After two years of residency at the Théâtre de Saint-Quentin en Yvelines, where she was an associate artist, the singer and composer Isabel Sörling once again experiences the vertigo of freedom and the leap into the void. From this new stage, nuggets will surely emerge, for Isabel Sörling traces a singular path, of great integrity. One thing is sure, the French career of this musician has not put to sleep her attachment to Sweden; the Scandinavian culture is always ready to emerge at the turn of a song!
Isabel, you have been living in France for five years, but you still have deep ties with Sweden?
Yes, my country is still there in my head; it's a bit of a sentimental link! In reality, I did not choose France. The first time I came was because of an Erasmus exchange. I thought it would just be a one-year interlude, to try something else. But in the end, I stayed, and ten years passed, going back and forth between the two countries at first. Today, I still wonder how things could have gone so far in France. Because I am still attached to Sweden, to its culture; I listen to Swedish radio for example! But at the same time I feel like a stranger. I hear new words, I get lost in the conversations.... When I go back to Sweden, I hear new words: I can easily get lost in conversations! This is also true of politics. I can't vote much in Sweden anymore! So I ask myself: what makes you part of a given society at a certain moment of your existence? It's an interesting question.
Do you ever want to go back, or are there too many disconnects?
I can only dream of going back! Someone close to me once told me: " Actually, it's in other terms that it happens for you: it's not about "going back", but rather "moving in " ("you will not move back, you will move to"). He's right; that's exactly right! If I go back to Sweden, I have to rebuild a life there.
The year of Erasmus was the year you were taught in the jazz department of the CNSMdP, wasn't it? Did you also participate in the generative improvisation class?
I only had to go to two or three sessions. I would have liked to take the class all year, but I didn't understand how it works. Long before, in Gothenburg, I had taken an improvisation course, but much less in the jazz idiom than in France.
At the CNSMdP, it was much more in the jazz idiom, and they were very practical courses. Since I couldn't sing in French, I did things differently.
Did you sing in English?
Yes, and without words too, often.
In Swedish too I think?
Sometimes... but rarely! I'm trying a little bit right now. I love singing in Swedish. It seems to me that when you sing in your own language, you really touch other levels of meaning. There is a big difference.
In many albums, you sing in English. What is your relationship with this language?
I remember translating Celine Dion's "Mon coeur survivra pour toi - my heart will go on" into English when I was ten years old: it was the first time I sang in English! Most of the artists I listened to when I was twenty years old sang in English. It was the pop-folk songs of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell: all that culture! All three of them are also magnificent writers, who express themselves in deep English and manage to express very subtle emotions and sensations through this refined language. It is undoubtedly this love for them that led me to write in English; I love writing in this language!
Do you always write the lyrics of your compositions yourself?
Yes, for the last fifteen years or so, because I like the fact that the voice - an instrument that came into my life a little by chance - also has this dimension. Composing a song is only half the job for me!
You say you came to the voiceby chance "Can you tell us a little more about it?
Yes, I first played the piano and the guitar. Until I was seventeen, I wanted to be a pianist. I did a little choral singing, but I didn't pay much attention to it, especially since there were real singers around me at school. In Sweden, there is a whole choral culture. Everyone has the right to sing: the voice is accessible to everyone. I think it's a bit different in France.
And then at seventeen, we were three friends interested in jazz and improvisation. It was easier to make this kind of music with the voice than with the piano! That's how it all started. However, after school, I wanted to enter a piano class in a music conservatory. Then a friend told me : "No Isabel, you have to sing, it's your thing !So for me, singing is still a bit of a coincidence.
Can you tell us more about the amateur practice in your country?
In Sweden, there is a tradition of musical meetings between villages in the countryside, which has existed for at least a hundred years. Everyone brings instruments (the accordion, the violin). We get together to sing traditional songs. It's not really a concert, it's informal; it's just a sharing between amateurs, it's not about doing something perfect. It's a tradition that is still very much alive!
Where you grew up, there was music in the street?
I grew up in a small town of 9000 people. If you wanted to listen to music, you had to really look for it. The commercialization of culture had already damaged a lot of things, but I had a lot of friends who were musicians. For years we played together: I played the guitar, there was also an accordion, a violin, and the nyckelharpa (a traditional bowed string instrument). We mostly played at parties. All the songs are transmitted orally, with small differences according to the regions.
Was there any music in your family?
