When Per Gessle shared some beach boogaloo pics and a video 3 weeks ago, we still didn’t know what it was about. Just that there was a photo session in Tylösand. Then it turned out that the photos have been taken by Thomas Karlsson for a Dagens Nyheter (dn.se) interview with Mr. G, done by Martin Jönsson.
The interview is very long, very much detailed and very nicely written. Martin is a talented journalist, he put the material together very professionally and Thomas took fab photos of Mr. G (don’t miss any of them in the article, as well as the ones Thomas shared on his Instagram). Hats off!
I tried to summarize the whole thing in English as detailed as I could (with all respect to Martin Jönsson and Per), but it probably won’t give the real feelings and expressions back completely. So, learn Swedish you all! 😉
NASHVILLE, OCTOBER 2016
At the beginning of the article you can read a bit about Nashville, the capital of country music and Blackbird Studios, where Per recorded his new albums. The list of musicians who already recorded there is long from Dolly Parton to Taylor Swift. For an artist who had 4 US No. 1 hits it would have been easy to sail in as a star through the studio doors. But when Per Gessle arrives to Nashville with Christoffer Lundquist, Anders Herrlin, Clarence Öfwerman and Helena Josefsson, he does it with a slightly lower profile. He doesn’t live in a luxury hotel in the center, but hires through Airbnb in the villa area a few kilometers away and walks home in the evenings. And he chooses a smaller one instead of a great prestige studio, because it’s more intimate. A living room with recording possibilities. This is his home for 3-4 weeks, but also new ground. And it’s necessary for what he wants to accomplish. What’s going to be not one album, but two: first “En vacker natt” released next week, then “En vacker dag”, released in September. Though at that time he didn’t know it.
HALMSTAD, APRIL 2016
In April 2016 Roxette had to cancel their tour due to the recommendation of Marie’s doctors. So the touring period ended for Roxette. Suddenly, Per had no plans. Roxette was over, Gyllene Tider was too early to do something together again and Mr. G felt he has to do something different vs. what he did lately. The question was only what. And where. After he spent more than 400 days in Christoffer’s studio in Vallarum, Skåne during the past 10 years, it was not an option to go there again. In addition, there was nothing to record. The only thing lying around was some songs in the archive that were written for Roxette.
Per tells dn.se he can’t write songs unplanned, it only works if he does it for a particular project. Then slowly, it became clear that he wanted to do something for himself. He wanted to write strong lyrics, for something musically different. A few months later the trip was booked to Nashville, Tennessee and Per Gessle began writing seriously. There was a lot about looking back on his roots. However, a new geographical location was required.
NASHVILLE, OCTOBER 2016
October 2016 is the second time Per Gessle was in Nashville, however, he can’t remember clearly the first time. It was a premiere show on one of Roxette’s US tours, 17 years ago. As Martin writes in the article, it’s really strange that Mr. G has not been there more times, because the city is completely built around songwriting and commercial music production, so it should have been like a second home for an artist who has long been fascinated by the music industry’s all mechanisms – and mastered them better than most.
The country sound was present on Per’s first solo album in 1983, partly on “Scener” in 1985 and on “Mazarin” in 2003. But then it was most like spice, not the base component. Per says the starting point for him was that it should sound like a merger of his Nordic heritage and Nashville. He is not a hardcore country fan, but has always liked a certain kind of country. Like Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young at the time of “Harvest”, but also Jim Reeves, whom he first heard through Gunnar Wiklund. It’s very close to him, but at the same time, he is also very much in the legacy of Swedish music.
The challenge was to bring together the Nordic and Nashville heritage in songs that still sound like Per Gessle. To tie up the career that began as a county troubadour in Halmstad, where Per and his friend sang “Drömmen om Elin” for pensioners, with a 58-year-old popnerd’s album that smells like country.
Per tells Dagens Nyheter that what he understood instantly was that the project had to be based on texts that felt credible and genuine. The song must be much more in focus. It’s an extra challenge to Mr. G, who for a long time hated the sound of his own voice. He tried to sing without thinking too much.
The first challenge was to find local musicians who can bring the Nashville sound. There was no plan, which is unusual for a control freak like Per. But studio owner John McBride helped. Per asked him about good pedal steel players. John said there are only two really good players and he called them to check if they were available. On the third day since they arrived in Nashville, Dan Dugmore came to the studio, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and cap, a gray-haired veteran who played on many albums that Per listened to in the ‘70s, like Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks and James Taylor, and who in the recent years played with two of the most successful new country stars, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. Per immediately felt he met the right musician and decided to have Dugmore on all the songs they recorded.
The next instrument missing was violin. Then came Stuart Duncan, who toured with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. He made Per and the gang open even more. He has never worked with violin or bluegrass, but Stuart introduced a completely new atmosphere, which also made the songs and arrangements different than Per imagined. Per describes Stuart’s way of playing as if he is dancing ballet between Per’s beats and it was completely new to Per musically. Totally amazing.
