Lonely Are The Brave
Jenny Wilson has been dead for ten years. Not literally dead, of course. That’s just how she describes her state of mind during a time in which the world seemed hell bent on taking her out.
Faced with one dire setback after another, Wilson’s instinct as an artist has been to barrel determinedly onwards, and to channel each crisis into her work. When life just can’t stop handing out lemons, you have to learn to juggle.
In 2011, Wilson was preparing for the release of her third album, Blazing!, when she discovered a lump on one of her breasts. Having lost her own mother to breast cancer when she was just 14 years old, Wilson knew it could be serious but was convinced she would not die. And she was right; the cancer responded to chemotherapy, and Wilson started to make a record about it. Demand The Impossible! was an album inspired by uprisings: psychological, political, physical. Propelled by anger and frustration at the world and the sudden fallibility of her own body, Wilson headed into battle. Before the album was finished, however, the cancer made an unwelcome return. This time she was not so sure she would survive.
Happily, again, the tumour went into remission, and Wilson, relieved, threw herself into touring internationally behind the album, which had won three Grammis at home. There would be time to rest later, she thought, except there wasn’t really. Her long-term relationship broke down and suddenly she was alone again, soon turning forty and with two young sons. She continued to work and tour and found some joy and solace in the bars and clubs of Stockholm. Then, one night in 2016, all of that was snatched away when she was raped by a man she had met on the dancefloor. This, too, became a record.
But not just any record; Exorcism was unlike any album ever made. Wilson took her unbearable pain and spliced it with huge dance hooks to make an eye-wateringly frank yet irresistibly earwormy document of the assault, its aftermath, and how women are so often failed by the society around them. Released in 2018 just as the #MeToo movement began to really blow up in Sweden, Wilson found herself on the edge of a cultural firestorm. This led to a theatrical performance, Who’s Afraid Of Jenny Wilson?, billed as a universal story about women and abuse and who owns public space, which in turn led to a second album centered on Wilson’s horrific ordeal. Written in Swedish and recorded with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in collaboration with famed conductor/composer Hans Ek, Trauma threw all conventions out the window. Here was the exhilarating sound of an artist pushing an idea as far as it could go. We had reached peak Wilson. What could she possibly do next?
Losing her mother at such a young age profoundly shaped Wilson’s character, not least because her absence plunged the household into silence. In previous interviews, she has described growing up feeling surrounded and smothered by unspoken hurt. At sixteen she made a promise to herself to never keep anything secret, especially if she ever had children of her own, and my goodness has she stuck to it. But at what cost?
Lately, Wilson has been wondering the same thing. Speaking over Zoom from her apartment in Stockholm, she wraps her cardigan around her and leans forward into the camera. “I’ve realised that being a person who sits on sofas in TV studios talking about traumatic events like being raped is, uh, not the most healthy thing one can do. It hurts, and it’s actually so draining. There’s this pressure, as a woman, that you have to always show how strong you are and sort of brush off the past like it’s something that can ever be fully dealt with. I don’t want to do that again.”
Wilson and I met three times while writing this feature, twice over Zoom and once in person in Stockholm. She’s had a busy 2021, releasing the follow-up to Trauma plus a collaboration with her boyfriend Christian Ekvall and – as producer and co-writer – a long-awaited third album from Swedish-Lebanese artist Nicole Sabouné.
Working under the name of Driften, Wilson and Ekvall’s self-titled debut was the first to be released, in May. An “erotic horror ambient” soundtrack comprising one long piece per side of vinyl, the home-recorded album was inspired by performance art, psychedelia and psychological thrillers, with a smidge of seventies arthouse porn. Musically, it’s informed by avant-garde composers like Steve Reich, Brian Eno and Harold Budd: the kind of music where often very little happens, “but when it does happen you really feel it.”
The Driften concept started to take shape late last year when Wilson returned from a retreat in Greece that had been teaching Marina Abramovic’s workshop ‘Cleaning The House’. “It was fucking lovely!” she says, thinking back on her stay. “It's almost like a dream when I think about it, because it was so dreamlike to be completely silent for five days. So uplifting and inspiring. There were also some experiments that I found interesting and wanted to try them also with Christian. When I came home we set up a microphone on the floor of my living room and started to do some of the exercises from the workshop. There’s one where you just hum and listen to your body and the environment around you, and that sort of became the foundation for the record. We wanted to have this openness to chance and see what kind of sounds would travel into the recording.”
Ekvall, who joined us on the first call, adds, “When we listened back to the first recording we realised that it was actually something really cool. It was something that we could never have planned, and at the same time it had the potential to be conceptual. We added a drum beat and a lot of delay, and that became side A of the record. And because we called it “Humming & Fucking”, we decided that side B also needed to have one element that was voice – but not singing – and one from everyday life. And that’s how “Bathing & Whispering” came about. We were like, “Let’s put a mic in the bathroom!”
