Despite what the marketing geniuses at Facebook and Spotify would have you believe, listening to music isn’t a social experience. Sure, music might make nice background noise for a romantic dinner or set the mood for a party, but listening — really listening — is best done alone.
For the shy and socially hesitant among us, music offers a unique escape, a sort of force-field against outside attention. Molly Nilsson, a Swedish songwriter living in Germany, reminisced about her earliest musical memories for an interviewer at Thumped.com. “I was addicted to my Walkman,” Nilsson said. “But looking back, I think I was only obsessing about music because people would not talk to you if you had headphones on.”
The quiet, confessional music she self-records and self-releases seems designed for this very kind of antisocial listening experience. Writing an email before traveling across the Atlantic for her U.S. tour, Nilsson confirms it. “Some people mix their songs with good speakers,” she says, “but I mix my songs with crappy headphones because that’s almost exclusively how I listen to music myself. And maybe it’s also the way I would wish people to hear me, on their own on a late night.”
So far Nilsson has filled four albums of late-night anthems, singing over simple arrangements of old electronic keyboards and drum machines. Her fourth and most recent album, this year’s History, sounds bigger than the comparatively sparse arrangements of her earliest recordings, giving the record a bit of ‘80s-via-M83 nostalgia without shedding any of the stream-of-consciousness candor that makes Nilsson such a compelling songwriter.
She has a gift for internal monologues sung as plainspoken confessions. Her voice suggests Nico’s evocative deadpan, a certain distance that feels more vulnerable than defiant.
“Whiskey Sours,” a particularly fine moment Nilsson’s 2008 debut, These Things Take Time, offers a marvelous internal dialogue that sums up the emotional anxiety that runs through Nilsson’s catalog. Addressing an unnamed “You” who stood her up, Nilsson sings, “I only came here to hang out with you/ Chain smoking ‘cuz I don’t have anything to do/ I would have called you if I had some credits on my phone/ I always feel so stupid in a bar all alone/ You’re always late/ Making me wait/ I only came here to hang out with you.”
History has its share of isolation, often aided and abetted by digital distance. On the album opening “In Real Life,” Nilsson sings, “Online I never feel alone, I never feel live.” Then, on “Hotel Home,” Nilsson sings, “I’m never too far like the stars all are/ I’m never too nigh, I’m a satellite/ The world will find me when the time is right/ I’m never at home, so call on Skype.”
“I sing about various aspects of my life; I try not to censor even the seemingly time-bound details,” Nilsson says. “I don’t want people to think I’m sitting under a tree in the forest writing these songs to the birds. Cause I don’t. I write for people like me, with real lives. I know some people who find the digital world too artificial or profane to be allowed into poetry and such but I find the Internet has many romantic sides.”
The dramatic tension Nilsson finds between romantic longing and self-determined solitude has given her plenty of material to work with. Her four albums have followed a fairly regular annual release schedule. Her strident independence ensures she’ll continue to work solo, operating on her own terms without collaborators or business interests interfering with the creative process. “I work very well together with myself and so far I have found no reason to change my course of action,” she says. “I might consider this if I had a family to support or a costly drug habit, but luckily I don’t.”
As her songwriting has developed, the benefits of never having to compromise become clearer. The bolder, more propulsive History still builds its songs on simple, layered phrases on keys and drum machine. Nilsson also layers her voice, adding high, ethereal harmony to her deeper, more morose lead. Her phrasing, too, is hers alone. Nilsson sings vivid imagery in a cadence that manages to be infectiously catchy and counterintuitive.
Rock traditionalists balk, still, at the sight of a laptop on a stage; it’s a show, not karaoke, after all. For Nilsson, though, the minimal presence is part of the isolationist mystique. “I will be alone on stage singing for the persons standing alone in the audience surrounded by others,” she says. “Hopefully we will meet each other halfway.”
Bryan C. Reed is the online editor at Shuffle Magazine, and a regular contributor to MAGNET and Paste.
who: Molly Nillson, with Alligator Indian, Sin Kitty and Thai Food
where: The Apothecary, 39 S. Market St.
when: Saturday, Sept. 15 (9 p.m. darkskiesassociation.org/look-listen or facebook.com/ashevilleapothecary)