Search The Line of Best Fit
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Frida piano Alan Pedder

The Power Of Restraint

13 March 2021, 09:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Alan Pedder

Frida Hyvönen tells Alan Pedder about the art of getting older as she drops Dream Of Independence, her first album in English in almost a decade.

Frida Hyvönen steps out of a minicab into the brisk February air of a snowfall-softened Stockholm and gives a small wave.​

It’s early on a Wednesday and the humidity of the morning gives the city chill an extra bite, for which I am inappropriately dressed. “I’m really happy to have you here,” she says as she unlocks a door from the empty street and we step down into the cave-like basement studio that she shares with a group of visual artists. “We’re forced to do so much online now, it’s so nice to actually meet someone.”

When I say the studio is cave-like, I mean exactly that. The basement walls are made of thick, uneven stone, painted white and rough to the touch. Hyvönen occupies two small rooms at the far end of the floorplan. The first room, narrow and windowless, is mostly taken up by a beautiful Neupert harpsichord, a revival model from the mid-1900s with a double ebony keyboard and white sharps and flats. On the floor there’s a small bowl of dog kibble and another of water, for Hyvönen’s Italian greyhound Sparky, who had the sense to stay at home where it’s warm.

Shrugging off her coat and scarf and swapping her shoes for a pair of black indoor slippers, Hyvönen leads the way into the second room, which I recognise from Instagram. The focal point is an extraordinary square metre-sized glass work by artist Shahla K. Friberg, installed above a china-white upright piano. Two slim shafts of weak winter light angle down through the street-level windows to the centre of the room where Hyvönen stands, gesturing around, on a large red Persian carpet recently acquired at auction. She’s wearing a bottle green turtleneck sweater once owned by Greta Garbo (a birthday gift – she recently turned 43), a navy Helly Hansen fleece, and long trousers patterned with what looks a bit like tessellated knife points: “Make yourself at home; can I get you a coffee?”

Hyvönen released her first album, Until Death Comes, in 2005 – the same year I started writing about music – but our paths have never really crossed until now. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and we are deep in conversation before I’ve even started taping. She perches on the piano bench while I take a chair at the desk across the room, next to a pile of CDs of the soon-to-be-released Dream Of Independence, album number five (or eight, if you include her Frida Hyvönen Gives You… series). But the distance feels terribly formal and she soon scoots over to the daybed next to the desk and immediately lies down. “I guess I’m used to being horizontal when I speak these days,” she says, leaning on a propped-up elbow. If I was wearing glasses, I’d have nudged them down my nose.

"I definitely feel like songwriting is a mix between what some might call ‘divine intervention’ and hard work."

In 2019, for nearly a year, Hyvönen went through an intense period of psychoanalysis, visiting a therapist on an almost daily basis. She had been writing new songs but couldn’t quite connect with their essence, and psychoanalysis had seemed like a chance to break through. For a long while it seemed like nothing would happen, but eventually the cogs and springs aligned and a hidden door swung open: “Honestly, it felt like my whole setup shifted and I started to remember things that I hadn’t remembered before.”

That’s not to say that the songs began to coalesce more freely, at least not right away. Ultimately, Hyvönen felt that the sessions themselves were consuming too much of her time and she quit. “It’s a shame because I feel like we just got started. Actually, I don’t think it’s a super wise thing to start something like that and then leave it without some sort of closure. For me it wasn’t a catastrophe, but I… wouldn’t recommend it to others.”

As it happens, the coronavirus crisis blew up soon after and those horizontal hours would likely have had to stop regardless. But having found her way into these new internal rooms, Hyvönen was loath to let them just fade away. Revisiting an old writing habit gave her the tools to re-enter those spaces alone and grow the seeds of song-ideas she found there. Every morning she would get up and write out, by hand, whatever thoughts she had that could fill three sides of paper. “It’s a method I’ve used a few times in my life, and what you get is nothing that you necessarily save,” she says. “It’s not like a proper diary, more just a useful way of concretising themes and thinking of new angles that you might want to explore.”

Any writer will tell you that some days it feels like panning for gold in a bathtub or digging for treasure with chopsticks – I’ve had three near-breakdowns just trying to finish this feature – but the feeling when it all slots into place is pure endorphins. Artists often speak of inspiration like it’s some kind of gift from the gods, but Hyvönen isn’t convinced. “I definitely feel like songwriting is a mix between what some might call ‘divine intervention’ and hard work. Inspiration comes crawling when you sit and wait, you know. You need to be there, you need to show up, and then your patience is rewarded.”