Ekvall and Wilson met for the first time in January 2018, coincidentally on the same day that “Rapin*” was released as the first single from Exorcism. Ekvall is a core member of Malmö-based “mantra rock” collective Octopus Ride and works as a writer and translator. Recently he’s been working on new translations of Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 for a Swedish publisher, as well as putting the finishing touches to his band’s long-awaited second album, II. Released in early November, it features a Spacemen 3 cover and backing vox from Wilson. “When Jenny and I first met we almost immediately wanted to work on some music together,” he says. “It’s funny that it ended up being Driften because it’s completely the opposite of where we first started, which was writing this sort of restless post-punk in the vein of Devo and The Feelies. Something with a lot of energy.”
With no riffs, no melodies and no words, Driften is music that’s easy to, well, drift along to. But ‘driften’ in Swedish translates to ‘the drive’, as in sex drive, so again there is that erotic element to it. Wilson admits that she was at first a little scared about releasing the album. “I wondered if people would think that I’m completely limitless and crazy, releasing two albums about a rape and then this record, which is essentially just atmosphere with erotic undertones. But Christian convinced me that it was actually cool, and that it was important that after everything I’d been through I could come out and not just say but show that I still own my body.”
On the striking album artwork, the couple are naked, glowing, and floating in inky-black negative space. How has it gone down with their children? “My youngest son, who’s fourteen, was like, ‘mum, I think you’re really cool to show yourself naked on posters’,” says Wilson. Ekvall laughs. “My kid doesn't want anything to do with it! My dad has listened. He said, ‘I don’t get it, but I’m not too shocked. We can still be friends.’”
Nicole Sabouné and Jenny Wilson were both born in Blekinge county in southern Sweden, fifteen years apart. The two first met in 2012, shortly after Sabouné competed in the first and only season of Sweden’s version of ‘The Voice’. Although she exited in the semi-finals, Sabouné’s budding talent had sufficiently impressed her mentor Ola Salo (formerly of Swedish glam-rock band The Ark) that the pair began to write together, and Salo suggested getting Wilson on board. “I remember meeting Jenny for the first time because I was really, really nervous,” she tells me over coffee one sunny evening in Stockholm. “I was 21 years old and had listened to her for a long time – her solo stuff and her band before that, First Floor Power. But the meeting was brilliant. I loved her from the very beginning.”
Although the collaboration fell by the wayside after Wilson’s cancer relapsed, the two stayed in touch and would occasionally meet up over the years. Sabouné’s debut single “Unseen Footage From A Forthcoming Funeral” was a far cry from the usual sound of talent contest graduates, mining ‘80s darkwave pop with the full force of her extraordinary voice. Two albums followed – 2014’s Must Exist and the following year’s Miman, a dazzling concept record based on a Cold War-era sci-fi epic poem – and then, for a long time, there was nothing.
After touring heavily behind Miman, Sabouné struggled to get back into normal life. Feeling exhausted and unbalanced, she decided to take a break from music and focus on her education. Following her lifelong interest in science she first completed an undergraduate degree in chemistry and is currently studying for a Master’s in neurochemistry. In between, with the encouragement of her friend and composer Emil Nilsson, she recorded an EP of sweeping, cinematic mood pieces inspired by contemporary classical soundtracks. At only four songs long, the project left Sabouné wanting to do more, and she started to write for a third album.
“People have often asked me over the years at label meetings etc., ‘Who’s your favourite producer?’ and ‘Who do you want to work with?’, and I would always say Jenny Wilson, but I never found the courage to ask her again,” says Sabouné. “This time I actually couldn’t think of anyone else. Honestly, I felt that if I was going to do this record then I needed Jenny to do it with me, otherwise I didn’t want to do it. I was so tired of working by myself and I’ve always been drawn to her music, her art and her energy. You just get the sense that she has a lot of integrity.”
For her part, Wilson had no hesitations. “I thought it was fantastic to be asked,” she says. “It was very much a new experience for me, producing for another artist. I’m more or less a dictator when producing for myself. If I want something I make sure it happens, and sometimes that can be a bit shocking for the people around me. So it was challenging and beautiful. Nicole was really free and generous and open.”
“Jenny definitely knows what she wants,” says Sabouné (pictured above with Wilson) with a grin. “And I know what I want. So we just had to give one another the space that we needed to feel present in the process. It was nice because I could really put my trust in her. I always felt that she wanted the best for me, and the process, and the songs. So even though it’s just my name on it, it feels like we did this album together. It’s ours.”
