Stina Nordenstam: Magnificent strangeness

Stina Nordenstam sings spooky and wistful songs about love, airports and murder. Kevin Harley meets an enigma
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The Independent Culture

"It's my secret trick," says Stina Nordenstam, moving her coat slightly and looking mischievous. The singular, slightly built Swedish singer is giving a rare interview as the sun sets in Kensington Gardens, but for a minute, it seems as if some of it might be lost because her coat has been draped over the microphone of my dictaphone. Cunning or what? "I thought if I covered it you might not be able to hear what I said after-wards," she says, grinning: "That might not be so bad."

"It's my secret trick," says Stina Nordenstam, moving her coat slightly and looking mischievous. The singular, slightly built Swedish singer is giving a rare interview as the sun sets in Kensington Gardens, but for a minute, it seems as if some of it might be lost because her coat has been draped over the microphone of my dictaphone. Cunning or what? "I thought if I covered it you might not be able to hear what I said after-wards," she says, grinning: "That might not be so bad."

Nordenstam is the quiet woman of European avant-pop. Since releasing her debut album, Memories of a Colour, in 1991, she's accrued a cult audience and much acclaim while steering well shy of the mainstream. This is inevitable, in a sense, given the magnificent strangeness of her intricately sculpted music, where spooked clatterings and eerie electronics bother warm acoustic sounds and wistful melodies on songs whose subjects range, with great emotive empathy, from love to murder. And then there's that unique voice, which is more a law unto itself than merely "child-like": at once fragile and direct, bare and elusive, and possessed of a certain jazzy swing.

Nordenstam's distance, though, is also an extension of not pandering to the press game. The woman on her album sleeves barely resembles the woman in person, thanks to wigs and make-up. She's turned down offers to collaborate with the Chemical Brothers and to record a Bond theme song. And as the airport and station imagery of her last album, the achingly sad yet pop-flavoured This is Stina Nordenstam, suggested, she always appears to be on the point of leaving, just out of reach. Add the rareness of her English-language interviews, then, and getting home to find the tape blank wouldn't feel entirely inappropriate.

Still, she's here to talk about her sixth album, The World is Saved, which puts at least an almost positive spin on the idea of being on the move. It's her warmest album yet, pairing organic, almost lounge-jazz arrangements with songs that push her voice up in the mix. Its key theme seems to be one of getting up and getting on, of new beginnings, from its opener, "Get On with Your Life" ("All over the world they get out of bed"), via the comic "Butterfly" ("Too late I fell out of bed/ Hit the ceiling instead/ I'd turned into a butter-fly"), to "The End of a Love Affair" ("Getting up is easy").

"That's what I feel about the album," Nordenstam says. "That it's coming from a feeling of reaching a turning point. A couple of things brought that on but also it's a general thing that is in everyone's life, to different extents. You can feel it on a level when it's not such a big thing, or you can feel it on a level when it is about your whole life, when you're deciding to lift yourself. There's been a couple of things in my private life where I have that."

In a sense, then, the world being saved is internal: "I find it interesting how it has been my experience - even though it's just how you experience things on that level, which is absurd - that if you're depressed or have a panic inside, you experience the world changing, like it's going down or in danger. It's sort of a renewed feeling of meaning from the position of knowing that something is painful, but still being positive."

Nordenstam's struggles with depression are well documented. Her extraordinary 1996 album Dynamite played like a reflection of the breakdown she had at the time, pitching her voice in among fuzzy guitars and baroque orchestration. Creativity seems to have been a solution. "Creativeness is not ever tough for me," she nods. "The creative process has helped me through the years, because it is for me where things make sense. At times, I've had problems with normal language and the context of reality, where everybody seems to share the same context; but art contexts have been really sort of concrete."

Did her struggles with reality mean that finding a unique voice came naturally? "That makes sense," she says. "Because you have to. To me, it's been important to have clarity. With music, maybe I don't know what sound I'm looking for but when I hear it I can immediately say yes or no. Not that those are the right choices, just that I'm sure in making them. That makes it personal, somehow. A lot of energy goes into defining."

Clearly, the process of creating attracts Nordenstam more than the result. In this regard, her decision to avoid the album-tour treadmill makes perfect sense. She's only played one London concert to date, at the Jazz Café in 1992, but while the audience found it unnervingly brilliant, Nordenstam didn't. "It was a nightmare. There was nothing new, we were just supposed to repeat the record."

While her reluctance to be interviewed is part of a crackpot Nordenstam package for some critics, it makes sense in this regard, too. For sure, there is a fragility about her that explains a wariness to be over-exposed in itself. But also, as a musician and a sometime photographer, Nordenstam gives off a sturdy sense of inalienable creative self-certainty - and she wants to stay on the creative side.

"With my first album," she says, "I did all the press I was asked to do and was shocked when I read about myself. It would be weird for anyone to change perspective like that, but especially for me because I had to work on the concept of reality. Also, an important thing for me was to be behind the camera. Then I was on the other side, and I read all these thoughts about myself and I was speechless!" She laughs and shakes her head: "I just lost it. And it took me ages to recover."

So does her decision to be interviewed for The World is Saved tally with a tentative sense of optimism? "I don't like making decisions and keeping them for life," she says. "Not that I like doing interviews," she says, gazing off into the sunset and musing like someone trying on a notion for size: "but the way I feel now is like, if someone comes up with a bad idea, I'd rather say, 'Well, OK, let's try it', than go on saying, 'No, I don't think so'. I just feel more open, perhaps?" Phew - the interview is saved.

'The World is Saved' is out now on V2

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