A Norwegian television show recently took Jenny Wilson to a carpentry studio to film her performing “Wooden Chair,” the first single from her new album, Hardships. To approximate the album’s heaps of organized patter, the song’s instruments were translated into dowels and rubber mallets. Before wandering the open room, Wilson sat with solid posture wearing a crooked beret and bright blue eye shadow. Both of my feet wanna march right out of the room, she sang. It’s like a steaming fever and I don’t feel fine/ I wanna leave you baby but our veins are entwined. When the song ended, she laughed.
I listened to Jenny Wilson’s albums in reverse chronological order, and to be totally honest, I wasn’t really that into her first solo record. But she says her eight-year-old son likes that one better than the splendid Hardships. “He’s not so impressed with my new album, actually. He was like ‘I thought Love and Youth was much better,’ and I was like, ‘What the fuck are you telling your mama?’” It could be that he doesn’t like the spotlight, as much of Hardships’ lyrics focus on Wilson’s personal difficulties and triumphs in motherhood. She’s a Swedish Minnie Riperton, all sultry heartache and gritty fight. Still, it’s not so much a critical decision between the two records as an aesthetic choice. Love and Youth is a smooth, professional album, whereas Hardships blossoms because Wilson abandoned solid rock structure, letting clattering R&B narrate the songs.
Over the phone from Stockholm, Wilson sings the title line from Whitney Houston’s 1999 single “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” and cites that song’s use of kalimba—a thumb piano—as inspiration. I’ve heard that song hundreds of times and never noticed the kalimba, but subliminally, I knew it was there. Hardships’ cloaked rhythms are rewarding for that reason—cobbled together piecemeal from xylophone, dulcimer, viola, bass clarinet and various drum programming, all composed by Wilson—but it’s her cascading over this tight puzzle that stands out. It’s not so much that the instrumentation is secondary, it’s that it’s an appropriately modest supporting cast to her voice’s very bright star.
Wilson is already well known in Scandinavia, having just completed a sold out tour for Hardships’ European release. As of now, she plans to release the album in the US in the early fall and hopefully tour afterwards. For whatever reason, the American accolades heaped on her Swedish peers The Knife, Robyn and Lykke Li elude her. It may be because her dazzle is less obvious. Before hanging up and returning to dinner, Wilson qualifies the interview. “I haven’t spoken to an American guy for a long time, so it feels like Ohhh, my words. I haven’t got enough words for what I really want to express,” she says. “There are so many extra colors that I can’t really express.” Then, as if to prove her mettle, she says she writes her lyrics with a dictionary.
Stream: Jenny Wilson, Hardships