Years before it took place, Molly Nilsson had a special feeling about 2020. Speaking to Leah Mandel for The FADER in 2017, the Swedish-born songwriter and producer recounted the feelings that arose in her during a night spent in Tokyo airport, surrounded by signs anticipating the city’s 2020 Olympics: “I’m really excited for 2020,” she said at the time. “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.”
The year after that interview, Nilsson released Twenty Twenty, her eighth and best album to date. A vivid, sparkling world unto itself, Twenty Twenty proved indelible, its windswept pop songs slowly taking on the redolence of modern classics in the time since its release. Songs like “Every Night Is New” and “A Slice Of Lemon,” glamorous anthems about the thrill and terror of living in late-capitalist end times, were given new gravity over the past year, as the monotony of isolation collided with a frenetic and ever-changing political climate, and as structures of authority governance began to melt like ice in a glass. As the haze of 2020 gave way to unbridled nihilism, Twenty Twenty’s biggest hook began to feel like gospel: “I don’t care if the world is through / Every night is new.”
Speaking to Nilsson in the first days of 2021, she seems optimistic about the year ahead, and confident that the devastation of 2020 wasn’t for nothing. “Even with everything that happened, I don't think 2020 was a bad year,” she tells me, her speaking voice a deep, Swedish-accented drawl not unlike her singing voice. “People probably find that really provoking to say, but I think that everything that was difficult about the year were things that have been happening for decades, or centuries, and they had brought us to this point where [we had] to confront all these issues.”
For Nilsson, much of the year has involved thinking more about the tangible world around her, and the kind of change she can affect while not touring. “I sort of used to see myself as someone who’s out in the world and sort of belonging everywhere and free to move about,” she explains, “And now, I'm much more focused on my immediate surroundings, and the city I live in, and the community here, and how I can contribute to doing things better where I am.” In all, she is still an optimist, and probably always will be: “I don't have a choice.”
Speaking over the phone from her home in Berlin, Nilsson opened up about her year — from her two-week journey on a cargo ship to New York, to lockdown in Berlin — as well as her hopes for the year ahead, her feelings about Spotify’s business practices and the infiltration of private equity funds into the music industry, and more.
The FADER: How was your 2020 — did you have tours planned? How did the pandemic affect your income and career?
Molly Nilsson: It definitely affected my entire idea of what I do for a living. I'm a songwriter, so a lot of my work is to write songs or record songs, and I can do that anywhere at any time. But a big part of the inspiration or the outcome of what I do is touring and traveling and meeting people and performing and playing shows. All of that was pulled away very quickly. At first, I didn't think it would last this long. And it was strange, but I'm very good at adapting to new realities. And so I can't say that it's been that difficult for me, because I just had to change my mindset about how I spend my time and what my life looks like. So I feel like I'm very fortunate in that sense, obviously, I think, in comparison to people who [lost their jobs, or] are employees and lost their workplaces.
The only thing I felt that really changed for me in regards to music was not going to shows. I don't care so much about playing my own shows — I do it because it's a big part of me interacting with listeners and people around the world — but I really miss going to shows, and [the pandemic] really changed my relationship to music. At first, I wasn't even really able to listen to music at all, because it just made me sad. It wasn't until this fall that I could get out of that feeling of loss and rediscover listening in different ways and, you know, have dance parties by myself.
You say you’re someone who puts a lot of stock in the future. How does that work in a time like now, when it’s harder than ever to conceptualise the future?
It’s kind of like the moment you wake up, but you don't know where you are. And it's terrifying, but exciting. For a moment, you're like, ‘Where am I?’ I guess it's freeing my mind from a lot of concepts. Normally, I would sit and make imaginary plans for the future, and I would base them on past years and be like, ‘I'll do this, and then I'll do that, and then I'll go there and do this.’ Now I don't know. I guess little by little I'll figure out how to do things. I feel like I have definitely been radicalized the past year, [in terms of] how much I want to give, and what I want my life to be about, and what I feel like my purpose is. I'm excited about finding ways to manifest [that].
“I have the energy and mental and physical power to serve the things I believe in. I want to really serve the world.”
Can you expand on that? What do you want your life to be about, and how much do you want to give?
When I imagined 2020, I thought ‘Maybe 2020 is going to be, for me personally, a year when something really crazy happens that I can't foresee.’ I was like, ‘Maybe I get married, maybe I get pregnant, or maybe I die.’ And so I'm not pregnant, I'm not married, and I'm not dead. So that feels like my slogan for 2021.
