Interview – Cornelia
Interview with Cornelia – June 2015
Cornelia Dahlgren is a singer-songwriter who originates from Sweden and is now based in the UK. Following two years writing, recording and touring with the likes of Portico (Quartet), Dark Sky, Bonobo, Kwes and Scratcha DVA, she set about recording her first album as a solo artist.
She releases her debut album Balun on June 15th on Camp Mozart Records. [sic] Magazine recently spoke to her and asked her about the recording of the album.
Paul Lockett: Hi Cornelia, how are you today?
Cornelia: Hey, Paul, really good, thanks, I just came back from a trip to Norway and I’ve just arrived home.
PL: I’ve never been to that part of the world but I believe it’s very beautiful over there.
C: It is indeed and we were really lucky with the weather too.
PL: Can we start off by discussing how long you have been writing & performing?
C: Way too long, I think! It’s just one of those things where you realise after a while that’s what you’re good at doing, really. It was just part of life to do this as a hobby on the side of studies, work and all sorts of things, then eventually I realised that I had to give in to the fact that it was something that took up so much of my time that I… I went to school thinking about what the next song would be about or how I should arrange the next recording. It was just a matter of time really.
PL: So how did the songs on ‘Balun’ generally come together? Were they written over a protracted period – or did they come together quite quickly?
C: Well, you’re right there. Most of them came about over the period when I was moving to London, but to be completely honest with you, the songs I wrote for Portico and Bonobo and those guys, they came about pretty much after I’d written these songs. But they were sort of waiting for an excuse to come out, so after doing lots of collaborations for the last couple of years, I just felt like I really needed to sit down and properly record these songs and put them together in a context.
PL: Did the ideas for the songs start somewhere and end up somewhere completely different – in terms of maybe the sound or the production, for example, they maybe started off as an acoustic track and then developed into more of an electronic sound?
C: I think so, I think you have a point there. The issue I had with lots of the songs was that… for instance, on ‘Cruising’ I wrote it on an onmichord (an electronic musical instrument which was introduced in the early 1980s) which I really enjoy using because it’s a very easy instrument to come up with ideas on. I recorded a pretty-much-finished demo at home and then I had ‘Oh Well’, which I co-wrote with a guy called Jamie Woon, which we recorded as an acoustic song from the beginning with a harp. Then I was thinking – how am I supposed to put all these songs together? So I collected the songs which I felt were essential to where I was at the time. I played all my demos to an engineer called Greg Freeman and he said, “Why don’t you come over to Bristol?”. We then basically re-recorded quite a lot of the sounds. We both gathered around these songs and picked those that we felt would work together – and produced them together into a more cohesive record.
PL: There is a lot of variation on the album. You mentioned the track ‘Oh Well’ and I want to ask you about that song and where it came from because it’s quite different to many of the other tracks on the album. If you were to listen to that song in isolation and you knew nothing about the rest of the album, you would be surprised when you hear the other tracks.
C: (laughs) – I know! Unfortunately I think that is why I really enjoy writing music for other people because I can put myself in a situation where I look at what their artist persona is and I can pinpoint exactly what I’m going to do for them. But when you look at yourself in the mirror, it’s always a more complex story isn’t it? You have an insight into all the complexities of being a human being. So it’s always been a little bit of a curse, but also something that I really enjoy. At the end of it, it’s all songwriting, so I hope that even though ‘Oh Well’ is more acoustic than the other songs on the album, it still sounds cohesive.
PL: The other thought I’ve had while listening to ‘Oh Well’ was I wondered where it comes from – do you find yourself saying ‘Oh Well’ quite a lot?
PL: As in something like, ‘We’ve crashed the car – oh well!’.
C: (laughs) – It’s about completely starting from scratch, changing your life. That song is the very definition of turning a page. Without going into too much detail, it’s essentially about love becoming a friendship. When you get to that stage where you tell yourself ‘Oh Well’, it is what it is. Instead of being sad about it, maybe this is for the best – and when you reach that point, you can kind of allow yourself to say ‘Oh Well’, I think, and look at the bright side of it. It’s still a sad song, there is a hidden sadness in it, but that’s up for interpretation. I really enjoy when people come up to me and say ‘I love this song… it means a lot to me because…’ – and they have their own interpretation of what the song is about.
I don’t really want to put too much description into every song because I think that art is really something that you give to another human being, to become part of their life and help them on their journey.
