Fever Ray’s work rarely yields anything that could be described as “conventional,” at least from a pop-music perspective. And yet, in a conversation Jezebel this week, the artist revealed rather common underpinnings to their work: a desire for play and a quest for freedom. The most recent play session is the third Fever Ray album, Radical Romantics (out Friday), which is home to 10 “itchy,” electronic left-of-pop songs that gurgle with odd voices and boom with bass.
Sweden’s Karin Dreijer (the person behind Fever Ray) said they like to combine darkness with humor, though the former is much more obvious than the latter on Radical Romantics. In any case, the industrial-clank-meets-DJ Mustard of “Looking for a Ghost” includes what I think of as a funny way to illustrate the particularities of eligible singles on the hunt: “Looking for person/with a special kind of smile/teeth like razors/fingers like spice/looking for a ghost/in the midst of life/asking for a friend/who’s kind of shy.” According to its official bio, Radical Romantics is a “love album,” though that’s kind of like calling the poison ethylene glycol a sweet. It’s technically true, but not exactly straightforwardly so and in any event it packs a mean punch.
The album finds Dreijer collaborating with their brother Olof Dreijer—together, the two comprised the beloved duo the Knife, though the four songs they worked together on for Romantics don’t exactly qualify as a Knife regrouping. For one thing, Karin calls the shots in Fever Ray and has the final cut, as it were (as opposed to the much more democratic creative process in the Knife). Dreijer also said this creative reunion is not meant to indicate plans for further Knife work—Olof will release his own music later this year. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross lend their hands to “Even It Out,” a lyrical threat to one of Dreijer’s children’s bullies that’s reminiscent of the scene in Tár when Lydia marches up to the child who’s been tormenting her daughter and lets her have it. The song, like many of Dreijer’s, is based on a true story—this one involved sexism and transphobia, according to a recent interview with Pitchfork.
I don’t know what I was expecting from Dreijer—maybe someone less patient or potentially combative, given their mirthful, sometimes furious on-record persona—but what I got in our Zoom was an extremely chill, thoughtful creator in a gray hoodie. They called in from their place in Stockholm, having just spent hours rehearsing for the upcoming Fever Ray tour, which will feature all new arrangements of some songs, as their last tour did. Dreijer was patient and unpretentious when explaining the inspiration for their songs (the promo of Radical Romantics was issued with a track-by-track rundown of themes), even if said meanings are ultimately oblique (an example from that rundown: “‘New Utensils’ is some sort of list making of everything you feel you need for a flight or is it a picnic date, or is it a move out to the country, or is it getting ready for an evacuation, or is it reading a how to survive instruction manual?”).
We discussed their frequent use of formant-shift to alter their vocals as a way of experimenting with gender presentation—regarding their gender identity, “Nonbinary is the closest...at the moment,” Dreijer told me. As they did for their last album, 2017's joyous Plunge, Dreijer is embodying new characters for the videos of this album—an office worker dubbed Main, and a bald, suit-wearing, gyrating imp named Pink. Like a classic pop star, Dreijer’s themes and imagery are carefully coordinated and, in aggregate, demarcate a decided era. But this era is like none that came before it, and Dreijer is no kind of classic pop star. Our discussion, edited for length and clarity, is below.
JEZEBEL: How conscious is the “radical” aspect to what you do? Do you think of music as an opportunity to create new sounds? Are you out to innovate sonically?
KARIN DREIJER: No. I like to find settings and music and musical spaces that are a little bit itchy or humorous in a way. I really like to find sounds and melodies that make you smile a little bit with maybe darker or sadder environments. To mix that with those more humorous elements, that is what I find fun to work with—to try to create those worlds or atmospheres where you can feel that there are these different elements within.
Do you have a set process for writing songs and coming up with sounds?
I can drive my car and think of a melody, and then I try to record it. So that’s one way. And sometimes I just sit and play guitar. On this album I’ve played quite a lot of guitar. When I was in my twenties, I listened a lot to like, Sonic Youth, and back then it was magical, how they tuned their guitars and stuff. You didn’t really understand how they could make all these sounds, but now one of my kids showed me a website where you could see all the Sonic Youth tunings for every track. We have been tuning guitars in different ways and playing and then you come up with totally new ways of making sounds. So, it can be sounds and it can be just ideas. Sometimes it’s lyrics that come first. But I think it’s mostly music first.
Did your experimentation with changing your voice via formant shifting allow you to explore your identity way before you started using they/them pronouns, as back as far as the Knife?
Yes. Now when I look back on it, I really understand what I was doing. When we did it back then, it was more like a feeling: “This feels really good. This feels like how I want to perform this vocal.” Sometimes it was the way that I heard my own voice. Now I don’t think so much about it. I just know when I start: “This is the voice that’s going to sing this song.” It feels much more free. I can jump from a very high-pitched voice, which is very strange to call [my] natural voice because always when you record, you choose what microphone and how you process it. Now when I use formant, I lower it and but then I sometimes also tune it up. So that has just become my natural voice, sort of.
