It took a while, but it got there in the end. Nora Karlsson’s solo project Boys picked up a lot of fans off the back of two EPs of scrappy, lo-fi indie rock, released at the end of 2015 (Kind Of Hurt) and beginning of 2016 (Love On Tour). It was expected that an album would follow soon after, but for various reasons (which you can read more about below), time went by and nothing appeared. It was only this spring that the first full-length Boys album, Rest In Peace, finally arrived. But it was worth the wait, as Rest In Peace saw Karlsson move her sound to entirely new places. The scrappy charm of the EPs was discarded for pyschadelia-tinged pop-rock that had a sweeping power and muscle, and took her music onto a whole new level. A couple of months after the album’s release, we caught up with Karlsson to talk about it.
If we go back to the start of the Boys project. Most new artists emerge as just a new artist. But you had been playing in HOLY for a couple of years before that, so people knew you as the guitarist from HOLY. Was is it hard to come away from that, and establish Boys as its own project with its own identity?
I was a bit scared of that in the beginning, even of being on the same label as HOLY. When PNKSLM said they wanted to release Boys, my first feeling was that I wanted to say no, because I wanted to keep it separate from HOLY. But then I thought ‘why is that even a problem?’. At first I thought it was a bad thing, but now I don’t really care. I’m still playing with HOLY, I’m proud of being a part of HOLY, so I don’t see it as a problem, that they think of HOLY when they think of my band or something like that. But we work together a lot, with this album he produced it, so he deserves all the credit he gets. When we decided he [HOLY leader Hannes Ferm] was going to produce Rest In Peace, I didn’t want people to think that I just go in and sing or whatever. I thought everyone was going to think that, but now I know no-one thinks that. They know I’m in control, that I write the songs, that I make the music. So I’m not scared of that anymore.
Rest In Peace had a long pause leading up to it, because there was a two year gap between it and your last release, the Love On Tour EP. So was there a long writing process for it? You mentioned that you didn’t actually spend that much time in the studio for the record.
It was a really hard process. I thought it was going to take a lot less time. The album is only eight songs long, and I had maybe five or them ready after the second EP. So I was like ‘I just have to write five more songs to make an album’, but that took a lot longer than I thought, and I didn’t even write five more songs. So I just wrote three songs in two years! It was really really hard, and I got anxious because I had gotten a scholarship to use for the album, and they had a deadline for it. So they asked that the album be ready in six months, and I was like ‘ok, that should work’. But then I got so stressed about that deadline, and we had to push it back like four times and I think they got quite annoyed with me.
Was there any reason that the last songs took so long to put together?
I don’t know, I just felt pressure somehow. I don’t know from what or from who, maybe just from myself. Cos my label doesn’t push me at all, and they have been really kind and supportive about it taking so much time. So I think I just put pressure on myself, that I had to do a ten, eleven, twelve song album and it had to be so good. I also I had a lot of time, because I wasn’t working, I went to a school and got a lot of free time to music. So I had a lot of time to do it, and I think ironically that made it a lot harder, because I felt I had to do it now, and I stopped liking it. I wanted to prove I was better than on the EPs, I felt I couldn’t do the same boring songs and I had to prove I was better and write more interesting songs.
Do you think the extra time gave you more time to expand your musical vision? Because the songs on the album are much more layered and complex than the ones on the EP, they sound like they take longer to write. Like something like Hemtjänsten moves through so many different phases, so much more complex than the scrappy, lo-fi EP songs. So do you think the extra time gave you the space to develop that style?
Maybe on some of the songs, that one for instance. Because I remember when I wrote it, I thought ‘I want to have a lot of parts in this song, I want it to be a calm and slow song but have a lot of really weird parts’. But a lot of the other songs were maybe more simple in the beginning, but when Hannes and I worked in the studio we changed them and made them sound bigger, new arrangements. For example, with the End Of Time, that song had only acoustic guitar and vocals, and I wrote it when I was 17. So I didn’t want it on the album, but I didn’t have enough songs, so I had to have it. So Hannes said ‘I want to have this on the album’, so I said ‘you can have free hands on this one, do whatever you want to do’. So he wanted it more electronic, so we worked from there and now it sounds much bigger.
So it was in the studio that the new style developed?
Yeah, a lot of it. Maybe also a bit more, when I thought I wanted to have more complex songs. I wanted to take it to the next level. Even if I hadn’t worked in the studio. Even if I hadn’t had the opportunity to work in a studio, I wouldn’t have wanted to make an album that sounded like the EPs.
How do you feel about the EPs now? Because you still play [early single] Ever Before sometimes live.
