MyCrazyBlog Interview: Theresa Andersson

Theresa Andersson returned to San Francisco, as a headliner this time, and played a fantastic show at the Swedish American Hall on 5/14. Born and raised in Sweden, Andersson moved to New Orleans at the age of 18 and has lived there for almost 20 years, until recently mostly singing and playing the violin on the local scene. Over the last couple years she’s tried a unique “one-woman band” approach, carefully choreographing her stunningly expressive voice with at least half a dozen instruments, and a huge, to my eyes mind-bogglingly complicated, looping machine. To call her multi-talented would be a gross understatement.  At the Swedish American Hall last week she played tunes from her album Hummingbird, Go!, such as “Birds Fly Away” and “Innan Du Gar,” and also worked in some highly original covers like Nina Simone’s “See Line Woman,” and Allen Toussaint’s “On the Way Down.” After the show MCMB had the privilege of interviewing her.

MCMB: These days you’re aptly billed as a “one-woman band.” I’m sure this wasn’t always the case. How did you start out? What was your first instrument?

Theresa Andersson: Well, when I was little and living in Sweden still I started singing with my mom by the piano. And we had music through school, and I went to pick an instrument, and I really wanted to play flute, but all the slots were full so I picked violin instead. That was my first instrument besides singing. I stuck to violin and singing for a long time then I started playing a little bit of guitar. I think I added tambourine at some point but that was it. It wasn’t until I recorded Hummingbird, Go! that I actually picked up all the other instruments.

MCMB: That was the first time that you tried…

Theresa Andersson: Drums, and playing the water glasses and all the other rhythms, dulcimer. Yeah I experimented a lot for the record. It was all pretty new.

MCMB: How’d you hit on this approach, the looping and such?

T.A.: Well it was kind of by necessity at first. I was invited to go touring in Sweden and we could only afford to bring one person, so I didn’t have any touring support or anything like that so that’s when I got my looping pedal, and I felt like I’d really stumbled upon this amazing art form. Looping is… it’s limiting, it has a lot of limitations, but it also has a lot of unique approaches to playing music. It’s a very abstract way of creating the sound of a band. You can layer things and make things spill a lot and create all kinds of different shapes and textures musically.

MCMB: So this was like a trial by fire kind of, you started doing this on a tour. Did it come naturally?
T.A.: At first I put together some songs with just one loop pedal, so I didn’t have all the drums and the more intricate stuff worked out yet, and I was looping simpler stuff, like “Oh Mary” is a pretty simple looping. It was received very well and I discovered that I really enjoyed this kind of art form. It incorporates a lot more than music too, it’s almost like a dance up there. And when I came back to try to develop the looping I spent a lot of time arranging the songs in a way that made them very fluid and not so blocky. When I started I kept everything synchronized, just because it was easier. Then I started experimenting with not synchronizing anything, and that way I could have different length loops. Like maybe one would be two bars and another one would be four bars, and another one would be really really long like undertone time and I could just mirror it. So I’m like the giant brain in the middle that decides where everything goes. And sometimes it just spills out of whack and it’s really super interesting, it has its own life that way.

MCMB: Sounds like there’s a lot going on.

T.A.: Yeah, in the beginning I would get these serious headaches, and I actually had like 3 car wrecks when I started doing the looping cause I was so in my head the whole time. And I come from a way of playing music where I would just improvise everything, now it was very detail-oriented. In the beginning it took a lot to figure it all out and during the first summer I did it I had these blazing head aches, and I never get head aches. Eventually as I got more comfortable, and kept working on it, like I would rehearse 8 to 10 hours a day for weeks just to put a show together. And I took it really seriously like that, like working on a theater piece or something. Eventually I would feel comfortable and not so stressed out about it. And of course I made every mistake in the book, but I learned to deal with it.

MCMB: I have some questions about New Orleans, how that city influenced you and why it fit you so well. One of the strengths of the music there is that it’s really uninhibited and with a lot of improvisation. So how do you see your approach now, your influences in New Orleans along with your Swedish upbringing?

