Tension & Release: An Interview With Karin Park

Sweden's Karin Park tells John Freeman about Motörhead-inspired new single 'Look What You've Done' and discovering music through a religious upbringing

Photo by Thomas Knights

Karin Park is in a relaxed frame of mind. This year she has decided that "not giving a fuck" is good for her, which she says has ensured that her new singles this year are "less tense" than her previous catalogue of taut electro pop. However, all things are relative – ‘Look What You’ve Done’ isn’t exactly sunny fare. The Swedish singer-songwriter’s second single of 2014 – its sinuous predecessor ‘Shine’ was released in February – is a typically smart slab of pulsing, brooding electronica. Intriguingly, the track was inspired by Motörhead’s ‘Ace Of Spades’, and doffs a cap to vintage early 90s Depeche Mode. When we meet via a Skype video link, I comment about the likeness of Park’s music to that of Basildon’s finest. She strikes me as a person unlikely to suffer the foolishness of such direct comparisons. But I get lucky – she admits she’s been "ripping Depeche Mode off a little" and that I’m the first journalist to verbalise the connection.

Raised in the tiny Swedish hamlet of Djura, when Park was seven her strongly religious parents moved the family to a missionary school in the Japanese jungle. On her return to Sweden, Park began to discover music for herself, and after releasing a debut album in 2003 (Superworldunknown) and garnering huge acclaim in Scandinavia for 2009’s Ashes To Gold, Park signed to the Portsmouth-based label State Of The Eye. Working with producer Christoffer Berg, 2012’s Highwire Poetry allowed Park to further hone her brand of juddering electro-goth anthems. Collaborations followed; last year saw her release the single ‘Everything’ with London-based producer Maya Jane Coles, while she also co-wrote Norway’s entry to the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest – a notable achievement in a country that views the annual shebang very differently to the UK’s condescending snobbery.

With her new single released this week, the Quietus caught up with Park to discuss striving towards simplicity in songwriting and discovering music through singing in church as a child. Immediately after the interview I receive a ‘thank you’ email from her. Apparently our finishing was very timely – just minutes before her beloved Liverpool football team were due to kick-off in an important match.

I’m really enjoying your new single ‘Look What You’ve Done’. What was the inspiration behind the song?

Karin Park: I felt a bit tense on the last album, and now I feel a little bit more relaxed. I wanted to do something a bit bluesier but still something that was electronic music. I listened to ‘Ace Of Spades’ by Motörhead and I thought I’d like to write a song like that. I watched Motörhead last year at Sweden Rocks and they were the best show at the festival. It’s fascinating how Lemmy makes that rock & roll sound so easy – it’s simple and understandable and I was really inspired by that. ‘Look What You’ve Done’ is probably the simplest track I’ve ever written. Usually, I always over-complicate things.

So was it difficult to write a simple song?

KP: It wasn’t hard to write that particular song – it was written in three hours or so – but I had been writing a lot of complicated songs before that, so it was a long journey to get to that kind of simplicity. For me, writing music is to try to let go of all my fears of trying to be too obvious. That was my challenge; to simplify things a little bit.

What is it that you fear about being too obvious?

KP: When I listen to music that is too obvious I feel like I get underestimated as a listener, and I don’t want to underestimate my audience. I want people to read the lyrics and think a little bit extra about what it may be about and make up their own minds about the song, rather than handing it to them completely. But I realise that sometimes I maybe a little bit too cryptic.

Last year you wrote the song for Norway’s Eurovision Song Contest entry, ‘I Feed You My Love’. How did you approach writing a song that needed to appeal to 300 million people?

KP: I wrote that song for me to begin with, and it wasn’t meant for the Eurovision Song Contest at all. They’ve been asking me for years if I would like to enter – in Norway and Sweden the show is something completely different than in the UK, and much more integrated into the music industry. Last year I told them I had a song that didn’t quite fit with my other songs, but if they could find someone to sing the track they could have it for the competition. So, it wasn’t written specifically for the Eurovision. If I were to think about what a song is going to be for, I would be on very thin ice. For me writing a song is a very personal process, and it’s really hard to think about who might listen to it.

Going back to your new music, why are ‘Look What You’ve Done’ and previous single ‘Shine’ less – as you described – tense than your last album, Highwire Poetry?

