JENNIE-ANN SMITH (AVATARIUM): “CANDLEMASS Are Like Our Big Brother And We’re Their Obnoxious Little Sister”

Jennie-Ann Smith (Avatarium)

They originally started off as a side project for Leif Edling of Candlemass but over the years Avatarium have grown and flourished in their own right. Their latest album The Fire I Long For sees the band taking a huge leap forward producing the most fulfilling and diverse album of their career to date. Mick Burgess called up lead singer, Jennie-Ann Smith to talk about the album, coping with life in a Covid 19 world and balancing life in a Rock band with a career as a Psychosocial counsellor while being a new mother.

We’re living in very strange times at the moment. How has the lockdown impacted on you?

Sweden has had a different strategy to most places in that we haven’t had a complete lockdown. We’ve been strongly advised to keep our social distance but most things have been open except theatres and such places but shops have remained open. The state is now evaluating whether this was a good strategy. I’d say, even so, it’s been a very trying time. Besides as being involved with music I work as a Psychosocial counsellor in one of the hospitals in Stockholm so that has been challenging for me.

Your latest album The Fire I Long For came out just before Christmas before all of this blew up. Has it disrupted your promotional cycle for the album?

It definitely has. All of the concerts and festivals are cancelled. It’s sad for anyone that’s involved in public events from music to theatre, but this disease doesn’t discriminate as to what part of society you are from. Everyone is affected so the impact on us is minor in comparison as the pandemic is about life or death. We will survive.

You are planning on doing a live stream show with Candlemass in the near future. When do you hope to stream this?

That is the plan. We want to have optimal conditions for that so discussions are ongoing. We hope to do it sometime after the summer holiday in August. That will be great. Candlemass are like our big brother and we’re their obnoxious little sister. Of course, Marcus works closely with Leif Edling of Candlemass in different projects and we worked for a few years with Leif in Avatarium but we are more independent now. He’s still contributing with a couple of songs on our last album but it’s nice to still have that connection.

How will it work on the day? Will you each do your own sets then maybe play together for the finale?

Yes, we might. That sounds like a good idea.

Are you looking forward to playing songs from The Fire I Long For for the first time?

We actually did concerts here in January and also did a live stream from a beautiful stage at Nalen in Stockholm in January. It was a great show so we have had the opportunity to play some of the new songs before a live audience but of course, it left me wanting more.

It’s going to be strange performing without a crowd. Are you planning on having any interaction with the people watching? Maybe doing a Q&A afterwards with people sending you questions?

I think it will be more of a straight forward concert. It’s nice to both but I think we’ll do that separately as I like to focus on the music. I don’t think that you can just perform and stop, you need super focus and I want to be able to deliver as best as I possibly can. To then switch over and be very socially open, it’s two different arenas. Of course, you can do both but if you do them together it will affect both. That’s how it is for me and if I could choose then I’d separate them.

Not being able to tour is hurting a lot of bands. Most bands aren’t millionaires living in castles. Will the stream be a ticketed event?

Yes, I think it’s good for both parties. You buy a ticket and that gives you certain expectations. As a performer you can then handle those expectations. If I say yes to a job then I will do that 100%.

When Katatonia did something similar a few weeks ago they had a special event T-shirt made for fans to buy. Will you be doing any special merchandise for the show?

Yes, why not. We have to find different ways to compensate for not being able to tour and having to keep yourself out there. Katatonia actually recorded that performance down the street from where I live and it’s where we recorded Girl With The Raven Mask. When we recorded that album, we could just walk down to the studio in our pyjamas. We see a lot of Metalheads on the street where we live.

A couple of weeks ago you did an acoustic performance with Marcus Jidell on guitar and Rickard Nilsson on keyboards. Who came up with that idea?

Me and Marcus have worked with music since we first met about 12 or 13 years ago so we’ve done acoustic things a lot. It’s very natural and that’s how we write music based on a melody and harmonies. It’s a very traditional way of writing. We just thought it would be a great idea to perform a few songs acoustically while we were at home.

You and Marcus were at home. You’re actually married so that made that fairly straightforward. Where was Rickard based?

He lives in a little town up in the North of Sweden and he’s such a wizard on the keys so he makes everything sound wonderful.

