On their first album as Fever Ray, Karin Dreijer was over romance. It was the late aughts, and when Dreijer wasn’t working on their boundary-pushing electropop duo the Knife, they were raising two children in a heterosexual marriage. Their discomfort within those confines came through in the music, like in “Seven,” in which Dreijer sings about love in the same breath as “dishwasher tablets.” When they returned eight years later with 2017’s Plunge, they’d made a 180-degree change. Dreijer had gotten divorced, came out as queer, and found a new sexual liberty, which they explored in breakneck dance tracks. One standout, “To the Moon and Back,” climaxes with them shouting, “I want to run my fingers up your pussy!”
Now Dreijer is looking at love anew. The Swedish musician’s third full-length as Fever Ray is called Radical Romantics, and while they can be a jokester, the title isn’t entirely facetious. Dreijer admits they’d been thinking more about love, spurred by both bell hooks’s influential All About Love and a relationship they had during the pandemic. “When I do music, it’s very much processing what’s going on around me,” Dreijer says. “It’s also a place where I can try out ideas from my more private life but in a much more free way.” That’s a marked difference from their work with their brother, Olof, as the Knife, which had become a vessel for exploring politics and social theory before its 2014 dissolution. Radical Romantics reunites the Dreijer siblings for the first time since then (save for a stray remix), bringing Olof’s hyperpercussive style to songs like “Shiver” and “New Utensils” and even a bit of the Knife’s signature steel drums to “Kandy.” At the same time, Radical Romantics broadens Dreijer’s circle to include industrial-rock heroes turned film composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who brought a dark edge to the songs “Even It Out” and “North.”
One constant in their work as Fever Ray: Dreijer collaborated on the visual direction for the album with creative director Martin Falck, developing characters such as Main, a dissatisfied office worker in the “What They Call Us” music video, and Romance, who performs in the “Kandy” video. But discussing the album over video with an out-of-character Dreijer, it’s clear that, behind the makeup and performance, Fever Ray remains a personal project for them. “It would be weird if it wasn’t personal,” they say. “It has to be real for something.”
How does it feel to be Fever Ray again?
I wanted to; that’s why I do it. So it’s sort of a conscious choice, but it’s always difficult because you never know really how things are going to turn out. The album I finished a while ago, but now we’re working with the tour and starting rehearsals and finding out what we’re going to do onstage. And that is always a chaotic time because you never really know what will happen.
It’s funny how you used to not tour at all and now the tour is such a big part of what you do.
It’s been very up and down with the touring. I think I’ve found a place where I enjoy it more.
Do you miss it when you’re not onstage?
No, I think it’s super-important to have these long periods of time when I am not onstage because it is still quite stressful. You don’t get to sleep much, and you have to be in shape to be able to perform for this one hour a day, and it’s not so easy. I don’t know how long we’re going to do this this time, but it’ll probably not be more than a year. And then I also look forward to what I’m going to do after the tour.
It feels like a long break between Plunge and this album, but I was reading that you started working on Romantics almost right after Plunge in 2019. At that point, was it just a handful of songs, or did you come in with a full concept?
The idea comes much later. I hadn’t decided to make an album. I just started to see what things I enjoyed and what would be fun to do. I actually started thinking, I will just edit some tracks that I’ve made for theater and other film projects before that I haven’t really finished as tracks, but it turned out to be this instead. So I still have to do that at some point.
But a few of those ended up on the album, like “Bottom of the Ocean.”
Yeah, that was part of a play. And “What They Call Us,” the first parts of that I did for a film, Long Way Back, but it had a very different shape at that time.
So at what point then did you land on the idea of Radical Romantics?
I have a lot of themes in my head that work around the ocean in some way. I live in Stockholm, I’m brought up in Gothenburg, so I’ve always lived close to the sea, and it has been a big part of me growing up as well. I see it as a place for freedom, as a very positive “I’m not afraid of the ocean.”
I like to play with words, and Rabbit Records is R and R. I found this text, it’s a U.K. writer who’s written a thesis called “Radical Romantics,” and it was about a lot of things, but it also mentions pirates, and that caught my interest.