I actually listened to them a couple of months ago for the first time since I had released them. They were actually a bit better than I thought [laughs]. Cos I felt that I hated them so much, and the recordings are really bad, because I didn’t know how to do it. But I still like some of the songs, and I wanted to re-record one of them to have on the album, but we didn’t have the time.
You mentioned in your interview with Popmani, that you only made music because ‘it was something to do’, and you didn’t know ‘what you would do otherwise’. So do you have a pretty unromantic and unemotional relationship with music? That you don’t see it as something magical or special to do?
Exactly. That’s exactly how it is [laughs]. I don’t know why I do it, and don’t feel like I found my thing with music, because it’s really hard. It makes me happy sometimes, but a lot of the time I don’t really know why I do it. But when I think about not doing it, I don’t know why I shouldn’t do it either. Some people say that when they started music they found what they were meant to do. But I don’t think I’m meant to do this [laughs]. I think it’s too hard, and we’ll see how long I will do it for.
It’s quite an honest way of talking about it. Because I feel like most people feel that way about their jobs to some degree. Like ‘yeah, it’s okay, what else would I do?’. And I feel like musicians feel like they have to say ‘I’ve got the best job in the world!’ or whatever. You don’t feel the need to say that.
No. And I’m very happy to be able to do this, and to be able to put out an album on a label and I’m really like thankful for the opportunity. But I don’t think it’s so special. I don’t know.
People often call you an indie-pop or indie-rock artist. And in the early days you maybe were that, but the songs on Rest In Peace don’t really fit into that category, they’re more psychedelic, sprawling, weird. They only simple song is maybe My Baby, the closer. Does it feel like, with the music you’re writing now, that the songs have to be complex to be interesting for you?
Before I thought that way. But some of the most beautiful songs, some of my favourite songs from other artists are super simple, so I don’t think the length or how many parts a song has is important. You just have to have something special, it can just be two chords for two minutes, and it can be the most special song. You just have to have a feeling for it. Like with My Baby, that’s just two chords the whole song through, and I think it turned out great. A song isn’t interesting just because it’s long. And sometimes some people try to be too weird, and try too hard, and you can hear it in the song.
So you didn’t go into this record thinking ‘I’m tired of short indie songs, I want to do something weirder, bigger, more epic’? Because when you hear the songs on this album, they do sound epic, they crash around more.
I was thinking that going into the album, I wanted to do something else. I didn’t think a short simple song was bad, but I wanted to do something else. But now I know it doesn’t have to be epic to be interesting. But I’m glad I have more range. Because before it was just a guitar and me singing. But now that I’ve been working with Hannes, I’ve learned that there are so many different ways to write a song. You can have a simple demo with just guitar and vocal. Then you can also write a song straight onto the computer, with the arrangements. I never did that before, before when I thought I couldn’t record until I had all the parts of the song written, from beginning to end.
This summer you’ve also got a settled band for the first time in the history of Boys. Does that feel like it’s moved the band on to a whole new level?
Yeah, it’s definitely a whole new level. I’ve gotten a lot more serious with rehearsals and stuff. I think I’m a pretty chill bandleader, but before I think I was too chill, because I was like ‘it doesn’t really matter if you know the songs or not’ [laughs]. Cos I thought I didn’t really care, because I felt I didn’t really care, I was just happy to play. But I realised I cared a lot, but I think I didn’t have the guts to say to them ‘you have to rehearse, you have to know the songs to play’. But now I feel I can trust everyone in my band, and I know they’re going to know the songs. And it’s nice to know that. That they won’t hate me if I put some demands on them, because they all have their own musical projects so they know how it works. Maybe I’ve just grown up, and can be more serious about how I want the music to be.
And do you feel it improves the live show, when you’re not swapping musicians in the band all the time?
Yeah, it’s nice. But now Anna (Rauhala, guitarist) is moving away, though she’s still going to be in the band, so we might have to get another guitarist for some shows. But she’s going to be in the band forever, even though she’s moving away now. I’m really happy with my band.
You tended to do the writing on your own in the past. Now that you have the band, do you think that you might start writing together as a band, opening up the writing process a bit?
Yeah, maybe. I don’t think I’m going to write all by myself anymore, because it’s too hard, I haven’t written a song in so long. When I do it myself I think it’s really bad. But I’ve never tried to do a song with the band, like through jamming, but that might happen. I wrote all the songs on this record alone, but me and Hannes did the finishing touches, and it was really nice to like confirm with someone else that the music is good. Before I felt I had to do everything myself right up to release to be able to call it my music. But now I know that everyone who makes music works together, almost no-one does everything themselves, so I definitely think I’m going to do more with others. Because now I think it’s just music, and I don’t really care if I did it myself or got help from someone.
Rest In Peace is out now on PNKSLM. Boys play Melodybox with La Luz on September 6.
Photo: Anna Rauhala