Artist to Artist: Marlene x Ji Nilsson
A chat with one of Sweden's most dynamic musical duos.
A chat with one of Sweden's most dynamic musical duos.
Text: MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG
All too often, headlines like to claim that an artist is "breaking the rules" or "doing things their own way." More commonly than not, these headlines are also misleading or exaggerated. But Swedish musicians Marlene and Ji Nilsson are in fact functioning in a unique fashion, sometimes releasing music for their solo projects, sometimes writing for others, and sometimes releasing songs together (and not as some "girl band"). Most recently, they've put out a new video for a track they wrote together called "There". In a continuation of our Artist to Artist series, V sat down with the two ladies to discuss Stockholm, dreams of working with Rihanna (seems to be a theme), and people within the industry trying to split them up. Read the full interview below, and make sure to grab your copy of the Music Issue on May 3rd (or pre-order it now here).
Mathias Rosenzweig: Everyone knows a lot of music comes out of Sweden. But what is the music scene within Stockholm like?
Ji Nilsson: It’s not the same in other countries. I was thinking about Tove Lo and Icona Pop. We were in the same music high school, a couple of blocks from here. I don’t even feel like it’s strange for me, them being big stars. It’s super natural. Yeah of course, and you’re on Jay Leno and you’re on the cover of that and Vogue Magazine and whatever. And I’m like, yeah, sure.
Marlene: And it happens to so many people that you know.
JN: Yeah like Zara Larsson as well.
MR: You went to music school for example, but when you become an artist, there are so many visual components…so there are music videos, and photo shoots and everything from that to what you’re going to wear on stage. So how have you guys approached the visual aspect of things in conjunction with the music?
M: I’ve always been interested in that, like editing photos and reading and styling and concepts for videos and everything. I’ve always been involved with everything basically. I even edited my own photos. I don’t know, I just can’t not be involved in it. Because I think it’s so much fun and I guess it’s as important sometimes to have a visual world to explain musically.
MR: Do they come in tandem? If you’re writing a song, do you sometimes have visuals in your head at the same time? Is it after?
M: You can see color sometimes. Or have a place for it already in your head. Yeah, it’s easy to combine.
JN: For me its like, with the blue hair, it’s become my thing. It’s also super connected to the music because the music is kind of sad and melancholic. It’s blue, and it sounds like water. I died my hair blue before I started doing the music that I’m doing now. I think it’s kind of difficult to separate what is what. Because I love taking photos, I love thinking about how to compose photos and music videos as well. When we did a music video for one of my songs called “Nothing”, I was like, "I want to wear a Hawaii shirt and I want to be sad on a vacation. When everything sucks, but you’re still going to wear your Hawaii shirt." And we did it. The idea was already there, we just had to grab it. This is it.
M: Before our new song “There”, we did this thing when we actually leaned on each other. We had this feeling, when we wrote it. So for the video we made that clear for the choreography.
JN: Yeah, did you think about that when we did the choreography, when we were practicing? It was so obvious that we were going to fall on “fell,” but then when we rise up again together, I didn’t think about that until after when it was already recorded and filmed. I was like, “...and then when we lift each other up with see-through strings, that’s pulling us up”. But it’s just our friendship that’s doing that. It’s so obvious, but I didn’t think about that kind of thing until after. I was like of course. Sometimes you don’t have to talk about what it means. It just is there subconsciously.
JN: Okay, what band would you want to open up for Marlene? I think I know.
M: Rihanna. That’s my simple answer.
JN: And we have this long-term goal that we’ve been working on, not so much lately, but we did it before, to write a song that will be on Rihanna’s album. We are songwriters and producers for others as well. So sometimes we do one week in the in the studio, and then we get tons of dates from the publisher. And then we’ll get, “This is for Rihanna. This is for blah blah blah,” from cool producers. And then they send them to us. And we’re like okay let’s do this. So, we write a song every day for a week. And then we send them [and hope that] each and every song we wrote will be on her album. She never picks them, but she will.
M: She’s actually heard one of mine. Didn’t I tell you? I didn’t write it with you though. But she said, “Sounds dope.”
