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Sarah Riedel: Living Up To Expectations


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My father never pushed me to take up music but was very supportive when I decided that’s what I wanted to do. He was just a normal parent who wanted his children to follow their own paths.
The world of jazz is no stranger to the sound of the Swedish language. Alice Babs and Monica Zetterlund—and more recently, Rigmor Gustafsson—are just a few of the names of jazz vocalists hailing from this cold northern country that have reached the ears of US and UK audiences.

Some people believe that spoken Swedish sounds "song-like," melodic even, with high and low tones. Unlike English, Swedish has more than one two types of emphasis for different words, which gives it a "singing" effect. It's no wonder then that jazz singers like those mentioned above are able to move audiences regardless of the language they choose to sing in.

Whilst many Swedish singers opt to sing in English for both commercial and artistic reasons, albums like Waltz for Debby (Verve, 1964) by Monica Zetterlund with the Bill Evans Trio arguably opened the door for the sound of Swedish for many foreign audiences.

This is certainly case for vocalist Sarah Riedel, who has not only won over audiences in her native Sweden but has also gained followers in Germany, Japan and the United States singing not only in English but also in her native tongue.

Sarah Riedel was born on the Stockholm's southern island of Södermalm. She grew up listening, like teenagers all over the world, to artists like Roxette and other pop bands of the eighties and nineties. She was, however, also equally exposed from an early age to the vast world of jazz via her father, bassist and composer Georg Riedel.

"I'm the only one of my brothers and sisters that followed our father into music," she explains. "I went to music school when I was small and I learned to play the piano. Then I sang in a choir at the local church and went to theatre school. My father never pushed me to take up music but was very supportive when I decided that's what I wanted to do. He was just a normal parent who wanted his children to follow their own paths."

In addition to playing bass with saxophonist Stan Getz and pianist Jan Johansson, Georg Riedel's career has seen him composing music for some of the most famous and memorable children's television series and films in Sweden, among them Pippi Longstocking, Alfie Aktins and Emil of Maple Hills. Sarah was even invited to sing on these recordings in her early years (including a performance of "Lille Katt" at the tender age of just five years old) and has since gone on to perform them for audiences far and wide.

"I did a concert in Germany recently with (Swedish trombonist, bandleader, composer) Nils Landgren," Sarah says. "It was a big band performance for children and parents. I call these songs we perform, 'Swedish standards,' as they are by Astrid Lindgren (the creator of the popular Pippi Longstocking character, among many others) and my father. Nils invited me to perform with him in Germany and I sang everything in Swedish. Nils then spoke between songs with the audience to explain the meaning of the songs."

Sarah has not only performed and recorded Astrid Lindgren songs, but also a piece with lyrics written by Tomas Tranströmer (who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2011 and passed away in March 2015). She has also made a Swedish Grammy-awarded album called Cornelis vs. Riedel (Playground Music, 2011) with (Swedish pop/folk singer) Nicolai Dunger and her father. This latter recording was based on texts written by Cornelis Vreeswijk, one of the most influential and successful troubadours in Sweden.

In October 2014, Sarah released the Swedish Grammy-nominated album Genom Natten (English: "Through The Night") (Playground Music), which is her first recording made up entirely of her own compositions with lyrics sung in Swedish. "This was a huge thing for me," she says. "I was really feeling like I was going up against some real heavyweights when it came to the lyrics I was singing. I felt a lot of pressure to write really good lyrics that I would be proud of."

"Thankfully, the response has been really positive. I have had a lot of great reactions to the album from people all over—not just Sweden," she says. Not only is the album made up of all originals, but she has also modernised her sound. "This album is a lot less "jazzy" than my previous recordings. There are, of course, a lot of influences from jazz on the record, but also Swedish traditional songs and a little bit of pop. I listen to everything at home. I listen a lot to old music, like jazz and classical. I am not that into modern music...what I mean is that I like it but there's so much to listen to nowadays. I collaborated on one song with Lonely Dear, a Swedish singer-songwriter who is firmly within the pop field but actually started out as a jazz pianist. We have some of the same references. So you can see that the jazz influence is strong even though it's my least jazzy recording to date."

Sarah also chose to collaborate with Martin Hederos on this recording. Hederos is a producer that's well known in Sweden for producing pop, jazz and rock acts alike. He is a founding member of The Soundtrack of Our Lives and ex-Esbjorn Svensson Trio bassist Dan Berglund's Tonbruket collective. "It was a lot of fun to have someone new in the creative process to discuss the sound of the scenery and the arrangements. It was a very successful collaboration in my opinion. He really helped me develop my ideas and also to put his touch on the production, less so on the compositions but on the construction of the sound. I'd tell him that I was looking for a 'big, dreamy sound' for a song and he'd come up with some ideas about how to make that happen."

