Ebba Forsberg is from Sweden, but the ascendant pop star has close ties to a great American success story.
The 30-year-old singer was signed to Maverick Records last year by the label's Guy Oseary, the man who discovered Alanis Morissette and Prodigy and who now, at the age of 25, co-runs the thriving company with its founder, Madonna.
Forsberg's debut album, "Been There," arrives in stores April 14. The subject of intense advance buzz, due partly to Oseary's involvement, the album combines Forsberg's earthy vocals, wistful melodies and subtle, folk-tinged arrangements with mature, reflective lyrics written by Forsberg's older sister Kajsa Ribbing.
The result sounds decidedly different from the spunky, post-adolescent musings of Oseary's other big female find.
"Well, you know, I'm older than Alanis," says Forsberg--who somewhat resembles actress Rebecca De Mornay--over coffee at a downtown Manhattan restaurant. "You can't stay 14 mentally forever. You live through that stage, but then you get older and more experienced, and you learn to work on evolving and coping with life."
Forsberg might never have become the 23-year-old Morissette's label-mate were it not for an enterprising executive at MNW, a Swedish record label that signed Forsberg in 1996. He included an earlier version of the album (released in March 1997) in a box of unsolicited material he sent to Oseary about eight months ago. Intrigued by the artwork, Oseary gave it a listen, fell in love with Forsberg's voice and signed her right away.
"Immediately, I felt like this was different," Oseary says. "It's a real classy record, with great lyrics and beautiful songs. . . . We don't have many artists on this label, but every artist we sign is a visionary and a true talent, and she is both those things."
Oseary shrugs off the notion that his own track record will create unrealistic expectations around Forsberg.
"It's a weird thing to think in those terms: Will it do well? As a big music fan, all I can really focus on is, does this move me? I signed Ebba purely because of my personal belief in her as an artist and because of my belief in the album."
The Maverick version of "Been There" varies slightly from the MNW release, but the overall flavor of the music, which Forsberg describes as vemodig--a Swedish word suggesting a quality similar to melancholy--remains intact.
"If you listen to Scandinavian jazz or classical music or see a Scandinavian film or read Scandinavian literature, you often have this form of heaviness, this melancholic touch," she explains. "I wouldn't say that bands like ABBA or Ace of Base or Roxette are typically Swedish. There's a whole world of music in Sweden, and that's just some of what is streaming out."
In order to write the plaintive songs on "Been There," Forsberg had to rekindle her relationship with her collaborator and sister. After the girls' parents divorced when Ebba was 5, their mother, an architect, took them to the West Indies, where their stepfather had been stationed as a town and regional planner by the United Nations. Kajsa, by then a teenager, returned to Sweden within a year, while another U.N. assignment soon landed the rest of the family in Botswana.
Two decades later, the singer decided that she "wanted contact with my sister--to confirm whatever it is that connects us.
"We began communicating, getting to know each other. I said, 'Why don't you work with me?' . . . I'd written music and lyrics before, but it was nice to have someone to discuss things with. Our relationship is a process, and [Kajsa's] lyrics are part of that."
Forsberg, who lives in Stockholm with her 9-year-old daughter from an early marriage, began playing guitar and singing in cafes while in her late teens. Her tangy voice attracted other musicians, and she soon became a sought-after touring and session singer. Unlike former backup vocalist Sheryl Crow, though, Forsberg didn't mind putting off her own artistic ambitions for a while.
"I loved what I was doing," Forsberg says. "But after about 10 years of [singing backup], I felt like I wanted to do something else. . . . It just felt right to try making a record."
While she is clearly excited about finally claiming the spotlight for herself, Forsberg says she isn't daunted by her status as Maverick Records' potential next big thing.
"From the beginning, I've done what I wanted to do, and I'm going to keep doing that," she said. "The only thing I'm worried about, really, is how much I'll be away from my daughter. The rest is just what I make out of it."