Monday, March 21, 2011

Introducing Bloodshot Records Recording Artist: Maggie Bjorklund, Pedal Steel Songstress

Maggie Bjorklund's first solo album, Coming Home, is a rich, earthy listen, filled with gorgeous pedal steel guitar, and contributions by an impressive list of guest vocalists and musicians. Ms. Bjorklund, who is originally from Denmark, and was a member of The Darleens and Miss B Haven, took up the pedal steel after going her own way, and spent time in Nashville and Seattle respectively, to hone her craft with the masters. She has played with Mark Pickerel (formally of the Screaming Trees) and Exene Cervenka (of the band X) among many others.

Coming Home marks Ms. Bjorklund's true arrival, and allows her to step into the spotlight and out of the role of studio player. Her virtuosic guitar playing drifts stylistically from haunting to achingly beautiful, and her collaboration with members of Calexico give the album a dusty cinematic feel. Guest vocalists Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins), John Auer (Posies), and Rachel Flotard (Neko Case) all lend their distinctive talents to Coming Home, which surface throughout the album, but are always mindful to allow Ms. Bjorklund's sensibilities and direction to lead the way.

This is one of the most exciting releases I have stumbled upon in quite a long time, and it's a record that I would recommend to any fans of pedal steel, as well as classic country, and to those listeners who enjoy a record with a diverse cast of players and a range of textures, moods, and sensations.

I recently had the great please to speak with the talented Ms. Bjorkland to discuss her trajectory as a player and songwriter, as well as her experiences working on her first solo album, Coming Home.  Here is our discussion:

Before we discuss your new album, I’d like to first talk about what brought you to where are now in your career. Can you describe your experiences in The Darleens and in Miss B. Haven?

Maggie Bjorklund: Darleens was my first experience with being a professional musician. Everything was new to me; how to deal with a record label, how to perform on television and in radio etc. It was a time of learning how to be in music business. I loved it. But it was also my first time as composer and song writer, so in everything it was new territory for me. A lot of fun, and hard work. It was somewhat scary as well, a lot of pressure.

After Darleens stopped, I was asked to join the band called Miss B Haven. They had existed for quite some years and were one of the major bands in Denmark at the time. I also learned a lot from being in that band. Amongst other things I was very focused on analyzing their songwriting. I have always admired their skills, and the songwriters in that band are amongst the best and most original Denmark had at the time.

I have always felt that being a sideman is a great experience of learning, because you are confronted with other ways of addressing music, than what is your own habits. It makes you ask questions, which I find is the key to being an artist, to be curious.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

As an experienced guitarist and songwriter, what led you to take up the pedal steel?

MB: I am the kind of person as you might have gathered by now, that is always curious about my surroundings. So playing different instruments is a part of that. Growing up I played piano, guitar and violin. And whenever I find myself in the same room as an instrument I have not tried, I have the urge to go and play it and see what lies buried inside them.

So it was natural for me to be very curious about the pedal steel guitar. I played country music, and steel guitar is traditionally a big part of that sound. It is a very rare instrument in Denmark, so when a friend offered me a fender student model I immediately bought it. But was then confronted with the complexity of the instrument and no one to really show me how to play it. So I failed at my first attempt and put it in a closet and left it there for some years.

Those years later I had matured musically and when I took it out and started playing it, I could actually do it. Then it was the start of the love affair with the instrument that is still there. I love that it is uniquely complex and takes a lot of dedication to master. It has so much soul and depth.

As someone who left Europe and has worked in Nashville and Seattle, can you discuss how each town and it’s music community has influenced your work?

MB: Being a European, I have always looked up to Americans and the way they play music. You have a natural way of playing country and Americana, because it evolved over here. So being able to be a part of the music scene over here has been very important to me and my playing.

Nashville is a double sided experience; on one hand there is the conformity of the traditional country music scene that can have a tendency to be very slick in its own way, but on the other side you have this wonderful progressive music scene with some amazing artists as well. Like Lambchop and Paul Burch etc. I have grown to really like that town.