Martin and I said, when the album was finished, “So what is this really about? What are we going to do? What kind of characters? What kind of settings?” And we said it was a love album, but there’s not really any love songs on it. It’s more about finding out what it is that you need to be able to love. That, I think, could be a quite radical act: to find out about yourself and also to communicate that to others.
You’ve said you wrote “Carbon Dioxide” intentionally as a song about love, which sounded like you thought you hadn’t made a love song before.
No, but I mean the idea of a love song. It isn’t that “Oh, I am in love with this” — the romantic myth sort of love songs like, “Oh, I love this person, they are amazing, blah blah blah.”
I guess the Knife thought about love a fair bit, even if those songs may not have been love songs.
Yes. I mean, “Heartbeats” is probably a love song. But I think it’s always something else present. To be able to love, you have to be brave and show yourself vulnerable, and that can be a very scary thing. So it’s always some fear present.
A lot of fans were excited to see that Olof was involved in this album. How did you approach him about collaborating on this?
When I came back from the last tour, we built new studios in Stockholm, and he moved back from Berlin — he had been there for 12 years or something. So we were just next door. I had done a lot of sketches, and I’m not so good at finalizing. I don’t have my focus, and my patience is not the best. So I really like to collaborate with people. I just asked him if he wanted to try a bit. I didn’t know what to expect; sometimes he’s like, “Oh, I don’t do Fever Ray music.” But he was like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll try.” And it was very easy.
So it was always under the idea that it would be with the name Fever Ray?
I think that was very clear because in the Knife we always do everything together. We start from zero, and it’s always started very theoretical, and it’s a lot of research, a lot of reading. But here I had already written a lot of lyrics and done a lot of bits and structures of tracks. It couldn’t have been Knife tracks.
It was interesting to hear, on “Kandy,” that steel-drum sound that a lot of people associate with the Knife and to hear it in the Fever Ray context now.
I read somewhere somebody had written “Caribbean goth,” and that’s fun. I think that’s beautiful. Always, when you feel strongly for a sound or music, there’s probably some nostalgic part to it. And steel drums, I just feel it wakes something.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were involved in this album. What do you feel like you saw in them that made you want to work together?
I was so into the Watchmen series. I saw it three times around, and I really liked the atmosphere and the setting, and I thought the music was great in there. So I just thought maybe they would be up for adding some of that world into these tracks. And they were.
“Even It Out” is sung from a perspective of a parent who is really protective of their kid and in some sort of revenge situation. I read that Trent had five kids now, and I thought maybe he would be up for it.
That’s one of my favorite songs on the album. It felt like one of the songs that was the most about parenting that you’d ever written even compared to the stuff on the first Fever Ray album.
Yes. It’s very direct.
What was it about getting to this point of being a parent that made you want to express that more?
In real life, when your kid gets bullied, you try to do all the things possible, but you still stay within what’s legal, so to say. And the system here still is not working so well. In art, you can explore your feelings; you can take this a bit further. Because you need to take self-respect back when you have been wronged. It’s like you need to balance something. And, I mean, there are many different ways to do this, and it’s a great opportunity to be able to sing about it.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, which turns ten this year. I was reading back through some coverage, and this idea of the collision of personal and political seemed a bit foreign to people then.
We talked about that, Olof and I, the other day. Back then, we were very into the process of how to do things. We had this long literature list that we were reading, and we did a lot of field recordings, and it was very much about the process. And I think, today, we are both looking for something else. I don’t think Fever Ray has ever been about the process of things, but I think both of us want music to be something comforting or something to hold your hand while doing political things, while doing activism. But then I still think that — even if we talked about Shaking the Habitual as very political, theoretical, “This is the process” — it still has a lot of personal feelings.
Do you feel like you’ve found that thing, something that’s not the process? Or are you still figuring it out?
I think it’s something that you will continue figuring out, but I think it’s okay to trust your intuition a bit. Sometimes we’ve really been like, Oh, intuition, that’s bad, throw it away. That everything has to start here [grabs head] in some way. What I find meaningful is to try to work more from intuition and trust that a little bit more. But we’ll see. Maybe it just turns out super-boring, and then you have to do something else.
I don’t think anything that you have worked on has turned out boring.
No, that’s why it takes such a long time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.