Michaela Åberg on her solo debut, self-doubt and stage fright, and writing dark psych-influenced music: Interview

J.N. 22/04/2021

Last year Gothenburg’s krautrock/psych rock-inspired six-piece Skuldpadda announced that they called it a quits not long after releasing their second album, but for lead singer Michaela Åberg it didn’t take long before she inadvertently embarked on a solo career.  

While suffering from sleep deprivation last fall, experimenting with sounds on her laptop served as meditation. But Åberg never intended to show her sonic explorations to the world; she didn’t even know if what she did could be called music. However, after two days in the studio together with producers Johan Holm and Hedvig Olsson, Åberg had recorded her debut EP Merry Crisis, a dark psych-influenced exploration reflecting the world we live in at the moment.

Messed!Up met up with her in Gothenburg and talked about her starting a solo project, her performance anxiety, and how she translates raw and dissonant ideas onto record.

Never intended to be a solo artist

The more I read about you, the more it seems like becoming an artist was unintentional, something that just happened for you.
I guess it’s quite much like it because I didn’t write any music at all until I was 21 when I joined a band for the first time. I don’t have a background in music like learning to play an instrument at a music school as many of my friends did when they grew up, everything I do now is still kind of new to me.

You never had as your goal to release your own music?
Not at all because I didn’t know how to do it. I’ve been obsessed with music my whole life though, but never had the confidence or believed that I could create something on my own. I played drums briefly when I was young, but to no success, that’s it.

My ex-boyfriend did lots of music but he didn’t like to write lyrics and since I’ve always been good at writing, and continuously kept writing stuff, I tried to write some lyrics and it panned out quite well. That’s my entry point to music, that’s how it started. I couldn’t really sing but I’ve learned to do it, especially dare to try it out and show myself that I can do it.

How did it come about that you ended up behind the mic in a band? Skuldpadda didn’t have a frontman and you had to do it?
A little bit of both I think; Skuldpadda needed a lead singer, but I wanted to do it as well.

When Skuldpadda started they needed someone to write lyrics and since it was natural for me to write I did it, but I wasn’t really comfortable about the idea to be fronting a band. On the other hand, I didn’t want to write lyrics and then just hand it over to someone else to interpret it on stage, I’d rather do it myself then, and since I can’t play any instrument I became the frontman of Skuldpadda (laugh).

I know that you have a sort of performance anxiety – a bit of stage fright – and it must’ve been hard for you to take on that role. How did you deal with it?
Not at all (laugh). Skuldpadda got the first gig quite quickly after we started and I have watched videos from the show, and it’s painful to watch it. I didn’t move at all, just stood like frozen behind the mic and looked down on the floor the whole concert – and you barely hear me singing (laugh). I even refused to sing alone and always had someone singing with me during the whole set. If I would have been forced to sing solo that night I would have died on stage (laugh).

With anxieties like that, isn’t it even a bigger conflict for you to do it solo?
It’s not logic at all, is it? (laugh) But since I never had a plan to release anything, just experimenting with sounds, I never really reflected on it. And when it was done and I showed it to Johan [Holm, Skuldpadda band member] and some friends, it all happened kind of quickly and we met up in the studio for two days to record the EP. It’s not until now when I’m booked for my first gig that I’ve started to reflect on it.

It’s really difficult for me to understand why it is like that, but maybe it’s about not being good enough to perform the songs on stage the way it deserves to be performed because working with music is still so new to me, it’s a confidence issue. But most of all it’s about me not liking to be watched by a lot of people at the same time. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling to have a room full of strangers blaring at you. I find it even weirder that lots of people, other singers, find it normal. I will never really get used to it.

I have the tools to reflect and work with the problem, I’m a Psychology student, but it’s easier to tell other people how to deal with it than do it yourself (laugh). It’s much better today, the worst anxieties are gone because I’ve played quite much live with Skuldpadda. To work with people I trust, friends I like very much, has boosted my confidence and I know that if I ever would have a total breakdown I have people who would help me out on stage and back me up.

Is it the reason you work with former Skuldpadda members on your EP?
Most definitely, but I don’t know anyone else either. Johan produced the EP and understands my “language”, how I want it to sound, and I need someone like him and Hedvig, the second producer, because I don’t know much on how to record music.

Sleep deprivation created a debut EP

The thought of dipping her feet in the music business alone was the farthest thing from Åberg’s mind. Self-doubt, performance anxiety and a lack of confidence in what she could do on her own because of her late entry in the music scene wasn’t the best breeding ground for a solo career, but those few weeks of sleep deprivation last fall changed it all.

Taking the raw ideas that her music always has revolved around and translate them into songs just like “it sounds” in her head, creating a dark, psych-influenced four-track debut EP reflecting the time we live in and the shared feeling of too much isolation that many people experience. And there’s more music for future releases.

