Swedish pop-R&B singer-songwriter Thea Gustafsson didn’t mean to leave two years between the release of her debut EP as Becky and The Birds and its follow-up, Trasslig. She had a full set of demos recorded, and she was ready to record and release them before dropping her external hard drive and losing everything. “There was no way I could get it back,” she says now over the phone from her home in Stockholm. “It was just completely lost. I almost felt there must be a meaning to that. It was good that that thing happened. But there's so many songs that I'm actually mourning. I'm grieving over them.”
The one song that did survive those demo sessions was “Paris,” premiering on The FADER, which Gustafsson found by accident when scrolling through a text conversation with a friend weeks later. Now it’s Trasslig’s centerpiece, a hazy mix of pitched-up vocals, rangey bass, and angelic, compressed woodwind. It is, however, an anxious song, Gustafsson explains, about hypochondria, anxiety, and loneliness. “At a hotel in Paris, I thought I’d be at ease,” she sings, barely recognizable in the Auto-Tine, “but a peace couldn’t find me.”
Listen to “Paris” below in advance of Trasslig’s full release via 4AD on June 12, and read our interview with Gustafsson after the jump.
Obviously losing your demos was difficult. What’s changed for you in the two years between these two EPs?
When I started with the first EP, I didn't know if I could produce, and I was hesitant to call myself a producer. It felt strange to me. So coming into the second EP, it was completely the other way around. I felt very confident in my production skills, but was getting a bit tired [of] my vocals instead. I found a way to merge the two, and realized I could be both a singer and producer at the same time. I'm more confident in my sound; I knew what I liked and what I didn't like. And I knew that it was okay to not know everything — that you just work your way around it. When you've done something once, the second time around you've got some tools.
On “Paris” you seem to be in control of that production.
It’s weird, because the “Paris” version I’m releasing right now is basically the demo version. I remember I was still unsure about if I would keep my vocals like that or if I would have them in my regular voice. I remember having to take a step back from it and just let that be. Little did I know that I would drop the hard drive and that that would be gone. I completely forgot about that song until I found it. It had had such a long time just resting, I had forgotten about it.
Where did the song come from initially?
I was in Paris by myself for work, a writing camp, so we were supposed to really have fun. But I had these intense chest pains. Now I know that that was probably stress, but I didn't know that back at the time, so I was there and I was calling my boyfriend constantly telling him I was so scared. I was in my hotel room by myself, scared and anxious, I knew that he got annoyed with me just being a hypochondriac. But I just felt like telling the whole hypochondriac story in a song felt pretty lame. I tried to capture the feelings that I felt — it just came out, it flew out of me, which was great.
Have you dealt with hypochondria a lot over the years?
It comes and goes. In my songs, I want to project the fact that, as a woman, you could be strong and at the same time you could be vulnerable; you could be funny and happy and still feel sad. You don't need to be put in a box. I think that a lot of women feel like they have to be one of those things. Either you're a cold bitch or you're too sensitive to do anything. I feel like I'm so much of all these things. I could be a boss and I could be very hard on some subjects and say exactly what I think, but I could also be very sensitive and loving and vulnerable. With being a hypochondriac, I'm very open about that because that's also one thing. I could feel strong and be powerful, and at the same time [I could] worry about my health, worry that I’m sick.
The instinct for a lot of people with a song about anxiety would be to make something that sounds very abrasive or high tempo. Why did you go with something so delicate on "Paris"?
I think I'm just raised very delicately. Everything that I've been listening to my whole life has been delicate and vulnerable. And when I'm in a state like that, when I feel alone or when I feel vulnerable, I don't want to dwell on stuff. I don't like to dig deep into my anxiety. I feel very light, but I'm also extremely open with my feelings. When I feel something, instead of going away from it, I like to just face it — I like to be there for a short period of time and then just move on. So I think writing a song about that and being in that state for a little while helps me to just work through it in order to be able to completely let it go.
With that in mind, why pitch your voice up here?
On this one I think it was because I was so tired of my own vocals. But that has developed a second meaning, and I think that's a subliminal choice for me too. When I feel vulnerable, immediately I tend to make my voice a little lighter — or just fuck it up a little bit so that it sounds even more vulnerable. Younger, basically. And also, since I'm doing everything myself, I definitely could bring in another singer. But I feel like I often have such a clear vision of exactly what it is that I want, that I usually just do it myself and then I make the vocals sound like I want them to. So I try as far as I can to just do it myself. I'm a one man band.