Non-conformative, searingly creative and entertainingly performative: Sibille Attar interviewed

With concerts, festivals, events and more being postponed and cancelled, musicians and artists have expressed how the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted their income. But pandemic rules and regulations have been unequal and unfair, treating culture and other commercial activities differently, and to speak up about these inequalities requires a person like Sibille Attar.

From the day we first discovered her band Speedmarket Avenue at Emmaboda Festival 2003 to her solo album debut Sleepyhead, Attar has created magic on record and she has been a strong voice for culture in Sweden. Being nominated for several music awards – Grammy, Manifest, P3 Guld etc. – Attar received SKAP’s grant “Composer of the Year” in 2019, and with that she left her day job and started to focus solely on her music career.

At the end of February this year, her second album A History of Silence was released, and just like with her previous records and EP’s it was widely appraised and recognized by music media and fans. There was only one problem: the album was released at the peak of the third COVID wave and when you can’t tour a record, it disappears in the stream of new music being released every week. However, the live scene in Sweden slowly opened up during the summer and Attar brought together her band and embarked on a mini-tour across Sweden.

Just ahead of her show at Nefertiti in Gothenburg we sat down with her for and chat about working with A History of Silence completely alone, taking full control of the whole album process, and not fitting into the “industry standard” on how to embody an indie persona. And she also reveals that she has a new album in the works, hopefully to be released at the beginning of 2022.

“This album is me being alive and in control, making all the decisions”

Last year, at the height of the first pandemic wave in Sweden you stood up and gave a voice to artists and culture in general concerning unequal COVID rules for different types of activities; people filled up restaurants but clubs weren’t allowed to put bands on stage in front of an audience. That’s just about a year ago now. Do you feel that you reached out and got a response from any decision-makers?
I’m not really sure. When we started we just wanted someone to clarify the rules for the live scene and why other commercial activities didn’t have the same restrictions. Nobody could answer such a simple question, obviously.  

What did change was the knowledge about the challenge that COVID-19 presents to arts and cultural workers, such as difficulties to get unemployment funds or support from the Social Insurance Agency. Those support systems are not made for culture at all, it’s for people working nine to five, and it’s good that those types of problems finally have surfaced.

Unfortunately, we have a government that is too ignorant of artists’ situation. It’s even worse at the local level as in Stockholm where local politicians seem to hate culture – the political decisions the last years make it quite clear – and they have been the cultural industry’s worst antagonists for years. They want expensive apartments, high-income middle-class residents and electrical scooters in every corner, but won’t give a dime to support culture.

How did it affect your artist career if you look beyond the fact that no one in the music scene could play live? I guess you had to postpone the release of A History of Silence. Yeah, I even postponed it three times but the third time I just thought “Let’s do it, I can’t wait anymore”. And then it was released at the peak of the third COVID wave (laugh).

It has been a very frustrating period and I have been so lonely during my work with the record. It was me in a room working alone, and sometimes it feels like I didn’t release a record at all, that it’s just something I’ve made up in my head. But I rarely look back to relive things like that, the record is out and I couldn’t have done it in any other way because there was no option left. But even if it was very frustrating I also had this great feeling about what was about to come. I knew there was a new album to be released in the future and was curious about how it would be received although there’s always a risk to have anticipations like that.

Other than that I made it quite well through the last year because I’ve had quite much to do.

About anticipations; everything you’ve released so far has received great reviews and you have been nominated for several awards, but fame and glory could easily contribute to build up pressure. Was that in the back of your head when you were working on the album?
Not in any way, I didn’t think about it at all. A History of Silence was different in so many ways and almost felt like another Sibille Attar. Above all, I geeked out over technology and mixed the whole record myself. I haven’t been involved in the mixing process at all before which made the record quite different from anything else I’ve done, and I’m quite sure I’ve never had this low expectation on an album before (laugh). In that respect, I felt more pressured when I did my first records with my bands than working with this album. With A History of Silence I’m prouder than ever because of how I worked with it – I proved that I can do it all on my own.

But I can admit that it’s always a bit nervy when you have worked on something for a long time and it’s time to release it for people to listen to it and review my music. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like my second album, it felt like my third because Palomas Hand [EP released 2018] was like an album to me.