“On this album I’ve really tried to work towards being patient enough to wait for the true essence of every song, because I’ve compromised on that a few times in the past and, let me tell you, it’s really hard to live with.” Before I can even open my mouth she adds, “No, I’m not gonna tell you which songs.”

Hyvönen hasn’t always been content to sit and wait for something good to happen. At just 15 years old she left her family home in Robertsfors, a small town in northern Sweden, and got her own apartment in Skellefteå, the birthplace of The Wannadies and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson. There she attended a music school but never really connected with any particular scene. Music was just one thing she was interested in, as well as horses and dancing, and by 17 she came close to quitting education altogether.

“I remember myself as a teenager as having a huge curiosity,” she says. “I trusted myself at an early age and wanted to be free. Maybe leaving home at 15 is more unusual these days, but if you look at it biologically, I was on my period already, I was ready to fly according to nature. I remember feeling this great longing to try out my wings.”

Hyvönen was eventually persuaded to stick with her schooling, and in 1995 she transferred onto a different music program at the Södra Latin high school in Stockholm, just a five-minute walk from where we sit today. Moving to the capital was in many ways a necessary break, but Hyvönen was something of an introvert and for a long while music remained not much more than a hobby. “Before I started writing my own songs I made music in a lot of different forms, but a little at arm's length,” she says about the ten-year gap between moving to Stockholm and the release of Until Death Comes. “A verse to a house song here, singing on a Moondog cover there.”

Musically, Hyvönen’s early songs were largely written on a 4-track and built around her minimal, charmingly inelegant piano – a deliberate liberation from the weight of expectations – but lyrically she was already stepping into greatness. Songs like "I Drive My Friend" and "Once I Was A Serene Teenaged Child" showed a raw talent for emotionally rich storytelling, a talent that has only intensified in all the years and songs since.

That’s not just my opinion: the two Swedish Grammis on the shelf above the desk in Hyvönen’s cave read lyricist and composer of the year for a reason. She won both awards in 2017, for her superlative fourth album Kvinnor och barn, which most people outside of Sweden understandably slept on. The title translates to women and children – the narrators of the songs – and weighed in on heavy, triggering issues like domestic abuse, the refugee crisis, isolation and depression, and creepy old sex pests.

The song "Fredag morgon" (Friday morning) in particular struck a chord with listeners, moved by Hyvönen’s story of a woman receiving an email from a past abusive lover, based partly on her own experience in the early 2010s, unhappily married and living in Paris. “A lot of people, mostly women, started writing to me about their own stories of being in these abusive situations. It became a real sharing experience, on a much bigger level than anything I’d known before, for example, when I wrote about abortion [on "December" from 2008’s Silence Is Wild]. This was just before the whole #MeToo thing, and the issue was boiling… I mean, it’s always boiling, sadly.”

"I’ve been trying to learn to be more restrictive and to take better care of myself, but really I’m happy to keep my outlook open, even naïve, and have a willingness to try things."

There’s a prevailing opinion among the Swedes I know that Hyvönen is somehow more authentic and poetic when singing in her native tongue, which may be true to some extent, but not a stance to be considered at the expense of the rest of her work. She’s interested in my take, as a native English speaker who’s also spent time making sense of her Swedish, Norrland dialect and all. I suggest perhaps it’s not the way she writes that’s different, but that a non-native speaker might not fully appreciate the level of skill that goes into her wordcraft in English.

“Mmm, maybe that’s it. I also think part of it might be that Sweden is a pretty small country, and until fairly recently quite a homogenic country. It’s become better and more diverse, but when I was growing up everyone was so similar and had the same cultural influences, and I can feel that coming out a little when I write in Swedish. Like, it’s so safe for everyone who listens to it because they think that they can figure me out and place the real me in the songs, like they’re fully autobiographical or something.”

Hyvönen has always been clear that the ‘I’ in her songs is seldom entirely the woman who sings them. “I’m trying to make art and it kind of bugs me a little when I feel seen, like ‘oh it’s just Frida from my high school’, you know? I feel I can be more of an artist in a different language, more able to create something a bit more mythological.”

It’s interesting then that so much of Dream Of Independence concerns itself with the reconfiguring of myths and teasing out the tensions between Frida the artist and provider and Frida the mother and woman-of-a-certain-age. An important theme, too, is the fake dichotomy of leaders and followers that Hyvönen dissects on the title track, a gorgeously melodic, plaintive ballad that sets up the whole album. “I knew from the moment I had the melody that this song was going to be an important one for the record, but it took me a while to find what it was about. That’s the fascinating thing about writing, when you can hear something that you can’t quite put into words and you’re left asking ‘Who are you? Show yourself to me!’”

