Carol Forsloff — If you wanted to learn everything you could about the world of music in the past five decades or so, where would you look? Most folks might think it would be America, but indeed the repository of great information on a variety of music styles is a man from Sweden, Staffan Fenander, whose delightful performances demonstrate his great knowledge of the world’s folk and standard tunes.
I interviewed Fenander, one of the many musicians on Fandalism, an international music community. The following are his responses to a set of interview questions about how he started in music and how he came to amass such a large storehouse of songs over the years.
Q: How did you get started with your interest in music?
To me , as for so many others of my generation (born in 1947), it all started with Rock´n´Roll, my big sister was an Elvis Presley fan and I can vividly remember King Creole, Heartbreak Hotel, and all those other great rock songs. She bought singles and EP’s and brought them home to our old radio-grammo-phone. Like others our age, when our parents were away we played them loudly She also liked the calypso and folk songs of Harry Belafonte and so gave me my first American folk songs and West Indian influence.
In Sweden at that time, middle 50s, there were only two, state-controlled radio channels; no commercial radio and no TV at all! (TV was introduced in the late 50s…) One of the channels played only classical music and the other had sermons, documentary programs, talk shows, and sometime light entertainment music. The only program that featured rock´n´roll was a program about cars and this was the highlight of the week when the guy played the rock song of the week, and there only was one! No wonder it made some impact on us starved kids.
I started buying records in the late 50s and have done so ever since , got a good collection of records with all kinds of music. I heard my first Bob Dylan song, my first blues song and my first Duke Ellington song..hooked for life.
Q: What styles do you particularly like and when did you start playing?
I started playing blues and folk guitar and discovered that I had a knack of learning song lyrics very quickly, don´t know why but I come from a family where literature was a natural art form, my mother worked in a book-shop and both my sister and I became librarians, so poetry and the written word have always been very important to me. In the early 70s, I once sat down and counted how many songs I knew at that time and the figure was around 700 songs. Today I do not dare start counting.
I learned to play guitar as a teen, then played at parties and at friends houses, around the campfires music appropriate for that occasion, which made a great atmosphere for swapping and learning songs I went to London in the 60s for many musical trips, seeing groups like Pink Floyd, John Mayall, King Crimson and many others, folk singers like Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch etc. In this way, I picked up songs everywhere. In 1971, I started playing as a busker/street-singer , hitch-hiking in Europe . And along the way I made some money. I learned to entertain an audience, sing with volume and how to present a song and realized that I could make money on my music. A couple of years later, I started playing in pubs, student places, hospitals etc. First alone, then in a duo, and finally in a 5-piece band, “The Hot Rats”, that existed on a semi-professional level for 5-6 years. That was a great experience, learning to play with others, singing 3-part harmony etc. Our music included a variety of styles and our own inventions.
Q: You seem to have a sophistication with music around the world. How did you acquire it and remember the lyrics and the music?
The secret of learning different types of songs is just to pick up and play everything you like, from all genres, play them obsessively, study them, find the sheet music or the lyrics, read them and learn! I’ve never stopped learning playing and singing … keeps your brain working!
All genres appeal to me; but since I grew up in the 50s and 60s, the music from these decades will of course always be closest to my heart.
A good story or good poetry and a good chorus are invaluable for remembering a song, if you get inside a story and feel it you never forget it. The music comes along free.
Q: How would you advise a young person to get started?
Don’t rely on trends, commercials and talent programs on television. I would advise someone starting out today to play, play, play and listen, listen, listen to all kinds of styles. Find your own voice and stay true to your ideals… skip the rock dream and engage in your music instead.
Q: What do you get out of being a part of a musical community such as Fandalism?
Fandalism and other communities like it offer communication and sharing , seeing and hearing others and being seen and heard. For me it has been a really rewarding experience to experience what others are doing and sharing my kind of music. It has pushed me into learning new songs, arrange and present my old songs in a new way, and get feedback from other Fandos.
Q: What are your personal choices for Top Ten Songs?
That is impossible. There is a lot of new music that I like. But there is music I can’t stand in the music world of today. When rock music started, it was a rebellion music, rebellion against conventions and strict, petty morals. But gradually the music industry incorporated this, unarming the music and making it slick and predictable. New generations try to revive these feelings and express their music in new ways, punk and hip-hop are later examples of this; but again the music and artists quickly got eaten up by the industry.
The 80s and 90s were not fun for rock music, many like me gave up listening to rock But with new social media like the Internet, smaller record labels, and more place for live music etc, the situation has improved vastly. Influences from other music forms have enriched the new music, we now have a lively world music scene. Kids study and play jazz in new ways, incorporating electronica and rock elements and acoustic musicians. Different forms of production and distribution frees the music from the dependence on large corporations and labels. Now you don’t have to have a hit record at all.
My advice to new musicians is stay out of the big business, don’t look towards trends and hit records. Play your music and listen to many varieties. Look at the unconventional music and dig deep in the past, there is so much good, powerful music there, and find new ways, experiment, and don’t worry! If your music is good, it will come out.
Q: Who are some of your favorite performers and types of music?
Music goes in cycles. We are now seeing lots of different types of music. There has been a return of roots music because there is always a need for that kind of authentic voice and sound.
My personal choices include Lennon/McCartney for their amazing melodic quality, their ability to compose in all kinds of styles and for their willingness to experiment; Joni Mitchell for her original strength to use unusual tunings and harmonies in her music; Chuck Berry for giving us teenagers a new and own language in the 50s; and Bob Dylan for expanding poetry to rock.
Q: Tell us about your own music career and how music fits in your life?
My music career has been a long and winding road! Apart from a period of maybe 10-15 years in the 70s and 80s when music was a welcome extra income for me I have always had music as an engaging hobby and have been very satisfied with that. I can vividly remember a period when I had played in pubs and other places several times a week for a year or so, then got a little fed up with music and didn’t touch my guitar for a couple of months. I have not used music as a sole occupation so I could concentrate on my family. I have no ambitions other than refine my technique, learn more songs and chords, maybe more instruments… to have fun and satisfy myself.. I am real happy to see and hear that people like what I am doing.