Filed under: feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: cian traynor, interview, mariam wallentin, wildbirds and peacedrums
There are two sides to Mariam Wallentin. The downcast figure slouched in the courtyard of London’s Union Chapel, a navy Adidas hoody zipped to her chin, represents one half. Then there’s the shamanic persona who mesmerises crowds with her stage presence, flinging her hair in all directions as mascara drips down her face.
“I’ve always had two sides – that’s normally what I write and sing about,” Wallentin says. “I think everyone has it but I always felt strongly that I have one side that’s really vulnerable and…” She exhales deeply. “Depressed and… never satisfied and… shy; afraid. And then I have that other side. I think I’m just battling those sides sometimes.” When it’s suggested that this might be where her energy comes from, Wallentin lights up. “Maybe! Yeah… maybe. Exactly. Striving.”
Having dedicated the last three years to being one half of Swedish drums-and-vocal duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Wallentin’s striving has so far resulted in two well-received albums, a national music award in her home country and a reputation for being one of the most powerful live acts around. But unlike most musicians, Wallentin’s only bandmate is her husband, drummer Andreas Werliin.
Since they’ve been in it together from the start, they routinely remind people that they have nothing to compare it to. Privately, they try to focus on the positives by dreading what it must be like to tour solo and stay in hotels alone every night, or to tour with a 10-piece band where you’re responsible for everything. “We realised this is kind of the ultimate for us because we can tour as much as we want and we can have each other. Sometimes it’s funny because the promoter will book separate rooms for us and we’re like, ‘yay!’ And then you think, ‘okay, my God, we have a fucked up relationship’. But in one way it’s not fucked up, it’s just different.”
Wallentin is tired. Her voice is strained. She does not want to be photographed without makeup and barely smiles throughout the interview. But she breaks into laughter when asked what it is she wants from life. “Oh that is the hardest question I ever got!” Whirlwind touring, she explains, has clouded her ability to look far ahead. Part of her wants to take a break for a month, hit the beach and be unproductive. The other part of her recognises that making music and touring has become “like a drug”.
Knowing the toll it can take, the pair have been careful to plan time apart. “It can be if we’re going on a two month tour then we’re like, ’okay, is this a good idea? Maybe we need a break in between. Maybe I need to go away,’” says Wallentin, whose thick, unadorned wedding ring resembles a man’s wedding band. Last summer she went to Japan to visit a friend just to get away and do something by herself, to travel without the instruments and without Andreas. “It’s just that we need to take our own decisions and not live by conventions. We’re married, but we did that because we’re kind of romantic and just wanted to give each other something. It’s not that we’re married because we want to have a family right away or have a cute house.”
Wallentin grew up in Örebro, a quiet city between Stockholm and Gothenburg, as the only child of separated parents. But both their record collections would prove influential on her singing. Her mother’s represented the soulful (Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone) whereas her Iranian father listened to commercial Persian pop. “Because I never understood the language, for me it was just sounds,” she says of the latter. “That’s why when I was 16 or so, I became really interested in free improvising and words a lot… You can put all your feelings into just a sound.”
She quickly became fixated on developing her own vocal technique and although Örebro’s music scene was adequate for finding people to perform with, Wallentin needed something more. “My dad moved to Gothenburg when I was 13 and I thought about moving there then because it was so much bigger. But I had my friends and at that age you’re sensitive to that kind of thing.” The right opportunity to leave finally came at age 17 when Wallentin gravitated towards a course in improvisational performance at Gothenburg’s Academy of Music and Drama, where she met her husband to be in 2004.
Both Wallentin and Werliin found that the course’s emphasis on theory stifled their creativity and frustrated their enthusiasm. But they were drawn to the collaborative element, finding themselves jamming with the same groups of people. First it was a five-piece, then a smaller group and smaller again until it was only the two of them left in the practice room. By then they had been romantically involved for a year and decided to get married. When a friend invited the pair to play at a film festival, they realised that their chemistry more than compensated for a lack of instruments.
“Music is about energy for me; it sounds a bit silly but that’s what I try to communicate by singing. It feels amazing when you have the flow. I feel like it’s hard to bring instruments to life because I’m just used to having the instrument inside of me: the voice. So I realised a couple of years ago that I don’t really need to be good at anything else.”
The sound of Wildbirds & Peacedrums is almost unclassifiable. It’s blues, it’s soul, it’s jazz, it’s pop. You get the sense of feelings constantly rallying for release, yet speech is not enough. Wallentin turns it into music, but that’s not enough either; so she makes the music speak as if miscommunication itself is an ache to be rid of. Bare emotion tells us all we need to know.
“Words are always important but in the end music is something else. That’s why people need it – you get a different emotional feeling than just reading a book. In one way, music is really unclear. It’s hard to grasp.” She tilts her head in contemplation, allowing a wisp of hair to cover her right eye. Even now, as weary as she seems, her presence is magnetic. “Because heartache can be so many things. It can be not having the love that you wanted, or not having your dad when you grew up, or not having friends when you were seven. I’m writing about quite sad stuff sometimes but my aim is to reverse it. It’s not about being depressed or sad or ‘emo’. You can make it into a strength… through expression! Through feeling it, taking it up and looking at it.”
In terms of recorded material, the duo’s output to date has not done them justice. Their first practice together became their demo; Heartcore was recorded when they still had little live experience and The Snake was recorded in just five days. But such is the dynamic between them and the free-form nature of what they do that the songs sound different every night. Catch them midway through a tour and the performance will surpass anything on record.
“I would love to be more comfortable in record studios. I’m a bit vulnerable there, I think. It’s just an issue I have because… I’m never satisfied. I always want to be better. I have high expectations of myself. I mean I’m never, ever happy with the recorded versions. Me and Andreas have had problems with that. We see our records more like documents.” Wallentin’s eyes are glistening as she says this, accentuating the sense of drive she gives off. “But I don’t think there’s an ultimate version either. You can have 10 moods for each song, at least. I can remember walking off stage thinking we had performed the ultimate version. It only lasts for a couple of seconds, maybe.”
Her voice drops to mumble, before rising confidentially. “…Then it’s gone. Everything will be gone in the end. That’s the charm in one way, because then you need to keep doing it. Every night is new… And you need to be focused, lucid, to try to catch what’s there. If I had done the ultimate version, why would I need to play it again? It’s liking waking up every day and starting over. Music should be like that.”
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