“I wanted to explore the idea that you can be really independent and in charge and also have a willingness to follow; that the two things are not, after all, in opposition. I think that if you trust yourself deeply you have a key to feeling safe wherever you are in the world, and sometimes I feel that people with that capacity – people who are perceived as strong – are usually huge followers, whereas those perceived as soft are often the ones who turn out to have the strictest rules about everything.”

She declines to go into detail, sensing perhaps how emphatically I feel this song. It’s like you’re singing from the pages of my own life, I almost blurt out. Instead, I ask if there have been times in her life when she thinks she might have been too independent. “I mean, my therapist certainly thinks so,” she says with a grin. “But you are who you are. I do think that sometimes my independent nature – my curiosity, certainly – has led me to compromise my borders, letting the wrong people in maybe.” (Hard relate.) “I’ve been trying to learn to be more restrictive and to take better care of myself, but really I’m happy to keep my outlook open, even naïve, and have a willingness to try things.”

Hyvönen – and, equally, not-Hyvönen – disavowed romance completely on Kvinnor och barn’s closing track "Amors förkastliga pilar" (Cupid’s objectionable arrows), but on Dream Of Independence she wears its missiles proudly. The tender three-song run of "14 At 41", "Flock" and "Sex" clues us into at least part of her domestic world away from the stage. A stage does figure in "14 At 41", though, as the song recounts the events of June, 2019, when Hyvönen showed up to a festival in Stockholm and fell quite suddenly in love with someone she bumped into.

That someone was Christian Kjellvander, a stalwart of the Swedish music scene since the early ‘90s, whom Hyvönen had previously met but never really had a chance to get to know. An “unexpected intimacy” evolved between them and, not a long time after, a contemporary nuclear family was formed: Hyvönen and her daughter Laura, who recently turned six, Kjellvander and his son, who’s a few years older. When Hyvönen tags Kjellvander on social media, his name is often prefaced with “min skyddsängel” (transl. my guardian angel). On the cover of his 2020 album, the pointedly titled About Love & Loving Again, he’s naked in the half-light of a morning on the French riviera; Hyvönen took the picture.

Of course, romance didn’t blossom exactly as "14 At 41" describes, but the song feels completely authentic and is brilliantly written. Hyvönen really captures that will-we-won’t-we nervousness and the huge swirling relief and disbelief of grasping that it’s real, given extra emotional heft by Anna Bergvall’s fairytale harp and a starring turn by Linnea Olsson on cello. Two divorcees sitting on the grass watching Lana Del Rey and stirring up a long-forgotten teenage feeling? I don’t mind telling you, I cried. “It’s definitely one of the more autobiographical songs on the album,” Hyvönen concedes, somewhat coyly. “It’s a special one for me, because I wrote it from a feeling of being very much in love… and I’m still in love!”

Hyvönen also notes how rare it is that ages over 30 are mentioned in songs, and her decision to make a feature of it here is part of a larger narrative explored on Dream Of Independence that brings the typically unsung experiences of older women into the spotlight. And with such wit! Hyvönen faces down the menopause in the standout ‘New Vision’, an elegy for her fading fertility that’s also… kind of hilarious?! Menstruation is a prison but also a party that’s on its last legs. “I’m not connecting with nature, I am nature,” she sings, “I finally admit it.”

"You can let the panic define you, or you can take that panic and examine it; see the humour in it; accept it."

Then there’s "Face Face", a gleeful sideswipe at the aging process and the album’s most rock ‘n’ roll moment. “Once my pride now a disgrace / Have you seen my aging face?” she scorns, clearly having a blast (such a straight rhyme is unusual in Hyvönen’s world), but there’s a serious message too. “The external decay can be horrible to experience but getting older is not the end of the world,” she muses. “You can let the panic define you, or you can take that panic and examine it; see the humour in it; accept it. I really notice the lack of intelligent stories about the experience of older women. What’s so great about being young that we can’t have these stories too?”

“When I write songs, my ideal is to express the kind of storytelling that you find in Dolly Parton lyrics. I’m not trying to be cutesy or clever, but just to aim for this sort of mensch storytelling. You know, to just be a real human talking about all the magical aspects of being alive, including getting older. It’s really important for me that my songs are somewhat down to earth and, even if it doesn’t always appear that way, ideally soaked in humour. It has to be fun, for me at least, so I will want to come back and perform it.”

