Väsen: a new take on Swedish folk music

Vasen trio bring the sounds of Swedish folk music.| Photo by Sarah Thorén.

The Swedish acoustic trio Väsen, celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, has developed their own spin on traditional Swedish Folk music over the last three decades, lending what they feel is a virtuosic level of rhythmic and melodic complexity to their both their studio albums and live performances. The Rogue Folk Club, will present the trio at St. James Hall on Apr. 13.

“I’d say that we want to bring the audience into our world of music and give them a bit of the experience we have when we play this music,” says Olov Johansson, nyckleharpist and cofounder of Väsen. “In the [better] moments, someone in the band does something that surprises others in a good way, like a pleasant surprise. And in the absolute best moments, you manage to surprise even yourself.”

An interest in tradition

Johansson co-founded Väsen nearly 30 years ago in Sweden with his friends and fellow performers Roger Tallroth (12-string guitar) and Mikael Marin (5-string viola). The trio has been composing and performing their own complex brand of folk music – informed heavily by Swedish tradition – for the last three decades, performing around the world and recording more than a dozen albums.

For Johansson, an interest for the folk music of his home country was piqued early on. While no one in his family played music professionally, Johansson would always look forward to family gatherings as a child where one could always expect an exciting jam session.

“I really enjoyed that. I looked forward to those occasions, I remember, when I was small. And I joined early too with whatever kind of music I could make at the time,” says Johansson. “And then one of my maternal uncles, he played the fiddle and the nyckelharpa, so through him I met this instrument.”

His mother was equally enamoured with the Swedish fiddle variant so she ended up buying one for herself, which Johansson ended up taking to. He says that’s how it all started for him, though he’s always questioned whether it was a simple case of happenstance.

“I’ve asked [my mother] several times if she planned this – to have me play the nyckelharpa, – by buying one by herself, and she refused to answer that. She’s clever,” says Johansson.

Inspired composition

Johansson would have nearly a decade to practice with the nyckelharpa on his own before forming Väsen with Tallroth and Marin. Nowadays, however, the trio couldn’t be more in tune with one another. Johansson says that with each member contributing to the writing and composing process, the trio has learned over time how to inspire each other to create fun yet complex and multi-layered music.

“We kind of discovered more and more what music we should compose for this band to make it interesting, to kind of challenge each other,” says Johansson. “I remember, in the beginning when I started to compose, especially for Väsen, I was trying to compose the music in such a way that others would get ideas from the tunes.”

For Väsen, the inspiration regularly comes from playing off of tradition. One of the members will often start the songwriting process by riffing off of or using a traditional Swedish melody or rhythm as a basis for the song. From there, the structure of the tune becomes more dense, as layers and sections are continually added, and the various sonic ranges are carved out for each performer and their instrument.

But as much as the trio puts time and diligence into their craft, in the end he says it’s about creating music that’s both enjoyable to perform and to listen to.

“We have always composed and developed the music we enjoy to play, [that] we think is fun to play. We’ve never had the thought, ‘what should we compose to get a lot of airplay, or to get a lot of people to buy our records?’,” says Johansson. “We’ve always managed to play the music we think is fun to play. And enough people enjoy that too, so we’ve been able to keep on doing this for 30 years.”


For more information on the event and Väsen, visit the following sites: