When I hopped on the phone to The Sounds‘ Maja Ivarsson on May 12th, it had been six years since the last time we spoke. Now, just a month after our call, it honestly feels like another six years have elapsed given the global backdrop the last couple of weeks.
We were able to get caught up about how the band has been faring in quarantine in their native Sweden, which is where they’re staying put for the foreseeable future; like many artists, they were forced to cancel touring due to Covid-19. They also had to push back an album release, which was finally able to go forward on Friday; Things We Do For Love is out now on Arnioki Records, so if you haven’t already, grab a copy here.
Fortunately the band has been staying healthy and productive during this time of uncertainty, and while they wish they were able to play live shows to fans right now, Ivarsson feels confident that they’ll be ready to hit the road again when it’s safe to do so. We talked about what she’s doing in the meantime to maintain a sense of structure (it helps that her son is still able to go to preschool, which is obviously not the case for American parents juggling work and kids), what it’s been like for the band to dip its toes into the world of live-streamed performances from empty rooms and more:
So obviously you’re supposed to be on tour right now, which is such a bummer…
I know, but at the same time, Sweden hasn’t had the same approach as anybody else in the world, so I feel kind of semi-free in my life. Obviously it’s super sad not to be able to go on tour, because I want to come out and play shows to our fans, but I’m still able to go to the studio, my kid is going to preschool, I can go to the grocery store, and I’m well.
That’s good, a bit of a silver lining.
Thank you! Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Have you been okay?
I’ve been alright. I’ve been doing some grocery runs for my older neighbors who are scared to go out, and the supermarket’s always got a line, but there are worse things. And I don’t have so much to do or anywhere to be, so it’s not so bad.
Has it been a total lockdown except for going to grocery stores?
Technically you can still do whatever, because we don’t have checkpoints or anything to verify if someone is an essential worker or not. So it’s not super strict, and a lot of my friends still go out to exercise, or obviously to walk their pets, going to parks on the weekends, which…they’re kind of trying to get people not to do that, but the weather’s been so nice that I think people are just like, “It’s fine!” But they did shut down the subway between like 1am and 5am, which is weird since it’s usually open 24/7.
It’s also scary considering what’s been happening in South Korea, how they thought everything was fine and they opened up again and then a second wave came right in.
Yeah, I feel like it’s going to be rolling infections until they find a vaccine, so I hope that happens quickly, because this is not a sustainable way to live!
No, not at all, except I get a lot of new song material since I can’t go on tour; I’m writing a lot, which is good.
It’s good that you’re feeling inspired, because I think a lot of people (especially the ones that were supposed to be on tour) feel like they have this weird pressurized downtime to create. And I feel like it doesn’t always come as easily as that, like you sometimes have to wait for inspiration to hit.
I don’t agree, if I may say so. I think inspiration is something that has to do with work ethic. You can’t sit and drink a bottle of wine and expect to magically get inspiration. For me, it doesn’t work like that. For me, it’s like going to work; you might write eight shitty songs, but the ninth one will be amazing. But if you don’t write those eight shitty songs, that ninth one isn’t going to come. It’s all about the work ethic, I think. Going through the coal mine, really, which sounds harsh, but to me it’s all about being disciplined and doing your hours in the studio. Then it will come to you. If you don’t do those hours, it’s not going to come to you in that sense, I think.
Have you always been of that mindset? I think I interviewed you six years ago at this point (which is insane), but I don’t think you were a parent yet, and I know that being responsible for a tiny human can flip your schedule around and intensify the need to be productive.
Yeah, I think there are two reasons; in the beginning of our career, we had absolutely no kids around or even on their way. I wrote all the songs for the first and the second album, and then throughout our career, other band members are also songwriters, and we kind of give each other space to have input and creativity depending on who was feeling inspired. But lately, I think having a kid made me focus much more and made me more disciplined. I know I have about five or six hours during the day when he’s in preschool, and I know I have time to write songs; I can’t just sit around drinking coffee or chatting with friends. When I know I only have those hours to spend in the studio, I’m much more efficient. So for me, it’s only been a good thing. I think deadlines are the best thing for any creative person. You need to have deadlines and structure. (At least I do.)
