Di Weekend: "A room for Darin's new sound"

Here's Darin's interview that was published last week on Di Weekend magazine (translation by Nathalie Pentler).

As a child, Darin played in the woods in Akalla and Husby. Now he sings about that time in his first Swedish songs. With his upcoming album, Darin does what Robyn did in 2005. Fresh start, turnaround, his own record label, new sound.

A musical room. Many have used that simile. If you google the expression, you can find "a musical room" in texts about everything between chamber music to jazz. But in a recording studio at Karlbergsvägen in Stockholm, the expression is no longer a simile. Here is - literally - a musical room. No other room in Sweden breaths music in the same way as the Atlantis studio. The musical room is placed in a former cinema. The studio room is so big that you, as a visitor, stop walking and just stand there, quiet and respectful, almost like in a church. All of the music that has been played in this room has remained in the walls, floors, ceiling, every chair that you sit on.

The artist who now works in the Atlantis studio is well aware of its history.

"I have listened to Ted Gärdestad's music a lot", says Darin. “The first time I worked in this studio was last year, when I recorded a song for a tribute album for Ted Gärdestad. It's a very special place. You can feel the history in the walls."

Darin Zanyar, 27, is working in the Atlantis studio for two weeks, to record an album that will be released this fall. When he walks around among acoustic instruments, dressed in corduroys, with a flannel shirt and a beard, he blends in surprisingly well among the musicians who have played here before him.

His upcoming album means a fresh start for Darin in several ways. For the first time he, releases an album in Swedish. The first time he even sang in Swedish was in Så mycket bättre. His interpretations of Olle Ljungström's En apa som liknar dig and Magnus Uggla's Astrologen belong to the most popular songs in the TV-show's 5-year-old history, with 20 and 16 million streams on Spotify.

The songs he records now are his own. When Darin stands in the Atlantis studio singing Ta mig tillbaka, a song that recently was released as a single, it's clear that he belongs in this context. The sound is warm, acoustic, big like the room we're in. The lyrics are the most personal he has ever written. He wants to go back to a time when life was more simple and days were longer. Many singer-songwriters have made flashbacks to their childhood. Darin’s case is different, since he sings about good times during the early Nineties instead of the Seventies.

“The idyllic times in the beginning of the Nineties when there were no laptops and not everybody had a cellphone. That time when you cycled around and knocked on friends’ doors. We played Nintendo 8-bit (mentioned in the lyrics) and listened to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. It felt like you made the most of the time you had back then, like the days were longer. With today’s social media, an hour can feel like five minutes - but back then, summers were longer.”

You sing that you played in the woods. Which woods are you singing about?
“Many different woods. We moved around a lot when I grew up. But we played mostly in Alby and Husby.

Husby and Alby are suburbs that - based on media reports - people normally wouldn’t connect to idyllic woods.
“But everyone who has lived there knows that there are beautiful woods in those areas! We didn’t bring any toys when we were playing in the woods. There were only us, and still it was the world’s coolest playground. The fact that you need so little to create something magical is something that I often think about today when I make music.”

Among the memories that show up in the lyrics of Ta mig tillbaka is also his older sister Rosa. He sings about how they sat next to each other in the backseat during the family road trips.
Darin says that his sister will graduate in economics this spring.

“It’s great, then she can help me with such things.”

The Zanyar family has been through a long journey. Darin’s father, Shwan, grew up in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan. When he was called to join the war in 1980, he escaped by foot. The day after his escape, his entire force was killed. In Teheran he reunited with Ashti, the woman who came to be Darin’s mother. Thereafter, they fled to Sweden.

Darin was born in 1987. In March 1998 a friend called his parents and told them to turn on the TV. Saddam Hussein had attacked their old hometown Halabja with nuclear weapons. 5000 Kurds were murdered - friends, relatives, old classmates.

While the Zanyar family moved around between different addresses in Stockholm - Alby, Husby, Vällingby, Råcksta, Viksjö - the most valuable things in the moving boxes were mother Ashti’s record collection.

“My mother has always listened to a lot of pop music. I got very strong bonds to music early on. She had everything with Whitney, Michael and Madonna. All of the LP’s were there on the shelf. Music was played constantly at home. Some Kurdish music as well. Gipsy Kings were played a lot for a while, Richard Marx. My whole family has a huge interest in music and they give me good support.”

You play new songs for them?
“Yes, always, immediately after they’re finished. In the beginning they didn’t understand the difference between demos and finished recordings. They could say ‘this doesn’t sound finished’ or ‘the sound quality isn’t good enough’. But now they’re professionals too, haha.”

What does your family think about your new musical direction, that you suddenly sing your own songs in Swedish?
“The comical thing is that they haven’t even commented on that part. Everything I do feels natural to them. They know me so well, I’m still the one who’s singing on the recording. So they look for other things while listening: if it’s a good song or not, if they like it or not.”

