Harlem Globetrotter: The Cardigans’ Nina Persson on Her Favorite NYC Spots

As the ethereal vocalist for the Cardigans, Nina Persson made a generation swoon. Now the lovely Swede calls Harlem, New York, her adopted home, following her marriage to American composer Nathan Larson (once of Shudder to Think). Nina and Nathan are also wed creatively, as singer and co-producer of A Camp; their new record, Colonia, is an enthralling amalgam of wistful, dreamy and gorgeously plaintive pop with lyrics that float between the stingingly sardonic (“Let’s raise our glasses to murderous asses”) and the heartbreakingly world-weary (“It’s not easy to be human anymore”). Here, Persson gives BlackBook a tour of her favorite hotspots and hardware stores.

Mobay Uptown There are lots of Jamaican-inspired places in this area, but this is the classiest and the most welcoming. This Swedish girl loves their jerk chicken!

Vercesi Hardware I love hardware stores! Especially ones like this, with screws and bolts floor-to-ceiling, and knowledgeable staff who have worked here forever and are here to help, no matter how weird the request.

Obscura Antiques & Oddities This is a small antique/curiosity shop in the East Village that I found while passing by. They’ve got old stuffed and mounted animals, feathers from closed-down hatmakers and old medicine bottles. It’s cozy, intimate and inspiring.

Demolition Depot A treasure chest with four floors full of salvaged stuff like fireplace mantels, wrought-iron gates, soap dishes, bathtubs and windows. It’s not cheap, but if you need a half-ton copper door from a turn-of-the-century bank, this is your place.

Tokio7 I mostly come here to sell, not to buy. It’s a consignment shop that’s great for dealing with shopper’s guilt. Lately, they have been turning me down — I guess I’ve run out of designer stuff to load off on them. It’s a great place to come if you absolutely need Chanel, but want to pay Daffy’s prices.

Decibel I’ve been coming to Decibel a lot. For a while, it was standard to go there before Black & White on Sunday nights. It’s in a basement, so look carefully for the stairs leading down to it. I love how it’s unusually dark and sexy. People have scribbled on the walls over the years (I think I have, too). In addition to the great sake, they also serve a very tasty lychee fruit on ice.

Supper Supper has become our unofficial headquarters, even though we live far away from it. We like to have long dinners with the neighborhood, and pretend that we’re family.
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Nina Persson: Queen of Camp

Nearly two decades later, what appears most alarming about Nina Persson is how cool she remains, despite being the memorable lark behind one of the 1990s’ biggest hit singles — as one-fifth of The Cardigans. Since then, she’s gone onto crash cars and intimate fractured fairy tales with her band. But during a 2001 hiatus, she and husband Nathan Larson serendipitously crossed paths with Atomic Swing’s Niclas Frisk and were inspired to set up camp as, well, A Camp. And having enjoyed modest European success with their debut, A Camp is eyeing an American conquest with Colonia, released at the end of April, with an American tour kicking off at New York’s Bowery Ballroom on May 26. But she’s taken some time out to discuss the perils of one-hit wonders, colonialism, and the driving force behind her band’s latest.

Right now you live in New York? I live in Harlem. We’ve lived here for a year and a half or two years. For us, the reason was that we wanted to buy a brownstone. That’s what we were after. We knew what kind of neighborhood we were after. We have no friends up here. There’s not a lot to do up here. It was kind of chance we wound up here. I feel like it’s a great thing. It’s something we can afford. There’s something refreshing about going home to a place where you hang out on your own terms.

When you’re not working on your music, how do you unwind? I watch movies. We stay in quite a lot. I’m also into making head-dresses, like hats I’m going to make for the tour. We’ve also renovated our place now. Buying so much shit on eBay — furniture, lamps, doorknobs, pictures. I’ve sort of really gotten into it. I’ve got a lot of sales and have been collecting a lot of gold stars. Also, being a Swede and living here makes you really popular. We have a lot of visitors. Right now, my mom’s here, and it’s stressful that there’s always something going on.

Whether individually or as the lead singer for your bands, who are some icons you find inspiring? It’s varied throughout my career. It’s been lucky to have role models to fit in with. I was a huge Harriet Wheeler [of The Sundays] fan. She was one of my first heroes. She was the one who I thought, “If she could be in a band, so can I!” Neil Young and Emmylou Harris also — they led me into looking into country music, which led me into making the first A Camp record. That was the first time I abandoned my previous minimalist aesthetic. I was more interested in being emotional in my performance and writing. Country music was a big discovery. Lately, by the time we were making this record — I had my big David Bowie period. I had a crush on him. I feel like I can copy any male thing and get away with it. I had a strangely eclectic world. I was also into Donna Summer and Joan Jett.

