Agnes Berg – with many strings on her mandolin

Published: 2008-01-07 by Sebastian Tiger

Agnes Berg comes from a tradition of Swedish folk singers, and has been especially inspired by names such as Elisabeth Hermodsson, Cornelis Vreeswijk, and Olle Adolphson. But this has not kept her from writing jazz, rock, bossa nova, and almost all musical genres except for drum’n’bass. From her base in Malmö, she has written the music for all the shows by Anna-Lena Brundin and Petronella Wester as well as all the music for the thirty episodes of the TV program Amigo. Add her mentioning the fact that she writes her own Baroque music, and you can see that we are dealing with an unusually versatile songwriter.

-I have played music since I was small, says Agnes Berg. My mother is a choir singer, so I sang in choirs early on. I have played violin while I was growing up, which I enjoyed… sometimes. But it is something I have had quite a lot of use for.

From her violin studies, she went on to orchestras and pop bands, later attending the Skurup jazz preparatory school and the Royal University College of Music. Nowadays, she writes as often on the piano and guitar as on her favorite instrument, mandolin. She always comes back to her fundamental principle—that everything one does has to be deeply felt.

- It’s so important that all I do has a soul and a heart, no matter who it is meant for. There must be a spiritual component to it. And that can be found also in really good schlager texts; just look at [Stephan Berg’s] ”Fångad av en stormvind” (Caught by a storm wind).

It is indubitably brilliant to be Carola and begin the song with ”I have never stopped believing.”

-Of course. But we all believe in something. It doesn’t have to be God.

What do you get out of writing many different sorts of music?

-My background is so varied that it just turned out that way; I don’t know how normal that is. I wouldn’t say that I am good with all genres. I make bad songs too. Petronella asked me once to write a certain sort of music, and so I sent my suggestion to her and never got an answer, so I realized that it wasn’t so good. But it is good for one’s development to receive criticism.

What is the difference between writing songs and writing for theater?

-I think it’s fun when someone calls and says ”Can’t you write a Beatles song?” I have worked with different theaters that say, “We need an intro. The show is going to start with a dance, and it has to feel like an upbeat welcome.” It’s easy to work that way, when I know the framework. But whatever it is, there has to be a good song and good lyrics.

So how do you write a ”Beatles song”?

-The melodic structure in Beatle songs is old. One can hear it in songs by (the British 16th century composer) John Dowland. And the same thing is in The Beatles’ tonal language. When I got the Beatles commission, I had to start with a special sort of melody.

Can you explain a little more in detail about how one finds the melody?

-When one gets a commission, it is important to know the building blocks of the different genres, both the harmonic and the instrumental. But if one is going to make a jazz tune or something in line with [the bossa nova composer] Antonio Carlos Jobim, style is not the only thing one studies; the most important component is a good melody. That is what determines if the song is good, mediocre, or poor.

How do you feel that the availability of digital home studios has changed songwriting?

- Well, I have my own studio, and I have recorded things for a long time, so I can make my recordings sound good. Being able to make recordings that are in principle finished is fantastic—that alone is an unbelievable source of inspiration.

Do you write mostly in your studio?

-In my studio I can be totally alone. At home I have children who make noise and people who come home. When I am in that situation, I feel like I want to spend every free moment in my studio, just creating. It is very important for me to just write music right now.

Sebastian Suarez-Golborne


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