Name: Sophie Zelmani
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Sophie Zelmani's The first 25 years is out via her own imprint Oh Dear.
I once asked eccentric American pianist Tsimon Barto how he responded to critics who asserted that, in classical music, everything had essentially been done already. "I would ask them why they get out of bed in the morning," he replied deadpan, "That's been done before!" Somehow, this remark has stuck with me over the years. Especially when it came to the work of artists who had found a distinct style or approach and remained faithful to it. Was there something wrong with returning to the same places in your music again and again? Didn't there need to be a sense of evolution, development – of deliverance?
Ever since Sophie Zelmani's third album Time to Kill from 1999, these are the kind of questions that some have directed at her. Two claims have often been made about the Swedish songwriter: That, as Freddie Wadling once it for Allmusic, she's all but perfected her "melancholy and sparse country-esque sound". And, secondly, that many of her albums tend to sound the same.
None of these assertions are wrong per se. Zelmani had originally arrived on the scene with two diverse, sprawling albums, which carried within them seeds which could have grown into many different directions.
Her self-titled debut had orchestral arrangements and topical lyrics and juxtaposed naïve, dreamy folk songs like hit single "Always You" with pensive poetry. Follow-up Precious Burden was even more atmospheric, ambitious and, at times, anthemic. Things could have gone anywhere from here.
Time to Kill changed that. The sound of the album was soft and warm, but the words were piercing and harsh, creating the sensation of cutting yourself with a knife made of velvet. Many songs went through the lyrics in under two minutes, then left the music to keep playing in an empty space, ghostly and yearning.
On "Happier Man", Zelmani sings:
"Cause I can't move the slightest finger,
let alone raise my hand.
I'm sure we lived like lovers,
But you dreamt of becoming a happier man."
So much folk- and folk-oriented music is created as an escape. This felt like the broken mirror image of that approach: Watching the beautiful facade of reality crumble and splinter right in front of your eyes.
Since that moment, Zelmani has indeed returned to similar shores throughout her career. She has even revisited her compositions outright, as on her 2014 compilation Going Home and her latest career overview The first 25 years, on which she re-interprets select moments from her oeuvre.
And yet, what happens between the first and the last note of each and every album has remained a subtle, yet undeniable surprise each and every time.
Sing and Dance had a crystalline, almost ambient production and closed with an entirely unexpected stab at dub-reggae ("This is how it feels"). Soul was grittier, edgier and expanded into almost ten-minute long instrumentals, creating a hypnotic distortion of time.
Sunrise, on the other hand, condensed her approach into a 33-minute short snapshot, lighter and more luminous, and with a more overt country-angle.
These twist and turns are the result of a long-lasting creative relationship with her congenial studio- and live-partner Lars ("Lasse") Halapi, whose arrangements are like the sonic bodies that Zelmani's songs inhabit like souls in search of a home. There is always at once a sense of colour and curiousness here, as well as a certain constraint – a delicate balance between expanding a mood and taking utmost care not to break it.
Sometimes, in the very last seconds of a song, a sudden riff will appear or an intriguing new idea (as, most notably perhaps, on "People" off Sing and Dance), but they rarely lead somewhere.
And there have been several moments across this quarter century when a song seems at the verge of exploding or lifting off – the whipping sounds towards the end of "Got to Stop", the expansive instrumental finale of signature tune "Oh Dear" – but the tension typically remains unresolved.
To an outsider, the result can indeed be one of sameness or indifference. But that is precisely the point about the work of Sophie Zelmani: You can either remain on the surface forever or get hopelessly drawn inside these galaxies of small, yet seminal sentiments - of hope and despair, love and emptiness, longing and loss. If you opt for the former, there won't be a lot to discover here. If you you allow for the latter, you, just like Zelmani herself, may never want to leave.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sophie Zelmani and would like to find out more about her, use her official homepage as a point of departure into her work. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I often feel it in the stomach. As a dull sadness or a lost anxiety. Then I know it's time. I guess it's how I deal with the bigger feelings in life - sorrows, relationships, dreams and longings. Politics never inspire me. It can happen that I get inspired by a film or a sentence in a book.
The first "real song" I wrote was when my father died when I was 14. It so much helped me in a comforting way so that I continued to do it whenever the need came up.
I never recorded that first song. But on my debut album there’s a a song called "Tell me you are joking" and that is from that time.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
No, it's hard for me to plan in forehand what I’m going to write. When I do that I always fail.
So I just need to "let my self" go and then you see what is meant to come out of it.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I need a guitar, pen and paper, a dictaphone an English dictionary to feel "safe". It´s awful if I find a melody and then know I´ll forget it or if I'm unable to look up a word (google translation sucks).
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I notice that none of this matters very much. But when the sun is shining outside and the weather is warm, it´s harder to relax.
What moves me is always just that particular mood inside and it can show up from anywhere. And often it can appear in the most inconvient places. Then you have to try to "keep" that feeling.
What do you start with? When do the lyrics enter the picture?
The melody comes first, and then the first sentence is very important. It has to be absolutely right. When that comes up, I'll know what the song is about and can finish the rest of lyrics later. But that's the way I "catch " the song.
It has to appear together with the melody. When I’ve tried to make music to an existing text, it feels very unnatural. Then I can’t say it comes straight from the heart.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
It´s hard to say. I think I like lyrics that I can read as if they were a piece of poetry in their own right. I know I write in a simple way, but every word is there for a reason.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Since I got a record deal I have always worked with Lars Halapi as the producer and musician. So for the last 25 years, the way things have worked is as follows: I play him my melody and lyrics, he listens to them and plays along. And then, we record the "essence" of the song in his studio which is located in his home.
When we feel ready we invite the rest of the band which also has been with me from the start and we record the songs together. After that we leave things for a while and continue to add other instruments and "colours" to the songs.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Maybe that’s why Lars and I have been working together for so long. Because I feel very safe and free with him. And we seem to look for the same things in a sound, seems to feel the same things for the song. I’m always excited to hear how he will play things, and if there’s something I don’t like we search until we find it.
I appreciate our relationship very much. It feels very meaningful to make music this way.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
To catch the essence of the song is most important. Then we can try different ways to play it, different tempos and so on and that’s just fun.
A lot can happen during this phase. But both of us know exactly when we "got" it and won’t let it be before the total feeling is there.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
In a way I’m done after the melody and the lyrics. Because at that point, the "need is over" and I’ve said what I wanted to say. The recording is then the fun and joyful part and I guess after all those years we know when it´s finished. It has to feel totally right for both Lars and me.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I´m a part of the producing process in the sense that Lars plays and tries things out and I'll tell him whether I like it or not. We have to get the same feeling. Sometimes I can ask for a special instrument or something of that sort. But during this part of the process, Lars is the one with the playing abilities and the required technique so he plays the leading role here.
But I find the mixing and mastering boring so he takes care of that too.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I feel more satisfied than empty I think. And I relax.
I’ve learned that I only seem to write in periods and that it can be long time between the writing. I know that eventually the need inside will show up again. So I don’t do anything special.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I feel such a deep satisfaction after writing a song. And I think I feel happy even if that very same song came out of a sensation of sorrow and heartache. A slice of self healing maybe? It´s hard to explain. It´s the soul that gets to breathe out in the air.
But making a great cup a coffee and enjoying it is another kind of happiness . That’s embracing life in the moment.