Martin Jönsson asks Per about what these Nashville musicians knew about him. Per says they of course heard Roxette hits, but they liked more what they heard in the studio related to this project.
Per unfortunately couldn’t work with bluegrass star Alison Krauss, but one of the greatest Nashville musicians, harmonica player Mickey Raphael was available. He played with many musicians from Bob Dylan to Emmylou Harris, but most of all with Willie Nelson since the early ‘70s. On one of the songs of “En vacker dag”, Raphael’s harmonica has an important role, together with acoustic guitars and a children’s choir.
Per tells Dagens Nyheter that he knew from the beginning that this would be his least poppish album, but by letting these musicians control and influence much, they went farther than he had thought. That’s why it became two albums in the end. The recordings were fast and improvised and the songs grew organically.
TYLÖSAND, APRIL 2017
Martin and Per are talking at Hotel Tylösand after the seaside photo session and Per shows the pictures of the album covers on his mobile. The first, “En vacker natt” is dedicated to Per’s sister, Gunilla. She appears on the cover. It was taken on the westcoast in 1966. The second, “En vacker dag” has Elisabeth, Per’s mother on the cover. The picture was taken on a trip in the late ‘60s, with the picnic table just behind the family’s Volvo Amazon.
Per’s mom, Elisabeth died 3.5 years ago. Gunilla, who was 14 years older than Per, died in cancer last autumn, just before the trip to Nashville. Per’s brother, Bengt also died not too long ago, in spring 2014. He was 7 years older than Per and died after a period of illness. Per’s father, Kurt, who ran his own business as a plumber and did not show any interest in his son’s music ambitions died after a long period of illness already when Per was 19 years old.
Mr. G says it’s strange and obviously one gets affected. His father died when Per was still so young and his siblings were so much older than him, so it was more about his mom and himself. The relationship with his siblings was not too close, because they were so much older. Per says Gunilla was Elvis, Bengt was The Beatles and Per was Bowie. There was a big age gap between them. Gunilla never lived at home when Per grew up, she lived her own life.
Per describes Gunilla as a very humanist person, an artistic soul. She was very committed to the care of severe cancer, at the hospice. Then she suffered from cancer herself. She was ill for a long time, so her death wasn’t unexpected.
Mr. G tells Dagens Nyheter that Bengt was very important to Per when he grew up, because he introduced music to Per. At the same time, Bengt also moved and lived his own life early. Then Per was much on the road with Gyllene Tider and when he got home to Halmstad, no one was at home, only his mom. Per and his dad were never so close to each other. Mr. G had the closest relationship with his mother.
The song “Några glas rosé” has the lyrics: ”Allt verkade vilset mitt i mönstret / Det var hög tid att komma bort / Jag undrade vem jag kunde vara / Och sökte efter en av samma sort”. It sounds like a more personal Gessle. Per tells Martin when he writes, he tries not to think too much. He had the ambition to write in a new way, but you never know until after succeeding. But now he can say that this feels very close to himself.
Martin and Per are talking about the fact that Mr. G has always been very much concerned with protecting his private life. Per says he feels better this way. He likes to talk about records and guitars and cars, but he has no interest in taking part in TV shows like “Så mycket bättre” or other programs and being “personal”.
To the question why, Per replies that when writing songs, you are digging all the time in yourself, you love your own story. He has sometimes become very tired of himself. Then, of course, it also comes from the fact that he has been living in the centre of attention. When Roxette was the biggest, Expressen had a small section on the entertainment pages called “Roxette of the Day”. Every day. When everyone constantly observes what you do you grow thick skin. Of course you’ll be affected anyway. You don’t have alligator skin. Martin asks Per how he handled it. Per says through his family. They are very close, always. And also through those he chooses to work with. It’s like an extended family.
Martin asks about those who Per works together with. They are the same people over the years and he is curious if it is more because of feeling safer or because of control freak reasons. According to Mr. G it’s more for the reason of feeling safe. He needs a small group of people he can trust and enjoy working with. He knows that he has to develop it and once in a while tries to work with new people in a new project, to bring in another dynamic, but some always remain. He has been lucky enough to find people whom he gets on well and can learn from, even musically. Per has never had the ambition to do the same thing. Even if the basics are always the same, he likes changing a bit between each project.
One of the central songs on “En vacker natt” is “Allt gick så fort”. It stands out, even musically. It is about different stages of life. Per says he couldn’t have written it and some other of the new songs 5-10 years ago. He couldn’t have told the stories in that way. At the same time, he doesn’t want this or other songs to be interpreted autobiographically. It’s still about storytelling and conveying feelings. Even if he mentions his mom in the text he thinks many can identify with the topic itself. The feeling of being eight years with your mom or the feeling of meeting someone. It doesn’t have to be his story.
