Sweden has produced many talented artists over the years, Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Ingmar Bergman, Anita Ekberg, Ann Magret, Lasse Hallstrom, Stellan Skarsgaard and, most recently, Alexander Skarsgaard making waves as the Nordic vampire Eric on True Blood. But the musical side of Sweden has always been bathed in extraordinary talent, with artists crossing over cultural and geographical barriers, such as the recent internationally renowned Swedish House Mafia, as well as the legends, who created memorable music, such as Monica Zetterlund and ABBA… Who can forget ABBA? Joining this group of extreme talent we find Pernilla Backman, better know to the music industry as Meja.
With a melodic, sensitive and inspirational voice and music style, she captured not only Sweden, Europe and the U.S. with her early releases, but also made a name for herself in Japan. It has been my pleasure to have met and known her for most of her musical career and take great pride in the role I played in encouraging her future. Sitting in the office of her company Seven Sisters Network in Sweden, I was able to catch up with her for a long overdue chat. Presenting Meja, who truly ISN’T all about the money, ladies and gentlemen!
What was your childhood like?
I had a great childhood! As a kid I was very creative and was constantly writing poems, stories or painting. I wrote my first poem at the age of 6, and was sure that I would be a writer when I grew up, or an actress. (smiles) We moved a lot when I was younger and I guess it was the warm up for my lifestyle, touring and constantly being curious of new places…
Any musical influences that you dreamed about becoming or being as famous as when you grew up?
I never thought of fame when I was a kid. I was just being creative and I loved music and theatre. I thought that I would be an actress, and not really a singer… I had my premiere on stage at age 7, in the City Theatre of Ystad, and I thought that I would continue with that… But music got in the way! (smiles)
I remember when we first met in the corridors of Fryshuset in 1987. Do you? You were there looking for some way to get involved with music. What made you want to be a part of the music business?
I remember that! I also remember you walking up to me at Patricia, asking if I could sing and if I wanted to join your band. (smiles) Well, just before we met I got back from living in Spain (Mallorca), and there I was influenced by my friend and fab musician, late Mr. Stephen Franckewich. He played in the jazz clubs on the island and I was always staying up listening to him and his band until early morning. I was 17 and touched by that kind of music. Since then I have been a huge Ray Charles and Etta James fan. When I came back to Sweden I wanted to sing as well. And there you were Brad, supporting me and really being a great mentor!
Well, thank you, Milady! It was indeed a pleasure to support you, since your talent was clear for me to see! I further remember that not everyone was convinced of your talent and abilities as I was…
I know… Jeeezzz. (smiles) I think I was young and focused enough to not give a shit. I was very, very sure I was going to make it. And really, that people’s opinion did not mean much when it was a negative one.
I also remember your determination to succeed and your strength when you were challenged. You never “shied away” from confrontation! You always met it head on. Where did this weath of inner strength come from?
Oh, dear! I think it was utter stubbornnes! (laughs) You know, sometimes today I wish I could bring that side into the open a bit more. Isn’t it funny how sometimes doubt grows with age…? Thank you for reminding me of the power I actually do have within.
You are once again welcome. Your very first single was called Happy and you were together with a group called Legacy of Sound. How did this formation come about?
I was being the back-up singer in a group called Rob ‘n’ Raz DLC at the time. And Christian Svensson, a lovely writer, recommended Anders Bagge to come down and check me out. We decided to meet up and write some songs, and the first one we did was Happy. It’s about how I felt meeting him. He was a very happy camper and I felt very connected to him. I got the backtrack of the song on cassette tape (those were the days …!) and I went home and wrote the lyrics and melody to be recorded the following day. A few months later it was released in 24 countries!
I loved writing with Bagge, and the other guys, Nevada Cato and James Gicho, were fab. They did their thing with Bagge as well. So we were a group, but never wrote together all of us.
What was the music industry like when you first came on the scene in Sweden? How was Legacy of Sound received by the audiences?
Music was fun and creative. Most record companies did not have the same fear as they do today. You know, it’s all about the money… and has always been in this industry. It’s not a new thing. We can ask Billie Holiday in Heaven ‘bout that.
The two albums we made were greatly received and played all over the world. It was a great thing for a first release.
How did you make the transition from Legacy of Sound to going solo as, simply, Meja?
I decided I wanted to do a solo thing, and I met manager Lasse Karlsson and producer Douglas Carr. We formed a great team, and we really worked hard to get the Japan market and my solo career to work. And it did, very well. It was hectic from 1996 till 2005. Really crazy years and great fun!
Were you a part of the music making process for your solo debut? I mean were you able to submit your input and ideas with regards to the musical direction and material you wanted to go?
Yes, absolutely. I have never been singing anything I don’t like or couldn’t stand up to. Me and Douglas were writing most songs, and along the way we teamed up with legends like Billy Steinberg and Stephen Lipson, amongst others. I have always been writing… And always will. But I am not a producer, so the sound was totally Douglas’s talent.
Your very first single as Meja, All About The Money, went “viral”! It was huge in Europe, the U.S. and Asia. How did all this instantaneous fame make you feel?
