For Fredrika Stahl, 25, who already has two internationally-acclaimed albums to her name, Sweep me away represents a whole new level of musical achievement.
Before this she has had to overcome that trait that lies deep within any self-respecting Swede; perfectionism. “In the past I was so afraid of missing a note that I concentrated too hard,” she explains, “I wanted everything to be perfect. I ended up struggling with the over-perfectionist side of my personality and learned how to go with the music.” And so the shy young Swede, who had been living in France for seven years, working tirelessly to secure her credentials in the jazz world with her refined jazz-pop numbers, went from top-student to prom-queen.
Queen of a prom that is romantic yet sometimes disparate, where pop blends with soul or acoustic hip-hop before a few jazz-blues piano chords and flashes of dazzling brass come into play. Her voice, which is overdubbed, arranged and expertly handled as the instrument it is, sometimes soars high to fly alongside the notes. A twelve-strong string section lends a subtly lyrical brightness to a world of sound that bares its fair share of cracks and fragilities; a world where we are constantly reminded that we are dealing with a true melodist. One who delights the ear with songs to be hummed long after they've been heard.
Usually she writes songs in a pop-flavoured format, then entrusts their arrangement to the jazz musicians she plays with. But in this case Fredrika herself went as far as she could with the demos, saying, “It was the first time I’d ever made such complex demos. They had a lot of vocal arrangements, even though I’ve never taken singing lessons. The finished songs are very close to the original demos. I spent a year sitting alone at my keyboard in the Stockholm apartment I’d rented. In France I had started to feel cut off from my roots. I needed to refocus on myself and make music on my own. It was a very intense experience”.
Recent years have been spent touring Japan and Germany, where Fredrika Stahl enjoys a large following due in part to her ability to give her all on stage, helped by the amazing cheerful personality that emanates from this slight young blonde who has performed for the likes of Herbie Hancock, Richard Bona and Maceo Parker. “Jazz is brilliant for playing live. I have learned a great deal. Initially, there was a distance because I was barely twenty and I was playing with musicians who were in their fifties. I was saved by the fact that I write my own songs. Now I feel ready to try anything, from singing with a big band to covering standards, which I actually often do.”
This passion for the genre started with her first foray into Parisian clubs, such as the New Morning and Duc des Lombards, when she decided to spend a gap year in France at the age of seventeen, just after sitting the baccalaureate. “Between the ages of four and twelve I went to school in France, and so I had a bit of a shock when I went back to Sweden with my parents at twelve. In France I felt Swedish, but going back to my country I realised that the other girls in my class didn’t listen to the same music as me or watch the same TV shows. It felt like there was a whole area of everyday culture missing. That’s why I decided to go back to France.” She originally wanted to dance, but fell in love with music. One day, in the English pub where she was working as a waitress, she met producer Geef, a fan of American soul and hip-hop. He would go on to work alongside Fredrika on her first two albums.
Seven years later, it's still Geef, now working closely with Jeff Delort (co-credited with four tracks on Fredrika’s second album) to produce Sweep me away. Of her producers she says, “They’re very different, but they complement each other. Geef looks at the groove and the beats, while Jeff concentrates on the textures and sound”. Some great jazz and funk musicians have brought their inimitable touches to the album, such as pianist Eric Legnini, bassist Daniel Romeo, drummer Arnaud Renaville, and Romain Collin, a French pianist living in New York. “Even if they don’t play jazz on the record, they each have a particular vibe” she says. The same goes for the talented Edith Fambuena, whose work generally tends more towards pop and who played virtually all the guitars on the album; “I love her fragility”, adds Fredrika.
The result is very feminine and personal, in the manner of the singer-songwriters that Fredrika admires, such as Regina Spektor and Emiliana Torrini. It's hard to stop listening to Sweep me away, with its troubled piano giving way to sorrow-stricken violins, or the intimate and dreamy refrain of Fast moving train. The same goes for the ritornello-waltz of A drop in the sea, conjuring up images of nostalgic dreamscapes and the swaying melody of Fling on boy. Onwards into M.O.S.W. and its old-school soul touch, followed by the delightful and sun-filled Song of July. We hear the pop gem Rocket trip to Mars and, finally, the lovely So high. After all this, it is equally as hard to cease to admire Fredrika Stahl’s smooth metamorphosis from jazz chrysalis to pop butterfly.