VICTORIA BERGSMAN is settling into her new place in New York City, caulking her bathtub with silicone. It sounds like her apartment in Little Italy has seen better days, but she's not complaining. "I'm very fortunate," the Swedish musician says. "I've got an artist's visa that lasts for three years and I want to use that visa and see if I like it here. I've always felt very inspired by New York. Just walking around, it feels very alive."
Bergsman speaks like she sings—in a careful, measured tone that gets to the point without revealing too much. Her voice fronted the sparkling indie pop of the Concretes for many years before Bergsman left in 2006 to pursue her solo project Taken by Trees. Right around that time, every person on the planet heard her sober vocals as guest vocalist on the ubiquitous Peter Bjorn and John single "Young Folks." But to understand her latest Taken by Trees album, titled East of Eden, it makes more sense to listen to a remix of a song from 2007's Open Field.
As remixed by the Tough Alliance in a version that whipped around the internet, "Too Young" shrugs off its delicate chilliness—in which Bergsman sounded like a more desolate version of Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell, or Bergsman's current tourmate Sarah Assbring of El Perro del Mar—to bathe in a lush backdrop of rainsticks and polyrhythms. It's the sound of Swedish restraint happily melting into a global incalescence, and it is the perfect counterpoint to Bergsman's forlorn delivery.
"I think I am a very restless person," she says, "and I want to seek out what there is to seek out. I want to know what's around the corner and explore things. Life is too short to listen to an ordinary drumbeat. When there is so much out there, why not take the chance?"
Bergsman took a big chance by traveling to Pakistan to record the basic tracks of East of Eden with local Pakistani musicians. "I had some motivations or images about how my vocals would work with those kind of rhythms, like tabla drums. I wanted to travel and experience the mystique of being somewhere like Pakistan. It felt more mysterious than India... but also more dangerous, I guess." It turned out to be a much more difficult situation than originally anticipated; the prejudices and sexual inequality ingrained in Pakistan's culture made it very difficult for a Western woman to be treated as an equal. "I know how they look at women, and I'd read about and seen documentaries, but the reality is so much bigger than all that," Bergsman says. "I'd rather not talk so much about it. I still have nightmares...."
Despite the challenges, she was slowly able to get the sounds she wanted from Sufi musicians whose mystic religion is fundamental to their music. "I wanted some kind of feeling that it was a meeting between my spirituality and theirs," she explains. "The first song on the album captures that in the way that I was hoping for. The meeting of my music with their music and my voice with this man [Sain Muhammad Ali] singing—and he's just improvising! That was just so breathtaking to hear him sing on top of my music."
It was a very hard record to make, she admits. "But I feel very proud that I did it, that I really went there and followed my heart and vision to do it. That, in itself, inspires me to want to do something more."