The renowned Swedish musician talks about his metal opera “Heart Healer” and his future plans
Magnus Karlsson is a Swedish musician known for being the guitarist of Primal Fear. He also has an extensive solo career as a composer and founder of a number of other bands and projects: the Ferrymen (Ronnie Romeo on lead vocals), Free Fall, Allen/Lande, Allen/Olzon, and so on.
On 12 March, he released his most epic project to date – a metal opera called Heart Healer. It features female singers only (in alphabetical order): Adrienne Cowan (Seven Spires, Masters of Ceremony), Ailyn Gimenez (Her Chariot Awaits, ex-Sirenia), Youmna Jreissati (Ostura), Netta Laurenne (Smackbound), Noora Louhimo (Battle Beast), Margarita Monet (Edge of Paradise), Anette Olzon (Dark Element, Ex-Nightwish).
Angelina Pelova spoke to Magnus on behalf of the Midlands Rocks.
Hello, nice to meet you, although just virtually! Thank you very much for accepting our invitation to an interview! I would normally review an album first and then do an interview about it, but this time I didn’t feel comfortable doing that, as this is a very complex album and is probably meant to be theatrical. So, I’d like to start by asking you about the concept of your metal opera and what you wanted to achieve with it.
There are many things to say. It may be hard to review it or compare it to a normal album, as I don’t just see it as ten songs. It is ten songs, of course, but I see it as one long song and it has different chapters instead. I know we have to release videos, singles and stuff for promotion, but this is the wrong way of listening to it. It is like seeing a movie: you have an hour when you can relax, listen to the whole thing from start to finish. It’s made for that; it’s not made to just listen to one song and then do something else. I don’t know, maybe not all people have the time or take the time for it. With a normal album, I can write the best song that I can and then move on to the next one. Here, I had to think about the whole thing, and for me that was the big difference compared to other stuff I do.
Yes, this is the main challenge I had and why I decided instead of reviewing the album, to talk to you about it. It’s probably meant to be performed on stage. Is that how you view it, or is that too challenging for now? Have you got a visual and theatrical concept and how it is going to be if you decide to put it on stage?
Yeah, that would be a dream but I guess it depends on how it goes for the album. If we are going to do it, even if it is OK to play live again, I think it’s not going to be a small tour, it would have to be a big festival with all the singers coming in. We want to have some live orchestra and stuff and I guess if the album is selling really well, then it would be possible. Otherwise I don’t think it’s possible, but I would love to do it and of course it would be great to do it live. It could also be a movie, that would also be very cool, but we start with the album and see what happens.
Yes, at the moment it is not possible with Covid and all restrictions on live music, which is probably very frustrating for you.
Yes. I think it will explode when this is over, every ticket will go so fast! Everybody wants to go to the show. I think it will explode and will be really good when this is over.
There is also a silver lining to all this. I kept wondering when the new wave of albums would come out, as everyone has been locked down in their homes and you, the musicians, are creative people, so were bound to produce some great albums. This is now happening. You also recently released an album with Free Fall, I don’t remember when it was exactly…
I think it was June when it happened. I’ve got to say the lockdown helped me a little bit with a project like this, as the singers would normally be on tour, many of them would have been. Noora is touring with Battle Beast. It was easier for me to get them into the studio before they disappeared. If you want to have a lot of guests in it, this is a great time. So there is good stuff in all this misery!
I really wanted to do more with Noora. She only did one song in Free Fall and I really love her voice. I love Battle Beast and all the stuff she does. Anette I love too, she is perfect for this metal opera, as she has her own style. Noora has it too. Adrienne who has the main part, the Heart Healer, I thought about her for a different project but it didn’t work out and I didn’t even ask her and other stuff happened, but now I finally had the chance to work with her. She is so great because she can sing so many different styles. She is perfect for the main role. I told Frontier Records about this idea and I got this long, long list of singers, because they sign a lot of female singers. I had about fifty names to choose from. Some of those names were new to me, so I listened to everything, and some of them I already knew. For me it was important not to have the best singers; that’s also important, but one important thing was to have very different singers. I don’t want seven singers who sound like Noora, because that would be strange for the whole album. Youmna – she has this classical sounding voice, and Noora has this hard, almost metal voice, and we have Anette with a top metal edge to her voice; Ailyn – she has this soft, really nice voice. So they have different styles and that was really perfect for me because if the singers sounded too much alike, it would be a trouble for the listener. I think it was already confusing.
Yes, from the point of view of the listener it is difficult to work out who is singing when. As you say, if they are all the same, being all different characters, it would be a bit difficult to follow.
