Anders Edenroth: Musician Extraordinaire, ‘Real’ to his Core

// Image courtesy of Anders Edenroth.

Read about Anders in conversation with WHRB below, and keep up with his latest work here. [Interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity]

As composer, arranger, producer, and founding member of the Real Group, I wanted to ask how you got into music, and what experiences led you to choose music as your main pathway?

AE: I have early memories from when I was like four or five years old, and discovering music through the piano. My grandmother’s piano...I spent hours there just playing around with it, thinking these notes sound nice, and these notes don’t sound that nice together. So the journey was very much intuitive, from an early age. My grandmother was a piano teacher so she took me on...and I was a horrible student. And later on, I had several other classical piano teachers and they were really nice and sweet, but they couldn’t inspire me, because as soon as I’d get home, I’d start playing the piano in a completely different way than what was my actual assignment.

So you were a composer from the very beginning, in love with experimenting.

AE: Writing my own music at the piano was my football field, or whatever; I wasn’t into any other things. It was always music for me. But what got me into a professional career...I think that was when I was in my 20s at the Royal Academy of Music. Up until that point, I hadn’t met many people that did music as a living. It was very alien to me, to be able to do that. I thought I would become a journalist or something like that, perhaps. But when I got in there, I met all these other people my age, all aspiring musicians or educators or church-organ-players or conductors. And it struck me like ‘you can make a living, there is a real business out there!’ I’m very grateful for the inspiration from these friends of mine, and of course from some great teachers I had during my 5 years at the Academy. When I was out of the Academy, I was already professional; we were working with the Real Group right from that moment.

I think, sadly, what you just talked about is still a feeling perpetuated in spheres of music academia. As a college student studying music as well as some other things, I get that ‘can I make a living doing this?’ thing. I hear that nagging thought from inside my own head, but also from people around a pretty strong external force that doesn’t see music as capable of manifesting itself in a real way.

AE: And I think it’s important to point out that Sweden and the U.S have quite different political systems. We live in a world of democratic socialism, which means we pay much higher taxes than you do. But as a benefit from that, we get completely free education, all the way up to the college level. Anybody in Sweden who wants to study can become a doctor, or a lawyer, or a musician; it doesn’t cost you. Actually, the government pays you a small salary while you’re studying, to support you (help you find a flat, and so on). Of course you need to have good grades, be talented, you know all that...but you don’t need to have rich parents. We think there has to be equal opportunities, no matter where you’re born or who your parents are, you must have the possibility to nourish your assets. That’s why I could also say ‘I’m gonna study music’. I can understand why not as many students in the U.S. dare to go for a career in arts, because it's so uncertain.

Definitely, yeah. This is something I’m wrestling with right now, and I know for a fact so many of my friends are, too. Since I know that you do write as well as perform in both English and Swedish, I wonder if you could speak to the differences or similarities between the two.

AE: English is my second language, and I will never be able to get on the same level as I am in Swedish, because I was too old when I started learning English. Since the Real Group has had an international audience from so early on, I found it interesting to write music so that people didn’t only understand the emotional/musical content, but also the lyrical message very clearly. I was more challenged and intrigued by delivering important messages through music, which I think is a very good channel to open up people’s hearts and minds. So I have deliberately tried to keep my English skills at a decent level in order to work with my lyrics. Honestly, the lyrics take me significantly longer than my music. Because I need to turn every stone and make sure it’s just right. And I also have a couple of good friends, good creative writers, in the US that can help me correct my grammar.

That’s so interesting. Just from listening to your recordings, I don’t think one would be able to tell English is your second language, because I feel like over the course of decades, the Real Group has become synonymous with your tonal clarity. And that must be difficult to maintain in a language that you’re not as comfortable with.

AE: I think you’re correct in that sense, Aarya. If you hear us singing in Swedish, we have a different sound…the vowels, especially, have a tendency to be more choral. But you know when we started out with the Real Group, we were singing mainly jazz music from the Real Book (that’s how we got our name).

