INTERVIEW: Sweden’s Anna Arco on her immersive debut album
Image: Lovisa Ellegren
Anna Arco’s Songs Within the Spectrum is all about honesty, human connections and embracing life’s sorrows. And her supple, jazz-trained voice is the instrument that draws it all together into a stunning debut collection.
“Music makes us feel less alone,” says Swedish vocalist and songwriter Anna Arco. “What I’m looking for in art is being touched, and I think I get touched when I feel that something is honest and when I feel like someone is daring to be vulnerable. That’s what I’m looking for, and I also want to be that kind of artist.” And with her debut solo album Songs Within the Spectrum, out today, Arco has crafted exactly that kind of honesty into a remarkable collection of heartfelt, genre-warping pop, reflecting both the light and the darkness of her experiences. This is music for deep immersion that is worth being savoured.
Recorded over a year, Songs Within the Spectrum marks Arco’s first release for two years, after first single ‘The Ocean’ in 2017, and the electro-infused ‘Dagger to the Heart’, which was reimagined last year with classical strings. She began working on the album with violinist, singer and songwriter Natalie Migdal, a close friend, but barely a month later Migdal died suddenly, leaving Arco not only dealing with a wave of grief but the intensely emotional task of finishing the album alone.
“It has been a grieving process,” Arco says, quietly. “Finishing the album has been hard but also beautiful – feeling close to Natalie – but also really strange, like recording the songs and hearing her voice and her violin. It’s been really intense.” Much like the grief that was part of the creative process, the album has a rawness at its heart, and Arco wouldn’t have it any other way. “The important thing for me is to be true to all of my feelings, even if it’s feelings of hurt or shame,” she says. “That’s something that me and Natalie talked a lot about. [It’s about] acknowledging and accepting all of my feelings because that’s what makes me me.”
Arco’s music career started in jazz. Back in 2016, the jazz quartet she was part of released an album, and at the time Arco was also studying her master’s degree in jazz vocals at the Stockholm Royal College of Music. Yet she says jazz was in many ways an unexpected turn for her. “I didn’t grow up with jazz. My parents always listened to The Beatles and Leonard Cohen,” she says. When it came to her solo music, though, Arco turned to a more traditional pop sound. “I just felt like going back to my roots, which was more pop than jazz,” she says. “I really wanted to write the music of my heart and that’s this music.”
Initially Arco’s concept for Songs Within the Spectrum was “string quartets meets electronics”, she says. “The plan was, of course, that Natalie should be a part of it and when she suddenly passed away that had to change. So this year has been a lot about making new plans and new arrangements, and trying to finish the album.” And while tragedy can often make us re-evaluate our plans completely, Arco says the album itself was never in doubt. “This was a really natural album for me to produce,” she says. “It also felt more important to finish it than just let it go. That’s not what Natalie would have wanted.”
Pop may be the music of Arco’s heart, but Songs Within the Spectrum is shot through with musical elements spanning electro, jazz, stadium pop, dramatic ballads and dreamy orchestral textures. ‘Some Time Apart’ has jazz and soul vibes to it; the dark, minimal expanse of ‘Ghosts’ creates an otherworldly feel; and ‘Float’ is a mellow piano ballad lifted by Arco’s feather-light vocal touch. Arco says she didn’t intentionally focus on incorporating a wide range of genres but it was a side effect of her songwriting process. “I usually start writing lyrics and they lead the way to what sort of music it eventually will turn out to be,” she says. “I welcome all influences. Maybe a melody went in a jazzy direction, and that’s okay because that’s the right fit for that song. It’s also about accepting all the different paths that I want to walk on.”
And Arco isn’t afraid to explore those different paths, even when they are not easy or pleasant. With an aim to encompass everything “within the emotional spectrum”, Arco includes hard-hitting and at times brutal lyrics in her songs. “I was never in love with you / I just hated myself”, she sings on second single ‘Never in Love’, while on ‘Black Swans’, a track Arco nominates as one of her favourites, she sings “Everyone compliments me on how well I’m coping with my pain / But they don’t know that in my sleep I wish that I won’t wake again”. Arco believes that what we perhaps simplistically refer to as “sad songs” are fundamental to the way that humans connect to music. “I wrote my master’s thesis about musical experiences and the good things that we get out of listening to sad songs,” she explains. “We feel a connection to other people. Listening to sad songs by someone else makes us feel less alone. We feel like we have a community and also the power in music to verbalise what we feel. We think, ‘Someone else is verbalising my pain.’”
Writing and recording an album is hard work in itself, but with Songs Within the Spectrum Arco has gone one step (or possibly ten steps) further by not only releasing it on her own label, but also producing and arranging all the songs, and designing the artwork. It is a heavy workload that she shrugs off. “For me, composing and playing has always been more of a need, so I think I would be more exhausted if I hadn’t done it all,” she laughs. “I think doing my own artwork and stuff is a really creative and wonderful part of it. The exhausting part is the PR stuff and trying to reach people with the music.” While she is currently the only artist on her label, she is not averse to the idea of signing other artists in the future. “I have always been really grateful to the artists who have helped me, so I really feel obligated to help other artists who haven’t come as far as I have,” she says. “So maybe having someone else on my label would be a way of doing that in the future.”
And despite Arco’s demanding workload, doing it all over again is something she is looking to do very soon. Incredibly, she has the next album almost ready to go. “I have ten songs already,” she reveals. “I’m going to go into the studio again soon and this time I want to just let the songs grow production-wise, rather than arranging them with the band. [The songs will form] maybe an album, or two EPs.” She is also ready to give free rein to her creativity outside the studio by appearing on stage again after a long absence.
“I’m trying right now to book a small tour for September,” she says. “I live for playing live. I think that’s such a wonderful way of meeting your audience. And for me, that’s what writing music is all about – to meet other people. The joy when you get to see the audience’s immediate reactions to the music and talking to them afterwards … Yeah, that’s my favourite part.”