MR: You can just graduate now. You have a badge of honor.
JN: That’s so crazy!
M: I know and I couldn’t tell anyone.
JN: Oh my god this is wonderful. This is the best thing I’ve ever heard.
M: I think she’s changed her email or something because I can’t find that email anymore.
MR: When you two are writing songs for other people, is it ever hard to give some of them up? Like if you do something you really love, you probably hold on to it. But there are probably some songs where you’re like, I don’t know, I kind of want that for myself?
M: We could sit and write with someone else in mind, or without having an artist in mind. And then it turns out that no one else is going to get this, so then maybe I’ll take it…But when you write with someone in the room, you have to give it up.
JN: I think we work the best together, just the two of us because we can do everything. Everything. We can produce, we can sing, we can write, we can record, we can mix. We don’t need anyone else but then there’s super cool dope beats that I couldn’t do, and then we get them from like Rihanna’s producer. But I think that my dream session to have to write and just be productive and just get songs out is just with you [Marlene]. Because when there’s another person in the room then they will always say, or always have a part of that song. And if they were sort of like, "Okay, we’re going to take this, you’re going to have this song on your album." And we have to have another production because we can’t take the Rihanna beat, then we can do that but if there was someone else there, we’re always going to have a problem.
M: Because we have such a strong understanding. When we write a song, we wrote it from 0 and in 3 hours, we have everything. And I came up with the bridge, chord, and melodies. Like I was just playing it, and then you were like, okay, these are the lyrics for it. And we were like, "Perfect, let’s continue." That’s how we work. And to have someone else, that you need to involve with that, you have to explain and make them understand what you see. Because we see–even if we haven’t written that song or finished it–it’s like we know what we’re doing. It’s special. They’ve been trying to separate us so many times. And we were like please, don’t do that.
MR: But who’s they?
M: Like if you go to a camp…
JN: And they want to mix all of the songwriters and producers because they want to make the most songs. We were assigned to the same publisher, so if we write together as a team, they only get one cut. But if we write two songs, and she’s on one song, and I’m on another, they get more. So they always say, “No, you’re not going to be doing this as a team.”
M: We’re going to split you guys.
JN: But why? You know we do it better together. And all of the producers, it’s mostly guys who produce in those sessions, they were always two. They will never split them up.
M: You’re just best friends right? No.
JN: We will make this work.
MR: That’s super frustrating.
JN: Yeah it really is. But now we’ve been like, "We’re not going to do this session if we’re not going to be able to be together." And then they let us.
MR: Do you two have a preference between being in the studio and being on stage?
JN: I can start? I have a lot to say about this. I haven’t been playing live since I released my first single with this project. I played a lot when I was younger because I was born on stage, like with musicals, and wanted to be in the spotlight all the time. And then around my early twenties, I was like, "Oh my god, I hate this." I felt so much anxiety and pressure. And that relief you’re supposed to get, I didn’t get. I was just like, "Oh, I survived this hell nightmare. So I’m relieved because I didn’t die, but I’m not happy really". So I just stopped. And then I started doing this music that I’m doing now and I was like, "I’m not going to play live." People tried to book me for stuff and I was like, "No, no, no, no," for 8 years. Not for 8 years because I haven’t been releasing this music for that long. Maybe for 5 years, and I haven’t been on stage in 8 years. Then I was like, "No, I’m never going to change my mind, blah blah blah." Then we were in the studio in February and wrote "There" together, and we were just finishing up. I was like, "Marlene, maybe I should sing this song live with you sometime." And you were like, "What, are you kidding? Are you for real now?" And I was like, "Yeah, I don’t know. I think I’m ready." I was surprised because it just popped into my head. And then one week later, you told me you had a gig one day after the song was supposed to be released. So it was supposed to be released March 23rd. And she had a gig the day after. And she was like, "So it’s kind of soon, but do you want to do it then?" And I was like, "Heck yeah! Let’s do it."
M: And she is known for not performing. She's been doing interviews.
JN: Big interviews. "The Artist Who Stays Off of the Stage" or whatever…."The Artist That’s Never On Stage."