What’s the significance of the title Colonia? We were talking about the strange phenomenon of colonialism, with Europeans going around the world claiming every place around the world. We were obsessing about that, interested in the aesthetic — it’s grossly alluring. I’ve been to Africa, but never in my life have I thought it would be an inspiration. I was there with a girlfriend of mine. Then, we thought of the word “colonia” because we thought it was gorgeous. We also had a fantasy that the record would provide a smell for each song — like a perfume. Like cologne. Like how some people see colors when they hear music. All of our fantasies would somehow, in our mind, be summed up in the word “colonia.”

What’s the biggest difference between the creative process with A Camp and The Cardigans? What really makes it different to me is that The Cardigans is almost like a democracy — we share everything, like songwriting. In A Camp, I’m a third instead of a fifth. Also, I’m in the beginning and it’s more my band.

How do you keep them separate? It’s more difficult for me that I constantly get reminded that I’m part of The Cardigans. For me, whichever project I’m focusing on is the only thing I can concentrate on. I believe I’m a goldfish — when I start a new Camp project, it’s the first one. But my luggage is there. Where it’s the only thing that matters.

Do you find your work with one band influencing your work with the other? Very much. Whatever I do in A Camp is everything I learned while growing up in The Cardigans. There’s no way to pretend these personas are separate. Also when I had done A Camp record and done the tour and had a certain amount of success. And when I went back to The Cardigans, they were excited to take off from where I left off with A Camp.

Would you ever consider going completely solo, apart from A Camp or The Cardigans? I can’t really do that. I was thinking about A Camp. It was a solo thing. The last record, we decided to work towards a band — I keep gravitating towards that. I may develop an idea that won’t need a band, but I really think the band form is quite excellent. I don’t play instruments particularly well. So out of necessity I needed a band. I’ve always liked it in a band.

As part of The Cardigans, why does the band choose to forgo playing “Lovefool”? On the last tour, we brought it back. But there were a couple years where that song sounded like a joke. It would’ve been like playing a cover. We were getting very grumpy. We wanted people to know we had moved on. If that’s the only thing you want to hear, we’re sorry, we’ve moved on. But the last Cardigans record was aggressively pop and it took us back — and we didn’t have to make such a strong point later. There are a lot of bands that have one particular hit. You’re not really striving to be known for that one song.

In spite of everything, are you hoping for a breakout single with A Camp? I don’t know. I feel like I’ve tried that level of success. I’m happy I’ve tasted it. It wasn’t the best part of my career. If it happens, it happens.

Sarah Sophie Flicker: Upstanding Citizen

With the economic shitstorm showing no signs of clearing, innovative escapism comes courtesy of The Citizens Band, a politically-charged, cabaret-esque dance troupe led by trapeze artist and filmmaker Sarah Sophie Flicker. The Panic Is On, Citizens Band’s sixth show, will open this Thursday (October 23-25) at New York’s Henry Street Settlement, transcending mere death-and-taxes monologues. The show features an allegorical take on the nation’s social, economic, and political meanderings, reinterpreted through flamboyant showmanship and flush with lace and rubies reminiscent of Victorian and flapper fashion. We caught up with Flicker to converse about the political undertones of her upcoming show, what she really thinks of Tina Fey, and how exactly the word “consumerism” translates into a costume. Maybe it’s not escapism, after all.

So how’s your day going so far? It’s cold. You know it’s supposed to be the coldest winter we’ve had in years.

Your troupe, The Citizen’s Band, is performing for three nights this week. The story takes place in a bomb shelter, right? Well, yeah, it’s all sort of a metaphor for what our country is going through right now. It starts with this very lavish, over-the-top party sort of celebrating, in our mind, what has gone wrong with our country. We have a song called “Gasoline” about excessive spending and consumerism, war, and all the things we’ve gotten ourselves in a pickle with. And a big sort of musical stock market crash, explosion slash attack happens, and we all end up in a bomb shelter together — all walks of different American lives, and we have to band together to find a way out, find some hope, and hopefully some compassion for each other, and a changed country, metaphorically speaking. That’s what the show’s about in a teeny weenie nutshell.

For The Panic Is On, how did the concept come about? Obviously our economy isn’t doing so well right now, but were there any specific inspirations that went into the show? Yeah, definitely. We’ve been working on this show now for a year, and we keep amending it as things change in the political landscape. I think we’re feeling a lot more hopeful right now than a year ago, for obvious reasons, but it sort of came about as a general metaphor for where we are as a country, for all of us feeling trapped and stifled. And what better metaphor for that than a bomb shelter?

