Somehow, a glitch in the universe caused me to miss the May release of Imaginations, Molly Nilsson’s most recent album. I didn’t hear it until the summer, but when I did, my whole year changed. The record’s sound — a poetic, antisocial mix of shadowy synths, disheveled percussion, and her signature contralto — is very much aligned with the music she's been self-releasing since 2008. But, as she explained over the phone from her apartment in Berlin, she is always gathering new tools with which to craft her dark pop hooks, and she’s definitely honed her storytelling skills, too.
On the album’s penultimate track, “Theory Of Life,” Molly sings over some fuzz and piercing keys. “I could have died right then and there / But an angel pulled my hair / She said, ‘Do all you dare and you'll be just fine.’” It’s a stirring image, referring to the healing capacity of both friendship and music. Later, she hits the town “with a soda and campari / I feel like Mata Hari in the night / I love the trouble.” It makes me really want to spend an evening with her along the Spree, looking for mischief.
In light of our flaming mess of a political landscape, the songs on Imaginations are also imbued with some curiously optimistic life lessons. The shuffling, fluorescent-sounding “Not Today Satan” is full of tips for existing in 2017: “Don’t be sad but do get mad / At all the small men who act so tall / In the end they always fall.” And “Let’s Talk About Privileges” does just what its title suggests; it’s a good example of what Molly has always attempted to do with her music — pinpoint some kind of hidden tension, then unpack, expand, and investigate it.
Imaginations is without a doubt one of my favorite albums of 2017, mainly because of the way Molly’s spellbinding narratives make me feel understood and hopeful. Because of this, I wanted to know how her year had been, if she was still living her best life in a hopeless-seeming 2017. Turns out, she’s doing great, and is — as I suspected — one of the coolest, most inquisitive people I’ve spoken to in recent memory. We talked about birthday parties, learning new languages, and 20/20 vision, and it put a little faith in my heart.
How has your day been?
MOLLY NILSSON: It’s been kind of strange, actually. My boyfriend came over and we decided we were going to fix some things in the shower, and basically, by unscrewing the screw in the drain, we opened this path of problems. It’s really hard to get a plumber on a Friday afternoon, so we had to go through this journey of learning how plumbing works. It was quite scary at times. I really gained a lot of respect for plumbing. You look at things from underneath and you see how they really work. It’s fascinating.
Not to be a nerd, but that reminds me of my favorite passage from Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom is thinking about how the water got to his kitchen sink.
I have a lot of respect for water. I’m a fire sign, and in my horoscopes there’s often a warning about plumbing and water. I had my apartment flooded once from rain water, and it was disastrous. I really don’t mess with water.
So you’re into astrology?
A couple of years ago I got slavishly into astrology and it did really help me at the time. I only take the good stuff, and that’s why it’s really fun. Sometimes it’s a way of putting things into perspective. Any way you can find magic or mysticism in life, it usually gives you something.
Your birthday’s coming up! You’re a Sagittarius, like me. Do you have birthday celebrations?
Never. One of my best friends has a birthday on the same day as mine, so I go to her party and cash in on being at a birthday party but not having to throw it. I like what they mean to me, but I’m not so into celebrating them. I feel the same way about New Year’s Eve. I celebrate them in my way, but I wouldn’t really go to a party to celebrate it. It would seem so, I don’t know, sacrilegious.
The older you get, the years start blending together. I have this new rule where I have to be in a new place for my birthday, so that I can be like, Oh, that year, when I was there. This year I’m going to Vienna because they’re gonna ban smoking in 2018. At this point you can still smoke in restaurants, which I think is very luxurious in a way. There’s something about putting out your cigarette in a wienerschnitzel. It’s just incredible.
“There’s something about putting out your cigarette in a wienerschnitzel. It’s just incredible.”
What’s your brand?
I smoke Marlboro. Mollyboro. I’m not a picky smoker — it’s the cheapest. I used to smoke this brand called Next, which I think is a really funny name because it really implies you’re gonna be chain-smoking. But then they started calling it Chesterfield, and the price went up. So the last year I’ve been stuck with Mollyboro. But I brought a bunch of cigarettes from China and they’re so beautiful. They have great names like “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”
You’ve been travelling all year, basically. What is your favorite place that you’ve ever been?
Tokyo and Hong Kong made a really big impression on me. I think they’re the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Places are like people, and there are so many different things you can look for. Some places are spectacular or beautiful. Some places are more fun. Some places just taste better.
I would like to get to know a place as well as I know Berlin again in my life, but I haven’t figured out where that would be. I guess it’s something that will just happen, if it happens.
Looking back, how was your 2017 in general?
I like having a birthday in December, because you get to have your birthday and the new year put together. This year started off sort of strange. I was waiting for a release in January, but it got pushed back to May. It was like a limbo, where I had to kick myself into new things while waiting. I made myself some promises that I would learn a lot this year, and I did learn a lot of different things, but in completely different ways than I expected. Even just today I learned about plumbing.
