In the conversation, she discussed her influences, New Orleans & other musical cities of the South, Hurricane Katrina, her life story over the past two years, making music with normal objects & unusual instruments, the loop pedal, looping live, her split personalities in The Kitchenettes, and more…
QRO: Who are your influences?
Theresa Andersson: I grew up in Sweden, so living there I kind of got introduced to a lot of Swedish roots music, Swedish folk music and stuff. Then I heard some New Orleans music, like Mahalia Jackson—more on the gospel side of things—and Louis Armstrong and stuff like that.
I moved to New Orleans when I was 18, and since then, I’ve been living there pretty much the whole time. I’m really inspired there by a lot of the sort of retro R&B sounds of the 50s and 60s, like Allen Toussaint and Smokey Johnson and Freddy Harris. People like that, they just really, really have it goin’ on. Very rhythmic New Orleans music.
Then I listen, you know, I listen to a lot of different things. Stuff like Bobby Gentry or Nina Simone. I try and just go between styles and pick up inspiration from all sorts of things.
QRO: You really do incorporate a lot of New Orleans into your work. I’m interested in Katrina, before and after. How have things changed? How has that affected you and your music?
TA: Well, I think, for me personally, it really made me dig deeper into what really matters, because when you’re so close to catastrophe and you realize that everything can be lost in just a few hours… it really affected everybody so much.
I think a lot of people took the chance to do things that they didn’t really—I’m thinking generally now, what I saw around me—that people will do things that they may not have had the freedom to do before or maybe it felt like it was something they wanted to do, but they didn’t want to risk anything else? It’s sort of like, when you go through something like Katrina, you realize that life is very, very, very precious and you only have so much time and it’s worth taking risks.
For me, I think it was more a matter of not worrying about anything, but going within myself and really pulling out what I felt was me and what I wanted to present to the world in terms of my music and my songwriting and stuff like that. So I didn’t really care if this Swedish/New Orleans combination didn’t make sense to anybody else. I really just wanted to present that because I feel so connected to New Orleans and I have since I moved there. There was something in me that just clicked—the sort of visceral aspect of New Orleans; this really wonderful, rhythmical music that happens there is very un-Swedish, but spoke to me as a person. And then you have the more melodic songwriting from Sweden. It all came together.
I don’t know if that strayed away from your question, but I guess when something bad happens like Katrina, I think you just don’t worry about anything you would normally worry about.
QRO: I don’t think that strayed from my question at all. I think that’s a really good answer. I know that you briefly left New Orleans. You went to Austin and Nashville, but you came back. What happened?
TA: Well, first I went to Nashville because I’d been through a breakup and I wanted to find myself and establish myself to myself, but then everything in New Orleans was connected to this guy. We’d been playing music together and I really felt like I had to get away from that because I felt like I was an attachment to him, rather than my own person.
That’s why I left and went to Nashville. It was good for me to be there, but it wasn’t my kind of town. That’s when I, sort of on a whim, just went to Austin. I lived there for a year before I went back to New Orleans and at that point, I was definitely on my own journey. I figured out that I had a lot of strength that I didn’t know about and I could take care of myself. I didn’t need to have somebody else tell me what to do or what to think. I was like, “Okay, this is good.”
QRO: It’s funny, you pretty much told me my life story over the past two years.
QRO: So, you made the album entirely in your kitchen and you managed to take normal household objects and make them into these unorthodox instruments. Tell me about that.
TA: It was a different kind of process for me and I think that’s what was so much fun about this record and what makes it so special. You know, normally when I’ve been writing with somebody, it’s a whole different feel; it’s like a more traditional approach to songwriting and recording.
I discovered a lot doing this because I was sitting around for weeks and weeks writing melodies and demoing everything, which is really how the record came to be in my kitchen—that’s how I demo-ed it. It was during the process of demoing that I picked up items around me because I thought, “Well, at this point it doesn’t make any sense for me to go out and buy things I don’t have or rent them because I’m just trying to put something down,” to sort of sketch out—you know, like a rough sketch. So that’s how I grabbed stuff like the wine glass. I didn’t have a keyboard.
Then I got so into it because it was so much fun, so I created a whole palette of those type of instruments. When the producer heard it, he fell in love with it. He loved the sound of the kitchen. It has this natural reverb and it sort of suits the whole thing I’m doing now, this sort of music collaging.
So, that’s why we kept along the track of that. It works really well with my live show because it’s almost like rough cuts of fabric or paper that’s being layered in organic, crazy ways. I create a patchwork of sound that makes a song.
QRO: Well, now I wish I’d written more questions about that!
QRO: I’m interested in the Kitchenettes.
TA: [laughs] Yeah, the Kitchenettes. You know, when you’re just spending a lot of time alone, after awhile you start going crazy in your head, so I’ve been having a lot of fun creating stories about the musicians playing on the record, even though it’s just me.
The Kitchenettes, um… because I did that sort of doo-wop intro to one of the songs, they appear in a lot of the songs. I thought, “It’s not any fun to just call them Theresa Andersson, let’s call them the Kitchenettes.”
So they were all hangin’ out in the kitchen and each part sort of came up and when I was singing it, I was stepping into that body. You know, because I don’t sing very low. So to sing low, I had to picture my body being very big and I was kind of pouting because I didn’t like that I had to sing low, so I pictured that girl.
