- Interview by
- Alexander Brown
On her days off from working at the cloakroom at Berlin’s Berghain nightclub, Molly Nilsson began recording lo-fi pop gems. Armed with a knack for creating gloomy ballads that sparkle with mordant observations on life, loneliness, and the city, it didn’t take long for the Stockholm-born, Berlin-based artist to etch her name in the hearts of audiences from Manchester to Tokyo, now enjoying significant cult status across the world.
Together with her Spartan stage setup, her first songs captured her essence in the eyes of thousands: miniature, realist, personally driven odes to a certain type of young life, revolving around late night bars, the feeling of loneliness in crowded places, and nagging reminders that not even the tiniest moments of beauty afforded to people by a city can ever last.
However, while her more recent records are brighter, so too are they more political. More often than not, Nilsson uses her platform as a way to address social issues, including gun violence, the male gaze, late capitalism, and “neoliberal bullshit,” as she neatly put it in the 2015 anthem “Lovers are Losers.”
This is true for her tenth and newest album, Extreme. A remarkable work which combines her signature aching melodies with unalloyed socialist conviction, Extreme is a left-wing record that is wryer and, in some ways, deeper than Billy Bragg’s activist earnestness and Gang of Four’s theory-driven art school formalism.
Songs like “They Will Pay” take aggressive aim at tech billionaires, who are named and shamed for their exorbitant wealth and attacked for not recognizing unions formed by workers at corporations like Amazon. For the historically minded bedroom dancer, “Obnoxiously Talented” offers a propulsive elegy to Rosa Luxemburg, the communist leader murdered a century ago on the orders of the German state.
With socialist pop music in lamentably short supply, Tribune’s Alexander Brown caught up with Nilsson to discuss music after COVID-19, the future of creative pursuits in a neoliberal world, her hatred of pessimism, and her admiration for revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg.
How did it feel to play your first shows since the pandemic? Were you rusty or was it like getting back on a bike?
It was. I mean, the first show was really weird, and I would say maybe not the best. But not because of the audience! Everyone was great! It was just that…
Just blame it on the audience: “They weren’t ready for me.”
(Laughter) Exactly. They weren’t ready! No, I was definitely not ready. It was surreal because I just went on stage and was like, what am I doing here? What are they expecting me to do? I was not even nervous. I just felt so disconnected from it. Afterward, I was like: that was weird, is this what the whole tour is going to be like? But that was really just the first night because the second night was in Manchester and I was so nervous. I realized you have to be nervous. If you’re not nervous going on stage, there’s something wrong.
But in general, it was so fun because everyone has been starved for shows. Everyone is so nice. You can just tell that it’s not about whatever the show is. It’s just to be able to see people and to see them seeing their friends and flirting and chatting. Hopefully we won’t have that moment again, but it almost felt like a postwar situation.
Many of your songs revolve around the city and its nightlife. What makes the city a subject you always return to?
Maybe it’s because there’s so much to say about city life — and maybe I just don’t like nature! I was in nature last weekend and I got, like, twenty mosquito bites — I was like, this doesn’t happen in the city! But I really like how people get together and want to live as close to each other as possible. It’s so fun to live in a city where you live so close to strangers. It’s so endearing how humans are like that. We could just spread out and live alone, but we want to be together. Even if we have to pay a lot of money for rent, we really want to be together, you know?
Did the isolation of the pandemic and the absence of nightlife change how you approached writing songs?
I don’t know if it changed during the pandemic, or if maybe I felt like I’ve sung so much about being in a bar that I’m not allowed to sing about that anymore. It’s like, Molly, you’re not allowed to sing about that. I guess I’m trying to avoid that scenery. But if you’re writing a song, the song is about something, but you also need a stage for it to happen. I guess I would pick a bar because it seems like the best place for any kind of drama to happen. You have people, intrigue, dreams, and excitement rather than, I don’t know, a supermarket or something.
Yeah, I made a mental note there. But I think on Extreme I have very little real scenery. It takes place a lot inside my head.
One noticeable aspect of Extreme — and your last few records — are their more political aspects, but also that despite the fact you’re tackling themes far more depressing than heartbreak, they are also on the whole happier records. Has your disposition changed?
I think it’s changed because of ageing. When I started writing songs, I was in my early twenties. When you’re in your early twenties, you’re at peak pessimism because… I mean, it’s kind of a tough time in life. You feel like you have to figure out what you want to do, but you don’t have so much going for you. You’re going to have the worst jobs, live in the worst places. It’s not a great time. I think I definitely became more optimistic because my life has just gotten a lot better.
