In August 2018, Karin Dreijer burned out.
The artist known as Fever Ray was in the midst of touring their sex-fuelled 2017 album Plunge, a statement of queer joy, sex and rebellion in a world that still so often stigmatises and criminalises queerness. Night after night, Dreijer poured their heart into high-octane performances, flanked by a cast of shape-shifting dancers in muscle suits and fetish gear. But behind closed doors, Dreijer was struggling. They had long experienced general anxiety and panic attacks, but their gruelling touring schedule was aggravating these battles. “We did something like 50 shows in six months,” they tell me. “My private life was a bit of a mess, and I had two young kids to look after. It was too much.”
Today, Dreijer seems relaxed, upbeat and comfortable. As the Zoom screen buffers, an image of an adorable cartoon polar bear – their Zoom profile picture – appears on-screen. “I don’t know how that got there,” they say, when they finally appear on screen. “I think it might have been one of my kids.” Dreijer is dressed casually in all-black, their cropped, blonde hair tucked underneath a beanie hat. They’re in Stockholm, their home city, in a dimly lit studio. It’s one of two they built pre-pandemic, alongside their brother and long-time collaborator, Olof Dreijer. They’re preparing to go on tour again – Dreijer’s schedule is jam-packed with rehearsals from the following week onwards – but this time with fewer stops, and more rest time between dates.
A lot has happened since 2018. Just after cancelling the shows, Dreijer was diagnosed with ADHD. “I learned that, with ADHD, you probably are more sensitive to stress,” they explain. “It’s common to be driven by doing fun stuff, and it can be hard to know your limits.” Dreijer then delved headfirst into therapy, which has ultimately been incredibly useful, but also “so, so scary; it can be really horrible,” they say. “Sometimes, you have to expose yourself to the things you’re afraid of.”
Throughout this time, Dreijer has been contemplating one of society’s most ubiquitous concepts: love. The result of these musings is their upcoming album, Radical Romantics. Far from a ten-track collection of traditional love songs, the tracks bristle with energy, but carry an unmistakable sense of foreboding. In part, it’s inspired by Dreijer’s readings of bell hooks’ All About Love, which “talks about love as a verb, as an action, as something that we do,” Dreijer summarises. “That takes time and commitment, and you have to dare to show yourself being vulnerable. It’s a huge risk, because you can be rejected.”
In its own way, each song deals with different dimensions of love. The lead single “What They Call Us” pulses with anxiety, punctuated by stabbing synths that create a sense of panic around the chorus lyrics: “Did you hear what they call us? Did you hear what they say?” The video is set in a dimly-lit office, its noticeboards plastered with screenshots of Grindr conversations and a sticker that reads “I <3 MATH”. Dreijer plays a disillusioned office worker, a character who “is trying to find out about love, but in this really mathematical way,” they say. “It wants to find a love potion, an equation to stop them from getting hurt. It’s very calculated: If I approach [love] in this way, I’ll decrease the risk of pain. But this healthy way is often a bit boring.”
The character makes another appearance in the more recent video for “Kandy”. It’s one of a handful of tracks on the album that are co-produced by Olof, their partner-in-crime as part of the groundbreaking electronic music duo, The Knife. It’s the first time they’ve worked together in eight years, and both Dreijer and director Martin Falck (who also directed “What They Call Us”, “Even It Out” and the Plunge videos) wanted Olof in the video. “We wanted him to be like the saxophone player in that 80s vampire movie The Lost Boys,” Dreijer tells me, chuckling at the memory. This pitch – to dress up Olof as the renowned Sexy Sax Man, with his purple tie-dye leggings, chain necklaces and leather thong – was turned down by Olof, so instead he wears a tight, gold, glittery suit, much to the delight of fans, who thirst over him in the comment section. Meanwhile, Dreijer sports a hot-pink suit and a skullet wig, gyrating clumsily but sensually to win over the cautiously romantic bureaucrat of the “What They Call Us” video. This horny character was named “Romantic” – “he’s the person you’re not supposed to date,” Dreijer explains. “You know it has this toxic aura, but it’s so much fun! How can you know if you don’t try?”
