A few days before Christmas, we had the opportunity to speak with one of the most charismatic voices out there in hard rock and heavy metal, Jennie-Ann Smith of Avatarium. She is speaking to us from her home in Stockholm, sharing her thoughts on the latest album of the band, her music journey so far and of course anticipating hitting the road again for live gigs in 2023. I hope you enjoy this interview!
by Antonis Mantzavinos
Good evening from the woods of Småland, how are you doing?
Hello there! I am doing very well actually. As everyone I guess, we have been struggling with all these infections, it has been very difficult. But I am very happy to be feeling well at the moment.
Great to hear that you are feeling better, as things have gone bad for some people, so it’s great to know that you are already better. So, I would like to thank you for your time today. Actually, a few years back, I was lucky and had the opportunity to interview Marcus for Myth of Rock so, having you here today is just great!
Thank you for your interest in our music, much appreciated! I remember when we played in Greece, it was a club gig, but the atmosphere was fantastic, with the Greek fans and everything, we would definitely like to come back soon!
First, before we deep dive into the new album, I was interested first to learn a couple of things about you. For example, whether you have had music education in a music school when you were younger, if you have worked with your voice in a more thorough, systematic, and methodical way, e.g.: vocal training, and in general, what is your music background.
Thank you, very interesting question. I guess I have been singing all my life. I sang as a child constantly. I have these many memories from my childhood and with my parents, for example while eating, they used to say to me “now we are eating dinner, you should not be singing!” I just must have loved doing it, I truly loved it. I grew up on the west coast of Sweden, in the countryside, and there were no opportunities to go to a music school, there was no cultural opportunities, you could only play football around there! Then, I think I started playing piano, when I was in school, you could go to a musical gymnasium, but I didn’t choose that. When I was 16-17 and been singing a lot during my teen years, my music teacher suggested that I should go to a jazz band to sing for them. I had this huge appetite for music, I could listen to anything that would come across my way. I played in a rock band as well. But Jazz sort of suited my voice and sang in local jazz clubs and festivals on the west coast. And then, after the Swedish gymnasium I prepared myself for 2 years for the music university, it gave me theoretical knowledge, piano, I changed my voice then, I was 20 years old. This period helped me a lot to get the foundations in music and understand music better. And also, basic knowledge about vocal techniques. I had already found something in my voice that I liked, I knew my sound, I had clear references on how I would like to sound, and this is a delicate matter for someone around 19-20 years old. Teachers were suggesting changes on me, but at that time I was very reluctant to changes, because I was very self-confident and self-conscious on what I wanted to achieve. I did not want to sound like a music teacher, but I wanted to sound raw and rough and myself! I learned techniques on how to be more careful, that was very helpful to control my breath with all those breathing techniques. I call it economical breathing and it helped me a lot.
That is very interesting, thank you for sharing this. Coming back to Avatarium now: When the word ‘Avatarium’ comes to my mind, I can think first and foremost of Leif Edling, as the band is his spiritual child. To me Leif Edling is a very special person in the music I listen to, therefore I would like to ask, how is life after Leif has decided to slowly get away from the band and leave it in the very good hands of you and Marcus?
That’s just a funny sentence to phrase it “how is life after Leif?”! Well, me and Marcus wrote most of the material for the “The Fire I long for” album. Marcus works very closely with Leif, because he did the production the 2 latest Candlemass albums, so I think we have been very good friends, Marcus has established this very close relationship. Leif is a songwriting genius! What I mostly respect on him is his musical integrity, to keep focus on what is important, the way he wants music to be presented. I have learned a lot from him, working along with him. We have never played live together. Me and Marcus have worked a lot on Leif’s material on the studio, trying to honor his material the best way we can. From the beginning, Leif had this idea to start a band with Mikael Åkerfeldt and Nicke Andersson, so that was a totally different idea, but obviously they did not have the time all 3 of them. So, Leif wrote a couple of songs, ‘Moonhorse’ was one of them, and asked Marcus to produce these songs and said that he needed to find a singer, therefore, the rest it is history, you know how that went. I came into the studio, the 3 of rehearsed the demos and the combination of the 3 of us, Leif, Marcus, and I was groundbreaking! We have to give ourselves a lot of credits specifically for pushing Doom and pushing our borders on what it could actually Doom be. I think we broke that ground then, and now after all these years I realize that coming to this music journey, being a female singer to this band and also not sounding like any other metal singer the way, I do, it is very rewarding and wonderful. So, we did three full length albums with Leif, and some songs for “Hurricanes and Halos”. And I always wanted to become better and improve myself, both as a singer but also as a songwriter. And that’s what Leif gave us in terms of confidence and initiative.ME and Marcus also wrote most of the material for “The Fire I long for” album. So, it has been a necessary step for me to take, which was a great thing to do, but a bit scary in way, to suddenly taking this step and go to unknown territories. Working with Leif immediately sets the bar to extreme heights for me, you have to make sure you deliver.
I can definitely confirm that you have delivered the goods and you have delivered them in an excellent way!
I don’t know if that answers your question, but that is how this development within the band and in between us has worked within those years. I am very happy to have managed to step into this music and worked very hard, it has opened up new roads for me. I never knew that I would like that music so much as I do now.
