After nearly twenty years since her debut album Blue Moon in 2005, Swedish folk musician Sofia Talvik has had a long journey, creating an international fanbase with her English-language Americana music.
In 2020, she released an album called Nattflykt with cellist Dave Floer under the project name Hansan. This was a very different venture from her solo career, focusing more on minimalistic swing-inspired music with, as the album’s title may suggest, Talvik singing in her native Swedish.
Talvik joined Post-Burnout on a Zoom call from Spain to discuss her side-project Hansan, their new album Blod eller bläck, singing and writing in English versus Swedish, and using her music to combat Sweden’s far-right.
So, I guess the first thing I was going to ask was, if you can just give us a little bit of background as to how you became a musician and what you were listening to and what inspired you?
Um, OK. So, I mean, first of all, I’ve been a solo artist for many, many years and, so, the Hansan project is sort of a recent side-project of mine. I don’t know if you listened to any of my solo stuff…?
I did, yeah.
But, yeah, I play more Americana, folk music. So, I started out basically when I was 18, I got a guitar for my 18th birthday, and I started writing songs to teach myself how to play the guitar. But, I mean influences have been like a lot of female singer-songwriters, like Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann, Neko Case. But this thing, my side-project Hansan, I think is quite different from everything else I’ve ever done. Partly because it’s in Swedish [Laughs], so it’s a whole…and also because I’m used to writing all my songs myself, like, alone in a room with a guitar, and with Hansan, it’s been a completely different collaboration kind of thing. So, yeah. That’s kind of the difference, I guess.
Well, yeah. So, I mean Hasan, it’s you and cellist Dave Floer. It’s really interesting because you listen to it and the cello takes up so much space. Like, it feels like a real full orchestra, almost. Like, it’s insane that it’s just one instrument.
I know! I know!
I was wondering how you met him.
Yeah. Well, I was doing some shows in Germany – I tour a lot in Germany – this is many, many years ago now, I don’t even remember. It might have been like 2015 or 2016 or something like that and David was playing with another band, so we were sharing the bill, and I guess we kind of stayed in touch after that and he joined me for some single releases, he played some cello on one of my albums and then it was actually his idea that we join and do this completely different thing together and he suggested that it would be all in Swedish as well. So, that’s kind of how it started and then he started sending me little clips of…little fragments of, like, cello compositions and I would take them and kind of cut them up into different pieces and put them back in another order and I would write the lyrics and the melodies for these. So, yeah, that’s kind of how we met. [Laughs]
How do you think writing in Swedish versus writing in English differs? Because, as you were mentioning, your solo career is primarily in English. And, also, the other thing I was wondering was, do you think, for example, people who sing in their native language can have international success? Because I know the first album that you guys did was very popular throughout Europe. I don’t think there’s that essentialism to sing in English anymore that maybe there used to be.
I mean there are some artists who have an international career even though they sing in like Swedish or…like Jónsi, for example, is singing a lot in Icelandic and Dungen that sing in Swedish. I think if you…I mean, to have an international career, not singing in English [Laughs], I think is much, much harder and it depends a lot on which genre you play, like, if the audience are open to listening to stuff that they don’t really understand, you know? Like, for me, when I write my solo stuff, the lyrics are so important that even sometimes touring in Germany has been a little hard because I can tell sometimes that the audience don’t really understand the meaning of the songs. But I think…I mean, it’s so different for me to write in Swedish. I think when we started out, I was much more insecure in a way, in how to express myself in English, because it gets much more real in a way, because it’s my mother tongue, so I’m like, you know, you think about every word and, like, “Does this sound cheesy?” or you know. But I think because also the genre of music we did is so different from what I do otherwise, I think that kind of helped with just disconnecting with this whole feeling that it had to be about me or my feelings or stuff like that and I could have the freedom to be more poetic.
Yeah. Actually…I thought the name Hansan was very cute once I realised what it meant. I was wondering if maybe you could just talk about that a little bit, about what it means?
Yeah. Well, I mean, “Hansan” is the Swedish word for the Hanseatic League, which was a trade union between Sweden and Germany that started out sometime in the 12th century, I think. [Laughs] So, I thought that was kind of a cool thing to do, because I’m from Sweden and David is from Germany, so it’s kind of like we’re having also this trade thing going on but it’s with music instead of with, you know, goods or whatever. [Laughs] So, that was [Laughs] that was kind of how we came up with the name with it.