MR: But is it the same now?
JN: I only did that one gig.
MR: And it was fine?
JN: Yeah it was so much fun. I just forgot about being nervous. I was nervous right before, but not in the panic way that it used to be. It felt a bit like when you feel a bit of discomfort. Not super angsty, but you just feel like...I don’t know. But I just walked up on stage and we had our thing, because that’s what’s important. The magic that happens when we’re in the studio, big surprise, it could also happen on stage. You just bring it there and I just was so focused on you and our thing.
M: Before, I was trying to fit in. You have to say this, you have to talk about stuff. There’s a way of being on stage and being an artist, there are certain things you have to do in life. You have to speak like this when you’re doing interviews. Like, no. I do whatever I want. If I want to swear, it might not be the best thing to do, but it’s fine. It’s me. It’s the same on stage. I decide. This is my show. And if I want to bring a dog on stage, I might do that.
JN: That’s a great idea actually.
M: That’s made a big difference to me–to feel comfortable with my music and to be myself. That’s so important because otherwise, everything will get to you. You’ll feel not good enough. Did I do it right? You start thinking in ways that start pulling out your personal energy. That will make sense to people, I think, if you just keep doing you. When I talk, I don’t plan anything. I don’t plan what I say at shows. “Welcome to my therapy session,” that’s what I said last time. I felt like people were really comfortable, and I felt comfortable. That’s so important to me to come to that point. It’s the same with interviews or even when I write songs or going to sessions. So, I love being on stage, especially now when I feel free to do whatever I want. Because it’s not fun to live up to someone else’s expectations of who you should be–which is easy if you’re signed to a label. You have people who work with you who feel like you should do that or you should do that. You have to be strong, and be like no, this is me. But they haven’t understood you because they haven’t really asked you what’s you.
JN: I’ve been following Marlene’s stage performances for a long time, five years. You’re so much more comfortable and secure on stage now. I think your attitude is more like whatever, not whatever like,"I don’t care about the audience but…"
M: I care so much.
JN: Whatever to all of the expectations that you had before. You’re just enjoying it. And being honest and super comfortable and you have great dance moves on stage.
M: It’s no use doing anything if you don’t even enjoy it yourself. That’s the only thing I really care about–is like, enjoying it, everything and every step. So that’s why I enjoy recording, I enjoy writing, I enjoy being on stage.
MR: I think being inauthentic would make it hard to be consistent. If you’re just being yourself, then you don’t have to think about it, but if you try to have like, “I’m going to do this every time,” or, “This is going to be my personality,” it’s almost like you have to remember to get into this fake space each time.
M: I don’t have a stage persona. I know that people do. But that’s the opposite of me. I can’t pretend. It’s going to shine through. I’m going to do something super weird and everyone will be like, “What?” Like I do weird things. I say some funny things sometimes but that’s how people know it’s real. I didn’t try to hide it.
JN: I think it’s a perfect show. Like you were saying, there’s no use doing stuff that you feel bad about. If you’re not going to have fun, then why do it? That’s the exact reason I haven’t been standing on stage. Because I’m like, "Why should I feel bad for someone else?" Or for someone else to see. I never really thought that I would feel good on stage. I did now, once. And once is something. I think it was because of the song and what it means to me, and what it means to us. And about companionship and having each other’s backs, like really having it. Because we’re going to stand on stage now, it’s happening now and I’m going to lean on you, if I feel like I want to run away from here. I think it’s really beautiful.
M: Yeah. That’s everything in the process of making that song. We’ve been writing for five years. So nothing is new. Everything is just so real and authentic and easy. So what we’re saying and what we write and sing is exactly that. I guess when you’re being 100 percent honest, you don’t have to think, “What was my thing?” Just go on stage and get it out. Be honest.
MR: What’s been your career highlights? Something where you feel really validated, where you wanted it to happen and it happened?
