'I Love Crying': Loney, Dear's Lonely, Lonely World
, November 17th, 2011 08:11
Emil Svanängen’s sixth album has just been released to quiet but universal acclaim, yet still he’s not happy. Wyndham Wallace explores the intimate, ingenuous universe of Loney, Dear.
February, 2007: Deep in the bowels of Dora 1, a former Nazi submarine base constructed with three metre walls in Trondheim, Norway, warehouses have been converted into venues to host Scandinavia's by:Larm Festival. It's an amazing space, but organisers have forgotten one crucial thing: the building is unheated. Outside, the snow is metres deep and falling without even a hint of an apology. Inside, people are still wearing their rugged winter coats, fleece-lined hoods pulled over their heads, the air thick with the mist of their breath, gloved hands holding beers they barely dare sip for fear that lips will freeze to glass.
I'm unfamiliar with any of the acts playing this particular timeslot, and stumble into the final room along the corridor. From the moment I skip down the steps, I realise this is the warmest space in the entire place, but it's down to no other reason than the band that's performing. Their frontman - bestubbled, his hair ruffled – is surrounded by musicians who leap around with uncontainable glee, childlike grins spread across their face, and he sings with a choirboy's voice, breaking into extended bursts of falsetto that threaten to raise the three and a half metre thick roof above us. He can't, of course, but together the band still raises temperatures and spirits to such an extent that I'm forced to fish out my programme from my coat pocket: Loney, Dear, it tells me. From Sweden. They've got four albums under their belt already. I've never heard of them. That's going to have to change.
It's almost five years since Emil Svanängen aka Loney, Dear first won me over that freezing night, and the Swede's music has been a constant companion ever since. Over the past eight years he's released six albums, winning an ever growing – but still far too small – band of admirers, and always passionate, but nonetheless limited, critical acclaim. The latest, Hall Music, sees Svanängen refine his recording process, but it remains the obsessive work of one man, albeit one that can sing with the vulnerable delicacy of an angel and makes bedroom recordings that sound like God's own orchestra. It also retains a flawless ability to cut out all the gristle and bone that lies between a song and our heart. Like Kate Bush, like The Blue Nile, like East River Pipe, sometimes even like ABBA – all of whom Loney, Dear recall, while sounding nothing like them at all - Svanängen's work is an acquired taste. One that's tinged with sentiment and honesty, one that can't quite be explained, but one that not only makes your heart sing but can even articulate your most intimate thoughts in an endearingly clumsy yet poetic manner.
It turns out, however, that Svanängen's talent may come as much from his inability to censor himself as his ability to nail emotions in a succinct fashion.
"Right now I'm just dead tired of that record," he types when I track him down via email after I've spent the late summer immersed in Hall Music. "It sucks, according to me. Just doesn't sound right. It would have needed to have been recorded by someone that knows that shit. I have my moments, a few seconds here and there, but what I have done so far career-wise is just empty air: warm, lifting, but nothing with either a purpose or content. I feel at some point now, either this goes to hell or it will take off. I just have no idea at all at this point."
He's writing to me, he says, from Hollywood, where he's just finished a short US tour. "I can't really think clear about that record right now. I've been really proud of my music, but it just doesn't reach out and I'm not sure about it anymore."
He sounds tired, and elsewhere he refers to his music as "a fake, a shadow of music. Improve or quit, I guess." This couldn't be further from what I expected to read. Though we've never met, I feel an urge to reach out to him, to tell him it's been worth it. Loney, Dear's music may indicate a rare sensitivity, but it's become, over the last few years, one of my touchstones: a collection of records that mean as much to me as almost any contemporary artist I've come across in the 21st Century, something I turn to when lonely, when down, when with my closest friends, when effervescent. Hall Music offers numerous examples why: the dreamy but desperate 'Loney Blues'; 'Maria', which reminds me oddly of The Blue Nile's 'From Rags To Riches' and Talk Talk's 'April 5th'; the crepuscular 'Largo' and the brassy, paranoid triumph of 'Durmoll' ("You try not to think / But thoughts stick fast in your head / And in these conditions it's running like worms in your skin"). His music has consoled me so often over the years, and it feels like time I paid this back in kind by letting him know that. But I read on all the same. Soon, there's the answer to another question I've sent him about whether he agrees that the dominant themes in his work are joy, companionship and regret. This time he seems taken aback.
"I haven't even seen this myself," his answer reads. "I wish I could do this interview more elaborately, more extended, more elongated, soon in the future. I love your perspective on this. Companionship, as in love? Yes. That is a big part, yes. The regrets? Why didn't those days treat us nicer? Why did we have to lie crying on the kitchen floor? Why is all we long for distant and impossible to grasp?"