Karen Elson and The Cardigan’s Nina Persson are in the show. What’s it like working with them professionally and personally? We’ve been working with both of them for a while now. Karen’s a founding member of the group. I’ve been working with her for four years, and she’s one of my best friends. They’re both incredible. They’re both such professionals. Nina takes hilariously copious notes during rehearsals. None of us can ever remember our choreography and have to ask her. And Karen’s just the best. She’s such a hard worker, just rolls her shirt sleeves up and goes for it. They’re both so insanely talented, so I enjoy working with both of them.

What is the best thing anyone’s ever said about your shows? It sounds so self-important, but a lot of people definitely said it was important, and that it made them think, but I also love the fact that some people come and feel like they get the political message, and feel really inspired and full of a lot of hope afterward. There are some people who come, who think it’s beautiful and miss some of the message, but really enjoy the costumes and the dancing and the contortion pieces, so it’s really a mixed bag, and we try not to be too dogmatic. We aim to be very glamorous, so we get a lot of different kinds of comments. The coolest thing to me is that we have between 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds who come to every single one of our shows, and it just makes me so happy that there are young people who are excited about what we’re doing.

The Panic Is On covers topics like war, immigration and xenophobia. How would you translate fear-mongering into an outfit in the vein of The Citizens Band? The store Geminola is my favorite in all of Manhattan, on Perry Street. We work with Lorraine, who’s been doing our costumes for the better part of this year. One of the songs is all about fear-mongering, and somehow that ended up being a huge sort of black, really tattered, lacy ball gown with a huge spider web hairpiece on top; that’s how that character’s dressed. We’re definitely not super-literal, and during that song, Elizabeth Newton is on trapeze during all these spidery scary aerial things, so that’s how that one goes.

And consumerism? There’s a fur coat sort of in the vein of a Sarah Palin wearing over-the-top-fur, but her aesthetic is not of now, it’s really 1880 through early 1940s; we’re sort of interpreting everything with an eye to the past that’s going on now. We all have fans made out of money, and there’s a lot of throwing of money around and over-the-top excess. There’s a lot of showgirl outfits and rhinestones — all the general things you think of when you think consumerism.

Immigration? Rain Phoenix plays a [Russian] movie star who comes to America and ends up as a housemaid. So she’s sort of wearing a tattered, Russian-looking doll dress with a maid outfit over it, sort of like a babushka, but with the trappings of a maid on the top.

And how would you interpret xenophobia? There isn’t any one character that embodies that. I suppose Ian Buchanan’s character, he’s sort of like this patriotic slash Halliburton head slash Dick Cheney character, although he’s dressed in like a suit with tails with an over-the-top patriotic vest, patriotic tie, and a top hat. It’s kind of like grotesquely over-the-top Uncle Sam.

Can you tell me about the design process, and sort of conceptualizing the attire on stage? We generally have a color palette we work with in every show, and we all have characters, so we usually just sit down with Lorraine, who owns Geminola, and we talk through what each character’s about. There’s some of us who have four costume changes, so it’s a process, and so we spend a few days putting all the outfits together.

With the state of the economy, what’s the first thing that you would sell? What do I have that’s worth anything? I know a lot of people are selling stocks. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do right now, but if you get desperate that’s usually what people go for. I would be very careful if I had to part with my showgirl costume collection, but I suppose I would do it if I had to.

Have you been watching the debates and the Saturday Night Live skits? Yes, I’ve watched all of them.

Any thoughts that you’d like to put on the table? I’m an Obama supporter. I feel like in the last few weeks, the McCain campaign has gotten pretty ugly. I think Tina Fey’s a genius. A hundred of us are going to Ohio three days after the shows are done to get out the vote, and we’ll be there through the election, so I’m just hoping that we can somehow help win Ohio, and I’m feeling pretty positive about an Obama victory. I think we all have to not take that for granted and make sure every single last person votes.

Do you have any fears if Obama were to get elected? Yeah, I think any politician is going to be inevitably disappointing, because in order to be a successful politician, there are so many constituents that you have to placate, so I’m sure that anyone who, for example is as liberal as I would want them to be, wouldn’t be elected in the first place in this country. I think anybody who ends up being the president is going to disappoint people, because you can’t possibly make everyone happy. Then it’s not a democracy.

Do you have any predictions on where our country’s headed in terms of the general state of affairs? It depends on who’s elected. No matter who’s elected, I think they’re inheriting a really messy situation, and that things are not going to get better in the next year or two. I think we’re in it for a tough couple of years. But I also think that there’s a lot that we can learn about ourselves as a country, and as humans. After 9/11, we were asked to go shopping, so maybe now it’s time to actually make some changes in our lives, make some sacrifices and on a happy note, maybe that will be a really positive thing for our country. Hopefully we can do enough of that kind of stuff where our international image will change, you know. People will like us in the world again, and we can like ourselves again.