Today I was thinking about how if I compare 2017 with 2015, my feeling is very different about everything. I remember how 2015 seemed like a very tough year at the time. The cool thing is that I think that this year has not been any easier — it’s been a tough year in different ways, in the world — but there are all these new tools to deal with what’s going on. If I compare with one year ago: Trump being elected, it seemed as if something died. Now that is one year behind us, I find we’re dealing with the reality of [the consequences of the election]. I find that today is not a better world, but dealing with the world is better. I feel very positive about that. It’s been great to find those tools. They’re gonna be very good to have.
When did you write Imaginations? Was it informed by recent global events?
I wrote it in the first half of 2016. When I started it, I thought I would be making a completely different album. I changed a lot during that time. When I was writing the songs I didn’t think of them as being more political than anything I’d been writing before. I was focusing a lot on lyrics, and I was very interested in being outspoken and taking exact moments and describing them. The tone seems more political, but I think it is also very personal — the two things are obviously hard to separate. For instance, “Privileges”: 2016 was a year where everyone had to start thinking a lot more about privileges. But I also realized that my own privileges were changing, and so they were easier for me to see. When I started thinking about my privileges, I was thinking about, What is a privilege? What makes privileges so complicated and difficult to see in yourself, until they change?
You’ve always done everything yourself, from releases to booking to merch, and more. Why?
I ask myself that too, sometimes. When I started I figured, No one else is going to do this for me, I gotta do it myself. Part of me enjoys every part of the process. It’s like I’m selling lemonade. Like, Ah, today was a good day! Even if I’m not recording a song. I’m so invested in this that it would be hard for someone else to step in. [Doing it myself] also slows things down. It prevents things from getting out of hand or losing the contact between what it is — which is the music — and everything else about the shows and records. It doesn’t become a product, because it’s all one thing.
Are there drawbacks to that kind of DIY lifestyle?
When I was putting out “Let’s Talk About Privileges,” I got a lot of shit [in the form of nasty YouTube comments calling her an “SJW” and “a virtue-signaling artist”]. This was the first time this [kind of attack] ever happened to me — it’s surprising it didn’t happen to me before, especially as this is something women who are out in media and being in the public deal with. I felt really isolated. In that sense, I wished some wall of people would just step in and I could crawl back into bed. But I had to face everything on my own. In the end, I guess, that’s what life is.
I don’t feel like I have the scene or the creative attachments, so I might be missing out on collaborations, since I’m sort of on my own island. But it’s also just the way I am. I don’t see how I could be doing this, and writing these songs, without being who I am. It’s this thing where you realize that everything you hate about yourself is the reason for everything you love about yourself. You just have to accept that.
How do you feel about your evolution as an artist at this point in your life?
Zenith, which I put out in 2015, was definitely a peak for me, at the time. After that I was like, Ah, it’s going to be really tough. But I also wanted to make it really tough for myself. ‘Cause that’s just how I roll. With this year behind me, and all these new tools and new perspectives, I’m really excited about the next step. I’m thinking about how to start over. I have some grand ideas. It’s definitely not a new chapter — it’s a new book. I’m really excited for this new book.
“Everything you hate about yourself is the reason for everything you love about yourself. You just have to accept that.”
I’m looking forward to 2018, too. It’s a leap year, right? Oops, no — that’s 2020.
I’m really excited for 2020. One night on tour we were stranded at the airport in Tokyo. We were sleeping on benches. Japan has the Olympics in 2020, so everywhere there’s big signs: “2020!” It got into my dreams. I started thinking about 20:20 vision, and it really inspired me. Knowing now that it’s also a leap year is fantastic.
How’s your eyesight?
I have very bad vision. It even surprised me I could see those advertisements.
Do you wear contacts or glasses?
Neither. As a teenager I was supposed to get glasses, but I don’t like the feeling of having something physically on my nose. So I never got into wearing glasses. At some point I realized I don’t mind things that are far away being blurry and only seeing things that are close to me. Whenever I wear glasses I feel like I see too much, and there’s too much information.
It’s interesting that you say there’s “too much information,” especially because you like to learn. Why is that?
If I started wearing glasses my eyes and my brain would adjust to it, and suddenly I wouldn’t be able to not wear them. But because I never wear glasses, I know my sites. Sometimes friends bump into me on the street and they’re waving when they’re like, one meter in front of me. I can only recognize my friends by their movements. The only time I wish I had glasses is when I’m traveling and I’m at a train station or an airport and you have to read signs to get somewhere.
This year, one of the things I was interested in learning was learning to drive. Obviously, when you’re driving, you really need to have glasses. Maybe when that happens I’ll do that. So far, I really like my sight, the way things look to me. I don’t need to see everything. I don’t need my vision to be like internet, you know?
Did you end up learning how to drive?
It turned out to be so complicated. I started learning Chinese instead. I figured, Are cars the future? I don’t believe so. And I love trains, I even kind of like buses. I also love being a passenger [in a car]. I’m a really good passenger; I never fall asleep, I put on good music, and I chat. I figured that maybe in life I am not the driver, I am the passenger. But I can look out the window and have a drink.
I decided to learn Chinese because what I was interested in was the language of driving, and the communication that happens in traffic. In the beginning I was like, It’s impossible, I could never learn Chinese. But once I got into it, I realized that everything that every human being does I can do, too, if I just give it some time, and I’m interested in it. Even plumbing.