|It is very easy to tout a band’s eclecticism in our modern era of musical mash-ups and globe-spanning Zoom collaborations. But Swedish folk-rockers Garmarna have been turning traditional ideas on their head long before it was fashionable. Over the last 30 years, they been stirring in a rich blend of influences that create their unique sonic blend. For their efforts, they have won a Swedish Grammy award, gained the respect and collaboration of esteemed musicians in their homeland, and cultivated an international following.
On their seventh and latest studio album Förbundet, Garmarna continue blurring the traditional and the modern, with the often multi-tracked vocals of Emma Hardelin floating above it all. A ballad from the 1700s, “Ramunder” is imbued with heaviness, like an acoustic metal tune, with Anders Norudde from Hedningarna playing moraharpa (a cousin of the hurdy gurdy) on the song. Thumping drums and frenetic strings drive the moody “Sven i Rosengård,” while the danceable “Lussi Lilla” is more playful. On the flip side, acoustic ballad “Ur Världen Att Gå” and the dreamy vocal track “Din Grav” balance out the more propulsive tracks.
As with past efforts, the new Förbundet serves up traditional material infused with original ideas, with Garmarna looking to medieval and murder ballads and Estonian chorales for inspiration. It is certainly a dark album.
“There is more to the Swedish culture than this darkness,” notes co-founding member Stefan Brisland-Ferner. ”But the traditional stories have an edge to them that’s something special. There’s a harshness we just can’t resist. A feeling lurking in there that is beautiful, wild, and haunting. This new one is maybe the darkest yet, in that it deals so much with death, longing, sorrow.”
For Stefan, the most personal song on the new album is the tranquil, ethereal ”Vägskäl” which has been described as being about life’s crossroads, grief, and losing someone, and also memories that are slowly erased or that can last a lifetime. ”It is the one completely original song on the album and the newest one,” he says. ”Both musically and lyrically, it resonates with a certain place in life I have found myself in.”
Garmarna originally formed as a trio in 1990 featuring guitarist/violinist Gotte Ringqvist, violinist/hurdy gurdy player Stefan Brisland-Ferner, and guitarist/bassist Rickard Westman. After a couple of years of growing their music and audience, they accured drummer Jens Hoglin after being asked to perform at a prominent musical festival in Autsfred, Sweden. Their friend, singer and violinist Emma Hardelin, was in the audience, and she soon joined their ranks. The line-up has remained solid since then.
After releasing their self-titled debut EP in 1993, Garmarna toured Sweden and began developing energetic live shows that in subsequent years have inspired everything from dancing to headbanging. Amid her bandmates, Emma became the calm of the storm onstage, her beautiful vocals an anchor for their energetic music.
”Emma has a very distinct and beautiful voice,” notes Stefan. ”The choices we made early on were traditional ballads that tell a story. The vocal is delivering information and can’t stand in the way of the story, and the instrumentation and arrangements must help to tell the story. The vocal will always be in the center of our music.”
By 1994, Garmarna signed a North American distribution deal with Minneapolis-based Omnium, the label founded by Boiled In Lead bassist Drew Miller who has a passion for eclectic world music and punk-folk tunes. Omnium released Vittrad (1994) and Gods Musicians (1995), and their sister label Northside unleashed Vengeance (1999) and Hildegard Von Bingen (2001). Now 25 years later, Garmarna is on Season of Mist, the international metal label that is starting to explore the dark folk world.
“We have certainly crossed a few boundaries,” acknowledges Stefan. ”We did so quite early and found our own world from which to expand further. Maybe this was luck. Or maybe we are good at finding the right balance between the elements. Again, this their something we ever strived for.” He adds that at one point, they found a certain tone in our music that resonated with the tones of their other tastes.
”The lyrical specter of the classical world,” he elaborates. ”The terror of industrial and black metal. Country music, indie pop, rock’n’roll. At the time, artists like Beck and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion had a great impact on our thinking. Björk, Skinny Puppy, Bowie, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, and lots of other artists from different genres were big heroes for us as well.”
What linked the band members together was their passion for traditional Swedish fiddler’s music and folk singing. ”We don’t think of music as genres but rather like emotions, colours, elements,” explains Stefan. Despite their sonic deviations, they have always felt they have a specific sound, and an American magazine in ’99 compared Garmarna’s music to a nicely marinated stew, a comparison they favored.
Cooking up this musical melange was not a conscious choice in the beginning. Their collective eclecticism naturally led the way for their folk fusion. ”Using samplers particularly was something that felt just aesthetically right,” says Stefan. ”We could use layers of drones and re-pitch stuff, use both old and new sounds that fitted the songs.”
Throughout their career, the band has taken many interesting journeys, including music inspired by the medieval work of Hildegard von Bingen and a New Year’s Eve ’99 performance in which Emma performed songs by Benny Andersson of ABBA. They have played at medieval, folk, and rock festivals. While the group did take a 15-year break from recording – family and work commitments, a little creative burn out after years of the tour/album/tour cycle, plus the illegal downloading woes of the early ’00s factoring into this studio hiatus – they maintained their chops and passion by continuing to tour.
When asked about how fans have responded to their different influences and diverse output over the years, Stefan cannot definitively say because their followers are seemingly fluid in their tastes as well.
”Sometimes we’ve thought the audience will hate the new stuff, all jungle beats or house or pop or whatever,” he says. ”The audience is a mix of metal heads, folk enthusiasts, hipsters, and just casual music lovers of all ages. Along the way, they have seemed to like what we do! We know that a lot of people wished the return album 6 would have been a bit more traditional, but then a lot of people also praised it for being ‘so much Garmarna’ in the sense that it took an unexpected turn somewhere new.”
Their loyal acolytes should be pleased with Förbundet, and they will likely draw in new converts as well. You’re next.