How long did you have to prepare the new arrangements before your performance?

Honestly? We rehearsed in January so the songs were still fresh from that but we didn’t rehearse for the acoustic show I’d say. We talked about how we wanted it to be. We haven’t had our little boy, Leonard, in kindergarten for several months since the pandemic and we couldn’t mobilise any childcare so we didn’t really have any time or any space to be able to rehearse. So, we discussed it, did a soundcheck, Leonard was sleeping, we put the cameras on and so we said, OK, let’s do it. Marcus is one of the best musicians that I have ever met and Rickard too so that’s what happens when you have extremely skilled musicians.

Have you any thoughts about making the soundtrack to the show available to buy as a download from your website?

That could be possible. We have had some different thoughts about that but it is a possibility. I think that’s what characterises a good song, being able to perform in different ways with different instruments in different arrangements. I think it turned out pretty well in this acoustic arrangement.

You have talked about doing a more acoustic based project. Has this performance given you the impetus to do more and maybe do a whole album?

I would love that. The nice thing with Avatarium is that we can include that in a normal set. We have these fine musicians who are able to do this so we can play music that is beautiful and fragile then build it up to super bombastic. An Avatarium concert contains that naturally and I think that’s what makes it interesting.

You asked fans for suggestions of songs to rework. What’s the reaction been like?

It’s been great and there’s been a lot of suggestions for songs off the new album. We have very passionate fans who have followed us since the first record. The first record is more traditional Doom of course. The songs weren’t that straight forward and had lots of tempo changes but people seem to really like the new record and wanted to hear music from that.

Your latest album The Fire I Long For has been out for a few months and is your most varied, diverse album that you’ve done. Was that the plan when you started writing the album?

We had many ideas and when it comes to making an album, we have quite a strong Pop tradition is Sweden and we have a strong heritage of prioritising strong melodies so we wanted to make an album that’s built on that. We wanted to do one that we would want to listen to from the beginning to the end. We wanted it to be that interesting that you’d want to listen to it. There’s no fillers or space and it needs to demand your focus. I just wanted to make good songs and write good music that’s stimulating for me to make and listen to.

It must have been a challenge for you balancing family life as a new mother with making the record?

We have a two-year-old son called Leonard. He was 6 months old when we started writing and arranging the songs so that’s another reason why I’m so proud of the songs and that we were able to finish the album because it was tough. I was breast feeding at the time and my brain was like, all fuzzy and we were all really tired. You don’t usually talk about these things in interviews but it was happening while we were making the record. It was difficult but it’s life. We also did tour a bit during that time and he came on tour with us. My mother was with us and helped us. When it’s your first time you wonder how we could ever manage but we did it and it worked out beautifully. Marcus has this ongoing creativity where he can just be walking down the stairs and this melody will pop up but I need more, I need space and time to think to be creative so we are both different.

How did you feel when you finished the album?

I’m very proud of the album and think that it’s quite amazing that we did it. It was huge step for me as a songwriter and to have the courage and energy to finish it and put it out there. With previous albums it was so much less and as Leif Edling was so experienced and well established you could rely on him knowing what to do. On this record we felt that it was time to write and be independent but still have his input. He was like a mentor to us. He still wrote two songs that really suited the record and I’m proud of what we have made. I think that the material is strong with good melodies. Of course, I’m so pleased with that.

It must be quite an endorsement of your creativity that Leif has stepped back from the writing process to a degree?

I don’t actually come from a Hard Rock or Metal background, my influences are more from Jazz whereas Marcus came from a Classical background. Leif is like Dr Doom. His work has been ground breaking over the years. I think me and Leif were both quite brave to work together and it’s taken a lot of courage for us to meet in the middle. I experienced early on that my Jazz influences blended with the Doom timing very well. I had no idea that it could do that. It’s made a quite nice marriage in styles.

How long did you spend writing the songs?

It was a bit different for us this time seeing as though we had a little baby boy. I saw a great documentary about Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, who were Swedish crime novel writers and were the role models for all of the Swedish crime novels that came after and to a lot of American writers too, who went onto copy their concept. They were married and had children and worked night times together. They had one typewriter which they’d share. So, one would smoke a pipe or do some knitting while the other would write and they took it in turns. I found that very inspiring. I’d say that writing this record has been quite the same for me and Marcus except in our case, one drove a stroller and one wrote music. Then the stroller was handed over and the other would write. That’s how we did it so that meant you had to be efficient and focussed when it was your turn.

