Anna Terheim's new record is a deeply poignant exploration of life and career that's also her freest creation to date. A Space For Lost Time sees the veteran singer/songwriter dig deep across a record flush with emotional intelligence and some of her best lyrics.
Recorded in LA, and finished in her native Stockholm, the album find Ternheim breaking from her longtime major-label deal. She’s also back working with Björn Yttling - surely the indie Max Martin at this point - for a collection of songs that mark a turning point for her. Over an afternoon coffee in Stockholm, Ternheim tells me about the process of reflection and songwriting.
BEST FIT: Anna, you lived in New York for more than ten years now and I was wondering how that city's affected the way you make music?
ANNA TERNHEIM: It gives peace of mind in a strange way, although it's chaotic. I tour and and go back to Europe, and this has become my work base. It's nice to step out of that. You get away with whatever kind of life you want to live in New York. I think that suits me. I can shut the door and be solitary and go deep into writing and then if I need some fuel I just step outside, and there's everything happening all the time. I like that.
What is it about Stockholm that brings you back here?
This will always be home, in a way. There's something in the smells, the food, family...it's like the whole body recognises it and it's very grounding. For some reason I always dress in black when I come back to Stockholm.
There's a lot of things I love about this place: there's water, it's clean, you take the bike out and you run down to the water and go for a swim in the morning. I wouldn't do that in the East River, because you would die.
But something in me makes me feel more free and easier in my skin in New York. It's important to put your feet into different soil to make you grow in different ways. Especially being a musician.
But there's still something essentially Scandinavian about your sound I think?
I don't think you can run away where you're from, and I have no need to do that either. We're born with some innate sense of melody; each person has their own melodic language. That's always going to stay the same for me, the one constant is me in my music making. But putting myself in new places with new people gives it a push in a some sort of direction and makes it...a little new. It's not a revolution.
I think my records stick together. The one that's been the biggest departure from that is the record I did in Nashville (2011’s The Night Visitor). I left the pop world for a little bit, wrote songs in a different way - I wanted to play more fingerpicking, and I wrote the songs to fit with that - and I let myself go and put myself in the hands of musicians down there. It really shaped that record.
Did you thrive in Nashville? It's not dissimilar to Stockholm as machine for music...
It's an amazing place. There's the fast-food Nashville, with records coming out every week - a lot of commercial country that I have a hard time listening to - but there's so much talent there too. It's so easy to work there: you call someone and they turn up at the studio two hours later.
New York isn't an ideal place to record - people are busy and it takes planning. Everyone needs to be some place and it's fucking expensive. Nashville gives you peace of mind. It's a really good place to make music. I try and stay outside of the machine though.
Have all your records been recorded outside New York?
Yes. I like going on trips and writing too, leading a very solitary life and going deep. I can write at home but at some point you need to zone in. I have to leave New York now to get away from life and do that. So many people go to LA and record. I was curious and wanted an adventure, to wake up and see a blue sky and see how that would be.
It was nice; I could step out of my everyday life and go make a record. It worked out but it's hard. You work with people for the first time - and they were great - but we came to a point where I was the only one who didn't feel the record was finished. I was being the obnoxious artist. So I came here and I had some sharp deadlines to meet.
Stockholm is a place that I can always return to and do what I need to do.
You’ve hit fifteen years as a musician at this point; do you see clear patterns and evolution in your songwriting?
Every record has been its own process. I've worked with a lot of different people - it's been a different team each time. Doing something for the first time. you're always going to invite a little bit of chaos and not know how you're going to finish things. That's the part you can't control: the part when you step outside of the comfort zone. I think everytime you do that, you enlarge your universe a bit, where you can more and feel comfortable.
But there's no other way to do that than to do things that make you feel uncomfortable. I would like to say that I have the perfect formula to make a magical record but I don't. And if you do it once, then try and repeat that again, it's not going to come out that way. That's the point .
When I was in a slump, and things weren't finished, I talked to a friend and said, "Why does it have to be so damned hard?" and he said, "Well that's your job. It's not supposed to be easy."
Do you think you're an easy collaborator?
You'd have to ask someone who collaborates with me [laughs]. I put in a lot of energy and enthusiasm and if it's a good match then it's easy. If not, it's going to be hard.
I met Björn Yttling 20 years ago when they [Peter, Björn and John] were playing the same small stages here in Stockholm. They'd put out their first record and I was passing around my demos and everyone knew each other. He produced one of my records about ten years ago...and for us, it's easy. He's very undramatic and brutally honest in the best possible way - but he still makes you feel excited about the work.
