Emily Dickinson

Personal Comments and thoughts around the songs from the album “Emily and I” , release 2012 Playground music ab! Sofie Livebrant has put Emily’s words to music.

My wheel is in the dark

About life and death, and how little we know of the machinery that lies behind both. How the wheel of life is turning behind the things we can see – what is it that rules over our lives and to where does it lead? How we act differently to solve the riddle of life. Some give up and do nothing, some over-engage themselves “in the busy tomb.” Some walk through the “gate of death” with proud steps and throw the mystery back to us who are still here. I am doing both, I give up and over-engage myself… the mystery is still there. I wanted the music to feel like an eternal pulsation, like an “Faroe-island clog dance,” just a continuing pulse – going on forever.

Whether my bark went down at sea

As I understand it, this poem is basically about a boat that has sunken into the sea. But I had a totally different inner feeling when the music came to me, partially because I misunderstood the English words. In my fantasy this was a secret meeting between lovers: “My boat went out on the sea and she met me with gales and I followed her with my docile sails.” The lovers anchored in an enchanted place and if somebody wanted to know their secret they would have to search for them in vain all over the huge bay. When we recorded “the bark” later the meaning returned to being a boat that had sunk into the sea. The producer Johan Lindström gave the song a much slower tempo than the original and he also created a “sinking boat orchestra” with synthesizers and creaking guitars.

If I should die and you should live

The first line of this song feels so good to sing because it reminds me about something that will happen to us all sooner or later. It feels good to sing it out loud. One day I am the one who stands grieving by the coffin and another day I am lying in one and somebody else is standing next to it. Emily is painting a picture about peace in the face of death and takes joy in the fact that nature continues to live so vividly. I can catch a glimpse of an ironic smile to all those gentlemen, those “bustling bees,” who are going about their business and so seriously managing their stock portfolios. I am adding a little love in my interpretation and says behind the words: “If I should die and you should live I would still love you”. This song was recorded at Hammarby Studios in the springtime; it was warm outside and we had warmth in our souls. Johan played some kind of Chinese harp and I played my beloved David Sundberg guitar.

There’s something quieter than sleep

Emily wrote a lot of poems about death. The closeness people of the 19th century seemed to have to death and its expressions seems to have vanished in our own world today and I miss it deeply. When I read “There’s something quieter than sleep” I immediately imagine a room where a wake is taking place, something I have actually only seen in movies. The photograph you can see on page …. is a picture of my grandmother’s aunt Klara standing with a beloved friend who passed away. To me, this picture is a symbol for this old tradition that has been lost. It was a way of treating death differently – in Sweden at least, this tradition of “a flower on the chest” is long gone. In my grandmother Ella’s village in Smaland in the south of Sweden all the neighbors put out pine twigs in the streets when the dead body was being carried to the cemetery. People also died at home for the most part. Today these rituals are gone. If you have memories of or have been told about the traditional death rituals were you live, I’d be honored if you would write to me on my webpage – sofielivebrant.com. It would be very interesting to hear these stories and it would make me very happy if you would share them with me. Musically I have tried to make a simple hymn, although the content and the words would not fit into the hymnbook. If we had more time when we were recording the album, we would have had a church congregation sing along simple and loud, accompanied by an old church organ, but unfortunately we never got that time.

I’ve nothing else to bring you know

Something about “throwing off the mask”, about appearing as you really are. To have erased all your makeup, all your inventions and you no more pretend to be someone else than you are”  To meet under a starry sky that feels so familiar to us, but while considering that it is these stars that help us to find our way home… something about earth, heaven and truth. Lisa Rydberg who plays violin and Andreas Werliin who plays percussion are both people who long for truth, which really helped in building this “truth and peace landscape”. This wonderful quartet initially recorded a lot of songs but unfortunately only this one made it onto the final album.

Sic Transit gloria mundi – Put down the apple Adam!

This 18 verse Valentine poem was written by twenty-two year old Emily to a friend. The text deals with history, science and war but for me the poem is very sharp at certain parts not at all funny and lighthearted. I’m touched by the picture of the founding fathers who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. I see my own father there and his lifelong struggle to serve others with his own on the line. Although he never fought in a war, the line: “A coward will remain sir until the fight is done, but an immortal hero will take his hat and run!” , this is for me anything but a joke. At the end of the poem the person leaves. 

To put music to all the verses would be too complicated for the folkmusic genre.

My multi-instrumentalist friend Olle Linder played percussion at this happy occasion. We all enjoyed playing together after a lapse of twenty years, when we were at music school together. I nearly died when Johan added a Moog-synthesizer, but it’s now my favorite part of the song.

I’ve haven’t told my garden yet

For me, this song is about a woman who has made for herself a brave and unexpected decision and is now on the way towards something new and unknown. She is afraid of yet tell it because she is afraid of losing courage and direction. Emily is probably writing about death, but I interpret this poem as being about walking your own path.

Theres a certain slant of light on winter afternoons

 “There’s a certain slant of light on winter afternoons” – such a beautiful line! And I also have a special connection to the word “slant”: Sylvia Plath, another poet I love, uses it in her poem “slanting down the window,” which I put music to several years ago. In Sweden we don’t have much daylight during the winter months, and the little light that does reach us comes down at almost a slanted angle. This has an real impact on us who live here. I’m thinking of the famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and the dim light in his films; a white, “untouchable” light which seems to affect our very depths. This “certain slant of light” is a direct connection to our inner world where the most important life decisions are made, far below the conscious mind. I love the way Emily describes it.

I wasn’t focusing on the pain that I sensed in Dickinson’s poem when putting music to the lyrics. I wanted to create a melody that would give comfort and calmness. A song that would urge us to handle “the seal, despair” with warmth and give us the strength to contain it. Something like Tom Waits’ way of treating pain: you see it, you have been through it, and you let it be. Without sentimentality. On the day of recording I could feel that I was closer to myself than I had been in many years. I can hear when I listen to the recording that I am on the path to finding a real and truthful way of singing, a way closer to myself, which I deeply long for.

Heart we will forget him

I love Emily’s humorous angle in this poem; it is about someone who’s making a totally illogical deal with her own heart. She has the idea that together they should forget “Him” and divides the task between them. Is it the mind and the heart she is referring to?  But somehow she cannot start forgetting until the heart is done with its part of the deal. So she challenges her heart to hurry up, because while the heart lags behind she still remembers him. I hooked on this contradictoriness…I remember him! This is exactly how I act in my life. I make agreements, build expectations, do clarifications in my mind, while my heart is acting completely different!

Something (lyrics Sofie Livebrant)

Working with Emily Dickinson’s poems inspired me to write a personal reflection on some of the same subjects that I’ve encountered in Emily’s world… nature, death and love. I’m amazed that the result came out so simple and happy after so many years of personal development, training and reading the great writers of the world. Tally-ho!

Beauty be not caused, it is

These are words I need to hear over and over again – to remind me that it is not me who is in charge of this world. That “beauty be not caused, it is!” On the record I only sing the first strophe to give space to O Mano Tingl, but I of course sing both verses in concerts. It has a tremendous beauty!

O mano tingl

This traditional Indian lullaby I learned by ear in Kerala many years ago while I was pregnant with my daughter Amanda. The song really became a part of me and – as I remember it – means: “How can you be so beautiful my little child? Beautiful as the lotus flower!” I feel that this song is connected to “Beauty be not caused, it is.” One day I had just returned from a meditation course and I flew on high clouds. I met Johan who was in a very creative mood and who tempted/dragged me into the studio though I didn’t really have time; these good open energies combined to this make spectacular take. Neither of us remembers anything of what happened and how it was made.