Interview: Theresa Andersson

Alex Woodward talks to the performer about her new album Street Parade



A small gate opens to Theresa Andersson's converted shotgun double, a gray-hued home in Algiers Point. Her husband Arthur Mintz answers the door and leads me into the kitchen, a space familiar to YouTube viewers as the one in Andersson's video for "Na Na Na."

  That 2008 video has 1.4 million views and introduced the world to Andersson's unique setup: a stool, some drums, a floor of electronic effects and loop recording pedals and stompboxes, a violin, a guitar slung around her, a microphone in front of her, and bare feet beneath her. She samples a drum fill and a violin riff, plays it over her vocals, which she also samples, and harmonizes with them while strumming guitar. (She later says, shyly, "I'm a terrible guitar player.")

  Today, the kitchen's percussion and pedal boards are replaced with baby toys, a stroller and high chair. Andersson's 2008 performance hall barely resembles its 2012 counterpart, a home with her new family: Mintz and 8-month-old daughter Elsie. The wall that separated the kitchen from the rest of the house has been torn down — the instruments moved to a pair of rooms next to it: one for performing, another for recording.

  "Everything was kind of crazy and schizophrenic," Andersson says. "We have sort of two kitchens mashed up into one, with 15 colors. But that's all right. I decided to use this part of the house for the recording studio." She waves to the front room of the other half of the double.

  "Then we just ended up using other parts of the house again, like the kitchen," she says. "I always gravitate toward the kitchen."

Andersson (wearing almost entirely blue — blue jeans, blue knit shirt, blue socks) curls up in a red wingback chair against her front window. Above her is a 2010 concert poster featuring Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew.

  Her home's new layout — part studio, part family home — produced her latest album, Street Parade, written and recorded during her pregnancy. It's her first release since 2008's Hummingbird, Go!, a breakthrough album (recorded in her kitchen) that kicked off three years on the road as a solo performer surrounded by her onstage digital laboratory. Last year, she returned to Algiers Point to work on its follow-up. (The album is out April 24, during a series of New Orleans appearances.

  Andersson was born and raised in farm country on the Swedish island Gotland, the country's largest, which is 60 miles east of the mainland. "My mom and dad were always around. A secure upbringing, I guess," she says. "They'd be working in the fields, and we'd be home by ourselves. I never went to day care. Very steady, very secure, very safe, very comfortable."

  She joined a trio with two other girls and sang and played various instruments. One girl had a car, which they used to tour the island. "Kind of get a little taste — a blooded tooth, as we say in Sweden," she says. "That was my introduction to that life."

  Andersson attended music school for two years — she had never lived off the island until 1990, when the 18-year-old performer moved to New Orleans with Swedish songwriter/musician Anders Osborne, her longtime boyfriend, and quickly caught the city's musical imagination. She left Osborne and the band nine years later.

  "At that point, a whole new phase of life began," she says. "I think I'd had this dream, or idea, that I'd be discovered and produced by some awesome producer that could just kind of hand it to me. That turned out that was not my path at all."

  Andersson recorded several albums — including her debut, 1996's Vibes, 2002's No Regrets, and 2004's Shine, her first for Basin Street Records (her current label), which was recorded in Nashville, Tenn.

  "(Shine) was a nice try, but it didn't really do anything," she says, disappointed. "I've sort of buried it and I don't like to talk about it. ... It was just, for me, a stepping stone for finding out what I needed to be doing."

  She moved to Austin, Texas, then back to New Orleans, and played with other bands and performers — she didn't craft her one-woman show until Hurricane Katrina, which "threw me into this different space," she says.

  "Those things that might've been too complicated to get to before, or those relationships that were too hard to change before, all of a sudden everything was open and rearranged, and it was easier to make those choices, and I think a lot of people did."

  With a tour in Sweden looming, Andersson couldn't afford to take a band with her. Instead, she bought a looping pedal, a device that records, or samples, segments of music.

