Jonah Nilsson is what many would call a musician's musician. The Swedish singer and multi-instrumentalist is a technical powerhouse, boasting a scarily wide vocal range and a classically trained background from the Royal Academy of Music - yet he's also awash with creativity and soul. Cut from the same cloth as the likes of Jacob Collier, he's able to effortlessly blend such technicality with massive catchy hooks, making highly complex compositions feel like pop bangers in the process.
Gaining initial success through YouTube as the vocalist and keyboardist of the funky pop trio Dirty Loops alongside bassist Henrik Linder and drummer Aron Mellergårdh, Jonah is now ready to make his mark as a solo artist with the release his debut album, Now or Never – a collection of songs many years in the making, and featuring some high profile guests.
The legendary Steve Vai lends his godlike guitar skills to Diamond Ring, and Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess appears on a cover of Michael Jackson's iconic song Bad. Covering Jackson is something that few artists would dare to attempt, but Jonah is able to pull it off, demonstrating exactly why Quincy Jones himself is such a staunch believer in what he does.
MusicRadar spoke with Jonah shortly after the release of Now Or Never to talk about his influences, aspirations and why music is so better when you do it with friends.
How would you describe what this album is about, and how does it represent you as an artist?
"I would say it represents an era of my life. I feel like it is the sound of me growing up as a child, because it is such a mix of so many different things that captivated me during my youth. My childhood was spent listening to artists like Michael Jackson as well as being exposed to classical music – my parents are classical musicians - so it has all these elements. I'd say it represents the first part of me evolving into and becoming the person I am today."
Can you tell us a bit about your songwriting process for this album? It feels almost orchestral in one sense, because it is hard to tell if there's a lead instrument.
"Some of the songs were written a long time ago. The lead song on the album, Now Or Never, many parts of that song were written when I was only 17 years old. Lots of the ideas for songs have been coming ever since, and I've been putting them all together along the road. The songwriting process has been extremely long winded like that, but also very involving. I've been working with a friend of mine called Eli Teplin who has been helping me with some of the lyrics – he's a great artist and musician.
You released Coffee Break as a single in 2018, so clearly this album has been cooking for a while. Is that because you've had other things going on, such as your work with Dirty Loops?
"Yes, I was intending to release this album a while back but we were on a roll with my group Dirty Loops. We were releasing a lot of stuff and my solo album just kept getting pushed back because of different momentums from that. It just felt like there was never a good time for it – But the stars have aligned now and I'm really happy to release it."
It's almost like an album of two halves too, because the first half of the album is made up of pop bangers whilst the second half is more introspective and stripped down. Was that a conscious decision or did it just naturally happen that way?
"It wasn't necessarily a conscious decision to do that, but a dream of mine has always been to write classical music and to become involved in film scoring and writing soundtracks. That's something I've always wanted to do, so a huge part of it was inspired by that. I even had the idea that I would do two separate albums, one of purely orchestral music and another of pop orientated stuff.
"I suppose it was a conscious decision in that sense, since it was transitioning into that sort of world. My background is more in the realm of jazz fusion and pop, so it would be a more extreme transition to go straight from one into the other, so I kind of came up with this hybrid to bridge the gap."
Let's talk a bit about the production on this thing too, because it sounds really pristine and silky smooth, yet you recorded large chunks of the album at home. How did you achieve the sound on this album?
"I produced the whole thing myself from scratch and recorded almost everything too. There's a few exceptions - The drums were recorded at a friend's studio here in Stockholm, so he engineered that recording session. We did also record some of the string sections with the symphony orchestra in Slovenia, but every other instrument was recorded here at my place.
"It's been a long process to record everything. I've always known where I've wanted to go with everything and I've had the vision in place for a while, it's just been finding the time to bring all these elements together."
What are your main keyboards and synths in your home studio? Any-go-to models for songwriting?
"In my studio I'm using the Korg Kronos, Korg Nautilus and Vox Continental. Although for songwriting I usually write walking around the couch in my head and then try ideas out on the grand piano or at the Kronos. I use Korg SW2 at home for writing also."
Some of your synth sounds recall those used back in the ‘80s. Do you own many synths from that era, and did you consciously seek to emulate that sound?
"I don't have many synths from that era but I definitely tried to emulate It as much as I could by using software synths or even sounds from the Korg Kronos."
Were there any particular plugins you found useful for these songs?
"Well I've been using so many different plug-ins for these songs but, for example, on drums I've been using the API Compressor and the Softube Transient Shaper a lot to get the attack pop as well as shorten the length of different things. I'm also in general a big fan of Omnisphere!"
Do you spend a lot of time on sound design or are you happy to use presets? If so, do you have any particular favourites?
"I do spend some time on that but what I think I spend even more time on is trying to blend certain sounds together in order to get to the place I want. So if i was to make a pad sound, for example, I first want to find the character for the sound, then move on to make sure the sound has enough depth and frequencies needed. Then I might do some more things in order to widen it and make sure It doesn't take space from other things in the mix."