I love this idea of questioning what “natural voice” really means. There is so much hand-wringing currently over this notion of an essential self. Like, if trans kids want to detransition when they get older, are people doing them a disservice by allowing them to transition in the first place? What if they can’t get back to where they were? But back to where they were isn’t actually a real thing. I think the whole point of life is evolution. How is there any kind of essential self to preserve if the very nature of life is flux?
This is the idea of authenticity—when music is performed in a certain way, it is more authentic than something else. And I mean, I believe that everything is a performance of some kind. You perform gender, for example. I find it’s a bit perverse to try to have this idea that “this is female, this is male,” and to have that binary construction. Olof and I, we did this opera based on Charles Darwin a long time ago. I really like the idea that everything is in transition all the time, and to say anything else is just very stupid.
In 2017, people were still referring to you as “she/her” in press, but in 2018 you said that “she/they” was “perfect” for you. Now you use “they/them.” Has changing pronouns also changed your life in any demonstrable ways?
Hmm. Well, I feel more free. I feel like I have a little bit more landed in my own being. But I don’t think that has only to do with pronouns. I mean, I’ve been very privileged to have had the money and the time to have a lot of therapy, for example, to try to understand how I work with different things. I got an ADHD diagnosis when I was quite old, and to find out about that and how I function, I think, has helped me a lot. I think as a kid, I had this idea when you become an adult, you’re sort of finished. And a lot of old people like me think so as well. But I don’t believe in that. I think it’s an ongoing process of learning new things. I think it’s important to continue to stay curious about things and yourself.
In the past, you were less than forthcoming about your personal life in interviews, but it seems that you’ve opened up as the years have passed. Why?
Last year we got this right-wing government in Sweden that is collaborating with this sort of fascist and neo-Nazi party that a fifth of the Swedish population voted for. Those kind of movements are all over Europe and the U.S. at the moment. I think art and music are even more important now than they have been. I think the stories that we are telling are very important now. So, yeah, I think it’s important to talk about it.
Do you think of your music, as unabashedly queer as it is, as protest music?
I don’t know. It would be lovely if it is, but I don’t know. In the past, a small right-wing party in Sweden took one of the Knife’s early songs and used it in some commercials, which was so weird because there was a lot of people complaining: “But, oh, don’t you know they’re communists?” I don’t know those things, but I hope people would see my music as a queer best friend.
Your tour was filled with women and non-binary folks, and I know the last album had a lot of women collaborators on it. This album, it seems like you have many more male-presenting collaborators. I wonder if that was a conscious choice? Is there any kind of policy change that occurred?
No. I still have only women and non-binary people in my live band. I guess it’s how it turned out this time. And I don’t know how all of my co-producers identify or I don’t know of their sexuality either. So that’s how it is.
You are embodying a whole new cast of characters in the visuals for Radical Romantics. Is that liberating?
Yes, I think for this album I really have enjoyed doing the videos. We worked with the same [director of photography] that we have been working with for many, many videos, so I feel very safe working with her, Karolina Pajak. We also have a film team of only women and non-binary people that we have been working with for a long time. So I think we’ve created really safe and fun ways of making videos as well, which I think adds to it. It’s easier to do things that turn out well.
How much do you think about numbers? “How many people will watch this video?” “How many people are going to stream this album?” Is that a concern to you at all?
No. I mean, it’s nice if people come to our shows because we’ve done so much work now. I hope we’re going to sell tickets for the shows. And of course, if that makes money, I can also continue working after this album to make a new one. But [those are] not things that you can take for granted. It’s just great if it gives me some studio time after this.
By extension, if it doesn’t make money, will there not be a fourth Fever Ray album? Is that a possibility?
No, I will probably just have to do it differently. I mean, the first Knife album we did in my basement, so I think we would make it work. But we would probably not be able to do those videos. They don’t make any money. It’s very, very expensive to do film.
It’s refreshing to encounter someone who isn’t metrics-obsessed. It feels very ‘90s, when I was coming up and at least the illusion of not caring about numbers was all over the place in leftfield music.
That’s how I grew up with music as well. There were a lot of DIY things going on. The Rabid Records label, it was my band before the Knife that started it. It was just a way to be free to be able to do whatever we wanted to do. And back then, it was a very different way to do things, because the normal way was to get a record deal. It was so difficult to put out music back then, and that’s how I have continued to work. I don’t think now I could have anybody else to say anything about when the song is finished. I’m very bad at collaborating in that sense.
It’s interesting that for as varied as your career has been, a through line has been the pursuit of freedom. And, it would seem, the achievement of it.
Yeah, I think I have understood that that is why I do this. It’s first just for myself to create a space where I can feel free. I’ve been working on this album for like three years and for the first two years, it was only me listening to everything. It is a magical, amazing time when you are creating this world. It’s also horrible and devastating, and you want to delete everything—you have those moments as well. And it can be very, very lonely. But now I’m going to tour with a band and my crew with like 15 people for the year, which is a totally different kind of work and also very free.