If you’ve listened to any electronic pop music in the past two decades that’s even slightly interested in challenging the listener, chances are it’s indebted to Karin Dreijer. Along with their brother Olof, Karin formed The Knife, releasing their debut album in 2001, with each subsequent album celebrating the messy, rapturous, and uniquely human process of reinvention. Known for the audacious costumes that hid their identities and a deep interest in injecting academic ideas into their music, The Knife felt like an evolution in every way. 2013’s urgent and conscience-rattling Shaking The Habitual, the duo’s final gift before they went their separate ways, outlined the contours of a better world beyond the music industry.
With The Knife finished, Karin turned their attention to Fever Ray, their solo project. The act’s self-titled debut arrived in 2009 and found Dreijer ruminating on marriage, parenthood, and domesicity’s effects on the soul. But Karin’s marriage dissolved in the years leading up to 2017’s Plunge. In contrast to the monochrome hues of the previous release, Plunge was a saturated nosedive into queer sexuality and politics, using club music as its springboard. Vulnerable without ever compromising on its demands for dignity and a sustainable future, Fever Ray’s sophomore record clearly articulated the stakes while pulling the listener toward the dance floor.
On their new album, Radical Romantics, Dreijer is more seasoned, reflective, and assured despite the constantly shifting ground beneath their feet. The subject matter is still heady: In a press statement, Dreijer says they want to examine “the myth of love” and how to embody its best principles. As ever, they spin their abundance of questions into poetry that can be surrounded by catchy experimental pop, searing goth-tinged electro, and club music refracted through a crystal plucked from a meteorite. Dreijer reunites with their brother Olof on four songs and enlists Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails on two others. Crucially, though, these tracks don’t amount to a Knife reunion or a Nine Inch Nails feature, but a bolstering of Dreijer’s own unique vision.
Last week, Karin Dreijer called me from the mountains of Sweden to discuss the new project, making art about love, and radical solutions to everyday problems.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
The FADER: Listening to Radical Romantics for the first time, this idea of the myth of love was swirling around in my head. Do you believe art that looks at love has to challenge an institution in order to be truly thorough?
Karin Dreijer: I can only speak from a culture where I was brought up and how we were fed when growing up what love was about. It was a revelation when I read Bell Hooks’ All About Love, when she talks about love as a verb, an action, something we do. That was a totally new way for me to understand what it is and to at least have a definition.
I didn’t really understand. I thought of love as a feeling. It’s weird because so many institutions are built on this idea of love, like marriage and how to have children, and it’s a very strange way to build society on when you don’t have a definition of what it really is that you’re talking about.
To that end, Radical Romantics feels like a case study in new ways of both thinking about love and feeling about love. Is that fair to say?
I guess so. But it doesn’t have so much to do with romantic love, I think. It has more to do with how to exist as a human being and how to exist as a queer person to find a space where you can feel free.
“You’re never finished. There is no goal. That’s one of the hardest things: to exist here and now and not be in the future and not be in the past.”
It surprised me a bit to hear this idea of “the myth of love” come up so frequently when this album was being discussed, because I feel like [romantic love is] something you’ve never shied away from, both as Fever Ray and The Knife. What was the pivot point, that shift in focus that came with Radical Romantics?
It’s been a long, ongoing process, and I’ve worked with this album for three years, maybe. It’s just something that has developed, and it’s what I felt was important to write about. This old cliche that to be able to love somebody, you have to love yourself first — it’s hard to accept, but I think it’s sort of true. You have to become a friend to yourself, I think, to be able to exist at all and to have close relationships with people. That can be quite a hard thing to accept. And when you finally do accept it, you have to implement it into your life.
I’m not saying that I know this and I have done this; it’s something to strive for. It’s an everyday work. It’s an ongoing process, and if you’ve had difficulties with these things, it’s something you have to relearn and work on every day for the rest of your life. It’s not like you just switch and then it’s all good and you know how to do things, unfortunately. You’re never finished. There is no goal. That’s one of the hardest things: to exist here and now and not be in the future and not be in the past.
Being present has become a privilege, in a way — finding ways to become present and making the time to do it.
That is also a thing. Within capitalism, within patriarchy, it’s really working the opposite way than being present. So that’s a challenge.