It is of course also "the source" when you are playing pedal steel. I have taken lessons from some of the great pedal steel players there, and it is the town where I learned how to be a professional with the instrument. It can also teach you what is really you and in that Sense how to play and how not to play your instrument. I am quite different in my approach to the pedal steel than a lot of the pro's in that town. I Believe it is also because I am a european who didnt grow up with the sound of pedal steel in my backyard.    

Seattle is my "hometown" in USA. This is where I do a lot of my work and I love the town and its music. The musicians here are very supportive of each other, and I have always felt very welcome here. It has influenced me in many ways, but one major thing is that they respected my steel playing from the beginning and this gave me a lot of confidence with the instrument.

As you developed your pedal steel playing, you played with quite a few people as a sessions player. Can you describe some of your previous studio work and what were the most beneficial aspects of these experiences for you?

MB: Playing with Mark Pickerel was some of the first work I did over here, and it was super fun to be a part of. It gave me inside knowledge and feel of how you Americans go about your music. It was great working with such professional people as Steve Fisk.

I have worked with Johnny Sangster from Seattle on many projects including "Coming Home". He is one of my favorite people to work with; super sensitive on how to get the best out of your playing, and he always knows how to make my pedal steel sound great in recordings. I value his musicians ship and skills tremendously. He has helped me develop my playing through feed back and friendship.

I worked with producer David Bianco on Exene Cervenka's new album The Excitement of Maybe, which is also out on Bloodshot Records. He was also really great to work with and I was proud to be part of that project. I find it very rewarding to be a side man and work with all these people because it gives me a chance to develop a sensitivity on how to fit into someone else's musical vision, with out loosing who you are. That is the big challenge, but also a great spot of learning and therefor development.

When and how did you know it was time to make your own album?

MB: Years ago I had set out on a mission to master the pedal steel guitar and I have practiced it with dedication for years. Being a sideman was part of that, but the longing for making my own music was always there. I just somehow knew it was time. I had come far in my playing, I had worked with a lot of great musicians and on many projects. It was just time.

What was your recording and songwriting process for Coming Home?

MB: Some of the songs have been underway for years, other songs I wrote specifically for the album with the singers in mind. Wanting to make the album, I set out on a quest to ask people I really admire as musicians and singers to be part of the album, and it was such a thrill that they said "yes"!

I made a lot of demos at home in Denmark, and sent them to Johnny Sangster who is the producer on the album. He gave me feed back on them, and we worked together on choosing the songs for the album out of the pile you always need to have as your starting point for an album. I  have to write much more material than needed so I can shape the album the way I want.

I then sent some demos to the singers. I asked Rachel Flotard and Jon Auer if they would contribute with the lyrics for their songs which they did. I was so thrilled with their work. Having them write their own lyrics also made them very present as artists on the songs. I also sent demos to Calexico as the songs were chosen so they knew what direction we were going.

Recording it was so much fun. Johnny Sangster and I went to Tucson and recorded all the basics with Calexico in the Wavelab Studio. We did a lot of overdubs in Johnnys studio, crackle and pop, in Seattle. And I also did some overdubs in Copenhagen. There were a few musicians in Denmark that I really wanted to be a part of the album. The keyboard player, Dan Hemmer, my friends from Darleens, Karin Oerum and Sisse Larsen. And the amazing theremin player Pamelia Kurstin was in Denmark as well. We mixed and mastered it in Seattle.

Making an album with all these different people was a great experience and I found it very easy to work with them all, and be open to their contributions that has shaped the album.

How did you connect with Calexico for the album?

MB: I am friends with their pedal steel guitarist, Paul Niehaus. We pedal steel'ers always connect when we meet, because there are so few of us out there. Through Paul, I met John Convertino and Joey Burns. I have always been a big fan of their work and musicians ship all the way from Giant Sand and through Calexico. It was a big dream for me to work with these people. They were the first people I approached when I set out to do the album. And they said "yes"! Excellent.

Can you describe your experiences working with Calexico, as well as with the other players who made up the band for the album?

