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Taken By Trees

Eastern Confessions

Sep 10, 2010 Taken By Trees
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Victoria Bergsman’s music doesn’t seem like the work of a thrill seekerher melodies float about on gossamer wingsbut when she thought of traveling to Pakistan to record East of Eden, her second album as Taken By Trees, she decided to act on it. “Where others may hesitate, I go all the way,” she says from her home in Sweden. “I guess it also helps that I’m extremely curious and stubborn.”

Although the former Concretes singer was warned by friends and the Swedish government about the dangers of Pakistan’s civil unrest, the musician was enchanted by the meditative sounds of the region and two of her musical icons: the Sufi musicians Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

After penning the album’s songs in Italy, Bergsman stood in Lahore, known as the cultural heart of Pakistan, a place she now calls “chaotic,” “dirty,” and “fascinating.” She recalls an upsetting deluge of culture shock immediately after touching the tarmac with her traveling companion and recording engineer, Andreas Söderström. “The air was thick and sweet and I found it hard to breathe immediately. Then the eyes came and searched me up and down. At first I didn’t cover my face, but from day two I was covered from head to toe.”

Bergsman’s journey to Pakistan to record with Sufi musicians was beset by cultural misunderstandings and perilous incidents. Men sought to take her as their “property” when they found out she wasn’t married; after a kidnapping attempt, Söderström acted as her spouse. And the recording sessions took place in a rickety hotel where the power shut off for an hour every third hour. “After our second night in our hotel and a theater bombing, we moved to the innkeeper’s house,” says Bergsman.

In spite of the jarring reality of being a Western woman in an Eastern land, Bergsman’s experience was what the liberal European yearned for as an artist tired of the soured milieu of conventional recording locations. Whereas 2007’s Open Field gained much of its early morning ambiance from its live takes, East of Eden conjures up the dusty pink sunsets of Pakistan. You can almost see the refracted light skimming across the tablas, dhol, various flutes, and harmonium that mark the tumultuous recordings.

“Anna,” Bergsman’s duet with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox (she also covers AC’s “My Girls” as “My Boys”) starts with women singing outside of an Ashura ceremony, in which men and boys participate in self-flagellation. “I think they sing about this prophet and how he suffered and was tortured to death,” speculates Bergsman. “They punish themselves [with whips] as an act of sympathy.” When Bergsman was identified as a female while witnessing the male-only practice, the men spat at her. “It was very brutal, and after it happened I didn’t get much sleep,” she says.

Though she doesn’t want to return to Pakistan, East of Eden’s haunting closer, “Bekännelse,” helps remind the Swede why she went. For her, the Hermann Hesse-referencing track serves as the thematic keystone of the record and a mirror to her self-imposed musical sea change. “I felt that ‘Bekännelse’ summarized the whole recording experience and my existential thoughts around it. It means confession and deals with how you can feel time pour between your fingers. I’m grateful I can throw myself into things like this, ‘cause I feel that it all can be over tomorrow.”


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