Like a great many people who now call America home, adopted New Yorker Nina Persson found herself so whipped up by last autumn's presidential campaign that she offered her services to the Democrat nominee free of charge. Within weeks, she and her American-born husband (and bandmate) Nathan Larson were dispatched to the neighbourhoods of east Cleveland to help motivate an electorate that had never before voted into making a difference this time. "We were going door to door asking people to vote for Obama," she says. "I'd tell them all about the good work he was doing, but that because I was Swedish I wasn't able to vote myself. However, they were, and I insisted that they should." She smiles coquettishly. "I encountered a lot of enthusiasm."
Seated beside her, Larson laughs mirthlessly. "Of course you did. There you were, looking radiant, showing them your dimples. For you it was, 'Sure I'll vote Obama.' For me, it was, 'Step inside, motherfucker, and meet my dog King Kong.'"
"But, hey, we all must have done a good job," his wife responds. "Obama won."
"It was your dimples that swayed it," he deadpans.
Late January in Stockholm, and the Swedish capital sits under a blanket of clouds so low you could touch them. It has rained relentlessly all day, turning the overnight ice into dangerous slush but doing little to alleviate the freezing temperatures. Persson, clad in a diaphanous blouse and black leggings, is hardly dressed for such conditions, and the trim grey overcoat she dons as we leave her discreetly upmarket hotel for a nearby restaurant is more for fashion than warmth. Thirty-four years old, and still in possession of a pair of cheekbones that sit so high it looks as if her cool blue eyes are resting on shelves, she is friendly and chatty, but every time she laughs, which she does sparingly, she gives the impression that she is concealing something much darker.
As frontwoman with the Cardigans, perhaps Sweden's biggest musical export since Abba, she's made a career of making music that sounds at first like the sweetest of confections but that, on further investigation, reveals the blackest of hearts. Over the past 15 years, the band has sold 5m albums worldwide. But it is with her side project, A Camp (also comprising fellow Swede Niclas Frisk and, more recently, her musician husband, both 39), with whom she has at last found creative satisfaction – and something close to happiness.
Persson and Frisk (the latter an erstwhile member of a band called Atomic Swing that enjoyed considerable native success before Frisk bailed out, claiming "fatigue") made their first, eponymous, album as A Camp in 2001. Inspired by Americana and full of broken dreams and painful confessions, it sounded exquisitely doleful, won critical acclaim across the board and scooped four Swedish Grammys. Colonia, the belated follow-up, finally arrives this month. If its predecessor was informed by bleakness, Colonia is expansive and cinematic, touching on everything from love to the French Revolution and modern-day America, and frequently sounds celebratory, which, for Persson, is no mean feat.
"I was inspired by the history of savagery," she beams, now comfortable in a city-centre restaurant. "The human urge to rape, conquer and pillage has always fascinated me, and lyrically it makes for some terrific metaphors that can work in all sorts of ways, both personal and political."
The album has received an enthusiastic pre-release reception, prompting within the singer some customary wobbles. A Camp is her side project, a cult corner away from the mainstream position of the Cardigans; if Colonia spirals toward success, it could compromise this and could, therefore, prompt within her another tailspin into panic, fear and anxiety.
"No, no. That won't happen, it isn't that kind of record." She says this more to herself than anyone else, and is quietly decisive about it. The food arrives. She slices into her side of beef, watching pink blood pool around the plate. The smile this brings to her lips looks like one of sublime satisfaction.
Persson was raised in the small southern town of Jönköping, about 150km east of Gothenburg. Her father was a banker, her mother a social worker, but both were considered odd in Jönköping for one overriding reason: their lack of belief. A family of atheists in a place crammed with born-again Christians was always going to stand out. "It was very, very religious," she notes. "Suffocatingly so." The more her mother impressed upon her that God was a mere figment of others' imaginations, the more religion began to appeal. At 14, to her parents' bafflement, Persson was baptised.
"I still don't really believe in God, but I like the aesthetics of religion a lot. Do I pray? Only when I want something."
Persson grew up on a diet of local folk music, and was only exposed to modern pop – specifically the Smiths, Stone Roses, the Sundays – once she'd enrolled in art college. Initially, she had hopes of becoming an artist, but Peter ' Svensson and Magnus Sveningsson, the Cardigans' founding members, were convinced she would be the perfect focal point for their new band. The fact she had never sung a note before was immaterial; her otherworldly aura was perfect.
Aged 18, she quit college and joined the band. In 1994, they released their first album, Emmerdale, so titled because these pronounced Anglophiles considered it the most British word they could think of. Two years later, they had a global hit on their hands with "Lovefool", which featured on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet. Their music was terribly fetching and almost, by now, formulaic: sugarspun melodies that belied the brittleness of their lyrics. Though it may have unsettled their lead singer, fame embraced them: they even appeared on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. They were fêted on both sides of the Atlantic, and Persson became Sweden's most resistant sex symbol.
"I was called ridiculous things, like the Ice Queen," she recalls. "And if I smoked a cigarette or wore leather pants, the media went wild. It was crazy, stupid. Suddenly I represented this group that, creatively, I had little to do with. I never felt as if I deserved the fame – which was probably very Swedish of me. People were saying I was hot-looking, cute, but I never was. I never had groupies, unlike the rest of the band. Men were scared to approach me, which bummed me out because I would have loved some more, you know..."