Totally. Now, I know you performed some of the new material from the forthcoming record at the KB to an empty room. Obviously it was live-streamed, so it wasn’t like there wasn’t an audience, but was that kind of a bizarre experience? I know afterwards you said it was weird for you because you feed off the energy from the crowd, but how was it different from like, say, a soundcheck or band practice or something?
I think you’re absolutely spot on with that, because it’s not very different from a soundcheck; you’re in the venue, everything is set up…at band practice we don’t have the same in-ear systems or a PA or monitors or anything, but a soundcheck is very similar to doing that live-streamed show. We still had the same preparation in the dressing room, getting psyched and drinking a couple of beers, just like, “LET’S DO THIS!”, trying to make everything as similar as it would’ve been if there was a real show. Coming on stage, there were a few times I think we looked over at each other like, “This is crazy…” But we tried to remember that there were like 200,000 views for that show, and looking back on it afterwards, we were pretty proud of pulling that together. There are so many live streams happening from people’s living rooms or studios, but to actually put on a real show with lights and everything, I think that’s what people wanted. It seemed like it, anyway, seeing all the reactions. It was really cool.
Yeah, and it’s been so nice that there’s been this option to live-stream in the first place, even though it doesn’t hold a candle at all to the actual experience of a live show. Now, you’ve been in this band for over twenty years at this point; what do you think would’ve happened if this pandemic had struck even like, a decade ago? The internet was so different even then, so do you think it would’ve been better for bands in some ways or worse for bands in some ways? What do you think that would’ve looked like?
Wow, I haven’t really thought about it. This is putting me on the spot, I like that. I think it’s probably better now if you had to choose ten years ago or today because of the technology. Back then, I don’t even know. Shit! Maybe people would do more radio things back then? I don’t know, it’s a good question. I’d have to say that I think it’s better that it happened today than ten years ago with all the technology we have, for sure.
Yeah, it’s so strange to think about how that would’ve looked, even from like a profitability perspective re: album buying, because I remember I was still buying physical copies of records back then, but also the digital music thing was taking off at that point, too, although I think in more of a bootlegged way than a profitable one.
Yeah, Myspace and all that.
Right. Now, we don’t know when anybody will be able to hit the road for live shows again. How does that feel for you, having been geared up for a month-long string of dates? Like, how do you stay on your toes knowing that it could come back out of the blue? Is that even part of your thought process right now?
I think I’m happy that we’ve been a band for twenty years. I know what to do. So even if this break isn’t something we wanted, I think I’m secure enough in my role as a singer and a songwriter or performer that I can pick that up. I had quite a break after I became a mom; I was more worried about that coming back, a couple kilos heavier and having a baby and everything, like, “Should I be on stage if I’m not a kicking and swearing and smoking badass girl? And now I’m a mom who’s breastfeeding?” That was a much bigger gap for me to fill in, but now I feel like I’m such a confident person in myself that I feel like there’d be no issue for me to come back and do what I was supposed to do at this time, whenever we’ll be able to go back on the road again. I’m not worried about that at all. But I do feel like (and I feel bad about saying this) it’s really hard for people to understand that we don’t make any money at all. Which, to talk about money in a situation like this sounds so bad, but it’s difficult, because I haven’t made a dollar this year. I make all my money through touring, and that’s not going to happen. So the economic side of it is much more difficult than how I’m going to cope with coming back on stage again. I think that goes for everyone in the touring business, from bus drivers to guitar techs to tour managers…everyone is unemployed. And so are many other people in society, I get that, but that’s the most difficult part I think.
Totally, and there’s such a ripple effect that I think a lot of people don’t even consider when it comes to all the behind the scenes workers who’ve been affected by this. Are you thinking of doing more online streams at this point? Or do you want to save some of the new material for if/when live shows return?
No, I actually prefer it the other way around. I think that’s actually one of the benefits, is that when you do come back on tour, people will already know songs, and will be able to appreciate them more when we play them live. That’s actually one of the downsides, I think, of playing a new song. Especially being a band for as long as we have, people always want to hear the old hits, so playing a new song is like…you don’t really get any reaction from the crowd. They’re like, “I don’t know this one, I want to hear ‘Living in America’.” So by the time we do actually go on tour, maybe they’ll appreciate the new songs more.