I like the idea of being like, ‘I'm free, I'm alive.’ I have the energy and mental and physical power to serve the things I believe in. I feel like I have a lot to give. I have a lot of ideas, and I want to help other people who want to do things if I can help them. I want to really serve the world. I know that's vague, but I also don't want to say too much, because it's dangerous to say too much about what you're going to do before you do it.
At the beginning of the pandemic there was a lot of moving around, and people wanting to be close to their loved ones. Did you ever have any impulse to leave Berlin?
Not really. I generally move around a lot, and I felt like this is not the time. In 2019, I had made a plan to not fly unless I really had to, and it didn't seem reasonable for me to travel in any other way either, so I didn't mind staying put. Normally I would go visit my family maybe once or twice a year, but it's been more than a year now. I've been keeping in touch. [It feels like] back in the day when I first moved to Berlin — I wouldn't go home to visit very often because it was such a long bus ride. There weren't any cheap airlines back then, so it would take 30 hours, and how often do you want to take a [30 hour] bus? When I go across town, [now], it's very exciting. It feels like I'm going to Paris or something. Because I spend so much time at home it becomes an event in itself. I guess you have to lower your bar for what travel is.
Why weren’t you planning on flying much anymore?
I've flown enormously much in my life. I started playing shows internationally in 2011, so it's been 10 years of a lot of flying, and my footprint on the sky is deep and not good. I don't think that [environmental responsibility is entirely] up to every consumer. Although I do believe in the impact of consumers, I do believe that this is also about politics, where we also need to subsidize the trains, and the rail rather than the airlines so that it's more reasonable to take trains than flying. I understand that people fly more because it's cheaper. But I just realized that I had to change the way I travel. It’s very possible to [take the train around Europe], rather than taking a flight to London for one night. So I just made a new policy for myself that I wouldn't fly unless I really had to.
In 2019, I went to Egypt, and I went to Australia and New Zealand, and these are places I couldn't take a train to, so I decided that it was worth the flight, and tried to balance it out in my mind that it's also important to go places. [I now] try to stay longer when I do go places by air. The last trip I made was to New York, in January a year ago. I took a cargo boat over, which I thought was an amazing experience, and I think it's something I would do again, if I'm traveling to the U.S. I'm just trying to change my lifestyle, because it's not possible to live the way I live, and I'm trying to do my bit.
Travelling on a cargo ship to the U.S. sounds wild, can you tell me a little about it?
From Antwerp, in Belgium, to New York was two weeks. You go first to Liverpool, and then [we] went over to Halifax, Canada, and then down to New York. Being January, there were a lot of storms — not the worst storms, but for me It was quite rough at times. I went with my partner at the time, and it was really interesting, because it was just two weeks at sea. We didn't have internet, obviously, or newspapers or whatever, so we didn't know what was going on in the world. We had this fantasy that when we arrived in New York, we would buy a newspaper and read some fantastic news, like, for example, that their president resigned or something even better — resigned from life. But when we arrived, the only news we found was about the coronavirus. At the time, it was still mostly a thing going on in Wuhan — I think there were a few cases like in the States and maybe a few in Italy, but it didn't seem as dramatic as it became.
It was a very interesting experience, being at sea — you're so connected to the whole world, because [the water] connects all the land, so you really feel like you don't need internet, because you're just like, physically surfing. It was fantastic.
Twenty Twenty, the album, is about renewal. Did you find that last year?
Yes. The year before, I got really frustrated with myself and my life, my work. I got really sick of being a musician. I decided to myself, ‘I'm taking a break for a year, figuring out what I want to do, maybe I want to do something completely different with my life, maybe I'm done with this, maybe I came as far as I could, or should.’ Just when I was coming back to music, and realizing that this actually was what I wanted to do — and I do want to spend at least 10 more years doing this — this pause happened. So I was a little bit unprepared for another interruption. But it did really cement what I had already concluded to myself, [and] it also gave me more time to work on things I want to work on. But I do feel like my life is permanently changed, and I think I thrive in that kind of change. It’s the worst thing for me when things are just sort of going on, going on, and there's no change of situation.
I think 2020 has definitely shook up the status quo in the world. As much as a lot of people would like to ignore that and just go back to normal, that's not going to happen, and we just have to make sure that what we go into is going forward, something better.