What about the recording process. Where did you record the album?

Marcus has his own studio, DeepWell Studio, here in Stockholm and it’s a great thing to have a studio that’s always open and you can use it when you want. It was mixed by Niklas Flyckt, who did a great job. He’s been Grammy nominated for his work.

“Stars They Move” is such a beautiful way to close an album. That song has such soul. What is the story behind that?

That was written by Leif so I can only have my own interpretation of it. It was originally 10 minutes or so long with a long Jimi Hendrix solo part. I said to Marcus that I’d like to do it more like a French chanson so I said let’s take it down and end the record with this song with just vocals and piano. Marcus then added some e-bow guitars to give it the effect of strings. It’s very different to what Leif had written and we cut it down and found a way to make it straight to the point and focussed. I think he likes it but actually we haven’t talked about it but he did he said he liked the album.

Avatarium is your first recording band. Had you been in local bands before you joined them?

I’ve worked with music since I was 12 or 13 in so many different settings but I hadn’t been involved in any Rock bands before Avatarium. I was in a girl group when I was 12 and did gigs and that’s when I found out that this was me. When I did my first degree at university, I earned my living singing. So, music has been an active part of my life for a long time but it was more in the field of Jazz and Pop. I met Marcus because I was freelancing and I did backup vocals for a Swedish artist here in Stockholm and Marcus was an extra guitarist and that’s when we first met and that was it, we found each other.

Who are the singers that influenced you growing up?

My musical library is huge. My parents loved The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and Dean Martin but they weren’t musicians. I finally found an emotional way of expression through music. I needed that and that’s the main reason why I kept it on. It’s such a powerful way of being able to express myself and I needed that because it’s quite complicated to grow up from a child and music was just everything to me. So, the emotional expression and being able to channel my emotions was so important. When I was 16, a music teacher introduced me to a Jazz club in the small town where I lived and I got to sing with much older musicians. I just loved it.

Have you been asked to take part in projects outside of the band like Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia, or Arjen Lucassen’s Ayreon.

I’ve been asked to do outside projects in the past but at the moment, it’s not for me. I think if I was to do anything else, it’d probably be Jazz as that’s what I like.

You were working in a hospital in Stockholm as a counsellor. How do you manage to balance life in a band, a working health professional and family life.

I work part-time so it’s not full schedules. It’s worked so far.

What do your work mates think about you being a Rock star?

When I was in my 20’s I was anxious that people wouldn’t take me seriously, that people wouldn’t understand about my music. In this other field that I work in I am a social worker but then I studied psychotherapy and I’m about to sit my last exam in my specialisation of psychodynamics. It’s quite serious and you deal with mental health issues and I work in a surgical ward with cancer patients, it’s life and death. It has deepened my insight when it comes existential questions and gives me things to write about. Back to your question though, it took me a couple of years to realise that people like music and don’t think that it’s unserious, it is in fact very serious work. Through music we help people to sustain health Those experiences of going to concerts with friends and having a great time or listening to that record that makes you feel inspired. So, it is super serious but it’s taken me a while to realise that. I feel that more than ever now. I’m really comfortable with it now as I’m used to integrating these two parts of my life. I don’t think I care that much what people think.

Have you thought about doing a solo album?

When you asked me that I almost felt like Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films where he gets this tick. Things are really busy with everything at the moment but I think it would be great and I hope that I can get round to that one day.

Looking to the future, what are your plans for the coming months? 

We have of course, the show with Candlemass coming up later in the summer. We really love what we do and we would like to broaden our audience. We know how to make music but we need to focus on the promotional side of things as that’s how things work these days. This Coronavirus situation is not totally bad because it gives us some time for afterthought and focus on these parts that we haven’t been engaged in enough.

Can we hope to see some UK shows when you head back out onto the road?

We’d love to come to the UK and play some shows. Maybe we could play at one of the festivals sometime soon.

Interview By Mick Burgess

Avatarium’s latest album The Fire I Long For is out now on Nuclear Blast.

For more on Avatarium visit:


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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