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Escape Velocity

Ghost Songs: An Interview With Sea Lion
John Freeman , September 8th, 2015 12:14

The Gothenburg-based singer-songwriter tells John Freeman why the creation of the spectral, highly intimate songs on her exquisite debut album Desolate Stars was driven out of a desire to feel "grounded and present"

Linn Osterberg describes herself as "ghost-like". It may seem a slightly odd label but there are moments on her shimmering debut album, Desolate Stars, when the hushed vocal - backed by dreamy piano or a smudge of distorted guitar - flickers like a spectral whisper nestling at the very edge of the imagination.

Osterberg hails from Gothenburg and Sea Lion is very much her solo project. Working entirely alone, but evoking the elegance of Mazzy Star and the naked and compelling angst of her Turnstile labelmate Perfume Genius, Desolate Stars, reveals a slow-burning intensity and an almost voyeuristic intimacy.

The sense of an invasion of privacy is central to the allure of Sea Lion's small catalogue of songs. Osterberg tells me that she only feels "present" when making music, thinks that everything she does is "shit" and "doesn't feel comfortable around people very easily", so it is almost inevitable that the tension between her persona and a need to create ensures that Desolate Stars reveals much about Osterberg's complex psyche. Rather than a strutting rock peacock desperate for an attention high, Sea Lion is a painstaking exercise in introverted self-discovery.

We 'meet' over a Skype video link. Osterberg is at home in the one-room apartment that doubled up as her recording studio for Desolate Stars. Curled into a ball on a sofa, and with a print of John Lennon belting out a classic on a piano behind her, our interview narrowly escapes a tragic event when Osterberg suddenly leaps to remove her cat's tail from a candle flame. Neither of us have a bucket list desire to witness feline spontaneous combustion.

However, despite saving one of her cat's nine lives, Osterberg isn't entirely content. As we finish, she reveals disappointment with my line of questioning. "You've missed something," she tells me with a mischievous smile. "I wanted the question, 'Why did you choose the name Sea Lion?' Who do I need to complain to?" I don't tell her and I still don't ask her requested question. Some things are better left at the very edge of the imagination.

You describe yourself as feeling "ghost-like" - what do you mean by that?

Linn Osterberg: It's hard to describe but it is difficult for me to feel connected to the world, not in a depressed way but almost as if I am always observing things. I feel almost invisible, not in a bad way, but I have a hard time feeling grounded. I always feel I am walking around in a weird haze, but when I record things I feel super-present. There aren't any other activities that I can do in which I feel grounded and present. Music is one of the few things that works for me and that's why I do it.

Has music always provided this support? What type of music did you hear as a child?

LO: To be honest, I didn't really grow up with a lot of music. I don't have any siblings - I'm an only child. My parents didn't really listen to a lot of music. My dad had a few CDs but I didn't listen to them and I never got that musical education from anybody. I didn't listen to any good music until I was in my teens. I then met some cool friends who listened to British punk like Gang Of Four and The Clash. From there my interest in music started to grow and I wanted to hear lots of records. The first album I fell in love with and couldn't stop listening to was Astral Weeks. I loved the vibrant energy and it made me feel like there was more to explore in the world and within me. That was the first time I connected with a record in that way.

Is it compulsory for Swedish children to learn to play musical instruments at school? If so, which instrument did you choose?

LO: It's not quite like that. I had an hour music class per week. All I remember was being made to learn 'Tom Dooley' and 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'. I recall playing tambourine - I didn't even get to play a proper instrument - on 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', which was about as far as my musical education went at school.

So, how did you begin to become a musician?

LO: I got a crappy copy of a Fender guitar and a small Marshall amp from my mother as a Christmas gift when I was 16. At first I didn't like playing, as I hate being bad at things. It took me a long time to enjoy playing, but I kept practising and then I got to the point where I began to enjoy it and had the urge to continue. I had always written things and had always made little songs - just a cappella things - when I was young, so the progression was natural. Writing is never a problem for me - I write songs all the time. The hard thing for me is recording the songs. Not so much if I am just making simple recordings for myself, but when I am trying to make a record as I get really, really frustrated. I'm always questioning - "Is this good enough?" or "This is probably crap" - and I get really self-conscious.