I know, it was crazy! It FELT like the breakthrough, but we had a major release in Japan and Asia with the album that came before All About The Money. How Crazy Are You became the first single and topped the charts in 1996. All About The Money became a smash in 2008, if I’m not mistaken, and even today it is fascinating that the song is played still all over the globe.
You are right about 2008 and yes, it is still played. Heard it on the radio the other day in Budapest! What’s your favorite memory from the 80’s and 90’s?
I have great memories from Mallorca, late 80’s, when I was getting my Jazz education with Stephen. I loved sitting there in the clubs, just absorbing the vibe. And a great memory was also the first time I heard my song being played in the USA. We were driving down the California coast in a cab, the sun was shining and suddenly I heard Happy on the radio! (smiles)
And what’s your worst memory from those times?
I can’t figure out a bad memory in the 80’s. But the 90’s… could be my first promotion trip in 1993, going to Germany and the record company got me to the airport one day early; so me, arriving in Frankfurt at night, no one there to meet me, not knowing where to go, kinda lost… But it all got arranged, as my friend and manager at the time said: Do you have money for a cab? Get over to the Four Seasons, order the suite and have the record company sort it out in the morning! So I did!
Your next single received a bit more notoriety because of the pairing with the other singer: it was duet matching with Ricky Martin on the song Private Emotion. How did that make you feel to be asked to record this song and video with Ricky?
It was great, he is a wonderful person to work with and I can’t say enough nice stuff about him. I think the song fit us vocally like a glove and I just found the private video tapes from our sessions and recordings… So much fun to watch…
What new experiences and musical challenges have you been able to open yourself to since you made that solo step as Meja?
Honestly, I have been so tied up in work, so I have become kinda lame. (smiles) I mean, I did a wonderful jazz bossanova album produced by Hamish Stuart (Average White Band) and continued with the pop after that. But really, I need to get out on a limb and get more soulful. Deepen my musical self. I hope the new album coming early 2014 will show that.
I know that your very first album was very well received not only in Europe, but majorly so in Japan. How did that make you feel having such appreciation by a culture so far away?
In a strange way, Japan has always felt like home. We look different, but I have found so many similarities between the Swedish and Japanese people. I love that country.
You have done extensive traveling in Japan thanks to the popularity of your albums. Tell me how has that changed your life?
The first 10 trips were kind of like in a dream. I never really understood I was there. (smiles) So different, but still, so recognizable. It has been like… going to work equals going to Japan. Then home to Sweden, where all has been kinda quiet and not at all the same hysteria as over there. My whole Japan journey, having Japan as my main market, has been a wonderful experience, and still is.
In my latest Japan project with Sony Music I did Studio Ghibli soundtrack songs, that were so well received. The album is called AniMeja and is full of the most known soundtracks from these absolutely genius movies – Spirited Away, Totoro, Ponyo, Howls Moving Castle, amongst others.
Tell us about your life away from the stage. What else do you occupy your time with? Any Hobbies? Projects?
Oh, there are million things. I have started painting a lot, having exhibitions since 2005, so that is taking a lot of time. I continue finding new talent, like Robyn, whom I found back in 1994; I matched young Kim Cesarion with his producer, and he is now climbing the charts, as well as another secret project I’m working on. I am also ambassador for The Non Violence Project and working with them on an art piece. I started SUP/Surfing and love that, but my fall is to get the next album ready and out.
Is there any social cause you feel strongly about and what have you been able to do to further it?
Yes, as I mentioned, The Non Violence Project is a great cause. I have also supported the Swedish Tibetan Society for many years, and built a school over there. I sponsor a child in India, Kerala, whom I try to visit once every ear, and we all support her child orphanage, me and my family.
You have your own production company called Seven Sisters Network. How has that been to run such an organization and what you accomplished through this company?
It has primarily been managing my own career, along with the musical side projects I am working on. The music and art, but also networking people and helping right persons get in touch with each other to make success. I have collected a wide range of contacts globally and love to introduce and network for a good cause.
Have you been able to balance career and personal life without too much difficulty?
Yes, I think so, but really maybe my friends and family have to answer that one.
What plans do you have for the future?
The next album will be ready early 2014. A new single is coming out in October 2013. It´s called Blame It On The Shadows. I also have a few exhibitions planned and work on getting my webshop ready with Meja Lifestyle Products.
I will always want to sing, and hopefully I can do that, even though maybe my new music is not really as pop oriented as before. I hope my fans will follow me on this one, and even broaden my world more. I really want to work in a group, so maybe I form a band, or join a band. And yes, I do want to take up acting. But first, album out and then I take my family with me to move back to Spain, to set up my art studio there.
If you have your choice of anywhere on the planet you would love to live, where would it be?
California, somewhere, or Maui.
Would you be interested in coming to Romania sometime, if invited?
Oh, yes, definitely! Bring it on! (smiles)
What words of advice would you give young singers just starting out “with a dream” like you had?
Hard work and focus can take you a long way, but involving the heart as well will make you fly!
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