It’s late night in a dingy Manhattan hotel and, as Swedish musicians will do, Nicolai Dunger has fallen asleep while waiting for Soundtrack Of Our Lives to return from a Rolling Stones concert. Dunger has dim blue eyes — tinged with red after an interviewer jolts him from his slumber — and the type of crooked nose that people of his nationality often get saddled with, as if to refute the myth of the perfect Swede. A former pro soccer player, he has requisitely broad shoulders and a hulking frame, yet his voice is fantastically soft, loaded with all the earnestness of the songs he began to warble after trading his knee pads for a guitar.
“I had been playing football all my life,” Dunger says. “There was one year where I played with a team professionally. The next year I was supposed to go to a bigger team in southern Sweden, but I got fed up with playing. So I went to Australia. I met a girl. After I returned I didn’t want to play football anymore. It was like an explosion within me of things that I hadn’t done before: travels, love affairs, art, music. There was music inside of me, music all over me.”
The reformed athlete’s musical virus spread fast. Since 1997, he has released eight albums in his native country, two of which have recently been issued in the States. Soul Rush, from last fall, cushions Dunger’s earthy, undulating voice in a loose bed of strings and horns provided by various jazz musicians — a recipe that pays rare homage to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
More recently, Chicago indie Overcoat released Tranquil Isolation, an hour of songs recorded in the Louisville living room of producers Will and Paul Oldham, who give the album a characteristically rugged edge. Songs are sparse and rambling, bolstered by slack guitars and the occasional fiddle or piano. Mostly, they unfurl a carpet for Dunger’s pliant voice, a rich force that allows the singer to tuck a single word under his tongue and bend it this way and that until it’s his for keeps.
Dunger’s vocal ticks and ramshackle approach share much with his Kentuckian co-producer, who sings and plays on Tranquil Isolation. “Will and I have a lot in common,” Dunger says. “He reminds me of the people from my hometown, twelve hours outside Stockholm, in the north. The country people, they don’t speak too much. And Will is a very quiet person, like me.”
Also like Oldham, Dunger is musically restless and eager to work with a variety of players. Currently, the Stockholm resident is plotting an album with Mercury Rev, who will add their usual psychedelic flourishes to his songs. This should be quite a turnaround for Dunger, who recently self-released (in Sweden) a vinyl trilogy of improvised LPs he recorded in varying styles.
“The first is a blues record,” Dunger says. “The second one is jazz, with Mingus-type instrumentals. For the third record, I went to a Greek island and recorded entirely outside. There are a lot of cricket sounds on the album. It’s very spontaneous, improvised in the moment. That is how I most like to work.”
This night itself seems geared for such improvisation. With no sign of the Soundtrack Of Our Lives guys and his siesta ruptured beyond repair, Dunger throws a scarf around his neck and rises to confront the New York City snowfall. “I have a flight to Sundance very early in the morning,” the singer explains. “I must now find something to drink.”