Musical linguistics

Musical linguistics

Local singer Nina Karlsson will perform her new Russian-language songs at a concert this week.

Published: September 21, 2011 (Issue # 1675)


Nina Karlsson, 25, previously worked as a model.

Nina Karlsson, a St. Petersburg singer-songwriter and keyboard player who has generated a cult following through her captivating songs with a touch of soul, funk, jazz and cabaret, inventive English-language lyrics and plenty of charisma, will this week premiere a number of her new songs that she has written in Russian.

“At first I used to tell myself that I’d think carefully about every word, and it was like that for a while, but now I’ve written so many, by my standards, that it became pretty clear to me that I’ve entered some new stage in which I write without giving it much thought, only bare emotion,” Karlsson says.

“It happened with English a while ago, and now it has also happened with Russian — when it feels like you can write a whole song in one stroke.”

Karlsson is sitting in Ryumochnaya, a small artistic cafe on Pushkinskaya Ulitsa, where, she says, she does not get recognized and frequently bumps into friends.

This time, however, two men sitting at the next table with a carafe of vodka start to pay her attention and compliment her looks as soon as she takes a seat by the window.

They do not apparently realize that the face on the poster around the corner advertising her upcoming concert at Mod and the young woman sitting near them are the same person.

They leave, eventually, but one of them then becomes glued to the window from the outside, staring at Karlsson until she decides to go to the bar to order a latte. Later, she admits to being shy.

A graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory’s composition faculty, Karlsson, 25, who previously worked as a model, says she started performing by chance.

Having started playing piano at the age of three, in early 2008 Karlsson played piano accompaniment for a young man who called himself Paul Savitsky at a series of charity gigs held at small local clubs like Cheshire Cat and Stirka.

She met Savitsky via a fashion designer whom she met at an Oi Va Voi concert in November 2007.

“I thought I was being stalked by a maniac, but he turned out to be a fashion designer, and he said, ‘I’d like you to try out to be a model,’” she says.

“I’d always rejected offers like that for every reason possible, but then I thought ‘I have a disc of my music, so I’ll give it to him and maybe he’ll use it at a fashion show.’

“It turned out that he gave it to his friend Savitsky, who was in need of an accompanist, but I began to work a bit as a model — through inertia — until, after a few months, I started to get out of there, because I was already playing concerts, and finally parted ways with everybody.”

Savitsky, who played guitar, sang mostly David Bowie covers, from “Space Oddity” to “Modern Love,” while Karlsson accompanied him on the piano. She also wrote the arrangements.

Karlsson’s version of the Irish folk song “Carrickfergus,” which is still in her repertoire, dates back to those early days.

“He played the recording to me and I said, ‘OK, now I’ll figure out the notes,’ but then I forgot it and wrote it anew,” she says.

“I still perform it — the original lyrics and my music, [which is] completely different.”

When, one day, Savitsky failed to appear, she quickly penned a number of songs and performed them on her own that same night. Karlsson says the choice of English was coincidental.

“I had a book of James Joyce poems [in English] with me, so I opened it, stuck a finger into two places, and then I had some chaotic thoughts, like ‘I have to write some more songs, what am I thinking about? Well, yesterday I was thinking about this and that…’ So English happened just like that.”

Karlsson says that she attempted to recreate the ambience of songs by Zhanna Aguzarova, who started out as a singer with the Moscow-based band Bravo in the 1980s.

“I’ve always liked Zhanna Aguzarova, and when I started writing those remarkable English-language lyrics… They are not enormously complex, they’re based on an emotion or a feeling, but they’re soulful and powerful. I wanted the same feeling, but in English. Then came musicians, arrangements, and so on.”

Karlsson then continued to write English-language songs that, she felt, she could not stop writing.

“My friend witnessed the process, she kept telling me, ‘Why don’t you get some sleep?’ But I couldn’t stop; I kept putting them down, playing them in my head,” she says.