It's a vulnerable position though, writing with someone is like stripping. You take all your little ideas that are unfinished or banal, you don't know if it could be good or terrible, or it could become amazing. And you hope the person you're sitting with is going to understand and you can take it somewhere together. With Björn, that process works. I try to do my best to make it work.
If we go into detail, it helps to not have a too fixed clear idea of what I want to do. To have something small and then trust that the work you're doing together will make the song. It's about chemistry. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's like a relationship.
Are you good at knowing when to stop evolving a certain idea before you go in with someone?
I'm getting better at it. I write songs but it's very much attached to me as an artist, a personal therapeutic experience. But then I also enjoy getting new blood, something new that moves your world. That feels really good.
When you step in with another person you get access to their universe and their melodies and you learn a lot but it's more of a comfortable place for me to be alone though - and work alone - and I have to push myself. You're more vulnerable when you open up to new people but good things happen when you do that.
The new record is very much about reflection - did you know that was how it would turn out?
I didn't think about it when I started writing and I really hope that I won't write records for the rest of my life that only look back. But in my life I feel like I'm always living looking...I almost have to hold myself back to not rush too far ahead but maybe something happens when you sit and things get calm around you.
I think there's a moment when the life you live comes back and you write about it. It's natural to filter what you've been through when you make music. But I guess it's almost regular mid-life stuff. Since I was 35 it's been the same thoughts rushing around in my head, feelings that come to people at this point in life. You've done a good portion of it, so how are you going to move on now, transition and grow with what you do? How do you feel as excited about things - wake up in the morning and still fell like you've got endless possibilities and it's not too late to do things and conquer that space in yourself?
It's easy to feel like, "this is how life turned out"...and I have questions about whether I will keep on making music but....it's a good feeling. And as a woman, people ask you: "What are you doing over there in New York? You don't have family, you don't have kids."
People disappear, get sick and old. It becomes so clear that everything becomes more fragile. As a human I get more sensitive but also a lot tougher - more powerful, coming into full force. There's still so much that wants to come out.
Society projects all kinds of shit on us. You have to stay so aware today. It's hard because there's so much noise! You need to find a way to stop time, go inside and figure out what's really there. How do I feel about this? What do I really want? Is this something that I like or am I just supposed to like it? Am I really afraid of these things? Where do my fears come from?
You lose your sense of fear as you get older though, don't you?
You start being more afraid of important things like people you love getting hurt. But what can you do? You don't want to worry yourself to death! I always find Stockholm is a place that helps you reflect on these things. Here everyone walks around with a baby stroller. The city is made for baby making. It's a rhythm, like a family-life rhythm.
New York has a hard and brutal side. If you don't have your health, if work is not working, then the city can be cold. But no matter what you give to it, it gives back. People have their moments, your neighbours will look out for you. I even feel that people move differently. It's always crowded so people have to pay attention, you're more aware.
Are you connected to the NY music scene?
It comes and goes. There are phases when I go to a lot of shows and phases when I don't, especially when I'm deep into making music. I can step into a bubble and be completely unaware. But I do know a lot of musicians and I surround myself with people who keep track of everything. I've never been the one out browsing though, knowing all the important names and events. It's still a good scene there though. There's stuff happening all the time.
So what are you consciously being influenced by these days?
You can't hear it in this record - at all - but I wanted to make a a very stripped down album so I was spending a lot of time listening to a friend of mine - and a fellow Swede - Jose Gonzales. He plays the acoustic guitar like a grand piano and gets so much sound out of it. And this new Swedish band Viagra Boys - they gave me such a great experience live when I saw them a few weeks ago. They're so funny, so good.
I listen to a lot of music that I can't really translate into what I do though. I love John Carpenter. That stuff I can just blast, a lot of instrumental music and friends that have bands here that inspire me. I saw Iron Maiden for the first time in my life this year. That show blew my mind. I had a conversation with Bruce DIckinson for twenty whole minutes in an embassy twelve years ago, without even knowing it was him. He told me about how he flew aeroplanes.
The scene in Sweden has changed a lot over the last decade - we've moved quite far away from that imperial phase of Swedish indie pop around ten, twelve years ago with Peter, Björn and John, The Concretes, Lykke Li's first album...
I mean Sweden is the cradle of Spotify, and I think that has definitely has changed the landscape on the label side. I was on Universal for many years and it was a good match but the way I work doesn't fit into the system of fast hits. You go to label offices and...there's just no sense of music being made anymore. I'm on BMG now and it's a different set up...more work and more control but you can continue building whatever it is your building without people stopping working with you in the middle of a release.
There's a lot of the hit Swedish pop writers but maybe it's less bands? It's hard for bands to break through, it's hard to make a living, and to compete out on the road.
And then also the sun moves too. Isn't that natural? You're at a place and it's burning hot and then times change...