That sounds exhausting. How do you push through that self-doubt?

LO: I think because I still wanted to make music, I had to lower my expectations and the way that I set my goals or the way I set a view of what I should or shouldn't be. If you want to enjoy making music you have to loosen up a bit and not think that everyone is going to judge you or hate you. You either have to change your mind a little bit about how people see you and how you see yourself.

When you make music are you very aware of how your songs will be perceived by others?

LO: No. It's not really about what other people think. I am never really happy with anything and always think that whatever I do is really shit. I have to accept that even though I think something is really shit, there are people who think it's good and want to hear it, and so maybe I should not listen so much to the internal voices that tell me "it's not good enough". It's maybe why I make music as I have such a crazy drive to prove myself. If I was super happy with everything and fully satisfied with my own being, then maybe I wouldn't have the need for art.

As a non-musician, I am always fascinated at the process by which artists 'find their sound'. How did you settle on the way you wanted Sea Lion to sound?

LO: That's a good question. I had all this music that I loved and I knew I wanted to make something like it. I tried to make something that sounded like it and it always felt wrong. I am very guided by my feelings. In order to find my 'sound' I could always tell because things wouldn't feel right and then I would try something else. That might not feel right either or there would be something in it that felt right - even two lines or a chord - but the rest wasn't feeling right. However, I could go back to that small part that felt right and follow that emotion. I would do this piece by piece. When it felt 100 per cent right - not 100 per cent technically perfect - was when I knew I could make a record and that it felt 100 per cent like me.

You recorded Desolate Stars in your bedroom by yourself. I assume that was out of necessity, but have you ever tried recording songs in a studio with other people?

LO: Bedroom is not the right word - I live in a one-room apartment, so it is my bedroom, my kitchen and my studio. I have never tried to record with other people present. I am pretty scared of being in a studio, in general, as I don't feel comfortable around people very easily. I cannot imagine how I could record if there were other people around because then I would be bringing in one of my fears, as I have a social anxiety thing. I would then be bringing that fear into my comfort zone, which is good if you want to challenge your fears, but I feel like I am dealing with enough fears already without making my one comfort zone into a hazardous place.

So, do you enjoy playing live shows?

LO: It's pretty good. It can be very varied - sometimes it's awful and sometimes it is amazing. There are shows where I'm like, "I am never doing this again", and there are other shows where I think everything is amazing and I know it's what I want to do for the rest of my life. I don't mind if shit goes wrong - I'm not a perfectionist when I play live as it is just in that moment and then it is gone, which is different to a permanent recording and that takes away a lot of nervous feelings.

But your songs seem very intimate. Does that make it harder to play them in front of other people?

LO: That makes it easier. I think if it feels honest to me, it is easier to play as I at least know it is something I wrote that I felt deeply about. I've played things when I was starting out - songs that meant nothing to me or cover versions that I wasn't connected to - and that was worse. Now, I'm playing songs that at least I know that I meant it when I wrote them.

Without wanting to suggest the awful concept of a 'journey', how has the experience of making Desolate Stars been for you? Are you happy with the result?

LO: Well, it has taken a very long time to record the album. I had no idea what it would be like and it has changed a million times along the way. There are a hundred songs that didn't make it onto the record, as I didn't have a vision of what the album would be, it was more like a super long experiment with a million fragments of songs and lyrics and in the end I picked out what I felt was true to me. These were just the songs that I felt I could share.

Finally, do you have any idea as to what the next Sea Lion record might sound like?

LO: I'm always saying different things to my label - that I'm making a synth record or a rock record. I will always get super enthusiastic about an idea, go crazy and make an instrumental synthesiser record for a week. Then I will get another idea. I get bored easily so it is hard to predict, as I have no idea what will come next. I don't have a good perception of what my genre is and I will just make what I think is fun to make. So I will probably make a million super scattered records.

Desolate Stars is out now on Turnstile