Music in 2020 Interview Series: At Cost Magazine and Swede + Sour Founder Peter Quincy Ng Talks Blogging, Favorite Artists, Nordic Music, and More!
One trend that sticks out here at NXTSTYLE is that a good percentage of the International music I feature comes from the Nordic region. It contains a gold mine of amazing artists, songwriters, and producers especially within Pop. As we move forward in 2020 I wanted to spotlight music from the region, but with help from someone who I know is even more familiar.
Peter Quincy Ng is the founder of Swede + Sour, a blog dedicated to Nordic music. As I’ve searched the net wide and far over the years looking for the hottest new music to add to the NEXT In Music playlist, I’ve become more familiar with Swede + Sour as its music submissions stand out on The Hype Machine. In recent years, Peter has expanded his coverage to feature artists from all across the globe through his sister site At Cost Magazine. He’s a music journalist who is passionate about the music he features and puts a lot of thought into his blog posts so I thought it would be great to get his take on several topics circling music. Take a look as Peter provides insight into music coming from the Nordic region, give us a breakdown of his favorite new songs, and plenty more!
An interesting fact about you is that you’re a climate scientist as well as a music journalist. Talk about your overall connection with music throughout your life and what it means to you.
Well, the two aren’t exactly related but you know as they say everything is relative. My relationship to music was a bit unusual, I studied classical piano for many years and never enjoyed listening to any music until well into high school. I’m not sure why there was this paradigm shift, but I guess music starts to click when those emotions they sing about start to make sense. As for my studies, graduate studies and finishing a Ph.D. was a very insular experience. For me, it was fighting boredom and finding music was a form of escapism. It was almost another academic pursuit in another form. It took a lot of effort to find particular artists that didn’t have a lot written about them. Oddly, it’s helped me concentrate (and procrastinate), I guess during those long hours. There’s no real connection between climate science and music, but they are both passions of mine.
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Despite being based in Toronto you established a real connection to Nordic music as seen through your music site Swede + Sour. Who are some of your favorite finds from Swede + Sour that have gone on to enjoy successful careers?
I suppose Toronto has the convenience of often being one of the few or only stops on a North American touring schedule. I just found it very accessible to meet Nordic artists before or after shows. I mean most successful artists are humble people because they’ve experience failure before making it to the top, but it’s also in the Scandinavian or by extensive Nordic psyche to not think you are entitled or better than anyone.
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In the early 2010’s, was when Swedish pop music and its producers started seeing their crossover success. I don’t know if this fact still stands, but Sweden was touted as being the third largest exporter of music outside the United States and the United Kingdom. For me it was the so-called “Gothenburg sound” that really resonated with me. For me, the big producers were guys like Dan Lissvik, Korallreven, Eric Berglund and Henning Fürst from The Tough Alliance, and I felt like the label Sincerely Yours made a lasting impact on my personal tastes. I think a sort of mainstream re-purposing of that Gothenberg “Balearic” eventually morphed into the Tropical House sound. Kygo who is seen as one of its main proponents rebranded Balearic into Tropical House through a more dance-oriented and commercial sound that gave it wide-reaching success.
You also have an sister site At Cost Magazine. What was the inspiration behind running an additional site?
I suppose it became a really banal thing to just exclusively talk about Nordic music. It’s not like there’s any shortage of music from, but the whole joy of running a blog was finding new music and introducing it to a new audience. Some of my biggest support for my writing has come from international audiences or for artists who sing in languages other than English. I remember writing articles about Chile’s Francisca Valenzuela; Russia’s Musia Totibadze and Ukraine’s Luna, who are all huge names in their respective countries. Receiving support from them personally and to receive that recognition, is quite a feeling. I believe music is about connecting people, and I hope I have done such a service with my blogs.
Who are some of your favorite finds from your blogs At Cost Magazine and Swede + Sour?
I can’t say I rely solely on word of mouth alone because that’s too narrow. One of the most notable submissions however is from Ronni Vindahl who produced Kendrick Lamar’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe”. He personally sent the demos to MØ’s first track “Pilgrim” to me on Facebook. That’s pretty surreal for him to consider Swede + Sour, but I don’t think anyone realized how far she’d get despite her enormous talent. She certainly went somewhere considering the billion views she racked on Major Lazer’s “Lean On” and even if my impact was minimal I hope I had some role in her success.
For At Cost Magazine, it is definitely getting to know the Australian electronic music duo Kllo. While I’m sure my Facebook friends and Instagram followers are probably sick of me talking about them, but I feel like they show that you don’t have to compromise emotional depth for beat-driven melodies. I don’t think they are capable out putting out a bad single.
The environment for discovering new music has changed plenty over the past decade with the rising popularity of music streaming services. How has music discovery changed for you as a blogger?
