It’s common to hear people proclaim that technology has made the world smaller, but even before the World Wide Web was spun around the planet, we had Microsoft Encarta, Encyclopedia Britannica, National Geographic and the beloved TV to introduce us to our relatively close neighbors. Five miles from my home in Buena Park, Calif., you can pay $92 for the privilege to travel in a slow-moving boat while 437 representatives from around the world proclaim this truth in song, their audience mostly bored teenagers sending self-destructing photos to the opposite coast from the palm of their hand.
Yet, in 2013, trying to have a phone conversation with Markus Svensson in Stockholm, Sweden, a little more than 4,800 nautical miles away, Earth has never felt so large. Our interview is similar to what one imagines ground control suffers through when conversing with an astronaut on a space walk. We struggle through delays of 10 seconds or more, and I try to speak in long, continuous stretches, hoping my messages find their destination in the cold, loneliness of space where Svensson seems to call home.
After all, that outer space comparison might not be such a stretch when you hear Svensson, who has recorded under the name The Tarantula Waltz since 2007, describe his home. His third album, the yet-to-be-released Tinderstick Neck, finds Svensson looking close to home for inspiration.
“‘This is the first album that is actually about Scandinavia and Sweden and my surroundings,” Svensson says, “I actually only realized this when I was in New York, but a lot of my lyrics are about Scandinavian themes and what’s going on here. “
The New York trip happened just the previous week. The trip marked his first time in the United States and featured performance at the Mercury Lounge and Glasslands. The Tarantula Waltz already has two LPs released, and though he has been signed since he was 18 in his home country, the trip is an attempt to stir up interest from American labels in hopes that Tinderstick Neck will be his first album to have an American presence. Svensson thinks the material is finally good enough to make this leap, and a sample of four songs from the collection supports this.
“The album has two major themes,” Svensson says. “One is death and the fear of dying. I wanted to make something creative of these negative feelings and it became this album. Growing up my father was a priest, so I grew up with a God figure in my life, but now I have abandoned that in favor of science and facts. I am not a believer anymore, and that makes it hard to cope with the fact that I am going to die someday. My father died when I was 16, and my grandfather killed himself when I was 14. I think that is why I developed my hypochondria. I think a lot about it and have a constant fear, and I wanted to get that out there on this album.”
Svensson is 27 now and is able to speak of these past traumas without much sentimentality, and on “17,” a standout from the early sampling of Tinderstick Neck, it becomes clear that the emotion might be saved for his music. “I know that I will die, it scares me but sometimes it gives me peace,” he sings before a chorus finds him reaching as far, or even farther, than his voice is capable. There is a thrill to listening to a song that isn’t a slam dunk, where the singer’s failure and success are even bets. And its difficulty makes “17” all the more affecting.
“That’s what I had in mind when I wrote that song,” he says about the grasping vocals. “In Sweden we have an artist called Håkan Hellström, he’s probably the biggest pop star here that sings in Swedish. He’s a brilliant songwriter and lyricist and he always gets a lot of shit for not hitting the right notes. He often writes about teenage love but without being corny or cliché’. ’17’ was an attempt to try and write a Håkan Hellström song in English.”
The second theme The Tarantula Waltz explores on LP3 is the concept of light and dark, something fellow Swedes Shout Out Louds notably worked in thematically earlier this year on Optica, and to hear Svensson describe life there, it is no wonder that this concept keeps creeping into art.
“It’s darker for eight months out of the year in winter,” Svennson explains, “but we are used to it and people tend to stay in. It can be very depressing, though. When the sun finally comes back in April, people tend to get even more depressed, and the suicides are actually highest in April. The first single from my album is called ‘Scandinavian Minds,’ and it’s about that phenomenon; how the darkness is in a struggle against the light and what happens when the light finally comes.”
“So, it’s like we live a double life,” he continues. “During winter we are not very nice to each other and stay inside. And in the summer, everyone gets happy, but the in-between, April, everyone wants to kill themselves. The last couple years I’ve started to think about this concept and I don’t know if we really understand the impact the darkness has on us.”
Still, despite his rooted interest in Scandinavia, Svensson writes in English and feels at home amongst American audiences. He cites influences ranging from Bob Dylan to his friends, fellow Swedish natives/English language performers The Tallest Man on Earth and Idiot Wind, the latter of which appears as the only guest on Tinderstick Neck.
“They are very inspiring people,” he notes. “I think Kristian (TTMoE) is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. It’s very inspiring to hear him write songs like he does, that will live longer than we will. He was very supporting and encouraging when I recorded the new album and if it wasn’t for him the album still wouldn’t be finished.”
As The Tarantula Waltz, Svensson doesn’t want to be lumped with the singer/songwriter patriarchal tradition, akin to The Tallest Man on Earth and his hero, Jason Molina.
“I’m extremely tired of the stereotypical ‘cry in the beer,’ male, singer-songwriter,” he states. “It’s very important for me to be aware of how I use the language in my lyrics. A lot of male songwriters tend to portray women as beautiful, passive, and, like, a homogeneous group of people. I hate that and I don’t wanna be a part of that tradition. In Sweden gender equality is a hot topic and that’s good but we still have a long way to go.”
With the third album release imminent once a label is found, The Tarantula Waltz is faced with the awkward preparation for both success and for not making the transition to international artist. The importance, though, is not that The Tarantula Waltz makes it, but for what songwriting means for Svensson.
“Each year I realize how much songwriting means to me and that I write songs cause I need this for my own well-being,” he notes. “I will never stop. If other people like my songs then that’s a huge bonus and I’m very thankful cause the music gives me the opportunity to travel.”
With his American fate so out of his hands, the world must feel just as large to him as it does to me. And however it turns out, and whether you can draw a line of cause and effect, or it seems like fate or divine intervention in the end, music has a remarkable ability to find an audience, even if it feels like throwing a glass bottle into the ocean or launching the Voyager to the edge of our solar system.
It’s a small world after all.