Aren’t you nervous about changing sound and language? You have many fans, abroad as well, who have listened to your English songs for 10 years.
“Yes, sometimes when I’ve been standing here singing I’ve felt very nervous. But a person that has been in this business for a long time said to me: ‘When you no longer feel that nervous, tingling feeling, that’s when you should stop’. That has given me more courage to try new things. There’s a line in the lyrics of the album that summarizes that feeling a little bit, ‘Fjärilar i magen, jag vill allt förutom lagom’ / ‘Butterflies in my stomach, I want anything but “enough”’ (lagom = not too little, not too much - just right)

The microphone that Darin has used for the new album is historical by itself. It’s a Neumann U47, a microphone that was made in Germany between 1949-1965. The particular microphone in the Atlantis studio was bought in the late 1950’s. Neumann U47 is called the microphone’s Rolls-Royce, famous for its warm and detailed sound. Frank Sinatra insisted that a U47 should be available at all recordings. It was the Beatles producer George Martin’s favorite microphone. The sound technician Bill Porter used a U47 when he recorded the biggest hit songs with Everly Brothers and Roy Orbinson.

“I have to sing in a different way when I sing in that microphone. Normally, you can edit a lot, put the best pieces together. Often there are many different sound clips in a song that you hear on the radio. But with that mic, you can hear clearly if there are different sound clips in the song. Because of that, I’ve sung most of it live. It doesn’t turn out as perfectly at all times, but it brings a different feeling. It’s either make it or break it.”

Just because the song and the music are recorded live, it doesn’t mean that the recording process gets simpler nor faster. When we eat lunch together a week after my visit in the studio, Darin - who always aims for perfection - tells me that they have just finished mix number 27 of Ta mig tillbaka.

“But since mix 24, it has honestly mainly revolved around details. Maybe lower a guitar, or such things.”

We’re at a rather fancy hotel restaurant. Darin reads the menu.
“Strictly speaking, I’d like a cheeseburger”

Why don’t you order a cheeseburger then?
“Because my personal trainer wouldn’t like that, haha. I’ve gone “all in” with training recently. I go bicycling, work and see my PT four days a week.”

(Revealing journalism: eventually, Darin chooses the cheeseburger.)

The U47 microphone’s way of putting everything in a ‘make it or break it’-situation also reflects Darin’s new focus, on several levels. In 2005, Robyn started fresh by leaving her old record deal, starting her own record label, change style and make a new album with a brand new sound. Darin does something similar now. The entire new album, an expensive recording with a string ensemble, has been payed for by Darin himself. The album will be released by his own record label.

“It’s a little ironic that I’ve decided to leave everything I aimed for when I broke through 10 years ago. But it feels right to go in this direction, and it feels good that I’m able to do so. My latest record label and I didn’t share the same vision. I have my own picture of what I want to do.”

Which song was the first one you ever made?
“That was when I went to Viksjöskolan (a school) when I was 13. That song actually became sort of a hit at school.”

How did it spread? Did you hand out a cassette?
“No, no, it was an mp3-file that was emailed around.”

What kind of person were you at school?
“I was quite new to that school and I hadn’t told any of my classmates that I made music. Every Friday we had a concert at school. I signed up and sang my own song. People asked me afterwards if I had been singing for real, they thought that I had lip-synced to someone else’s song. Since that day I was Darin who makes music. That confirmation was important to me, it showed me that I could follow my passion.”

Four years later, in 2004, Darin signed up to the first season of Swedish Idol. On the TV-recorded audition Darin sits outside the judges’ room in a red hoodie and a cap. A floor-manager calls out “4396” and number 4396, Darin, steps into the judges’ room.

He has braces and says that he’s 17 years old and comes from Råcksta. When he sees the judges’ questioning looks he adds: “It’s near Vällingby”. Then he sings a song by ’N Sync, Justin Timberlake’s first group, the ballad (God must have spent) A little more time on you.

All of the four judges give thumbs up. Kishti Tomita says that the song title also counts for Darin himself. He stayed in the competition until the finale where he lost against Daniel Lindström.

In contrast to Daniel Lindström, Darin followed up his success with ten years of hits. He has always been and always will be the greatest artist in Swedish Idol history.

What do you remember from your Idol-audition?
“I was so incredibly tired that I don’t remember much. I had been standing in line since 3 AM.”

Why had you been standing in line for so long? There was no reason to worry that you wouldn’t get to enter, right?
“No, but I wanted to be first in line. In spite of that, I was barely allowed to enter. I didn’t know that I needed to bring my ID to prove that I was over 16 years old. It worked out eventually, since a friend of mine who was there with me managed to confirm that I was old enough.”

Darin puts down his cutlery and wipes his mouth. Crumbles from the hamburger bread, the final proof of what he actually ate, is removed.

“The thing about queueing in the middle of the night is typical of me. When I finally have decided on something, I just do it. I have the same feeling right now. Now I just want everyone to hear the new, Swedish songs.”