The “Kandy” video also pays tribute to the iconic video for The Knife’s “Pass This On”, in which a glamorous drag queen, played by Rickard Engfors, dances around a football club until the bemused regulars start to join in. Dreijer sadly couldn’t be part of the shoot. “I had a baby one month after that shoot,” they recall. “At that point, I was just sitting down and falling asleep!”
Long-term fans are hopeful that Dreijer’s reunion with Olof could mean a reformation of The Knife. Dreijer doesn’t deny it. “I actually don’t know what will happen after this year,” they say, smiling. “I know I will tour this year, but after that, I have no plans. We haven’t talked about the future.” (Evidently, they’re still close – as the interview winds down, Olof pops his head around the doorframe to say goodbye).
It’s fitting that their reunion comes on an album about love – not just romantic love, but familial love, too. Album highlight “Even It Out” offers a more blistering take, centring the link between love and rage. It’s a chaotic revenge fantasy dedicated to a kid named Zacharias, who bullied Dreijer’s kid in high school. It comes with a thrillingly deranged video, which sees a drag matriarch kidnap this nasty kid, dig a grave to bury him alive in and, eventually, piss on it. It’s brilliantly unhinged, and buoyed by the industrial co-production of Nine Inch Nails. “I thought it would be fun to ask Trent [Reznor], because I know he has kids,” Dreijer explains. “I said: ‘This song is about a kid that’s being bullied. Do you want to join?’”
Endearingly, Dreijer clarifies that they haven’t actually slashed up a teenager for bullying their kid, as the song’s lyrics suggest: “I wouldn’t do anything like that. But if you go through the formal system of talking to the principal and going to meetings... if that doesn’t work, it can be good to do a little song about it!”
Radical Romantics recognises that love is nurturing; as hooks theorises, it’s a state of constant flux, which requires personal growth and self-examination to truly thrive. Throughout their life, Dreijer has had to face a handful of fears. The Knife were once notoriously enigmatic: they wore masks, pitch-shifted their voices in interviews and flat-out refused to perform live for seven years. Although these decisions were justified as a desire to centre the music, Dreijer says the avoidance of live performances was due to “enormous stage fright.” Over time, the fear started to sadden them. “I had performed before, and I knew that a part of me enjoyed it,” they say. Their management never pressured them to perform live – “that’s rare, I think” – but, ultimately, they “didn’t want to say ‘no’ to performing because of fear.”
‘These times are very scary, but I’m at a place where I still feel safe. I have a lot of privileges in many other areas. Plus, I’m getting old. I don't really care about what people think so much’
As for the unmasking, Dreijer gradually became more public as they grew more vocal about their queerness. “I think the personal is political,” they state. “I think these times are very scary, but I’m at a place where I still feel safe. I have a lot of privileges in many other areas. Plus, I’m getting old. I don’t really care about what people think so much.” Especially in Sweden, which recently elected a “neo-fascist government,” Dreijer sees their visibility as vital. “It’s dark for like, eight months a year! It’s so cold, and there are almost no queer people here. So, the queer people that do exist in Stockholm, we have to do this.”
This ethos bleeds into Radical Romantics, a beautifully nuanced interrogation of what “love” means in a capitalist, heteronormative world. In today’s era of rainbow capitalism, this unabashedly queer perspective is invigorating; it fucks with gender, embraces hedonism and leans into sexual desire. It’s a world of queer expression that’s not rooted in narratives of trauma, or respectability. It makes queerness look fun, I tell Dreijer. They lean into the camera, grinning: “It is fun! It’s so fun to live outside of any binary system.”
With Radical Romantics, Fever Ray doubles down on the truth that conventional narratives are boring, in art, in life and – above all – in love.