It seems baffling that a songwriter as adept as Stockholm’s Simon Stålhamre, the gentleman behind Small Feet, is only now releasing his first record. Things apparently don’t get finished when one’s interest is always sprinting to the next experiment, and Stålhamre’s stumble towards discovery began around the time he was 15, when he decided to quit school. Though he was – and remains – possessed of a natural intelligence and a gift for music, he was also shuffling a pack of demons that provoked an increasingly reclusive lifestyle. So, instead of attending school, he employed TV as his academic mentor – learning English from the American shows that dominated his small country’s schedules – while, all the time, building up a catalogue of songs.
Though his virtual substitute teacher somehow provided him with the wherewithal to synthesise Salvador Dali landscapes, a linguist’s laughing diction, a note on free will, and various social jabs into his compositions, the spectres that haunted him ensured that the tapes he made of his songs were kept stored in a closet at his parents’ home. Blessed with twin talents from an early age, Stålhamre’s propensity for vanishing acts tended to overcome his flair for songwriting: whatever wonders he’d conjured up in his isolation seemed destined to remain hidden. By the time he met Jacob Snavely – an ex-pat American musician with whom he shared friends and who started to nudge Stålhamre toward focusing more energy on his songs – the Swede had spent time as a nurse, a fly-poster and a café worker, and was about to enroll in a course to become a city bus driver.
Encouraged by Snavely, Stålhamre’s artistic emancipation was spurred on by the inheritance of one of a cluster of historically protected, 18th century cabins on Södermalm, an island in central Stockholm. Owned by the government, the cabins are leased to artists in a typically Swedish gesture of social democracy, and Stålhamre’s uncle passed his contract on to his musical nephew. Just like his predecessor, Stålhamre calls it Kvastis – a contraction of its original name, Kvastmakartrapan, which refers to the broom makers who once occupied the cabins – and converted the humble building into a recording studio for the band he assembled, with Snavely on bass alongside drummer Christopher Cantillo. It soon came to represent both refuge and breeding ground for Stålhamre’s creativity. “The two first years I was just unworthy of being here,” he laughs, “but mostly I felt guilty when I wasn’t here. It’s such a brilliant place, and I wasn’t making the most of it.” He speaks, too, of the relief of finding a place where, unlike “the dungeons” (as he calls them) in which he was more familiar with working, he was at last making music above ground.
Kvastis’ inspiration, coupled with Cantillo and Snavely’s assistance, helped Stålhamre finally discover an energy within him that even he couldn’t self-sabotage. No wonder the album’s opening tune, ‘Gold’, boasts a rich impatience in its summons to “Just split the stone and hand me the gold.” This is the voice of someone who, at his wit’s end, has stumbled upon beauty after years spent in the gloom, something the song itself makes starkly clear at its start: “When I was a boy we never talked about the dark,” he sings, “and what the dark might bring.” Fortunately, as From Far Enough Away Everything Sounds Like The Ocean progresses, it demonstrates the degree to which “the dark” is but a backdrop for vivid sweeps of imagination, each song streaking the blackness with the brilliance of his homeland’s aurora borealis.
Without pretension, Stålhamre covers huge swaths of emotional and intellectual ground as casually as if he were strolling out for a smoke, journeying through a shapeshifting landscape of dreams towards what another Scandinavian, Prince Hamlet, called “the undiscovered country”. Like ‘All And Everyone’, one of its standout tracks, From Far Enough Away Everything Sounds Like The Ocean – recorded almost entirely at Kvastis, with occasional forays to Snavely’s own farmland hideaway outside Stockholm – finds Stålhamre literally whistling his apocalyptic woes, employing an alchemist’s dedication to what once seemed impossible. It’s definitely been worth waiting for.