By Jon Blistein
Stockholm-based producer Klas Ahlund wracks his brain for the name of an old Swedish folk song when he hops off the line for a second, holds a distant conversation, then returns with a guitar and the promise, “I’ll play it to you, I remember how it goes.” A melody mourns across the Atlantic, steely, stumbling, but somehow warm. Suddenly he stops with the cold squeak of acoustic strings and laughs: “It’s very, very sad stuff.”
A producer, songwriter and a member of the band Teddybears, Ahlund’s work over the past decade has solidified his place among Sweden’s latest crop of pop maestros and hitmakers. He’s helped craft tunes for Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Ke$ha and Madonna. He’s been Robyn’s go-to producer since her 2005 self-titled. Most recently he co-penned two tracks on Katy Perry’s Prism alongside the pop star and The Swedish Pop Master Himself, Max Martin: the silly, sunny hashtag banger “This Is How We Do” and the ebullient throwback house jam “Walking On Air.” Ahlund is equipped with an arsenal of heavy kickdrums and a mind ripe with synth lines proven to promulgate dancing plague like it’s 1518, but when he finally does find his guitar and plucks out the opening chords to “Visa från Utanmyra,” it’s unsurprising that he credits the traditional Swedish song with making such a big impression on him.
Since the mighty of ascendance of ABBA in the 1970s, Swedish pop has maintained consistent, if not somewhat overlooked, presence high up in the charts of the United States and Britain. Martin, in particular, has become arguably the most important, successful and ubiquitous pop songwriter of the past two decades, gifting his pristine melodies to the world through vessels like Spears, Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Kelly Clarkson, Pink and Taylor Swift. And while his protege Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald is a Rhode Island native, the current hit king learned the ins and outs of melody well from his Scandinavian Obi-Wan — and subsequently passed them along to his own students, Benny Blanco (Virginia) and Cirkut (Toronto). Of course to say the style of all four is definitively Swedish would be outrageous considering the wide array of influences exhibited in all their works, but the constant remains a stunning capacity for melodies that grab you within a few seconds and refuse to let go.
Of all the pop stars Martin and Dr. Luke have worked with, no other seems as attuned this remarkable Scandinavian skill set than Perry. She again worked extensively with the pair on Prism, but the record’s Swedish connections extend beyond Ahlund. For the expertly subdued club ballad, “Love Me,” Perry tapped Bloodshy (né Christian Karlsson, of Miike Snow and Bloodshy & Avant, the production duo you can endlessly thank for Spears’ “Toxic”) and burgeoning songwriters Vincent Pontare and Magnus Lidehäll. And keeping with the Scandinavian theme, Perry brought on Stargate, who hail from Sweden’s neighbor Norway and share some similar sensibilities, and Blanco for “This Moment,” whose moody, effervescent sixteenth-note groove, bears more than a passing resemblance to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” More than fittingly, Perry recorded Prism partly in her hometown of Santa Barbara, California and partly in Sweden.
Ahlund recalls meeting with Perry initially in Santa Barbara, but says, “We did most of our stuff actually in Stockholm and I totally think that affected how it came out. When you move around the planet, the vibe of the place you’re making the music in definitely makes an imprint on whatever you’re writing.”
As it has been for centuries. Initially sung by shivering shepherds and farmers who often worked in complete solitude in the freezing woods and mountains, Swedish folk music sensibly rings of despondence and loneliness. And while today’s tunesmiths may not be out tending the land, Karlsson chuckles that the weather often keeps Swedes indoors, which might in turn breed top notch songwriting with somewhat somber tendencies. And Perry’s vocal melodies for “Love Me” and “Walking On Air” do carry this specific Swedish trait. On the latter, the upswing that ends the refrain “Tonight I’m walking on air” is balanced immediately by the downturn on the following phrase, “I’m walking, I’m walking on air.” It’s a trick similarly employed on this charming folk number from Sweden’s Skåne region, “Hönsafötter” (the version by ’80s folk revivalists Filarfolket is pretty wonderful).
Granted, that kind of musical match-em-up is hardly foolproof. Yes, Swedish music often seems to resolve itself on glum notes, but so does Icelandic and even Arabic music. Perhaps what distinguishes Swedish melodies then is the way that natives have internalized them alongside massive amounts of music from America and the UK.
“Listening to The Stones and Simon & Garfunkel — stuff like that — growing up, I didn’t understand a word they sang,” Ahlund says. “So to me it became a lot about phonetics and sounds and melodies and voice quality. Gradually I started to learn the English language a bit and started to pick up the words here and there; but the way I came into it was listening to voices and melodies and sounds of American music and English music, as much as Swedish music.”
Not only does this listening process further emphasize melody, down to a fixation on where the right vowel sounds should go, but it explains why Swedes can so comfortably meld their own melodic tendencies with British and American pop — something stunningly apparent on “Walking On Air,” with its sinking-and-striving melody, courtesy of Martin, and early ’90s house-inspired production. “I think they’re weird Cronenberg fly mutations with some of that [Swedish] DNA,” Ahlund says of the melding of his, Perry and Martin’s styles and personas, alluding to David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly, in which Jeff Goldblum accidentally, and rather grotesquely, transmutates into the titular insect. “This is a way better version of that of course,” he adds with a laugh.
Perry has always been a top-notch pop chameleon, dipping her toes in whatever pot she finds particularly compelling; but there’s certainly been a strong Swedish streak in her vocals. The uncertain growing pangs of “Teenage Dream,” the near-breakdown bite of “Hot n Cold” (especially that bridge – thanks again, Martin), the black-eyed belt of “Roar,” like Rocky Balboa after losing to Apollo Creed — all buckle, but never break, under the weight of a longing and hope you could hear echoing across the vast Scandinavian nothingness. The magic of her music, though, is that it never makes you want to curl up on a couch and throw a blanket over your heard and ponder life’s general futility and nothingness. It can be sad and heartbreaking, and with each album she’s grown more open to putting her own insecurities to tape. But Perry has always been careful to inject healthy doses of empowerment, self-love and joy into her vocal performances, no matter how somber the tunes may be on their own.
When Ahlund speaks of why forlorn melodies appeal to Swedes, he mentions that he can’t really say how they are perceived by Americans. Perhaps it’s because as gloomy as those tunes can be, American ears pick up on something uplifting and hopeful in them. We love an underdog, we love overcoming odds, and we love the promise that all that warm, fuzzy happiness and love crap is out there, somewhere, waiting for us to grab it. Until we do, we have pop music to tell us that’s not an insane wish, and, even more importantly, that we’re not alone in our wishing.
“I hear American folk music as more of a communal thing where you sing along and you stomp your feet and dance to it,” Ahlund says. “The Swedish melodies are more meant to sing on a mountain top with a bunch of goats — it’s very melancholy and lonely. So when you infuse those things, when you bring a very strong personality and performance-based energy to a very strong melody then you get the best of both worlds.”
In so many words, such is Katy Perry.