Nicolai Dunger: In a league of his own

At the age of 18, Nicolai Dunger had a promising future as a footballer. Now, he's touring with Mercury Rev. It's because music's more fun, he tells Phil Johnson
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Nicolai Dunger is a Swedish professional footballer turned singer- songwriter whose voice sounds uncannily like Van Morrison around the time of Tupelo Honey. His brilliant new album, Soul Rush, comes complete with pedal-steel guitar ornaments, steadfastly plodding double bass and melancholy string arrangements of the sort you might expect to hear on Nick Drake or early Tom Waits records. By rights, it should have been recorded in a shack in Woodstock c1973, not studios in the Arctic Circle earlier this year. And while Dunger's voice also brings to mind other artists of whom he certainly has knowledge, such as Chet Baker and Jeff Buckley, there's a striking similarity to people he doesn't actually have a clue about, such as Danny O'Keefe, Terry Reid or Jerry Jeff Walker. It is uncanny.

More unusual still is the football angle. Although Dunger – who has just turned 32 – was, as you might have guessed, a creative midfielder with great natural ball-control (he's a tennis player, too), you can play the game of what kind of music his England equivalents might make without coming up with any useful answers. David Beckham, of course, would surely be a falsetto Craig David, while Steven Gerrard is clearly the head-banging techno type. Perhaps beneath the phlegmatic, still-waters-run-deep, exterior of Paul Scholes lies a Leonard Cohen in waiting, but sadly we shall probably never know. All we've got to go on is Glenn Hoddle's disco duet with Chris Waddle in the Eighties.

Nicolai Dunger is currently on tour with Mercury Rev, and I caught up with him before a gig at Newcastle University last Sunday. When I ask whether he got a chance to see the England vs Greece match the previous afternoon, he says that he managed to check the highlights while having a curry with Mercury Rev. "I was screaming when I saw Beckham's goal," he says excitedly, and shakes his head at the memory of the nightmare match "the red-haired guy" (Paul Scholes) had.

Dunger comes from a town called Pitea in northern Sweden. His father was an athletics coach at the local high school, where his mother also taught textiles. "I got into sports really early, and played football till I was about 18 or 19, when I left to do songs", he says. He played for a second division club, Umeoa FC, and was on the verge of signing for first division Malmo when he decided to pack football in.

"I was quite serious then, because I got money," he says. "I was professional and I got an apartment but the club sort of owned me. You know how these things are? The club feels you belong to them, and you just get sent a monthly cheque. I was disappointed because football for me was more about playing – like when I was a child having fun kicking a ball about on the beach and so on. But then you go to other teams and there's money involved. It's more of a chick thing, and also a social thing; it's quite boring, actually."

Does he mean the other footballers were boring? "Sometimes. It's a group thing and they're not so individual, unlike in music. It was my dream to be a footballer in England, but this is more fun, I think, although I still love to see sports on the telly. It's good that it went the way it did. You grow up, and as an adult why should you play at games like a child? But in a way, music and the arts can be like that too; they always think their stuff is best. It's a little bit simple-minded. Sports or the arts world; it's all the same."

Parallel to his developing football career, Dunger taught himself to play the guitar and began writing songs – 300 of them, in fact. "But you can't just release songs," he says. "They have to have something to hold them together. Yes, a context, that's the word I was looking for." These apprentice songs were written in isolation: "No one knew, but it's more of a magic world then," he says. "You don't know what the music means to anyone else; you just know it means a lot to yourself. You're like a God, you create your own world. It's very strong stuff; it was a nice feeling."

The songs did find an audience on two albums that Dunger made for Warners in Sweden in the mid-Nineties, but he wasn't happy with what came out. "I was just looking for ways to sing, because I like that rush I get from singing," he says. "They're nice songs in a way, but you know how it is with your first album? You want it so much and you feel the vision, but sometimes it doesn't work out. It wasn't easy for me to go from sports into music and know who to work with. Nowadays, I'm more developed in that I can work together with other people and have a vision about what to do with it, with the arrangement."

For Soul Rush, Dunger worked with the bassist and drummer from Sweden's leading jazz group, the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, together with arranger Bjorn Yttling. His greatest influences, he says rather surprisingly, are Kate Bush and Robert Wyatt. And Dunger was delighted when he received a postcard from Wyatt, the dedicatee of one of his most recent songs, part of a trilogy of vinyl-only albums that he paid for himself. He's also been listening to free jazz, including Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra and Don Cherry. One wants to protest, and give him albums by the singer-songwriters who he sounds like but hasn't yet heard. But, like football, they might just prove too boring.

Nicolai Dunger supports Mercury Rev at Bristol Anson Rooms on 31 Oct, and London, Shepherd's Bush Empire, on 1 Nov and 2. 'Soul Rush' is released by Virgin Records on Monday, and is reviewed by Andy Gill on page 14