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MUSIC

Why Swedish pop is the best in the world

There's nothing better than Swedish pop, argues The Local's Paul Connolly, who reveals the secrets behind Swedes' musical success - whether via songs written for Britney Spears or from home-grown talent that's gone big abroad.

Why Swedish pop is the best in the world

Swedish pop music is the best in the world. Don’t believe me? Consider these facts. Sweden is the largest exporter of pop music per capita in the world. In fact, regardless of population, Sweden is currently the third largest exporter of music in the world, just behind the US and the UK. In 2010, it is estimated that Swedish pop music exports totalled more than $820 million.

Want more? So far in 2013, Swedes have been responsible, or partially responsible, for 34 US top ten hits and 32 UK top ten hits. A Swede, Tim Bergling, otherwise known as Avicii, currently has two songs in the UK top ten and one in the US top ten. His debut album, True, is in the top ten in both countries.

This is on the back of similar recent global success achieved by Swedish House Mafia and The Local-tipped Icona Pop. Swedish songwriters, meanwhile, write for everyone from Madonna to Taylor Swift. Max Martin (known to his mum as Karl Martin Sandberg) has written an incredible 16 US number ones (including Britney Spears’s Hit Me Baby… One More Time and Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl), while Nadir Khayat aka “RedOne”, who moved to Sweden in his teens because “There was so much good music coming from there”, has been the production force behind hits from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, and One Direction.

It’s an extraordinary achievement for a country of just nine million people – so how the hell do the Swedes do it?

Philip Ekström, lead singer of Swedish band The Mary Onettes, believes it is due to artistic integrity.

“I feel that it’s more about what you create in Sweden. It’s really never about becoming famous. It’s about being good at something. To sacrifice your life to something that you believe in,” he explains.

“I became aware of music very early. I started to practice early and went to different concerts and stuff. And now when I’m thinking, there was almost no one who said: ‘Let’s become famous, make a lot of money’. I heard things like ‘Do what you believe’. So this is probably also a reason why music from Sweden is so successful.”

Ekström has a point. The much-derided concept of lagom also comes into play here. Swedes are perfectionists but they’re not showboats. They like to get things done but don’t like to shout about it. They don’t make music to become famous but they like to do it well.

Also Sweden actively encourages prospective musicians through its education system; children are not sneered at for wanting to be musicians, instead their ambitions are supported and bolstered. A large part of the education in the pre school years is taken up with music and singing. By the time they start school at age seven, kids have learned a great deal about singing and rhythm. Furthermore, many Swedes join choir groups in their teens, regardless of gender or religious affiliation. Sweden boasts the highest number of choirs per capita in the world – a startling 15 percent of Swedes sing in choirs.

Upon this nurturing, encouraging framework is bolted a can-do ethic – Swedes do love a spot of DIY and this extends to music. If they can’t bear to learn the flute at school they’ll plug in a synthesiser at home and off they go.

Then there’s the Swedes’ love of melody. Ulf Ekberg, songwriter for nineties pop titans Ace of Base, is insistent that for most Swedish songwriters the tune always come first.

“Because English is our second language, we always try to reach as many people as we can, so we have feel-good melodies and simple lyrics so everyone can have fun,” he said.

This love of melody stems from Swedish schlager music which derived from traditional Swedish folk, classical, and cabaret music. Schlager generally consists of short, simple, light songs about love that feature big, instant hooks. The ultimate schlager band was the mighty Abba, who blended sixties pop’s fluid rhythms with schlager’s giant melodic hooks to not inconsiderable success.

And the ultimate celebration of schlager is the Melodifestivalen, the contest to provide Sweden’s song for the Eurovision Song Contest. The seriousness with which Swedes take Melodifestivalen surprises every newcomer. But those that deride Melodifestivalen are often those that fall for the schlocky variants of X Factor, a show that prefers to concentrate on the individual’s pursuit of fame at the expense of the song. And most Swedes are far too canny to fall for that malarkey.

But, thanks to the current government, not all is set fair for the Swedes’ continued domination of pop music. The government is in the process of dismantling policies that encouraged music and had been producing excellent results since the 1960s.

