Interview: A Camp's Nina Persson on Guacamole, Grumpy People, and Trying to Sing like David Bowie
Nina Persson got her start as the sultry lead vocalist for the shimmering guitar-pop Swedish band the Cardigans. In 2001, she went out on her own and released a more minimalist, acoustic effort under the name A Camp--a band comprised of just her and her longtime friend, Swedish musician Niclas Frisk. After eight years, and with the Cardigans on hiatus, A Camp's returned with Colonia, an album that isn't minimalist at all, instead showing off Persson's dynamic vocal range within a more grand, sweeping pop structure. Her husband Nathan Larson (formerly of Shudder to Think), has moved into the band permanently too.
We spoke with Persson at her Harlem brownstone, in between video and photo shoots. When offered a drink, I was given the choice between a Led Zeppelin or a Motorhead glass. Zep all the way.
What's the one question you've never been asked but wish someone would ask you?
Oh my god, that's a hard one. I think I've been asked everything. Um. I can't answer that. Make one up, it might be the first one.
Okay. Do you like guacamole?
Yes I do!
You can probably get some good guacamole around here.
Yes, you can. In the Spanish side. There's one taco place and one just Mexican that is amazing. And some great Caribbean food. I eat a lot of the jerk chicken. But that was the first guacamole question in my life, so, there you go.
What's the driving differences between A Camp and The Cardigans?
For me, I feel like A Camp is a lot more mobile and instinctive. The Cardigans is much more of a factory--in a good sense--I like that way of working as well. I think that also has to do with that we have more of a history than A Camp does; we have already painted our way into a corner. We have to think more about what we do. But with A Camp, we can still kind of do whatever.
There has been a considerable length of time between [2001's A Camp] and Colonia. Have you've been writing all this time since?
No, we're all very utilitarian songwriters. We write songs when we know what its going to be for. I think Nick is more in the way where he piles stuff up. For me, I only write stuff when I know what context.
It sounded when A Camp was first getting started it was a very scaled-back affair, especially compared to the Cardigans. But now, maybe not so much. The new record is very big at times.
Yeah, absolutely. The first record I had a need to do something minimalist. The music I was listening to at the time was certainly a lot more minimalist than the Cardigans. I felt the need for doing something that was worked more with the gaps in between those sounds. Also, I was working with Mark Linkous then, who is the master of noise. And that's something I was wanting as well [laughs]. Beautiful noise. But all of us have it in our veins--the "pop" sentiment--we are builders, we like to add stuff, we're maximalists at heart. We all have that drive in is. But in a way, I think this record might be truer to our instincts.
Is working in one style versus the other easier?
No, because every little way makes the most sense at the time. Time changes, you change.
People love to describe you and your lyrics as very "wry."
What does wry mean? Is there another word? Let me go quickly here to a web site that can translate.
Well that defeats the purpose of me asking whether or not you see yourself as that wry person.
How do you spell it? [looks up the definition on a Swedish-to-English web site].
What does it say?
Well, if I translate it back to English, it says "crooked" and "despiteful" [laughs]. "Bent to one side."
I think of it was self-aware and ironic. But maybe cynical at time.
Right, but I agree. I think that's true [laughs]. I have a fondness for grumpy people.
You're drawn to them?
I think it's charming. I get very suspicious when people are overly excited about everything. I mean, grumpiness can be a bit unattractive. But I like people who can live well in a world that's weird. Live side-by-side with weirdness.
Living in New York, I can't stand people that walk slow on sidewalks.
I agree. I think part of being with Nathan, is that he's a total, emotional New Yorker. I've developed some--recently we were on tour and this guy came up to me to take pictures. After a second, I find myself being like "Fuck you! Fuck you!" And I've never done that in my life, I shocked myself. And Nathan was like "You've lived in New York now."
Was this an amateur or a professional photographer?
It was some guy--he's a professional--and he had wanted to come in a shoot during sound check, but we don't like that. We want to do that on our own. So we said no and the club was supporting us and they threw him out. But when I was going to the bus, he jumped out and just clicked.
Tell me about Colonia. What's striking about it to you?
I think it's so...I don't want to say pretentious, but we really wanted to leave the ironic '90s away. Do something really sincere and grand style; not be sparing any beauty or overdubs. You see what I mean? A lot of "hip" music--you're not supposed to be self-aware. Which is sort of a waste of time, because you do spend so much time on it and working with it. To not express something, for me at this moment, you don't do all that work for something that is sort of denying itself. We wanted to be in people's face and not be apologizing for it. To go for the saxophones and use three of them. Now we have songs that are complete, well-produced pop music, and we like that. But in a way, as a band, it's an escape. It's completely what we dreamed of together.
It does sound like unabashed, unapologetic pop. Camera Obscura kind of does that, too.
Yeah, yeah yeah. I love them. People are so afraid of being "sweet."
This is Nathan's first official move into a proper of band of yours. I know he's worked with you on a lot of stuff over the years. Has it been a natural transition?
Yeah, and I mean, we met while doing work. So it is natural to us. It'd be much, much stranger if we spent a year not doing anything together. We've always been up in each others' grills, each other's work. Since we're a band with Niclas--he's one of my best friends, that I've known him before I met Nathan. And when they met, they kinda clicked. And I was like, "He was my friend first." But the three of us together have a very strong relationship, and in that trio, me and Nathan aren't in the room as a married couple; we work side-by-side. I think me and Nathan would never do a project where we'd spend this much time as just the two of us; that would be too scary for us.
No duets record?
No, because that would really wear on us. To be with Niclas neutralizes us. When we go to our hotel room or come home for a few days, then we can be a married couple. And it works, actually.
Have you noticed a change in your voice over the years?
I think it's changed very much. Because when I did the first record with The Cardigans, I'd hardly sang at all in my life. That was really me starting to sing and trying to find my way. Record by record- I'm not really close to anything - but it's really started to change. Since I started from nothing, I didn't even have the character when I began. So, all the development has been in progress. I also think- there's been years where I haven't recorded stuff - I changed as well. It changes as you change as a person. I think it's also a matter of daring to use your voice. At the beginning, I think you're shocked that sounds can come out. It's a matter of confidence.
Do you see that confidence on Colonia?
I fantasized that I was David Bowie when I laid down the vocals. Because I can't do what he does, but if I try my hardest to be as dramatic as he does, then I become this. You see what I mean? Way over the top. But that was my goal.
A Camp plays Bowery Ballroom tonight, Tuesday May 26.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.