Among my favorite feelings of all time is that muddy, opening sensation your head gets immediately following a good cry. Not your run-of-the-mill couple of tears shed, either — I mean a good cry, one that forces your brain to unfold like a lotus flower in a heavy morning fog. You feel as though you could both take on the entire world all at once and fall asleep forever. Equal parts empowering and humbling, draining and refreshing, the post-sob state of being sits on a microscopic line between a perfect clarity you’ve never known before and a desperate haze of confusion. I got this exact feeling the first time I listened to Becky and the Birds. For 15 minutes, from the time “Becky” introduces herself (“I’m a Capricorn, I’m 26 years young and I live in my own apartment, I own my own cat, I wash my own clothes, my clothes are all combustible...”), we’re submerged in an atmosphere of layered droning synths and bird-like vocals that are careful, minimal and limpid, yet hit with chilling intensity.
After graduating from a Swedish songwriting school that mainly focuses on writing formulaic pop hits and interning at Avicii’s label producing EDM tracks, Thea Gustafsson thought, “This is not really what I expected from the music industry. There’s gotta be another way to do it.” She returned to herself — listening to jazz and soul and all the other things she grew up listening to — then reached back outside herself to become Becky, her “muse” and wrote Becky and the Bird’s crisp, soulful, at-times experimental first EP.
I called the 23-year-old songwriter just after she returned home from her third-ever trip to Tokyo — a city she describes as “Everything you’d ever want and more” — to talk about her journey to becoming a songwriter, a producer and, most importantly, Becky.
VMP: You’re back at home in Stockholm right now?
Thea Gustafsson: I’m in Stockholm, where I live. I was born in Örebro, which is like two hours drive from Stockholm. But if you want to pursue your music career, then Stockholm is probably the place to be. So, I’m here now and I’m working on my second EP now, and I have this studio because I’m signed to Sony/ATV for publishing, and they have a studio, or like a studio complex, with a lot of different studios. So I’m renting a studio there together with a lot of different super amazing songwriters... If I need to mix or something like that, then the studio is perfect, but when it comes to being creative, and especially writing melodies and lyrics, I feel like the home is the best place to be, because it feels so safe. It’s like a sacred space where I can just be by myself and alone with my thoughts in a completely different way than when I can be in the studio.
Was this EP recorded at home?
Yeah, it was. And that was actually, because I, at that point in time, I was feeling pretty — it was a pretty dark time. So for natural reasons, I was staying at home because I didn’t feel like walking outside, you know. I’m so grateful for that because that was also when I found the joy in being home and working from home. That can be frustrating at times, too, but I think that as a songwriter or producer, you have this feeling that you need to be in the studio, that you need to go to the studio to get things done, but I’ve found it to be — it’s funny because for me it’s kind of the other way around, like, I get more things done at home than when I’m in the studio. Because, you know, in the studio it’s also a lot of people that I like a lot, so then I’m spending some time with them, and then you hear different people’s music coming into your studio, but it can be very inspiring, but it can also be kind of dangerous. Because all the sudden, I found myself sitting and writing on something that I’m like, “This is not me, where did I get that from?” And then I’m like, “Oh, maybe it’s from the room next to me.”
I read in your interview with The Line of Best Fit that you said the male producers you’d tried to work with didn’t take you seriously. Can you describe some of those experiences?
There are so many. I wanted to produce for a very long time before actually sitting down and doing it, but I always felt like any time I would come into a session and be like, “Oh, maybe we could produce this together?” it was like, “Ha, yeah, yeah sure, go sit there, down in the back, and then we’ll figure something out.” The experience of all my sessions, I would say, was that a lot of the females are often sitting in the back on the couch, while the male is sitting by the computer, you know, having the control to do whatever he wants. And then, you know, the girls are sitting in the back, writing lyrics, talking to each other. It’s just very weird. I haven’t had a session for quite some time, so maybe that has changed, because I know that a lot of stuff has changed in two years, or in one year, but that was my experience. And also, when I started to produce, I had a couple of sessions just before I was like, “No, I don’t want any more sessions,” and those sessions, I remember coming into, especially one, and I was like, “Yeah, so I’m a producer, too, and I would love to do this together,” and he was like, “Oh, ok, oh sure, yeah, yeah, yeah,” and then I sat down next to him, and he was like, “Do you want me to show you how to record and how to do stuff? Like, I can show —” and I was like, “What? I just told you I’m a producer, I don’t want you to show me anything, let’s work!”