So obsessed with that.

AE: Totally, all about the Jazz Standards! We were singing Misty, Night and Day, As Time Goes By. Great songs from the great era. And we felt that the best kind of music was the American jazz scene. So we wanted to become very much like groups like the Manhattan Transfer, the Mills Brothers, the Hi-Lo’s. And of course we couldn’t ever become them, because we had our Swedish choral heritage. So without us really knowing, we merged these two idioms, both musically and language-wise, into what became the Real Group. I guess that’s why we also sound a bit different than any American groups.

It’s like you’ve got this indigeneity factor in your musical background, and the twist is that you’re applying it to a different set of music.

AE: That’s a great way of putting it. You have the same situation in the U.S., being such a huge country, consisting of so many language groups and ethnic minorities (or majorities)...each of those has their own cultural heritage that they bring with them into their music. Three different vocal groups could sound completely different. It could be a very pure classical group, then a gospel sound, then a country thing. So I think the variety of styles that you express in the U.S. are obviously much greater than here in Sweden. We’re more homogeneous in that sense.

You were just talking about the subgenres that American music has, and it made me think of this one song of yours you wrote for the Real Group: Catch Up, Ketchup! I shared that in a music class a few months ago, and when I tell you everyone was just mesmerized by it, smiling the whole way through. Anway, even in that very fast-paced, very distinctly Real Group sound, there’s a section where you explored a bit of an American country twang.

AE: You know the ketchup song, yes! Language is very much a part of musical expression. As a singer, you can’t avoid it. When we approach musical styles...well, we know we can never sing an authentic country western. You basically have to grow up with it, and it has to be part of your whole heritage. But what we do is we get inspired by sounds: it could be big band, it could be another vocal group, but it could also be the Beatles or it could be Bach. We get inspired by something and then we take it in and we express something that is our impression of what we heard. You are familiar with impressionist artists? What they painted didn’t look like the real thing, but was rather their own impression of what they saw. This is how we approach music. We’re not trying to imitate or copy, we’re allowing inspiration to lead us to a creation that is uniquely our own. So I think it’s really important to separate these two because it could be easy for vocal groups in particular to become somewhat of a parrot or a copycat...if you want to sound exactly like every instrument you copy, then it becomes more of a circus act, in my opinion. But if instead you try to become, for five minutes, that old country western band from Nashville and get into that state of achieve something transcendent. Even though, of course, that state of mind is completely fake for us Swedish guys. But we’re just so happy trying to be in that world. So what we express is our happiness about the music, you see, not necessarily our authenticity. Does that make sense?

Yes, you’re not focused on regurgitating music that has already been put out there, but rather taking inspiration. Maybe that’s what leads to the uniqueness of your sound, too.

AE: I think you’re right. We’re remolding in a way.

How does arranging jazz standards/pre-existing music work compared to arranging and composing your original a cappella music? I feel like the Real Group does a lot of both, unlike a lot of other prominent acappella groups who fall into doing one more than the other. But you pretty much straddle both.

AE: Yeah, I think it has been really important for the Real Group to develop our own catalogue, build a profile that was based on a lot of original music and lyrics. But when it comes to arrangements, I think we understood early that people had to understand the instrument. So when we did a concert, if we started out with a Beatles song, it would have been familiar to everybody in the audience. So when we did it, they’d understand ‘ok that’s how they make their own version of the Beatles’ music.’ They understood how the voice instrument worked. I think that was an important little thing. It was a key to the understanding. Nowadays people are so used to listening to acapella music. But when we started, nobody was doing this. Almost no one. So we had to explain to people, you know, that we didn’t use any instruments. It was like a novelty act, on the verge of a freak show. Seriously! And they were like ‘oh wow it’s so amazing, they sing without music,’...that was a comment we got a lot. No, we sing with music but without instruments.

