Fever Ray’s Karin Dreijer, Behind the Mask
The musician, whose new album was released in March, discusses disguises, recording and why they find karaoke so off-putting.
By Lindsay Zoladz
Karin Dreijer's is a face of many masks. Around 20 years ago, when the Swedish musician first began releasing songs with the eerie, beloved electronic duo the Knife, Dreijer and their brother, Olof, were often photographed wearing black, face-obscuring beaks — a little bit bubonic plague doctor, a little bit "Eyes Wide Shut." The solo project Fever Ray, begun in 2009, offered Dreijer more opportunities for striking visual imagery and character work. They once accepted an award from Sweden's Sveriges Radio wearing an eerily realistic mask that made it look like their flesh was melting.
As Fever Ray, Dreijer invents another uncanny guise on the cover of their latest album, "Radical Romantics," which finds them embodying a kind of zombified office drone character with thin, stringy hair and eyes and mouth rimmed with a sickly yellow. That image, Dreijer said in a recent Pitchfork interview, was influenced by a seminude self-portrait of the 79-year-old Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum. "I thought of it as a Grindr pic," they said of the Nerdrum piece. "It contains so much longing: throwing yourself out there, head over heels. I tried to do a face like his."
Dreijer is, by contrast, barefaced and bundled in a nondescript, oversize black hoodie when I reach them by video call in their studio in Stockholm. Their white-blond hair is cropped artfully, and they sit in front of a white wall as blank as a primed canvas. They would be leaving for the States in two days to embark on the five-city North American leg of the "Radical Romantics" tour, but they were looking further ahead, too. "I am thinking about what I will do next," Dreijer says. "Which is a good thing, so you don't just drop after the tour. Touring is intense and a lot of fun — there are so many people around. I am planning what I’m going to do afterward."
Fever Ray's music is somehow both brooding and ecstatic — a sonic kaleidoscope that explodes with infinite variations of gray. Throbbing synthesizers and driving electronic beats provide a steady backbone for Dreijer's bracing, shape-shifting vocals and restless experiments in genres as varied as punk, ambient and industrial-tinged psych-rock.
"Radical Romantics" finds Dreijer working with some familiar collaborators (like Olof, for the first time since the Knife released its final studio album, "Shaking the Habitual," in 2013) and some new ones, like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who add an edge of industrial menace to two of the album's boldest tracks. The visual language of "Radical Romantics" was, like much of Dreijer's work, developed with longtime friend Martin Falck. "We’re always sending each other pictures and film clips and stuff on Instagram," Dreijer said. "‘Look, we should do this next time! This looks amazing, we should try this!’ We collect everything in a folder and then try to organize it, which is almost impossible."
For all its imaginative character play, "Radical Romantics" is Dreijer's most vulnerable album — an open hearted exploration of love and its possible failures. "I think we started to really work on a gut feeling for what we find fun," they said. "And then we talk about what we find fun in relation to what we are really, really afraid of, what we find scary."
"Me and Martin, we are afraid of everything," they add. "I think we are both the world's most scared people. But then I think we have become quite brave, as well."
What time of day do you work?
I have two kids, so I’ve had to work proper office hours, because that's when you have child care. And I think also, to have a good routine, to go [to the studio] in the morning and you work during the day and then you go home and you have a social life, you can meet friends and hang out with your kids. I think that has been quite important for me. Then I also do really like to go there on holidays. Like for Christmas, or in the middle of the summer. Because that's when you feel like you get so much time and nobody interrupts. And everybody thinks you’re away doing Christmassy stuff, but you’re actually there working.
My oldest kid is turning 20 this year, so I have had that routine for a long time. But now I feel like when they are about to move out, and they also don't need me the same way in the evenings and weekends and stuff, then yeah, I think I started to enjoy going there in evenings and nights, as well.
Are there set hours that you sleep?
I have understood that I need to sleep, eat and work out to be able to function properly. Which is a bit annoying, because it doesn't feel like fun stuff when the only thing you want to do is just continue working. But it's not so helpful to skip those three things.
What type of exercise do you do?
It's a good biking distance to my studio, so I try to bike there. I really do like hot yoga. Going to the gym is really boring, but I do that, especially now, when I’m on tour, I have to do that. In the winters, I ski a lot.
What embarrasses you?
It's interesting what embarrasses people. I don't like to sing to a small group of people. [Laughs.] I really find it difficult to do karaoke. It's this idea of authenticity that I find very difficult. Maybe it's not embarrassing, it's more like, it's really frightening.
How is that different from performing your own material onstage?
Because then it becomes a performance, and I can play around much more with the ideas of authenticity and what's a natural voice. It's easier, I think, to play with those ideas than it is if you can't use props or lights or effects. If I say, "This is the authentic me, this is authenticity," then people will believe you.
There's something uncomfortably sincere about a lot of karaoke.
And you’re also supposed to sound a specific way. You’re supposed to sound like the original. That is at least what people are striving to do. And I have never been able to sing in that classically "good" way of singing. I don't know how to do it.
I was reading another interview with you that said on one of the effects machines you use to process your vocals, there's actually a knob that says "gender" on it, that you can twist.
Yes, there is a machine that has that. It's fun. [Laughs.]
How do you think of music as a place to play with gender?