In that vein, you’ve taken your time between Fever Ray projects. There’s never a sense that you’re rushing them or jumping from one thing to the next. They always feel very lived in. Did the production for Radical Romantics differ in any significant ways from that of your previous two projects?
No, I work exactly the same way as I always have. It takes a long time for me, compared to how other people work, to make music, because it’s a research for myself at the same time. With every song, I’m trying so many different ways to do it because I would like to find the best way to describe something and to tell a story. So I record a lot of things that don’t make it to the end.
In Sweden, we didn’t have a lockdown. I could still go to my studio every day. Olof was there, and there were some other people working there as well. It was great because it didn’t become this claustrophobic [situation] that I know happened to a lot of other people.
You’ve been open in the past about your struggles with general anxiety disorder and panic attacks. Did the pandemic have any effect on your mental health?
I came home in 2018 and hit the wall a bit. I was exhausted. I could actually take care of myself much better during the pandemic. I couldn’t travel. I was at home and I could go to therapy. I also got an ADHD diagnosis, and that also helped me understand how I work and what I need to exist and to continue working. Is it possible for me to go out touring again? I didn’t really know.
With each new Fever Ray project, there’s a degree of precision that goes into the visual identity that’s unrivaled in modern music. There’s a new headshot that you have where the character’s tie is just peeking slightly out of its suit, just off kilter when everything else is quite symmetrical. It feels very intentional and unsettling at the same time. Are you planning these things out that meticulously?
Yes. I work with an old friend, Martin Falck, who worked on the Plunge project as well. We always collect images and film clips and are always in communication about what we feel is fun, what we feel is interesting, and what we should do next time. A year before [Radical Romantics] was finished, we started to try to capture what kind of world it’s supposed to happen in this time. And then we tried out costumes and makeup. For this album, we did a lot of things that did not work out.
Are there any failed ideas that stand out in your mind?
We were very intrigued by death. There’s an old Ingmar Bergman film [The Seventh Seal] where Death comes up to a shore and they sit and play chess. We tried some of that, but it did not fit at all. Some stuff you just have to try out and look at, and you understand afterwards what happened.
I feel very alone when making music. I do collaborate with other people, but I’m the director, and I have to make the decisions. So I’m very happy when the music is finished and I can go into the visual world, because then I have Martin. It’s so fun to work with him.
It seems like you had a very good time with the music videos we’ve seen so far from the project. My personal favorite is “Kandy.” There’s a scene where the office worker bee seems to be on the verge of an awakening, breaking out of this very sterile office setting and into something more vivid.
The office person is very impressed by this pink character, and they feel like, “Maybe now is the time that I find love.” But I don’t think that pink character is a healthy situation. You can feel very strongly for something, or somebody, or some kind of activity, but also know that it’s not good for you. You want to be eaten by this person and it would be a good way to die. It’s probably not the best choice in the long run.
I think that’s an underrated side of love, the way it can turn into self-destruction very quickly. It doesn’t have to be big fireworks self-destruction. It can be the slow, sedentary, codependent kind of self-destruction as well.
Yes, I know of that one [laughs]. But then it is not love; it’s something else. Bell Hooks wrote that love and abuse can’t coexist, which has brought a lot of clarity in my life. That’s another weird thing with the romantic myth, that it’s OK to have abuse within a relationship.
In France, I think they still have this “crime of passion”: You don’t get as high a sentence if you kill somebody in some sort of passion drama situation. There’s so many very strange ways that are called love that I don’t agree with.
At certain points in “What They Call Us,” it sounds like a message to the Fever Ray that released the self-titled project in 2009. I caught a couple of allusions to domestic life, but it’s put in a different context: You’ve learned how not to be stifled. Were you collapsing time on that song?
It does have elements of domestic activities, like the baking stuff that you’re supposed to do to be a good parent. I mean, I’m a mother. My kids now are old. One is about to move out, and they don’t require the same care as before. And this thing [of], “Am I really allowed to do what I do? Am I a good parent even if I go on tour, leave my kids?” It’s been with me for a very long time. I still don’t really know how to do it: how to combine parenthood and work. The only ones who can tell are my kids. Maybe they will write really horrible biographies about how I deserted them.
You just touched on a part of what makes the Fever Ray project so continually compelling: With each new project, we witness Karin Dreijer learning about themself. It’s the old boulder being pushed up the hill and falling back down again. Each album feels like the boulder has come back down again, but you’ve found a new way of pushing it back up.