Per tells Dagens Nyheter that he loves texts where the listeners are allowed to shape the answers and interpret the song themselves. He doesn’t want to control the listener’s experience. He can give the palette, then every painting gets ready by itself. It’s rarely good when artists explain their lyrics. When Paul McCartney told “Martha, my dear” was actually about his dog, it was not as strong anymore…
Martin asks Per about what has changed in his way of writing. Per says some of these lyrics have taken 58 years to mature. Then he can write them down in half an hour. That’s how he works. But he can’t pretend to be anything but who he is.
VALLARUM, JANUARY 2017
Besides “Småstadsprat”, a duet with Lars Winnerbäck, they talk about the duet with Helena, that she went to Nashville for the recordings, but other Swedish duet partners’ vocals were recorded in Sweden. On the autumn album, “En vacker dag” the last and perhaps most important duet is with Per Gessle’s ‘70s idol, John Holm. Title of the song is “Det är vi tillsammans”. Holm has not recorded anything since the late ‘90s and until last year he had not played live since the ’70s. But for Per he is extremely important. He sent fan mails to John Holm in the ‘70s. Mr. G is very happy that John joined him for this duet. He says John Holm is the best, a hero for him, but he thinks John has no clue how much he really meant to Per.
When Per started writing lyrics, it was by translating long, brushy English texts by Bowie, Cohen and others. Then he heard John Holm and then fell so much in place. Per thought he had a strange vocal voice. Holm also had it and it made Per’s strange voice more legitimate.
When Per made his first solo record, which was more a personal album, one of the first decisions was to make a cover of John Holm’s “Den öde stranden”. Now when he becomes more personal again and looks for the roots, Holm is an important part again. Per laughs a bit that nothing has happened since 1983, he is back to where he started. But there is a quality in it too. This is the music he comes from, the one he loves most. It still feels fresh for him, as he constantly tries to do it in new ways.
Martin Jönsson thinks there is an indisputable chemistry between Per’s and John’s voices and their duet will be heard at many weddings in the coming years.
NASHVILLE, NOVEMBER 2016
In November 2016 it was clear that there will be two albums. The musicians barely left the studio, they only visited the country sanctuary Grand Ole Opry and a few country clubs nearby, as well as paid a quick visit at the Johnny Cash Museum in the center. One evening they were invited to the BMI Awards in Nashville. Per says over a hundred prizes were awarded and most of them sounded the same. White muscle rock with country color. It’s not really the kind of country he can relate to. Although there are exceptions. Per likes Chris Stapleton and there is a song “Die a happy man” by Thomas Rhett. But basically Per is old school and he always liked the classics more.
Per and Martin also talk about Roy Orbison. Mr. G knows Roy’s son, Roy Orbison Jr., who is now building a museum about his dad. He wanted them to be blessed by Roy so he brought some of his father’s old Gibson guitars.
STOCKHOLM, APRIL 2017
When Martin and Per are having coffee at the record company office in Stockholm, Per checks “Småstadsprat” on Spotify and realizes that the single passed half a million streams. He is surprised by this, because he didn’t think the audience would be so receptive. He says it’s not Drake or Zara Larsson after all.
Martin asks Per why the word “småstad” is so important to him. Per says it’s filled with images, some words have that feature. Then it’s rewarding to write small town stories. That’s what he has been doing all his life. His language is very local, he writes about places that are perceived to be natural to many and they stick in the brain. Then the listeners make the places to their own.
To Martin’s question regarding in what aspect Per is still a small town person Per replies that it’s very much about the balance between security and looking for a personal identity, but there is both humility and insecurity in it. Both he and Marie had ambitions and dreams to get away from the small town, but at the same time they were very deeply rooted in it.
Success was very important for Per in the old days. He says when you are young and hungry you think you are unstoppable. With Roxette he never stopped. If they did interviews all day, he thought they could continue with telephone interviews with newspapers in another time zone. It was always possible to do more. Today he is more relaxed with such things. He knows he wouldn’t be able to write “The Look” today. But the records they made now could have never been done during the Roxette years. Now he feels more comfortable writing like this.
Martin asks if it’s like finding home and Per says it is. To reach here and be pleased to be right here. He thinks he is getting better. The day he doesn’t feel like it anymore, he won’t continue.
At the end of the article there is a fact sheet with info about Per’s career, family and interests, as well as a little info about the new albums and the tour. There is a list of musicians Per worked together with on the albums: Clarence Öfwerman, Anders Herrlin, Helena Josefsson, Dan Dugmore, Stuart Duncan, Elizabeth Goodfellow, Mickey Raphael, Savannah Church, Lars Winnerbäck, Linnea Henriksson and John Holm. And we get to know who will be in the band on the summer tour: Clarence Öfwerman, Christoffer Lundquist, Helena Josefsson, Magnus Börjeson, Ola Gustafsson, Malin My-Wall and Andreas Dahlbäck.
Fantastic interview! Thanks a lot for it, Dagens Nyheter!