M: I released a song a year ago that I really loved and I was talking to labels. They were like, "Hmm, no, it’s not a single. You can put it on the EP but it’s definitely not a single." I was like, "I didn’t ask you, I was telling you that this is a single I’m going to release. If you want to join, should we do this together? It’s totally fine if you don’t like it, I’m going to do it myself." They want to have an opinion, and you can have that. I’m still going to do this because I love it. I didn’t work with anyone else. I just released it myself, and it became song of the week in Sweden. It was on New Music Friday in the U.S. They were calling me "Sweden’s next pop hero." They were talking about, like the Billboard podcast, they talked about SZA, Lorde, and me. It was like us three. It was so big to me. When people have been trying to stand over you, and then you’re just scared. I was scared. I knew I had to do what I loved. Like you said, there’s no point if I don’t do what I love. So I released it myself. It was a success, in that sense. If you look at the numbers, you can tell that it’s not a major signed song. And that I had the smallest team. I was working with [my publicist] Patrick after that because he heard that song. It was just me and I had two totally new managers from the U.S. who were like, "What can we do? Let’s try." I will always remember the feeling of doing something that you believe in. And being persistent and following that gut feeling. I really felt like it paid off that time. And I don’t even care about numbers, to get recognition is great. I went to the Billboard office. I was there in September, and that was amazing–being this small town girl from Sweden.
JN: First I was going to say when I released my E.P in 2015 the song that wasn’t even a single, it was a super simple ballad, and it’s called “Nothing” and it was my biggest success. I still have people writing to me saying, "This song took me through my breakup." Or I’m listening to it now because my grandpa died. It’s three years later, and it’s still on the top of my Spotify. But now “There” is number 1. It’s been really hard for my other songs to beat the popularity, but now “There” is over it. So that’s something I remember, and I was almost crying when I wrote it. It was just therapy for me, which most of my songs are. It’s super pure and not overproduced and it's been touching people all over the world, and I it still does? That feels big for me.
But then I was thinking about the day I actually started to believe in myself as a producer, because I think that’s even more important. Because I’ve been producing my own stuff all the time, and I released it. But I realized, okay I’m a songwriter first, then I’m a singer, after that, I’m a producer. But I would never say I’m a producer. I would say I did all of this myself. But I was scared to put on that suit of being a producer because of all the things I thought that it meant. Then maybe I’d have to be able to produce for a lot of other artists. Or make music for a movie or a commercial, or whatever. And I was like, "Oh my god, I’m not all of those things." And I couldn’t really connect all of the parts for me to feel like I could still be a producer even though I just did all of my own stuff. But now I produce songs for other artists, and I do commercial music, and I do jingles.
MR: So there's really been a big shift!
JN: And right now I’m in charge of a really big project. They’re counting on me to get the song done. And it will be on tv and everywhere. And I have to pinch myself sometimes. And yeah, you were a producer before and now you are a producer in the sense that you thought you weren’t. The feeling I have now, it’s that people are actually counting on me and they’re not saying, “Oh, you’re a girl producer” anymore. I’m like, "I’m a producer and I happen to be a girl, is that important?" I’ve been building up my catalog and my confidence, and my reputation. And now I’m someone to be counted on. I feel very powerful. Not powerful like to rule over others, but for myself. I got this. And I feel very confident in it. And I feel like I no longer pretend to wear that big suit. I feel like I can wear it. It’s a bit big, but not as big as it used to be.
M: You’ve also been super persistent. You’ve done it all the time. And you’ve like been super, “Yeah, I do it.” I do that. I’m not going to do that. This is what I chose to do. When things are finally paying off–being persistent–that is so good.
JN: Yeah it feels so good. I’m not going to name names, but some big shots said to me, “Yeah, you’re really talented but you’re kind of difficult.” And I was like, no I’m not difficult, I just know what I want.
MR: They mean difficult to work with?
JN: No not to work with, but to shape.
MR: Got it. They’re like we don’t know how to sell this.
JN: Well you shouldn’t tell me what to do. That’s the thing. They’re not outspoken. They don’t say, "I don’t feel good that I can’t tell you what you’re supposed to do." They’re not saying that, but that’s exactly what they mean. We both have had that in the past. We’re nice people. We’re not going to fight with people in sessions. We’re just going to stand up for ourselves.