Front Page Reviews & AIR
Feature Interview - Joel Alme
Joel Alme is a decorous singer-songwriter hailing from Gothenburg in the south of Sweden, and currently residing in the wilds of Stockholm. He received grant money from the Swedish Arts Council for his critically acclaimed second album Waiting for the Bells (2010). The big swelling sound of Bells brings out all of the strange drama and seriousness of Alme’s voice. He will release his dashing new record—'A Tender Trap' (RAZZIA)—was released on May 9th. 'Trap' is Alme’s 3rd solo record after Bells and A Master of Ceremonies.
At an outdoor cafe in Stockholm, American singer-songwriter Loren Francis sits down with Alme. Birds chirp. Cigarettes smoke.
Loren: When my wife and I were married, we honeymooned in Spain, and we downloaded a couple new albums to bring with us. The Tallest Man on Earth’s album and your album Waiting for the Bells and a few others. That was our soundtrack for driving along the dramatic coast of Spain.
Joel: That’s good to hear.
Loren: When I first heard Waiting for the Bells it took time to be able to distinguish the songs from each other because there is a uniformity to the production and mood, but once I got to know all the songs I sunk deeply into the subtle differences and the depth of the album came into focus. Real staying power.
Joel: That album was half sound/half songs. We tried for something grand sounding. The producer, he has a studio with all kinds of vintage famous equipment and he brought to our sessions The Band’s old mixing board from Shangri-La and Elvis’ old tape recorder and Frank Sinatra’s something…it all has like that thin reverb and they sounds great. That added a lot.
Loren: Your first album was a lot more rough.
Joel: That’s because I was always drunk. I started it when I was 25 and we made it on an island. Every weekend I’d go out there. We did like 20 songs in 3 years and only a few of those made it on the final record. But it was a great time—very freeing creatively.
Loren: Yeah I can see that. There is that one song where your voice is just shot and it’s great. The song on there that I really like is “Queen’s Corner”.
Joel: We tried to get that John Wesley Harding bass sound on that album.
Loren: Yeah I can feel a deep Dylan affinity in your music. Not in obvious ways.
Joel: My parents listened to mostly Dylan and Neil Young. And my dad was a DJ and we listened to Motown stuff. So that stuff is always at the core of my musical imagination. The music you listen to when you are younger becomes part of you. Because then you are listening in purity. And you can never listen to music in that way again. When you are young, memories attach to music is such an intense way.
Loren: Do you remember certain records from your youth?
Joel: With Dylan it was Blonde on Blonde. And I liked Street Legal. Lately I have been listening to Nina Simone and a couple of records with Sinatra—that are not so famous. A great record that was considered a disappointment when it came out: Water Town. Not so bombastic. Great songs. But yeah, I have always loved Dylan. It’s easy to be crazy with him. He’s just a mystery that we all feel compelled to solve—and you go insane trying. Obviously his lyrics are great but his melodies just go to the core. Like listen to the melodies on John Wesley Harding. The more I listen to Nina Simone I feel some of that same hardness and rawness. Lately I’ve been listening to Dylan’s cover album, Self Portrait. Do you know that one?
Loren: I love that album. So strange. I heard Dylan say that “Idiot Wind” revealed the most about him of any song. What do you make of that?
Joel: That’s interesting. I haven’t listened to Blood on the Tracks for so long. I listen to Desire a lot. But I can see that with “Idiot Wind”—there is a profound loneliness to that song, venom yes, but mostly loneliness. That’s probably the only thing that hasn’t changed about Dylan from his youth until now: you can see in his eyes that he is lonely. I heard an interview recently where he said he really regrets that he didn’t take better care of his kids or develop a deeper relationship with them. And now he is a grandfather.
Loren: You are married now and have kids. How has that changed your songwriting? Can you really still sing about heartbreak and all that from the seat of a stable relationship?
Joel: I think when you are really in love, there is still that vulnerability, which is what you need for song writing. Sometimes when I am trying to write I will imagine what it would feel like if my wife met someone new, and what would happen then, and what I would feel. It’s a part of love that you still experience jealousy and loneliness. Of course it’s different than when I was writing songs in my early twenties, but there are still plenty of emotional resources.
