Nordic Music Central welcomes, to the first interview session we’ve had in quite a while, the highly talented and dynamic young Swede Johanna Brun, who is just about to release what isn’t quite her first single, but a song that she’s been performing for the best part of a decade, and one “that paved my way to what I WANT and WILL dedicate my life to” as she declares and which will be followed by her debut album, later.
Johanna’s story is one not only of talent and application but also of battling against adversity to put herself on the cusp of a stellar career in this music business as I (who have seen her perform live) am absolutely certain she will accomplish. As she said in a recent post on Instagram, “Thanks to little Johanna, who dared…”
And she who dares, will win!
Hi Johanna, welcome to Nordic Music Central! Tell us a little about yourself – where you’re from, family, pets, hopes and aspirations and so on.
Hi! I come from a small town called Strängnäs, where I grew up in a large family. I am the oldest of six siblings, one full sibling and five half-siblings.
I come from a musical family where there has always been a lot of music-making. My dad has a music studio in the basement, and we created many songs together from my early years. The first song I wrote was called ’Apple Pie’, and I was four years old at the time.
As a child, I had very clear visions and dreams of a musical future. I often stood in front of the mirror with a jump rope in my hand, pretending it was a microphone, and I made up my own songs. Then I would close my eyes and visualise how my childhood room transformed into a stage, and I could hear and feel the presence of the audience I was singing for.
Nowadays, I live in Stockholm where I pursue my musical career alongside my studies at the Royal College of Music.
Can you tell us about your forthcoming single and the album that will follow it?
The first single to be released is called ’Bird’, and it has been a part of my journey for almost 10 years! That song means a lot to me, making it an obvious choice for it to set the tone for what’s to come. After that, there are more singles in the pipeline, all leading up to my debut album.
This album is an artistic project I keep close to heart that I’ve been working on for several years. I’m also creating the album together with my producer Joakim Paasonen. We both have very different and broad musical backgrounds, and combining our experiences is really interesting and has been a beautiful journey creating music together.
He was the first to understand my visions for what my music would sound like, and together we’ve found soundscapes, arrangements and productions that make my music justice. The album will become a collection of songs based on experiences and things that I’ve gone through and that I need to express. It’s fragile, melancholic, and raw, that meets beautiful and nature-like music that is me and my artistry.
The single ‘Bird’, which will be released soon, is, as you say, almost 10 years old now, and one of the first you ever wrote. It must mean a lot to you. What prompted you to write it and how has it evolved over the years?
I wrote ’Bird’ from a difficult part of my life. The song was a form of processing experiences I couldn’t express as the little Johanna, acting as a comfort for her. It took many years to put those experiences to words. I’ve actively chosen not to improve the lyrics for a more correct or better English, because I want to keep the younger Johanna telling her story from her heart and with her own words.
Now it is arranged and produced together with Joakim to elevate what I once wrote, but it still has its core left. It’s a heavy song filled with emotion in every aspect of it. I can’t wait to show it to other people, and hopefully it could help others as it helped me.
I recall the first time I saw you play, at a festival in Gävle in Sweden in 2017. At that time you were 18 and badly afflicted by a debilitating and at times crippling illness that began when you were 12 but I hear that the condition is greatly improved now?
Yes, today I feel much better and I’ve found a lifestyle that works for me. I do not take it for granted though, as it took many years to get where I am today with a lot of tough rehab and searching for the right treatment. Unfortunately, it comes and goes in periods, especially in the colder seasons where it at times can be very difficult. So, I still have a lot of limits that I have to accept in my daily life, which I’m now in terms with.
I understand that you were keen on and active in sports before the illness and that you took up music and drama to help combat it and its mental toll on you?
Correct, music allowed me to express myself and for me to work on my mental health. Music has built the backbone of what I am and what I do today.
And ‘Bird’ isn’t the first song of yours to be recorded and released. ‘Ur funktion’, released in 2018, and which roughly translates as ‘Out of Order’ in English, chronicles your fight against the illness and was released as part of the first COMEDIA Talent Award. Did writing it have a cathartic effect for you? Does it contain a message for other people who may suffer a similar experience?
’Ur funktion’ is a song I wrote to describe the feeling of when everything just crashes. It’s about a difficult time in my life where I became very ill very quickly, and it completely messed up my daily schedule and life. I went from a normal healthy girl to not being able to walk and needed help to get through simple tasks. I wrote the song to express my frustration of the situation I was in, and in hope of helping others connect with the song. I learned that life is fragile, as life can turn in seconds. And to not take anything for granted, there’s things to actually care for and prioritise and other things that don’t really mean so much.