Released in September, Attachment Theory finds Sabouné in the thick of new love and old wounds. It’s undoubtedly her most organic, airy album yet. Ditching the heavily reverbed gothic grandeur of her first two releases, it’s left to Sabouné’s unclothed, sonorous voice to carry much of the drama. And, truth be told, she’s rarely sounded better. Take the poppy lead single “Hard To Breathe”, for example. Travelling her full register, Sabouné uses shifts in tone and volume to maximum effect; a whispered second verse here, an unexpected coda there. Passing similarities to PJ Harvey elsewhere on the album make sense. Both Sabouné and Wilson are fans.
Attachment Theory is perhaps strongest in its middle sequence, from the Wilson-penned pop ballad “Memories” to the dizzying torch song “All Stunned”. The story of “Memories” is central to the collaboration between the two women. Sabouné’s father was born in Lebanon but raised in the south of France before moving to Sweden, and she still knows very little about his – and by extension her – heritage, and a conversation about this feeling of rootlessness spurred Wilson to come up with a song that Sabouné describes as “fragments of memories I never got to experience”. She credits Wilson with being brave enough to write about something that she herself wasn’t ready for, and “opening up a door that’s been closed shut for a long time.”
“Jenny made me brave too,” says Sabouné. “Brave enough to believe in my own ideas, to not overthink things and just be in the moment. She feels like a big sister to me, and I didn’t want to screw up her first experience of producing for another artist. I didn’t want to screw up my dream of working with her. The whole process has been so precious to me. And it’s not just the process anymore, it’s actually something that’s out there for people to listen to.”
‘Brave’ is a word that one hears a lot in connection with Wilson. In a short essay accompanying her new album, MÄSTERVERKET (transl. The Masterpiece), Thomas Öberg of Swedish indie-rock legends Bob Hund crowns her “Sweden’s bravest artist”. “Jenny wants to sing and play more than anyone else,” he writes. “Everything else is reminiscent of premature death.”
Jenny Wilson has been dead for ten years, but now she’s coming back to life. MÄSTERVERKET charts that journey, from reeling from her past to reckoning with her future. “Is it already too late for me?” she asks desperately on “Tänk Om Nåt Händer” (transl. What If Something Were To Happen). A chorus of friends and family chant back: “No, Jenny! You still have time! But hurry up!” Is that a small tear in your eye? Tell me you’re middle aged without telling me you’re middle aged.
“MÄSTERVERKET is my most naked self-examination yet,” says Wilson. “It’s the first time in my music that I’m allowing myself to really look back. My other records were sort of written in the moment, without the emotional distance. This one is more concerned with what the fuck happened, how it could have happened, and how it led me to the next thing, and then the next thing. It starts off with facing up to all the shit I went through and then suddenly something good comes into the picture and the songs are like, okay, that’s so fucking scary!”
That something good, as you might have guessed, was meeting Christian Ekvall. On our second call, alone in her kitchen, Wilson tells me that she started falling for him very soon after meeting. “I was at a point where I think I really needed love, but I was also very scared of it, after having so many bad things happen to me. It took me a couple of years to actually believe that he was not going to leave me.”
If you recognise that fear, you’ll know that it’s a lonely way to live. Wilson doesn’t hold back in talking about the desperate state she had fallen into in the years before they met. Returning home from a long tour in the autumn of 2015, at the end of a two-year bloodletting with Demand The Impossible!, her mental health nosedived. Despite all the acclaim, despite two kids who adore her, loneliness had set into her bones and the world beyond her front door all but fell away.
It was during this time that Wilson wrote the embryo for what would become the first single from MÄSTERVERKET, “Ge Mig Nåt Starkt” (transl. Give Me Something Strong). “It’s one of my dearest songs on the album,” she says. “Not necessarily because it’s the best, but because it talks about something that had become a real problem for me. I was drinking too much, trying to numb myself because I was in such a dark place. I felt like I couldn’t keep everything together. I don’t really know how this song came to me, but I do remember thinking it was a desperate cry for help.”
Mired in confusion and self-loathing, Wilson tried to access psychiatric care but no substantial help was offered. The song “Paralyserad” (transl. Paralysed) describes a scenario all too familiar and depressing: a waiting room, a questionnaire, and being sent home with a bottle of SSRIs. “In Stockholm it doesn’t seem to matter what the fuck you’ve been through. The doctors are, like, unless you want to kill yourself, we can’t get you any therapy,” says Wilson. Although she says she was not feeling suicidal, there are certain lines in “Ge Mig Nåt Starkt” and “Dåren I Mig” (transl. The Fool In Me) that suggest she may have been close.