Yes, so that was important when I asked them.
Do you want to tell me a little bit about the plot? I have noticed this line throughout your previous works about angels and spiritual help, so the Heart Healer takes it to another level, or am I reading more into it than you meant it to be?
When I write lyrics, you can read them as you do, that’s OK, but you could also read it as non- supernatural, as part of normal life. The story of the Heart Healer is that she doesn’t know who she is, she doesn’t know where she comes from and she tries to find out. On her journey, she understands that when she comes close to people, she can heal them, but everytime she does it, she gets weaker. That could be an angel thing, but could also be a normal human thing that we feel: if you give too much of yourself, you feel that you are getting weaker, you are exhausted, you almost collapse.
Yes, self sacrifice kind of thing.
Yeah, sacrifice. Of course, we can also get stronger and self-sacrifice because we feel good about it; if you help someone, you get stronger. But the story is very loose and I always do it with the listener in mind: that they could put it into their own life, their own experience. That’s really great; I get a lot of emails and messages from people: “Oh I love this song so much because I can relate to it”, and maybe they have a view that I didn’t think about, and that’s so cool: that they heard my lyrics and related to something I didn’t think about.
That’s the case with me as well. I am a reiki therapist and when I was starting my own journey, I heard your song ‘Where Have The Angels Gone’ (from one of Allen/Lande’s albums), and I felt I could relate to it. In last year’s album of Russell Allen and Anette Olzon you wrote the music, right? There was a song there ‘No Sign of Life’; when I was listening to it to review it, it felt really dystopian, and a few days later the pandemic started, so it felt surreal, like a prediction of what was happening. It was maybe a coincidence, but they say that coincidences are there for a reason…
Absolutely. If I express my own feelings when I write lyrics, it mostly comes from sad feelings, there is a sad tone to it, like in the song you mentioned, ‘Where Are The Angels Gone’, the bit that is hopeless: where is all the good stuff? But it’s complicated…
Of course. This is why art is what it is, it is open to interpretation and everyone finds their own meaning.
I don’t think I’ve heard of a metal opera before, is this the first one in history? Last one I listened to was Savatage, but that was a rock opera.
No, I think it’s Avantasia, Tobias Sammet of Edguy, he calls his stuff a metal opera. I haven’t heard it all, but I think that it is very different. Those are great songs, but I didn’t hear the orchestra going from one song into another. Maybe; I shouldn’t say too much as I am not sure. But people think that he almost owns that word, and are like, why did you call it a metal opera, as Avantasia already called it metal opera? But I don’t know, I don’t care, that was just an idea. It’s not an opera at all, the reason why we called it an opera is that it’s a story that goes on.
Yeah. And we call it metal, because there is more metal than hard metal maybe, the style. So maybe an opera singer will get offended because it is not opera at all.
Yes, but genres are all fluid nowadays, especially throughout all the Scandinavian countries, metal and classics are so interrelated that it is a genre of its own, symphonic metal.
I guess I could maybe call it metal musical, that could be OK, but metal opera sounded OK.
No, it sounds very good. To me it feels like a culmination of what you’ve been doing so far, because you’ve been doing the same style but are now taking it to a much higher level, as if you are taking everything together from your previous work and putting it into one big thing. That’s how it feels.
Yeah. If you follow me, you may have noticed that in the past years I have more and more orchestral intros and stuff. I really love that stuff. I listen to that kind of soundtracks and classical music. I mean, metal is so powerful, classical music is so powerful and when you have both, that’s so great. Absolutely, I’ll do more of that. Everyday, I listen to new composers and wow, I should do something like this. I try to learn all the time.
That’s why I like your music. There are other bands who do similar music, but some of them eventually start repeating themselves and re-use the same patterns and themes in different albums, plus they are a bit simpler, while yours are so epic and complicated sometimes.
If you hear an artist and you think that their songs are a bit similar sometimes, I don’t think it is because the artist is lazy or something. I think it is because the artist likes that kind of metal. I know that I like some certain sounds and melodies and I always want to go in that direction, so I have my style, I know that, and I think that’s OK.
Of course. As long as you like it. If you don’t like it, you can listen to something else.
Some people can never have too much of the good stuff, anyway, and it is all very subjective. As long as they feel productive and they’ve got something to say, it’s a free world.
Absolutely. I am happy that I can write music and that I can play it, and that record companies want to release it and some people enjoy it. That’s enough for me.