PL: That’s quite a nice way to look at it, I think. You’re right – I’ve heard it said before by others that once the song is out there, it’s no longer yours anymore, it becomes somebody else’s song and the soundtrack to somebody else’s life – they then read into the song something possibly different than you originally intended when you wrote it.
C: Yeah, I guess that’s really the point of why we’re all doing this. The satisfaction of being able to contribute something is a big, big part of it.
PL: Let me pick up on your point about turning the page – you moved to London from Sweden several years ago. What are the things you’ve really grown to love about London and what sort of things do you miss about Sweden?
C: Mmm… it’s funny because I just came back from a weekend trip in Sweden and Norway and it made me reflect on this. The most obvious thing that I love about London is the diversity and the complete openness that people automatically have about every single person’s history and culture.
PL: Is that quite different in Sweden? Are the people there more guarded about that sort of thing?
C: Without sounding too judgemental I lived in Stockholm for quite a long time and even though we are very open-minded as Swedes, because we are a very small country we have to look abroad to develop. The beauty of living in – and I would especially call London this – a multicultural environment, is what I feel is the biggest positive thing about London. It helps see the rest of the world in a much more realistic way.
PL: Has it aided your creative side more than if you’d stayed in Stockholm?
C: Definitely, Definitely. Every journey has its time – and it was time for me to move on. I absolutely love Sweden, it’s still the most beautiful country – and Stockholm especially is a very, very beautiful city, but in the UK I feel like I’ve got more of a grip on what the world is about – I don’t need to fight the fact that we’re all different people and different stories all need to be told. It sounds vague, it’s hard to put words around this.
PL: Picking up on that point, do some of the songs reflect those times in Sweden, maybe in an obtuse way or otherwise, but is there part of the ‘old’ you in the songs as well as the ‘new’ you?
C: Mmm… I think the track ‘Not In Love’ is probably a good description – even if it’s possibly the most cheery song on the album, I would definitely put a ‘pop’ description on that song. It does reflect a period when I couldn’t find it attractive enough to ‘settle down’. I was a bit of an ‘island hopper’ in many ways, both between countries and between relationships and all sorts of situations – that’s probably the closest.
PL: So do you think you’ve become more content with yourself?
C: Oooh, are we ever? The unhappiness you feel when you don’t feel like you are developing as a human being, that’s when it’s time to move on – or that’s the time when you need to sit down and work out what is important in life.
PL: So where do the songs generally originate? Do you start off with a melody, is it a lyric, is it something you’re humming in your head as you’re driving, singing in the shower? Or is it a mixture of all of these things?
C: I think it’s a mixture, but this is a very interesting point – when I write for myself, deep inside I’m still a traditional songwriter in the sense that I come up with the melody and the lyrics first and then I play it on the piano, or on the omnichord or whatever instrument I’m using to pin down the chords. For me, when I write my own music, the production and the sound comes normally as an answer to the melody, lyrics and chords. Now, actually, there’s a big difference because for the new music which I’m creating at the moment there’s a slight change because I’m using ‘Ableton Live’ more (a software music sequencer and digital audio workstation) and I’m recording a lot of my songs sometimes starting with a beat – and that has sort of restructured my songwriting.
When it comes to ‘Balun’, definitely the music is first and the production second. That was the perfect concept because it meant that I could step back and work out which songs were right for the album and then engage in where I wanted the sound to be – do I keep the omnichord throughout the whole song or only keep it for a few notes? We decided in the end to use live drums because I’d recorded a lot of beats at home, which were driving but quite simple. I felt we needed something which was more organic because there were a lot of electronic sounds already; luckily enough Greg (Freeman) is a drummer, so we ended up recording mainly live drums and then tweaking them in production to get the sound we wanted. Everything is actually live, which is a very nice touch I think.
PL: What stood out for me is that generally, as a band, everybody wants to contribute to a recording, i.e. the guitarist wants to be heard, the drummer wants to be heard, the vocalist wants to be heard, so there’s almost a bit of competition going on which kind of creates a ‘volume war’. What’s really nice about your album is that it feels like there’s a lot of space. To create space, you obviously have to restrict the amount of musical input and strip everything back to allow the vocal to really project, so the songs don’t feel crowded out by instrumentation. I think it’s actually more difficult to make an album where you have almost a ‘less is more’ policy – than an album where everybody is doing their bit but the end result sounds like there’s too much going on. Is that something that you were consciously thinking about while you were writing the album or is that naturally the way that you tend to approach a recording?