Crazy to think that a cappella was such a ‘freakish’ thing not so long ago.

AE: It really was! Also, we grew really fond of great composers and learned that arranging a piece of music is different in a way that you need to maintain respect for the original composer and composition. You need to keep a lot of it because if you completely mash it up into something else, then the song is sort of gone and has disappeared. You need to have respect for your predecessors. When you write your own stuff, your freedom is total. You can go anywhere with the chords, the lyrics, the melody, the score. The only thing you have to be true to is your own intuition, your own creative source, what was the embryo, the idea that popped into your mind, the emotion you’re trying to describe and so on. It’s quite a different process, scoring a cover versus an original piece. It's a very good observation from you.

Thank you, Anders, and I might add where it came from. Personally, I’ve done a lot more composition for sure, only done one arrangement, and I felt that it was a lot harder for me. And I think it’s for the reasons you just put out, like being beholden to an artist who has already had their creative process. It was really difficult to follow along what they’ve put out but also say something different.

AE: Yeah yeah, you’re so much at the risk of making a sound that is a lesser copy of a great piece of music. I don’t know if you’ve heard my score of Nature Boy, Nat King Cole’s fantastic score of that era. It’s so perfect, it’s so there. How could you ever make a cover version of this song? I spent so many months trying to get into it. We had to make it our own, we had to make it into something so it felt like it was coming from us, tailoring it to each singer in the group and then at the end, I think we succeeded but it’s...I can agree with you, that the freedom is very limited and it’s a very different approach to making music. But I think you should work on it, Aarya, it's actually really good for your composing skills. I’ve learnt a lot as a composer by arranging other people’s music because you have to go ‘hey this is how they did it, this is how they work with the structure and the way the melody goes with the harmony’ and so on. So when you get to know a piece very well like you do when you arrange it, it's good for your composition.

That’s interesting. As a student of music theory, I understand that it can only take you so far; sometimes it poses limitations to the actual practice of writing music. I feel that arranging, as you’re putting it, can be a way to take that leap into more efficient composition, where you’re still studying harmonies, rhythm, and all the intricacies that come with it...but it’s not necessarily as rule bound.

AE: That’s a good way of looking at it. I get a lot of commissions nowadays, to write for other groups and choirs. And the worst thing that can happen is they go ‘Hey, Anders, we want you to write a piece of music for our choir’ and I go ‘Okay, do you have anything special in mind?’ ‘No no you have complete freedom...whatever you want.’ ‘How long do you want it?’ ‘Oh it can be as long as you want!’ ‘OK, how many parts?’ ‘Well it’s a mixed choir so it has to be...well, actually you can have as many parts as you want.’ So that leaves me like...where should I even start! I got this other offer just recently in January. I wrote a piece for a Norwegian choir, actually the choir singing the lead song for the movie Frozen. Norwegian choir, fantastic choir. They said, ‘We want you to write a piece of music based upon the Viking mythology of the world tree called Yggdrasil – we want you to connect it to climate change and the way we pollute the world.’ They narrowed it down to this unique idea. And then my creativity started, once I got the frames. Having set limitations can ignite your creativity, rather than stop it. That’s a good way of looking at arranging covers too. Because there is very much a framework -- the original song, don’t change it. So you could be very inspired even from within someone else’s creation.

There is such a thing as too much freedom...which almost leads to an incapacitation of writing. So having a pre-existing piece of music that you’re arranging can help with that ‘writer’s block’ in the musical sense. I know you’ve talked about a wide range of musical influences, but I would love to hear even more about those who have influenced your work.

