Nina Persson: Musical Multi-tasker

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No doubt about it: Nina Persson is quite the multi-tasker. Calling from the New York brownstone she shares with husband Nathan “Shudder to Think” Larson and their three-year-old son Nils, the Cardigans/A Camp chanteuse is trying to discuss her many current projects, like a recent Cardigans reunion tour, talk of recording a band comeback album and her brand-new sugar-sweet solo set, Animal Heart (out today via The End Records). But there’s a constant, increasingly abrasive scratching sound that’s starting to obscure her speaking voice. Is she, umm, furiously scrubbing something during the interview? “I am!” she cackles. “I’m sorry—I’m cleaning out my fridge!” The noise abates. For a bit. Later, there’s some clanking, clickety-clacking and a brisk whisking sound. Again, she apologizes. “That’s just me zipping up my keyboard bag—sorry! I keep doing stuff while I’m talking to you!”

The Swedish-born singer openly admits that the pace of her life—both domestic and creative—has sped past Mach One velocity. Just having a child changed her daily routine so much, she could no longer even consider tracking a third set with A Camp, the trio she formed with Larson over a decade ago. “So I thought I would just do it on my own,” she explains. “And it made me more flexible that way. If I have to change stuff around, schedule-wise, because of this or that, I’m not going to have two or three people be bummed out. So it’s the easiest—and the best—way for me to work right now, because it’s just me, doing everything, and I can be super-efficient when I can.” She stops working for a minute, sits down to catch her breath. “And when I can’t do it? Hey, nobody can claim my time.”

What Persson came up with on her own—assisted, of course, by her husband, plus Fruitbats alum Eric D. Johnson—is a delightful, delectable confection, albeit with a few dark lyrical subtexts. Animal Heart opens with the swaying, synth-frilled title track, then segues into galloping rock anthems (“Dreaming of Houses,” “Catch me Crying”) and Bic-flicking keyboard-based power ballads (“The Grand Destruction Game,” “Burning Bridges for Fuel” and a hushed, disc-closing status report with the ironic title of “This Is Heavy Metal”). There’s some ‘60s-shimmery jangle in “Jungle,” a Vegas-slick showtune with “Clip Your Wings” and a tropical-flavored vibraphone exercise dubbed “Food for the Beast,” with strange lines like “The last time I quit smoking/ There was a flash of light.” And in case Persson’s lissome, quavering trill gets too rich for your taste, there’s a 43-second, mid-album instrumental interlude, “Digestiv.”

Animal Heart came together at home. Portland-based Johnson would fly to the Big Apple for five-day stretches to write and record with Persson and spouse, and he even accompanied them to Sweden for sessions before the album was finally mixed back in Portland. “And the three of us produced it, too—we did everything,” Persson declares of her DIY approach, which she found remarkably easy. “Everything is so different these days. You do most of your music at home. You don’t have to go into some pricey studio where the clock is ticking. I mean, we did some recording that way. But there’s just more freedom the other way. We were in a comfortable house, having coffee, where it’s nice and social, so [we] were having a great time working and just enjoying each other’s company.”

Over the years, Persson has sung with Sparklehorse, The Manic Street Preachers, The Cake Sale, The Citizens Band, even the garage-rocking Backyard Babies. And she knows it might sound strange, her long-dormant outfit The Cardigans springing back to life late last year for a six-date tour of Russia, China and Japan. But allow her to explain. “We were asked by a Swedish festival if we would do this thing that’s become kind of a tradition, where you play a record, song by song,” she says. “So at first, we were like ‘No way!’ But then we couldn’t stop thinking about it, and we got excited about it. So we did it, and we played the record Gran Turismo, and we rehearsed a ton of other songs as well. And we were so happy we did it, we ended up going on a ‘greatest hits’ kind of thing to Asia and Russia.”

The Cardigans are well-known in Japan, so they went over well there, yet again. Playing Shanghai and Beijing for the first time was strange, Persson recalls, “because we were driving around quite a bit, and I didn’t see much from my car window except construction sites—I guess China is really transitioning right now. I went to China a long time ago, and it’s just so different now. It’s changing so fast.” On her last visit, Cardigans CDs on sale there were all bootlegged. “But now there are more traditional Western-style record companies there, so our music is out the proper way.”

But Moscow and St. Petersburg proved more captivating. The band savored the cuisine (“It has something in common with Swedish food, like smoked fish, which I love,” Persson says), the chic clothing (like the ‘60s-vintage cape she bought, just to attend the opera in Moscow) and the fans themselves, who sang along to every word. Normally, the vocalist shies away from politics, and she’d been warned about making any public statement on the country’s stance against gay rights. “But I did one anyway,” she says. “A mild one. When we were playing ‘Lovefool,’ I asked people if they like love. And then I asked if they like love for everybody. And when they understood what I was hinting at, they got super-excited.” And then? She laughs. “I was just waiting to get arrested!”

Only one thing slowed this speedster down—a cervical cancer diagnosis five years ago. “But I was lucky. I had the surgery, which was pretty massive, but it was removed, surgically,” she says. And she did stop smoking, like she said in song; nowadays, she’s switched to a Swedish chewing tobacco called Snus. “It gives you nicotine, but it’s more hygienic—there’s no juice,” she says, chuckling at the uncomfortable concept of a Cardigans onstage spittoon. “But the fact that I could have a baby is pretty magical and weird, because that was supposed to be impossible after my cancer.”

Afterwards, Persson gradually accelerated until Animal Heart was thumping within. And the birth of Nils—which required still more multi-tasking—helped, in a roundabout way. “It changed my perspective a lot when it comes to how my time is used,” she says. “Before, when I put out a record, you devote yourself completely to it for three years, and that’s fine. But now I can’t, because he’s here, and he’s in school. So having a kid is a huge change in planning and priorities and all that, and this is the first music I wrote after he was born.

“And I was wondering what it had done to my brain, to my mind. But it was great! I started to write the first song, and I quickly found my way back to my old self.”