I don’t wanna blame the men, because it’s just a thing, something that I’ve found since I started to produce was that, I feel like a lot of women are — which is society, like it’s [what’s] wrong with society, it has nothing to do with the men or the females, but I feel like a lot of girls before doing anything, we need to read about it first, we need to be sure that, “OK, we can actually do this.” While the men are more like, from childhood, too, they’re more like, they say like, “Oh, I don’t know how to do this but, fuck it, I’ll do it anyways.” And then they just sit down and do it. And that is also a thing with the production part because, especially with all the technical stuff, girls have been taught since we were young that this is not for us, and if we’re gonna to do it, it’s gonna take time, and we need to read the manual and we need to be 100 percent sure about what we’re doing before pursuing anything. While the boys, they’re not taught that way. It’s just like, “Sure, you can do whatever you want, if you wanna work with the computers, just do it, if you wanna produce, just do it,” and they do.
I felt like even if I wanted to produce, I wasn’t welcome to do it. And maybe I also in that position was like, “OK, well, I’m fine with sitting here on the couch, ’cause I’m not 100 percent sure how to produce, and they seemed so sure about what they were doing and secure, so OK,” you know, you just kind of took the role you were entitled to. So, it wasn’t really any man being mean, it was just them being, I don’t know, maybe they hadn’t thought about a female producer, ever in their lifetime.
There’s a lot of stuff going on, in Sweden at least, with different companies wanting to encourage more females to start producing, which is good, but it’s also, that is such a hard thing... In the beginning, I would say to people, “So I’m a female producer, and blah blah blah,” and nowadays, I would never say that because as soon as you start saying that you’re a female producer, you could just quit, because no man would ever say, “Hey, I’m a man producer,” I’ve never even heard that term, or “I’m a male producer.” So, I’m just trying to focus in on being the best I can be and shutting all that stuff out. People have said to me when they’ve invited me to different stuff, they’ve been like, “Oh, you know we’re so glad you’re here, because we want to show that we’re really encouraging female producers.” It makes me so sad, because I don’t want to be here because I’m female, I want to be here because you think that I’m good at what I’m doing.
You told Clash Magazine, “I always had this voice inside me — society’s voice — that was like ‘No, you can’t, cos you’re a girl, that’s for the boys.’” What advice would you have for young women that are looking to produce, but who may feel that way or not know where to start?
I think that the first and most important thing is to just — which is also the hardest thing in the beginning — is to just trust yourself, and to know that you can do it. If you want to produce, if that is what you want to do, then you should go in there like 100 percent. I hear a lot of the time with girls saying that they’re gonna “try” to blah blah blah, like, “Oh, I’m going to try to produce,” “I’ll maybe start trying to produce,” and stuff but I think that you need to have the intention of actually, like, being the best, you know? “I’m gonna be the best producer that has ever existed.” If you had that in the back of your mind — and not letting yourself be controlled by anyone else, or controlled by what people say that you can or can’t do — then it’s pretty easy from there. Because then, you know, the internet is your friend, you could Google whatever you want; if you want to learn how to produce, it’s just, like, YouTube — there’s so many great tutorials and stuff. Also, asking people, but most important, just sit down and do it... because when I started to produce, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had watched a lot of people doing it but I didn’t know how to do stuff, and that was the best thing for me, because that enabled me to actually try my way of doing stuff.
I’ve always been very interested in sounds, and I just love sounds so much. I’m listening a lot to different sounds, and what are they sounding like, and how do I feel with this sound, and that is the way that I approach producing, too, is like, “How do I feel about it?” It sounds so cliché but it’s really, like, “How do I feel about this piano, or this synth, or this kick? Like, how does it feel to me?” And that has been more important to me than the whole technical approach to it, like, “OK, if I put this compressor on it, and blah blah blah,” I didn’t know what a compressor was when I started to use it, I just tried until it sounded good. And then after a while, I kind of got it... you know, not seeing it as this big, frightening thing because if you fail, I don’t think there’s any way you could fail in producing, really, it’s just trying and doing and then sooner or later you have a pretty good production.
