"We're in a little bit of 'I'll do anything, just as long as we can do things together' period," the singer says of her best-known band.
Nina Persson has performed under several different monikers over the years – most famously as the frontwoman for The Cardigans, whose surprise smash "Lovefool" topped the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart in 1997, and more recently with side project A Camp. But it took her 20 years to fully embrace her own name as a performer.
"I always thought it was more glorious to be in a band — and cooler," says Persson, taking a sip of warm Starbucks while visiting the Billboard offices during one of New York's latest snow storms. "And I thought my name was the most everyday, boring-sounding name. But then I thought, 'Why not?' Ten years ago, I didn't exactly know what kind of artist I would be without a band. But now I've just chiseled out a better understanding of that."
The result is "Animal Heart," due Tuesday (Feb. 11) via The End Records, an album that melds elements of Persson's previous projects with a sound that's more distinct and worth calling her own, courtesy of producer Eric D. Johnson (The Fruit Bats, The Shins). The title track (and lead single) has a modern electro-pop sheen, uptempo numbers "Clip Your Wings" and "Food For The Beast" have a Nile Rodgers-inspired disco stomp, and Persson's longtime love of country works its way into world-weary bar ballad "The Grand Destruction Game." It lands somewhere between the alt-country leanings of her latter Cardigans work and the more theatrical moments of her two A Camp albums (the second, "Colonia," was released in 2008.)
And then there's the sweetly soaring "Dreaming Of Houses" finds Persson pining for a new place to call home (originally from small-town Sweden, she now resides in Harlem). "I was so close to moving to Portland," Persson says of writing "Animal Heart" with Johnson in Oregon's hipster mecca. "It's probably the only other place I could live. Everyone's fucking nice, unlike Brooklyn hipsters. I seriously think that everybody is pretty happy. If you could measure the happiness or the suicide rate or whatever, it must be remarkable. I spent so much time talking to strangers in the streets and I was like, 'I want to be their friend.' If it hadn't been so far away from Europe I would totally live there. I saw so many houses and I was like, 'I could have three of these if I sold my house in New York.' I don't even want to think about it, I get depressed."
"Animal Heart" is the first release from The End as part of the label's new deal with Warner's Alternative Distribution Alliance, following a longtime relationship with Sony's RED. It's an unlikely place for Persson's music, with a roster that consists largely of hard-rock acts like Danzig, Funeral For A Friend, FEAR and HIM. But the singer was charmed by the boutique label's welcoming offices in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and its more recent work with artists like Badly Drawn Boy and Petula Clark.
"I really felt that I should not be on a major here, because I am sort of the typical artist who would be dropped if I didn't make a Billboard No. 1 in a week," Persson says frankly. "I really like longevity, and that's what I wanted to establish."
That longevity has also extended to The Cardigans, which formed in the earlys 90's when Persson was still a teenager and released six studio albums. Following a five-year hiatus, the group's still-intact lineup played 1998's "Gran Turismo" in its entirety at Sweden's Holfstred Festival and several other festivals across Scandinavia in 2012. "Our only job was to play really great, and we really did – we played better than ever," she recalls. "Plus we all had different lives and families now, so for us it's like going on vacation together on tour."
The Cardigans haven't released an album since 2005's "Super Extra Gravity," and its long-awaited follow-up may still be in the cards. "We're in a little bit of 'I'll do anything, just as long as we can do things together' period. And we haven't even touched the subject of, 'Eventually we would make another record,' but I think we would want that. It's really fun to do greatest hits things, since there's nothing else, but I think if we continue having this much fun we would like to make another record, because we like to create new things."
Persson will play New York's Mercury Lounge February 19, before announcing a proper U.S. tour later this spring. But if you'd like to hear her sing outside a concert setting, you might have some luck at a karaoke bar – even if you don't physically recognize her. "I went with a bunch of film industry people to one of the places in Chinatown and I didn't sing a Cardigans song – though I've sang my own songs in karaoke places – I sang 'We Are The World,'" Persson says of a recent outing. "And there was this really grumpy person in the bar and she sort of gave me shit for 'trying to sound like the girl from the Cardigans.' That I was posing. And I was like, 'I know, that's what they say.' She thought I had adopted a shtick with my way of singing. It was really funny."