AE: If I go back to my childhood, I used to listen to jazz without telling my friends because my friends...well, the girls were listening to ABBA, the boys were listening to Deep Purple, basically hard rock. It was very much divided. And I secretly listened to my parents’ jazz albums. And some classical stuff but I never told anyone. I also enjoyed folk music, but that I mostly heard live. Playing from the ear, just fantastic, they all knew the same songs. It was incredible. Then in my teens I was really much into Stevie Wonder, I discovered R&B and a lot of the great stars of the Motown era that I hadn’t heard before. I started a band and we were playing similar stuff. Today I am more inspired if I read a book or meet a very interesting person or maybe I have a walk in nature or whatever...something other than music inspires me to do music today. I don’t know why, maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe I don’t want to know why. Of course way back I listened to Bobby McFerrin, Take 6, the Singers Unlimited, stuff like that but also Cuban music, African music, and folk music. I eat whatever is served.

That is such a wide range of not only musical influences but it also seems like life influences.

AE: Life, yes, life. And I must mention that I grew up in a choir setting. I sang in choirs from an early age up until I was in my early 20s. Big classical choirs. So I got to sing all the big names in the classical field. Hours and hours and years and years of just digesting all this material also became a big part of the musical identity that I have today. I didn’t really listen to that much of it...

It was just adding to your subconscious.

AE: Definitely. A lot, I would say.

Very interesting. I understand music to be a very very big part of your life. But I would love just a glimpse into what else you like to do, other than music.

AE: I enjoy cooking. That makes me relax. Since we tour so much, of course it’s a luxury to have your meals in restaurants, but if you’re touring you long for a home-cooked meal, especially if you can do it yourself. If I have a couple days off, I go to the grocery store, I go to the market, and I get some nice groceries and then I’m cooking for hours. My wife says I can spend a full day just cooking to prepare for a meal on a Monday evening because that’s generally when I’m off. Usually I come back from somewhere, like I come back from Japan, or I’ve just been to France, or whatever. I've brought some ingredients with me and I’m like ‘I’m going to cook some Japanese tonight.’ So my wife has got the world’s kitchen in our house; I’ve really spoiled her! So that’s very big in my life. Also, I read a lot. I like to meet people. What else do I like to do... good films, I like that. Theatre -- I have a son who is an actor, so I’ve gotten to see a lot of great theatre, which I really admire.

That’s so wonderful. It’s interesting that you have such a fascination with cooking. I would like to be the kind of person who loves cooking...maybe at some point. Right now as a college student, I’m unfortunately all about instant noodles and oatmeal and stuff like that. Maybe it’s something that will come with time.

AE: I was a student, too, long ago, so I get the noodles thing. Noodles are fantastic. I think the great thing about cooking is that it’s such a short lived piece of art. It’s artwork that’s very practical. You need to eat something. But it's a creative process, too -- you have to combine stuff, you have to be inspired, and then you make something and then you share it. It’s very much like music. The difference is when you’re done with your score, you can share it for years, you can record it. But when a meal is over, you do the dishes -- it’s gone, it's a memory at the most. It’s one of the few artworks that doesn’t look good the day after...normally. Some food is good the day after, but you see what I mean. I like the fact that you’re creating something for the moment and then it’s gone. It’s like a sculpture in the sand; once the water comes, it’s gone.

Yes, it’s beautiful because it’s ephemeral....I’ve sung in acappella groups for the last few years and the first Real Group piece I ever did was a recipe: Chili Con Carne. It’s cool to see how cooking has sort of flooded into the musical part of your life, too.

AE: You’re right, it has! Chili Con Carne, and obviously you heard the Ketchup song...I wrote another song called Water. There’s a lot of things I’ve eaten or drank that have influenced my writing.

It’s cool there’s a lot of spillover there. I also sang Water once. Our director had us actually fill up water bottles to different levels and blow into them... it was a whole thing. Loved the piece and its meaning.

AE: That’s wonderful, I’m so happy to hear that, Aarya! And yes, I think Water is a good example of what I was saying earlier, about how important it is for me to convey a message through music.

Those were all the questions I had, Anders, but I wanted to allow you space if you feel there was something that wasn’t addressed by my questions that you still wanted to share and if not, that’s okay, too. I just always like to give that space at the end of interviews.