Many solo projects start on the back of control behavior, at least with the ambition to have creative control. Has it been important for you to write your own music just to prove to yourself that you can do it?
Here’s a very boring answer to it: I never even had a plan to release anything and didn’t even know if what I did on my laptop last fall could be called music at all, I had to find out by asking friends “Is this really something I can release?” (laugh).

I had this really rough period in September and October last year when I couldn’t sleep and working with sounds on my laptop was a sort of meditation, and it was a lot better than watching another stupid episode of something on Netflix. But I never intended for what I created those nights to be something I would make into real songs because I never learned how to play an instrument. I didn’t even know what I created.

Today, I’m also quite sure that it has been very good for me to write music not intended for a band, just for myself, because it becomes more personal. It just happened to be good enough for a debut EP.

You say you didn’t know how your own music would turn out, but today, a few months after your debut EP, maybe you’ve started to see how your own sound is taking shape?
Maybe. My own music is how it sounds in my head when I start writing something, it’s music in its purest version, and also how it sounded in Skuldpadda in the early stages of the songs we did. It’s different than Skuldpadda because in the band we worked and reworked the music quite much and pushed it in a krautrock direction, but my own songs are the raw and unedited versions – and it should stay like that. It just feels natural to release music sounding like it does in my head.

And it’s very dark music.
Yeah, it’s very dark, almost pitch black (laugh).

What I do is music I listen to. I have these long periods where I only listen to psych rock, and one of these periods just happened to coincide with my sleeping problems which gave me the tools for writing dark music.

What you’re saying is that the EP is reflecting that specific dark period of your life?
A bit like that but it was also released at a point when everyone shared the same feeling of hopelessness from being isolated too long. I don’t know how it will be when I release my next EP on the other side of the pandemic and people are happy again (laugh).

I know from other interviews that you always have been inspired by bands like The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Neu!. How important is that kind of music for your solo project?
The Brian Jonestown Massacre will always be with me and something that has been with me since my teens. I can hear it in my own music, these slow and long psychedelic parts that you’ll hear in psych-rock. I always keep that sort of sonic reference in the back of my head when I work on something. It’s the same with Neu!; their music is very complex and has a big sound, but revolves around very few building blocks and I do it in the same way.

We had this great atmosphere during the recording sessions as well. Johan and I know each other for long but Hedvig was new to me and she did a really good job and was very responsive to what I wanted and very straightforward about things. And that’s important because the whole situation in the studio can be quite tense because you don’t have much time and you quickly need to learn to communicate with the crew on how you want it to be and that’s difficult for someone who still tries to find out how it should sound.

The EP is still new but since there’s not much else to do maybe you’re working on new songs already and plan to release something new later this year?
I’ve continued writing music and there is more to come because I never stop writing. It’s just my natural process. But how and when is something I don’t know anything about at the moment because I never planned to release anything from the beginning, it just happened. But whenever it will happen I promise you it will continue to be dark music (laugh).

Although you’re working with producers and other musicians it will still only be you on this project in the future as well?
Yeah, I’m going to keep it like this. Since I started writing music quite late in life it would be difficult to add band members at this point because they would probably know more about how to write music and I would probably say “You know better than me, let’s do it like that” – but then it’s not me doing it anymore. It won’t turn out the way I want it. To find my way in music I need to do this on my own and not listen to what other people want me to do.

Since I don’t have any background in music and don’t know much about music theory my songs are quite dissonant from the outset, and I need time to reflect and rework what I do just to find out what is good enough to keep and not. That’s a long process where only I can make the decisions.

What about the future as a solo artist? Do you have any bigger plans like releasing an album?
Not at all, this whole project is built on what happens right now, not something I plan. If I would start planning or build a strategy for the future I would lose what makes it so special to me.

Skuldpadda announced a comeback recently but under a new name, End of Fun. How would it affect your own project?
I rather see it as two different channels for music I love to listen to and an opportunity to work with music that has many similarities. I’m quite sure both projects can co-exist.

As you pointed out, you’re doing your live debut at the Låt Live Leva online festival. What do you expect from it?
I want to feel comfortable in the role as a solo artist and with my music. It shouldn’t matter if I feel a bit nervous and don’t sing perfectly, what matters is to perform my songs the way they deserve to be performed.

We have only rehearsed three times before the show tomorrow [two weeks ago], but it’s no audience on the set which probably makes it a bit more relaxed – a good start on how to deal with stage fright (laugh). On the other hand, it’s a strange feeling to perform in front of no one, just a camera crew.

When I saw the line-up for the festival I found it surprising that I got booked on the back of only one EP, that’s big for me.

It’s just to do it, to say yes to things you find a bit scary and not think about it too much. I need to deal with the panic when I’m on stage (laugh).

Photographer: Björn Vallin and 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.