Molly Nilsson is firmly in control of both her career and her aesthetic.
Since 2008, she’s self-released six full-length albums of emotive, lo-fi synth pop, winning her a modest, but loyal fan base. And as becomes clear when reaching out for this feature, she also acts as her own manager, booking agent and publicist, as well as designing her own distinctive artwork for her Dark Skies Association imprint.
Nilsson’s sound has steadily evolved and broadened over the years, the release of her latest LP, last year’s Zenith, evinced an artist in her prime, its title a self-aware declaration of a newfound maturity and certitude. While her web presence is shrouded in mystique – until fairly recently, Nilsson was reluctant to give interviews – when I meet with her at Hackney’s Moth Club she’s preternaturally calm, open and down to earth.
While Nilsson’s been based in Berlin for around eleven years, she cites Stockholm, her home city, as having fostered her earliest experiments with music. “Berlin has this atmosphere of anything goes and it’s very forgiving,” she explains of her incentive to move. “I think if I started in Stockholm I would have had a much harder time, because it used to be a lot more cool or something – people are a little more insecure there. In Berlin I felt it was okay to do whatever. Even if you fail, it’s not a big deal. It’s liberating.”
Her sound may be distinctive, but Nilsson’s reluctant to cite any specific influences. “I listen to a lot of things and mostly things that are nothing like my own music – things I could never make,” she says. “From classical music to techno and trance. I’m a very disloyal listener. I think a lot of people think I listen to contemporary pop bands or something. Or a lot of people think that I’m influenced by Nico because I have a dark voice when I’m singing. But I’ve never listened to Nico in my whole life and I really don’t like her music. But I guess people assume so because of my voice or accent, I don’t know.”
Zenith is one of Molly’s proudest achievements, and while the record is an affirmation of everything that came before it, risk was also an imperative part of the process that birthed it. From the sun-kissed reggae rhythms of Lovers Are Losers, to the ravey synths of Bunny Club and the vintage, commercial pop feel of 1995, Zenith shakes off misconceptions of cool detachment with huge, feel-good melodies. “I was trying out a lot of things and breaking some taboos that I’ve had with myself,” Nilsson tells me. “At times I was like, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe I’m doing this’, but then I’m like, ‘but it’s awesome!’ Once you break the taboo it’s just gone, it’s like a paradigm shift. And then you can’t even remember what it was like before.”
Lyrically, Zenith sees Molly taking on bigger and broader themes than ever before. While her songs have always been diaristic, Zenith’s tracks expand their remit from single days or specific events to months, years and decades, reflecting on planets, orbiting satellites, the rise and fall of relationships, and personal revelations. “It wasn’t a conscious thing,” she says. “Maybe when I was making Zenith I was in a phase where I did a lot of looking back and comparing myself because I was turning 30 – it’s a time when you’re kind of looking back on your twenties and this decade of your life that’s really fun. I was getting ready to go into a new decade, and I was letting go of a lot of things, but also keeping the things that I wanted to keep.” Like most creative achievements though, Zenith didn’t come without struggle. “I think the most difficult thing about the album when I started making it was that I wanted to make something very positive and optimistic with a lot of good inspiration, and I wanted to spread a good vibe with it,” she explains. “When I started making the album, it was 2014, and there were so many awful things happening in the world. There was so much war and conflict everywhere, and it was really hard to not get politically depressed. I think I was also a maybe little bit personally depressed by it. The biggest challenge was to actually start believing in a future again. But once I found a way to do that, the songs just started coming out.”
"Once you break the taboo it’s just gone, it’s like a paradigm shift"
At this point I remember having read that Molly thought that Zenith might be her last album. So is she genuinely considering a retirement from music? “I think that every time I make an album – and I’ve made a lot of albums,” she laughs. “Maybe it’s just that it’s kind of exhausting, and then sometimes you just feel like ‘okay that was the last one, now I’m finished – I have nothing left to say.’ But when I had finished Zenith I actually felt like, ‘no, I will probably make like ten more albums.
“I think the whole life of making music with the touring and things like that might get a little bit tiresome as you grow older,” Nilsson says reflectively. “But as it stands, I want to still be on stage in 25 years and still make albums that I’m proud of. I don’t think of last albums any more. I’ve grown up now.”