Did you grow up writing music?
My dad is a musician, so I was always with him, like we were making songs at home, but I didn’t really think that this is what I’m gonna do until I attended this school in Sweden [Musikmakarna / Songwriters Academy of Sweden]. But until then, I just wanted to sing and I just loved music, but I didn’t think that I could write a song, because I’ve never been writing poems, I’ve never done anything like that, so it felt kind of far away from me. But then I was attending this school and they had these auditions and so you had to send in three, I think it was three songs that you had written by yourself, and so I did. I really wanted to attend this school, because I knew that it was such a good gateway into the whole music industry, so I had written three songs, and those were the three songs that I sent into the school, and then at the audition they were like, “So how many songs have you written?” and I was like, “Oh, I don’t know, 20,” and those were the only three songs that I had written. So, from there, it was crazy because it was like into sessions every day and you really got that whole world pretty quickly, and I was very inexperienced then. I think I started that school in 2014 and as I said, I’d written three songs. But as soon as I started I felt good, and that was also a thing, that I believed that I couldn’t, somehow. Like, “Writing a song, that’s crazy, I could never do that, how do you do that, like how do you go about that? What is the process like?” And then, you know, as I said with the production, as soon as you just start doing it, if you’re just starting, then you’re halfway there. I also played a lot of violin when I was younger, so I did write some orchestral stuff, like instrumental stuff, but never with lyrics and vocal melodies.
The first track on your album is a spoken introduction from “Becky.” Who is Becky to you?
It’s somehow kind of my muse. The way I think about it is, Becky, it’s kind of a thing that is coming forth any time I just let it go and I let something bigger take place when I’m writing. As soon as I start to think when I create, then everything just shuts down. I can’t write anything. But as soon as I open up and just sit back and let the things come to me, then that is kind of when Becky or whatever you want to call it comes forth, and you get this feeling that, “Ooh, this is, what is this? This is not really me, this is something else taking over.” And that is also the feeling that I get when I’m on stage. It’s not really, I don’t remember a lot from being on the stage, it’s just this blur. I’m sure that you can relate to this in a lot of ways, like, when you get into a flow with stuff, whatever it is that you’re doing, when you feel like everything else is just floating away and you don’t know what time it is and you don’t know, you don’t think about all the other stuff. And that is kind of Becky, to me, and it’s been so nice to me, too, to have this alter ego, whatever you want to call it, because it makes me — I’m not as scared when I create now, because I’m like, “Oh, but that’s not me, that’s Becky,” (laughs) you know. So if someone’s like, “That’s not a good song,” then I’m like, “OK, OK yeah, you tell Becky that, I don’t care.” And it’s also like, because if I write something then it’s also like, “OK, I can let Becky take care of that.” It sounds weird, it sounds crazy, but it’s so nice to not be, like, “OK, this is something that Thea Gustafsson — which is my real name — writes.” I can just let all that go and just be in the moment more. So I guess that Becky is the whole, like, creative part of me, really. I mean, sometimes that is pretty hard to reach when there is a lot of different stuff going on in your life, but as soon as that comes forth and really takes place, then that is magical, honestly. It’s the best feeling.
**You sample a reading of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “I Want to Die While You Love Me.” Can you talk a bit about the poem’s meaning to you?”