You released your first single in Swedish while the second one is in English. What can we expect from the album? Swedish or English songs, or both?
The songs of the album will be in English as it is right now. But I have plenty of Swedish songs that I would want to release as well sometime. If not for the album, maybe a smaller release afterwards with my Swedish songs!
You are a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. There are many well-known musicians, especially female ones, who famously quit their courses part way through! But you’ve stayed the course! What benefits are there to a writer and performer in studying music academically?
There are a lot of advantages to studying there, such as the building itself with the studios, instruments, and equipment, but also teachers and networking with other musicians and creators. You breathe music in that building and it’s very inspiring to be a part of it. However, my life is getting busier and harder to combine pursuing an artist career with studies, so we’ll see if I’ll join the quitters club or not…
Do you set aside a certain amount of time each day for writing or do you do it when you feel like it?
Usually when I feel like it or when inspiration comes to me, which is quite often. Writing music is such a big part of my life so it’s normal for me to sit in my creative bubble creating music.
Does inspiration simply come to you, or do you have to seek it?
It depends, some periods I have a bigger need to express myself, process experiences and heal. Often, it’s then the inspiration flows, it’s like therapy for me. But sometimes it’s harder to find, so it comes in waves. That’s life.
How do most of your songs start life? A piano part? A chord? Or melody?
My music comes in many different shapes and forms, and after some thought, I’ve noticed that many of my songs are built from a “harmonic structure” that resonates with me, often on the more melancholic side. It’s from there that I get inspiration for themes, lyrics, atmospheres, and ambiances for my music. This creative process is often me being in a world of exploration, where I play around with a piano and my voice, being in my own private bubble of creativity!
Are you a ‘studio person’ or a ‘live/touring person’, or both?
Recently there has been a lot of studio work, but I’m primarily a live person. I love performing and expressing myself on the stage, but now I’m in the studio preparing for the future and what’s to come. What I like about the studio is that I get time to explore soundscapes, arrangements, and my artistic ID, and allow myself to be detailed with it. But I also love the unpredictability of performing, everything depends on the energy and the audience and what you do with it. I guess I’m a combination of both!
Have you worked with any well-known musicians so far? What was it like to cooperate with them?
When I’m writing music for others I’ve gotten the chance to work with and for some well-known figures in Sweden, and I hope to work with many more. It’s inspiring to see others express their musicality and to help them with it!
What would be your dream collaboration?
I would love to create something with Ane Brun one day, she’s a very big inspiration to me. But if I had to dream big, it would be to write music with Chris Martin from Coldplay, or collaborate with the legend herself, Kate Bush.
What is your favourite musical ‘genre’? And how would you ‘classify’ yourself, if at all?
I find inspiration and love to listen to various kinds of music, especially pop, alternative and a lot of film scores and compositions with orchestral arrangements. I would classify my own music somewhere between pop, ambient and cinematic music where the music is often emotionally driven.
Apart from your usual style, do you ever write in others, even just to amuse yourself, for example classical, or jazz? If you were asked to write a song for Melodifestivalen to qualify for Eurovision, would you take up that challenge?
I think writing music is amazing in every way, not only for me, but to write objectively for other artists or projects is very rewarding as well. There’s a special joy to help others express and tell their story.
Being a part of Melodifestivalen or even having the opportunity to compete in Eurovision has been a dream of mine since I wrote ’Apple Pie’, (who knows, maybe that song could win it all). It would be a very fun experience to be a part of it sometime, somehow!
I recall you co-wrote a musical show a few years ago, based on your home county of Södermanland, which was to have toured Sweden, but it had to be cancelled when the main actor had a serious accident and was unable to perform. It was rescheduled for the following year but then the pandemic hit! Despite your disappointment over that do you have an inclination to try other multimedia productions in the future?
Absolutely, 100%. It was such a valuable experience to work and collaborate with a team full of inspiring creators. Writing and composing music can at times make you feel a little lonely, so to have been given that opportunity was fantastic, and I can’t wait to do more like it in the future.
Some musicians move abroad, if only for a short time, for a change of scenery and to generate a new challenge. Is that something you might contemplate? Or is it too early to think about that, yet?
Maybe not abroad at first hand, but it’s very important for me to just leave the Stockholm city bubble to write in other sceneries. Especially for the upcoming album, that is so heavily inspired by forests and nature. Me and my producer Joakim have gone to a cabin in Idre, further up north in Sweden three times to work on my album, and we’re now planning for the next trip this fall. It’s there we’ve gotten the most of our inspiration for the sound of the album!
Although I would love to try moving abroad and exploring the world in the future and to see what it can give me, I must admit that I feel at home here in Sweden. But a dream of mine is to have a seasonal home somewhere warm, where I could escape from the pain that comes with the cold winter seasons because of my disease and when my rheumatism is bad.