AE: During the pandemic, I, like many in my profession, have come to realize how important live performances are, whether it’s music or theater or dance. Music is not something you do just for pleasure...if you take it away, you realize how important it is for our wellbeing, how important it is for our society and for people’s mental health. I wish we could elevate art into a different position in society. Right now, it is something we do when we have some’s a means of feeling good, when ‘necessary.’ But I think it should be the goal for any society to have a great art scene. Everybody should chip in. Everybody should participate. To build a strong and wide community, containing all the colors, all the art forms, all the diverse expressions, small and big, from kids to elderly, all ethnic groups, people with disabilities, everyone. Everybody should be a part of creating art. It’s not a product, it’s a life necessity. And I think we need to look at it as such. Of course, this is a political issue in many ways because if we want it like that, we need to make sure that schools are teaching art every year...I mean, right now they are taking it away from many schools so kids are missing art for many years, they are taking it away as if it’s nothing important, like a luxury kind of thing. No, it’s not. It’s one of the fundamentals in life, that we have this need for expression. So that’s one thing I really hope for. It’s such a blessing to see you, Aarya, and you are truly one of the torchbearers of the future of art, because you are obviously at a great university; you are a singer, a composer; perhaps you are going to get a double degree, both music and something more safe (we’ll wait and see), but in any case, you are going to be one of the torchbearers for the future. That gives me so much joy.

Thank you so much for saying that. Wow, Anders. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate hearing that from you, of all people. What you’re talking about, in terms of having music programs just be cut without any real prior reason, prior warning, I get that that’s a monumental creates an unequal playing ground at the higher education level. So yeah, definitely a lot of work to be done there.

AE: I met this guy in an airplane lounge, many years ago. He was an American writer. He wrote books about education but was also travelling around the U.S. trying to promote arts in schools. So he went to school after school, both universities and high schools. And he tried to convince them to keep music, arts, dance, photography, all the art forms on the schedule, as a subject that students could take. And he said administrations were mostly not very interested in his proposal until he shared research results that show that people who study music get higher grades in math, as well. Because there’s something that happens to your brain when you need to coordinate the left and right halves, so actually if you take away half of the math classes and instead study music -- you learn more math than when you had only math. Isn’t that weird? It opens up your mental capacity, your way of abstract thinking. Even in math, you need to be creative and you need to think abstract...and that’s what you do with music. So when he mentioned that, then people were like ‘yeah that’s an interesting point! Of course we should put more money in the music program- if it gets us better grades in math and science.’ He was so sad about this, because why can’t schools look at art as a benefit in it’s own right? Why does it have to be measurable in math grades? It should be measurable in its own value. That’s how people look at art: ‘It’s supposed to serve us, supposed to do something for society’...No, it’s not. We are going to serve arts, we are the ones meant to support the arts.

Absolutely. That also ties back to what you were saying about the expectation of art to lead to a product in some sort of sense. It’s maybe exacerbated in America due to the late-stage capitalism we live under. There's this need to always be making something to show for whatever you’ve been studying. The industrialization of productivity...which is not the most healthy or beneficial way to look at a sphere of study.

AE: No, it’s not. And you have to understand me correctly, I don’t mind music being considered a product -- but I don’t want music to only be a product because I think so much of the musical scene should be nonprofit. We need that. People need to go to their pottery class every Wednesday evening, or they need to study literature or write their novels, even if the novel will never be published. It’s great for humanity to have this. Some of them are going to be successful and they can become products that’s fine...but that’s not the reason we do art. I think it's a bit the same mindset in Sweden. When I say I’m singing, I hear ‘Oh but what do you do for a profession?’ No, I actually am a singer and I have never ever had a job in my life except for being a singer. ‘Oh wow you can do that?’ Yeah, you can do that.

// Aarya A. Kaushik ‘24 is a Staff Writer for the Jazz Spectrum.