Blue Steel: Maggie Björklund’s Long Road
Since the early Nineties, the Danish pedal steel guitarist Maggie Björklund has been playing and writing country songs.
First as part of the shamefully neglected Danish country quartet, Darleens, that got to release three albums (the first is an overlooked gem, trust me) and since then as a touring and session musician. In 2011 she finally released her solo debut, Coming Home, which featured collaborations with Calexico, The Posies and Mark Lanegan and received warm reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
Her command of the instrument, and her utterly unique style of playing, earned Björklund a great deal of respect, but it wasn’t until Jack White hired her to his all-female tour band, The Peacocks, that Maggie Björklund grew to fame in her home country. Who was this Maggie? Where did she come from? What was this Dane doing with one of the most respected rock stars of our time? And how on earth did she learn to play the pedal steel – an instrument so detached from the Danish music culture – like that?
The story of Maggie Björklund – real name, Margrethe Bjørklund – is a tale of dedication, hard work and a desire to make your own way when everyone else is going in the opposite direction.
She’s had this desire and determination all her life, she tells me, when we meet at her rehearsal space in Copenhagen. Mainstream was never her cup of tea; not because she had a conscious urge to go against the grain and be Maggie the Contrary, but because it always felt right for her to follow her heart. “It just makes me feel more authentic,” she says.
She knows very well that playing the pedal steel isn’t the best way to reach success in a mainstream sense. Rather, there is something much bigger at stake: a vast and inexplicable love affair. Those are the exact words she chooses to describe her relationship with the pedal steel: She loves it – and it loves her back.
Last year saw her reach a level of success that she’d never thought possible.
Her second album Shaken – released on the acclaimed American indie label Bloodshot Records and produced by PJ Harvey’s regular recording partner John Parish — received excellent reviews. but her crowning glory came in the form of the Musician of the Year award at the Danish music critics’ annual awards, Steppeulven.
“I won the award,” she wrote in her usual humble way on Facebook. And that’s all she had to say about that.
Wanting to know more, we caught up with Maggie Björklund to talk about her long career, taking the leap from Denmark to Nashville, and how the sudden and horrible death of her mother ended up being a creative force that helped her to write some of her best songs of her career.
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How did you first get into music?
I was pretty young. I remember being five or six years old and listening to my parent’s records – being really, really fascinated of what was going on. I was the youngest of four daughters and each of them played the piano, which I of course found incredibly interesting. So as soon as I was old enough I started taking piano lesson at the local music school. I really wanted to play guitar, but you weren’t allowed to start with that. You had to play the piano first, but I switched to guitar as soon as I could. I grew up in a small, secluded town, which made it possible for me to really delve into the music.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Classical. It was all there was. And it was the only thing I listened to. I’m glad I did that because to this day it’s an inspiration I still draw on in my music. They way I write melodies is very much linked to the way classical melodies are composed. Later on I discovered The Beatles and went on from there.
Was it obvious early on that you had a knack for playing guitar?
Yes. I was just a very fast learner. And it was clear that I had a curiosity.
How did you start writing your own songs?
When I was 12 I started writing my own small classical pieces. So the interest for creating something of my own has been there from very early on. Then I went to high school and didn’t do much writing or playing. But after finishing high school I started playing the electric guitar. I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I could sense that I wanted to do something creative. I went to dance school for a short time and started playing the violin. I knew that if I wanted to take my guitar playing to the next level I really needed to practice more.
So I went to a guitar school in Hollywood called Musicians Institute where I met the most amazing teacher who introduced me to country music. We practiced six hours a day and I learned so much that year. Once you get to know the basics of an instrument – in this case the guitar – that’s when the fun begins. When I got back to Denmark after a year of schooling I met the three girls that I eventually started the country band Darleens with. At the time country music was really a four letter word in Denmark. No one wanted anything to do with it. If you wanted to keep your street cred you had to stay as far away from country music as possible.
So how does one find three other girls in Denmark that are into country as well?
Actually, in the beginning the band were called Honey Pony. We played covers of ’60s girl groups: The Ronettes, Shangri–Las and so on. We were a real party band and used to dress up for the concerts with high hair and all that. And then one day I mentioned that I really wanted to start a country band. The other girls were up for that and that was the birth of Darleens. We were signed to Sony after our first concert.
What kind of reception did you get?
Pretty good. We were on tour, but never got huge. It’s very much a niche thing when you play country in Denmark.
At what point did the pedal steel come into your life and what attracted you to the instrument?
It was very difficult to get close to a pedal steel back then. It was mainly when bands from the States came to play in Denmark that I got the chance to see one up close. It was very much the promised land for me. But then one day I got a call from a guy who knew I was interested in buying a pedal steel-guitar. So I bought it and got a few tips from him on how to play it. But other than that I had no clue how to play this thing.
Basically I was lost. I tried my best to play it, but it was so difficult. Eventually I threw it back in the closet, and it was only later – when I had build up the confidence – that I took it back out and started trying to play it again. And suddenly something clicked in my brain and it all just made sense for me.
