliberate; she mostly eschews the bell tones you’d normally hear in this vocal style of hers to let her voice fall off the syllables like Nordenstam’s. She even leaves in the harmonies, as any well-intentioned cover artist should at least consider. There’s absolutely no evidence of bad intentions, and those provincial enough to restrict the song to one artist or another have both small minds and small hard drives.

But here’s yet another confession: I was one of them. This was when I was 15 or so and listening to nothing but Brightman; eventually, I realized this maybe should change, and maybe associated artists would be a good place to start. Sometimes it worked; other times, like this, I deleted the .mp3 file (not to date myself to much) halfway through the download after listening, likely muttering something silly about how singers should be singers and songwriters songwriters and never should the twain converge without permission. (I did the same to Kate Bush and who knows how many others. Reasonable I was not.)

The song was still good, though. Devastatingly written Among the most striking on its album (that’d be Fly, nothing if not striking.) So I decided I should probably give Stina a second listen. Then, some time later, a third. I don’t recall how many tries it took for things to stick; in fact, it wasn’t even this song that did it. But it was the start, and who really needs those flighty teenagers with a mutual death wish anyway?

Now let’s talk “Little Star.” You know this song, right?

Chances are, if you know Stina Nordenstam from anywhere, it will be from this one song. As stated earlier, it appeared not only on And She Closed Her Eyes, but the soundtrack for Romeo + Juliet, which turns out to be quite a prolific album. Radiohead shows up on it, as do Garbage, Everclear, Craig Armstrong and a host of others. But the big single from this soundtrack is one you’ll know even better: “Lovefool” by the Cardigans. They’re no strangers no Nordenstam comparisons, eithe. OK, some of it’s purely on a “you’re Swedish? They’re Swedish!” basis, but the comparison — on this song in particular — is well warranted.

But more on that later. I don’t dislike “Little Star” — it’s seemingly crafted solely to discourage such a response — but (as is the cliche with big singles) I think it’s mostly a terrible introduction to Nordenstam’s work.

-  The first thing you’ll note is how overwhelmingly pleasant “Little Star” is, on the purely sonic level. It floats along, practically blissful. You could even call it jangly, an adjective I can fairly confidently assert one could never apply to Stina Nordenstam after this album. There’s a Memories of a Colour jazz saxophone again. There’s a sacred Latin chorus again, although it’s airbrushed and watercolored over enough until it’s just another pleasant strum. Precisely zero of these traits will carry over to Nordenstam’s later music; it’s no wonder that many listeners fell off as well.

- Well, that last sentence wasn’t quite accurate. Precisely zero of those traits will carry over, but “Little Star” is an early version of one of Nordenstam’s signature tricks: harrowing stories set to gorgeous backing, or vice versa. The song’s about a suicide, after all, and if it takes a couple listens to figure this out, it’s deliberate.

That’s where the “Lovefool” comparison comes in, by the way — if that’s not the cheeriest song about a horrible relationship, it’s certainly in the top ten.

One more note. The video — well, at least the part of the video that isn’t an obnoxious BLATTT sound (in case you’re reading before playing, no, that is not part of the song) — was directed by Michel Gondry. It’s not one of his iconic videos by any means, but greater Gondry fans than I might be interested.

I bring the video up, then, to point out that at multiple points in the video, Nordenstam’s face is clearly visible, in non-pixelated closeups and for more than three seconds at a time. Pay attention to this. It won’t happen again very often.

Here’s a “Little Star”-era interview with Stina Nordenstam on “MTV,” in which she talks about “Little Star,” a little about And She Closed Her Eyes and on Bjork comparisons. It’s short, sweet and slight, but it’s also pretty uncommon.

Don’t get too snarky about MTV featuring Stina Nordenstam, by the way; it’s neither the last nor the only time she’ll show up there.

I think that everything is about making it as clear as possible. Sometimes you can spend ages trimming details. And then some things disappear. But some songs on And She Closed Her Eyes felt right after recorded like… perfect. There it was! But that doesn’t mean that I can’t allow myself to be subtle. So I am convinced that many of those who listen to the record will misunderstand me anyway. So This Is Goodbye is one of the songs that felt completely perfect when I heard the result for the first time, and I imagine that the girls that listen to it will think of it as very sad and maybe even a bit angry. It’s also a song that cannot be misinterpreted.

And here’s a print interview, from the Swedish magazine POP, released right before And She Closed Her Eyes' release. It's much more revealing than the video. Well worth reading in its entirety, but some highlights:

After the first record had been released, which was in November 1991, I did nothing. Absolutely nothing. I just felt really bad. It was some kind of exhaustion, I guess. Mainly because I released songs that I had kept for myself for so long. And I also got a jagged picture of myself, due to things I read about me everywhere, that I was so fragile and melancholy and so. But after a while it meant something that I didn’t quite understand.

There’s those adjectives again! Later on, she talks about her influences: 4AD yes (Ivo Watts-Russell said in a separate interview that the label almost signed her), Rickie Lee Jones not so much. (She’d heard the most recent album and was glad Jones was still making music but somewhat less glad about all the comparisons.)

And finally:

There are very few people who’s appreciation I really want. I mean, what someone in USA thinks about it two years from now doesn’t matter. For me, the door was shut as soon as the record was finished.

(winces a bit)

The Face article, April 1994

More And She Closed Her Eyes coverage. Or, to be specific, the beginning of some coverage, from The Face

Honestly, this isn’t the greatest article in the world (the first paragraph in particular could have been written at any point in the past few decades); I link it, though, to give you a sense of the press coverage around And She Closed Her Eyes before we get into the music proper. We won’t see this much ink for a while.

The best thing about this is the phrase “waifer thin.” I don’t know whether it’s intentional or an eggcorn, but it’s perfect. Perfect for something, at least.