I wanted also to ask you, what is most challenging for you as an artist: singing/performing live or sitting down to write new songs? What do you think of the two and why?
It depends a bit on the circumstances and the situation at the time. Performing live is definitely very very challenging, in terms of practice, you need to be very well prepared, you need to respect the knowledge of you towards the material, etc. I have played many many times in front of audiences, and it does not scare me or make me feel uncomfortable at all. Nowadays, it is challenging if you are dealing with a very specific, a very technical situation. After some time and very hard work, you reach a level that you make it work somehow. So, the most challenging situation for me is absolutely the songwriting. It is such a difficult art form. Writing music is so rewarding when things come together, but the process is definitely very difficult for your self-esteem, there will be doubts ‘what the hell you were thinking of doing?’ and things like that, inner criticism towards you. This dynamic between moments of ‘you are the most crappy and incapable person’ to ‘Wow! You have done an amazing piece of music! The best song I have ever heard’
Speaking about writing songs, is there anything in particular that changed – process wise – on the latest album with the previous ones?
As it happens to be married to Marcus, we are fortunate to sit down together and write and spend time together to write music stuff. The recording process having the guys in the studio, rehears and spend time there, has always been kinda difficult, even before covid-19. Marcus is such a genius in arranging and working in the studio making demos etc. The process however this time was easier, because we had already received really good reviews on ‘The Fire I long for’ album, so that gave us a lot of confidence to ourselves, ‘we have done it once, we can do it now and we are fine with it’ and this proves to be very helpful for the whole process. On the previous album, we had our first child, we took turns in who is pushing the pram and who is writing riffs, lyrics, etc.! That was a very different thing this time. We were more independent, and it was easier. What happens in life is having a direct impact on what you are doing, so from that perspective, this time, things were more flexible and easier for us.
That makes sense, of course. My favorite song on the new album is ‘Stockholm’. This one has a fantastic atmosphere and mood, great lyrics and to my humble opinion really stands out. I would like to learn more about this song, the symbolisms, the lyrics and the overall meaning of it within the context of the album.
I am glad that you like this particular song. We had written the core of this song, the lyrics, and the melodies, we sent the song to Leif, and he decided to write the intro and the outro of this one, it gives a unique ‘Edling’ feeling and sound to it. Of course, it has a little ‘hello’ to the ‘Moonhorse’ with the acoustic version and everything, it has also this epic vibe, it keeps you waiting, it has these beautiful parts where I am singing together with Stefan Nykvist, Marcus is also doing backup vocals, a really epic song, and I am happy how everything came out. Actually, me and Marcus were struggling a bit with the chorus on ‘Stockholm’, we thought of ‘lets have less changes of harmonies, lets keep it in the same key’, but we realized we had a totally different chorus in the beginning and eventually we lowered the chorus later. I sat by the piano and wrote this small piece, a gorgeous moment to me.
That was definitely a very beautiful song, a beautiful moment I would say. Well, from the artist’s perspective and not thinking as a fan, if you had the chance to collaborate and make music together with another artist or another band, who would that be and why?
That’s a wonderful question! I had this dream of a cross over project. Of Jazz and Doom, and to explore that more. The Doom audience and the Jazz audience could have joined and shared experiences, and I would love to have together the Doom audience and the Jazz one, that would be fantastic! In a club or in any venue actually. We have this great fan crowd of our listeners who really care about our music and the similar happens actually to the jazz audience as well, so, why not?! We would benefit from that music blending of different dynamics and different colors in-between.
That sounds really wonderful to me as a project, I would love this diverse and varied idea of those two together! A question going back in time (again). What was the very first album you bought yourself and what weas the very first gig you attended?
Oj! First record I was given I think it was a cassette with Whitney Houston “I wanna dance with somebody”, which had a huge impact to me then and also later in my career. The first gig, I don’t remember how old I was, that was my first performance myself, singing along Whitney Houston songs in the gymnasium! That was my first time! And Whitney Houston had an untouchable voice and vocal abilities, out of this world.. That cassette got worn out due to the fact that I played that one so many and many times..!
Sounds incredible! Yes, I agree, Whitney Houston was so much charismatic and incredible! Coming back to Avatarium, what are the next plans for the band in terms of gigs and touring.
Well, we will be touring in a couple of weeks in Europe and also in the Spring together with the band ‘Swallow the Sun’, so I really look forward to that. Then we have some other gigs in mind, but nothing is confirmed yet.
It’s great to have the band again back playing live gigs, no question about that. Last but not least, a message to your fans.
Well, the Greek fans, it’s been too long since we were in Greece, and I cannot understand why! We need to go to Greece and make it there soon! We have lovely friends and brothers, Slayerking, amazing people. Let’s send out a message and good energy to the Greek promoters, so that we can come again and play! We love Greece!
Really thank you for your time today, I am happy that we had this interview and wish you Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! See you soon on the road on the next Avatarium gig.
Thank you too, Antonis, and I am so happily surprised that you are conducting this interview from Småland, this is fantastic! Wishing you back Merry Christmas and thank you for today, I had a great time, see you soon!