Mariam Wallentin is one half of amazing-peculiar percussionata duo, Wildbirds & Peacedrums. Ever on a quest to explore different sides of her creativity, she has written and recorded an album under the moniker Mariam The Believer, which was released in her native Sweden earlier this year to great critical acclaim. Coming out here this week, Blood Donation, is one of the year’s most captivating records and reveals an astounding, rare talent.
Mariam The Believer plays an intimate show at St Pancras Old Church on Wednesday and if ever there was a gig worth busting a gut to get a ticket for, this is it, readers. We sat down with Wallentin for a lengthy conversation backstage at Shepherds Bush Empire during her support slot on fellow-Swedes, Junip‘s tour a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what she had to say for herself.
When did you first start thinking of going it alone for this project?
For a couple if years now I’ve been thinking that I really want a project that can take the shape of another side of me because we are so… diverse. All of us. I have been working a lot with Wildbirds & Peacedrums but – maybe two years ago – I thought that it would be interesting for me to play with bass and keyboards and a normal band setup, so I wanted to try the opposite route and see how my songs would sound with a fuller sound. I started growing the idea inside and then in the summer of 2011 I was really tired – it was after touring with Congotronics vs Rockers all over Europe and also Japan and it was super-exhausting. It was so much fun but it was intense. And we decided that we wanted to have a break with Wildbirds & Peacedrums for a year or so, so the possibility to do this [project] came up.
Was it a straight-forward process for you?
Well, I came back home from the tour and I wrote the album in two weeks.
Yes, two weeks. In my apartment, on the piano. And then I had a slow process in the Autumn of recording the vocals because I really wanted to try something new. Normally I record quite intensely, in just a couple of days, but I wanted to try something different.
It’s interesting to hear you say that the whole album was written on the piano because there is almost no piano on it.
No, there isn’t. There’s some organ, I mean the keyboard has been quite influential, you know – like the Alice Coltrane warmth of the keys. But at the time I didn’t play the guitar, I didn’t have a guitar, so that’s why it was on keyboards.
You only picked up the guitar recently?
Yeah, I picked up the guitar a year ago or a little over a year ago. But because of the slow process of recording my voice and everything… I actually mixed the album about a year and a half ago and it sounded boring. When you work on something too much, you can polish it too much. I mean, it’s not hard to make something sound good, but I realised that for me as a musician it is more interesting to find a balance where things… meet, align. So I bought the guitar and I put guitar on the songs and re-recorded everything in, like, two days to keep the energy of the songs.
Apart from re-recording them, would you say that the songs kept the original structures they had when you first wrote them on the piano?
Yeah, the did. They kept their structures. When you find a form, you can fill it with different emotions but the shapes were there.
Is there, for you, a particular theme to the album?
Yes. Questions. That was a big thing. A lot of the lyrcis have questions in them instead of answers. This was important to me – I wanted to see how it could work thematically, lyrically.
Last year you took part in the Southbank’s Room For London experience. Did any of the creative time you spent inside the boat have any influence on the writing for Blood Donation or the next Wildbirds & Peacedrums project?
I think that influenced the new [Wildbirds] album. We are almost finished with it – we’re about to mix it. I think a couple of the songs we did there influenced where I wanted to take that album.
You’ve actually performed in lots of different venues around London over the past few years -
It’s such a vibrant city – so much culture, so much art! And people are going to shows. Coming from Stockholm where people… we have a lot of creativity with our musicians but not so many people are going to gigs. Swedes can be quite snobbish. When bands tour, not a lot of them come to Sweden. We’re just a bit… picky. At shows people don’t really open up to it, you know. In Sweden you don’t really show emotions, that’s typical of our heritage.
Do you think that your half-Iranian lineage helps you in rebelling against that?
Maybe. I mean, I grew up going to a really, really small school with not many people with dark hair. You know what I mean? I was different. So you search more and you try to be proud. I have it in my blood and that’s one of the things I am trying to explore a little bit more. When I searched for inspiration for the album, that came up.
One of the quirkier venues you played in London was the Coronet for Nomad’s A Ritual For Elephant & Castle, where you were accompanied by a 20-piece drumming ensemble. How did that come about?
We got asked by the promoter and it felt super interesting. We announced that we were looking for musicians, drummers, and a lot of people came down from all over England to take part. We rehearsed during the day, which was a crazy and amazing experience. I totally destroyed my voice during that show, though, because I couldn’t hear myself through the P.A. system. Also, I was in the middle of the circle so, vocally it was tough but it was a great experience.
Your forthcoming gig here is in a church. Do you think this setting suits your music well?
Yeah, it does. I mean, first of all, as a performer – who doesn’t like singing in a church? The acoustics are often amazing and the venue is often beautiful to be in and, well… Mariam The Believer stands for – nothing to do with believing in religion but it’s about hoping, believing in hope. You know, hoping for something – that’s the last thing to die!
Would you describe your song-writing as coming from a spiritual place?
When I write, I always write intuitively. I don’t really write stories. The A to B thing doesn’t suit me or my way of seeing thing. Musically, I am interested in seeing things from another direction. Taking a small, small thing and exploring it. So the spiritual side of me becomes quite abstract but it has a very clear base. We all share the same emotions. I like to explore that. I always find myself trying to transform things. You take something painful but turn it into something positive. Turn the weak into strong. That is what life is all about. Patterns and energy. So my songs are a lot about moving forward and growing, but our cores stay the same.
Was there a particular song that you found difficult to nail down out of the songs that made it onto the record?
I know that the first song that I wrote was also the longest one. Invisible Giving. But the one that was hardest was… Somewhere Else. It’s one of my favourite songs but it was hard to find the character of it because I had this distant longing… I think a lot in pictures when I write songs. I could see the desert, veils and strong women dancing. It had some kind of grief in it but it ended up sounding not exactly happy but with positive movement in it. But that was hard to find.
Any other favourites on the album?
That’s so hard – to me, they all need each other. When I play live I sometimes enjoy playing a particular song at a particular time. Yesterday it was Dead Meat. That one can be quite different depending on my mood. I have space to change it when I play it live.
Do you think you’ll get to play the whole album live at your St Pancras Old Church show?
Yes, that is my plan. We play almost everything but it depends on how you feel on the night and what you want to say and how you want to build the energy of the evening.
You have a very lovely relationship with your fans – at one of your shows over the summer we saw you stop, chat to and hug fans who waited for you afterwards -
I would be nothing without people… I mean, I would still be something, I would be a human being but I need people to catch me when I fall. If I give a lot of myself I need people to be able to rely on. It’s about trust and, of course, you should not be too stuck on trying to please a crowd but I need their energy, I need people listening. They affect me a lot. Most people are sensitive to other people’s energy. Standing there on stage is very vulnerable so… getting a hug afterwards is super nice.
And finally, where did the idea for the video for the new single, String Of Everything, come from?
It was actually the first video I did for Mariam The Believer. It came out in Sweden first. You’re getting it a bit later. I still like it a lot. There’s a pistachio nut… And there is blood. And there is me. I watched some Marina Abramović performances and got quite inspired by them. She has this one where she and her former boyfriend – he holds a crossbow and there’s the arrow pointing to her. And they both hold the bow so if either of them lets go, she gets the arrow in her chest. It’s a really strong performance. And the one where she has the knives! So those two inspired me quite a lot.
How many pistachios were harmed in the making of the video?
[laughs] I ate a lot! But I think we actually only did three takes for that song…