C: I’m so glad you noticed that, it makes me really happy, because it was part of the reason why… originally most of the recordings were very cluttered, and that was because I was recording everything on my own with lots and lots of ideas. What I did when I finally chose the songs which would go on the album was that I started taking everything out and whenever I added a different sound, it was essential that the sound added something. It was a conscious choice and I knew it would be a bit of a controversial one because a lot of the music that I listen to with the musicians I work with on projects is quite loud, so maybe this was a reaction in terms of trying to make something that was a bit different.
PL: I think it works well as a result, because if everybody else is loud, it’s very difficult to stand out against that backdrop.
C: I’ve never thought about it like that. I’m very much into the science behind how our brains react to sounds and it’s the reason I started getting into ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response), which is an old thing which has started to gain a lot of interest online. It just proves how we as human beings are affected by sounds and how they either get our hearts pumping or help our brains to relax. One of the main points with this album was to make it for the person who listens to it in their headphones rather than going to a nightclub.
PL: I would agree with that. For me, it’s a ‘late at night’ album in a room with the lights turned low. With your voice coming out of the speakers, that’s how I’ve enjoyed listening to the album most. Strangely enough, you mentioned ‘Not In Love’, and that track is something which I could definitely dance to in a nightclub. It has a lot of ‘party spirit’, which comes as a big surprise after the first half of the album, especially after ‘Cruising’. ‘Not In Love’ works surprisingly well within the confines of the rest of the album. All the songs are very different but seem to weave together nicely.
C: I’m so glad that you’ve said that. It is a bit of a risk to take, to do something which is built around conceptual thinking. There’s a lot of music happening now where you choose to go down the disco route or the dance route or the ambient route, and I wanted to get away from that and focus on the songs, but still have a sound that brings them all together.
PL: So let me ask you about ‘Cruising’, because the first thing I ever saw of you was the ‘Cruising’ video which I was quite amazed by because it’s not like any other video which I’ve ever seen. I heard that a drone had been used to film it, flying around Santa Monica in California. Where did the video idea come from?
C: When it comes to the creative side, I have a lot of freedom. For this particular video, I had already previously filmed a completely different video in a nightclub. When I went through the material which we had, I realised that it didn’t fit the song at all, because the song is all about somebody who can’t settle down, somebody who isn’t allowing him or herself to be able to stay still – and a lot of the shots which we had in the club were sort of… well, there was a still camera and there were lots of people moving around in a pub environment and I just felt it looked too easy and it didn’t really illustrate the song, so I just went completely the other way and thought – I need a moving camera and something that is following the music rather than the lyric, and I thought that fitted in really well. I’ve spent some weeks in L.A. and I’ve had that feeling of constant moving around in a lot of strange and interesting, but also very emotional rollercoasters.
PL: Are there any plans to tour the album at all?
C: I have to be completely honest with you – I had a completely different idea about this album in the beginning. It started off as something which I was going to just release on BandCamp, and then I made my first video (‘How Far’), after which I was contacted by a lot of people who said ‘What are you going to do with this album? I really like the sound of it’, so I decided to make a proper press release and after that I decided I was going to make music videos for all of the songs. In my head, I was still thinking that I write music for lots of different people – but I’m only one person, so I didn’t really have an idea of what I would do for a live setup. Now, I’ve realised that there’s a bit of interest out there for a live setup, so one of the steps after I’ve finished all the music videos in late Summer/Autumn will be to set up something live that I think will work with the album.
The music was initially made for the headphones – or the living room – this idea that all music fits in a nightclub, I’m not really a fan of that. I would feel a lot more comfortable playing in someone’s living room – maybe by doing a living room tour (laughs) – and doing a small setup with my Ableton Live, my omnichord, a microphone and some pedals – rather than emulate people coming to a nightclub which usually plays either rock ‘n’ roll or house music. I need to find the right place for it, really. When you perform your own music and you make all the music yourself, you only have two hands, one voice and two feet, it’s a different story. You have to build it a different way to keep the interest and to keep the moment, and I think an intimate venue would work a lot better for me.
PL: Cornelia, Thank You very much.
Photography by Greg Holland
Interview by Paul Lockett