Your vocal arrangements are pretty complex - do you have to spend a lot of time comping tracks in your DAW?
"I don't comp so much cause I want to make sure every take is good enough to use instantly. What I mean is that I set a loop and if I'm doing four dubs I try to nail them instantly. If I don't I'll just re-record right away while recording. But at the end of the day I do end up with hundreds of vocal tracks!"
There's a whole host of well known guest musicians featuring on the record. Steve Vai, Jordan Rudess, Richard Bona and Jacob Collier to name a few. Can you talk a little bit about working with each of them and what they bring to the table?
"The first song I released for the album was Bad, which is a cover of the classic Michael Jackson song. I wanted to have a solo section in the middle to change the arrangement somewhat, but I wasn't sure whom I wanted to play it. It was around the time that Chick Corea passed away and I knew that I wanted to do something that would honour him and his legacy, so I just thought we'd bring in a bunch of keyboard players who I love. I invited a lot of keyboardists who I love as people and musicians and who have inspired me one way or another, including Jordan, so that made sense to me.
"With the song Diamond Ring, I knew that I needed a freaking superhero guitarist to feature on it - And really, who could that be? There's only really Steve Vai who can play like that! I honestly didn't think he would be up for it, because we didn't really know each other at all before I asked him – But we did, and he was super enthusiastic. It was really exciting to me because he's been such an inspiration. It's been truly amazing to have him onboard.
"Richard Bona is playing bass on Coffee Break, and that was just an idea I had when I met him at one point. I think it was at the Hollywood Bowl. I was there playing some songs for a Quincy Jones concert and I met Richard there. It was just a casual conversation about him playing bass on a song but he seemed completely up for it and we went from there.
"I've known Jacob Collier for quite some time. We hung out at his place a few years back and just wrote Independent Girl together. At the time, it was just writing for fun. It didn't have a purpose, we weren't intending to write anything for either of our albums, it was just entirely for fun – And I think you can really hear that."
It feels like collaborations are much more ingrained in the culture of pop songwriting – Why do you think that is?
"From my perspective, there is so many people who have inspired me. Whether that's a famous musician whose music I loved growing up or an extremely talented friend, you kind of just want to bring everyone along. It feels extra special to do things with friends or with people who have inspired you. I think that's the most important thing about being a musician. Together, you're stronger. It's a beautiful thing and that's the reason I did it."
Let's go back to "Bad" a second. Covering anything by Michael Jackson takes a lot of guts, let alone one of his signature songs. due to how inimitable he is as a musician. What inspired you to do that?
"I guess it does take a little bit of guts, yes! I was kind of afraid of doing it at first, but I think I've also been putting up too many barriers for myself and not doing certain things in my music or my career because I'd felt afraid of them. That was a barrier I wanted to remove on this album. I've been listening to Bad since I was very young and I've been performing it for a long time too, so I was confident in myself. I came up with a different arrangement and just went for it."
You're managed by Quincy Jones Management too, and Quincy himself has been a true believer of yours for many years. Was it a confidence booster to know he would hear it and approve of it?
"Definitely, yes. It does, to know that he listens to it and would possibly like it, that that's definitely something that helps boost your confidence."
Speaking of Quincy, he's an absolute legend in the music industry. What guidance did he offer you and what were you able to learn from him?
"Well, the first time he heard me sing and perform was actually on YouTube. He saw a Dirty Loops performance there which led to us being invited to his club in Dubai, where we performed live for him. At the time we didn't have any management and we were actually thinking of starting to wind down for a bit. We'd been needing some time off due to going at it so hard.
"After the performance he asked what our future plans were or if I was planning to do anything as a solo artist, and we were hanging out and talking about it and then we agreed to start working together. Quincy is such a humane person. It doesn't matter who is in the room, he would take the time to sit and talk with everyone. Everyone is so equal to him regardless of their status. He's a gigantic human being, that's what was so inspiring to me.
"He told me something which will stick with me forever, and that's that you can never make better music than you can be a human being. Who you are reflects in your music, and if you're a great human being then that will reflect out. He's been teaching me those kind of lessons, and to see how happy he is and how he's still going at it at his age, it's just wonderful."
Is there a song on this album that you're particularly proud of?
"I guess I'd say Now Or Never, the title track – partly because while parts of it were written a while back, I managed to keep the idea around for as long as I did. I finished it during the peak of a Refugee Crisis that was happening in Europe a few years ago and that inspired the message behind the song. It's just meant to be a love song to humanity and a message of hope, about coming together and helping each other when we need it the most."
What do you think you'll be doing next? Do you plan to do much touring on the back of this album once the world begins to open up more?
"Yes, I would love to. The plan is to tour in 2022, and I hope that if the world starts to open up more then we can. I've been wanting to tour since 2020 really and can't wait to be able to get onstage again."
Jonah Nilsson's debut solo album Now Or Never is available now – more info here. Dirty Loops new single Follow The Light featuring Cory Wong is out now and will be followed by the collaborative album Turbo on September 3. Preorder here.