I would never say it was great to work alone as I did on this album, I’d rather not do it again because I love to collaborate with people, but I gained so much control over every part of the process, every detail and aspect of the music, and that type of control leaves you with a great feeling. There’s nothing I feel cringy about. My experience when I was working on Sleepyhead [debut album] was that much of what happened during the process was the result of someone else’s decisions, I wasn’t in control. I didn’t feel like that at all this time. I was like “Ok, I ‘ll be a bit sad if no one likes it, but I like this record very much myself and that’s good enough”. That’s what I mean about being proud in a completely different way than before because I grew confident while working with the album.

If the album is some sort of a new you, what was the biggest difference from working with Sleepyhead?
In retrospect, I would say that although I made most of the creative decisions on Sleepyhead I wasn’t the knob-twiddler and had people taking care of the mixing process. It was me and two musicians – a drummer and a bassist – working on the album and rehearsing the songs together before we recorded it at The Aerosol Gray Machine Studio where the owner and studio engineer Mattias Oldén was behind the decks. Of course he would have some influence on how the record turned out sound-wise because I didn’t have the technical knowledge back then.

While Sleepyhead was very much like “Yes, it’s my first solo record!”, A History of Silence is self-made in almost every aspect; it was me, the music and a mixer. I really love Sleepyhead today; I used to be that kind of person who felt embarrassed about my old music because I’ve moved forward it used to feel weird to listen to old songs again, but today I feel “That’s was a really cute album” (laugh). But this album is me being alive and in control, making all the decisions.

I know you have pointed before that the attention after Sleepyhead was too much for you, especially the focus on you as a person rather than on your music. On top of that, the culture of the music industry where you need to adapt to some sort of industry standard was tough to deal with, and you had a short break after Sleepyheads. Should the album title A History of Silence be interpreted like you have settled scores with the industry today?
You could interpret it like that, I would love for people to make their own interpretations, but it wasn’t really what I had in mind when I came up with the title. For me, those early problems are behind me and I don’t look back at that period. But there is a huge culture of silence in the industry, a quite crappy culture where you will be rewarded if you behave like an asshole and love to do what you’re told, but I left it behind me years ago and it has nothing to do with any theme on the album. But many journalists want to talk about it with me because I speak up while most people in the industry are silent.

When you finally have gained full control of the whole process like on A History of Silence, don’t you want to continue on that path even if it’s a bit lonely?
I have been working with my control needs my whole life and I would lie to you if I would say that I didn’t like it (laugh), but not all of it. What’s best is that I’ve learned so much from it. In the long run it will be good for my wider music career because I can do much more than just writing songs. I stopped having normal day jobs when I got SKAP’s grant in 2019 and decided to put all my time on music, and if I want to continue doing it in the future as well I need to be able to do more than writing songs to myself.

But I also want to do other things. In 2021 I have started to write music to a theatre play at Dramaten [The Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm] and done a bit of production work for other bands and remixed music. It’s all a try-out at the moment to see what I can do in the future. And I can’t do anything else. I don’t have a university diploma that would be enough to get me a job, this is what I’m good at.

I still have many things I want to do in music. A life-long dream of mine is to write a film score. That’s why the process of A History of Silence was good for me because I’ve learned to master the whole production process and developed techniques and skills I wasn’t in control of before. On the other hand, I love to collaborate with people. Maybe I can find a way to collaborate and still be in control of things (laugh).

But I also want to see myself as something more than just a music artist, maybe a composer. Do you know how cool it is to step into Dramaten and say “I’m the composer, where do you want me?” (laugh), although it took a while to accept me being in a new role.

If I can step out of my artist role and work with something completely different, but still with music, it would probably trickle down to new ideas to my own project later. I love to play live, that’s why I started playing music when I was young, but I also love being creative and write music whatever type of context it is. And here’s a fact; you can’t survive solely on your indie career, not in Sweden with its tiny live scene, you need to diversify what you do. If you want to have a day job, fine, but I want to work with music and nothing else, and then I need to look at the options.

But do you feel that you have to conform to an industry standard to be accepted in the music industry?
In terms of indie music it’s a genre that tries to sell imageries, like being “mysterious”, because it fits with people’s expectations of artists in the scene, but I’m the least mysterious person in the world and it doesn’t really work out (laugh). I can’t be that sort of mysterious female entity that people in the industry want me to be, it’s just not me. To be honest, I don’t care at all about it (laugh).

