Sweden is a mountainous, musical country, home to such Europop icons as ABBA and the Cardigans. Even today, its ripe alpine valleys produce some of the continent's best indie pop. Fine-tune a radio station in Stockholm, and you're liable to hear loads of celebrated rock stars with names like "Jens Lekman." Listen long enough, and you'll also hear an unusual new breed of underground pop, like the coffeehouse troubadour José González or, better yet, pianist Frida Hyvönen.
Hyvönen's debut album, Until Death Comes a set of 10 sparse, ivory melodies has drawn comparisons to such early '70s icons as Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. The singer-songwriter's high, nasal voice wafts over piano ballads that unfold like intimate bedtime ruminations on broken hearts, love's demons, and sexual empowerment; these are explicit themes that sometimes take precedent over the opulence of the music itself. And while Mitchell gave strength to her songs with extraordinarily wide-ranging vocal arrangements and striking guitar techniques, it's Hyvönen's brazen personality that fuels her self-conscious poetics.
"It can be a little tiresome in the U.S., being seen as an exotic Swedish blonde who sings about cocks, though," says Hyvönen from her home in north Sweden. "I can understand why it happens, but I'm not thrilled by it. It feels a bit humiliating."
But for first-time listeners, it's hard not to latch onto such candid songs as "Once I Was a Serene Teenaged Child," where Hyvönen (who's fluent in English) sings sweetly, "Once I felt your cock against my thigh." There's no arguing that the pianist's icy and eccentric personality and lyrics are a big part of her charm, but to sell Until Death Comes on its novelties and cock talk alone does it little justice.
Each sonata on the album (reissued last year on the American label Secretly Canadian) may be simple and straightforward in structure, but each one expresses harmony and theme with beauty and wit. From wanting to become a loving mother ("Djuna!") to sleeping with other women, ("Valerie"), she confides in the listener with a striking rhythmic power that's comparable to the piano poesy on Mitchell's 1971 classic Blue. But while most of the songs' melodies are totally inviting (helping elevate the lyrics beyond their origins), Until Death Comes reveals secrets like a long-lost personal diary.
"It wasn't my intention to release it on a big scale, as it later turned out. I wanted to give it to my friends mainly," she says. "But then I found a label that suited me, Licking Fingers, and we released the album in a proper way. I was very amused and surprised by the good reviews and the hype it produced. I hadn't expected that or becoming a pop star. I thought of my music as more obscure."
Prior to releasing her album, Hyvönen actually had plans to cut down on music and head into theology studies, but found she had the need to hold an actual record in her hand. "It became like an obsession," she says. Her muse eventually led to the single "I Drive My Friend," which climbed the Swedish charts for a few weeks. Sung by two piercing female vocals (overdubs from Hyvönen), it's a forlorn tale about the womanly strength it takes to see a lover off "with no promise of his return." The song's sad, waltzy elegance exudes the intimate and cathartic power you might associate with the piano blues of Tori Amos or maybe the folk favorites of Sandy Denny's Fairport Convention at least the more stripped-down projects of those artists.
"I don't strip down. I just leave space," counters Hyvönen. "Perhaps you hear something in that space. Silence is so humble in that way everyone can fill in what they like to hear."
Indeed, most of Until Death Comes is created with just Hyvönen, her pianos, and big empty spaces. The lone exception is perhaps the record's most interesting moment, called "Come Another Night," where drums, bass, and horns help Hyvönen craft an homage to '60s rock and roll.
"I see it as the escapist song, the dream of something one is not, a dream of simple, romantic love," says Hyvönen. "Then I found it fitting to use instruments that were strange to me."
The song has a glossy, mainstream appeal that could generate the international success of countrymates like the Concretes, the Stockholm-based pop collective that owns the label Licking Fingers, as well as the garage-punk band (International) Noise Conspiracy. But Hyvönen's aversion to garden-variety success makes her music that much more attractive. Luckily, it looks as if her work will get even more experimental: In January, the album Frida Hyvönen Gives You: Music From the Dance Performance Pudel was released overseas. It's the first record in Hyvönen's Gives You Series (also on Licking Fingers), within which she intends to release whatever she feels like, be it instrumental music or spoken word, often with "a new, very foul language," as she puts it.
"The series will most likely exist as long as I live," muses Hyvönen. "I have created it as a platform for experiments. The next part of it is planned for the spring of 2008, but I can't talk about it yet."
She is secretive when it comes to the magic that inspires her musical projects, but when it comes to expressing her inner thoughts in song or onstage, she can't help herself. Take her live set it's typically only about 30 to 40 minutes long. "The shorter the better in my world," admits Hyvönen. "It will be me, my voice, and an electrical grand piano."
It's the same outspoken sincerity that makes her music so honest and endearing. And whether she chooses to eventually vault into the Swedish songbook of great pop stars or (more likely) experiment herself into obscurity, Hyvönen can always look back and revel in the simple grace and truthful expressions that made her first piano diaries so spellbinding from now Until Death Comes.