And then the other two doo-wop girls—there are two of them singing harmony—so they kind of had a little bit of attitude, you know, so they would hang back, way back by the doorway and they would kinda stand there ‘cause they didn’t really feel like rehearsing for the song. You know, with attitude and chewing gum and stuff like that. So those were the other two girls. And they were, of course, the good-looking chicks in the flock, standing back there. So that helped with the attitude of singing them.
Then, in the middle of it all is the lead singer who stands in between the big girl and the two girls in the doorway and she’s very serious and takes it very seriously and she’s the one pulling everybody together.
QRO: That’s awesome.
TA: It’s building up little fantasy worlds.
QRO: How do you think the loop pedal has affected the way we make and experience live music? It’s been a phenomenon I’ve only noticed in the past, maybe, seven years or so?
TA: I think that’s a really interesting question, actually. No one has asked me that before.
I think that there are different ways of looping, and what I’m interested in when I’m doing it and what sounds so exciting for me is that I can express all those things I hear in my head. That’s very hard to do when you play with a band.
To be able to do that and keep a flow, so everything moves, that’s been a real challenge for me. I spent a lot of time rehearsing and figuring things out and finding ways of moving things at sort of a magical pace.
I think it’s very exciting. I love watching my audience because, at first, I think people like it and they think it’s pre-recorded, and then when they hear me do something or they hear themselves—because if someone yells out, that’s being recorded too—they realize, all of a sudden, and it becomes this whole magical experience.
I just think it’s a fun, creative way to make music. It’s forced me to learn how to do a lot of stuff I didn’t know how to do a year ago. A year ago, I didn’t play drums, I didn’t know all this technology, I didn’t know how to do a lot of the things I know how to do now. I just knew how to play and sing. That’s all.
QRO: Every time I see someone who has a loop pedal, I’m totally fascinated because the technology itself seems so intimidating.
TA: It’s like learning how to work a computer or whatever. It’s just a lot of doing it. It’s like taking little pieces of music, and the trick is to really make it musical.
Even though I rehearse a lot and have it all worked out, when I get to the stage in front of the people, the goal is to make it special for that night and it’s inspired by what happens in the world, and that’s really hard to do in the beginning because you’re so focused on what you’re doing.
QRO: Well, now I wish I’d written more questions about that!
QRO: Last question: what are you listening to right now?
TA: Well, we were actually just downloading some Astrud Gilberto, so I’m very excited about putting that on. Before that, we were listening to the Fleet Foxes’ new [self-titled] record (QRO review), which is really awesome.
I always switch between something old and something new when I tour because it’s just nice to hear what’s going on now. I love a lot of Latin stuff, too—all these cool sonic things going on.
Loaded with instruments and equipment, but still very much on her own up on stage at New York’s Bowery Ballroom (QRO venue review) on September 26th, Andersson won over an upbeat, but not exactly ideal, crowd with her unique and remarkable performance.
The first thing that strikes you, seeing Theresa Andersson live, is that she is truly alone on stage – but certainly doesn’t sound like it. She utilizes loops and pedals (similar to – and really better than – New Zealand’s Liam Finn – QRO photos), as well as her own skill at different instruments and voices, to create a whole chorus behind her. It’s still not as grand as on her record, Hummingbird Go! (QRO review), but far more than anyone has a right to expect.
This best came out in “Introducing The Kitchenettes”:
I recorded my record in my kitchen. I’d like to introduce you to my back-up singers – which is really just me, times four. I call them ‘The Kitchenettes’. After spending about ten hours a day, on my own, I kind of got a little strange in the head, and started making up personalities for everybody.
After Andersson would introduce a member of the foursome, she would sing that girl’s part – in character. It would be recorded and looped into the next girl she sang, and so on, creating a back-up chorus perfectly on time and on note:
So the first girl in The Kitchenettes, I ended up naming her ‘Emma’. Emma is this very large, gorgeous, honey-skinned, confident, sassy woman. Girls number two and number three, Nikki and Sarah, they’re best friends. They’re kind of too good-looking to be hanging out at a silly local rehearsal. So they hang back by the doorpost, chewing gum, and texting each other the whole time. Girl number 4, her name is Petra. Petra, she’s kind of anal. But somebody’s got to do the job. She holds everything together, makes sure everyone has their music, rehearsals are happening on time, all that stuff.
All of this came together behind Andersson’s relaxed, Hawaiian waves finisher, “Hi-Low”. Her set was naturally dominated by her more stripped, less grand numbers – even this kitchen couldn’t do everything – like “Hi-Low”, “Birds Fly Away”, and “Innan Du Går”, where she could show off her Swedish heritage (and why there are two s’s in ‘Andersson’). But she also stuck to her current New Orleans roots in her cover of the Big Easy’s famed Allen Toussaint, with “On Your Way Down”, where Andersson got to bring out her soul-diva side (and make you wonder how so much sound could come out of so small – and so white – a package).
Andersson was playful, even sexy as she moved on stage (unsurprising, really, when you combine Swedish looks + New Orleans soul…), but didn’t overdo it or let it overshadow her music. The crowd might have been a little too apt for getting excited, as well: opening for the straight-up jam-band Assembly of Dust (QRO photos), it was a decidedly older audience than you’d usually see at Bowery – and they were there to party (a few one-hitters came out during Dust’s set, and one big fella was even wearing a ‘beer mugs as glasses’ pair of joke spectacles…). But Theresa Andersson can stand on her own, whether in the kitchen, or up on stage.