Pop music’s quite the thing isn’t it? Aside from wonderful artists making wonderful music for as long as we can remember, it also weaves tales that demand attention, stories of overnight success, or years of hard graft finally paying off; buskers get signed by label execs who just happen to have been walking by, or a waitress absent-mindedly singing to get through her shift whose life is changed overnight just because the big man from A&R was sitting there having his third espresso of the day. To this we can add the story of 17 year old Swede Amanda Mair, who at the age of 15 signed to acclaimed and revered Swedish record label Labrador (home of Club 8, Acid House Kings and the Mary Onettes). After being encouraged to record a few covers at the local studio by her mother, studio owner Tom Steffenson – who also happened to be the touring drummer in Club 8 – liked what he heard and alerted bandmate, friend and Labrador boss Johan Angergård to Mair’s precocious talent. With her voice unquestionable, Angergård roped in Mary Onettes leader Philip Ekström to write and produce songs that would best show off Mair’s talents. And as the Labrador site suggests, the sound they ended up with was “a young, Swedish Dusty Springfield produced by Kate Bush”.
The end result isn’t really the Swedish version of Dusty in Memphis (Amanda in Stockholm, anyone?) and it’d be silly to compare Amanda Mair to that legend at this stage in her career; in any case her vocals bear more comparison to Kate Bush, an artist Mair admitted she hadn’t heard of (more of which later) when recording debut album Amanda Mair. It’s a pure pop record, bearing all the hallmarks of a Labrador release: pristine production, big hooks, melodies galore and above all, plenty of quality.
‘Said and Done’ opens proceedings with some Eastern strings and develops into a mid-tempo song about having no regrets, with Mair backed by clever percussion and stabs of piano. ‘Doubt’ begins with Spectoresque drums and bright keys, and Mair singing: “I run from the people I love, I will always stay true to my heart”. The track develops into a fizzing ’80s pop song, and a chorus filled with, ahem, doubt: “I wanna become what people become, but I know I’ll stay here/I wanna become what I’ll never become, but I know I’ll stay here/It’s how you’ll be one step ahead of me, I let you be one step ahead of me”. This is the sound of a song written by someone with experience, sung by someone who’s yet to go through all the ups and downs of love but who can translate the song and relate it to her own nascent experiences. To do that takes a talent, and Mair has it: she’s got intuition to go with her great voice. ‘House’ is a moving song about an apartment shared with a former lover that no longer holds its appeal, and it’s here we can hear that Kate Bush voice in all its glory. The backing track is suitably epic and defined, but doesn’t overpower Mair’s voice by layering on the paino-and-strings motif too thickly.
The click and swing of ‘Sense’ is probably the highlight of the album, its ’60s girl group vibe a real delight, the lyrics telling a story of Mair trying to forget a lover, but seeing his picture wherever she goes. The video for the song plays on Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, and there’s a very funny moment when the placards that Mair holds reveal her musical preferences: (“who is Kate Bush”, then “I prefer Spice Girls”).
A quieter, more tender moment appears in the ballad ‘Skinnarviksberget’ (a hill above Stockholm, and a fine place to hang out in the summer months), the song showing off Mair’s voice and piano playing. It’s also something she can directly relate to, being a track about the innocence of youth.
The second half of the record is something of a minor disappointment in that it doesn’t continue the strong start, but ‘Before’ and ‘It’s Gonna Be Long’ are both further examples of Angergård and Ekström’s innate ability to channel their pop sensibilities into something complex yet catchy, ensuring that Amanda Mair deserves her place in the ever-impressive Labrador roster.
For Amanda Mair to release an album of such quality, at such a tender age, points to an enormous talent waiting to blossom even further. Sure, the songs are written for her at this stage, but she continues to receive musical education – both formal and informal – and there would be no surprise in discovering she’s got an equally impressive ability for writing songs as well as singing them. Forget any comparisons; let’s just enjoy Amanda Mair and its pop charms on its own fine merits.