In the end, she realised that the only person who could help her was herself, and writing “Ge Mig Nåt Starkt” was the trigger. “I didn’t drink in a way that people would really notice,” she explains. “I was not at the point where I would miss appointments and not go to work, but I did become a bit reliant on it. I would have a bag-in-the-box wine on the go at home all the time, drinking a glass or two every fucking afternoon before the kids got home from school. It didn’t help me, it just made me tired and more anxious.”
Having tried to cut down on her alcohol intake, she ultimately found it easier to just quit completely and has now been fully sober for going on 2 years. “It was such a strong decision for me and I feel so much happier now,” she says. “Actually, I think I’ve never felt so free. I would never have been able to do three albums in a year if I was still drinking.”
What makes a masterpiece a masterpiece? Must it be totally original? Indelibly influential? Technically impeccable? What does it mean to be a master, and who gets to decide? Ask Marina Abramovic and she’ll tell you that a masterpiece is a phenomenon of the body. Something biological, chemical. The brain is presented with a harmony of ideas and execution, triggering a nervous system response that transforms a work into a wonder. Is a masterpiece then just a feeling?
Jenny Wilson does not offer any answers. The title of the album is something of an inside joke, possibly in reaction to the overwhelming reception to Exorcism and Trauma. Certainly the sound of MÄSTERVERKET is in direct opposition to Trauma. Having the orchestra involved made the mixing process immensely complicated. “I come from a very DIY, punky sort of background,” she explains. “Making an album doesn’t necessarily have to be fast for me, but I need to be completely hands-on to feel comfortable and free in creating. But with Trauma I had maybe 200 tracks on each song, so I had to rely on other people to help and I didn’t feel so happy in that process.”
Wilson knew early on that she wanted the album to have a rough sounding, back-to-basics feel. Something closer to her roots with First Floor Power “a hundred years ago”. In the spring of 2020 she borrowed a friend’s basement studio and tried to develop her sketches, but after two weeks nothing was really happening. “I would go in and just sit there feeling very alone,” she says. “Eventually I decided that it was just too difficult to work on these songs that are about feeling very vulnerable and having deep conversations with yourself. I thought, okay, I can’t do this album. I quit.”
It was Thomas Öberg who pointed out to Wilson that maybe making songs about loneliness is just too lonely to do alone. “He was right, of course,” she says, almost rolling her eyes. “So I left the basement and put together a band. I asked only people who are very close to me, so there’s Magnus Sveningsson (Righteous Boy, The Cardigans) on bass and Micke Häggström, who has played drums on several of my records. Christian is doing some backing vocals, together with one of my sons and my nephew. Another close friend, AK von Malmborg, who is an artist and musician, is also singing with us. And, of course, my sister Sara Wilson is playing some guitar.”
Completing this happy families setup was co-producer Martin Thulin, who is perhaps best known internationally as one-fourth of the Anika-fronted Exploded View. “Martin is my oldest best friend,” explains Wilson. “I won’t say he’s like a brother to me; he’s more than a brother. He’s been so important in my life, so it was amazing to work with him on this record.”
With Thulin on board, everything moved fast. Having decided to record the album live to tape and directly off the floor, Wilson booked studio time in a former bus garage just outside of Malmö. “We recorded everything in a maximum of three takes per song, no joking! I really wanted to capture that sort of 1970s feeling of everyone playing together in the same, huge room. A sort of nod backwards to my teenage idols like Neil Young and David Bowie, and their records of that era. I didn’t want to make a vintage-sounding record at all, that’s not in my interest. It was really just about capturing that feeling, and I think we nailed it!”
With so many pandemic records having been patched together remotely, there’s something thrilling about MÄSTERVERKET’s immediacy and willingness to court imperfection. You don’t have to understand the language to feel the energy and comradeship that Wilson was hoping to capture. For the sake of full disclosure, it’s not entirely free of overdubs. There was no rush to release the album so Wilson “just let it be for a while” and focused on Driften, and when she came back to the recordings she felt that something was lacking. “I needed to add something more,” she says, “so I asked Christine Owman, who’s a close friend of Magnus, to come and track some cello and musical saw. I also added a little more guitar and some choir, which kind of glued the songs together more.”
For an album so rooted in loneliness and struggle, the lasting impression of MÄSTERVERKET is of a real tribute to the importance of connection; of taking care of each other and ourselves. Wilson has spent the past decade dancing through disaster. MÄSTERVERKET is the sound of a flipped switch; cruise control OFF. “Oh, wake me up now,” she begs in the album’s final act, “so that my ten years as a dead man can end.” In choosing to live her vulnerable truth, Jenny Wilson is laid bare once again. Only this time no longer pretending to strong.