Although touring has inevitably been on pause, Hyvönen did manage to play a few small, socially distanced live shows around Sweden this past summer, just her and “whatever old house piano that was lying around,” and she’s eager to get back out there with her band. It will be her first tour with an electric guitarist, as played by Bergvall, who makes her own music as Majken. “I’ve never been interested in the electric guitar before, in the sense of bringing it into my music,” Hyvönen explains. “But when I went to see Anna play, I really felt the raw emotion in her playing. She has a real je ne sais quoi, and I knew that she was my kind of guitarist.”

There's a sense of what she means in "A Funeral In Banbridge", the album’s first single and a classic in the Hyvönen genre. Bergvall’s guitar lines add a great deal of colour but never muscles in on the piano, and even on songs like ‘Face Face’ and "Head Of The Family", where the guitar has more to do, it still feels like a perfect fit. All three songs also benefit hugely from the presence of drummer Anna Lund, who Hyvönen met when Lund was playing in the house band for First Aid Kit’s Leonard Cohen tribute shows (soon to be released, four years after the fact, with Hyvönen guesting on "Everybody Knows" and a full cast rendition of "So Long, Marianne").

Remarkably, Dream Of Independence is Hyvönen’s first foray into self-production, a process she says taught her a lot about “daring to trust the inner vision and to work until I was genuinely pleased, even when no-one else necessarily applauded the results.” Hyvönen credits her label’s in-house sound engineer, Linn Fijal, with supporting her Covid-influenced decision to do without an external producer. “She had seen me work on other albums and said she thought I’d be fine. And I was, in that it was effective and easy when all was going well. But a lot of the time I was on my own and the hardest part about that was not having someone who could be enthusiastic when I wasn’t.”

In that sense, perhaps Hyvönen’s most important collaborator on the album was not a musician at all, but a painter. Sara-Vide Ericson is the artist behind the arresting cover portrait of Dream Of Independence and became involved in the album quite early on in its gestation when Hyvönen commissioned a painting. She says she wasn’t necessarily thinking of a portrait at the time, but over several months of swapping ideas and song sketches, the two women eventually came to the conclusion that the subject of the painting should be Hyvönen herself.

The idea to portray her as a sort of water goddess figure came partly from Ericson’s past use of myths to inform her work, and partly from "Painter", the closing song on Dream Of Independence. The lyrics are narrated from the perspective of a songwriter in denial (Hyvönen/not-Hyvönen, remember), making excuses for why they haven’t produced a larger body of work – is it because they’re really a painter? a woman with a weakness? or did the muses not deliver the full package? “The song is about unsubscribing from various myths,” Hyvönen explains, “the myth of the genius artist, the myth of the goddess.”

Right up to the last days before the women were due to photograph the figure studies for the painting, Ericson had a niggling feeling that something was missing, some kind of additional material that would serve to earth the image. She had the idea that it should be something precious, something natural but not connected to the location they’d chosen for the shoot. Inspiration struck when she found one of her old marble paint palettes that had been washed clean by the weather, and then smashed it into pieces.

The broken slab became a symbol for the breached defences that Hyvönen alludes to in the title track of Dream Of Independence (“It’s not a room of one’s own / it’s a dam in the river / I’m exploding my own nature / just to make it in this world”). “Acting above nature has consequences, and I liked the idea of using that in relation to creativity,” she says. “It’s an effort to go deep and investigate what’s there, to halt instead of follow the flow.”

For Ericson, the painting seemed to have its own intensity from the start, a very physical memory of the shoot and how the atmosphere around the women seemed to thicken, as if the movement of the stones between shots was enough to cast a spell. Listening back to "Painter" as she worked, she “suddenly felt ambushed, in a wonderful way,” as the intention of the song at last became clear, and the music of her own movements – the grinding, mixing and daubing of colours – began to charge the image with something more; a ‘marble rhythm’ that gives the work its name.

In the painting, Hyvönen crouches by a pool of water, strong and alert. She wears a secondhand white shift dress, her knees at an angle and bare. In one hand she lifts the largest piece of marble like a sluice, while other fragments of the slab jut out from the shallows like half-completed lyrics. “All of the songs on the album are about pieces of something broken,” she says, “which is something one thinks about a lot as a creator.”

“Sometimes you feel like a hologram of yourself and it’s only through the timeline of your work that you can picture the full person. Other times through your work you see your life as a reflection, and it feeds into the narrative of what you do next. And then there are times when the reflection of your life looks more like ‘yourself’ than you do.”

Dream Of Independence is out now on RMV Grammofon
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