Lisa Wanloo on struggling with creativity and finding the authentic feeling for songwriting: Interview

J.N. May 18, 2020

In my former role as a music researcher, I very often came across subjects as low self-esteem, creative blocks and mental health struggles in interviews with musicians although it was never a topic of any study I did, but there was a need to express the struggles musicians face while being creative. I remember one artist using music to find peace, “Music is my refuge […] I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness”, I was told.

Many creative people report feeling incompetent, inadequate, and having low self-esteem at times – even though they have “credentials” and accomplishments. It won’t change because of success. In chats we’ve had with bands and artists many claim they don’t listen to their own records, read reviews or coverages of shows, and would never watch photos or videos of themselves. When you can be seen in close-ups on twenty-foot high theatre screens, it may be especially hard not to criticize your appearance and performance.

Why is all this important when you’re about to introduce a rising star on the Swedish singer-songwriter scene who’s signed to a label with credentials? The simple answer is that Lisa Wanloo “postponed” her career for many years because she “wasn’t good enough” to pick up her guitar and write the songs she releases today. But the nagging feeling that she was meant to write songs finally drove her to pick up the guitar and start.

A few weeks ago when Messed!Up did a live session with Lisa we grabbed the chance to chat with her after the show. However, although she’s struggling with creative blocks and low self-esteem when writing music, Lisa is far from being an anxiety-ridden person with a dark mindset. It’s rather the opposite.

After solving the immediate problems of ordering beer and coffee, we engaged in a long chat about Lisa embarking on her music adventure late in life, finding the authentic feeling when writing music, and not taking her label Startracks signing offer serious at all at the beginning.

Breaking the chain of low musical self-esteem

What’s interesting with you is that music, in terms of releasing songs, came much later in life for you. Most bands and artists start playing and releasing music in their late teens, but you’re a late bloomer. Have you done anything else in music before you embarked on a solo adventure?
Actually not, but I’ve always felt that music is something I should work with, there has always been this special bond to music. I just can’t explain why I waited that long, it’s kind of strange, isn’t it? (laughs)

But it’s very much about circumstances in life that delayed things a bit. I was in a relationship for a very long time and did many other things, and although I wanted to do something with music I never pushed myself to get it started because I thought I wasn’t good enough. It was always like “I really want to do this, but I can’t do it”, and when you’re stuck in that thought you just keep music as a dream, you will never try to make anything happen. That’s what low confidence is about.

But it changed. When I was around 26 or 27 I made a few life-changing decisions, to change the way I approach things in life and how I think about myself, and I just thought “Why not try to do a few songs on the guitar?”. And it sounded so crappy at the beginning (laughs), I was just super bad. I knew how I wanted it to sound, I could hear it in my head, but when I tried it out it didn’t sound any good. At that point, I had come to terms with music being my passion in life and really wanted to try it out, and I thought I just need to practice more to get better and learn how to write music, and it ended with me leaving for Berlin to get better.

I made a song and sent it to a music school in Berlin and was approved. “Finally, maybe I’ll learn something” I thought because I didn’t know much at all, but Berlin wasn’t really anything for me. It was all about how to write a hit song and it’s not what I’m interested in, I want to learn more about the art of music, how you can get thoughts and feelings to transpire into songs and harmonies, and we did nothing of that in Berlin, and I left after six months already.

Back home I tried to figure it out on my own and listened to lots of music, and after some time it just came to me, some sort of understanding on how to do it. I’ve worked really hard ever since.

To summarize; I started very late just because I didn’t believe I could do it. Low confidence in myself combined with a stupid mindset made me believe that everyone was much better than me.

And today it’s much better I guess when you understand you’re good enough to release music and release music on an established record label as Startracks?
Yeah, that was a surprise. Suddenly I was booked for shows and realized that people actually liked my music. And when Startracks happened I just found myself in a position where I was booked for support slots for bands and artists I listen to a lot myself, but again I thought “That can’t be right, I can’t play with them, they’re too good for me”. It was kind of strange at the beginning.

I have started to focus more on my confidence and realized that if you want something as much as I do with music, just do it. Maybe you can’t live off it, or maybe you get good enough to sustain a career only in music, what’s important is to try. When you have this feeling “Ok, I really have to express my thoughts in music” and you realize that people listening to your music have the same thoughts, it’s enough to continue doing it. That’s a confirmation telling me that what I do is needed.

But how did you it happened that you signed with Startracks?
That’s a fun story! I got a message on my Lisa Wanloo Music page at Facebook – Westside Music Sweden made me start an artist page because they thought it would be easier for people to find me – and the message was from Startracks, and I just thought “Who’s that? Never heard of it”. It said “Hey, are you signed to a label?”, and in some sort of way I was because my friends run BlackValley Records and we just thought I should be on the label, but there was nothing on paper, just friends hanging out. But Fredrik’s [Startracks label man] message would change that.

At the time I told him that I’m on BlackValley, but he asked me anyway if I wanted to know more about his label and I thought “Why not?”. I still thought it was strange that he contacted me and asked all those questions because I’ve never heard anything about his label! (laughs) A week later I checked out Startracks and realized “Hey, this is kind of big”, and got back to him immediately, like “Hey! Of course I’m interested”. (laughs) Who was the fool now?

It was so awesome that he sent me a message just like his label was nothing at all. But again, I questioned myself a lot at the time because of really low self-esteem, and I couldn’t even comprehend the fact that someone wanted to sign me to their label. (laughs)

Finding the authentic feeling

It’s widely known that creativity doesn’t come easy and before you tap into an endless stream of inspiration, there’s a maze of struggles to navigate through for many musicians.

