You Sing, I Write: Q&A with Theresa Andersson

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Q&A with Theresa Andersson

I spoke with Theresa Andersson during CMJ week right before her amazing live performance where she played multiple instruments with the help of two loop pedals, all while dancing throughout her set — truly a sight to see. Theresa spoke to me about her writing process, recording her album in her kitchen, as well as her inspiration which draws upon living in New Orleans combined with her Swedish roots.

If that isn't interesting enough for you, when listening closely to tracks on her latest album, Hummingbird, Go! you can hear birds chirping outside her kitchen window while sirens are blaring in the background. Not your average recording, Hummingbird, Go! is full of depth and if you listen closely you can pick up much of the surrounding environment. While Theresa is pretty certain her next album won't be recorded in her kitchen, she does plan on continuing her demos there. And after watching the video below, I can't wait to hear what she comes up with next.

Watch the video for "Birds Fly Away" recorded live in Theresa's kitchen below to get a feel for her music and be sure to read the complete interview below.

What can people who come to see you perform expect? I’ve heard your live show is amazing and you use two loop pedals while performing.
I have a pretty interesting setup. It really starts with a big, white shag rug on the floor since I play barefoot so I can turn knobs with my toes and operate the pedals. I have two loop pedals on a big board that sort of looks like a boomerang shaped in front of me. It’s two-layered and there are pedals on either side of the board on the ends of it and in between there’s a whole bunch of pedals for switching pedals and for effects. Then, I have drums to my left, just three drums and some chimes and various percussion stuff. In front of me are two microphones, one I use for looping and one for vocal and then I have a violin and dulcimer and record player onstage. All these things I use to create the songs and build them up and I loop and record everything live.

It’s a very interesting format of playing because the pedals are definitely limiting and in the beginning when I started using them, it was really difficult. I had to spend many, many hours just figuring things out. I would spend 8 to 10 hours a day for weeks and weeks. It takes about three weeks to four weeks to really get a song in my body. I can rehearse them quicker then that, but to really feel like they’re me. I actually ended up having to break everything down to the beat. I had to figure out what to do with each beat. On some songs, especially when I set them up, between the first and second instrument I might do nine or ten different things. I have to switch things, turn things on and off and I do all that all with my toes while I’m playing it so I had to really think everything through. It became this dance with the pedals that I had to work out. After a while I started thinking of it as a dance, that’s when it really became fun. I actually ended up falling a lot in the beginning. I’ll be standing on one leg and I’ll stretch the other one out, skip steps or jump. At one point I have to stand on my heels and hit two pedals at the same time, so I couldn’t keep my balance at first. I had to take dance lessons from a friend of mine, just to figure out how to do it, how ballet dancers do it. Sometimes when I’m here in the city I’ll see shows. Recently I saw the New York City Ballet. When I saw them, I was like, “Okay, they can do all that, I should have no problem learning to hold my balance.”

So much concentration goes into every performance. Are you ever scared you’re going to mess something up or push the wrong button?
If I push the wrong button, what I’ve learned to do is to keep playing without making a mistake. I’m so comfortable with it now that the loop pedals are more of an instrument to me now since I’ve done it for a while. I play it like it’s an instrument so if I make a mistake it’s not such a big deal. It’s impossible to make it perfect at all times, but that’s what gives it a charm and that’s what gives each performance its uniqueness. The two pedals don’t synchronize with each other, so I have to do all the synchronizing. I think the loop pedal itself, there’s nothing new about it. It’s been around for a really long time and many people have used it. It’s perhaps the way I use it that’s a little bit different.

Tell me about recording your album. You recorded it all in your kitchen?
Yeah, that’s right. It wasn’t really planned. I wrote the record in New Orleans, most of it, and I ended up downloading everything in my kitchen. I have a laptop and I used Garage Band. It has its limitations too, so I would just use it to make the sounds and make it feel good when recording the demo. When the producer heard it, he really liked the way it sounded and he asked me, “Where did you record this?” and I said, “In my kitchen!” and he said, “Well, let’s make the record in your kitchen.” So we made the record in the kitchen.

I also had played all the instruments on the demo, but I didn’t really think that we were going to keep me as the only musician on the record. I thought, for sure we’re going to have a drummer and a bass player and all these things. Tobias Froberg, who produced it, he had seen me play the solo show when it was in its infancy and he really wanted to capture that vibe of one person doing something and he encouraged me to play everything so we went that route. I’m really glad we did because it has been a wonderful experience so far.

Do you have a favorite song that you enjoy playing live?
I love “Birds Fly Away.” Actually, each song is unique and they all have a specific role in the set. I really wanted to bring the listener on a journey when they listen to the set. I always think its best when you hear it from beginning to end because it goes into different spectrums of the musical language I use. “Birds Fly Away” is a really good song. I like playing “Hi-Low” a lot too, that’s probably the most complicated song I play, it’s a fun song to play too.

How long did it take to put together your live show?
I completed my rig after the record was mixed, so that was in March and then I really went into rehearsing a lot and then I hit the road. I spent maybe a month completing the show, but then it took a long time of playing to really get in my body. I would make a lot of mistakes in the beginning, I would be really nervous, but maybe those mistakes were something that I recognized. To me, I’ve reached the point where it’s really a musical instrument to me. It’s just another way of playing songs and playing music. I want the audience to really feel like they’re in the music and not worry so much about, “Oh my God is she going to fall or step on the wrong pedal?”