Music is no longer compulsory in schools and state funding of cultural activities has been slashed. It’s short-sighted, counter-productive and idiotic – why take funds away from a Swedish success story?

Somebody should write a song about it…

ALBUM OF THE MONTH

LISA MISKOVSKY

Umeå

(Columbia) ****

Lisa Miskovsky may seem to be a quintessentially Swedish pop star. After all, her albums rarely sell well in any other territory apart from her home country. But she, too, is part of the global Swedish pop success story. Miskovsky co-wrote the Backstreet Boys’ 2000 single Shape Of My Heart, and that song’s success has left her free to pursue her own solo career without worrying too much about financial considerations. Which is why it’s odd that much of her solo output has been so anodyne – like many songwriters who write for other artists, she seemed unable to inject her personality into her own songs.

Her miserable foray into 2012’s Melodifestivalen (where she finished ninth) with Why Start A Fire seemed to signal a career in terminal decline. The song was a bit of a stinker and its inclusion on this, her fifth album, was not a promising portent.

Happily, it’s the weakest song here by quite some distance, its clumsy, charmless plod outshone by a glittering array of sparkling, grown-up pop on what is undoubtedly Miskovsky’s finest album.

Miskovsky lives in Umeå now and there’s a hint of northern melancholy about album opener, Rain, Rain, Rain (shouldn’t that have been Snow, Snow, Snow? It doesn’t rain that much up here). The chorus, “You were always sunlight, I was always rain, rain, rain…”, suggests a recent brush with romantic misfortune although I’m pretty certain Miskovsky is still happily married to Norwegian snowboarder Marius Sommer. What is certain, however, is that the song is representative of what is to come – Umeå is rammed solid with chunky, well-fed tunes and memorable hooks all enhanced by Miskovsky’s lovely granulated honey voice.

Highlights? Well, other than Rain, Rain, Rain, there’s the gorgeous I Am I, which benefits from being a distant relation to Lana del Ray’s Video Games, the propulsive drive-time pop-rock of Tougher Than Most and the sprightly electronica of Coming on Strong. Just steer clear of that Melodifestivalen clunker.

ALSO OUT

Henric de la Cour

Mandrills

(Progress productions/Border)

It says something for the current quality of Swedish electronica that Henric de la Cour is seen as little more than a curious oddity in Sweden. This glorious goth-pop collection should change that – but it probably won’t.

Elika Solo Rafael

NOW

(Country & Eastern / Naxos)

Folk music from Sweden, kora from Senegal and eurythmics from Mexico, with a hint of jazz? It shouldn’t work but it does.

GIG

Umeå Jazz Festival 2013

The north’s annual celebration of jazz this year boasts a terrific line-up, including Dave Holland, Bobo Stenson Trio and the magnificent Emilia Mårtensson.

Wednesday, October 23 – Sunday, October 27

Norrlandsoperan Umeå

Paul Connolly

Read more from Paul here, including his Northern Dispatch column

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MUSIC

What are the best concerts in Sweden this autumn?

Now that Sweden has lifted its audience restrictions for public events, The Local's Paul O'Mahony lists his recommendations for the best gigs to attend over the coming months.

Crowd at a music concert in Debaser, Stockholm
Crowds return to Stockholm venue Debaser after pandemic restrictions on events were lifted. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Sweden’s musicians, concert promoters and venue operators have struggled to varying degrees through the pandemic. One surefire way to help get them back on their feet is to give organisers and artists the financial reassurance they need by pre-booking concerts. 

Of course these recommendations only apply if you feel safe attending large events; remember that you should stay home and take a Covid-19 test if you experience any symptoms that could be linked to the virus, even if vaccinated. And make sure to check with organisers if there are any specific coronavirus requirements you need to be aware of. 