Not at all, but both my grandfathers loved music and my mother's grandfather was an accordionist. I met him when I was fifteen, and I was able to share my love of music with him a few years before he died.
What kind of music did you play on the piano?
Classical music from sheet music. I also played by ear what I heard on the radio, or what I composed in my head
And on the guitar?
So you worked on your voice afterwards?
Yes, but as I sang for a long time without technique - until I was seventeen or eighteen - I developed a voice outside the norms, and that counted a lot in my evolution: a voice that escapes the codes, and with which I can play. Anything but a perfect voice, or one that tries to please. When I started taking singing lessons, it was in an experimental spirit!
Isabel, how did the transition from classical and folk music to improvisation come about? Was it jazz that made the transition?
I think it came naturally, because I liked the trance, the idea of being crossed; it was already there in my way of making music.
There was also a small period at school during which I made jazz with others; we played the standards. I discovered the music of Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday... Someone like Avishai Cohen was very popular in Sweden! And then there was a whole active scene in Gothenburg; jazz students who were starting to make contemporary music. These musicians played harmonic music, a form of jazz, but very open. Among these musicians, there were several singers older than me, who proposed a form of singing that was very free, melodic and offbeat at the same time, and that influenced the whole younger generation; singers like Erika Angell, Mariam Wallentin, Lindha Kallerdahl, and also Sidsel Endresen, Maja Ratkje. I also discovered at that time the work of Meredith Monk, of Laurie Anderson.
When I was 21, I attended an improvisation master class in my music school, led by a female singer. What a shock! I couldn't believe it: I was lost, but it resonated with me. From that moment on, a door opened: I felt that this was my path.
Immediately, I started experimenting with a singer who sang with pedals and I did that too. We created an experimental music group : Soil collectors, with a mix of improvisation, writing, theater, videos. There were collaborations with dancers, video artists... Sometimes we also filmed ourselves. The doors were wide open to experimentation!
We were supported by the European scene which wanted to help emerging musicians; we played in festivals such as Twelve Points. I learned a lot from that band.
In Sweden, you also created another band : Farvel ?
Yes, it was a ten-year adventure, very important for me, which has just ended after a last concert. Farvel is the band that really created my identity; I realize it now! In ten years, we rehearsed so much, we searched so much... It was a group in permanent ebullition, six musicians of very different horizons: Balkan music, musical comedy, and also rock and grunge, Swedish traditional music, jazz, all these influences!
We tried to be a real collective: we took the time to test the ideas of each one, with for strength the improvisation. It was a great school in terms of equality, democracy: we tried everything. There were long moments of discussion. We also gave several workshops in schools to share this with the students, and there, we learned even more!
Why did the group stop?
For several reasons: geographical dispersion, certain life changes (some became parents or started teaching). Also, the context of professional life has changed a lot in Sweden. The grants for experimental music in Sweden, which used to be generous, are now given to groups that have at least ten concerts in a year: it's terrible, it killed a whole sub-culture!
You talk about improvisation and free vocality, but in your music, despite everything, the melody remains very present?
It's true, I love melody! Beautiful harmonies can overwhelm me, it's so beautiful! In my life, until today, I haven't met anything as overwhelming as music, but even if harmony touches me a lot, I also love noise. I can go and listen to noise, a wall of noise for more than an hour: it touches me as much as a melody. Everything that is SOUND has the same importance to my ears.
Can we now talk about the groups you have initiated in France, and your future projects?
After ten years as a collective - or as a guest musician - today I carry my own projects: it's a big change, it's another job! As a project leader, I have to develop social skills, to make my playing partners feel confident. It's a challenge, but I've learned a lot from other experiences!
You want to talk about your experiences as a guest artist withAnne Paceo and Airelle Besson for example?
Yes, I do! In fact, I still play with them. They were very intense years, punctuated by many concerts, and that in very different aesthetics, because I always liked the contrasts. In 2014, Airelle Besson invited me for the first time. I was able to play in many concerts in France, thanks to her.
These collaborations were born right after you graduated from the CNSMdP? Did these musicians come to you naturally?
Yes, but already during my year at the conservatory, one or two groups had been formed. A collaboration with Ibrahim Maalouf was formed, which allowed me to stay a little longer in France to work on my 2013 album Something came with the sun. I was then able to make other projects exist. I was still living in Sweden, I had to go back and forth between the two countries a lot!
There was also this beautiful adventure around the music of Moondog with the Cabaret contemporain? Do you remember the beginning of this experience?
