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Nicolai Dunger's Swedish Blues

"Last night I dreamed of Mississippi" Nicolai Dunger murmurs on his 2002 landmark, Tranquil Isolation, sounding so close that the speakers seem to exude a warm, cigarette-y humidity, as if he were breathing right into your ears. Against a shuffling backdrop of acoustic blues chords, the Swedish singer stretches out his notes like taffy, approaching them from the side, the top or the middle and sliding into them in a meltingly rough glissando. His songs are not so much sung as spun out until they glisten like a coat of warm honey on the back of a spoon, flowing in translucent waves into the crevices of your memory.

Not since Van Morrison, an artist to whom Dunger is often compared, has ragged bluesiness been made so smooth and warm and sticky. His distinctive voice — with its whispered delicacy, rough growls and vertiginous slides and swoops — has also drawn comparisons to Tim Hardin, Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake. He sings in an incredibly natural way, yet one that the former soccer player says he had to learn. "I think I probably began singing when I was about 11," he said in a recent phone interview, "but it took some time to learn to sing the way I do ... bending the notes."

His distinctive approach to music means that every performance of every song is slightly different, and gives his recorded work the freshness of live music.

Dunger began recording in the mid-1990s in Sweden, releasing two albums on Warner/Telegram (one with a string quartet) to modest critical acclaim. In 1998, he met and began working with Ebbot Lundberg of Soundtrack of Our Lives, their collaboration resulting in 1999’s This Cloud Is Learning. This breakthrough album, which introduced Dunger to music listeners in Europe, has been long unavailable in North America, but will be reissued by Overcoat Recordings in February 2005. Dunger followed up in 2001 with Soul Rush, which won him a Swedish Grammy. During this period, he also recorded the three-record, limited-release Vinyl Trilogy (also set for re-release by San Francisco's Runt LLC/Plain Recordings as a vinyl-only box set).

Meanwhile, skewed folk-bluesist Will Oldham had obtained a copy of a Dunger EP, and the two made plans to work together in the Kentucky studio owned and operated by Oldham's brother Paul. Their sessions resulted in the sparse and beautiful Tranquil Isolation, a string-laced waltz through deeply felt Americana. Then another high-profile fan, Jonathan Donahue from Mercury Rev, offered to produce Dunger's next CD at his upstate New York studio. Here's My Song, You Can Have It ... I Don't Want It Anymore, It's Yours again showcases Dunger's warm, natural singing, but this time against more elaborate production.

Dunger says that both recording partners brought a particular vibe to the process. "Will was more the way I do my own records — more like a documentary filmmaker. He celebrates the moment all the time through the record," he explained. "With Mercury Rev, there's more thinking about what they're going to do, and they try out different ways of recording things. I learned a lot from working with them." Here's My Song…, which was released in Europe last year and recently in the U.S. on Overcoat, was nominated for a Swedish Grammy in December 2004.

Dunger also collaborated with Calexico on their 2004 EP Convict Pool, singing on the band's cover of Love's "Alone Again Or" with Joey Burns. While touring with Calexico in 2003, he and the band stopped off at Mark Nevers' (of Lambchop) studio in Nashville to record the song. "We had been performing the song as part of the encore on the tour," Dunger said. "So we decided to record it during a break in the schedule."

Today Dunger, with his Grammy, his nine albums and his cadre of well-known musicians supporting him, is well known in Europe, but is just beginning to make an impact in the States. He supported Here's My Song…, his most recent album, touring stateside with Sufjan Stevens. "The big difference is that here I am playing my music for people that have never heard it. In Europe, I can play for 500 people and they adore the music, so I don't have to work for it," Dunger said. "But here, I have to work to win people over, and that can be exciting, too."

In February, Dunger will be performing two shows in San Francisco with Joanna Newsom (February 25 and 26 at the Swedish American Hall). For updated tour dates, check his Web site — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, January 10, 2005]

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