The Swedish new wavers were supposed to be touring the U.S. right now, but instead Maja Ivarsson brings us greetings from her home in Sweden.
Swedish indie new wave rock group The Sounds were supposed to be touring America right now – but because of pandemic-induced cancellations, front person Maja Ivarsson is instead calling from her home in Sweden, with her five-year-old son pleading for ice cream as she answers questions.
“He keeps me very grounded,” Ivarsson says of her son. “He’s my worst critic, too! It’s good, it’s healthy to have a little kid telling you you’re not all that, and at the same time, loving you more than anybody else.” Becoming a good mother, she says, has been “my biggest motivation in life – for him to have a fair start in life.”
Ivarsson admits that she wasn’t always this responsible. When The Sounds first became famous with their 2002 debut album, Living in America, she went down the same hedonistic path that many young rock stars do. “I was living a very crazy life in my twenties. It was very self-destructive in many ways. Coming out of that and being able to have a very structured, normal life today is a way for me to be able to write about those years instead of living in that chaos. I can now analyze it and write about it.”
Ivarsson’s latest songwriting is on display on Things We Do for Love, the band’s sixth studio album, which is being released on June 12. The album features the kind of deft, catchy New Wave-inspired rock that has earned them comparisons to the likes of Blondie and Missing Persons – but with a powerful, modern sound all their own.
But, Ivarsson says, this distinctive sound hasn’t been something that they’ve deliberately pursued. “We never really had any plan or blueprint on how we wanted a record to sound or how we want a song to come about,” she says. “I usually think it feels like the song writes itself, and I try to hold on to whatever vibe it’s going for. Like, if a song takes off in a certain direction, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that sounds so cool,’ and go with that flow instead of trying to be like, ‘This was supposed to be a ballad – why is it now an uptempo song?’ If the song wants to go somewhere, I think it’s important to follow your creativity.”
This unique Sounds style has remained consistent across all of their albums, even though different band members have taken the lead on songwriting for each release. “It’s been going in cycles,” Ivarsson says. “I used to write a lot on the first and second records, and then Jesper [Anderberg, keyboardist/guitarist] and Felix [Rodriguez, guitarist] wrote a lot. Now it’s going back to me and Fredrik [Blond, drummer] writing a lot of the stuff, and Felix, as well.” (Bassist Johan Richter rounds out the lineup, which as remained intact since the band’s formation in 1998.)
Changing things up with the writing process, Ivarsson says, “keeps it more interesting. It’s been very fortunate to have more than one songwriter in the band. It keeps the energy going.” And, she adds, this was a successful approach right from the start: “I think we were writing really good songs from the beginning – we had great chemistry. It’s like it was meant to be when the five of us met. It was like magic happened.”
Even with their natural talent, it was no mean feat making it out of their relatively small hometown of Helsingborg, Sweden. Ivarsson credits a crucial decision with making all the difference in their ensuing career. “A lot of bands, especially during the late ‘90s, were so influenced by other bands, so it was so easy to get stuck into [being] a cover band,” she says of Helsingborg’s music scene. “But very early on, we decided to write own songs. And people in our hometown liked them, and we sent cassettes to record labels and got a publishing deal right away.”
Ivarsson says it also helped that they didn’t sound like other bands. “When we started out, there was a lot of shoegazing and Britpop era things. [But] we rediscovered the New Wave scene, so we started with synthesizers and electronic elements, which was quite new at the time. We were 18 or 19 [years old] when we wrote Living in America, then the record came out when we were in our early twenties.”
Now, with Things We Do for Love, that same innovative instinct is still there, even as the songs firmly fit in with the rest of The Sounds catalog. Ivarsson says this is a natural evolution. “You have a different perspective on life in general when you’re 40 compared to being a teenager. I guess we get a little bit more nostalgic – and you get better at your instrument or singing.”
Their songwriting skills have earned The Sounds an unusually loyal following – and Ivarsson says that affection is definitely reciprocated: “I’ve always been very respectful toward my fans because I think there’s no worse thing than artists who look down on their audience and think they’re not as intelligent or as cool as you are. I would be nothing without my fans.
“I also try to make every show the best show I possibly can, and I want to make the audience feel like they’re connected to me,” Ivarsson continues. “I want us to develop energy together so that we feel like we belong together and can make this night even better.”
Ivarsson’s has been widely praised for her charismatic, energetic performance style, which also seems to play a large part in endearing The Sounds to fans. But, she says, this was not a calculated move. “It’s not a costume I put on,” she says of her onstage persona. “It’s something that happens to me when I play music. I get crazy and wild and energetic. I love being up on stage. I’m never nervous. I don’t have any stage fright. It’s quite the opposite. I get very excited and happy about being there.”
Despite her apparent natural talent for it, Ivarsson says that fronting a band was not something she’d originally envisioned for herself: “I never had any dreams about becoming a singer.” Instead, she says she started out playing the French horn, then guitar. She met her future bandmates when they all were in different groups in the local scene, and only then realized that she wanted to be the frontwoman: “I just wanted to be the center of attention! I wanted all eyes on me!” she says with a laugh.
Now, with touring on hold until the pandemic eases, Ivarsson says she misses performing, but she isn’t letting this time go to waste. “I’ve been in the studio every day. I think we have 20, 30 more songs now. So that’s a good thing. I think we’ll be able to record a lot more songs during this period of time.”
As Ivarsson gets off the call (so she can grant her son’s request for ice cream), she has some encouraging parting words for the fans who are disappointed about not seeing The Sounds in concert this spring: “Tell our East Coast and New York fans that we miss them terribly. But my message is that it’s going to be a hell of a party when things are opening up again and I’m back in town! Count on it!”