What other sorts of ‘writing’ do you do if any? Poetry? Prose? Shopping lists?
I’m surrounded by stacks of to-do lists. Living a busy life that I do has made me addicted to writing lists, making it the most important tool of my day. I would’ve been totally lost without them. I do have a tendency to write too many to-dos on my lists which usually ends up not having checked every box of the day… Which then leads to an even longer list the day after…
Vinyl, CD, Download or stream? What’s your preference?
Streaming is convenient and easily accessible for a global audience, but maybe not the most profitable for artists. But I do have the whole music library of the world in my pocket…it’s a complex, love-hate relationship. However, I would love to make vinyls out of my upcoming album. I think having a physical copy of someone’s work means so much more. And also, album covers are a form of art themselves, and having art in my home is always a happy welcome.
Have you ever been star-struck?
Thinking of it, I haven’t been so star-strucked in my life. But I’ve met people with big names that are also a great inspiration for me. One time I got the opportunity to accompany Ane Brun on the piano. That was a very cool experience.
Also, my producer Joakim’s biggest idol is Ludwig Göransson, who happened to play at a venue this spring in Gamla stan, Stockholm with his father’s rockabilly coverband, pretty unannounced. We got there after some insider information and afterwards we got to have several minutes with him, just chatting. He’s a big inspiration for both of us, and to speak with him, seeing he was genuinely interested in our work was also, a very cool experience.
If you weren’t writing and playing music, what would you like to be? Did you ever aspire to being ‘something else’ entirely (model, astronaut, footballer, brain surgeon, train driver…)?!
I would probably want to work with something that involves working with and around people to make things better. I have always been able to see myself being a police officer, but maybe in another lifetime.
What’s your favourite book?
Not a very good reader unfortunately – I’m dyslexic and way too busy writing music! But the Harry Potter books aren’t too bad.
What were you like at school?
Writing a little bit about my childhood.
I was a lively, creative, and courageous little girl. In many situations I could be very strong and sure of what I wanted, but in many others, I would be small and fragile. I was very aware of what was happening around me and I was quick to read people and situations. Maybe I was in need of control in that sense, as a way to survive a world where a lot was happening.
My parents divorced at a young age which was tough. Separations are usually challenging before everything settles into the new normal. The world can become shaky when the adults around you are not doing well.
Relationships with other children could also be very difficult. There was a boy in my class who couldn’t handle that I was a strong and unique bird. He found my weaknesses and pushed them. School was on and off tough because back then I also had undiagnosed dyslexia, which made my school days a bit tricky to say the least.
I also lived in a harsher part of the town for half of my childhood where the climate among the children was very rough. Hierarchy can be brutal. A world where the children are expected to handle situations that would have required adults. Children who aren’t doing well themselves tend to be unkind to other children that are struggling, and that is hard to deal with as a child.
Well, there are some scars from my childhood that I’ve worked on in many ways, including writing my music. In fact, that was the role music played in my life even back then, as a protection and a safe zone.
What’s the music scene like in Sweden right now, in your opinion?
It’s very inspiring and it’s a privilege to be a part of the Swedish music industry. There are so many experienced and amazing artists, producers, and songwriters in the country and also out there in the world. Although, I hope to see more female colleagues in the future…!
Best gig you’ve played so far?
In February this year I sang in front of a big orchestra and choir in an event to celebrate the Swedish band Kent. It was an amazing experience being a lead singer for such an event, and I dream of one day singing with my own music together with a professional orchestra!
Winning ‘Imagine Sweden’ was also a big one for me, a key one in my career. It was the most powerful feeling when the audience did standing ovations, and it was there I got the revelation that this is what I was made to do. Just like I envisioned from my childhood bedroom when I sang with the jump rope.
(Editor’s note: The performance Johanna refers to is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFsZAZHOFno)
Who were your favourite artists growing up?
Coldplay, Kate Bush and Laleh.
What’s your favourite single?
It’s difficult to choose, but one single that has been important for my musical journey is ’Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush. I used to dance away all my worries together with my stepmother Helena with that song in the background. It gave me strength and a sense of euphoria. I was fascinated by Kate’s amazing voice and expression, the beautiful piano melody, and the perfectly composed arrangement.
Another significant single for me is ’Clocks’ by Coldplay. It’s actually the first song I learned to play on the piano!
Many thanks to Johanna for answering the many questions here in such a considered and thoughtful fashion.
We’ll be sure to review the album when it is released and also ’Bird’, which has a much bigger production than the version here. And of course we will mention any live dates as they are announced.
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