‘Stockholm has welcomed me with open arms’

Is it possible to balance a full-time job at a Swedish start-up with a career in music? That’s exactly what Sheona Urquhart is attempting to do. After spending two years living in London, the Australian singer, actress and communications professional relocated to Stockholm last May, and she hasn’t wasted any time in her quest to establish herself in her new home.

'Stockholm has welcomed me with open arms'
Musician and communications professional Sheona Urquhart talks to The Local about her move to Sweden. Photo: Sheona Urquhart

The initial connection with Sweden came through a route many will be familiar with: love. Urquhart met her current partner on what she describes as a “Tinder date gone right” while visiting Stockholm, and after some time in a long-distance relationship, she decided to make the leap and relocate to the Swedish capital. Before long, the Aussie had managed to nail down a job at start-up Trygve, working in the communications department on their neighbourhood watch app.

“The idea is that you post events and incidents in your area to the app, people talk to each other about it, and instead of spamming the police to get them involved in something relatively small, the neighbourhoods can collaborate,” she explains.

The app launched in Sweden last year, and attracted attention when it offered to connect buildings housing asylum seekers to its technology for free, following a string of suspected arson attacks on temporary refugee housing. Using technology to try and improve society is something Urquhart sees as a typically Swedish solution to a problem.

“Whether communities are important or not here, people at least seem to feel like they should be,” she notes. “The Swedish mindset is to look at alternative ways to better the planet and to better society. Swedes are at the forefront of innovative ideas.”

Occasionally that forward-thinking approach can be unsettling for newcomers however, as the Australian found out when she started her new job doing PR on the English version of the Trygvie app, and discovered that spending time at the office was more flexible than she was accustomed to.

“Coming to the office here and hearing people saying ‘I’m not coming in, I’ll work from home’, or ‘I need to clear my head so I’m going to go to a cafe…’. That was new,”

“The first week I chained myself to my desk and thought ‘surely I need to be here until five’. I ended up being the only person in a shared office, locking up at night,” she laughs.

“I wasn’t comfortable with it at first, and stuck to my ways. Then I forced myself to try it, and I found it does make you work harder, even if you work less hours that day. It makes you much more productive.”

Photo: Sheona Urquhart.

Settling in to a new job in a new country is enough of a challenge for most, but not content with that task, Urquhart is also in the process of finding her feet in the Swedish music industry, following on from her performance work in London.

“I’m mainly a vocalist and saxophonist, and most of my work was done arranging for other artists and doing backing vocals,” she says. “There are a couple of artists in Sweden that I’m going to do some sessions with in the next few weeks or so.”

Becoming established in a country’s music industry is rarely a simple task, but to Urquhart’s surprise, the Swedish collective mentality extends to the arts.

“It’s very collaborative here. I went to an industry night last week and thought I’d feel bad as I didn’t know anyone, that it could be awkward. I was looking at people and thinking ‘you’ve probably written songs I sing all the time but I have no idea who you are’,” she laughs.

“But everyone was really cool. The overall experience feels refreshing. Everyone wants to hear you out, hear your story and give you a go. That has been pleasantly surprising.”

Photo: Sheona Urquhart

Music isn’t Urquhart’s only creative talent. She also has acting experience, including a six month stint in Australian soap opera ‘Neighbours’. She describes her old character on the show as “a real bitch called Candace, who was a single mom that didn’t crack a smile once”.

While a move into Swedish soaps isn’t on the cards at the moment, the actress does have one idol from Sweden's entertainment world whose footsteps she would love to follow in.

“If I could be Petra Mede, I’d be happy. I’m a massive fan of Eurovision, it’s like Australian Christmas, and the one she hosted was the funniest I've ever seen,” she says.

Along with finding a new hero in the form of the 2016 Eurovision co-host, Sweden has also thrown up a pleasant surprise for Urquhart in the form of her day job, which has exceeded her expectations.

“I feel very appreciated here. With Trygve I’m in a very cool situation where there’s no one else doing my particular role and everyone has their own patch they take care of. There’s no micro management, no one looking over my shoulder telling me I should be doing this, this and this.”

With her job at the tech start-up proving to be a stimulating experience, and her first steps in the Swedish music industry already taken, it’s hard for the expat not to feel excited about the future ahead of her in Scandinavia.

“I feel like Stockholm has welcomed me with open arms. It’s nice to think anything can happen. I really like my job, I want to do more music and I feel like I’m able to. If I can balance both, I’ll be happy as Larry,” she concludes.

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Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”