  She stands over her setup and explains its parts, pointing to a purple trunk that houses her labyrinthine mixing boards and other electronics. "Airports do not love me," she says, laughing. "There's always that little note on there, 'This bag has been checked for explosives.'" It's now her nerve center.

  "Different instruments I dabbled with, now I can start developing them," she says. "My mind is pretty good at organizing, so I can organize arrangements in my head and keep them there. ... It feels like painting a bit. It inspired a whole new way of writing for me that's more panoramic, not too pointed, like when you sit down with a guitar and try to struggle with your fingers. ... It wasn't easy or inspired to write like that."

  She filmed a few videos using her new arrangements — Hummingbird tracks "Na Na Na" and "Birds Fly Away" — and uploaded them on YouTube.

  "Really it was hard to explain to bookers and promoters what I was doing, for getting a gig, so I filmed it," she says. "Then it just went zoom. ... When I did that video, I sort of scaled everything down to center around me more and what I wanted to do. I think Katrina did that to me, too: 'I don't care what people think. If I'm going to be out there working my ass off to bring this to people and doing what I do, it has to really matter to me, and I have to do it on my own terms.' I realized it was perhaps bold or a little bit stupid, because I might lose a lot of fans maybe, and perhaps I was a little worried that people who were used to seeing me a certain way wouldn't like this.

  "That was a risk I was willing to take."

When performing, Andersson dances on her electronics. She taps buttons and turns knobs with her toes, while letting loose haunting high notes with her voice, sometimes doubled, tripled or quadrupled in harmony. It's clearly her show, and hers only.

  But if she has a counterpart, it's Chalmette native Jessica Faust, the poetry editor for The Southern Review. Andersson asked Faust to enlist the help of Southern women poets to write lyrics for Hummingbird. Faust sent a few samples to her and sneaked in a few of her own. "I read (her poems) and they just grabbed my heart immediately," Andersson says. "It made me cry. I thought, 'This is the woman who'll write my lyrics.' She lives here, she's a woman, she's had similar life experiences and some totally different from me, but I think we can relate."

  "She gave my snippets of songs — literally, four seconds," Faust says. "We'd talk about mood and tone, and we'd go back and do something completely different. ... She eventually had a disc of songs, just music. I drove around listening to the music for three weeks and wrote all the lyrics."

  The album balanced Swedish pop with Southern neo-soul, rooted in Andersson's passion for New Orleans (she collaborated on a track with Allen Toussaint). Following Hummingbird's release in 2008, Andersson spent the next four years on tour, fielding offers for TV appearances in the U.S. and Europe and recording with David Byrne — but she hit a creative low. There was no new record in sight, and a one-year promotional tour turned into a whirlwind, globetrotting four-year phenomenon.

  "The day I learned I was pregnant with Elsie and we decided we were going to have a family, it was like some weird weight was lifted off my shoulders," she says. "I hadn't realized how much I was resisting parenthood and going into that phase of life, and how I had been resisting taking that step because of all the fears involved, all these unknowns as an artist — as a female artist, how is that going to affect my career? How is it going to affect everything? Am I going to step backwards for a few years now and not be able to continue working for what I have been working so hard for?"

  For Street Parade, Andersson remembered a Mardi Gras parade she viewed after coming home from a tour — exhausted, road-weary and out of place. The highs and lows of the parade — and the anticipation for the one that followed — set the tone for Street Parade.

  "It was a little weird to be at home with friends and at a party," she says. "I was used to being alone. It's a strange feeling when you're by yourself, go onstage and have an amazing experience onstage and — poof, you're alone again. All of a sudden the parade is gone and you're standing there like, 'Whoa. What happened?' You find yourself in the middle of the street, there's litter everywhere, and people are oddly quiet, walking around. And the next parade is coming, but you're not sure when. It was a huge parallel to my own life. I found that space between parades to be incredibly inspiring."

  (She pauses, briefly, and snaps her fingers.)