Loren: Has your public reputation changed too?
Joel: Well, I had the reputation for being an alcoholic. Or at least that’s how lots of people think of me. Because I once did an interview when I talked about some tough stuff growing up and about alcohol and somehow that became the headline. And so now that’s how lots of people think of me. At least whoever does think of me. Maybe there was some truth to it, but mostly it’s just a journalist who is digging for a simplistic headline.
Loren: What are the most annoying questions you get in interviews?
Joel: Well, I don’t know if you know what is the “Gotenburg sound”?
Loren: What is it, a little rougher around the edges?
Joel: Yeah, it’s supposed to be a bit rougher, sloppier—it’s a stereotype. So they ask, are you a “Gothenburg artist”? I hate that. I like the music of Gothenburg, its a working class town, but the stereotype is pointless. Jose Gonzales is from Gothenburg too. Did you know that he is a microbiologist?
Loren: No. Sweden has a bit of a reputation, and I’ve seen it myself, this politeness, this deferential thing, this mindset of being in the middle—that’s that where you want to be. Not above other people, or better than them, and not low either, but in the middle—and this is obviously connected to the socialistic model. But how do you think this relates to the fact that Sweden has such a high output of music. Despite being a relatively small country, Sweden has the third largest output of music (behind the US and the UK). Is there a connection to the social mentality?
Joel: Well, the state has always put a lot into music education. Everyone can take classes in piano and guitar in school. And there are lots of music schools that are well-supported by the state. And now there are so many great indie labels that support smaller musicians. So there is a strong support kind of network. That’s part of it.
Loren: I can see that practical side of it, but is there a psychological angle too? A connection between the mentality of Sweden and the musical creativity? Or maybe you could say how you fit those things together for yourself.
Joel: I think when you are such a healthy and helping country like Sweden, and you’ve got great education, you know you have space to create, and you have confidence to create.
Loren: Yeah but I also wonder if the creative spirit here is a more subtle rebellion again the social fabric—an asserting of your individuality.
Joel: I think there is some of that.
Loren: You have interest in living somewhere else in the world?
Joel: When I was young I had to move around a lot. And so as an adult I have tended to want to stay in one place. But that’s changing in me now. I’d love to live in the States. American music is deep in my soul. What’s it been like for you to come to Sweden? Did you know much about Sweden before you met your wife?
Loren: I didn’t know much of anything about Sweden, but I did know some of these Swedish musicians that get a lot of play on college radio in the US: Peter Bjorn and John, Jose Gonzales, Lykke Li, Robyn. People have stereotypes of Sweden, of course, so it’s cool that music has become a way to get to know Sweden on a subtler level. There is a cache to Swedish music today, I’d say. At least in the hip indie scene, which I don’t really stay up on.
Joel: Yeah me neither.
Loren: Something I think about in my own songwriting, is it better to stay up on the latest music and know everything that is going on, or is it better not to know and to just write your own pure kind of thing? Better to know what’s hip or not?
Joel: I don’t know. I’ve never been up on what’s hip. It’s not that I try not to be hip. But I’ve just always been interested in old stuff. I am like an old man. I do listen to friends records when they give them to me. But I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t care about that. It’s like poison. The radio plays stuff for people to buy, which doesn’t mean it’s good. I hope I am not a bitter old man. But I just don’t have time.
Loren: I just heard the first single off your new record A Tender Trap, and I’m psyched to hear the rest. How do you feel about the new album? Is it a new direction?
Joel: I don’t think it’s an intentional decision to go in a different direction. It’s just an expression of where I am in my world. And that’s probably changed a bit from where I was in the last record. But I really enjoyed making this record. My favorite part is making the records. The worst part is when it’s done and you have to wait for the critics and do PR stuff. I wish I could just skip from making the record to returning to normal life.
Loren: What’s the best thing you dream to accomplish with your music?
Joel: When I was young, I couldn’t listen to good music without putting myself in the shoes of the songwriter. When I listened to Dylan, I had to think about what it would be like to make music like this for other people. When I was young I was alone a lot and listening to music and I dreamed about making music to tell people about everything that I was feeling and to make people feel things. That’s one of the main things. I know a song is finished when I think it will make people feel things