A lot of people enjoy it, you have a huge following. You work with quite a lot of singers, going back to Russell Allen and Jorn Lande, and using all these different people in your Free Fall albums, and then you obviously have your partnership with Ronnie Romero (in the Ferrymen). Is there some kind of logic in how you find your singers, or is it just because you like them?
I think it is because I like them! I haven’t worked with one singer that I don’t like. When I was in my twenties or even younger, I was very young, I started touring with an Irish band, Irish folk music, that was fun and I liked it, but as a professional musician I had to say yes to everything, all the shitty bar gigs and everything. Then I decided: no, I want to be in position to say “no, thank you”, and not say yes to everything, so I will get an education! Now, I am educated as a guitar teacher, too, and that’s really good. So if a singer that I don’t like asks me, “Can you write my album?”, I say “No, thank you”.
That is a good place to be.
Yeah it is. If I had to do it because I need the money, then I don’t think I would do it, I would get tired of it and stuff.
I think this is where Ronnie Romero is in his career. A few months ago, there was something he posted on his Facebook, that the music business is cruel. I guess this is what he was talking about, that people accuse him of singing with so many bands for the money, but I don’t think this is it, as there is a pattern between the bands he chooses to sing in. He probably does the same as you do, he chooses the bands he likes and represents them.
Yeah. He is a great singer and a lot of people want to work with him. We are actually right now… I don’t know if you can see it from here…? I am working on an experiment. He has just sent me some vocals we are working on right now!
Oooh! That’s intelligence for me, thank you very much. I am actually due to talk to him soon to promote his work with the Bulgarian band Intelligent Music Project. I was also going to ask if you were going to do something else with Russell Allen?
Not that there is something we have decided now. I was thinking of doing another album of Anette and him, but I think he is busy doing a Symphony X album; I am not sure, but he was busy this year. I just wrote with Anette, I wrote a solo album, and that’s really cool, you know she is into this heavy stuff, also with a lot of orchestra, but not like the metal opera, and that’s so cool, her soft pop voice with this really heavy music. We are all done and I think it will come out after this summer. I am working on the Ferrymen now, and next from me will be the next Free Fall, I think.
Ooohh, good! Are you sticking to the same singers, or will there be new ones?
I have a list of singers, and have only asked a couple. I will have some old names, but many new names. Maybe two or three of the older singers. I am very happy with the stuff I did with Jorn and Russell and everyone, but yeah, it is cool to explore, to find new singers. There are so many great singers now!
There is something I’ve been thinking about and am planning to ask Ronnie the same question. Until some time ago, a band was a unit and the musicians were attached to them, like Ronnie Romero of Rainbow, or Russell Allen of Symphony X, or LaBrie from Dream Theater, while nowadays it seems to be more common for people to do what you are doing, and what Ronnie is doing. The musician is this free unit that floats between bands; Russel is the same, he is not only in Symphony X, but also in Adrenaline Mob, and then TSO, he also did solo stuff with ‘Atomic Soul’, and obviously worked with you and Jorn and Anette. It seems like it’s all now becoming fluid and a band is no longer just one core. I wonder if it is something to do with the fact that nowadays people don’t sell CDs, as everyone listens to downloads and streaming services, so maybe people are finding it difficult to make a living from just being in a band? After all, not all bands can be as big as Judas Priest or Iron Maiden, just because it is a different age.
So is that the future of metal, then? Is this how things will be?
Yeah. I think it is about the sales. I also think that it is easier now. I hardly work with any Swedish guys, but with people from all over the world.
Ah, you work with Mike Andersson, he is Swedish!
Yeah, there are some Swedish guys, but not so many. It’s so easy just to send the files, many people have their own studios at home. You didn’t have that twenty years ago; some people had but now everyone can have it, it is not so expensive to have a studio in your home. For me, I love it, I really like it. I am working with my dream singers and for me it couldn’t be better. I don’t know if you heard, but I am not touring with Primal Fear anymore. I am still with the band, but I don’t go on tour, as I don’t want to miss my family. I love to play live, but if I had to choose, I would choose the studio because I love to come into studio in the morning and maybe have an empty desk, and by the evening I have a new song. And even if you have the greatest tour, you play the same song every night..
Hm, that’s interesting. So what about the contact with the audience, doesn’t that give you a bit of a buzz?
It does. I love it. The tours I did with Primal Fear and festivals, that gave me so much, the inspiration. And I have to say I played in pop bands, jazz, folk music, and that’s cool, but I have never seen an audience like the one when you play metal, that’s so different. That’s like, we never met before, but you and I, we are in the same tribe. I’ve only seen that only in metal, and that’s so cool.