The Swedes make good music. Just think of the Willy Clay Band, The Cardigans and, erm, ABBA. So do the Canadians, who gave us Neil Young, The Band and Joni Mitchell. Throw all that into the mix and you might end up with Sarah MacDougall, a gentle-voiced troubadour currently on tour here in the UK. Her new album Across The Atlantic has already been released to excellent reviews, and in this interview she tells us all about her stagefright, the melancholy and, of course, the weather…
Interview by Soren McGuire
How’s the tour been going so far?
The tour is going really great! We have been playing really good shows with really appreciative and attentive audiences. A lot of driving so far, up to Scotland and down again,
For those who haven’t yet seen you live, how would you "sell" a Sarah MacDougall gig?
I would hope that anyone who comes to my show will leave feeling more inspired about life than when they arrived...Maybe my songs will make them think about something they hadn’t thought about before, or they will remind them of something. I hope that the people will come to my shows will go away with a good memory, laughs and cries.
You seem to be in the process of building a very solid fanbase from all your touring. Have you always felt comfortable on a stage?
No, definitely not. And sometimes I still don’t feel comfortable, haha...But I think that doing it over and over helps you feel a lot more comfortable to be up there in front of people. When I started playing my own songs live in my late teens, I was terrified, but now I feel a lot more in control of the situation when I get up on stage...I feel like I know better how to handle different scenarios that can happen when interacting with an audience. It makes it feel more safe, and thus I am able to take a lot more risks and be much more open and interactive with the audience. I am not as scared anymore if it would all go to hell, for example if the whole audience refuses to sing along with me when I ask them... I know from experience how to engage an audience in a way that works for me, and it seems to work for the audience as well. In the end, the most important part of a show for me is the moments when I feel like I can really connect with people. That’s when I know that it was a good show.
This is where I ask you to basically do my research. You were born in Sweden, but you’re based in Canada. A few words about your background, please?
I was born in Sweden. My mum is Swedish and my dad is Canadian. So I grew up a bilingual dual citizen. I lived in Sweden as a child, but we went back and forth to Canada a lot, and when I was finished with school I moved to Vancouver. Now most of my family lives in Norway, but my mum still lives in Sweden.
Both Sweden and Canada have these strong traditions when it comes to musical melancholy. Where do you think this comes from? The unique, almost desolate nature, long winters, deep woods and wide open spaces of these two countries have often been credited for providing musicians with a lot of inspiration.
Yes, very true...I think the melancholy comes from exactly what you say: the dark long winters, the cold, the vast nature and deep woods, the chilly winds. A lot of quiet...Scandinavia is a very quiet country, and so is a large part of Canada. I think this leaves space for a lot of inspiration for artists.
It only takes a few minutes of the first song on the album before you come to expect the unexpected, never quite knowing in which direction the song is going – how do manage to juggle all these musical ideas?
Hmm.......it’s all a process, really...the ideas grow as the song grows... But I also think that I have developed myself musically into knowing what is possible to do and what isn’t, through playing for a long time, and also having had training as a composer as well as audio engineer, and through being an active listener... I live and breathe music and sound, so ideas come to me all the time, and most of the time I have an idea about how to bring the ideas into reality. Before I start recording an album I have a jumbled head full of ideas, and then I filter them down as the song gets realized.
The album also shifts between these light-hearted songs and these very sad songs, like the title track and Ramblin’. Is Across The Atlantic a sad album with happy songs, or the other way around?
I think that all the songs have both happy and sad in them. I always write songs that I feel have a balance of sad and happy. To me, ‘Ramblin’’ has never been a sad song, because it came to me at a time when I finally realized: ‘OK, I don’t want to do everything on my own and be lonely anymore, I want to share my experiences with other people, sing with other people...’ To me, that was a really positive revelation, because I have always been very much of a lonely creative worker...always taking all of the control and not really letting others in to help me, because I wanted to prove that I could do everything by myself...but I got to a point where I was past that ‘proving’ stage, and it was a really nice thing to realize that I was ready to open up to people more. I feel like that is a sign of growing.
To me, melancholy isn’t necessarily sad....but maybe that is because I am Swedish/Canadian, haha...
You had a lot of musicians working on this record. How did that work in the studio – are you in the middle of the room, telling everyone what goes where?
In this case, I was behind the mixing board, in the middle of the room, and running around...haha. Because I engineered and produced the album I set up the mics and told people where to go, yes....I started with setting up drums and bass in the big room, and then we recorded that with me playing along with my guitar and vocals behind the mixer board in the control room. It was a lot of juggling, making sure everything sounded right, and that we were getting the best performances down...Once I had the drums, bass and myself down, I basically added all the other parts one by one.
There’s a timelessness to your music, like you were ”stuck” somewhere between Edith Piaf and Dawn Landes. I know musicians rarely feel the need to fit in with a scene or sound, but what are your thoughts on your own musical footprint?
I have only just started my little footprint, but what I would like is to develop as an artist and songwriter, performer, engineer and producer, and to keep doing things that I find interesting. I never had a specific style in mind when I wrote the songs, and I hope that I can continue to push my own boundaries and create interesting and good songs that resonate with myself and hopefully with other people too...
Across The Atlantic came out in 2009. Where do you see your new songs going?
I am working on the next album right now. It’s going to be an album about Storms...Most of the songs refer to something about some kind of storm. This has been an idea that I have had in my head for a while, so many of the songs are written with that in mind. I think it will be an inspiring and dynamic album, perhaps with more voices and strings...I have some great people who are working with me and playing on this new record, so I am excited.
Sarah MacDougall’s heartbreakingly beautiful new album Across The Atlantic is out now. You can order the album at Sarahmacdougall.com