Not many people can claim they wrote a song that was one of the most ubiquitous of the decade. Nina Persson probably wouldn't either but that is exactly what she did with 'Lovefool'. An irresistible, bitter-sweet indie-pop gem, it became a global hit for The Cardigans in the 90s, fuelled by its appearance in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Incidentally, it was the first song Nina ever wrote. We'll try not to hold this against her.
We meet on the first sunny day of the year at a studio in an eerily quiet industrial estate near Kings Cross. It's an unassuming place which provides a retreat for Nina and her band who are rehearsing for a radio session later in the day. She is in the UK as part of her European tour to promote her début solo album Animal Heart and she is in good spirits. Dressed in all black, her famous blond locks have darkened to her natural brunette but her vulpine features and impossibly high cheekbones remain. Contrary to her icy temptress image, she in a lively interviewee and she speaks energetically throughout. She enthuses about recent shows in Paris and London which she proudly tells me that they went down a storm. It must be quite a relief to be so well received?
“I don't know. I knew that it would be different, possibly. Of course, I was prepared for something else. To just get that [reaction] again, it felt really good just because I am so slow at making music. Whatever I do, I always end up in a situation where I hit from below. Always. I never feel like I can make a new record and surf on the wave. I always go underneath the rock and get moss growing all over me and then I come out. I know I do it. That's what happens when you go away.”
Whilst it would be unfair to say she has been unproductive in the last 10 years, you could be forgiven for getting impatient if you were die-hard Cardigans fan. The last album with the band was 2005's Super Extra Gravity and there was a second album with her side project A Camp in 2009. Aside from a few collaborations, that's about it. What has been taking her so long? “I'm just quite...” she hesitates “...I love life. It sounds so cheesy but touring and making records is so intense that by the time I get breaks, I really enjoy them. I truly do. I've worked so much since I was 18 so the last ten years or something I've gotten a taste for life too. The opposite of working, really.”
The Cardigans reached their dizzy peak after 'Lovefool' with their fourth album Gran Turismo in 1998. Selling more than 3 million copies worldwide, it rebuffed any one-hit-wonder labels with 'My Favourite Game' and 'Erase and Rewind' charting on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in Europe. Two more albums followed with The Cardigans as well as another two albums with side project A Camp. The decision to make a solo album now, 20 years since her first record, is more pragmatic than anything conceptual.
“It started out with a really crass realisation that I can't work in the same intensity as before and that I would have to be super hardcore on how to plan things because I have a kid. I didn't before so I would make a record and then I just sold myself all together to the project and jumped. But I can't now. So I was like, how the fuck do I do this job with a kid? And then I realised if I did it on my own, I'm not killing the vibe for the other people who are ready to jump and go. I suffer my own consequences and call my own shots. That was the really boring start of it.”
That being said, it's still an odd point to start making solo records. The Cardigans haven't split up, she made records under the A Camp moniker and numerous collaborations too (least we forget the bombastic 'Burning Down The House' with Tom Jones on his late-90s comeback album Reloaded). I mention that Animal Heart has come at a strange point in her career, clocking in at album number 9 and she animatedly jumps in. “Yes! When I just finished the last record, I was like 'Fuck! Just one more and then I'm in double figures!' 9 is such a lame number, I can't wait to make it to 10”. If going solo at album no.9 isn't a concern, I ask at what point does she gets the validation from making music. Is it when the recording is finished, when its released, or later down the line? “I think it comes in little spurts. For me when I started to work on this record, when I was like 2 songs down, I was like 'fuck it still works!'. That was a validation in itself because I didn't know. It had been a long time. Also, having a kid, your brain gets really weird for a while, so I was like, what if I can't tap into those areas any more?”
Was that scary?
“Yes because that has always been so fragile to me. I've never been sure if I've had it or not. I've always doubted it, in a way.”
Even after the success of 'Lovefool'?
“Yer its weird.” For a moment she looks withdrawn and pauses “...it all has to do with self-confidence, I guess. And I think it has to do with being a woman in the industry and all that too. It's hard for me to take it seriously that I've done these things, I can't really trust it.”
Her experience isn't a solitary one. Sexism had been a recurring issue lately with many female musicians pointing to problems which only seem to affect them as opposed to their male peers. It seems appropriate that the day we meet is International Women's Day. What does this day mean to her? “It means a lot to me. I'm getting more and more...uh...well, I've always been quite pissed off to be honest.” She smirks. Recently Nina got together with over 150 female artists in Sweden and published an editorial about how women are forgotten in history when it comes to the arts. “It was really rewarding because that thing really sparked a great debate, so I'm really glad that that happened.” Given the recent success of female Swedish musicians like Lykke Li, First Aid Kit, Icona Pop, does she feel proud of her contribution to this success? “That's something I really do feel. It's a really fuzzy feeling for me to understand that.”
