ABOVE: ANNA TERNHEIM. PHOTO COURTESY OF JULIA HETTA
The talented Anna Ternheim has been peppered with accolades, not the least of which are two Swedish Grammys for her last album, Leaving On A Mayday, produced by pop maestro Bjorn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John). Although the Swedish singer-songwriter’s name may be less familiar in America than some of her contemporaries’ (Lykke Li, for example, who’s produced by Yttling), Ternheim recently found a provisional home in Nashville, where she recorded her latest album, The Night Visitor, along with producer friend Matt Sweeney and the help of David R. Ferguson, best known for his engineer work with late legend Johnny Cash. Fundamental and pure, the work itself calls to mind Music City’s greatest acts, propelling Ternheim into yet another phase of her career. The Night Visitor teeters gracefully between modern pop and timeless folk, but never loses its soul and experienced voice.
Interview spoke to the artist about making her most recent record, the Nashville state of mind, and her unfaithful work ethic.
ALEX CHAPMAN: I thought this might have been your first time staying in the States for an extended period of time, but then I heard you spent some time in Atlanta earlier on.
ANNA TERNHEIM: Yeah! I was there when I was 17—I did my last year of high school as an exchange student. I lived south of the city, in a quite strange place—real southern. I formed my first band that year and we just started playing my songs live. It was way in for me to get to know people and to really feel at home there—through music. That whole year I spent there revolved around playing in that band, playing shows, writing songs in English. It was a really important year. It was one of those years that I look back on and can see really clearly.
CHAPMAN: Were you influenced by anything particular when you were there? There’s an element of southern comfort in this record, something American about it to me, even though America is not your birthplace.
TERNHEIM: If you’ve heard my previous records, they sound different than this one does. I’ve always been drawn to all kinds of music—to me, it’s all the same. There’s different arrangements and slightly different ways of writing, but if it’s a good song, it’s a good song—you can dress it up any way you like. I saw Cypress Hill when I first moved to Atlanta, but I don’t think you can really hear that when you listen to The Night Visitor.
CHAPMAN: Well it certainly doesn’t seem to sound like any of the records I’ve heard from you. But then again, none of your records seem to commit to an exact sound, which is a great thing.
TERNHEIM: I’ve always been pretty unfaithful—I’ve never stuck to one kind of genre or music. When recording this record, it was the first time I really started to listen to country music. I don’t think I’d been introduced to it before in a way I could get into it.
CHAPMAN: Even when looking at your last album, it’s night and day.
TERNHEIM: When I worked with Bjorn on “Look What I’ve Done” and all those songs, I was deep into Nina Simone, Bob Marley—completely different things on my mind.
CHAPMAN: You recorded this record in Nashville. What was that like?
TERNHEIM: When I went, I hadn’t had very much time to have hopes or expectations. I knew very little about Nashville, and I think that was probably good. When I was there, I got really lucky—I ended up with people that just were amazing musicians, and that’s the Nashville that I experienced. That is a big part of Nashville—there’s a lot of musicians, and that makes it a very special place and shapes the city.
CHAPMAN: How quickly did everything come together? Did you end up in Nashville recording as soon as the idea came up?
TERNHEIM: Matt and me, I think we met for two or three months before we ended up working together—I didn’t even know we were going to end up making a record together, but everything felt so good straight away. I’ve learned after doing a couple records that if it feels good and it’s easy, then that’s usually a good sign. And that feeling sorta went with us to Nashville—everything was just natural.
CHAPMAN: Where exactly did you record?
TERNHEIM: The studio we worked in was the basement of a butcher shop Matt had together with [country singer-songwriter] John Prine, and it’s just a place that makes you feel very comfortable and at ease. All the musicians that came knew each other and had worked together before on a lot of different records throughout the years, so I felt very lucky to step into that world, and from day one, the songs and music fell into place.
CHAPMAN: Sounds ideal.
TERNHEIM: It’s not always like that when you make records—at least it hasn’t been for me.
CHAPMAN: Did you get a chance to look around the city at all?
TERNHEIM: The first time I went down, we worked so much, so I didn’t really see much of Nashville at all. I saw the studio, and I rented a room from an old lady that I stayed with for that first session we had. At the end of those first ten days, I was invited home to Dave’s, which is also where we recorded a lot of videos from the record—on his porch. I cooked him Swedish meatballs, and after that I was a houseguest.
CHAPMAN: This record sounds very natural.
TERNHEIM: I think it’s always been very natural. I don’t write a diary—it’s reflections and thoughts and feelings that come to me at a certain point, and when I go back to my old records, they capture the time I was in then. It’s the same with the words on this record. I wanted to make a guitar record. I didn’t want to make a pop record, and I didn’t want to write a song like “What Have I Done.” I wanted it to be stripped down, naked, and really close to how it sounds when I wrote alone with a guitar. I haven’t really done that—that’s where it always starts, but the records always end up bigger, with more production and twists. So when we did our demos, they are very close to what the record sounds like—no decorations. I think it’s going to age well.
CHAPMAN: One thing that stays consistent with you is melody and vocals—they always seem so well thought-out.
TERNHEIM: Absolutely—I love melody, and that’s what I love about pop music. The words can become what they are through a special melody. To me, they are glued together. I learned to play guitar by myself, and writing songs came with playing guitar, so the writing isn’t one part and the music something else.
CHAPMAN: But interestingly, a lot of people who’ve made music in Nashville are revered for having a sloppier sound.
TERNHEIM: There’s no right or wrong—I think people can be messy in a very soulful way. The point in the end is to make people feel something, and there’s so many different ways to do that.
CHAPMAN: I grew up playing classical guitar, so everything I learned was rooted in technique, form, presentation. In your case, it seems a bit different.
TERNHEIM: For me, the guitar was just a tool to make songs. I started when I was 10—I learned what I had to learn to get my ideas across. I always felt I was a weak guitar player, but now I realize with the finger-picking stuff, I actually know how to do what I do with my songs, but I couldn’t step in and be an overall guitar player. But [my guitar playing has] always been driven by the need to write songs. I found ways to make it make sense to me, but lately I’ve wanted to learn more. I’ve never really practiced on my instrument, but I decided to play a lot of guitar myself for this record, so I really had to learn what I was going to do before I stepped in the studio.
CHAPMAN: What’s your favorite song on the record?
TERNHEIM: I think it’s “Bow Your Head.” “The Longer The Waiting, The Sweeter The Kiss” is a really strong number.
CHAPMAN: I love that song.
TERNHEIM: I’ve been touring with Dave for 47 shows or whatever now, and singing it with him every night has left a mark. That song will always feel special to me, even though I didn’t write it. But that’s how a cover should feel, I think.
ANNA TERNHEIM WILL PLAY ROCKWOOD MUSIC HALL ON JUNE 26. THE NIGHT VISITOR IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HER WEBSITE.