It’s very interesting. I was talking to a friend the other day and she told me that she had played my songs for her friend, who is very into like astrology and energy and, you know, she is very spiritual, a she, her friend, just by listening to the lyrics and to the poem and stuff, she was like, “Oh, she’s gotta be a Scorpio,” which I am. And I don’t know how to explain it, but it is something with that poem, it really struck a chord with me in the way that, with Scorpios being kind of, you know, jealous and passionate... and I think that poem was really, even though I’m not 100 percent sure if I believe in astrology or signs or whatever, it really feels Scorpio in a way that it's pretty like, “I want to die while you love me,” like it’s so, it’s really passionate and it’s really taking it one step further, it’s not just like, “I can’t live without you,” it’s really like, “I want to die while you love me,” you know (laughs). And I really, I could really relate to that, too, because when I am feeling stuff, I’m feeling it very strongly, like I am very rarely in some kind of middle, I’m always very happy or I’m pretty fucking sad. Also, it’s Maya Angelou who reads it in the sample, and I’m a huge fan of Maya Angelou, and I love all of her poems. The way that she approached stuff, like when she’s talking about whatever, it sounds like it’s God talking. How was she able to answer a question in that way? How is she able to make everything sound so extremely, 100 percent honest? It’s like she’s always speaking the truth, about everything. So with her reading this poem, too, it got even stronger. It was like, “OK, that’s it.” When I heard it I was completely blown away. When I found it, it was like someone, it was like me writing it; I could feel myself write that poem in some kind of way because I felt so, I could connect with it so strongly.
Your full-length visual for this EP is stunning. Can you talk about the process of taking on something like that?
It’s exactly how I wanted it to be... We found this amazing video director Geej [Ower], and she really, I mean, she was so open. I don’t know if anyone else would’ve been open to being like, “OK, yeah, of course, a 12-minute-long movie in one week, we could fix that.” But she was so positive and so open and so extremely hungry and I’d watched some of her stuff from before, and I was like, “Yeah, this will be perfect.” And we were talking on the phone about what it should be like and what we wanted it to be, and pretty soon we agreed on it being like just a storyline about a day in different women's lives. So one day after that, she sent us the treatment, and one day after that we got the casting right, and then the day after that we went to London to shoot it. So in a week, we were shooting the film, she was cutting it and everything with that, and one week later it was done. So it was the craziest thing ever. I can’t believe that it actually came out so good.
I also think that doing that in such a short amount of time was the best thing because it made us just go to the core of the whole EP... we didn’t have the time to rethink different scenes, we just needed to get to the core as quickly as possible. Like with the scene with me sitting on top of a guy’s lap, we decided that like one day before I arrived in London, and then at the set, everyone was pretty stressed and I was like, “Oh man, I don’t want to do this.” ... At that time, I was like, “Oh man, this is so embarrassing, it’s gonna look so weird, and I don’t know what I’m doing,” and I had a lot of anxiety about that afterwards. But now, after, when it’s done, I just feel like that was the best thing, that it had to be made in such a short amount of time, because I couldn't second-guess and I couldn’t rethink it, and I couldn’t be 100 percent sure or comfortable with things. Because if I’d gotten the treatment like a month before or something like that, I probably would’ve said yes in the beginning, and then been like, “Oh, but you know what, maybe not...” you know? So, yeah, I’m very proud of that film.
Can you tell us about your second EP, the one you’re working on right now?
It’s been a ride to write this EP. I’ve been trying to write for it for a very long time, but it wasn’t until, I don’t know when it was, August or July when I felt ready for it. And then it all began to come to me pretty naturally. But before that, I was really struggling with, like, "OK, what is my next sound going to sound like, what is it gonna be?" and also because people were talking so much about, "Oh, this sounds so much Becky," and then I was like, "But what is Becky? Like, what does that sound like?" Because that is also a thing, when it’s not your name but it’s your artist name, when it’s Becky and not Thea, that also makes me sometimes feel like, "OK, but wait, who is Becky, then?" Because I’m not 100 percent her.
So now I’m very happy about it and I am almost done with all the songs, it’s just some small things left for me to do. But I’m very excited about it. I’m very happy about not stressing, either, because in the beginning, a lot of people were telling me to get it done, and I was like, maybe I should just make it and, you know, I should just be making it and not think about it and let it be whatever it becomes? But I don’t really work that way, I need to feel every single second of it, and I need to be proud of every single note and every single instrument. Which is pretty hard, to get there, but now that I’m finally getting there, I’m very proud and very happy that I actually let it grow, and that I let it take its time to become what it is. So I guess it’s gonna be a bit more soulful in a way. I’ve been trying to incorporate my jazz influences also. I’m very proud of the production work on this, too, because I’ve become a much better producer than on the first EP, because this time around I really know exactly what I’m doing.