Astrid Swan recorded her album "D/other" as if it were her last. The musician talks about her dual role as an academic researcher and artist.
In the Finnish indie scene, singer-songwriter Astrid Swan's name is familiar to everyone. Her critically acclaimed debut, "Poverina", appeared in 2005, but many things have changed since then. Swan has just released her seventh album, "D/other".
“I think my music has higher visibility now. Since my last album, "From the Bed and Beyond" (2017), I’ve observed people’s reactions in different ways. I think listeners have been more open, willing to hear more and on the other hand critics have tried to compare it with the previous one, since it got rave reviews. The feedback for "D/other" has been positive, as I’d hoped, because I think this is a much better, more unified record,” she says.
I hope that the record reaches as many listeners as possible. I feel like I’ve succeeded in doing something that I’ve always practiced for.
For Swan, it’s been deeply rewarding to hear the first reactions to the album after a long process. Having begun working on the songs in 2017, she says the drawn-out process has felt unreal at times, and almost catastrophic. Many things happened completely differently than they were planned, but eventually the recordings took place in the best possible setting with a strong team spirit.
“Of course, I hope that the record reaches as many listeners as possible. I feel like I’ve succeeded in doing something that I’ve always practiced for,” she says.
“And maybe also because I think this will be my last album.”
“If this is the last one, so be it”
Two years ago, Swan heard that her metastatic breast cancer had spread to her brain. She is receiving medication that will be continued as long as it is beneficial.
“I know there isn’t much time, but I don’t know what it means in practical terms. I made the record wondering if I could finish it. If this turns out to be the last one, then so be it.”
Uncertainty about how much time she has left has spurred Swan to reflect on her relationship with her own art. From the Bed and Beyond conveyed her experience of becoming ill, and she found it difficult and exhausting to draw on her personal tragedy.
The shades of grief have been presented in this new album in a different context, as part of life, of everyday life.
“In retrospect, I wouldn’t do it any differently, but it was all-consuming. The new album also has a song called Tragedy & Art, in which I remember friends and acquaintances who have died of the same disease – and there are a lot of them. The shades of grief have been presented in this new album in a different context, as part of life, of everyday life.”
According to Swan, the new album has many songs in which she sings about the nearness of death, the loss of her own life in the midst of everything, and the inability to fulfil even her most important responsibilities, such as a parenting.
“Grief is also present in songs like Silvi’s Dream, which offers support, the continuation of life after me in the form of my child, and the endurance of my love amid the living like a stone, forever,” she says.
Academics entwine with creativity
At the moment, the creation of art overlap with Swan’s academic work. Alongside the recording project, she was busy with writing her dissertation for a PhD. In September, she defended her doctoral dissertation on digital life writing by mothers. Her research focused on mommy blogs and memoirs from the US, examining the role of life writing online in contemporary mothering. The title of the album also comes from Swan's dissertation.
“It appeared crucial that mothers practice mothering simultaneously in material and digital realities. This overlap has changed practices of mothering, allowing for the development of maternal agency, community and norm criticism. For example, mothers who are ill can present themselves as good mothers even if they are dying of an illness. In one of my four research articles, I developed the concept of ‘D/other’ to address the meanings of digital materiality for motherhood. As the name of the album, the word refers to daughterhood.”
In her dissertation, Swan returned frequently to topics related to the themes of the album she was working on. She found that this way of working suited her. While her research proceeded, elements crossed over to her creation of art – those that she could not process as a researcher. This interaction went both ways.
Watch Astrid Swan's performance and discussion at the ABOAGORA "Fire" Symposium on 18 August 2021. Organised in collaboration with SELMA, Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientiality and Memory.
Dreams affect relationships
“I feel that I benefitted from not having pressure to do one thing constantly in either work. Things intersected with each other, and I gave myself permission to do both. Now that the record and the dissertation are done, I find myself wondering what to do next.”
Swan says that she noticed a decade ago that she enjoys composing and recording most in the process of making music. As an artist, she feels that she has sometimes been dogmatic and that the ideas guiding her artistic work have even hindered the recording process. There was no such rigidity to interfere with D/other.
I didn’t want to hinder the possibility of interpretation, which is in the listener’s own head. These songs are not summations of anything.
“I didn’t want to hinder the possibility of interpretation, which is in the listener’s own head. These songs are not summations of anything. I wanted dreams and visions and how they affect people’s relationships to be present in this music. Another theme is mothers and children. Both combine with the knowledge and feeling that there isn’t much time left. I do my work happy in the knowledge that when I’m no longer here, the music remains.”