Interview with Isak Danielson
It takes a lot to make Swedish singer-songwriter Isak Danielson cry – but a month ago, he had one of those rare moments.
“I started getting teared up in the first verse, so I had to turn around from the audience and get myself together and keep on singing the song. I’ve never experienced that before ever…”
This surge of emotion at his show in Stockholm was triggered by a single lyric in “Light Up”, his first 2020 release. There’s a hint of it in the studio version, too; something just barely restrained, his voice trembling as he manages “Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel // The demons that run inside of me”. When we get the chance to speak with Isak, it has been just over a year since the track first materialized.
“I have struggled, and am struggling with, panic disorder since 2015,” he reveals, exclaiming in disbelief as he totals up the timespan of five years. “I’ve had the idea for a long time of writing a song about anxiety, but I haven’t gotten my point across in the right way. [‘Light Up’] was the first song that I felt was a great song for me explaining what I feel and what I’ve been through.”
Despite writing about a subject so close to him, it’s in the delivery that his songs seem to hit him the hardest. “It was okay writing it, but then recording the vocals was pretty depressing,” he recalls. “I had to go into a dark place and try to think about panic attacks; that really heavy anxiety that you have when you let your anxiety rule you and you do as the anxiety tells you to.”
And for Isak, recording vocals isn’t just about getting the best take – it’s about singing with conviction. “It feels like when you’re reading a book,” he explains. “You can read and then you’re like, ‘What have I even read?’ So you have to read all of the pages back. It’s kind of the same thing – you can start singing, and then you can try to catch yourself and be like, ‘I don’t even know what I’ve sung about’ and do it again, and then again…” The end result of his many takes is a voice like butter, serving as a focal point to carry each track with deliberate urgency.
He’s not afraid to open up old wounds for the sake of a song, either. “Sometimes when I’ve sung a song about a specific person, I’ve had the picture of the person on my laptop really close up on the face,” he describes. “[I sing] right into that face and those eyes and try to really get myself in the emotional state.”
It takes a certain maturity to address these feelings head on. Isak was serious about music from a young age, having attended a performing arts school in the UK for two years, and later, after moving back to his home country, placing third in the only season of the X Factor Sweden at the mere age of 14. “I had a pretty clear image of who I wanted to be,” he says. “I had the same influences [that I have now] like Nina Simone, and I listened to a lot of jazz music, and I loved Amy Winehouse.”
Being on the show was an irreplaceable experience, but he wasn’t able to truly define his music until afterwards. “I kind of just wanted to please everybody, so I did what I thought was the right thing because other people thought so,” he admits. “And I think because I was so young in that environment, taking some time off and growing up and being away from it, I had a view and a sense of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to portray my artistry visually, musically, all that…”
Visuals are an area he particularly excels in, too, bringing his songs to life with raw, intense scenes. His video for “Power” grips the viewer, almost as if he or she is tied up like the image of Isak bound to a chair. And “Silence” is a shockingly vivid portrayal of several different shades of mental illness and self-harm. Compared to some artists who might have trouble simply listening back to songs that they write, Isak puts himself directly into the song – and even has fun doing it.
“It’s important to bring out what the song is about, and what it means to me, and what I feel when I hear it and sing it,” he expresses. “I wouldn’t say it’s hard – I kind of like to act, I guess. I just love art in any way. I think the videos are pretty simple, but if you really analyze them you start finding new things.”
When writing, this dramatic streak allows him to exaggerate situations to enhance the lyrics, but also gives him a certain amount of detachment, particularly regarding relationships. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in love,” he admits. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ve felt the true emotion of love. So for me, I think that I bring out more emotions and feelings lyrically and vocally than maybe I’ve actually felt or am feeling.”
Isak’s inspirations aren’t always what you would expect, either. “I wrote a song about a dead chicken once,” he laughs. “I still haven’t put that song out. It’s not, you know…it could be to a person, but it’s about a chicken. All different things can inspire me. When I hang out with friends I like to talk to them about their relationships and what they’re going through in life. They’re always making fun of me, cause I’m always so interested and I’m like, ‘Tell me more’. I try to really get their feelings to show, cause it inspires me.”
He has an ability to string words together in an effortlessly straightforward way, not shying away from bold statements that capture the essence of an emotion. The first song from his latest release, a double single that came out on Valentine’s Day, exemplifies these qualities. “[‘I Don’t Need Your Love’ is] a joyful kind of power ballad, singing that you’re over somebody and being excited about it,” he says. “It has a lyric, ‘I don’t need your love // I finally feel like I’ve had enough // And now I am moving on’, and it just makes me smile, because it’s a simple lyric, but really strong and meaningful.” With pounding drums and a soaring chorus, the track feels like a exhilarating release.
“I’ve never felt this feeling about a song before, like really loving the song,” he continues. “Like, going around singing it all the time…I don’t know. It’s something special with that song.” As determined by Isak’s calculations, it was written in only 20 minutes – a length of time not so uncommon for him as you might think. “Often in sessions, if it’s a good song and I’m going to use the song, it has to melody-wise, musically, be pretty much finished within like the first 30 minutes of starting to figure out what the song is going to sound like,” he tells us. “If I spend too much time on a song, my head just gets really messy and I give up.”
The day of our conversation, he’s written three songs already. But for now, he’s more focused on his upcoming sophomore venture, which he reveals is done apart from a few sessions to record piano and strings. Compared to his debut album, ‘Yours’, the process seems to have gone more quickly. “Last time around I was in so many different sessions with so many different songwriters and producers,” he explains. “I think this time I could decide who I wanted to work with, and how, and when. But also, in a way, I didn’t spend as much time [writing this album], but I spent more time producing it. I’m not a producer, but [I gave] as much input as I could on my own, kind of ideas and feelings about how the songs were sounding.”
Although he’s a piano player at heart, many of the tracks are more guitar-based on this album. “I get inspired very quickly when somebody else is playing an instrument,” he says. “And I think starting to write more on guitar, not that I play guitar, but having producers play guitar, is refreshing for me. [I can] write a melody and lyrics on an instrument that I’m not that used to. I think I’ll try new instruments. I’ve only written on piano and guitar, but I’m for sure going to try to start off a song on a completely new instrument that I haven’t tried before.”
He’s also been tackling some new topics, including self-love. “[There’s a song coming that’s] written as a love song but to myself. Like, when you have your devil and your angel on either shoulder, and you’re trying to figure out who you’re going to listen to.” The track is set to be the last single before the full album is released, and will have an accompanying video that Isak is eager to see how people will interpret.
Considering all of these new approaches and perspectives, what can we expect? “It’s just me, like I’ve always been, but with better songs.”
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