That's all he writes on the subject. Joy doesn't even get a look-in. It's none of my business, of course – I'm a music writer, not a counsellor – but his take on the question makes me even keener to discuss his work in more depth. Svanängen's lyrics, to me, don't sound as though they're about the conventional nature of love as discussed in most pop music. They're about something more profound. We are, after all, talking about an artist whose first released song – on Loney, Dear's debut, The Year Of River Fontana – was called 'Here Come The Lonely Ones', and whose second song, 'Hold Me', contains just one solitary verse:" Hold me like you never held me before / Like if you knew for sure / Kiss me until it's alright again / Soothe, lay your hands on me". These words strive to achieve physical contact, yet still come across as a plea for comfort rather than anything suggestive.
Right from the start, most of Svanängen's songs haven't been about love and passion. They're often an admission that what we want above all is someone to save us from living out the twilight of our years alone and abandoned. He writes about solitude in a way that exposes something raw and sometimes distressing to listen to and, though he uses the music he makes – to an extent – to absorb the emptiness, he seems less preoccupied with love than in simply making a connection with people, with someone, with anyone. That's not sexy, even if we dress it up as love. It is however unusually, admirably candid, and it's a universal feeling, even if we rarely admit it. So I arrange to call him. Maybe he could use the company.
August, 2009: I'm in my apartment, packing. There's a song called 'The City, The Airport' going round and round in my head, its lyrics still obscure but certain lines always present. I'm heading back to Northern Norway, to visit a woman I met the previous summer and with whom I have subsequently fallen in love. For all sorts of reasons I'm ready to turn my back on everything I know, to uproot myself completely if this trip works out and even, absurd as it might sound, to become a fisherman in the Arctic. "The city," I sing to myself hopefully, "things have been turning out better since I broke with it." I picture the mountainous countryside at my destination, the green forests and endless ocean waiting for me: "There's living," I continue, "I don't want my elbows making way for me." I throw hiking boots and thick, warm socks into the suitcase. "The city," I murmur, "lots of people doing things they don't want to do," and then I seal my luggage: "The airport, a lot of people go to places just to leave things behind…" Something might be about to change.
I catch Svanängen back in Sweden, where he's got less than a week before he heads out on the road once more. He's spent the evening before with his girlfriend, and I hope to find him in better spirits. But when I suggest that he'd sounded pretty unhappy in his email and ask him why, his laugh sounds a little hollow.
"I know, I know," he says. "And actually I thought that while writing it, that this sounds like crap, but this is the way I was when I wrote it, and maybe it is still. I think it's getting more and more that I'm not satisfied with the recognition, and I'm not satisfied with the work I've done. Maybe I should just try to be more professional about it. But there is something genuinely unhappy right now, you know?"
I tell him I'm sorry to hear that, and this time he sounds genuinely grateful, so I ask him whether he needs validation from time to time, something that confirms he's moving in the right direction.
"Yeah," he says, "I think I might. I am in a situation now where it's not possible for me to hear that feedback. I'm starting to realise why artists stay in their genre year after year, because it's more rewarding to build the same thing and it's not really rewarding to try to explore new paths, because you will lose your old audience and what you have built. And it seems that I'm at a smaller place now than I was a couple of years ago, but I don't really see a real reason for it. I think there should be something growing in my music, and I guess I am in the situation where I either think that what I do isn't good enough or it's not recognised yet, and I'm not sure about which is the correct one, really."
It's the latter, I feel. Svanängen's music doesn't grab headlines. It's too subtle and yet also too frank for that. It's built on old-fashioned values of crafted songwriting, conventional, even traditional, instrumentation and heart-on-the-sleeve lyrical content that is unlikely to provoke arenas to break into song. Even 'My Heart' (from Hall Music), the closest the new album comes to anthemic – church bells chiming amidst a setting that could be mistaken for Belle & Sebastian covering Sufjan Stevens – sees him confess that, "I woke up, I was crying in my sleep / And the bitterness was living under my skin". It isn't as touchy-feely, for instance, as "Look at the stars, how they shine for you…" and recognition can take time when you're not dealing in something that has obvious mass appeal.
"I guess it's a bit of a lonely situation," he confides. "It's tricky. It's really tricky. I did some press things, I went to London and Paris and everything was cancelled and it felt like no one was really interested, and it was really tricky for me to get a feeling that I do something important. I think I did my sixth show in Chicago last weekend, and I never played for that few people. It's like I really don't know what I'm doing the wrong way when I'm trying my best. I'm feeling a bit lost right now. But I'm really learning to feel that I have to just be happy on my own."
From some, this might sound self-pitying, but Svanängen instead comes across as humble and simply at sea. Having put his heart on display for everyone to examine, he's disappointed how few have taken the time to do so. But he doesn't seem like he'd be any happier were he to achieve global stardom, and this is something he goes on to concede.
"I wonder what happens if the music gets the recognition and I can start building something from there. But I'm not sure where that's going to lead either. I think what I've learned is I just need to really feel that music is the base of what I'm doing, and that I'm able to trust music itself. That might sound very difficult to understand, but I've been making these analogies: if you look at how people believe in God and his possibilities, is it stupid to rely on God? It's the same way I feel about music. Is music infinite? Can I trust music, or is it just a superficial way of enjoying yourself? Or is there really unlimited power in music? And I guess that's what I've been struggling with, and I think more and more as I grow older, I learn that it is possible to do anything and, in a way, music has all the answers."