I also think optimism is a skill, just a muscle you have to train. If you believe in things — if you’re a Marxist, for example — you don’t have the right to be a pessimist. Because who’s going to do all the work? You can leave the pessimism to conservatives. You have to believe in things. If you don’t believe in things, then it’s all useless. So I try to exercise my optimism muscle in every situation. There are so many forces in the world trying to limit our vision for the future — I just don’t want to be part of it.
Berlin once enjoyed a reputation for cheap living and a vibrant cultural scene. Sadly, the last five years have seen rents increase faster than in any other European city. How do you see this affecting the city’s social and cultural life?
If I was a young person today, I don’t think I would’ve moved here because I wouldn’t be able to afford it. That in itself is obviously turning away a lot of people who don’t have lots of money. I mean, it’s not even about Berlin at this point. It’s like, where will people go? Where will people live, and how?
If everything in the cities is just about moneymaking, then cities are just going to be dead. That’s a bit what Stockholm is like. The inner city is dead at night, it’s just shopping malls. But it’s not over yet. Berlin is not a utopia, but it’s definitely trying to be at the forefront of showing all cities don’t have to be like London. They don’t have to be unlivable.
You mentioned Stockholm, a city that you left just before the Moderate Party set out to kill off the remainders of the social democracy Sweden was famed for, including generous public funding for the arts. Maybe the best-known example abroad is the 45,000 SEK ($4,400) the Swedish Arts Council gave to the Knife to create their 2001 debut album. Do you think the legacy of social democracy played any role in helping you to pursue music as a vocation?
Music in Sweden is interesting because everybody in school learns an instrument. I mean, you can, you don’t have to — actually, I guess you kind of have to. I wasn’t so interested at the time; I did learn piano for a bit, but I didn’t actually learn anything because I wasn’t interested in playing music. But I think you get some confidence just automatically because you’re sort of expected to take part in music.
There was this cool thing where if you had a band, you could get paid for rehearsing. So I did have a band — a punk band with some friends — but we just wanted the money. You got like, I don’t know, maybe five bucks an hour while you rehearse. So we would just pretend to rehearse. And we just hung out and chatted in the rehearsal space. And we played a little bit.
That was a cool thing in itself. If you actually wanted to play music, you could. I think all that stuff is gone now: sadly, like everything in Sweden, music has just become this huge monster. Music is now the biggest export — except for weapons.
“Obnoxiously Talented” is dedicated to Rosa Luxemburg, and a lot of your writing in recent years certainly has a more socially committed, political edge. What brought you to socialist politics? And what is it about Luxemburg you admire in particular?
I’ve always had that from my family. My parents were communists. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t think so much about Marxism, I was sort of more interested in anarchy. I guess it’s been a bit of a loop coming back to that.
But apart from her work and legacy, I’ve really developed a relationship with Rosa Luxemburg on a human level. It’s great to find people in history who can give you an example of what’s possible, or how you can live your life, or what you should strive for. When I was younger, I wanted to find examples of what you can do with your ambition that isn’t just, I don’t know, making money, and having examples who really lived and died for what they believed in is so inspiring.
I mean, almost on a “What Would Rosa Do?” level in everyday life. I like to lean back on her whenever I’m getting depressed. I’m like, she wouldn’t get depressed. She would be in prison and still find the flowers and the birds outside her little window giving her hope enough to continue. I think also as a woman at that time, having everything sort of against her, even being physically impaired from birth, she kept going.
When I was younger, I spent a lot of time thinking about feminism and about women in the world. And I still think about that. But if you’re living in a world where someone like Ivanka Trump calls herself a feminist, I feel like maybe I’m not a feminist, you know? Or, maybe I don’t think that’s the most important thing anymore.
Today, the class struggle is so much more important than having female CEOs. Because I don’t want any CEOs. I don’t want more female billionaires. I want no billionaires. I think it’s something that people try to do, you know, to get Rosa into the feminist field. Because, you know, she was a woman and she did things.
I feel that the enemy is certainly aware of her power, too. In Zamość, the city of Luxemburg’s birth, the local council recently removed her commemorative plaque. All across Europe, socialists are being erased from history, their statues torn down, their graves desecrated. Do you think artists can play a role in preserving and extending the legacies and political hopes of radical thinkers?
Definitely. I mean, when I was touring Extreme, I was talking about Rosa every night. In some cities people are like, “Yay!” And in others, people are like, “What, who?” I’m hoping that inspires people to find out about her if they don’t already know.
I’m hoping that someone is in the audience at one point, and maybe they go on to do something really great. That’s kind of my dream scenario. I definitely don’t think I’ll inspire anyone to do anything bad.
I feel that the whole point of art or culture is building on these traditions, the ideas of people before us, and remembering that we’re all a part of this long chain of political ideas. I definitely think my work is not as important as maybe what I am doing to inspire someone else’s. Or that’s always the way I’ve always thought about it.