“Spotify is that sketchy pizza place that’s never open — you’re like, do they actually make pizza? They pretend they’re a music platform, but all they’re doing is collecting data.”
2020 was very significant for the way music began to be more deeply intertwined with tech, with Spotify announcing all these new ‘features’ and services that are actually quite ethically dark. You’ve been quite critical of streaming in the past — what’s your view on it at this juncture?
As I see it, Spotify is like, a front. To me, they're that sketchy pizza place that's never open — you're like, do they actually make pizza, what do they do in there? Spotify pretend they're a music platform, but all they're doing is collecting data. That's the only thing they care about, and they just want you to share things so that they can spread their network, their little spider web of data. We all know by now that data is more valuable than gold, and [their users] are just gold mines for them. This is a bizarre development that I just did not foresee — when I started being really annoyed with the streaming thing, it had more to do with the musical aspect, which I still think is problematic, because it changes the way people listen to music or why [they] listen to music or what music is being made and how it's being made. But that's another thing.
This is a difficult thing to tackle when you are not able to go out and play your gigs and meet in DIY spaces and have an underground growing. What I thought was going to happen more [in 2020] was [that we would] have a stronger underground, because I think that's the only way we can combat the mainstream, because the mainstream, it's like, it's not even mainstream. They could be selling anything and it just happens to be music. One thing that I found really strange these past weeks was seeing how a lot of big artists are selling their catalogs. I don't know if you saw that Bob Dylan [sold his catalog], Dolly Parton has talked about selling her catalog. And Neil Young, too. [Ed. Note: Dylan has sold his catalog to Universal Music for an estimated $300 million, while Young sold his catalog to the independent publishing house Hipgnosis Music, which also owns the work of Lindsay Buckingham and Jimmy Iovine. Parton has made allusions to the fact that she may be selling her highly valued, thousands-strong catalog as she begins estate planning.]
It’s made me very worried about the future of music, because I wonder what will happen when big corporations own catalogs so that they can claim the work of other artists in the future. Because basically, if you copyright a song, you could just keep suing every new song that sounds anything like it and get a percentage, so that eventually these corporations will own all music in the whole world. I hope I'm not alive by then. I mean, maybe something that will happen in like, 100 years. But it’s something we really need to reform, because copyright laws are meant to protect an artist or a writer, whoever created the work, but now it's starting to be that they just protect the assets of corporations. That needs to be reformed, because it’s not what the intention of those laws were.
You do everything yourself, and you’ve built up a significant following without label backing or a team. Do you still think you’d be able to do that if you started now, 12 years later?
When I started out, it seemed like social media and PR was sort of voluntary, and you could do that if you wanted to, [but] it depended on your own ideas of your art. Today, it almost seems like it's mandatory, and that it would be hard to reach through everything going on. For example, when I put out Twenty Twenty, it wasn't on Spotify. I remember people asking me like, ‘Well, where is it if it's not on Spotify?’ I realized that maybe today, people don't know where to go for music if it’s not on Spotify. Maybe Spotify now for music is what Kleenex is for tissue. And that was really depressing, because, of course, I don't even expect people to go to the record store anymore. But I guess not even going to YouTube or Discogs, or I don't know, Bandcamp… It was just this one app [for them], and if it's not there, it doesn't even exist. At the time, I just felt like ‘Well, in that case, I guess I'd just rather not exist.’ But then one night, I think like half a year after I put the album out, I had this night where I couldn't sleep. It was one of those nights when you feel like you just want to throw a match on your entire life, like you want to set your life on fire or something — some kind of frustration with the way things are, just wanting something to happen, even if it would be something bad. I got up in the middle of the night and I published all my albums onto Spotify. I was like, ‘Let's just see what happens — like, don't I want people to hear it? Maybe if this stupid thing is the only way people can hear it I'll do it,’ you know. So I did that. And the next day, I kind of regretted it, but I was like, I guess it's done. It was interesting to see how little changed, [with the exception] that some people who had been asking ‘Why isn't it on Spotify?’ stopped asking.
But it didn't do anything for me, it didn't do anything for my streaming income or anything. The only thing that happened was that I stopped selling records. So, I was like, oh. That was an interesting experiment, and that experiment is still going on, those albums are still [on Spotify]. But for my next release, I'm definitely not putting it on Spotify. And I would consider just taking everything down and just seeing what happens, because that would be the anti-experiment, sort of, to have the two experiences of seeing everything on there and nothing on there. I guess that's what you have to do. You're always in some kind of negotiation with what you want and what you don't want, trying to find the lesser evil.