When she finally did bag herself a boyfriend, she says, "it was pretty much a catastrophe. He was with me only because I was famous, but he was terribly jealous of me, and always insecure. We lasted a year somehow; a horrible time. I was successful, making a lot of money, and I enjoyed none of it."
In 1997, she met Frisk, himself in the grip of his own misery. Both wanted things their bands were failing to provide them. They got heroically drunk together and wrote songs more freely than they ever had. But the Cardigans were not about to let Persson go easily. Her request to go off and do something else for a while was rejected. "I'm not saying I was a slave," she says, "but I was being restricted. It upset me."
And so she left Frisk and returned to her day job, recording Gran Turismo, the album that became the Cardigans' most successful (it featured the global smash "My Favourite Game"). "I was very fucked-up throughout the entire recording," she says. Indeed, on the record she sounds exquisitely forlorn, beautiful but blank. "I remember finding a dead bat in the woods near the studio one day. I took it back, nailed it to the wall, and sang every word to the bat, and to nobody else."
To her considerable frustration, the album was a huge hit. The accompanying world tour took almost three years. "We were a machine," she says. But she wanted more from life. She had recently hooked up with Larson, but was able to spend little time with him. "And that, when you consider it, is crazy. When you are 18 to 25, fine, you can spend all your time with your band, as that's all you have. But when you get older, you want to spend time with the people who matter."
At the end of the tour, she married Larson and this time insisted on making A Camp a reality. Their first album was finally released in 2001, and though privately she was happy, the songs revolved around desolation and desperation. "Who wants to hear anyone sing about how great everything is?" she argues. And so "I Can Buy You" concerned soulless sex with famous people, while "Such A Bad Comedown" was surely an admission to heroin addiction? "Or perhaps a metaphor for love," she teases, "because the two are similar, don't you think?" But was she ever a junkie? "I've never been much of one, though I was a pretty serious drinker."
Larson interjects. "She could drink anyone I have met under the table. Anyone. I'm serious, she could decimate you."
In 2003, initially against her wishes, the Cardigans reconvened once more, hiring a house by the beach in Los Angeles to conduct an unofficial therapy session to find out whether what once bound them was still there. Spouses were banned. They spent days and nights cooking for one another, drinking a great deal, "and bursting into tears, running down to the beach and rolling about in the sand. It was very therapeutic." So much so that it encouraged them to record again. The album that came out of this was Long Gone Before Daylight, with songs profoundly confessional even by their standards. "And Then You Kissed Me", for example, concerned physical abuse: "I'm lucky, I've never been in a violent relationship," says Persson now, "so that song wasn't autobiographical. But the subject, that whole kind of thing... it fascinates me."
The band would return once again two years later, for the Super Extra Gravity album, but after that Persson finally spread her wings, moving to New York with Larson. "I was feeling positive, strong," she says. "It was a nice sensation."
Eighteen months ago, Persson and her husband decided to get on to Manhattan's property ladder. They couldn't afford much by themselves, so decided to go in with Larson's parents. They now share a four-storey brownstone in a part of Harlem that has yet to undergo full gentrification.
"We've been burgled three times in 18 months," Persson notes, "but that's just something that happens. And besides, the police are really helpful. They know us by name now..."
Though they are currently renovating the house, the couple anticipate spending little time there in 2009, taking the majority of the year to promote Colonia around the world. Intermittently, she fields calls from her old bandmates wondering whether she plans to return. "I have to feel 100 per cent conviction about doing another Cardigans record," she says, "and right now I don't. I feel terribly guilty, yes, as I know they are waiting... It's not my fault I'm irreplaceable, is it?"
Three years ago, Persson made her big-screen debut in a "quiet and tasteful" Swedish art movie called God Willing. Though she never expressed a craving to do any more films, she found herself auditioning, as a favour for a friend, for a bit-part in a Hollywood movie a year later. "I met a casting agent [for the thriller Deception]. She wanted to know whether I'd bleach my hair and do full-frontal nudity. This was for five minutes' screen time in which I got to kiss Ewan Mc-Gregor. I just said to her, 'Sorry, no, it's not worth it,' and left. I guess I didn't want to be known for playing naked call girls."
Safe to say, then, that she is not pursuing any more roles right now. You need a raging ambition to act, she concedes, and she simply doesn't possess it. In fact she has only one overriding ambition these days, and it's a pretty futile one at that. "If I could live my life over, I'd study medicine and become a doctor," she says. "But I know it's too late now. They don't do evening courses, do they? It's kind of all or nothing with medicine, and I just don't have the time."
Her interest was sparked after having had "an encounter with medicine a few years back. I was in hospital a lot, I had surgery." She says this in a rushed manner that doesn't invite further questioning. "Anyway, while I was there, I read all sorts of medical books, and became obsessed with anatomy. In our toilet in our house in New York I have this big, fat medical book, and I love to spend hours in there reading it."
Her husband laughs. "She knows exactly which muscles are engaged while she is doing her business," he confirms.
"I do, it's true. I know all about the sphincter."
Not something one would expect to come from the mouth of Nina Persson. But then, this is a woman full of surprises.
'Colonia' is released tomorrow on Reveal Records