The musicians of the ensemble invited us, Linda Olah and me, both Swedes from Göteborg active in France. Strangely enough, that's when we met, we had never met before.
Did you know Moondog's music?
No, I discovered it! What a great experience! For me, Moondog is a genius: I like the minimalist side of his music, of his texts. Everything is chiseled, precise, humorous. It was very physical vocally; sometimes we had to sing the same word for five minutes... It's a beautiful memory; I must say that I feel very comfortable with these musicians.
You also collaborated with COAX, on the album Bribes 4 in particular?
Yes, with Julien Desprez, there was the creation of the ensemble "t(r)opic" in connection with the Bridge, the series of Alexandre Pierrepont, and the meeting of Julien Desprez with Rob Mazurek. The idea came to create a more substantial group, around Julien and Rob; nine musicians, including many Scandinavians(Mette Rasmussen, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, me ...) and also musicians from the USA and Brazil like Susana Santos Silva. It was a special experience for me; playing all of a sudden in a French project with Scandinavians! The music was totally improvised.
In these collaborations, you were a guest musician, but soon enough you composed your own music, you wrote your own lyrics?
Yes, but it took time for me to find my way. For example, I feel that I'm not quite myself yet in the albums of 2011 and 2013.
This identity you found in the album Mareld, released in 2020?
Yes, I consider it my first album. First of all, I "heard" all the music on this album in my head before I made it. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted artistically. Nevertheless, it took me five years to write the music and the lyrics.
What is Mareld about?
The album started with the book Homo Sapiens by Harari Yuval Noah; a singular vision of our species, which highlights, for example, the fact that the human species has lived much longer as a nomad than as a sedentary one, and how this has affected the course of our lives, until today. This book had a great influence on my way of thinking. I was able to understand all of a sudden certain forms of automatisms in human behavior, which were opaque to me. I was also able to better analyze the political evolution of Sweden: the success of the extreme right, of populism... This book helped me to answer the questions I had about the way our societies evolve. There are several allusions to these questions on the record.
And at the moment, what idea are you working on?
I'm working on a new record with a very clear theme: the moon. The starting point was a series on the Apollo program, which I discovered by chance: the attempts to approach the moon, the trials over ten years, the failures... I became passionate about the moon, I read a lot! This coincided with the desire for a solo, which I first imagined for the piano and the guitar, until I realized that there was a strong connection between the moon and the grand piano, because of the great space and the incredible sound possibilities of the piano. So I chose the grand piano. Then the title came to me: Sea of tranquility, in other words the place where Apollo landed on the moon. Wonderful metaphor!
Then I wanted to add some space sounds. I went online and saw that NASA had a whole bank of sounds available for free - storms on Jupiter, for example, which really impressed me. I downloaded everything, and spent two months listening to it all, and made a sound library out of it. It was a tricky business! It's not easy to record sounds in space; the frequencies are different, because of the weightlessness! The Nasa recordings are full of parasite sounds.
My idea with this album is to create a kind of moon music - let's say music that sounds like you are on the moon - with a lot of space. There will also be a ten-minute track in Swedish, a way to reconnect with my roots; it's precisely the moment when you start the journey to the moon!
Isabel, how do you manage to live from your music?
The last two years, I had the chance to be an associate artist at the Théâtre de Saint-Quentin en Yvelines. It was the first time I had such an experience. I loved the fact that I had space and time for experimentation, research, and laboratory work, things that are not so frequent when you are a musician. The way the great machine of live music works in France means that we often run from one project to the next, without having the time to enter deeply into the creative process. The system does not allow for experimentation. This is probably different in theater and dance, but in music it is too often the rule! I was able to work on several creations during this residency: it nourished me a lot. Today, I am going through a new stage; I have to carry my own projects. I have to refine my knowledge of the field, of the way things work.
The system in France is complicated. Some musicians emerge (or are chosen), while others remain unjustly in the shade; it kills creation, and it is even worse in Sweden because of the commercial system! I don't want to be a prisoner of the machine; I feel that I must escape the automatism which consists in systematically linking an album to the search for concerts, to sell the album... Each project engages me completely.
Do you listen to a lot of music?
I listen to a little bit of everything, mostly folk, but I need the vibe of the concert, so I go to friends' concerts!
Interview by Anne Montaron
Article photo © Viktor Freidlit
Photos © Maxim Francois