With her deep, soulful vocals and spellbinding soundscapes, Mariam the Believer has captivated listeners across the world. With a show coming up in her hometown Gothenburg, we met with the singer to talk about darkness, breathing spaces, and the never-ending search for new expressions.
To many, Mariam the Believer might be better known as the wildbird of Wildbirds & Peacedrums, an experimental Gothenburg duo solely working with drums, percussions, and vocals. With her solo project, Mariam Wallentin takes us on a journey through dark and evocative soundscapes, with her deep and soulful vocals set against haunting melodies and heartbeat drums. This week, it’s been exactly one year since the release of her highly acclaimed debut album Blood Donation, and in two weeks Mariam will return to her hometown Gothenburg to enter the stage at music club Nefertiti. We met with the believer to find out how it all began.
What’s your first memory of music?
– My grandmother’s piano, Mariam says. My family wasn’t very musical, but my grandparents were. My grandfather was a bus driver, and he was known to sing while he was driving. They had a piano at home that I used to tinkle on. I also remember my mother’s records, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin. Even though she wasn’t very musical herself, she enjoyed listening to music.
When did you start practicing music yourself?
– I kind of grew into it. I began singing in a choir quite early on, and tried playing some other instruments. To me, there’s something healing about singing, like it has some kind of healing virtue. Something that gives me solace. So I’ve always been singing.
Did you have to search for your voice?
– Since my voice is my main instrument, I try to twist and turn it, and find new ways to use it. It will never be finished, and I guess that’s also what makes it mine. However, I try to strip it down to something raw and primitive. I like that, to find this core of energy. I try to sing as natural as I possibly can.
To me, there’s something healing about singing, something that gives me solace.
Are you musically trained?
– No, I wouldn’t say that I am, Mariam says with a smile. I have studied music, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever learned anything.
– I attended a programme at the Academy of Music and Drama in Gothenburg. It was like a Fine Arts programme, but within music. You could do pretty much whatever you wanted, so I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with music. I took some yoga classes, and saw a therapist. To me, that was super important. I mean, since I developed, and my body developed, so did my music.
– I used to think that I was trained, but that my training was time. Time to think and to make mistakes. And that time was worth a fortune. To have breathing space, and to see yourself from the outside, that’s something that I find vital today, too. To be able to let go of yourself and the everyday life, that’s what school can teach you. But to study artistic expressions, that’s something of a paradox. Naturally, you can learn to use various tools, like how to play chords, but how to be an artist is more a question of finding your own way forward.
How did Wildbirds & Peacedrums come about?
– We were both living in Gothenburg at the time, Andreas Werliin and I, Mariam recalls. We were both working with improvisational music, moving in the same circles. One night we stayed behind and played, just the two of us. It was so liberating to use only drums and vocals. So exciting. We realised there and then that we had everything we needed in that arrangement. The whole thing was very spontaneous; we hadn’t planned to start a band, but there was such energy there. I mean, as a musician, you’re constantly searching for new ways to express yourself, and to challenge yourself. It’s a never-ending story.
Is that why you started this solo project as well, because you were searching for something new?
– To a great extent, yes. We had been working and touring so much over the past three or four years that we needed a break to recover and find some new angles. I had been thinking about this project for a while, or rather, I had been thinking that I wanted to bring out another side of myself.
What was it that you wanted to bring out?
– First and foremost, I thought it would be exciting to work with a whole band, since I came from the other end. In Wildbirds we only used drums and vocals, which are rather raw and primitive. With this project I wanted to bring in a bass and some organs, bring in something warm. I wanted to see if I could express myself in a different way that still felt like me. My solo project is still under construction, though, since I’ve only released one album. It’s not until now that I am beginning to grasp what this is about.
I wanted to find strength in the darkness that everyone carries inside
How do you usually write music?
– Usually, I don’t realise until afterwards that I’ve drawn most things from within. After a few albums, I’ve realised that I have a stack of things that I keep reusing. Things that I find important. Essential emotions. However, with Blood Donation, I tried to draw inspiration from the outside as well, and mix it with these emotions.
What did you take inspiration from?
– It wasn’t that much music, really. I was sick of writing about myself and my points of view. I was much more interested in questions than answers. I worked a lot with voids and empty spaces. It’s something I find myself returning to; loneliness and the contrast between strength and weakness, but also in a more concrete sense, like holes. It may sound strange, but they are things that trigger my creativity. To me, the lyrics should be something more than just a story from a to z. They should be more evasive, flow with the music.
– I wanted to find strength in the darkness that everyone carries inside. I remember keeping a diary when I was younger, mostly writing when I was sad or distressed. We all have these dark feelings inside, I’m just fortunate enough to have a way to express them. What I wanted to do was to transform this darkness into, maybe not something light, but something powerful. I mean, there is strength in anger and sadness as well, not just passivity.
So did you manage to channel these emotions through the album?
– Yes and no. I work so intensely when I’m in the middle of a process, so it’s not until I’m done and look back that I can feel some kind of ease. Maybe not satisfaction, but ease.
Has your relationship with the album changed over time?
– It’s been a while since I listened to it now. I usually don’t listen that much to my own music. But I think it has. Which is a good thing. It means I’m moving forward.
What does the future hold?
– We’re working on a new Wildbirds album, so that has my main attention at the moment. I’m trying to find a way to work with each project every other year. I’m also looking forward to continuing with this. Now I know even more about how and what to do the next time. I’m looking forward to having five albums to look back on.
Do they benefit from each other, Wildbirds and Believer?
– I think so. Naturally, I approach them from different sides, mostly because of the arrangements. Wildbirds is somehow more visceral. I have to work harder, and occupy a more physical space with my voice. Believer allows me to stay more focused. It’s purer in a way.
– I can see a symbolism there, where Wildbirds is the earth and the soil, and Believer is the universe and everything above.
Where does the name Mariam the Believer come from?
– I knew I wanted to use my name in some way, but not just call myself Mariam Wallentin, since I’m doing some other things under that moniker. I also wanted to have something hopeful, something that was reminiscent of hope and faith. Not in a religious sense, more like ’hope is the last thing to die’. That idea is important to me. Even though there is so much sorrow and suffering in the world, we keep fighting. We keep believing.
Mariam the Believer will perform at Gothenburg club Nefertiti on February 7.
Photography by Yulia Lindberg.