Celebrating their 25th anniversary, Swedish folk band Väsen has released their 10th album "Mindset" to critical acclaim. Tom Keller talked with nyckelharpa player Olov Johansson about Väsen's past, present and future.
Tom Keller: If you please, what's your musical biography before the foundation of Väsen? How did you come to folk music?
Olov Johansson: I tried several different instruments when I was young but I wasn't captured by any of them until I tried my maternal uncle's nyckelharpa. It was like it challenged me and said - hey, try to master this complicated looking instrument!
Would you tell us, probably not everybody knows it, what's so particular about the nyckelharpa?
A nyckelharpa is played with a short bow and held in a strap around your neck. It's held horizontally and the strings are shortened by a set of wooden keys that shorten the melody strings when pressing them. The keys are sliding in slots under the strings and a short peg sticks up beside the string and shorten the string from the side. It's like bringing a fret to the string from the side when pushing a key.
Most nyckelharpa models also have many sympathetic strings that ring along and give the instument a natural reverb. The sound is very rich in overtones and the basic note is weaker than the overtones. The sound is both transparent and "edgy". Nyckel is the Swedish word for key and harpa means harp.
I understand that the nyckelharpa is an ancient Swedish instrument!?
The oldest picture of a nyckelharpa is a stone carving on a church in Sweden dating 1350. Most of the evidence of this instrument is to be found in Sweden but there are also a few pictures found in our neighbour countries and one old picture was recently discovered in Italy. But all living tradition regarding playing and making this instrument is connected to the nyckelharpa players and makers in the region of Uppland in Sweden. It is in Uppland where it has been developed and played throughout the centuries.
Though the nyckelharpa is played beyond Uppland by now ...
There are thousands of players in Sweden, and in the last years it has started to spread out in the world, so now there are players and even makers in many countries, even if it's still a very unusual instrument outside of Sweden.
Back to your own story. You got your own instrument then?
My mother bought a nyckelharpa for herself from a friend of the familly who was a maker. I sort of took that over from her and learned it faster than her. The first tunes I learned from my uncle, but very soon I met Curt Tallroth, a highly respected player of nyckelharpa and fiddle. He was one of the best old players in our region Uppland, and it was through him I learned all the tunes and stories, roughly speaking. Knowing the repertoire of Curt Tallroth I met Mikael Marin on a spelmansstämma (fiddler's meeting) in Uppsala when I was about 16 years old. He knew the same tunes and had a similar style to them. He had studied with Curt's older brother Ivar, who I also met and played with a bit later on.
How Väsen came about?
Mikael and I were the same age and had this common repertoire from the start. I started to play small gigs and dances together with Curt Tallroth who guided me into the world of traditional music in Uppland and Sweden. Mikael and I also played together as a duo and took turns in playing the tunes and improvising the second voices. We even put out a cassette together.
You still had to find Roger Tallroth ...
Both Mikael and I had met Roger Tallroth as a fiddle and guitar player, coming from the next village from where I grew up. But it was not until 1989 when Roger and I sat jamming with nyckelharpa and guitar and someone who sat listening said - "this is the best I ever heard, I want to put out a record with this!" That was Olle Paulsson, founder of Drone Music. A couple of months after this jam he called me and asked if I had any other offer about recording? No, I said. Ok, then I'm going to start one, he said. So we decided to do a recording, myself, Roger and Mikael. That LP, CD and cassette got the name Väsen and then we took that as a band's name.
What have been your influences and inspirations? Your musical vision?
Our main influences when we started were the traditional players we learned from and the really swinging music they played. There wasn't any other band around with our line-up. When we started to rehearse for the first CD I chose to use my different nyckelharpas and not the fiddle so much. Roger played the guitar and Mikael started using the viola since that fitted in so well inbetween the nyckelharpa and the guitar. The sound and the music we made together at those first rehearsals made us so happy. We were really pleased with the ringing strings and the full sound we could make on these three instruments.
Our inspiration were the traditional tunes and the way they were played by the best traditional players, together with all the music we have ever heard growing up. Also to build our own version of this music with this new set-up was really a fun process. Our vision was just playing the music we wanted to play and hoping people would enjoy it. I also think that the combination of the three different persons with different skills in music but still with a common ground was very important and inspirational.
Did the attitude to your music change in these 25 years? Is "Mindset" different to past releases?
Our music has become much more our own over the years. It's much more Väsen music than anything else. We are mostly playing original music these days because we have learned to compose new material that challenge and inspire the other members of the band. We have gone through many phases and stages over the last 25 years, so it's too much to tell you about all of them. I'd say that our latest album Mindset is reflecting where the band stands right now.
We have learned many things over the years about what makes Väsen's music special and we have tried to put that on the recording, and I think we have done that better than ever. Väsen is like a band with three soloists, playing three solos at the same time but still considering what the others are playing all the time. There is no one more important than the others. The interaction and the togetherness is the most important thing for us.
Looking back, what do you think has been your greatest success?
Our greatest sucess is that we still are able to play together after 25 years and can play the music we like to play and that people all over the world seem to be able to create a taste for our quirky "Väsen-Music". We are playing and working more than ever and we feel very fortunate to be able to do this.
What do you think of the folk music scene in Sweden and abroad today?
The folk music scene in Sweden and in many other countries as well is very rich with many young hard-working bands. The scene is always changing though and it's hard to keep track of everything that is happening. Here's a few other Swedish bands and artists worth checking out: MP3, Navarra and Lena Willemark.
There is a life besides Väsen. Would you tell us a little about it?
Scottish harpist Catriona McKay and I put out a new CD last year called The Auld Harp. We have been playing quite a bit last and this year both in Sweden and UK. We have really fun making music together. There isn't any new recording planned right now, the time we can find together in our busy schedules we still enjoy playing the material from The Auld Harp. But I'm sure we will make new music together within a year or so.
I'm also working as the artistic director for a small festival at the Eric Sahlström Institute, Akustiskt i Tobo. A really nice and small festival with only acoustic music. No microphones or cables in sight. Just music, artists and audience. It has been in late May and this year we had Sonia Sahlström & Håkan Larsson, Stockholm Lisboa Project, Liz Carroll and Magnus and Sophia Stinnerbom.
Is there anything new in the pipeline? Especially any plans to celebrate the 25th anniversary?
We'll have a big concert on 25th October 2014 in the Concert House in Uppsala, our home town. Many musical guests are invited and it's going to be great fun. If you haven't been to Uppsala or Sweden and if you are interested in Väsen's music and traditional Swedish music this is the time to book your tickets. It's a big spelmansstämma (fiddler's meeting) with concerts, jamming and dancing and also the big Väsen 25 år concert.
By the way, we are also doing a tour of Germany and a little bit of Switzerland in September 2014.
You can find the confirmed dates @ www.artes-konzertbuero.de. Tack så mycket, Olov!
Photo Credits: (1) Väsen, (6) Olov Johansson & Catriona McKay, (7) Mia & Mikael Marin (unknown/website); (2) Nyckelharpas from Ana Alcaide & Renzo Ruggiero (by Pio Fernandez); (3)-(5) Olov Johansson (by The Mollis).