Roxette's Per Gessle on Working With 'Musical Hero' Nick Lowe & Heading to Nashville for Solo Album

Per Gessle
Anton Corbijn

Per Gessle

Per Gessle is best known in the U.S. as half of the Swedish duo Roxette. With Marie Fredriksson, he topped the Billboard Hot 100 four times between 1989-1991, with “The Look,” “Listen to Your Heart,” “It Must Have Been Love” and “Joyride.”

With Fredriksson retiring from recording and touring due to health issues, the final Roxette album, Good Karma, was released in 2016. Gessle has released 10 solo albums between 1983-2017, and five of them have topped the Swedish charts. His latest, the English-language Small Town Talk, will be issued by BMG this summer. Billboard spoke with Gessle about the new album and his experience recording it in Nashville.

What is your personal connection to Nashville and why did you decide to record the new album there?

It all started with me writing a lot of lyric-driven, mellow and acoustic songs in Swedish. Those songs became two Swedish albums released last year. They worked really well and went to No. 1 in the charts. People and the media seemed to love them and I was able to do a big summer tour. Then the idea came up to translate the songs and turn them into one English album for the international market. Easier said than done!

The lyrics were quite personal. I went through a pretty tough phase in my life since both my mother, brother and sister died within a three-year span. In fact, I couldn’t translate some of the Swedish lyrics into English at all since they felt too private. It was impossible to do. Sharon Vaughn from Nashville helped me on several tracks. She spends a lot of time in Stockholm so she’s familiar with the language. She did an amazing job.

Why Nashville? Well, I didn’t really know what to do with the songs so I talked to my “inner circle” (Christoffer Lundquist and Clarence Ofwerman) and we decided to go abroad for some sessions. We talked about France but Nashville came up and I immediately felt it was a good idea. We could use local musicians and I’ve always felt close to Nashville music ever since I started out writing songs 200 years ago. And I had only been there for one day with Roxette promoting something in the past. I was really curious about the place. I talked to a few Swedish people who had recorded in Nashville and we eventually wound up at Blackbird Studios and that was a jackpot for us. A great place with wonderful people working there.

You asked Nick Lowe to collaborate with you. Did you know Nick or ever work with him before?

Nick is one of my all-time musical heroes. The biggest song from the Swedish albums is a duet with a Swedish artist, Lars Winnerbäck. So, to record that song in English, I obviously needed a male partner. Highest on my wish list was Nick. I had never met him. I sent an email to him in London via his manager. I wrote that I was a big fan. I enclosed the lyrics and the Swedish version of the song and before I knew it he was standing in a studio in Stockholm mesmerizing me with his beautiful voice. Isn’t life great? I’ve loved Nick’s work since I started my first band [Gyllene Tider] in the late ’70s. His album The Convincer is one of my most played records ever.

How did recording in Nashville influence the sound of this album? Did you use Nashville musicians?

Yep. That was the whole idea. I asked John McBride, the owner of Blackbird, if he could recommend any good pedal steel guitar players. He said, “There are only two guys worth mentioning, Dan Dugmore and Paul Franklin. Which one do you want?” No kidding! Dan joined us for a couple of days. He played on every track. We didn’t use all of it but I had to hear what he suggested and performed. Same thing with the violin player. Stuart Duncan came aboard and he just blew our minds. What a musician! And that was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t really have any idea how the songs should turn out, I wanted the players to be part of the construction and every overdub they did influenced the next.

I was a little bit nervous that these major players would consider my songs some sort of third-rate country clichés but they didn’t. They said they found the songs quite strange! I took it as a compliment [laughs]. Mickey Raphael joined us late in the sessions for some amazing harmonica parts. Outstanding. Scott Borchetta at Big Machine Records and Kos Weaver at BMG helped me find Savannah Church and Jessica Sweetman to do some duets. Amazing girls. And Roy Orbison Jr., who’s a friend of mine, came over with some of his dad’s old priceless guitars which he suggested we could use. How could we not? Nashville royalty! Thanks, Roy.

How long were you in Nashville and what do you think of the city?

We were there for three weeks. I loved it. We all did. I love the fact that music is everywhere. I love those little guitar repair shops and the whole vibe. There are so many recording studios everywhere, not just in Berry Hill where we were. We spent some time in the center, going to different restaurants and bars every night. We checked out the Time Jumpers with Vince Gill and Co., we went to the Grand Ole Opry, we went to the Country Music Awards and some wonderful places where young unsigned songwriters and musicians could perform their songs. What a place.

When does the album come out? Are there different release dates in different countries?

BMG is all over the moon with this one, which feels fantastic. We’re looking at an August release in Europe. Hopefully the album will come out in the U.S. in the fall. It’s about time I did some serious damage in the States, don’t you think?

Will you be performing songs from the album on your fall European tour? And Roxette songs as well? With your Roxette partner Marie Fredriksson retired from touring for health reasons, how will this tour be different from past tours?

Yes, the whole idea with the upcoming “Per Gessle’s Roxette” tour is to play songs I wrote for Roxette. It’s, of course, really sad Marie can’t join me performing or recording anymore due to her health issues. I have to live with that. My options are not to touch the Roxette songs at all or to continue playing them. For me it’s an easy choice. The Roxette catalog is so much part of me and my life and I have a great band which I’m sure will find a unique angle to the material. And yes, I will play songs from the Small Town Talk album as well.

Do we know what the first single from the album will be, and is there a release date?

Yes, the first single will be “The Finest Prize” and it will be released in Europe early June. Can’t wait!