Mellow Gold

Sweden's Nicolai Dunger tries to cross over to the states with the deft, dreamy, and very relaxed Tranquil Isolation.

If there is one word that Swedish songwriter Nicolai Dunger returns to again and again, it's the word "relax." For him, it seems there's no greater compliment, no higher state of consciousness to attain. It is, for lack of a better term, his nirvana. Dunger's latest albumrecorded with Paul and Will Oldham in their Louisville, Ky., studio over a scant five daysis titled Tranquil Isolation, and it's an apt description of what takes place over the 13 tracks, all languid grooves and wizened white soul. Dunger's songs have a loner's sense of romance as they trickle slowly into your consciousness, not unlike Will Oldham's own work.

The opportunity to join up with the Oldhams came about after Will caught Dunger's performance with Mercury Rev at London's Shepherd's Bush. They struck up a conversation, acknowledged their musical simpatico, and Dunger took up an offer to record at Paul's home studio.

"With Will, I was so amazed by his voice and I wanted to sing with him," explains Dunger, on the line from Sweden. "That was my main intentionthat we could sing together and see if it'd turn out good. It seemed we might be too similar in a way, but it worked out well. I didn't know what to expect. I don't want to have any expectations. I was astonished recording with him. Just sitting down, he's so relaxed and there's no rush.

"I'm not used to playing with guys who are self-taught and come from the punk side more. I have a lot of records where I recorded with really amazing jazz musicians. [The Oldhams] are not that technically advanced, but they have a good feeling about what they're doing. I like that.

"I had a couple of songs, and I made a couple when I was in New York in a hotel before I made it down to Kentucky," Dunger says. "I had a couple I wanted to record with Will that I thought would suit the situation. I was kind of nervous going somewhere you don't know the place and you don't know too many people there. I'd just met Will before a couple of times, and we had a great time when we'd meet. But it's different when you have to go into the studio and create and perform."

Dunger's nerves subsided after a day around the Oldhamsthe serious, closemouthed brothers reminded him of his friends back home in northern Sweden. "They don't talk a lot, [so] we drank and smoked a lot," Dunger laughs. "Really nice people. I come from a small town in Sweden, and it's a lot of cold weather, and it's dark in winter for almost all the hours. We don't talk a lot, but when we [do], we say important things. I [told] Will about it, and he said he'd have [committed] suicide if he'd been brought up like that with so many dark hours."

The lingering feel of those dark hours can be heard throughout Tranquil Isolation, whether Dunger is paying stark tribute to doomed '60s troubadour Tim Hardin or to his own restless obsession with writing songs. "When I'm singing, I'm curious as to what's going to happen," he says of the creative process. "I sing in English and do it directly with the guitar, and then I fill in some open space in the lyrics. It comes quite natural. Almost 98 percent just pops in my head. It's really hard to describe what happens when you're [making] music."

A former pro soccer player who decided to pursue music full time, Dunger has released six albums in Europe and has been slowly building his following across the continent, earning comparisons to a number of estimable artists, but most frequently to Van Morrison. It's an understandable name check, given the similarities of their bluesy, pastoral wails, even if Dunger cites a wider range of influences. "I think it's just people don't know how to classify [my music]," he says. "It could be the sum of many different people. I'm very restless musically. I can do what I want to do. I have a free situation with my record company, and I'm happy for that because I don't want to feel stifled."

By his own count, Dunger sells somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 copies of each of his albums overseas, more than enough for him to get by on happily. The U.S. market is just now catching up with his back catalog, as 2001's Soul Rush appeared several months ago on the Lakeshore Records imprint and Tranquil Isolation hit more recently on the Chicago-based indie Overcoat. "I'm in America all the time now," he says. "I don't know why. It's all so stressed with all these rumors of war, and it doesn't seem relaxed at all."

After completing his current tour opening for Calexico, Dunger's plans include finding a American label to put out his three-CD box, The Vinyl Trilogy, and working on a follow-up to Isolation with Mercury Rev at their studios in upstate New York. During his upcoming Seattle gig, Dunger will be fronting a combo including violinist Jessica Billey and guitarist Thomas Tjarnkvist for what he promises will be a relaxing time for all. As Dunger explains, "It's really important that you feel comfortable [in your musical situation]. If you have a good song and you like the people you're playing with, then good things happen."

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