Discovering music has totally been flipped onto its head with streaming services. I think originally the idea behind digital streaming platforms (DSPs) like Spotify were quite pure, but playlisting has really cut down on the artist narrative that blogs originally provided. There’s no sharp-looking photo, no bio, just a song in a playlist that plays its role as zeigeist or fits some mundane narrative like music for jogging or chilling out. It’s strange how it commodifies the creative vision of an artist to a box or category. I guess the benefit now is that you can find anything you want with relative ease, but big money always finds a way of putting and prioritizing their artists first. The illusion of convenience gets away from what you truly desire. To blow my own horn as the blogger, what we provide for the smaller artist is that narrative, something for the music industry or streaming platforms that they often fall back on as their unofficial A&R in finding that new, innovative artist.
On to your personal taste, what kind of music do you typically gravitate towards? Give us a breakdown of your favorite new songs.
I have always been a pop music head. How that’s defined is a bit difficult, but I guess that’s what’s great about saying you like pop music as it doesn’t particularly take a particular shape or form. For me, I think having beat-driven music is really important, because when you can’t always relate lyrically to a song, there’s the melodic aspect that transcends both language and culture. The strange thing is a lot of people find it hard to write about female artists, whereas I have difficulty not writing about female artists. I suppose electronic pop music really has female vocalists as the staple. As far as new tracks, “new” is relative, because “new” can be recent or can be “new” as in undiscovered. But as far as songs I like in the last month to right now, I can list a few:
Ten Fe “Heaven Sent Me”
It’s a good raunchy, rock and roll blues that contrasts to lofty dreaminess eases through the track and it’s a sound that feels warm and embracing especially when the bridge hits.
Chloe Kae “Misconception”
Chloe Kaul, who is better known as the KLLO’s vocalist recently went on a solo effort. I think it retains many of the elements that made KLLO a success, a dreamy pop organic under an electronic vein and a soothing yet viscerally-cutting vocal that comes off almost percussively
I guess I’ve previously mentioned Russian pop music in one of my questions, and Musia Totibadze has been one of those artists which have really shaken me. Her vocals are powerful yet never overwhelming and she exudes a sort of joie-de-vivre that’s feels very natural and organic in her music. It’s a little bit of an anachronism where Soviet disco revivalism meets an indie-pop sensibility
Big Fox “Beast”
I think Charlotta Perers, the frontwoman of Big Fox, she’s almost like a Swedish incarnation of Cat Power’s music. Her latest music has more of a beat-driven sentiment these days but on the track a rich, textured smokiness which emanates from Charlotta’s vocals gets contrasted to a brooding Krautrock sentiment.
Placing the spotlight on the Nordic music scene, what Nordic artists do you think will have a breakout year? Any established artists that haven’t crossed over to North America yet that you think will make an impact soon?
I mean this is a million dollar question that I don’t have the answer to, because very few artists breakout organically. It has to do a lot with the zeitgeist. I recall certain moments like Icona Pop soundtracking the intro theme to Jersey Shore, or when Zara Larsson put a condom into her entire leg to say how not using protection was ridiculous, and events like that really generated a lot of clout. Things like the latter, are a result of the zeitgeist and social media and I don’t think people can ever doubt the influence of that these days. Of course, there are artists I think have a lot of crossover appeal, but as far as the North American market goes, I think a lot of the songs that celebrate a particular pop hedonism seem to have success. Having fun songs to drink and party to and provide simple escapism really work, because you have to get your audience of breaking the mold of just listening to the usual domestic pop names with something that’s fun, accessible and easy-to-understand for the broader audiences. This is especially true in the playlisting economy.
As far as choosing a good candidate for crossover artist, Denmark’s Ea Kaya I think should definitely get a bit more attention that she currently gets. She just makes good. straightforward pop music. The strange thing is a lot of Scandinavian artists have cult followings, so to have massive mainstream appeal is not necessarily the goal, and if we look, artists like The Knife/Fever Ray, iamamiwhoami or AURORA, you see that there are often many other venues to critical acclaim.
With the 2010’s behind us, how would you describe that decade of music? What did you like about it?
I would say that electronic music production has really dominated the landscape for the first half of the decade, and in a way this has democratized production through what we often call the proverbial “bedroom artist”. However with hip-hop being the new norm in popular music, I suppose this has rewritten the idea of the what pop music is. I mean rap has always been really popular, but never has the rap music celebrity really penetrated the mainstream consciousness as it does now.
For me, I still stand by a lot of hook-laden and beat-driven pop ballads. I mean it’s a very generic statement, but it’s a very democratic way of making music having that very broad appeal. Many blogs point out that I prominently feature female artists, and I suppose this isn’t really a conscious choice but I am proud to say I support women in the arts even if unintentionally.
Peter Quincy Ng’s ‘Firsts and Favorites’
First album purchased: Shakira ‘Laundry Service’
Favorite music app: Bandcamp. It’s a very democratic revenue model for artists and fans.
First concert: Michelle Branch
Favorite concert: It’s like making me choose between children! But iamamiwhoami, Oh Land, Tove Styrke, Kllo and Soho Rezanejad are definitely my favorites. You can see where the Scandinavian thing comes in now right?
First song on your playlist: Something from Kllo
Check out both of Peter’s blogs At Cost Magazine and Swede + Sour for your new music fix!