When acclaimed musician, songwriter, and producer Kerstin Ljungström travels outside her native Sweden for work, she says she sometimes feels like the most boring person in the room. The 2020 Denniz Pop Awards finalist for Best Rookie Songwiter/Producer strives for simplicity and clarity in her art.
“I love it when a song is clear from beginning to end,” she explains. “If you’re working on a verse, don’t have 16 different melodies, because when someone listens to it, they want to know what they’re hearing. They want to recognize the melodies.”
Her approach—plus a limitless supply of talent—have made the 24-year-old a rising star in one of the world’s most dynamic, successful music scenes. Since being discovered studying at Sweden’s renowned Musikmakarna school, Ljungström has collaborated with industry luminaries Salem Al Fakir, Vincent Pontare, and Magnus Lidehäll. One of her earliest credits, ironically, was the 2019 hit “Complicated,” by Alexander Oscar and SVEA. She’s currently signed to Universal Music Publishing.
“The conversation I usually have when I’m not in Sweden is, ‘How can we make something simple, but still interesting?’” Ljungström says. “In Sweden, people are insanely good at it, which is why so much great music comes out of Sweden.”
Discovering Music Production
As soon as Ljungström learned to play guitar, at 14, she was performing in a band and writing songs. She was quickly drawn to the process of structuring and arranging music, even though she didn’t know yet that production was a thing. “I couldn’t play drums,” she says, “but I’d still ask, ‘Can you play drums like this?’”
The first CD she ever bought was Justin Timberlake’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds” and it had a profound effect on her.
“It really picked me up, and I know now it was because of the production,” Ljungström says. “Great producers are always trying to push the boundaries of making music and I find that very inspiring.”
She was blessed to grow up in an environment where she learned to be comfortable fiddling with technology. Her mother was married to a computer technician, who kept a small room in the house for building and tweaking systems. By the time Ljungström began an internship at Stockholm’s Studio Gottefar, she was learning by doing.
“He helped me make my connection to computers and technical stuff, and that they weren’t frightening,” Ljungström says. “In the studio, I’d just pull at every knob and see what happens. Nothing’s going to blow up. It was such a nice way of learning.”
Optimizing Studio Sound
Ljungström’s current studio is small, but well designed—ATC monitors, Universal Audio interfaces, and myriad synthesizers. “I love when music is loud and I love synthesizers,” she says.
She’s grown fond of the Shure SM7B microphone, in part because she can move it around the space. “To me, it’s always been strange that you’re supposed to be super stiff in your body when recording vocals, because you never sing that way any other time,” she explains. “So I love it when someone can be on the sofa and just holding the mic, and they can stand up if they want, or crumble against the corner and sing.”
In the spirit of trying by doing, a friend recently introduced Ljungström to Dirac Live Room Correction, software that minimizes a room’s impact on the producer’s desired sound and ensures the best possible acoustics without requiring expensive treatments.
“I was very interested in how it works,” she says. “I couldn’t really understand how you could track how sound moves in the room, but then I got to try it out.”
When Ljungström first tried Dirac Live in her studio, she was able to identify a previously unknown dip at 3kHz in the room’s EQ spectrum and it frankly rattled her. “I’ve been in this room for so many years and thought it was so flat and strict,” she says. “At first it was a strange experience, changing how a room sounds with just software.”
After analyzing the studio and its audio system using a microphone, Dirac Live room correction improves studio acoustics and enhances sound reproduction accuracy through patented impulse response and frequency response correction algorithms.
“Since then, I’ve ended up using Dirac Live every single day,” Ljungström says. “It’s magical because I can see now in my mixes that I understand them way better. My mixes today are better when I’m using Dirac Live, because that little gap I have [in the room’s EQ], I had no idea it even existed.”
Collaborating Around the World
As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, Ljungström looks forward to collaborating with artists in far-flung locations, taking Dirac Live on the road to replicate the sound she’s perfected in Stockholm.
“Not everyone has an acoustically great studio. Just being able to go to London, or the United States, or Copenhagen and not have to worry about the studio, it’s genius,” she says. “I’ll just start the day by placing the microphone, analyzing the room, and recognizing what I hear in my own studio.”
Ljungström is currently collaborating with singer/songwriter SHY Martin on a collection of songs and says the results sound amazing. She’s also working on her own Swedish-language album, due out in 2022, with a single tentatively slated for this fall.
“It’s going to be fun switching positions again,” Ljungström says. “These last few years have made me respect artists so much. They put so much time and effort into following their dreams.”
And for Ljungström, success in the music business is all about effort. When she was an intern, she recalls, Magnus Lidehäll took her aside and over a cup of coffee explained that it’s not the best producers and musicians who succeed in the industry—it’s the people who want it the most.
“Everyone is good,” Ljungström says. “It’s all about who wants to work the most. Who is most dedicated and wants to put in the time? Don’t take anything for granted, because this is really fun. There is absolutely nothing boring about that.”