Karin Park: no darkness for the detached

Talk of metamorphosis is circulating in the music media: Karin Park’s new album is great, and it’s different! the Bergen-based Swedish pop princess has become an electro minimalist with rather darker things on her mind. Park’s trademark sense of arresting melodies is still there though, and now she knows more about the nature of these melodies too.

Karin Park

-You know that feeling, when you’re in a big city, and the night is warm and black and saturated, and everyone else is enjoying each others’ company, in street cafes, with music and wine and laughter and romance, but you’re not part of it, you’re on the outside alone: that feeling is what I’m looking for when I write music at the moment.

For her latest album, Karin had written a lot of tunes. But when she sat down to listen to them, they didn’t feel right, because they didn’t have that direct bodily impact.

-It is a sensation which is hard to describe, but I think it has to do with something the body and senses recognizes more than the mind, it’s a sort of epiphany, you know, when a perception opens up into a kind of complete experience. Some songs might seem like their really good, perfect even, but they just don’t have that quality. That was the case with the songs that I initially wrote for this album. I had to rethink my way of writing songs. Previously it’s been more of an unconscious process; I never moved beyond the recognition that I knew how to write pop songs, and that people liked them. I never really reflected on why they liked them, or what about the music that was good. This time around I turned that whole thing around and I decided that I had to make the kind of songs that I would want to listen to, over and over. My tool to ascertain this was checking for that bodily, immediate and all-comprising feeling.

Norwegian critics have hailed Ashes to Gold, and the recurring focus of the reviews is the metamorphosis that Karin Park and her pop have gone through. Finally she has found her expression, they say, having undergone a change from pixie-dust princess to some darkish, indifferent electro seductress.

-If it’s a metamorphosis of the kind that butterflies go through, I guess mine has been an inverted one, from butterfly to larvae, says Karin. Even though it has been a transition, I also feel that I have gone back to something more truthful because I have focused only melodies and feeling –the things that I really own– and for the first time left a lot of decisions to others.

The main collaborator here has been Frederick Saroea of Datarock, who not only produced the album but also helped Karin pick the right songs and find a new way of developing them. She also received help and input from Kristian Stockhaus of Ungdomskulen and Ralph Myerz, whose beats were what initially made Karin want to explore a new creative starting point.

-I have normally composed songs on guitar and piano, but this time around I wanted beats says Karin. Since I’m no good at beats I went to these people, who are all friends of mine, to get some new input. Just listening to beats down at the studio helped me turn the song writing process upside down in a way. Back home I started out with basic beats on Casio synths, and then I proceeded to build the songs from there. Some of the original Casio beats are on the record, blended in with the real beats of course, but still there.

Beats or not, it’s the vocals and the melodies that are Karin’s main concern and the vocal sound is what dictates much of the rest.

-Very early in the process I sing the whole tune with the kind of vocal sound I want, and then I adapt the music and the words to the sensation that is in the actual sound and character of the vocal. It is a lot of work doing it this way, because the words are really important to me. I need the exact right words to express the feeling of the song, so I can’t make any shortcuts. It is the same thing with the words as with the music, they have to hit you bodily, sort reach out for you even when you’re not listening. That is when you know it works.

Karin relates that her favourite record of all is the Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe reading his own poems.

-So often I just get lost when listening to poetry readings; the words just become a blur. But the first time I heard Bjørneboe, it happened exactly the way I described: the words reached out and grabbed me even when I wasn’t concentrating.

Going from butterfly to larvae naturally entails a motion towards something darker and more sinister. But for Karin it has nothing to do with wallowing in sorrow or melancholia. It is the other way around:

-I find that it is an important and very interesting experience to not shy away from feelings that are normally perceived as painful or negative in some way. I guess I am a very unsentimental person because what happens to me when I allow myself to really perceive emotional discomfort is that I become detached and kind of indifferent in a very positive way. I just get this liberating feeling that nothing is really all that important. One morning a couple of years ago I received a phone call. They told me I had cancer and that I might die. I was very surprised at my emotional response: I was upset and sad of course, but more than that I thought that if anyone is to die from cancer I’m all right with it being me. I felt that I had already done a lot of fun things in my life. And I also realized that I didn’t care if no one would remember me after I died. That was also a very liberating feeling.

Some will say that such responses is the sign of an enlightened mind, i.e. someone able to vitalize their life, and art perhaps, with all the energy that most people spend on worrying and trying to remedy or escape the sometimes harsh realities of the human condition. Anyway, Karin Park seems perfectly happy with what she calls the Nordic disposition towards mental gloom.

-Some people seem to think that the direction my music has taken –towards something blacker and colder– is contrived, but I feel that the turn has been towards something more authentic really. I have become more introvert; more of an observer, and I like it. Maybe it is the Nordic mentality that plays out, and maybe that is what I have in common with the other Nordic artists that I have been compared with lately, like Robyn, Karin Dreijer and Bjørk.

It is her singing that people have compared with the mentioned names, and the sparse electronic sound. But the hint of an eastern element is something they don’t share with Karin. She is not sure herself about the philosophical part of it –pertaining to the notion of detachment– but the more concrete aspects are undeniable: Karin spent three years in Japan as a child, and on the strangely evocative song Jungle Woman, vocal timbres reminiscent of China make their appearance.

-That song came about after having toured in China, says Karin. We have actually played a lot yonder, and done many TV-appearances and stuff. It just started with a desire to play there; I just felt like it, thought it would be fun and interesting. Who can help us with this, we said to ourselves, and luckily we got in touch with a guy who had all the right connections. China is a very interesting place, -huge market needless to say. But they are still kind of obsessed with the streamlined and generic. Not too keen on individuality, you know. I’ll definitely keep working there, but it’s not like I’m going to make China a key factor in my life.

A factor that has been key is her moving to Bergen about ten years ago. Not that anyone can know what would have happened if she hadn’t, but still the truth is that Karin’s artistic life is intimately bound to the Bergen scene and the close, family-like ties that exist between the lead characters of that scene.

-The great thing about working with Frederick Saroea and the others is that we operate on an egalitarian level. And now that I’m also on the Datarock label YAP, the whole issue of conflicting interests between label and artists, music and business etc, is non-existent. We’re all friends and we respect each other and know how to work together in a way that is mutually rewarding.

After her first role as a film actress Karin is perhaps also broadening her expressive horizon?

-It was a fun thing to do, and I enjoyed getting some time of from my own projects and myself. Maybe I’ll do it again if the role is right. But my focus is on music. It is the only thing I know how to do; I really can’t do anything else. And now that I have let others into the music making process I get all the fresh input I need right there. Writing can become a very self-centred thing, so bringing in others has been a very wise move; a liberating kind of counterweight.

Karin Park's MySpace site

Karin Park's Last.fm site

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