MB: Working with Calexico was every bit as fun and rewarding as I had hoped. It felt very natural to play with them. They are musicians in a very special category, they are so skilled and unique as musicians, and it was just super easy and great to work with them. I was so pleased at their approach to my music, and working with them and the rest of the people involved felt so much like home that I had to call the album "Coming Home" It felt as though this is where I belong and where I should be musically.

I play almost all of the guitars on the album, Johnny Sangster plays a few. Barrett Martin plays vibes on some songs. He jumped right in and played beautifully on the tracks. Barb Hunter, the cello player is one of my favorite musicians. She has that rare ability of bringing a classical instrument into modern music and make it fit right in. Her sound is a big part of my music and I love working with her. She always comes up with great ideas.

Mark Lanegan, Jon Auer, and Rachel Flotard lent guest vocals on several of the songs on Coming Home. Can you describe how you connected with each of them, and what working with each one was like?

MB: I connected with Mark Lanegan through Mark Pickerel. Pickerel was the first drummer in Screaming Trees. I have admired Mark Lanegan's overwhelmingly soulful voice for a long time, and to have him participate on my album was another dream come true. We recorded his parts in LA and we had a great afternoon in the studio. We worked well together. It was Mark's idea that we should make "Intertwined" a duet between him and me. I hadn't really had that thought before but it turned out to be just the right thing for that song.

Jon Auer jumped right in and wrote the lyrics for the two songs he is doing. I was really thrilled to see how he made his parts from getting a demo of a song and a title of the song. His lyrics fitted really well. The song "Vildspor" a danish word that means "tracks that lead you in a wrong direction", shows how that title took his imagination and how he worked beautifully with it. He sent me demos back with his lyrics and voice, and I was so thrilled to hear what he came up with. He is a very experienced musician and recording his vocals was yet another great day in the studio in Seattle. Super fun.

I had heard Rachel Flotard perform with Neko Case in Denmark some years back and she stood out vividly in my mind as having one of those voices you just cant forget. And having her on the album proved to be just amazing. Her lyrics are so profound and original and we worked extremely well together. I'm in love with her voice and I never tire of listening to her sing. A truly amazing singer and musician and person.

What is most rewarding for you when collaborating with other artists?

MB: Letting other artists into your musical vision is a scary, but a really rewarding thing. It means you loose control of some of the expression in the music, but you gain some depth that is different from yourself, and therefore, gives the music more aroma and spice- if I can put it that way. Letting go of control without getting lost is the key experience and what I love about it.

The people who contributed have done so with things that I could never do, and therefore it is a big gift to have other people be a part of your music. Your way of controlling it is by who you ask to join you! That is why I also find it rewarding to be a part of other people's projects. Music is a union between hearts and souls and is best enjoyed in company.

If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?

MB: Gosh that is a big question. If I could get Johnny Cash back to earth for an afternoon, I'd love to record a song just him singing and me on pedal steel guitar. Wouldn't that just be a dream! But there are so many musicians and artists out there that I admire that it is hard to single anyone out.

Looking back on the experience, what would you say was the most rewarding aspect of Coming Home for you?

It was getting back to being the creative foundation of the music. Getting back to exploring the music that lies within me. I had for years been the one focused on helping other people express their musical ideas and visions, when I was working as a side man. That is rewarding but nothing beats being the one that creates the music. To me that is a true source of happiness. To run after the little musical threats and see where it leads you. But working with all these amazing musicians and singers, and have them respond to my ideas was fantastic.

Who are some of your biggest influences?

MB: John Barry, Henry Mancini, Mozart, Calexico, Giant Sand, Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois, Johnny Cash. The list goes on and on.

What have you been listening to lately?

MB: She & Him's: Volume 1 and Volume 2, Lambchop's Is A Woman (I saw them perform this album in Copenhagen recently and it was amazing), Grethe Ingeman (a Danish singer from the 1960's), Lykke Li (I love her new album "Wounded Rhymes"), Josh Rouse's Nashville (I never get tired of that album), and Mark Lanegan's Bubblegum (I just love that album).

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