M caught up with Cornelia Dahlgren – a Swedish singer, songwriter and producer known by the stage name Cornelia. Now firmly based in London, Cornelia runs an her own label – Camp Mozart. In addition she is one half of Social Monster – a production and remix duo with DJ Mooken.
In Cornelia’s music you might find elements of electronic, experimental, pop, classical, hip hop and jazz music.
Has Sweden’s underground interest in jazz and soul an influence on your work?
I haven’t given it much thought, but yes I think that’s true. I was brought up in the countryside and got exposed to jazz music through musician friends. I remember one of the very first songs I wrote down on paper was more or less a proper jazz tune. It was a natural way of exploring my teens.
What influenced you to write songs?
What influenced me to write songs as a child was that I lived on an island with a lot of space and a lot of silence, and that I was being able to fill that space with something, even if it was only in my head. Living in the city now is a very busy life – even when you don’t want it there’s something going on around you.
Growing up in a calm, spacious environment has given me the tools to use my imagination. As I made up melodies and lyrics in my head or played around on the piano, I don’t think I realised I wrote songs. It only dawned on me that I was making music when I worked on a musical project with friends many years later and they liked my tunes. I found that it’s what I’d always done.
My parents didn’t really collect music but they had loads of classical records and they had Abba and Beatles albums. From there I think jazz and hip hop helped me a lot – it opened up a whole world of sounds and producers that I never heard about before. I sang in the church choir up til I was about 16. I didn’t go to music school or anything like that so everything I’ve learnt about harmonising comes from singing in choirs.
Do your lyrics come to you first, or the music or do you work both out at the same time?
I started off creating songs in my head and now it’s like I’ve gone full circle – when I started playing in bands I had to learn to compromise and sometimes follow someone else’s chords which taught me a lot. Then when I started writing my own music, many times writing over beats which I got bored of. Now I write songs simply by sitting down at the piano with melodies streaming out of my mouth. I decide on a few key words, then I work out what the song is about and finish the lyric and the melody in unison. It’s not until after this that I find a good soundscape for it – like with Aquarius Dreams (my next single). It’s written on the piano but you can’t really tell when listening to the finished song. The production is there to tell a story in itself.
Can you tell us what By The Fire is about?
It’s not easy to go to deep into your own songs. I think my friend Jamie Woon put it brilliantly, something like ‘listening back at your songs is like looking yourself in the mirror’. I can only talk about By The Fire as a song that a lot of people hopefully can relate to:
‘Do you want to get out of this mess, do you want to get out? I know I don’t want to be caught out by the fire in this house’.
Trying to be the perfect friend, the perfect musician, the perfect professional and the perfect girlfriend. It’s a struggle, this world wide pressure. But every time you think you’ve had enough, you also know that you don’t want to get out… just yet. It can be about the love for music, or anything that makes you tick and is worth fighting for.
I wrote By The Fire with Kwes, I was playing the verse on the piano and then Kwes came in with a really great line for the chorus and it was definitely one of those collaborations that happens out of pure excitement for new things. And when I explained the lyric he could clearly relate and take part, it all felt very natural.
Was the decision to move to Stockholm and then to live in London driven by your music, and does your adopted city inspire you?
When you move to a new city you always find out something new about yourself. It was time for me to move to London because I had got to the point where I needed to understand my heritage better.
It’s quite funny because it’s actually when you leave your country that you realise what the Swedish lifestyle is all about. I never spotted anything typically Nordic in my music before, but the more I’m working from abroad I can hear glimpses of that characteristic sadness in my music.
It’s healthy to look at yourself from the outside sometimes and find out what is worth keeping and what you can throw away. I feel a lot less restricted in the UK. I feel free to explore.
Does your work as Social Monster with DJ Mooken have an effect on the music you create as a solo artist?
Social Monster gives me big satisfaction in that I’m promoting other people’s music. Me and Mooken want to try help give a voice to new music that might not be so well known in this part of the world, and we are lucky to be friends with many talented musicians all over.
I guess the main goal is to give something back to people that happen to come your way. When I work on my own projects all the time these thoughts pop up in my head like ‘is it really worth it?’ ‘why do I have to go on about MY music all the time?’ It gets to you, you know. And I get angry with myself for being such an Ego Monster. I have to allow myself to be inspired by new music! As Social Monster we never produce original tracks, it’s all about creating remixes, radio shows and mixtapes. It’s a lot of fun and it keeps me sane.
What songs are you listening to at the moment and would they influence your music?
What I listen to do inspire me but it’s a long, slow process. I just recently discovered Haushka, he’s an amazing composer. He makes classical music that’s very organic but has a lot of electronic elements to it. Instead of using his laptop he comes up with new sounds by recreating the instrument he plays. He can make a beautiful cracking sound without going through an effect pedal. That’s quite an inspiration to me, as I’ve started to play live shows and I want to play everything myself on stage which restrict. Using Ableton, my midi keyboard and my loopstation – all of which are quite electronic – I’m now striving to find a way to create live music with more organic elements.
I agree with Steven (Artist Flying Lotus) and Jennifer (Artist TOKiMONSTA) that it’s a bit unsatisfying when you get stuff sent to you that sounds close to your own. I love it when someone with a different musical perspective decide they want to remix one of my songs. I never listen to any cool music, or the latest thing, I just listen to what really inspires me at the moment and it’s often very nerdy I guess!
Do you bring the same sense of theatre that is a feature of your videos into your live performances?
That’s part of telling a story. Every song I write has a story behind it which I try to put into context. It’s funny you ask about theatre, as it’s one of my main goals to write at least one musical before I die. It would be great to write a film score too – all these things inspire me loads.
When I play everything myself I have little space to improvise, but I’m hoping this will change in the future. I’ve been very careful with contacting other musicians til now. It’s a very delicate moment when you get to express the music that’s been lingering inside you. Let it grow in it’s own time. My live set is slowly aiming to be something else than the record, or rather an extension of it.
Why did you decide to set up your own label?
It’s simple, I am a control freak. Haha. I’m keen on getting it right and to learn new things. I believe that if you have a team with you that believe in what you do, then you can do anything. But if you try to grow something before it’s been planted, it will be difficult to find your way.
It sounds complicated but it’s a bit like this: In Sweden I was first playing in bands and then I got a lot of exposure and acknowledgement because of reasons that could have been right for someone else, but not for me – it was all about visual appearance or whatever. I just thought if I’m going to write music for the rest of my life I’m going to have to make the right introduction, and the only way to do this was to scale it down and build something from zero.
Starting your own label isn’t difficult. The difficult part is knowing where you want to go from there. It’s so much easier to create something to be proud of if you plant your own savage seed.