The other thing I wanted to go to was, you were mentioning that you began as an Americana artist, and I know since then you’ve toured quite extensively across the United States. I was wondering, as an outsider writing Americana music, how did actually going to the States influence that and did that in anyway have an influence on you wanting to go a bit back to focusing on Sweden, in particular?
It’s kind of hard to say. I still do a lot of touring in the U.S. I mean, of course, the last two years have been kind of…you know, with COVID and everything, not so much touring, but I really like touring in the U.S. and I listen to a lot of American music, so, for me, I think my own writing has become more influenced by that. But, of course, it’s interesting to also seek out your roots a little bit more, doing this side-project kind of thing. And I would really love to tour with Hansan, but it’s kind of hard because David has a family and small kids and a day job, so it’s kind of hard to, you know, just leave your family at home and go on tour with me. It’s hard when you’re at that stage in your life, you know? So, it’s – right now – this project is almost more like a passion project; it’s something that we do because we enjoy it and we of course hope that it will find a big audience but it’s hard, especially when you’re not touring with it because that’s how I built my audience, is doing a lot of touring, So, that’s kind of hard but it’s still something we want to do because we just have fun writing the songs.
So, your new album is called – I’m going to attempt….I never claimed to speak Swedish! – but Blod eller bläck. “Blood or Ink” is the English translation…
Yeah, that’s pretty good, actually!
Oh, thank you!
Yeah, yeah. Blod eller bläck. Yeah.
And, you know, when we’re kind of talking about Americana music, I think that often inspires images of particularly the American south, when you listen to it. Whereas I feel this album has a very – this is what I was picturing when I was listening to it – but the idea of the grey Nordic winters. [Sofia laughs] What I was picturing was a beach in Sweden but in wintertime. That’s what it inspired in me. [Laughs]
Yeah, yeah! OK! Sure! I mean, I grew up on an island off Sweden, so that’s not too far off! I mean, it is kind of cold and grey, most of the time! [Laughs]
I can relate! [Laughs]
Yeah. I mean you always talk about the Nordic melancholy and the Swedish melancholy and stuff like that, so I guess that’s kind of maybe something you carry within, as a Swede. I don’t know, maybe? [Both laugh]
Well, what was the kind of intent of this album then, compared to others? Because I do think this one sounds a little more melancholic, as you were mentioning. It does have a bit more…I don’t know. I wouldn’t say it’s pessimistic or anything, but it does kind of have a bit more…I don’t know. A bit more sadness to it, I guess.
Really? Yeah. I guess…I don’t think it’s something that we really strived for. I mean it depends so much on when you write the songs and, for me, I feel like the songs have got very different sort of characters; they’re almost like little stories in the way of telling an album. But, the song “Postcard from Spain,” like I wrote that last year when it was really, really warm – and I’m in Spain right now and we have a house in Spain here – and, so, it was like 40 degrees and [Laughs] you couldn’t really be outside; it was too hot. So, I mean, a lot of the songs are kind of almost like little postcards, you know? You’ve got that one that actually is called “Postcard from Spain,” but then also “Summer Song,” that is very sort of…I think it’s a song that really tells the story of the Swedish Midsummer and how it’s always like a little bit of rain and dark clouds and, you know, but you’re still wanting it to be this perfect summer day. [Both laugh] But I don’t think we strived to be more melancholic, but maybe that’s how it turned out. I don’t know. [Both laugh]
One song that I wanted to highlight in particular – this is the English translation of the song – but it’s called “Our Long Country,” and it seemed to be a very anti-racist, anti-bigotry song. It seemed to be…my understanding…this is my reading of it but it seemed to be targeted at, I think, the Sweden Democrats as we see now, and the rise in anti-immigration in Sweden at the moment, would that be fair to say?
Why do you think that was important to write about now?
I mean, I think it’s a terrible thing in all of the world now that we have this trend of sort of really right-wing politicians who are not only anti-immigration but are homophobic and, you know, it’s all this…You can see it in all the countries and Sweden is no different in that sense. The Swedish Democrats now are the second-largest party, which is scary. Also, I’m blonde, I’m white, and not much stuff happens to me. I don’t get…you know, people are not yelling at me in the street because I’m black or anything like that. But, my dad also came to Sweden when he was a one-year-old from Estonia during World War II, so I’m actually a second-generation immigrant as well, even though you can’t just look at me and say, “Oh, she’s that.” But I have friends that are constantly being targeted – even though they’re born in Sweden – just because their skin is darker and stuff like that, and I just think that this is kind of…it’s horrible. So, I think if you are a musician and an artist and you have a voice, you should use it in any way that you can.
