The Swedish Invasion: Talking with Alice Boman about the Power of Musical Simplicity

Alice

Think about the things that make you feel anything, at all. They’re pure and uncomplicated. An americano, black, no sugar; crisp white bedsheets; a whiff of suntan lotion in July. Alice Boman, an emerging singer songwriter from Sweden, feels the same way about music: What is simple is powerful. On paper, her lyrics would underwhelm. The melodies, rendered in basic piano chords, don’t attempt to innovate. But then she sings, and before you know it your heart hurts. Her voice, delicate and strong at the same time (and ever-so-slightly and enchantingly foreign), transforms a straightforward question, or just a hint of a narrative, into an emotion that is instantly familiar and intensely personal. Because there is so much she merely suggests, it’s easy (and addictive) to make her music whatever you want it to be, and then to attach yourself to it fiercely. Tonight at Rough Trade, the twenty-seven-year old musician from Malmö will perform a solo set off of her spare and beautiful debut album, EP II (+ Skisser EP), released in North America last summer by the small New York label, The Control Group.

I met Boman last weekend at cafe Búdin in Greenpoint. Fat flakes were parachuting in droves from the sky. Before walking in, Boman paused to brush off her wool coat and, thoughtfully, the shoulders of her best friend Johanna, who had tagged along to read while I picked the brain that had created hypnotic and unshakably sad tracks like “Over” and “What.” (Boman’s titles, like her lyrics, are boiled down, too; “skisser” itself means sketches in Swedish.) Boman and Johanna met in 2012 while studying ceramics on a forested island called Öland off the southeast coast of Sweden. They traveled together to the US for Boman’s mini two-city tour. Last Wednesday in Los Angeles she played the first of her two solo sets. “This was a vacation, actually,” said Boman. “But my manager said, ‘You may as well play a show in each city.’”

For the past two years, Boman has been doing a lot of that—traveling and playing her music—though most stops have been in Europe. (EP II (+Skisser EP) is technically two EPs, Boman likes to note, and the first batch of songs, Skisser EP, was released in September 2013.) It is a reality that is just beginning to not feel brand new, and a significant departure from the life of a one-time ceramics student who had always been scared of singing anything in front of anyone.

The friends were rosy-cheeked from their walk down Manhattan Avenue, where Boman had first stopped at a vintage store to buy a black velvet dress. It was a contender for the show on Wednesday, though not a sure thing. “I’ve been getting really into glitter lately,” she said later, describing the increasingly more dramatic outfits she liked to assemble for the stage.

As we waited in line to order, Johanna—referencing the actually quite beautiful weather outside—said, “This is just like Sweden!” which was an enviable trick of the mind, I thought, considering the dingy (though now shutdown) slaughterhouse up the street, and the stream of roaring semis on Greenpoint Avenue.

I asked Boman what she’d like to drink.

“An americano,” she said, right away.

“Any cream or sugar?”

“No, thanks.” She responded, equally fast, with a faint little smile.

Before ceramics school, Boman hadn’t dreamed of pursuing her own music, or a musical career at all. Her father had always played around with a bunch of notes and lyrics, and she had sung in school choirs; music was a nice foundation, but not her focus. While working on organic farms in France (with WWOOF), she discovered the meditative appeal of working with her hands and applied to gardening school in Öland—but she didn’t get in. She’d do better with ceramics, they thought, so off it was to Öland to throw some pots.

Unexpectedly, it became a pivotal moment in her musical life: “The teachers in the school were stressing and speaking very much of the importance of creating without any thoughts about what would become of it,” said Boman. “No pressure. Just do it for the fun of it. And I think that was really important for me.”

At the school, there was an old gymnasium that nobody really used to play basketball anymore. But there was a beautiful piano in it, and the acoustics were terrific. The unselfconscious creativity her teachers talked about started to happen for Boman inside the cavernous walls of the gymnasium, rather than behind the potting wheel. “I had a period, maybe a year before that, where I didn’t play that much music. But the gymnasium was like a church and I sat in there and played alone and it was amazing,” she grew animated recalling the space, sitting across from me at a small table, while Johanna read behind her at the bar.

The first time Boman performed her own music live was at an open mic night in Öland. She had never been a comfortable performer, she hated being forced to sing solos in school, and this was no exception. Thankfully, the terror didn’t make her want to stop.