What is your typical songwriting process?
Well, I found a new way of writing on this record. I think because I started with this looping thing, I started thinking of music in different ways. It sort of broke me out of my habits a little bit. So I decided to do the same thing for my writing. I started collecting ideas for a long time and I would spend a lot of time just working on melodies first and singing little snippets of stuff and not be so judgmental with myself and just collect ideas and go back and listen to them again. And not try to finish stuff and just be playful and have fun with it.

I would really be inspired by different textures of things. I see music in colors and textures a lot. So, I might sit and look at this board behind us here and try to sing that or I would draw something and try to sing it and make a melody out of something I was drawing, just to break my mind out of its normal habits. And I found that it was a really enjoyable process and it took the pressure off somehow. It was really playful and in the end, I think I gave myself more freedom and the end result is a lot more pleasing to me. It also felt like definitely my most personal songs on this record as a whole, the fact that I wrote all the music and I explored all these different ideas. It was very exciting.

I love your song “Japanese Art.”
Tobias actually wrote the lyrics to that song. He sat in my kitchen and I have a book about Japanese Art and he looked at it and he just started flowing. We’re both from Gotland, so we had to put Gotland in there and we both travel a lot. It was a little bit of a whimsical song, but it definitely plays up the joyfulness of that song. That’s what I was trying to do, I was trying to write music that would say something and then the lyrics would fall in place. I didn’t write any of the lyrics on this record. Tobias wrote a few of the lyrics and then I worked with a female poet from New Orleans, Jessica Faust. She’s phenomenal. She’s actually a professor at UNO. And I had asked her to help me find some female poets and she gave me some of her own poetry and I was floored. I cried when I read it and it moved me so much. I asked her if she’d be interested in trying to do something like this. I gave her finished melodies and asked her to write words to fit my melodies. It couldn’t have been easy, but she did a great job. I feel like it came out of me, she did such a great job.

Do you have a favorite city to play?
I love playing in New York. I love it! It’s always fun here. Sometimes you just stumble on places and you have a magical night. It depends on all the circumstances too. I played in Milwaukee opening for Mason Jennings and it was a wonderful show, I really loved the audience there. The other night I went to Knoxville, Tennessee, to play a radio show and ended up playing a benefit that night and that was a great experience too. I like New York because it’s a very diverse crowd; it changes every time I come.

What can fans expect from your next album?
I feel like I’ve really found myself and really arrived here with this album. I really think that all the time that I’ve lived in New Orleans combined with me letting all my Swedish influences and my Swedish roots come back out is something that I really enjoy and I’m going to keep working on that. I’m very influenced by New Orleans rhythms as you can hear on “Birds Fly Away,” I’ve even sample Smokey Johnson on there. I’m going to keep working on that. I’m also going to keep working on my textures. I have some big ideas in my head and I’m going to play around with it around Christmas time.

Is your showcase at CMJ different than the typical concert?
My show is so intense that unfortunately, for me to put something new in the show, it’s hard to do unless I have some serious rehearsal time. In the past, I could just get together with the band and do a two-hour rehearsal and then be able to play that. I actually have to get into rehearsal space with all my gear, do a couple days of rehearsing and I haven’t had the luxury of that. My show is pretty much worked out. Of course no one knows how tonight’s going to happen. I am excited because I know there are a lot of special guests in the audience that are invited by my publicists so that’s going to be nice but of course I’m a little bit nervous. I want to make a good impression. In New Orleans you don’t get so much of that, you don’t get so much industry and you don’t have high pressure situations all the time. It’s been challenging to be in those situations to really have to bring my super A-game every time I perform. But, I love challenges and I love to step up. I’m just hoping to make the audience feel like they’re able to step into my world tonight with everything else that’s been going on.

You’ve been getting some great press. Rolling Stone featured you recently.
Yes! I know, I’m so excited! When I started this record, I really erased any kind of ideas of wanting to fit into a format or trying to be something or have a specific sound, any of that stuff, just out of my mind. None of that. I really tried to just make a record that I could be proud of and a record that was personal and real from the heart.

And, I think when you listen to Hummingbird, Go! you'll agree. For more on Theresa, be sure to check out her MySpace and see when she's playing a tour nearby. It will surely be a unique performance you will never forget.


Anonymous said...

Great interview! I absolutely adore Theresa and fell in love with her after her video "NaNaNa."

I think it's simply remarkable to see one person play all of those parts as well as doing the looping. Something about her entire set and CD shows to me how empowering that it all is.

I just recently had the opportunity to see her live, and it was splendid.

Has anyone else had the chance to see her live?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great interview. I've seen Theresa do her current show three times and have heard her in other incarnations countless times over the last fifteen years.

It is clear that she has found her voice and I look forward to hearing her express even more in the years to come.

You did a fine job of communicating many interesting aspects of what she now does and how she arrived where she is. It is very satisfying to see the attention being given to her artistry. I'm thankful that a wider audience is beginning to enjoy it. Few things make me happier.

I look forward to enjoying her music again next Saturday.


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