For someone who spent most of her life in the period before cars became common, Wilhelmina von Hallwyl didn’t seem to have a lot of interest in horses, judging by her art collection. Hannes Ferm is toying with the idea of taking a photo with some kind of equine artwork, given that his new album is called Ryder, and a horse features in the video for the single Forget About Life. The collection, currently housed in Wilhelmina’s former home on Hamngatan in Stockholm, now open to the public as the Hallwylska Museet, doesn’t give us much to work with when it comes to horses, so we give up on what probably wasn’t a great idea anyway. The Hallwylska’s still a nice place to take photos either way, which is why we’ve come here today.
Or more accurately, we’ve come here to talk about Ryder. The record is Hannes, aka Holy’s, third trip on the album circuit, after scrappy indie debut Scars (2015) and its psychedelic epic follow-up All These Worlds Are Yours (2018), and Ryder comes with the strongest, most direct sound of any Holy record yet. Ryder, mostly, is an album of synth songs, stretching from colourful adventures like lead single Hot On The Heels Of Love to sky-scraping powerballads like Forget About Life and You Shine On Me (feat. Boys). It marks Holy’s first step into the world of direct pop songs, something Hannes made a conscious decision to do at the start of the writing process. “I wanted to try and do pop songs”, he says. “I see it as the antithesis of All These Worlds Are Yours, though hopefully, it doesn’t sound like that. I wanted to make songs that had pop elements, because I hadn’t done that as a goal before. When I wrote songs before, I had never done it with the ambition of them being pop songs. That was a conscious choice on this one.”
All These Worlds Are Yours had been the result of a two-year, isolated recording process, with Hannes locked away in the studio, obsessively working on the album alone. This time out he was open to collaboration, and he found his first collaborator at an El Perro Del Mar show in Copenhagen. There, he met her producer Jacob Haage, who produced her 2017 album Kokoro. “I really liked the songs and the songwriting on that album, it’s amazing”, says Hannes. “But the production too is so special and well done, and the whole concept is so good. I think it’s one of the best albums from the last few years in Sweden, for sure. So the talent Jacob showed on that made me want to work with him”.
Haage and Ferm clicked and got to work in the studio, and the songwriting and production processes blended into one another, with the duo sculpting the songs into the sound they wanted. “I realised, I don’t lose any of my creative integrity just by collaborating with someone. I think I thought that before”, says Hannes. “Jacob had a big creative input on this album, rather than just being a producer.” The new influences that came into play, as you might be able to tell from the record’s sound, came from the 70s and 80s. “I listened to Kate Bush a lot, and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, and some other, more niche synth-pop groups from the 80s, Thompson Twins, also Arthur Russell a lot too. I think she’s [Kate Bush] is amazing. She wrote songs in that way too a lot, where the songwriting and the production were part of the same process. I’m inspired by her a lot. Both by those amazing big choruses, but also I looked into what drum machines she used and stuff like that as well.“ Ferm’s fascination with music’s technical depths helped lead him to the album’s booming, massive sound. “I wanted the songs to feel big. I guess, it sounds like a cliché, but I became fascinated with the power of the synthesizer, with what a sub-bass on a synth can do that a normal synth can’t. And I really fell in love with MIDI as well. Jacob kind of taught me those things, he’s like a MIDI magician. It’s also just the effect of being a nerd, that you want to experiment with a synth as much as you can, and figure out everything it can do.”
Personal pop with theatrical approach
Part of the story of Ryder is Ferm stepping properly into the spotlight as an artist. On previous HOLY outings, he took on the role as band leader and then composer and artist, but never really performer and frontman, at least nothing like he has now. On shows around the All These Worlds Are Yours album, he was sat down to the side of the stage playing multiple instruments, far from stage centre. On the cover his face was blanked out. On the record too, he used his voice more as another instrument, buried deep in the songs. Now however, things are very different. On the songs on Ryder, the vocals are up front and centre, like a real pop song. For the live shows, Hannes is also up front and centre, with not even an instrument to hide behind (he’s taken himself off live playing duties for this record). “I was interested to see if I could do it. It was a challenge, because lyrics and things like that matter much more when you can actually hear them clearly. And I’ve been self-conscious of my voice. So I’ve had to try and find a way of singing that would work. To put the vocals in the front, I had to had to change my identity a little. It was an ambition from the start, and that shaped the songs I guess. And I guess it was part of the choice to do pop songs, because pop songs do put a lot of the focus on the vocals. But I wanted to do that without losing integrity. To try and do pop songs that feel personal, and are genuine and real, even though they’re theatrical.”
Working with pop songs also meant that Ferm had to write pop lyrics, or at least lyrics that fit into the scaffolding of pop songs, another new challenge for him: “The pop format is challenging, writing lyrics in that sense, it’s such a strict format. It has to work musically, and you only have a small amount of words you can use, and you have to relate to those clichés too. It’s an active element, if I say this lyric with these chords, it’s a reference to this band or whatever. The world of pop songs is like a self-referring machine you have to work inside. It’s also the first time I’ve drawn lyrical inspiration from things happening in the world too. Forget About Life itself is written from the perspective of a dead person writing a love song. Using descriptions of landscapes to communicate something very personal.”
“I thought of Ryder because the songs are very romantic, but set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, so kind of a feeling of riding through the end of the world. Enjoying it you know [laughs]. But seeing the beauty in a world falling apart. And it sounds cooler with a ‘y’ [laughs].”
Part of the new HOLY live set up is Ferm’s embracing of costume, both as a live performer, but also in his videos and press photos, another way of creating the idea of Holy as a pop star. To help him on that front, more of Ryder’s collaborators come into the picture, along with a cast of people who helped create the record’s visual identity: “Working with stylists, I think before that I thought that was shallow or something, that it was trying too hard. I use the pop format to play roles and to play with norms, and I think fashion does those things too. It adds a lot for me personally too, to help me get in character. With the stylists and designers I work with (Hedda Röök, Benedicte Eggesbø, Ellen Hodakova Larsson, Erik Thörnqvist and Fredrik Pettersson), we have a conversation about what I want to do, and they get to know what the album or song is about. So the costume is then an extension of the song’s world. A good example of that visual element influencing the album back, is that the cover was done before the album was. Moa Romanova did it, and I just talked to her about the album and then she made it and I had it. So then I had that cover as a reference point when working on the songs.”
Ryder finally marches out on Friday, letting the artist’s listeners catch up with the third evolution of his sound. That also means that soon Ferm will be heading back into the studio to start putting together the pieces of his next project. And that means it’s time for another change of style. “I’m amazed by bands that can do progress in the same style and still remain interesting,” he says. “I’m a bit too restless for that I guess. Instinctively I just start writing for an album, and even in the early process of writing, I never think of a song as a potential single, it always has to be a part of a wider concept. And a new concept. It always has to be a successor [to the previous record]. Otherwise I’d get claustrophobic.” For now however, the sprawling synth landscapes of Ryder make up a world he’s content to live in.
Ryder is out on February 28 on PNKSLM Recordings.