What I thought was very beautiful about this song was that – and, again, I was reading the English translation – but, it seemed like you were using the ideas of Swedish geography and Swedish history in a way to kind of combat how the far-right pervert that and they do it here too, in Ireland, and any country; they pervert history and they pervert geography to have these kinds of twisted, fascist ideas. I was wondering, why did you decide to go about it that way? Because I thought it was very effective and it worked for me. I thought it was very combative to the narrative.
OK. That’s a hard question. [Both laugh] I just feel like, especially with history and stuff like that, that’s always the thing that these people want to kind of take and make their own and be like, “This is our history and not your history,” and I feel like Sweden had been a very open country until now, but it’s also, you know, our job as people to invite and share our culture and history with people that come here now.
Yeah. The other good touch was, I liked the little touch of how you’re acknowledging Sweden’s nomadic history and kind of saying, “We travelled too!” I don’t know, I just thought it was very effective. [Laughs]
OK! Thank you!
Because I mean, we have similar things, unfortunately, happening here too but thankfully, in Ireland, it hasn’t gotten to the electoral thing yet, but it’s still there; there’s a lot of anti-refugee sentiment for people coming in from Ukraine and stuff and it’s upsetting to see and I do think it’s important to highlight music that’s combating that.
The album actually comes out on Valentine’s Day. Is it an album of love, would you say?
[Laughs] Not really! But, you know, we just wanted it to sort of be a gift for all the five people who heard our first album. [Laughs]
Well, I think this is very different, but in a good way. I think if you liked the first, you will like this one but I do think it’s a very different journey. Yeah, so I guess the last thing that I’ll just sort of ask is what do you think the future holds for the project? Is this something that you’re planning to continue? I understand that your solo career will probably be the main thing but, yeah, is this something that you’d like to continue in the background? And, also, will this influence how you structure instrumentation in your solo career too, because, just hearing that one cello, you might go, “Eh! We don’t really need anything else! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, I know, it’s very effective! I think it will be very hard, translating that into a touring, live situation because you would need five cello players [Laughs] to recreate this whole stuff that David has written for the cellos. But I think if I could choose, I would love to do more live shows with Hansan; it’s just that it’s unfortunately a bit hard at the moment and also because I’m touring so much with my own stuff. But of course, yeah, we have…we already have songs that we’ve started for future albums and we’re talking maybe about doing a Christmas album and, even though David isn’t with me on tour, when I play my own solo stuff, I usually sing one or two Hansan songs in my repertoire as well, even though I don’t have the cello, so I will usually do them acapella. And I think it’s a good way, also, if I’m in the U.S. or if I’m in Germany and stuff, to kind of showcase the Swedish side because that’s kind of what I think makes my music a little more interesting maybe in the U.S. too, that I’m playing this very sort of American genre of music but I also have a little bit of a different sound because I have a different background and different mother tongue, so, to sing something in Swedish, people always appreciate it so much. And I do actually sell a lot of Hansan records [Laughs] when I’m doing my own shows, because there’s always people who are like, “You should always sing acapella!” and I’m like, “Yeah, that would be great because I wouldn’t have to bring my guitars and sound system and stuff,” but it’s like, if you would stand there for two hours, singing only acapella, and you would play one song with a guitar, people would be like, “Oh, you know, you should play all of your song with your guitar!” [Both laugh]
You can’t win!
Yeah, exactly! They always want the one thing that’s different. [Laughs] But I think it does showcase Swedish music in a really good way and it’s also a good thing for me to break up my own performance, to kind of do something completely different from my own solo stuff. So, I will definitely keep doing that, and me and David will definitely keep writing songs and making albums and maybe one day, when his kids are all grown up, we can go on tour if I’m not dead yet! [Both laugh]
Well, thank you very much for your time; I really appreciate it.
Yeah. Great, thanks!
Aaron Kavanagh is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Post-Burnout. His writing can also be found in the Irish Daily Star, Buzz.ie, New Noise Magazine, XS Noize, DSCVRD and more.