Creative blocks are part of the craft. However, it’s not so much about avoiding moments of creative drought, but knowing how to navigate and respond to these difficulties when they arise. Working harder and longer is not the answer, using the right tools, and working with good people is key. What separates successful musicians from the masses is the will to keep at it.

For Lisa, finding the authentic feeling, the original feeling she had when she first came up with the idea for a song, is crucial in the writing process, and finding the way back to that feeling when it’s time to “get the job done” is something you need to learn to do – and that’s a long learning process.

The singer-songwriter scene is quite diverse. Your music is about guitars advancing and receding, drums or rhythms are non-existent, and your vocals are the rhythmic engine of the songs. It’s music you listen to while the sun goes down on the horizon – it’s very emotional music. As an artist writing emotional music, it’s usually a struggle to grab the moment when you have the “right feeling” and can let it transpire into music, and that makes the creative process a bit of a struggle. Is it like that for you?
Yeah, most definitely! (laughs) You have to focus really hard to get absorbed by that feeling and be inward-looking, to be in the zone. I really need to be like that to be able to write anything, that’s when I can channel those feelings and make songs of it. It’s all about having a need to express what you feel, but it never comes easy.

But what’s most important, lyrics or harmonies?
The lyrics are everything! You suddenly get the feeling “I really need to get this stuff on paper”, but it may take a while before it happens, before you understand how you want to express it – a very long time. (laughs) The problem is to find a way back to how you felt from the beginning, not how I feel at the moment I realize how I want to express it. It’s very important to me to be able to find it again, that’s the authentic feeling and what I really felt. In that moment everything stops and nothing is allowed to interfere. Everything has to fuse together; sounds, feelings, the surrounding – everything.

If you are like that, and I am, it’s very important to have it like that.

But it must come with a cost? You can’t work with deadlines if you need to wait for it to happen.
Some people think it’s possible to do it after a schedule and I can understand that it’s worth a try just to get anything done, but then you need to have a strategy or know how to find that first feeling automatically, like snapping with your fingers and you’re back again. To do that you need to work on it, and it takes years to reach that point. For some it will never turn up.

One of my teachers in Berlin had a way to do it. He’s a songwriter and has been working with music for years and has learned to visualize it like an elevator, and he “lowers” himself down to the dark spot he needs for writing music. For him that routine has become normal; he can lower himself down but get back to the surface when he wants to.

That got stuck with me because you can’t sit and wait for creativity to turn up. You have to learn to find the path back to that original authentic feeling.

Having such a strategy must also be very important in periods when you experience creative blocks and don’t know how to get something done.
Yeah, and that’s really, really tough to handle. Fortunately I know how I work out by now and when that happens I try to reach out for another side of myself, something boring, sad, or dark, and then I return to a more positive position just to get these opposites. It’s like performing a really emotional song on stage, something I wrote when I was at a low point, but when it’s done I’ll get back to the happy me and have a beer with friends. It’s just like a switch.

It’s great to be able to have that switch today but it didn’t come easy, you have to learn how to do it over time.

But what would happen if your label, hypothetically, put pressure on you or would set deadlines for releasing new music?
(laughs) That would be a problem! I was super nervous about it at the beginning but Fredrik at Startracks is very keen on me working with my creativity and release music I’m happy with, and he wouldn’t push me. The problem at the start was me and my ambitions to release music, which created pressures. But Fredrik just said “Do what makes you feel good”, and much of the pressure disappeared.

I’m kind of sure it wouldn’t be a problem to work with deadlines, but I’m also very sure that I wouldn’t be able to activate or find the authentic feeling I talked about and create something I’m happy with.

You released the “Take Me Down” single earlier this year and in just a few days there’s a new single out, “Darker / Hear”. Does it mean that you have a full album in the works?
Yes, it’s in my head all the time but it’s not planned yet. No deadlines, just something I know I will do soon.

Singer-songwriters often work with storytelling or narratives which also fits better with the album format than EP’s.
That’s right, and I would love to tell my story on how I reached the position I’m in today, how I started late in life and had all these emotions I just had to connect to music. I want all of that to be on the album.

It’s also the reason why I don’t want to wait too long to get started with the album because I don’t want to lose the feelings I had at the beginning. The more time slipping by, the further away from those feelings you get.

Soon you have two singles out in 2020 and you had shows planned in Denmark and Germany, and then Corona changed it all. How are you dealing with it?
I haven’t thought much about it to be honest but I will probably do more live streams from home. I also do stuff with two other bands and can be busy if I want to. But I’m kind of chill about any future plan. At the moment it’s all about writing new songs because I have time for it, and maybe do a live stream with new songs just to get feedback from people.

But what’s your ambition as an artist, what level do you aim for? Is the goal set to climb the ladder to the step of, let’s say, Damien Rice?
Actually not, I want to do this in smaller settings, at least at the moment, because it’s a bit scary to do bigger shows. (laughs) Maybe I’ll change my mind later in life but for now I need to feel comfortable with what I’m doing. I don’t think I would be able to reach out with that feeling I was talking about to a large audience on a bigger stage. And I would also need a band on stage, and they have to be good and it has to be planned. It’s a lot of things I’m not comfy with at the moment. I also develop as an artist. Today I had another musician with me and that’s big for me. The problem is that I develop very slowly. (laughs)

What I’m most happy with at the moment is when people listen to my music and say that they can feel what I felt when I did that song. If I can reach out on that level, it’s fine for me. To reach out from a big venue is something completely different. It’s too much technical stuff that needs to work out and I’m not really ready for it yet, but I will be – promise! Just give the slow me a few more years. (laughs)

Photographer: ©Richard Bloom

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About The Author

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.