I think I have found out that making music, for me, is to create spaces where I feel free. And playing around with gender is one aspect of it. Early on, when working with the Knife, we tried to find this space where you couldn't exactly tell what kind of voice this is, if it's male or female or something in between. To find that space, for me, is a very freeing thing. And it can be done in so many different ways. It also has to do with how you perform the vocals, if the vocalist sounds very close or far away or [like] whispering or screaming. All these things work together to find this space.
What are you reading right now?
I have it here because I got it for my birthday a couple of weeks ago from my brother, actually. [Holds the book up to the screen.] "Dear Senthuran" by Akwaeke Emezi. I think it's amazing. It's a way of seeing a nonbinary identity from a place that I didn't know about. It's more of a spiritual way of seeing gender. I’m also into reading a lot of poetry about love. I have a new favorite writer called Chen Chen, who also writes really amazing poetry.
You’ve also mentioned that bell hooks was a big inspiration on this album. When did you first encounter her work?
I was so enthusiastic on the last Knife tour, 10 years ago, that I gave [hooks's 1999 book] "All About Love" to all the band and the crew to read. It's been with me for a long time. And I still think it's great. It's so strange when everybody has some kind of relationship with love, but there are so few people who have a definition of what it is they mean when they say they are in love. What does it mean to say, "I love you"? I think it's really important to share a definition with the people you want to have close relationships with. What do I need to feel loved? And what do you need to feel loved? And I think she writes about that really well.
I’ve found your music to be so referential to other texts in a way that is rare. It seems like books are an important part of your musical world. Is it difficult to incorporate that in a way that doesn't feel too academic?
When we did the last Knife album ["Shaking the Habitual"], it was pretty academic, I would say. Even though I have never studied at the university, we read a lot and we had a lot of literature lists and stuff like that. And I think after that, both me and Olof talked about how we’re not so into that kind of process anymore, that starts through the head and then into the body. I am more interested in things that go into the body directly. But I think I’ve been as inspired by film and images because I normally have a clear feeling of a song when I start. It's more of a feeling or an emotion. And then I know the colors of it and what kind of setting it should take place in.
Do you consider yourself a visual artist? You’re a musician, but there's such a visual component to Fever Ray.
I think I’m still trying to find out what I am, or what I do. I know I do music, and I’m very involved in making the visuals. The music is sort of the hard, difficult work that I have to do. I work mostly by myself for a really long time, and then when I have the sketches and I know what the tracks are about, then I invite people to collaborate. Then when the music is finished, we get to do the fun stuff, which is the visuals. I work with Martin on those.
Is it easy for you to invite new collaborators in and figure out how to work with them?
I ask people who I think do interesting and fun things. You never really know how it will turn out. So I did start a couple of collaborations with people that didn't really work out. During Covid and the pandemic, I didn't meet anybody in person except my brother. We have built studios just next to each other.
Is it important for your creative process to have your brother close by?
I don't know if it's important. It was just a practical thing that he moved back from Berlin like five years ago and we both needed studios, so we decided to build together. Because I was just renting different rooms here and there. So it's my first studio that's my own. With a window, so I can see the sky. I’ve only been in basements before.
Tell me more about your studio space.
First it was a huge sort of industrial space, and then we built this cube in the middle with two studios in it. It's a wooden cube inside this huge space. And in the big space, I think the most important thing, because it's so dark here most times of the year, is that we have daylight light tubes. I don't know what they’re called in English. It's like full daylight — to go there is a bit like having light therapy. Or just having proper daylight, which I think helps a lot. To be able to be here in the winter. So I think that is the best thing about the studio. In my little work studio room, it's not full daylight. Then it's more cozy.
What's the worst space you’ve ever worked in?
I’ve rehearsed and recorded in really, really [expletive] places. I think one of my first rehearsal spaces, with one of my first bands — this is like early ’90s — we were sharing a space with another band with only guys. They peed in glasses and left them in the rehearsal space, because there was no real bathroom around. That was very disgusting, but it also tells a lot about the time, how it was when I started to make music. It was super male-dominated and it was really difficult to find a space where you felt safe and free.
How do you know when a song is done?
That is a very difficult thing to know — but when you listen to it in many different places and leave it for some time and can come back to it and still feel like it makes sense. But then if you listen to it one year later, you probably would feel differently and want to redo a lot and change things because you are in a different place yourself. This time I worked with 10 tracks: To have them all done at the same time, that is a bit of a challenge.
What is your relationship to deadlines?
I set my deadlines myself. And then when I’m completely done with everything, I start to work with my management and the different labels. I’m very happy not to have anybody involved in the musical process that tells me, "Oh, you have to be ready now." That would never work for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
AdvertisementWhat time of day do you work? Are there set hours that you sleep? What type of exercise do you do? What embarrasses you? How is that different from performing your own material onstage? There's something uncomfortably sincere about a lot of karaoke. I was reading another interview with you that said on one of the effects machines you use to process your vocals, there's actually a knob that says "gender" on it, that you can twist. How do you think of music as a place to play with gender? What are you reading right now? You’ve also mentioned that bell hooks was a big inspiration on this album. When did you first encounter her work? I’ve found your music to be so referential to other texts in a way that is rare. It seems like books are an important part of your musical world. Is it difficult to incorporate that in a way that doesn't feel too academic? Do you consider yourself a visual artist? You’re a musician, but there's such a visual component to Fever Ray. Is it easy for you to invite new collaborators in and figure out how to work with them? Is it important for your creative process to have your brother close by? Tell me more about your studio space. What's the worst space you’ve ever worked in? How do you know when a song is done? What is your relationship to deadlines?