KP: I’ve lowered my shoulders a little bit. I’m not quite as angry as I was on the last album. Angry is the wrong word; my life was very chaotic at the time, and it kind of always is, but at the time I felt as if I had my claws out. When I hear Highwire Poetry there is so much tension in my voice. There is even a song called ‘Tension’ on the album.

What has changed?

KP: I think that to not give a fuck is sometimes good for me. I need to just think that I just don’t care, and I am just going to do what I want, and ‘fuck you’, kind of thing. I’ve brought that more into my life, and that’s a reason for me being slightly more relaxed.

If I can ask you about your background – I believe you grew up in a tiny Swedish village called Djura, which has about 350 inhabitants, and that your family was very religious. How what that experience for you?

KP: It’s actually 374.

Apologies – I just lost 24 people.

KP: [Laughs] I grew up there until I was seven and then we moved to Japan for three years. My parents were Christians and they took me to church and I was always really interested in singing. I’ve been singing since I was two or three years old. I would sing in church every Sunday, and that’s how I got a stage very early in life and performed in front of other people.

What was it like moving to Japan from Djura as a seven-year-old?

KP: Well, my dad was the principal at the missionary school that was almost in the jungle on the middle island of Japan. We landed In Tokyo, and I’d never been outside Sweden, and I’ll never forget the noise and the heat. It was incredible and unlike anything any of us had experienced before. But, we liked it from day one – it’s one of the favourite times of my life – and it brought our family really close together. We had to stick together to make it work.

I was introduced to music through radio and television. It sounds like you first experienced music through attending church. How has that impacted your life as a musician?

KP: What was different was that we didn’t listen to music, and whenever we were engaged with music was when we did it ourselves. It was always someone singing or playing something in our house. I was constantly singing. Every day when I came home from school I sang with my mum, and then began to learn to play the piano. I didn’t listen to any music until I started to discover music myself. So, to compare to my boyfriend Kjetil [Nernes, from the band Årabrot], he always listens to music. Everything he does, he listens to music. When I am home alone I don’t put on music, because I will sing instead, and I cannot have any music on at the same time. So, I think that was the biggest difference in growing up in a religious home; there was always someone singing.

I read that your first ever record purchase was ‘Sexy M.F.’ by Prince. How did that go down with your parents?

KP: It was the first seven-inch. My brother listened to Metallica so I don’t think they paid much attention to exactly what I was listening to. I actually rented my first album, which was by Whitney Houston – the album with ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ on it. In Japan, you rented vinyl and then taped it to a cassette and kept it that way. So, in the beginning I had Whitney Houston, Bon Jovi and Europe. When I was twelve, I got into Depeche Mode’s Songs Of Love & Devotion album, which came out at that time.

That’s interesting. I think a number of your songs – ‘Restless’ off Highwire Poetry being a good example – sound really like Depeche Mode.

KP: Yes! [Punches the air]. I’ve been trying to get someone to say that because I have been ripping them off a little bit. As a female artist, no one ever makes that comparison with any male artist, but I have been deliberately trying to sound like Depeche Mode.

I imagine you get many lazy comparisons with other female Swedish artists. How do you feel about that?

KP: I always get compared to Lykke Li, Björk and Robyn. People have said I am like Robyn’s evil twin. I can understand that – we even went to the same school. I also get compared to The Knife’s Karin [Dreijer Andersson], we have the same name and we sing a little similarly to each other. I get all of that, but it is not the only comparison to make, my music is quite different. So I don’t mind, as long as they don’t compare me to someone completely rubbish. Lykke Li, Karin and Robyn are all brilliant artists.

Your new album is out in the autumn, but what about the album after that? Any ideas about a future musical direction?

KP: I feel like I have a clear vision of what the next album might sound like. That can of course change, but I’m going to produce most of it myself, so there won’t be a lot of funky bass and drums because I’m not good at that. It is going to have a lot of atmosphere and I will probably record it in a church where I live now. It will probably be a bit spiritual. But it all depends what happens in my life while I am writing songs. For me it’s not about releasing as many songs as I can, it’s about showing people the process while I’m doing it. I use songwriting for my own mental health more than wanting to make a piece of art.

The single ‘Look What You’ve Done’ is out this week via State Of The Eye Recordings.

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