Let’s say that there are different standards or templates that the industry wants to squeeze you into, especially for women, but it’s not for me. Men also need to adapt but it’s not even close to what female artists have to go through. I can’t spend time thinking like that because I would turn crazy and bitter. But it’s also what I’m good at, to not fit in. I’ve never gained anything from trying to do it earlier – and I tried hard because I didn’t know better – and today it works better for me to be the real Sibille Attar and not a character that someone else has written for me. At least I don’t lose anything on it, it’s not much different from before. But I have a lot more fun today and that’s good enough for me to continue exploring this path.

I remember that you’ve talked about some sort of financial precariousness especially as an artist in Sweden with a tiny market. Have you ever tried a campaign abroad to reach out to Europe and a new audience?
I’m signed to a Swedish-British label, PNKSLM Recordings, and maybe they can help me out but I’ve never given it a serious thought. Above all, I don’t know how to do it. It’s not until recently I started to feel satisfied with my music career and where I’ve ended up, especially doing it full-time. Before I decided to do this as my job I didn’t believe in myself and thought it was too much of a risk to put all my time into music, but now I feel I can do it.

It’s also a financial risk to start dealing with new markets and try to find people abroad. The biggest problem for me is to find people I can trust because I don’t know how to do it myself, I don’t have the network abroad. And then we’re back to my need for control; how do I trust someone but me? (laugh) Let’s say I haven’t found the right person yet, shall we? I know I need to open up for collaborating with people not being inside my bubble. So far, there’s just space for one person in it and that’s me (laugh).

The live scene opened up again during the summer and I guess you want to take the opportunity to play live as much as possible to get a second promotion opportunity for the album.
Most definitely! But I can’t play too small shows or for too little money because I want to pay my musicians a fair salary. The problem is that I’m somewhere in between a small artist and a little bit bigger in Sweden and it’s difficult to find good venues. I’m not big enough to play at Cirkus [venue in Stockholm] and don’t know where I’ll end up when someone books me (laugh).

In general, I’ll take on every gig offer I can afford to do. But I need to cut back on staff. Today. I don’t have a tour manager or my own sound technician with me, and we drove here ourselves. Sure, I can do smaller gigs without the full band as well, it’s doable, but many of the songs won’t work out then and I just don’t like the idea of it.

And the rest of 2021; is it about working with the theatre play or do you have something new in the works already?
I hope to come out and play as much as possible but I’m also working on a new album and hope to have it ready for a release already at the beginning of 2022. In fact, I have started to try to write in Swedish but don’t know how it happened (laugh). Maybe it’s one of those periods you’re going through as an artist.

I’ve realized that A History of Silence didn’t reach its full potential when I couldn’t tour it after it was released. It’s super important to come out and play live as soon as possible after you released a new record. Sure, I received great reviews but they just keep people’s attention for a few weeks and then you will disappear if you can’t tour the record, and that’s what happened.

A lot has happened in the scene since I released it, other bands released records as well, and now when the live scene opens up again it feels like I missed the opportunity a bit because venues and organizers find my record old by the standards that run the live music scene. But I’m not going to whine about it too much, every band that released a record at the peak of the pandemic faces the same struggle. That’s part of the game, to keep people’s attention. 

P3 [Swedish national radio] used to be a good promotion window for me and similar indie artists but they’ve changed direction and the profile of many of their radio shows and don’t play indie music much at all anymore. P3 may not have the cultural capital as they used to have back in the 90s when they discovered and supported lots of indie bands, but they have an economic capital, hence lots of power, and if smaller bands and artists can’t get their share of airtime we won’t get a chunk of STIM’s [Swedish collective management organization for music creators] money and will earn less. For a smaller artist that’s tough to face.

What I really don’t like is that P3 has become a window for major label artists and I find it very provoking. P3 is public service radio and shouldn’t provide a platform for commercial interests; if anything they should distribute their airtime democratically and support many more artists out there. I even pointed it out in an interview in P3 once, maybe that’s the reason they never play me anymore (laugh). But it’s difficult to talk about it, especially when you have released a new record. It just sounds like I’m whining about not being played on the radio (laugh). But my point is that they should support indie artists in general, it’s their job as a tax-financed radio channel.

Back to your question; I also have work to do with the theatre play at Dramaten, it won’t be a problem to have something to do, but I really want to come out and play gigs. That’s still the reason I’m doing this.

Sibille Attar pages

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About J.N.

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.