July, 2011: I'm on a boat travelling back to the mainland from the island home of Norway's Træna Festival, where I've just spent a month in semi-isolation. I'll be met by the woman for whom I nearly became a fisherman, but the relationship never worked out, and in the meantime I've had my heart broken after the dissolution of another relationship back home, one of a number of reasons I've taken this time out. My head rests against a window that allows my eyes to pursue the sun-soaked coastline, but I doze off in the warmth. When I come to, there's a song playing on my headphones: "And now I really don't care no more / Things never go they way they should / It's not sad but it's not OK," the voices sing, and they seem to echo from the rocky hillsides on the other side of the water. "And in a land with a thousand seasides," the voices go on, "I never really learned to swim at all / and I really wanted to," and I feel tears welling up at the thought of all the things I hoped would turn out alright, and which didn't; all the opportunities missed; all the chances messed up. "And now I really don't care no more," they repeat, "Efforts never made a change here, and high hopes made it worse," and ain't that the truth: I keep setting myself up for a big knockdown. Then the voice reaches a final, painful, stomach-punching admission: "It is sad and I'm not OK."
But there's still some hope left, and it almost lifts me out of my seat as the blue water ripples away from the boat and the metal roofs of the wooden cabins glint in the sunlight: "And when music comes over the houses, sadness never was a choice here." Then the song opens out, ecstatic, enraptured, as though we've just turned directly into the path of the sun. It is sad. It's not OK. But sadness is no longer a choice. That much has changed.
I'd like to agree with Svanängen's belief that music has all the answers, but I think that often it only provides an illusion, just as it provides the illusion of comfort. And yet, though we recognise feelings and situations in lyrics, often it is indeed the music itself which moves us most, its inexplicable power hidden in a simple chord change, or the combination of certain instruments and notes. The strength of 'What Have I Become', the song that soundtracked my return to the Norwegian mainland earlier this year, lies only partially in its words, even that poignant reference to "a land of a thousand seasides", a line that he inevitably dismisses: "I'm like a small child saying really short sentences". Its greatest emotional punch in fact lies in the sound itself, in the brass band that opens the song, in the glockenspiel that recalls Massive Attack's 'Unfinished Sympathy' at its close, and in the pure delivery of a simple but haunting melody (actually sung by both Emil and his girlfriend, Malin). There are no answers in there, of course, merely a suggestion that they will come, but it gives me a Ready Brek, feelgood glow that, as a sentimental creature, raises me higher.
I suspect that Svanängen is a comparable animal, and repeat a question in my original message where I'd asked if he considers himself sentimental. That time he'd contradicted himself within three short sentences: "For me it's what I am. It's not a great word, but… No, I guess I am not sentimental." I remind him of this and ask again. This time there's a long pause. He seems to be struggling to work out his answer, aware of the negative connotations of the word, so I ask if he cries at films.
"Of course, of course," he replies immediately this time, "but… I think of crying as something of the good parts you do with your life. It's still difficult to cry in front of other people, of course, but if I were to put hours and minutes into good sides and bad sides, crying would definitely be on the very good side. I think it's the best use of time you can do, really. Laughing and crying is different, but it's the same invigorating feeling. I love crying."
We've been talking a while now, and he sounds much happier, but there's another comment he made I want to address, even though it risks bringing him down again. "All this pain, all this longing, all of these letdowns," he'd written. "We cannot die, we cannot live. How were we even put here? To suffer?" Does he really think that way?
"I'm actually in the same place still," he replies calmly, the sound of ice cubes in his drink rattling against the glass. "There are very happy parts of my life, and I'm often deeply thankful for the work I'm doing, but I still would be able to say all those words. I was feeling terrible last night, and I realised I have so many friends, but, still, who can I call when things are bad? What can I say? Can I say things are bad? Is that going to make me feel better? Someone told me this whole idea of the comfort of a stranger. Have you heard that expression? I guess that's what I'm discovering, that it's sometimes easier to tell people you don't know about those very difficult matters."
It's something with which I can, sadly, identify, and I wonder quietly whether our call has perhaps been helpful. We all need to be reminded, from time to time, that life and its activities are worth the effort we put into them, but some need it more than others.
"For a long time I was in a relationship where I knew I was loved and I was needed," he concludes, "and sometimes, just fractions of seconds, I could think, "What if I… What would it be like to be with someone you weren't sure was going to stay?" And I realise there are even more sides to love than what I've experienced. It can be a terrible thing, love, can't it?"
Sometimes, yes. And I'm just grateful that Svanängen is there to articulate the fears and regrets as much as the joy and bliss. Because, when the music comes over the houses, sadness never was a choice here…
Loney, Dear plays St Pancras Old Church, London, on November 21 and 23.