When Sonja Skibdahl sings, joy and melancholy intermingle to form a memorably bittersweet soundscape. This bringing together of seemingly disparate elements has been a mainstay of her career. Born in Espoo, Finland, she moved to southern Sweden as a teenager and set about gently developing a career punctuated by collaborations and performances that stretch as far as Australia, England and the US.
This collaborative spirit eventually manifested itself in a three-year project named Låt med mig (Sing With Me). With Skibdahl at the helm, young people with disabilities were given the opportunity to express themselves and develop through the creation of music. Now, after becoming a mother for the first time, she continues to perform in the band Sorgenfri and has also found another musical collaborator in Jonas Hofvander, with their song Hollow Ground set to be released this year.
First things first: You are a huge Freddie Mercury fan and even sport a sizeable tattoo of him on your arm. Were you happy with Bohemian Rhapsody?
Yes, I enjoyed the movie, especially all the acting. Rami Malek, who played Freddie Mercury, was fantastic. He talked and moved like Freddie, and on stage he was like a copy of him. I would have liked to see more, though, more about the music they made, but I understand that there is a time limit in a movie.
You write songs in Swedish, Finnish and English. How do you choose which language to sing in?
I guess it depends on the feeling and the mood and who I am working with. For example, I have written many songs based on lyrics by my brother-in-law Jarri Vuorio, and they are all in Finnish. It also depends on who I am writing the song for. Once I was really angry with someone and, instead of writing an angry text message, I wrote a song in Finnish. The person does not know Finnish. It was more about writing down my frustration than about arguing.
I have heard that my voice changes depending on the language that I sing in, something I had not thought about before. I enjoy mixing the languages at my gigs, even when people may not understand a word of what I am singing; then it becomes more about delivering a true feeling with the song.
Where are you most creative?
Around creative people because they inspire me so much. Also, at home at the kitchen table when I feel I need to express myself, I write down how I feel, or when I want to tell a little story. When I am sad or low, I can get very creative. It is like having a little therapy session on my own. When the sun is shining and I am really happy, I would rather do gigs, meet friends or do some gardening than sit inside writing music.
You moved to Sweden 24 years ago and still regularly visit your homeland. How has Finland changed over the years?
With my bad sense of direction, I sometimes find it even harder than before to find my way without a GPS. A lot, of course, has happened with construction everywhere, too. Every time I visit Finland it still feels like home to me, even though I sometimes look like a tourist trying to find my way to different places.
One thing that has unfortunately not changed since I moved is the attitude among some towards people who speak a language other than Finnish. But I want to point out that this is a statement covering only a minority of people. I do feel that Finland is overall a warm and open-minded country.
What is the biggest misconception of Finland-Swedes by Swedish people?
People still get very surprised about how well I speak Swedish, which is one of my mother tongues. That is one of the biggest misconceptions.
You recently became a mother. How has this new role influenced your songwriting?
I have a new little person to write songs for. The first one I wrote for my daughter, Molly, was when she was still in my belly, and after that I think I have written two more songs for her. I play a lot of music for her which she seems to enjoy. I hope that she will keep enjoying music as much as I do, and maybe become a songwriter herself one day. If she wants.
What has been the best gig you have ever played?
I love to play at Pride festivals: There is so much joy in the air. It also feels like an important gig because of the statements that all love is equal and that you have the right to be exactly who you want to be.
I also enjoyed my gig at a festival in the countryside in the middle of a little forest in Brighton, the UK. There I slept in a tent all by myself, which was scary; but I overcame some of my fear of the darkness, ha-ha. It was a warm and welcoming atmosphere to play in. I enjoy playing at small countryside festivals like Mossagårdsfestivalen here in Skåne.
What is your favourite joke?
Really dry jokes like “My dog used to chase people on a bike a lot. It got so bad that finally I had to take his bike away.”
If you could invite three famous people (living or dead) to dinner, who would they be and why?
Freddie Mercury, Martha Wainwright and Ismo Alanko. I know, musicians only, but I feel that these three are my top three musical idols who have inspired me and whose music I have listened to for many years. Imagine how motivated I would get after this dinner! So many new songs and new creative ideas could come out of this. And maybe I would get to do a duet too? Ha-ha.
What inspires you?
I love working with other people because I get inspired by them and learn a lot from different collaborations. I get out of my little bubble and get to see another point of view. The ups and downs in life give me a lot of material for my songs. The downs used to be the ones that inspired me the most. Love inspires me too, which means that I have written quite many happy songs over the last four years, too.
You recently teamed up with Jonas Hofvander for the single Hollow Ground, which is the latest in a long line of musical collaborations you’ve had over the years. How do you decide when to make music with someone else versus recording as a solo artist?
Yes, I am so excited about this upcoming release! Like I mentioned before, I love to collaborate with other musicians and artists because I learn so much from them and it is so much fun to be creative together. The songs that I write by myself get a new dimension when someone else is adding their feeling to it.
For example, many of the songs we play with Sorgenfri, the band I play in, I usually write alone until the first draft is ready to be passed over for collaboration. With Hollow Ground, Jonas and I wrote together from scratch. That was something that I really enjoyed doing too.
You have been actively involved with creating music-as-therapy initiatives for people with disabilities. What inspired you to do this?
Yes, Låt med mig is my dream project. We have been writing and recording songs together with students, and now we are filming the music videos. The children have used various methods to co-write their own lyrics. Some of these methods are: pictures, objects, mind maps, depending on the students’ needs and abilities. The style of music, melodies and recordings are based on the students’ ideas and wishes. I have always tried to add music into the jobs that I have had. The idea for this project came about when working for a school for children with special needs. I love to see what a great positive impact music can have on my students. By writing our own songs, we can express our feelings, learn new words, get confidence and knowledge.
If you could step back in time and give your childhood self advice, what would it be?
Keep doing what you are doing by staying a child as long as you can. Bring some of that childishness into your adult self, too, as life will be more fun when you don’t take things too serious. And maybe you should practise playing that guitar more often?
Where is the best place to enjoy summer in Finland?
We used to have a summer place in Lohja, where we spent all our summers since I was a kid. After selling it, we now sometimes rent a cottage somewhere near a lake with a sauna next to it. The Finnish nature is breathtaking. Where the family and friends are, there I am – and that makes for the best summer.