Now that the cat’s out of the bag, do you think we can go back from this model, or do you think people have been trained to expect free music forever? Or is there some alternate model?
I believe in free music, I just don't believe in it all belonging to this one platform. I personally believe that musicians have been making too much money, and that the record industry has been making too much money, and they're all complaining. But I think for indie musicians, playing shows is a big part of income. I think records have been doing really well for me, because I've been so focused on albums. I know that not every artist focuses on albums. I think music is very diverse, and there's many ways of making a living or not making a living. It's also not why people make music, to make money. It shouldn't be. I don't think of art as a career — it's like, a calling, or something. If I didn’t do this, I would just perish, mentally, you know.
Last week, John Maus was seen at the Capitol Building. I was interested in knowing what your feelings on that were, and whether that felt unprecedented to you — his cover of your song “Hey Moon” is one of his most popular.
I had been offline for one day, and when I came back to check the news and my mail, I was really shocked. [The insurrection of the Capitol Building] was the most scary thing I've seen in a long time, and it felt like something that happened in the city I live in in 1933. It looked like imagery from Berlin 1933 in color on phones today. And then knowing that people I have met were there for whatever reason... I don't know, I don't know them, [and] I don't know what their motivation was, and I don't want to speculate. But that was really disgusting. I found it so deeply disturbing.
I felt like the best thing I could do was to at least say something. I was very happy to just take [“Hey Moon,”] that maybe people feel has been a bit destroyed by these events, and put it in the opposite context. So we're putting out a 7” of “Hey Moon,” and all the profits go to Black Lives Matter worldwide. We raised a lot of money, and a lot of people were very happy to donate, because maybe they didn't know where to donate, or they didn't think of it. We raised a lot, like thousands in just a few days. We're still counting, and at the end of the month, we'll make an announcement and share the information more. But it's been tremendous, seeing how people actually do care, and also feel that music should be contributing to the discourse.
There’s been a lot of these artists [who] you maybe thought were politically in one way and then they come out with quite conservative or straight-up racist ideologies, and it's a lot of white men who are probably feeling uncomfortable with their role in the world changing, and they feel bad for themselves, and I think it's not that shocking. But I think it's a great time to just stop talking about them too, and I look forward to never talking about this event or those people again after this.
Has this kind of thing ever happened to you, where someone you’re a fan of reveals themselves to have politics that don’t align with yours?
I can't really say that it has. I mean, I was surprised at what happened last week. But I can't say that I have been like, a fan. Maybe I don't really have that many white men that I admire like that. If Billy Bragg came out, and he had completely 180'd on political issues, I would be really shocked, and that would be very hurtful. But I know Billy Bragg isn't going to do that. I hope. He's like, a hero to me. For me, it's just always been so important what kind of values are behind the music.
I think some people might think that I was a Morrissey fan, but I wasn't a Morrissey fan, and so when he came out as a UKIP guy, or whatever, I wasn't so surprised or anything. But I also don't know his music very well. A lot of people told me that they were really personally hurt. It must be pretty tough if you have, like, a Morrissey tattoo or something, and suddenly it means something completely different. I think almost all my idols in my life are based on their entire life work. I don't really admire people just for writing a good song or for an album. For me, it's like, what they did with everything around it, or how they spent their time when they weren't recording albums. I don't really give my fandom away that easily. I'm kind of hard to get.
What’s your vision for 2021?
I think there's gonna be a lot of healing to be done. It’s gonna have to be a really soft year, aand people are gonna have to be really nice to each other on every level, you know, because people are traumatized by isolation and financially severed and stuff. And so, I think that this year is going to be a little bit of a hangover and cleaning up job for most of it, at least like the first half.
I do think that this is a good time to sort of change habits — it's a good time to quit smoking, to quit bad behavior towards yourself and others. It’s easy to be hard on people who are acting weird but it’s important to remember that okay, maybe this person is not well, and try to be a little bit gentle on people around you, while also holding people accountable. It’s going to be a balance of those two things. I feel like it's going to be a good decade ahead, because it has to, you know? I think maybe 2021 is going to be a little bit in the shadow of its younger sister, but it will also be a memorable year, I'm sure. In a positive way.