T.A.: Well, it was a weird thing. When I grew up in Sweden I was around Swedish folk music, and a little bit of jazz, but not really anything I listened to, my parents didn’t really listen to jazz. They had some Halia Jackson and I loved her growing up. When I was very little I’d put mom’s and dad’s vinyl on and Aretha Franklin. They had a very small record collection. All that stuff wasn’t really available on the radio and there wasn’t internet.

MCMB: Right

T.A.: When I moved to New Orleans I remember coming into town and walking into the French Quarter and going into Jackson Square. And at the time they had all these brass bands playing down there, and I was just blown away. There was Tuba Fats, and Linda Young singing, she had such a big voice. She would sing and you could hear it like two blocks away. That style of singing was just amazing.

MCMB: So was it a love at first sight kind of thing or was there a period of adjustment?

T.A.: I was just shocked. It felt like this intense buzz all over my body. I was tingling just from the experience of taking in all this amazing music. I would say that the way the music I heard growing up was very contained, a little bit careful and understated, softer and when I moved to New Orleans it was very visceral… And you know, the rhythms… Your hips just start moving whether you want to or not, you know you can’t stand still.

MCMB: You can even see the cultural differences here in San Francisco… you know, I would never see a nightclub in New Orleans that had full seating and didn’t allow alcohol.
T.A.: Yeah, exactly, that wouldn’t exist. It would be the opposite. There’d be no seats and there would be bars lining the walls. And that’s been a little bit frustrating too as a performer. You get drawn into this thing of keeping the drunk people happy and keeping them dancing. I have been frustrated by that in the past, cause I really wanted to make more of an artistic statement, and not just keeping people dancing and drinking. But that said I find a lot of inspiration in that element of New Orleans music.

MCMB: What are your impressions of San Francisco?

T.A.: I love it, it’s very cultural. Everyone here seems to know a lot about art music, and the city is just beautiful, architecturally and all the hills and colors. You turn any corner and there’s something new and crazy to see.

MCMB: So has anything changed for you with the release of Hummingbird, Go!? Do you feel like you’re in a breakout year maybe?
T.A.: Huh, it’s interesting that you say that. I’ve been so busy working, I’ve been just touring touring touring and playing, and what I have noticed is… you know at some point a record has done what it can do and you have to move on and go into the process of making another one. And I thought it’d slowed down, but it hasn’t slowed down yet, and I guess coming back to San Francisco, we were here in January right? And I did two shows and they were packed, and now we came back into a bigger venue. So I’m just very thrilled with all of it. And that’s all you can wish for you know, cause the people decide, you can try all you want but if the people don’t like it you gotta go home and work on your stuff.

MCMB: Well it seems like they like it.

T.A.: It felt real nice tonight. It was an amazing crowd and they were so giving, really exciting.

MCMB: I’ve seen your name pop up a lot, as an Artist to Watch and all that. Is it encouraging that you’re getting really positive press from doing what you want to do? Cause I feel like often artists have to make a sort of compromise to get that.

T.A.: Yeah, I’ve been getting a lot of love from the press and it feels amazing. I personally feel like with this record I really wanted to take away all ideas of pleasing anyone but myself. I really wanted it to be very personal, and I took it to a place that I’ve never gone before. I’ve never written something by myself. Normally I’ve been sitting down with cool writers, and this time I wrote all the music. I didn’t write the lyrics, that was Jessica Faust who is a poet from New Orleans, and Tobias Fröberg also wrote some for it, and I did that because I really just wanted to focus on all the melodies and the coloring and the shapes of the songs, and it took a lot of time to make that happen. The other guys just magically make the words work, cause they sound like they came from my brain and my heart. I’m very proud of the record, you know, and I’m glad that other people like it too.

[This article originally appeared on MyCrazyMusicBlog, and cannot be reproduced without permission. Thank You]

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