Victoria Bergsman: Out of the Shadows, Sort Of
By Joseph Erbentraut in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 19, 2010 10:05PM
Some musicians seem to thrive under the microscope of an interview. Wiggling among charming and engaging anecdotes, they welcome the interviewer into the life of the modern recording artist. Swede singer Victoria Bergsman, who performs as Taken By Trees, really is not one of those musicians. When Chicagoist spoke with the performer best known for her cameo on Young Folks, she quietly answered each question with reluctant, confident humility.
Thoughtfully, Bergsman spoke on her frustrations with the music industry; frustrations that encouraged her to leave the Western world en route for Pakistan, where she recorded her latest album East of Eden. The work is deeply enriched by the contributions of local Sufist musicians and renders a hauntingly shadowy portrait of a very different world, particularly for women. At once bleak and lush, East of Eden might just be one of last year's most overlooked albums.
Bergsman, alongside fellow Swede Sarah Assbring (El Perro Del Mar), performs in her Chicago debut next Monday, February 22, at Lincoln Hall. See what she had to say about touring, Valentine's Day and why she doubts she'll ever return to the land that inspired her latest creation.
Chicagoist: You've said before that you don't like touring. It was a big reason why you left the Concretes. How do you feel about it now, on the precipice of your U.S. tour this month?
Victoria Bergsman: I guess it's a bit different now, because it's a bit more on my terms. And also, it's a quite small tour and I enjoy playing music more and more than I did before. I feel better, I guess.
C: To what do you attribute enjoying playing music more now than before?
VB: I think it has a lot to do with feeling comfortable with the musicians I work with now. I trust them and can sort of lean back on them in a sense. So that takes a way a bit of the anxiety and stress of going onstage.
C: And you'll be touring with your good friend El Perro Del Mar. Do you think you'll collaborate on stage or stick to performing separate sets?
VB: She sings backing vocals on the whole album, so she is a part of my music, but otherwise we're just going to do separate shows and give each other that time. We enjoy each others' company, so that will be great.
C: The start of your tour coincided with Valentine's Day, what are your thoughts on that?
VB: It was very much a coincidence. I've noticed that Valentine's is very big here, but not so commercial in Sweden as maybe it is here. I guess in Sweden, you do have dinner with a loved on and things like that but it's much more stressful here. It's like you have to prove something, as though you don't really love this person otherwise. I think it's silly, I guess.
C: You've previously expressed frustrations on the inner workings of the music industry, and I'm sure doing so much press and being asked personal questions - like what I just asked - are a big part of that. What are your main gripes with "the machine"?
VB: I feel that there are so many people who work in the music industry who don't have a passion for music or that kind of sensibility for another human to sense how they really feel. That's the reason I left [for Pakistan] - to have that passion and sensibility. But I have also met some really great people ... I guess it's like that in all industries, but it can limiting to creativity. It's important to have people around you that you trust and are as passionate as you are.
C: Speaking of recording East of Eden in Pakistan, how did your label react when you told them that's what you wanted to do?
VB: They were 100 percent supportive from the start, and thought it was a very interesting choice. That's why I continue working with Rough Trade because I'm kind of free to do whatever I like. They trust me and I trust them, so it's all good.
C: Was there anyone in your immediate circle - industry or otherwise - that reacted negatively to your decision?
VB: No, not at all. I was just very fed up with the traditional way of recording in the studio. I wanted to travel somewhere very unexplored and needed some kind of new mystery to myself to get a kick out of it again. I get very easily bored with the pattern, going in the same circle in a way that starts to creep me out. I felt I needed to do something very drastic and different. The only thing that was an issue was that people were worried for my security. That was the only criticism.
C: In other interviews, you've described that it was very strange to observe, and experience, women's role in Pakistani society, as they operated "in the shadows." Could you tell me more about that?
VB: I think at first it really put me off when I saw how women were in another part of life, they got whatever was leftover from what the men had given them. But I had to focus and try to continue recording. Some days were harder than others. I think there is a certain darkness to the album that I think has to do with what I experienced there. It's still painful, and joyful in parts, but there's learning underneath it all - that things aren't really all right. Thankfully, Dan Lissvik, who mixed the album in Sweden, hadn't seen that misery. He put in what he felt when we heard our recordings and added his piece to that.
C: Do you think Dan brought the joyful side to the darkness you'd experienced?
VB: In retrospect, I believe so.
C: Do you think you'll return to Pakistan any time soon?
VB: That would be foolish, very foolish to do. I still have nightmares from what I've seen there. I could maybe go back in a very long time, when the situation is more secure and stable, but at the moment it is way too dangerous. I feel it is not getting better for them there, it is almost getting worse.
C: What are some of the images that still haunt you?
VB: When I attended the zanzeer zani ceremony, with the men and small boys, I couldn't believe my eyes. People were doing it until they were unconscious or die of blood loss. It's so far away from what life and death is for me and my values, so it was very shocking to see. I feel it's selfish - all that blood spilled just for one man's sins to be forgiven, when you could be giving blood to hospitals.
C: That's terrible. On a bit of a happier note, I had to ask you about the video you shot for Temptation, one of my favorite New Order songs, with Michael Shamberg. Given your experiences covering names like Animal Collective and Guns 'N Roses, do you think you'll ever take on any New Order songs yourself?
VB: I think their songs are too perfect in a sense. They are brilliant pop songs and I don't want to touch them. When I choose a cover, I think of what I can add to it to make it grow in a way, but I think their songs are as they should be: Simple, perfect pop songs.
C: Do you have any covers or other surprises you're cooking up for the road?
VB: That's a secret, but it is hard to know. The band will try out things while we work for the shows. We'll play most of the songs from the album and a few old ones. Maybe one new one. We'll see how it sounds.
C: How do you feel about playing the East of Eden songs live? From being recorded in Pakistan, mixed in Sweden and now played in the States, how do you feel they translate?
VB: I feel some of them are better live because they come more alive. I felt that when we played in Europe.
C: So, to conclude, what would you describe as your current mood heading into the tour?
VB: I'm super stressed out. There is so much to prepare before going on tour that I don't believe people can imagine it. So before going, it's awful. When on the tour itself, that's a holiday. I'm really looking forward to that holiday to enjoy things and play the music.
Taken By Trees with El Perro Del Mar, Monday. Feb. 22, 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.