It took Boman some time to find a voice that felt like her own. She loves old music. A lot of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Towns Van Zandt. She covered one of Van Zandt’s songs, “If I Needed You.”

“It’s one of the best songs ever,” said Boman. “He’s such a good songwriter, the lyrics, the simplicity, it hits you, the way he used the words.” She also did an arresting cover of the Tim Daltin classic “Reason To Believe,” posted recently on NPR. “It’s just so much emotion,” she said of the song, and, again, “so simple.”

“I don’t think so much when I write. Maybe in the beginning I did think too much, I was too conscious about how people would react to it.” But over time, she did what we all really want to do, and just let go. “Sometimes my lyrics are quite direct, and simple, and sometimes I think it’s kind of cheesy—but it’s spot on. That’s how it is, so why not say it like that.”

There is another fairly large topic that has to be broached when talking about Alice Boman, and that is that most of her music, really all of it—except for one outstanding and dancy remix of “Be Mine” by the Finnish musician Jaakko Eino Kalevi, which she had nothing to do with, and depending on how long it’s been since your last heartbreak—is very sad.

“I really like the melancholic state of mind. When you’re sad and happy in the same place there is just so much emotion in your body. You think of everything that you love, and everything that you’re missing.” She tries not to live in that place all the time, she says, but thinks it’s important to acknowledge as much emotion as possible. She called herself an “uber sensitive person,” who has all of her “tentacles out.” I asked if her writing is inspired by specific sad events, or just art, or if it’s really just about casting a wide and fairly undefined emotional net, to catch as many people as possible. The answer, unsurprisingly, is all of the above. Still, earlier, she had told me that one of her favorite songs to sing was “All Eyes on You.”

“Do you remember what inspired that one?” I asked. (After a few slow piano chords, the opening lyrics go “You look so good when you enter the room,” which you hear and, bam. You’ve conjured your person, walking through a door, looking so good. “This love has overtaken me. If you want me, I am yours,” it continues.)

“Yeah,” she said, with a bashful smile. “I don’t remember where or when I wrote it though. It just happens, I record it quickly, and then move on.”

At first, Boman thought she always wanted to play with a band. She loved singing at home with her father, and being on stage with the support of a band behind her. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to go on road trips with your friends, like the eight-city US tour she went on with her bandmates last fall. But more recently, Boman has been confronting her life-long work of being comfortable performing alone.

Partly, the English language lets her be less self conscious. “It’s not my own language, so I can stand on stage and sing those things that are quite honest. I would be more aware of them if it were in Swedish. It’s a shield or something.” I told her I got it. Whenever I’ve communicated in another language, I risk sharing opinions or feelings or using phrases with conviction that, for whatever reason, I feel less comfortable with in English. Yet, somehow, it is still deeply me, maybe that unselfconscious me, who is saying those things.

Last week in LA, Boman reached an exciting new plateau. “I think something happened, it was a big thing for me. I felt I could be on stage for 45 minutes alone, and not rush it.”

Tomorrow, after Rough Trade, she’ll return to Malmö and finish some songs that will be on her next album (though she has no idea when it will come out). Beyond that, she’s trying to decide where to spend her time. She thinks New York would be nice for a while. She likes Greenpoint, and brownstone front stoops, and the dynamism that is everywhere here. What her future holds exactly is uncertain, except that there will be more music, and some rest.

“It’s been overwhelming,” said Boman—though both she and Johanna looked pretty relaxed. I asked what Johanna was up to now. Turns out, she’d dropped out of ceramics school, too. “We both just left it,” she said, laughing. “Other people in our class were applying to better schools. But you realize when you find yourself at a piano instead, you understand the right thing to do. I think I just did it for myself. I never had any intention to do it full time.”

I told her I’d see her at the show on Wednesday, and she said, especially after her breakthrough in LA, she was really excited for it. She turned to go and sit with Johanna, but paused as she was putting on her coat and asked, a tiny bit anxiously, “Have you been to Rough Trade?” I hadn’t. “It’s pretty big!” Maybe her old nerves hadn’t died completely. But I reminded her that she loved performing solo now, and that she knew she’d be all right. It wasn’t a hard sell. “I know,” she said convincingly, as if she hadn’t really been nervous at all. It was more like the ghost of an old instinct. She started toward Johanna again, but paused once more to tell me how much she loved my sweater, and then she was sitting down on a stool next to her friend, happily, saying hello.

Alice Boman will be playing at Rough Trade tonight; for more info, visit here

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