In terms of compositions, the ten songs on the album differ significantly from the timeless sound of children's songs, yet Sarah approached the writing of the songs in much the same way. "Children's songs, like the ones my father has composed and the ones I have sung, have a very defined and catchy melody so it's often a good place to start when I am composing my own songs but it's definitely not the only place. You see, I also sometimes think up texts that seem interesting or sometimes it could be the harmony and chords and I just like the way they go together. I don't have a fixed way of composing every time; I prefer to let it happen organically," she explains.

Some composers approach writing songs as a job and work on their music for a certain number of hours per day and at specific times. While this is a good way to go for some, Sarah works on songs slowly to begin with but then works quicker and quicker as her ideas take form.

For this recording, Sarah decided to try something different: "I rented an apartment through the Swedish cultural council in Paris for a month," she says. "I stayed in an old palais in Le Marais. I was there writing the music and lyrics about a year before I actually started to record the music that ended up on the album. The album took me a long time as I felt a great deal of pressure to write good lyrics in Swedish."

"It is often hard to finalise a recording as there's a grey area when you are composing and that's when you begin to think about your audience and you begin to lose sight of yourself," she says. "I don't want to end up just composing music that I think is what my audience wants to hear; it has to be something that's also very special to me. It's hard for me to decide that a song is ready. There's always something you can work more on or change your mind about some details. Making music is an on-going process in which I am always discovering new things. For this recording, I learned a lot of new things and some of those I will use again for my next recordings; some of them I won't. That's how the creative process goes: you learn and discover new things in the process."

This element of discovery is something Sarah is keen to work with in a live context: "We vary the performance a little each time depending on the mood we want to create, "she says. "I always want the musicians I work with to play a part in the interpretation process and bring something of themselves to the performance. I have a clear idea of how I want to perform each song but I also want the musicians' voices to be heard in my music."

Playing the music she has worked on in the studio in a live show is by far the most inspiring element of all of this process for her. "Some artists are very much into making the recording as perfect as possible and they are perhaps afraid of facing the audience. For me, that's when my music really comes alive. When I meet the audience something happens between us and that can then be heard in the music we play. We are very much a group. Even though it is my name on the cover of the album, we are all playing important roles in the music."

The venue also plays an important role here in the performance of Sarah's songs. "I like to play in unexpected venues," she says. "Not long ago, in a city called Linköping here in Sweden, we played at a church which had been transformed into a music venue. There were still lots of religious imagery and slogans everywhere and it was a lot of fun to hear the music in an unusual place like that. We are used to playing in jazz clubs, where the audiences tend to have very fixed, pre-conceived ideas and expectations of the concert. In a place like the church, the audience definitely did not know what to expect. This enables me to feel a lot freer as an artist as the audiences minds will be more open."

Carrying on her father's tradition of setting memorable music to children's stories, albeit in her own inclusive style of composing, comes a new project that Sarah has been working on as part of her position as music programmer at Stockholm's Kulturhuset. The project is a unique one in collaboration with children's author Barbro Lindgren (not to be confused with the aforementioned Astrid). "I was attracted to working with Barbro Lindgren because she is so very contemporary. My father worked with her 25 years ago and they made two records, which I actually sang on so Barbro's lyrics have been a part of my life. The idea came up to do a recording of her works and some of the texts are from those two recordings she did with my father and I all those years ago. We also made some new compositions to texts that hadn't been set to music before.

The collaboration is called "I Have an Ocean Inside Me" and may see a physical release in 2016. "It was a lot of fun. The musicians were great to work with. We had Nils Berg on saxophone, a very good violin player called Lisa Rydberg, Jon Fält on drums, Viktor Skokic on double bass and Mikael Augustsson on bandoneon. There's a really nice mix of jazz and folkloric music. It was a fun project and also fun to do all the concerts we did for small children."

"Children are harsh critics of music so it has to be good! They are also incredibly open-minded and you can take them on a journey with the songs. It is a big challenge. When you perform you have to be focussed all the time on stage as the children tend to have short attention spans and start talking and moving around so it's hard to keep track of what you're doing sometimes! I love it, though. It's something that helps me develop as an artist and performer."

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