That’s a good way of thinking about it. Also I was laughing after the live-stream performance when you were talking about how “Living in America” is like the love-hate relationship song for you!
Yeah. We don’t practice that song. I mean, maybe once or twice, but for me, I do that for our crowd. It’s not that I love playing that song. I’ve played it maybe 2000 times, or even more.
Right! Because now it’s kind of a contractual obligation that you play it I guess.
Yeah! And I’m happy to do it, I really am. I don’t mind doing it, and I’m happy to see their reaction; that’s what I get off on, to see people going, “Oh, I love this one!” I play it for you, not for myself. I think that’s my job as a performer, not to perform for myself, but to perform for the crowd that buys tickets to come and see you. That’s my job.
Totally. Also, it’s interesting that “Living in America” has taken on a WHOLE new significance (at least for me) since Trump has been in office. Like, “Yeah, I think most of the world is definitely not sorry to not be living here right now…”
Yeah, the US has been like a big brother to Sweden, and we’ve always looked up to America, but I think in many ways your status has shrunk a bit. It’s quite sad I think.
100%. Alright, we will dramatically shift gears now because I want to talk to you about the Eurovision, which has obviously been canceled…do you think the Eurovision is the lamest thing in the world? Do you hate it?
[Laughs] Do you even know about the Eurovision?!
Oh yeah, oh yeah. It’s like, the most hilarious, weird thing I’ve ever seen, and nobody watches it in America, of course.
But they’re still trying to do a weird tribute thing this weekend that people can stream. Is that a huge thing in Sweden? Is it an ironic thing, or do people actually get super into it?
It’s very serious. Or, it’s serious, but at the same time, more and more people that you wouldn’t expect to be doing it are doing it. You’re like, “What?!” So it has had that kind of a laughing factor about it, like, ironic, because it’s weird and it’s strange, but it’s still the most watched TV show in Sweden. Like, the election to become the Swedish representative to go to the Eurovision is the most watched. I think the actual Eurovision is not as big as the Swedish auditions, which is like six episodes of thirty or more artists or bands performing a song at three minutes long, and everybody’s competing to have the number one song to compete and represent Sweden. That competition is huge. It’s the most watched TV show in Sweden, and it’s crazy. I’m laughing because I’ve been asked several times to compete, and I don’t want to do it. But it’s huge. Yeah. So I can see why you find it strange, ‘cause it is. It’s absolutely insane. [Laughs]
Yeah, it weirdly feels like American Idol plus the Olympics.
Yes, and it’s been around since the sixties. I mean, it’s been around forever. It’s part of Swedish culture. Since I can remember, there have been super big hits in Sweden sung in English or Swedish, and they’re only famous because they were in the Swedish audition for the Eurovision. And they’re huge; these songs are like, Swedish culture, for sure. So yeah, it’s a very strange thing to compete in music. It’s very strange. But it’s also taught us as songwriters to become very efficient! You know, writing a hit, you’ve got to be able to hear that song once and like it. And look at Billboard today. Who has some of the biggest hits? So many of those are Swedish songwriters. We know how to write very catchy tunes that everybody can sing along to with catchy production and everything. So I think there’s something good that came of it.
For sure! Now, in terms of the new material you mentioned you’ve been working on lately, obviously not for the Eurovision, what can you tell us about that? Is there anything you can share at this point or is it too early days?
Well, me and Félix [Rodríguez] started out with a new project called Cruel Me and You that’s like a total electronic duo thing that embraces the old nineties Euro techno thing, and from that I started to write more. And I wrote with Jesper [Anderberg] in the band, and now I’m writing with Fredrik [Blond], and he’s the drummer, so I’ve been writing with all the guys. I think I’ve written like forty songs this last year, too. I don’t know why it’s just coming out of me; I think I’ve bottled it up for years. I’ve had a very crazy life, and I’ve lived a very fast life, and I think now being a mom and being very structured, now it’s coming out. I have a lot of stories to tell, and it’s been very productive and very fun. I don’t know what to do with all these songs, but they’re all demos and they sound cool. I love them all. So I don’t know. I’m very lucky to be in such a good, creative zone right now.