Andrew Darley talks to Jenny Wilson about her album Demand The Impossible, a phrase that was a rallying cry for the 1968 student protests in Paris and one that sums up the personal struggles this record explores.
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“Be Realistic – Demand The Impossible!” was defiantly sprayed upon a wall in Paris by the city’s university students. Student protests ripped through the city in May of 1968 in an attempt to gain the government’s attention for a more just educational system. The phrase that marked the wall was both a statement and an order for French citizens to challenge the oppressive ideals that were being imposed on them and claim their justice.
Forty-five years later, the expression has not lost its potency. When Jenny Wilson stumbled across a photograph of the graffiti in a magazine, it struck something deep in her which would form the concept of her fourth studio album. After recently overcoming breast cancer, the Swedish singer-songwriter identified the civil unrest that existed in France with her own personal struggle. She related the chaos and the revolutionary currents of the historical event with her own body and illness. She states, “My body became a society in disorder. I had to rise, had to fight, had to start a rebellion against it”.
Adapting the name Demand The Impossible!, Wilson believes it is her best record to date and she is coming back with a new lust for life and reinvigorated spirit. We talked about the record’s concept, her frustration with the world around her and, ultimately, what this album means to her.
So you’re just about to release your fourth album, how are you feeling?
I’m excited and a bit nervous. But mostly very proud. It’s by far the best record I’ve done!
Demand The Impossible! is its title. Can you tell me more about the idea behind it?
When I was in the middle of making this album, I had just a vague clue of what the theme of this album would be. I knew, though, that I wanted to talk about ‘uprisings’ – both physical and mentally uprisings. Anyway, I sat in a café, having a break from the lonesome studio work, and I grabbed a magazine to try to think about something else other than just my own shit. The first thing that reached my eyes in the paper was a black and white picture of a wall with the noisy graffiti “BE REALISTIC – DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE!” painted over it. I knew that this was my own truth. This was exactly how I felt!
When you started writing for it what were the initial ideas you wanted the album to be?
I was curious about the body and the society. I wanted to write about these two topics, but at first I didn’t know how to connect them. Suddenly I realized that my own body was a society itself, and the society a body. Both full of illness, bad things, happiness, wilderness, fighting spirit and fire.
I’ve been listening over the last two weeks and I feel that the music is more assertive and sometimes aggressive in tone than your previous music. Did you deliberately want to make a more hard-hitting sound?
Yes! I had so much frustration and anger in me – but in a positive way. I was longing to make music that talked straight to your stomach this time. I was having more fun than ever while making this album.
In your mind, does the album have a specific sense of place or even time?
Night time. Urban outskirts – under a bridge, or in a viaduct. Beating heart.
On that note, do you feel that this record is not only about personal and social rebellion but also going against the music you have become known for?
I never really think like that while making music. I have an urge for something new and I strive to please myself. That’s how it works for me.
You publicly said that you were diagnosed with cancer. Was making this music an escape from your reality at the time?
It was not really an escape, because creating music, writing, thinking, is a natural part of me, which I never really take a pause from.
You mentioned that when you were diagnosed you felt “my body became a society in disorder”. Did you feel that your diagnosis was an attack on both you as person and as an artist?
Of course. Suddenly you have to do a lot of things that you haven’t planned: Hospital visits, needles, loss of hair, gaining weight, loss of energy. It’s like a heavy clump of clay. But the only way to deal with the clay is to make something out of it.
I find it fascinating that you connected the rallying graffiti (“Be Realistic – Demand The Impossible”) in Paris during the uprising to your own personal battle. Do you believe art has healing powers in times of struggle?
Yes. Somebody recently told me, that man would go crazy, and slowly die, without art. It’s like with dreams. If you never dream at night, you will most likely go mad. It’s a well-tried torture method.
Do you feel the lyrics are more widely speaking than previous albums?
I always found it enjoying to write about ‘big, universal’ topics. But with a very personal twist, from a different angle. I’ve written about youth, motherhood, struggle and fight, things that most of us have been through in one way or another. But this time, my narrative is different. The language is inspired from beat poets, Dylan, Ginsberg. But also from old Indian-poetry. I wanted to shout this time. I wanted to be mad and crazy, but also super on the spot. Slowly I realized that I had created a persona, who had to say all these things I wanted to say – a street prophet. You see this person, standing in the middle of the street, being the craziest but the wisest at the same time. Talking about everything that happens here and now, melting down the universe with an urgency that you never see a politician do. Fearless. Crazy. Super smart.
Have you got a favourite song from the album? If so, why?
I love the whole album. It’s very much an album-album. The songs belong to each other. But I love ‘Pyramids (Rose Out of Our Pain)’. The lyrics, the groove, the production. It’s a great track.
How did the artwork for the album come about? It’s very different to what you have aesthetically done before.
I had this artist, Finsta, in mind for many years. He has something very urban to his drawings. So I contacted him long before the album existed. The woman on the cover is this warrior, this street prophet. I love it!
Your debut album, Love And Youth, came out in 2005. How does it feel listening back to it today? Is it like looking into an old diary?
There is some great pop on it. A song I just rediscovered is ‘Common Around Here’. The production is kind of sugary, and I can tell that I didn’t know much about producing then. But that’s what also makes it a good album.
Would you say you wrote this album as a way of fighting for your life and also against the cancer?
Maybe. But most, I guess, because it’s the most natural way to stay alive in general, for me, through creating. And, as a matter of fact, I never had such hunger for kicking ass, for do what ever I wanted in the studio. I never felt so alive and brave while recording an album. I think you can hear that. Demand The Impossible! is a nasty knock!
Demand The Impossible! is out November 4, 2013.