Interview: Azure Blue

Azure Blue – Photo courtesy of Azure Blue

Azure Blue – Photo courtesy of Azure Blue

While plenty of alternative musicians are quick to identify with the “indie” sound, Tobias Isaksson of Azure Blue is a bit of an exception to the rule.

“I’d rather just be labeled pop and skip the indie,” he said in regards to the genre restrictions placed upon his music.

But consider where he comes from–Sweden–and it makes sense. The country has been internationally known since 1972, when ABBA hit the scene, so it’s no surprise that he is prefers to be grouped under the umbrella of pop, a classification that is not far off from the music he actually makes.

“Melodies, everybody says, [are] my thing,” he shared. “You can hum on every song on my album.”

Others have most certainly caught on to this, as evidenced by Isaksson’s win of a Swedish Independent Grammy Award, or Manifest, for best pop in 2012. The competition also included artists Jonathan Johansson, Loney Dear, and Korallreven, but ultimately Isaksson thinks it is his underdog status that helped him win.

Of course, as a booker and a DJ, pop music isn’t what Isaksson listens to exclusively. In fact, he mentioned having to stay on top of what the hot new music in the indie scene is, and that this pursuit of whatever is hip can definitely garner a lot of flak.

“The hipster thing is, like, debated on, whether it’s a good thing or not, but I think it’s the new definition of a subculture that turns against the biggest, most stereotypical sounds and is a bit more intellectual than the mainstream,” he said, describing the kind of music he likes to listen to and play. “If you skip all the shade shutters and fixed-gear bicycles, I think I can relate to that in a way.”

In a sense, this idea of doing something different from the mainstream inspired his project, but on a more personal level. Isaksson had been in various bands on Swedish label Labrador, but while he was in discussions with musician friends, throwing around the idea of starting a new project, things suddenly took on a unique direction.

“I changed my mind and decided I wanted to go with the synthesizers instead of guitars again, [and] the puzzle pieces came together,” Isaksson said, elaborating on his decision to make Azure Blue a studio project. “The main reason for doing something majestic, or like, big and swollen, was to take a step away from all [the] indie pop stereotypes.”

The result? The debut Azure Blue album, “Rule of Thirds,” first came out in Sweden in November of 2011 on Hybris, with staggered releases across the world, including North and South America last December on Matinée, and Japan in early 2012.

And in the amount of time that has followed, Isaksson has played more than 35 shows in seven different countries. While the majority of the shows have taken place either in his home country of Sweden or in Spain–the country where his last project had the largest following–he has also played obscure locations, such as small towns in the middle of Russia.

More recently, Isaksson was in Germany for a couple weeks at the end of August and beginning of September. He’d already had a scheduled show, playing in Hamburg with Finnish band Cats on Fire, when the ladies behind Indie Pop Days contacted him about playing their festival. Since he would be around, it only made sense.

“It became like a sort of long working holiday,” he explained, sharing that since Berlin Music Week also took place during that time, and some of the bands he books performed there, he was busy even while on vacation.

Now that fall is here, Isaksson said he has plans to release a single in the coming months, with another full-length due sometime in the spring. And with new songs, as with the old ones–if they can be called that yet–Isaksson said he struggles with finding a balance in what he wants to say and how he says it.

“I can’t let them through if they’re too simple,” he said. “[But] I want to sing simple things.”

Another aspect he struggles with is wanting to be honest, as he considers what he writes to be “autobiographical with a twist,” but not wanting to write something overly complicated that confuses the listener and sparks a negative reaction. This is because, ultimately, Isaksson feels that when someone dislikes personal lyrics, it is almost as though they don’t like the person behind them.

He also has received critical nods from reviewers who mentioned that he has referenced ideas from popular culture, but Isaksson considers that somewhat inevitable.

“I read a lot of novels to inspire this record,” he said. “[And] pop music, for me, is all about references.”

Now, in addition to working on things, Isaksson is also hoping to gain steadier footing in Germany. Already, he has a Berlin-based manager–Nina Legnehed from Nordic By Nature–and after having already turned down a handful of offers from German labels, is searching for one that will provide him with the exposure he desires and shows to match.

“I’m 35, and I’ve been doing European tours with my previous bands too, and since touring really takes a lot of energy, I’ve gotten a bit protective about context. It all has to be worth it; even if it’s a small show, it has to be a tasteful setup and a certain amount of people coming in every night,” he said. “I want something really solid here in Germany now.”

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