“I’m really happy that it happened to me. It’s like learning to swim, I think; you may succeed or you may not.”

Later the same year, she was already performing with a guitarist and drummer as Nina Karlsson, her name also becoming the band’s name.

“Karlsson” is actually a nickname, coming from Karlsson-on-the-Roof, a mischievous, short, fat character with a propeller taken from a book by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, which became hugely popular in the Soviet Union and Russia both in the translation of the book and in a cartoon version.

She says she got the nickname when she arrived at a party wearing an overall with straps that reminded her friends of the garment worn by the character.

Karlsson says her real last name is no secret, yet somehow fails to reveal it, talking instead about the maiden name of her great-grandmother after whom she was named (Nina Migitskaya, a “beautiful Polish name”) and revealing that her last name will soon be Vasina, after she marries Vasily Vasin, frontman of the local band Kirpichi, next month.

Earlier this year, she sang a duet with Vasin on a track by Kirpichi, a band that blends alternative rock and hip-hop, and from time to time appears as a guest singer at Kirpichi concerts.

“We met when we decided to do a song together at the showcase concert for my CD [in September 2010] and fell in love,” she says.

“He wrote a song about me, I composed the harmony, he wrote the lyrics and I wrote the chorus. I like the music and how he raps on it.”

The showcase concert for the CD — “I Deny,” released on Moscow music critic and promoter Artyom Troitsky’s label Voskhod in August 2010 — was also issued as a DVD titled “Nina Karlsson Live.”

Born into a family of medics, Karlsson, who studied at the Anichkov Lyceum (a high school with a focus on advanced math), says she was taught English from an early age, and also watched films and read books in the language and mixed with native speakers, so singing in English came naturally to her.

“Now it’s the same with Russian,” she says. “I sometimes wonder why I didn’t do it earlier. But I am all for being natural; it happened by itself, so it’s OK.”

Her Russian songs deal with her thoughts about Russia (“Ballet”), unrequited love for her from an artist (“Seryozha”) and her own love for Vasin, she says.

“I called it ‘Ballet’ but I use the image of Gogol’s troika that is speeding … to where? No one knows,” she said.

“That’s what Russia is for me, too. It’s interesting to live in such a complex world, if you’re relatively healthy, have brains and so on. But if you’re a lonely old woman and you have no work anymore and are maybe even disabled… Let’s take an old woman in England and one in Russia, and it’s obvious what I am talking about.

“Young people can talk about how they love living in Russia as much as they want. You love it while you can walk around on your own legs, but what about afterwards? But [the song] isn’t finished yet, maybe it’ll be about something else.”

Karlsson, who criticized the St. Petersburg authorities for mishandling city issues in an interview, says she is not afraid of being critical, either in interviews or on her blog.

“People are scared, nothing has changed here,” she says.

“When I studied at a higher educational institution, it was a fear-based system. If you said or did anything wrong, you’d get what was coming to you afterwards. That’s why I started to arrange my life in such a way that I wouldn’t come into contact with that system.”

Karlsson’s musical interests stem from her classical background.

“My favorite music of all time is Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for violin and orchestra,” she says.

“There are two arias in it, that’s what I love about it. That’s like a land of magic to me.”

Karlsson admits to not listening much to pop music.

“I am a fan of silence and chance sounds,” she says. “Of songs heard by chance at friends’ houses or outside.”

Karlsson says that there are only three pop songs that she ever puts on the stereo to listen to: Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and “The Passion of Lovers” and Cocteau Twins’ “Sugar Hiccup.”

“That’s all. I can listen to any of those 20 or 30 times in a row, probably, although I don’t do that anymore,” she says.

“It’s different with classical music. When nobody’s watching, I like to put something on and dance to it. Slowly, so slowly.”

Nina Karlsson will perform at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24 at Mod, 7 Naberezhnaya Kanala Griboyedova. Metro: Nevsky Prospekt. Tel. 712 0734.

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