How do your style of playing differ from the way American musicians play pedal steel?
A song like “Missing at Sea” for instance: an American would never come up with a riff like that. It goes against everything you’re taught if you learn to play pedal steel in the States. But I don’t have those limitations; I’m an anarchist I guess. I’m not aware of what you can or can’t do on a pedal steel. Those rules do not apply to my style of playing.
At what point did you decide that it was time to make the pedal steel part of your live performance?
I think it happened a bit too soon, actually. [laughs] By accident I had mentioned to friends that I played pedal steel. And so they invited me on stage for a Bob Dylan anniversary concert in Christiania [Copenhagen freetown/commune]. But to be fair, I almost didn’t know how to tune it right. But sometimes you just have to go for it. And so I did.
That turned out to be easier said than done. But I managed to get through the concert and in the time that followed people from the Danish music business starting approaching me – asking me if I wanted to play pedal steel on their albums. That made me pursue it even more. Also, I could feel some sort of special connection between that instrument and me.
What I could also feel is that I needed more practice. So I got in touch with a guy called Jeff Newman, who lived in Nashville taught pedal steel from home. I bought a ticket and went to see him, and ended up taking the course, playing pedal steel from early morning until late in the evening. And that’s where everything changed. That when I knew I was meant to play pedal steel.
How did people in the States react to you playing the pedal steel?
They couldn’t believe their eyes. A Scandinavian women playing an instrument as American as the pedal steel. They had never seen anything like that before. Gradually I started writing songs on the pedal steel as well. Back then my biggest heroes was the band Calexico; I used to say to myself, that if I ever make a record, these guys should play on it. And so when I eventually asked them – they said yes. So did Mark Lanegan. It was a very much a ‘squeaky wheel gets the oil’ kind of situation.
Who were your inspirations starting out?
I’ve always loved all the old classics. Dolly Parton in particular. She’s one of the greatest songwriters ever – and an outstanding banjo player. A guy like Glen Campbell has been an inspiration too. And some of the newer alt. country stuff like Bonnie ”Prince” Billy.
What happened in the years between your first album ‘Coming Home’ from 2011 and ‘Shaken’ from last year?
Coming Home was released worldwide, which was huge for me. But getting to tour with Jack White was obviously a highlight for me. One day I got an email from his management asking me to call them. At first I thought it was a joke of course. But it turned out to be true and soon I was on a plane to Nashville to meet him and the rest of the band at Thirdman Records. I had to pinch myself. But everything went well and I became part of his band.
What have you learned from him?
What can’t you learn from a guy like that? He doesn’t compromise in his music. It was an amazing experience to witness that way of creating music. He’s just a very unique musician.
At what point did you start writing song for ‘Shaken’?
My tour with Jack had ended and I finally had the time to start writing my own stuff. A tour like that is very inspiring. I knew I wanted to work with John Parish, so I wrote him and almost begged him to produce my new album. I wanted to explore the pedal steel and the more obscure sides to the instrument. I’d gathered a small band and we were getting ready to travel to Bristol where John lives. Everything was ready. But then by mother got sick and eventually passed away. I wrote most of the songs on the album while it was happening. So the process around the songwriting became something completely different than what I had imagined.
That sounds like a tough experience.
It was. But life-affirming as well. Because once you get some distance you start to see that saying goodbye is closely associated with love. But it’s an overwhelming experience when you’re in it. Death is ugly and gross. It smells. It is in no way romantic. It’s all ugliness. But behind all that ugliness is love. And that’s the part you can hold on to. That’s what makes it so difficult and horrific to witness – because of the love you feel towards that person you are saying goodbye to. I ended up writing most of the songs on the album at night after returning from the hospital.
How were you able to use that grief in your songwriting?
You are cut open really. And somehow I was able to use that openness in my songs. The result was life-affirming songs as well. The day after her funeral I went to Bristol and started recordings for the album.
The reception – in Denmark, the rest of Europe and the U.S. – has been overtly positive. How does it feel to finally get this acclaim?
I’m so thankful. It’s such a long and lonely journey you set out on, when you chose to become a musician. Filled with a lot of hard work. And it’s in to way certain that you are ever going to get a reward for all your hard work. You’re just standing there really, with your heart in your hand, hoping for the best. So when people react to my album the way they did with Shaken, it’s such a rewarding feeling. You feel understood.
And still, you remain this foreign thing, a rare breed wherever you go with your pedal steel. You’re an exotic creature whether performing in The States or your native Denmark. Why did you choose an instrument that alienates you in this way?
It’s a love affair. I just fell in love with the pedal steel. I didn’t consider for one second if it was a wise decision or not. I just feel this close connection. There are some things in life that you just can’t change. And I love that instrument – and in some way it loves me too. I’ve always tried to go my own way, and if that means playing an instrument that isn’t popular in the broader sense well then so be it. It feels right to me and that’s what’s important.
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