Recalling a more basic but powerful example of her position as a role model, she tells me about a scheme in Sweden to get young girls performing music. “It's called called Popkollo, it's mean like 'Pop Camp', I think its been going for 10 years at this point”. Started by friends of Nina's, its a summer camp where teenage girls, under the supervision of other female musicians, are encouraged to start bands, write songs and perform, culminating in a show at the end of the classes. “I've been mentoring and its such an amazing feeling. It's one of those things because when you make music you feel there is a little bit that makes you feel like you are just a fucking entertainer. I think [making] music is incredibly important but that's a moment where you feel like you might saving lives to some degree.” It's not just teenage girls either. “They now have Popkollo Madame, which means middle age women get to do it!” Lock up your sons, the rock'n'roll mums of Sweden are coming!
A more sombre anniversary took place the week we meet, namely the 4th year since the passing of Mark Linkous. Nina, whom once described Sparklehorse as “the best I've ever heard” had the honour of working with him on a couple of occasions. “I constantly had this feeling that this was something important, that something really amazing was happening right now.” After reading that Nina was a fan, Linkous invited her to one of his shows in Sweden. “I freaked out, but I went”. After being introduced, she sheepishly handed over some demos which would later become part of the first A Camp record. A few weeks later he got back in touch to say he had been listening to the tapes in his car and he really liked them. “I think not long after that he invited me to come sing on his record (It's a Wonderful Life) and then I worked up the guts to ask him if he would return the favour. He had never produced for anyone else, he had only worked on his own stuff, so I was very open to him saying no because some people just don't want to do it. He eventually entered to do my first A Camp record.”
The period they started working together was not long after Linkous had a serious overdose. The accident left him with quite severe physical problems which caused him to constantly be in a lot of pain. This is the reason that is believed to have caused him to take his own life. The time he and Nina spent in the studio together was under the shadow of this pain. “It was super but to work with him it was very intense. He was a very troubled person. He was very much navigating around his problems.”
“He was not the sort of producer who would take charge and make the schedule or make sure you were economic with the studio time or whatever. He was not like that. I only wanted his mind really and his musicianship. And that's all I got.” She laughs. “I was just overwhelmed. It was a very unlikely friendship because we were so different, the age difference, the culture difference, all of it. The way we are. I am a fairly functional person in comparison to him. But it was beautiful.”
Whilst we are looking back, it only seems right to ask about the band that made all this possible in the first place. In the past Nina has spoken quite bluntly about the negative effect that quick success had on The Cardigans. "I'm not saying I was a slave but I was being restricted. It upset me" she once said. Her opinion about the past hasn't particularly changed, specifically around the time after Gran Turismo “which had really wore us out, very severely”. But the band are on good terms now. They toured Gran Turismo in its entirety on the festival circuit in in 2012/13 and thoughts are starting to return about making a new record. “We talked a lot about it and we have the lust to do it a lot but how the fuck are we going to get it together? I live in New York, Pete lives in LA a lot of the time, the other people are in Sweden and have day jobs and people have kids. We don't have budgets any more. You need to have somebody to believe in you and provide you with money to do it and all these things. “
Are there any fears creatively that any new material has to be of the same quality? “I'm not at all fearful because we've had such a capacity before to just get good things together and above that we've become better musician since last time so that not at all am I scared of it.”
I was going to ask if she ever gets tired of talking about her old band but as she repeatedly refers back to them in the interview I suggest, perhaps, she has fallen back in love with them? “We fell back in love in a way when we just started to play together again. It's been super tiresome and it's even been painful in periods to deal with that luggage. It's been luggage for periods too. But I don't feel like that any more because we don't have a troubled situation at all. That's why I can enjoy what we have done. And now making this record by myself I can feel so grateful to it too because that's where I grew up really. And we are also really good friends. I'm going tomorrow morning to fly back to Sweden. Two guys from The Cardigans have a great band, Brothers of End, and I sang on a song with them and we are shooting a video for it. So I'm singing a duet with Lars from the band, its beautiful, it feels so cool. So whatever happens, we have something. Even if there isn't a Cardigans record, we have something.”
Animal Heart is out now via Lojinx.