Coming up: top gigs in Sweden over the next few months 

As a regular gig-goer, live music is the one thing I’ve missed most over the past year and a half. So it is with some excitement (and, I’ll admit, a degree of trepidation) that I prepare to go see Norwegian band Pom Poko this Friday at Hus 7 in Stockholm. Their melodic art-punk album Cheater sparked the year into life on its release in January. They’re also playing Plan B in Malmö on Saturday night

Plan B is also the venue when Squid hit Sweden with a thrilling dose of post-punk on October 15th. Tickets remain available for the show at the time of writing (an absolute steal at 120 kronor), though that’s sadly not the case in Stockholm where their October 16th gig at Melodybox sold out a long time ago. (Although you can sign up to be added to a waiting list). 

Another artist well worth checking out in October is Gothenburg guitarist and singer Amanda Werne, better known as Slowgold. Her live shows are great and she is embarking on a Swedish tour on October 8th. 

Emma-Jean Thackray, one of the UK’s most interesting jazz artists, will be at Fasching in Stockholm on October 15th

For the best kind of sonic assault, Anna von Hasswolff’s band Bada are scheduled to play in Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg in late October. 

Have any of you ever seen Gothenburg electronic veterans Little Dragon live? I haven’t but might check them out in November when they swing by Malmö, Stockholm and Gothenburg

Amason are also heading out on the road for a Scandinavian tour in November. If you haven’t heard Amanda Bergman’s voice in a live setting before this will be a treat. 

The inimitable Sibille Attar released her superb second album A History of Silence at the start of the year and she’s finally getting the chance to play her eighties-inspired gems live at Slaktkyrkan in Stockholm on November 18th

Cassandra Jenkins long lurked in the background as a musician in touring bands for people like Eleanor Friedberger and Purple Mountains. But this year’s album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has really established her as an artist to be reckoned with in her own right. She’s coming to Södra Teatern in Stockholm on November 26th

Always popular in this part of the world, The Jesus and Mary Chain return to Sweden for dates in Stockholm and Gothenburg at the end of November

Wry Finland-Swedish indie outfit Vasas Flora och Fauna have some of the funniest (Swedish) lyrics and catchiest tunes around. They’ll be in Stockholm and Gothenburg the first weekend of December

UK experimental rockers Black Midi are also playing Stockholm and Gothenburg on December 4th and 5th. So prepare to travel if you want to catch both them and Vasas Flora and Fauna. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Bob Hund’s annual ‘week 48’ show also takes place on December 4th. But that has been sold out for ages so no decisions to make there. It is also worth noting though that Sweden’s hardest working band has also written a musical that’s going to be performed in Helsingborg (October-November) and Gothenburg (November)

Bonus: For a post-Christmas pick-me-up try to get down to Little Simz at Slaktkyrkan on January 14th if you’re in Stockholm. The UK rapper’s new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is one of this year’s best releases. 

Selected artists playing Sweden in 2022: Henry Rollins, Sarah Klang, Yann Tiersen, Mogwai, Pearl Charles, Wolf Alice, Lloyd Cole, Lord Huron, Future Islands, Josh Rouse + Vetiver, Tricky, Snail Mail, Porridge Radio, Aldous Harding, Shame, The Kooks, The War on Drugs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Kings of Convenience, Fontaines D.C., Alex Cameron, Lucy Dacus, The Divine Comedy, Mdou Moctar, Iggy Pop, Chubby and the Gang, Sparks, Belle & Sebastian, The National, Sharon Van Etten, Teenage Fanclub, Tindersticks, Suede, Viagra Boys, Pavement. 

For bigger arena shows, Ticketmaster covers a lot of the bases. Big-name acts with gigs in the offing include Ed Sheeran, Zara Larsson, Whitesnake and, lest we forget, ABBA

And that’s just a fraction of what’s going on. Tour schedules are busier than ever now that artists are finally getting back on the road. To keep track of what gigs are coming up I can recommend checking in with Luger, FKP Scorpio, and Live Nation. Follow your favourite venues too: sometimes they cut out the middleman and do their own booking and promotion. I also use the Bandsintown app, which comes with the added bonus of receiving messages from your favourite artists which let you pretend to be their friend. 

Enjoy the gigs, and stay safe! 

Paul O’Mahony is editorial product manager at The Local. In his spare time he plays the best new indie and alternative music as host of the Signals show on Nerve Music.

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