  "That's when I realized that's going to be my next record. People are going to think, 'Street parade! Loud, woo-hoo, boom bang!' — but for me it's more of this time to think, feeling this space between two amazing events, getting out of one phase of life into the next."

  Andersson studied horn arrangements by Duke Ellington and Gil Evans and drumline patterns. The drums on Street Parade were recorded individually — no kits, just disassembled snares, bass drums and toms, like in a marching band. Andersson handled vocals, percussion, guitar, bass and violin, while a host of horn players (from sousaphonist Kirk Joseph and trombonist Rick Trolsen to trumpeter Mark Braud and clarinetist B.J. Blue) fill her arrangements — haunting, sometimes sparse, and nowhere as wild as Mardi Gras.

  Swedish musician Tobias Fröberg, who helmed Hummingbird, returned to produce, and Andersson again collaborated with Faust. (Faust was seven months pregnant while writing lyrics for Hummingbird, and Andersson was pregnant while working on Street Parade.)

  The album's centerpiece and first single, "What Comes Next," is its most literally titled, and its most marching band-driven track. Rolling snares and a simple horn line fade in, as Andersson sings, almost hesitantly, "I have been waiting for something to change."

  "The idea of 'What Comes Next' was originally about being pregnant, and embracing everything, even though you know your life is going to change, whatever it's going to be," Faust says. "And that applies to anything." (The chorus, a duet with Peter, Bjorn and John's Peter Moren, is a pure call-and-response love song: "I'm not afraid to give all my love to you. If you are falling, hold tight, we'll rise again.")

In Andersson's recording room, a rack of glittering silver outfits is propped against the wall. The clothes are leftovers from when Andersson performed album tracks "Listen to My Heels" and "Hold On To Me" atop a giant, swan-like bird during February's Krewe of Muses parade. She was surrounded by a 50-person marching band with dancers from New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and Academy of the Sacred Heart — a fitting way to release the album.

  "I really wrote everything based on a marching band, like when you listen to the record, harmonically it doesn't sound like what you hear in a street parade," she says. "It's more from my Scandinavian roots harmonically. It's more pop-based."

  Andersson admits her roots are growing on both ends — she's lived in New Orleans for more than half her life, yet her frequent visits to Sweden affirm her heritage. The album borrows from and is inspired by New Orleans' parade culture: Mardi Gras Indians, parades and their afterglow and the joy found in darkness at jazz funerals. That darkness also overlaps with her melodic sense — she likes "relishing in minor keys," embracing her Swedish melancholy, she says.

  "It's like when you're getting married," she says. "You're trying to get your families together. You want to show both sides of your new life where you come from. I've matured musically here in New Orleans, playing with people. We'd have jam sessions with Johnny Vidocovich, George Porter, Ivan Neville, whoever else ends up showing up. Situations like that, and every musical situation I've been in here, have taught me. That's been my schooling. In later years, I've spent more time touring in Sweden, reconnecting with my Swedish roots. That sounds and feels familiar for me as well. ... The world seems a little smaller in some way. ... It's not so strange to be from two places."

In March, Andersson performed a string of dates in Sweden promoting her album before its U.S. debut. Gambit caught her via Skype in Helsinborg before her performance at Dunkers Kulturhus, southern Sweden's largest performance space, which lies across the sound from Denmark.

  "I'm more subtle than the average New Orleanian," she says. "I'm not so subtle as a Swede anymore I've noticed when I'm over here touring. I'm becoming more American than I realized."

  Days earlier, she wrapped a performance of "Fiya's Gone" for Sweden's Efter Tio — with her signature looping station surrounding her. The track is the album's bluesy center, following the optimistic "What Comes Next" and introducing a sleepier, dreamier B-side to the album's (subtly) charging A-side.

  "It feels good to be working again, to be working live again, having a little baby and spending time with the baby, and transitioning from the first few months of no sleep, and still no sleep but trying to work, and getting that part of the brain going, it's been fun and good," she says. "And I'm happy to be back."


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