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Sweden’s Smith & Thell are musical chameleons: Their blend of folk, pop, and electronic sounds and styles defies the norm for all genres, putting their catchy music squarely in a league of its own. Upon first listen, the group’s two officially-released singles – 2015’s “Statue [The Pills Song]” and 2016’s “ROW“ – seem completely distinct from one another, the former colored by a bluegrass-y guitar and the latter driven by bouncing, near-tropical vibes. However, a deeper dive into both tracks starts to uncover their musical similarities, and in turn teaches us much about the still fresh Smith & Thell.
We mix and blend and walk over genres picking the elements we like, quite rudely in fact, but it is authentic to us and we think that is what matters.
Maria Jane Smith and Victor Thell spent the last few years establishing themselves as two of Sweden’s most sought after songwriter / producer combos. They earned their first platinum record in 2014, and in 2015 launched their own project, submitting their debut single “Statue” for consideration in Sweden’s prestigious Denniz Pop Awards. The jury selected them as the 2015 Artist of the Year, the same honor given to Tove Lo the previous year.
Underneath the jangling guitars, dynamic percussion, and cinematic chorus of “Statue” lies a powerful story of human perseverance that is echoed by words, but enshrined in the music.
My world was going under
I needed love, but got a doctor
I’m out of control, I’m out of control
He gave me pills, to forget I missed ya.
You take some more, and you’ll be better
And I’m out of control, I’m out of control
They say I’ve got 123, some kind of ABC
but that’s all part of me
Hey, there’s pills for that too
Listen: “Statue” – Smith & Thell
Smith & Thell excel at catapulting the individual into the universal. They are songwriters first and foremost, their attention dedicated to the lyrics and the music in such a way that allows those two separate art forms to go beyond their typical complementary relationship. In Smith & Thell’s songs, the vocal melodies are an intricate part of the music, and the lyrics’ emotions emanate as much from the singers’ words as they do from the surrounding instruments.
There’s pills for heartache
there’s pills to fall in love too.
But here take a picture
I might as well be a statue.
But don’t raise attraction
I just stand there and smile.
Blank as a paper
There’ll be no ups and no downs
With its focus on self-empowerment and individual control and volition, “Statue” is an immensely heartfelt and resonating song. It’s also extraordinarily personal for Smith & Thell, as they share in our exclusive interview below. As powerful as “Statue” and “ROW” are, they are just the beginning for the Stockholm-based duo: Smith & Thell’s debut album is anticipated in early 2017, and will touch on “experiences from childhood and the naive joy, to growing up and talking about real life everyday issues.” Says the band, “Although the topics seem dark, we hope our message about the topics will resonate and give strength.” Dive into Smith & Thell’s artistry and world through our interview below, and enjoy “Statue” and “ROW” while we wait for the next official release from this Artist to Watch!
A CONVERSATION WITH SMITH & THELL
Atwood Magazine: How do you characterize Smith & Thell's music? Are there any key defining traits?
Smith & Thell: Playful, yet serious might be a good description. Sound-wise we’re suckers for epic layers of choirs, guitars, and confident drums and percussion.
For the past 20 or so years, a great deal of chart-topping pop music has been penned by Swedish artists. How is Smith & Thell different?
Smith & Thell: We love well-written pop songs with great punchy direct choruses like Swedes are known for, but we have our own unique ideas as well. We’ve sampled sounds of trees in the wind on songs, plus [we] plan to visit a tribe to record sounds around their lifestyle. Some outside of the box ideas as we don’t want to get stuck in the box of how pop (or any genre for that matter) “must sound.” There’s some unwritten rules in the folk world that says you need to keep it like it’s always been and not use electronic elements and record everything one take with a live band and so on. In the same way there are rules in pop not to complicate stuff too much. We don’t really fit in either. We mix and blend and walk over genres picking the elements we like, quite rudely in fact, but it is authentic to us and we think that is what matters.
You’ve spent the last few years establishing yourselves as two of Sweden’s most sought after songwriter/producer teams. What are some of your favorite songs to come from that work, and what is it about them that you like?
Smith & Thell: Our first platinum record, called “Freak” with Molly Sandén. It was our first number one. It has a strong message about body complex, which she is very passionate about. We’re really happy about how the song turned out and that listeners connected with our intended message.
Watch: “Freak” by Molly Sandén
What were your relationships with music, growing up?
Smith & Thell: For some people, music just vibrates with their being and you can’t get songs out of your head. That is how we both felt growing up, although we don’t think we were more exposed to music than the average person, we were just magnets and connected to it maybe more deeply than other kids. Neither of us was ever satisfied with only listening as we both actually needed to “touch” music with our own hands (so to speak). For me (Maria) it was very therapeutic to write and listen to music as a kid, being through such a rough childhood.
Your music combines folk and pop influences – two worlds that don’t traditionally blend fluidly. Do you consider yourselves a part of either community? Do you want to be a part of a certain music community, later in your career(s)?
Smith & Thell: Good question. I don’t think we truly feel at home anywhere : ) We’re two restless beings. Music for us is about experimenting, and I have a hard time thinking we will be a perfect match for an already existing community, although we’d love to be embraced by all music lovers. Otherwise maybe we can build our own! : )
Your two releases, “Statue” and “Row,” seem to present two different approaches to pop music that share Maria’s distinctive voice. Was this the impression you hoped to give (and if you disagree with me, please do let me know why)?
Smith & Thell: We didn’t really think about that when we wrote the songs. When we write we just go with the emotion we want to get out in that moment, you know. It’s more about putting the lyrics and emotion in the right landscape. As an example, “Row” is a powerful song so it needed a powerful production, which was different than what “Statue” needed (in our opinion).