I’ve talked to Martin about it a lot, because both of us have been or are struggling a lot with anxiety. It can be so heavy that I feel like I can’t really exist in this world. There is no room for what I’m feeling and how I function. It doesn’t work at all in the way that I’m being told I’m supposed to function. When you’ve had those experiences, every time when it opens up and you feel it’s going away for a little bit, it’s like the whole world is opening up. And you feel so much freedom, so much thankfulness of being alive. I think a lot of what we do is just to create spaces where we can feel free and where we can work, where we don’t feel so trapped or dysfunctional like we do in most other situations.
You’ve hinted in previous interviews that you believe the club and dancing and movement are great ways to create those kinds of spaces of freedom, places where one doesn’t feel so trapped. Are you still bringing that perspective to Radical Romantics?
Yes. For me, music has always been a great help to feel free. It’s something I strive for. I would love to be able to create such spaces when we go on tour. But at the same time, there’s so much I can’t control about the room. I can’t really say that about clubs, but it’s something that we would love to be able to create. Music can be a great comfort and just a thing to go through the day and be able to feel things. If you just managed to do a little bit of that, you’re good.
My favorite line on the album is in “Carbon Dioxide,” when you sing, “Love’s carbon dioxide / Can’t say it out loud / I’m afraid to lose it/ The melody is pure music.” Some of it got perhaps lost in my vocalization.
[Laughs] No, no, no. I love voices of people. That’s the first thing I think about in a person: how their voice sounds. That [line is] about the voice.
Who are some of your favorite singers?
There’s so many. The first ones I really loved that I found by myself were Prince and Cindy Lauper. Both of them can scream very well.
Do you remember the first Prince song that you heard?
I think the Lovesexy album was one of the first I listened to a lot, “Alphabet Street” and all those songs. I found it in my attic and an old Prince poster that I had in my room when I was nine. He’s like lying naked on…
On the flower? The Lovesexy cover?
No, it’s black and pink. It’s smoky. I had it on my wall, and I was like, “Wow, this is so good. I’m gonna do that.”
The big heel turn on Radical Romantics is “Even It Out.” It captures how love can transform you in not-always-positive ways. When you created this song about pursuing somebody who’s bullying your children, did it give you a new perspective on what it means to be a parent, and what kind of person you can become when you are a parent?
The song is sort of a revenge. It’s something I had been fantasizing about, because in real life, I would never go and stab a kid.
That’s the headline for our podcast.
[Laughs] No, but I wish I had been more thorough with the principal and the teachers. We were in meetings and meetings and meetings, talking about how to take care of this, how they were trying to solve this situation, but they never did. So it ended up that my kid had to change schools. That’s something I still feel very bad about. That’s something you feel as a parent: that you’re never doing enough.
So this [song] is a bit like going back and trying to make things right. I think it’s so important to take back your self-respect when you have been wronged. It’s a very tricky thing: How do you overcome a situation like this? When will you ever feel okay about it? There has to be some punishment for a person who behaves like this, for a bully, and it didn’t really happen.
“The song is sort of a revenge. It’s something I had been fantasizing about, because in real life, I would never go and stab a kid.”
Do you feel any sort of external pressure from the broad consensus that you’re this iconoclast and visionary? Does that foment in you a pressure to always be unorthodox and to think of radical solutions to problems like this one?
No. I think of myself as a very scared person, because I know I’m afraid of a lot of things. For this situation, I wish I had been more brave and dared to speak up. But I don’t think the people at my kids’ school would even care. In their world, I am a weird person. There was a lot of homophobic and transphobic violence going on, and I think they also saw me as a person that was a bit strange and weird and queer, and they didn’t want to touch that. That’s sort of how it is in Sweden.
When did that start? Or when did it get worse, I guess?
I think it has become worse because last year, we got a new government that is backed up by a neo-fascist party that has its roots in a Neo-Nazi movement. And it’s like a fifth of the Swedish population who voted for this party. It has affected a lot of things in Sweden, like the migration laws and rights for a lot of minorities. That sort of thing is happening all around. I know it’s happening in the U.S., and it’s happening all over Europe as well. It’s not [just] a Swedish thing. But I think a lot of people thought it wouldn’t happen here because we have this proud social democratic history. It’s an image that I think Swedish people probably have believed themselves, but it’s not really true.