Published Apr 15, 2009Heidi Happy's Priska Zemp can sing until the Swiss cows come home. That's because she's never at a loss for musical fodder. Built out of bricks and fuelled by a fascination for humanity's two faces, the Switzerland native has a knack for seeing beyond all false pretenses. Which makes her latest record, Flowers, Birds and Home a large and intimate collection of everyday observations turned on their heads. Zemp takes the time to answer some questions via email about her decision to pursue music, her classical influences and how the world is made up of much more than a single perspective.
I understand you grew up in a musically charged family. What prompted you to dabble in alt-folk/pop music rather than follow in your mother's classical footsteps, for example?
My two older brothers recorded mixtapes for me when I was young. That's how I found out about Queen or the Beatles. Although I played classical instruments, I never would have thought of listening to classical music when I was young, except when I went to concerts where my mom sang. I felt like listening to classical music was something that adults do, since my parents only listened to classical music.
We once hosted an exchange student from the States. I was about 16. He played me Ani Difranco. That's when I first started understanding English lyrics, and a whole new world of great music opened up to me. Now it's mainly the mood I'm in that connects me to the music I play and listen to.
Now, you started your music career in 2005. Can you recount the moment you first told yourself, "That's it, I'm pursuing music as a career"?
Actually, I do. The moment was after I had recorded "Back together." I was still at art school in Amsterdam when the album came out in Switzerland. I had to travel back and forth a lot because Switzerland liked it and I got to play a lot of shows. So my teachers in Amsterdam got a bit tired of me only focusing on Heidi instead of school. They offered me to take one year off to go for Heidi completely and finish art school the year after if things didn't work out. I chose to finish art school first, but ended up writing Flowers, Birds and Home along with school.
You're no stranger to the road. You've toured extensively over the past few years. How have audiences in other countries responded to you in comparison to those in Switzerland?
Well, the audiences were quite similar in the countries I played. I performed most of those shows solo, so it's easy to connect with the audience. Although one weird thing happens in Switzerland every once in a while. It's when strangers tell me that they're proud when they hear me play, because I'm Swiss.
Do you find yourself becoming almost an "exotic" export to other countries simply because you're a young female musician coming from Switzerland?
I didn't think so, but now that you ask me this question, you must think I'm exotic, right?
What challenges do you face as a young female musician coming from Switzerland?
I don't think I have more challenges because I'm female, or because I'm Swiss. But I'm not experienced in the music business, and I suddenly have to make a lot of decisions, signing contracts, etc. This is difficult for me, especially because it's all on me, not on a band.
Let's talk about your new album. Many musical genres can be heard throughout Flowers, Birds And Home. At some points, it's very jazzy. At others, it opts for brilliant string arrangements. How did all of these seemingly different types of music end up on one record?
Before I write something, I hear it. So if I hear strings, I write them. And if they sound classical, I can't help it. The genre I write in is never a thought or decision.
I also noticed there are 18 tracks on Flowers, Birds And Home. Was it a matter of not being able to decide what made the cut, or are all the songs on there for a reason?
They're all there for a reason, of course! Some of the songs I see more as pieces in between, others as long intros. I was trying to connect the form of the album to the form of a classical concert.
"Hush" is the track that kicks off Flowers, Birds And Home. The daunting percussion combined with melancholy violins and timpanis almost form a backdrop for the album. What sort of aura where you going for on the record?
First of all I wanted to get rid of all the issues that bothered me. One of my main problems was that I felt very stressed. So I tried to find time in writing the album and give people time who listen to the album. Some of the other problems you'll find in the lyrics. To me, it was important that I don't tell all the stories with my own words. I tried to let the instruments speak as well.
When you started writing the record, where there obvious feelings or themes that you kept returning to? What were they and what influenced them?
Time. Home. Anger. Superficiality and love.
How personal and/or self-reflective is the album?
Oh ... very.
The album title itself offers a very rural and organic sentiment. What significance does the title hold for you?
It's mostly about first or second thoughts, superficial or deep meanings. How things can appear harmless to some and be evil to others.
"O-O-Oh" is a charming, wonderfully catchy tune, and it'll probably end up being many fans' favourite song. That being said, they'll probably be dying to hear what it's about. Can you explain?
I wish there would be some deeper meaning to that song. It's about coming home from a long night out, worrying about all the stupid things that happened and had been said while being drunk. This song is a good example for what "birds" stand for (speaking of the meaning of the album title). They are annoying because they're already singing when I know I will be going to bed soon.
"I Understand" is also another beautiful track, and it gets right to the point. Are you always this pointed in your songwriting?
Usually. Sometimes, I have difficulties in hiding things because I need to digest them and I feel that singing them out loud helps a lot.
I feel like this album is incredibly open and intimate. When performing live, how does it feel to share such private emotions with so many people?
Especially when I feel that the audience feels with me, it can be very difficult. It happened that I cried on stage, but that came more from being touched that people treat me so well.