It’s more about putting the lyrics and emotion in the right landscape.
Watch: “Statue [The Pills Song]” – Smith & Thell
There’s a lot to love about “Statue.” Firstly, it deals with struggle. What personal experience/s led to this song?
Smith & Thell: Thank you!
Maria: Both my parents passed away when I was 14 years old. My life was upside down. “I needed love, but I got a doctor” was a reality and what we sing in the song. The doctor gave me antidepressants to get me on my feet again, but when I took them, as my doctor told me to, I became numb to my emotions for many years. Getting off the pills and coming out of it allowed me to get in touch with my real emotions and was what made us write “Statue.” Victor was a big part of making me quit the meds. I needed to grieve in peace and quiet and feel the natural emotions, not cover them up with pills. My mother had a long road with antidepressants and anxiety pills as well, which I know had her make decisions that she wouldn’t have made if she wasn’t. My life would have looked very different if doctors didn’t shove them down people’s throats so easily. We’re over-prescribing and it’s because of money. Capitalism in a real ugly form. Yes, I know that some need pills to survive, but it’s sold like candy today mostly unnecessarily… “Statue” is our answer to that.
“I needed love, but I got a doctor” was a reality.
From depression to ADD, people do take pills for a lot of different things nowadays; yet this song does not sound like it’s a slam against them, or their use of medication. Can you speak to that?
Smith & Thell: We like to say stuff with a glimpse of irony and make people think for themselves. It’s not about being some kind of authority on how people should handle their problems. It’s about telling OUR story and we have gotten to know first hand that a lot of people share similar experiences with us.
You named the track “Statue,” and not “Pills,” which provides a good indication of the track’s significance right there. What is your deeper takeaway from the song?
Smith & Thell: Yeah, we felt that the message is how these substances affected me and not the form they came in.
The message is how these substances affected me.
“Statue” also feels innovative as a pop song with varying tempo. How did this particular aspect of the song come about?
Smith & Thell: The tempo change gives the chorus some kind of fun yet angry feel which we aimed for. We wanted to sing it more crazy than pretty.
What’s the significance of the background vocals – they seem to be saying “hey” over and over again?
Smith & Thell: It feels good. Nothing makes you scream from your guts better than a good hey. Like if you’re going to stop a criminal, you don’t say ‘excuse me sir’ you scream HEY! (laughs)
We gotta make the most out of this short life
So I row the boat through swamp and tide
And if I reach the coast, where the tide goes high
I’ll grab those oars, again
Mama, I’m gonna row my boat
far from the mess that you left
Oh mama, I’m gonna row no matter what
with shackles and chains round my wrists
Watch: “ROW” – Smith & Thell
“Row” uses the image of rowing as a metaphor for self-empowerment. From where do these lyrics stem?
Smith & Thell: We felt that rowing was a great metaphor for the emotion of struggling through something. Rowing connects with many of the elements of the emotion we aimed for. The loneliness, the struggle, being scared… all while trying to make it to a new place.
You employ heavy lyrical repetition in the chorus. What is the significance of repeating the same words over and over in song, to you?
Smith & Thell: Speaking to yourself, I guess, like a fighting mantra.
I hear whistles, blocks, and more in the sublayers of “Row.” What is your relationship with the audio space? Do you approach your songs with a template in mind, or is each track a blank slate?
Smith & Thell: We collect a lot of sounds. There is actually some squeaking boats from the harbor in our hometown in there, which proves that there are so many sounds out there that you can’t find in a sample pack. We usually start with lyrics which give birth to the melody, and then melody to the production.
“Statue” and “Row” introduce Smith & Thell as an artist whose words matter - they bear weight in their meaning. Is this a rule for you?
Smith & Thell: Yes. If we don’t have anything to say, we keep quiet. But with that said, not every song of ours has to have a super serious message. Sometimes you’re just super in love and need to say that, and sometimes it’s the music that helps us put a sound on an emotion that is hard to define.
Sometimes it’s the music that helps us put a sound on an emotion that is hard to define.
You’ve written (or so it seems) about dealing with manic depression and overcoming personal issues through self-empowerment so far. What other topics do you have in store for us? Are there any topics you’re hoping to write about in the future?
Smith & Thell: Our album will definitely approach the manic depressive issue a bit more. We’ll also touch on experiences from childhood and the naive joy, to growing up and talking about real life everyday issues. Although the topics seem dark, we hope our message about the topics will resonate and give strength. We also have some fun songs! (laughs) We have a lot in store.
What is your favorite song to have written together, to-date?
Smith & Thell: “Statue” will always have a special place. But there’s a few on the upcoming album that we’re a little extra proud over.
Having written so much together, where you do find you two struggle? What areas do you still need to work on?
Smith & Thell: We always fight over lyrics, but when we fight the best songs are made. When we don’t fight it means neither of us really has the passion for the song, so it turns out like crap. We will continue fighting! (laughs)
When we don’t fight it means neither of us really has the passion for the song, so it turns out like crap.
Following up to the last one, what things are you really good at and sure of?
Smith & Thell: Victor has a great ear for pop and he’s a great producer. I’m good with words and pinpointing emotions.
Think back to the beginning of this year. Where was Smith & Thell in January, compared to right now?
Smith & Thell: Early this year we were in a writing phase that was very healing and important for us. We had just released one single. Now we’ve started to get on the road and play a more live, which we really enjoy.
What are you most looking forward to next year?
Smith & Thell: Touring. After being out now playing various venues like a small “container” type venue in Berlin, to opening for LP in Cologne, to big festivals in Sweden, we really look forward to more adventures. And of course releasing the album.
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cover photo: Smith & Thell © 2016