Interview with Maggie Björklund: On Playing Pedal Steel and Backing Jack White
Born and raised in Denmark, pedal steel guitarist Maggie Björklund wasn’t content to settle in with just any instrument.
Now appearing live with Jack White, Björklund is thrilled to bring the pedal steel guitar to stages and TV studios worldwide!
Early in her career, Björklund was best known in Europe as a guitarist for the all-girl country band, The Darleens, and experimental pop group, Miss B Haven. After the breakup of Miss B Haven, she discovered the pedal steel and simply fell in love.
Björklund released her debut solo recording, Coming Home, last year and proved her songwriting chops could stand up to her substantial steel guitar prowess. This melancholy collection of folksy stringed delights features contributions from Calexico, Mark Lanegan and Jon Auer of the Posies.
Here Björklund shares her path from playing guitar in Europe to pedal steel in the American Northwest, and now onto the stage with Jack White.
GUITAR WORLD: Tell us about your early experience with guitar. What made you pick one up?
I have three older sisters who all played music while growing up. They mostly played piano, but one of them played guitar as well. I was always very curious about the instruments and how they sounded. When I was allowed to attend the local music school program, all I could take was piano lessons, but as soon as I was old enough I wanted to learn the guitar. I had a natural flair for the instrument and loved playing it.
There weren't any rock and roll musicians anywhere near where I lived, so I had to take lessons in classical guitar. I loved it, but outgrew the music school teachers fast. Later I found a professional teacher in a nearby town. My mom would have to drive me there every Thursday to get lessons. She did a great job at supporting my musical adventures. Rock and Roll came into my life way later, and I didn't play electric guitar until out of high school.
When did you start playing the pedal lap steel guitar? Why did you choose to play it?
When I started down the path of being a professional musician in Denmark, I was always trying out new instruments, and one day a friend offered me his pedal steel at a really cheap price. In Denmark pedal steel guitars don't exactly flood the market, so I was really happy to get my hands on this guitar. My friend could play some and he showed me the basics of how to put it up and how to operate the pedals, but other than that I was left on my own. He also gave me a learning book on the pedal steel, but he had lost the vinyl that came with it with all the sound examples.
Once I had brought this treasure home – it was a simple Fender student model with only one knee lever and three pedals – I put it up and tried to play it. It was so hard, and I quickly gave up again. I put the steel guitar away, and didn't play it again for some years. This is quite common, that people set out with really good intentions wanting to learn it, but are faced with the difficulty and complexity of the instrument, and then give up.
Some years later I put up the guitar again, on some random thought of wanting to have a go at it again. And then, for some reason I was able to understand so much more of how it works. That made my day big time! I instantly fell in love with this weird instrument that had challenged me so much, but now was allowing me to play music with it. After that I was obsessed with it and quickly turned from being a guitar player to being a steel guitar player.
You studied the pedal lap steel guitar with Jeff Newman in Nashville. Describe your learning experience with him.
After trying for a while to learn this instrument, and I played shows on it and everything, I kind of knew that I had to get a real pro to show me some of the secrets of it. I found Jeff Newman in a magazine I think, and signed up for a week of one-on-one teaching at his house in Nashville. I was so excited to go there and really nervous too.
He was such a great person and I quickly felt very at ease with him. His way of teaching was truly remarkable. He pulled everything I thought I knew to pieces, but when I was left without anything he then helped me lay out a foundation on playing techniques and how to think with the steel guitar. His teaching was so great that a lot of how I play today comes from that foundation. He was truly a unique teacher that inspired me for life. It was such an exotic adventure to go to the lush hills of the Nashville area and play steel guitar all day long, and turning in at night to the sound of the crickets outside the cabin.
Before you played the pedal lap steel, you played guitar for The Darleens and Miss B Haven. Do you see yourself playing the guitar again in the future?
I do still play guitar live at certain shows, but I played almost all the guitars on my own record. You can kind of hear my classical background on the way I play the gut string guitar on there. I love playing the guitar, and I can easily see a time in the future where I bring it out more.
What model of guitars do you use? Describe other gear you use including amps, pedals, etc.
I have an old Fender Telecaster that I use a lot, and I swear by my Gretsch Chet Atkins model as well as my Fender Jazzmaster. I have a beautiful classical guitar hand made from Spain, that I use on all my recordings. It is a unique guitar and I don't know what I should do if I ever lost it. It has such a deep warm sound to it. Melancholy lies in the wood of that guitar I think.
My steel guitars are all Sho-Buds. I have several since I need them for touring and rehearsing on different continents. Some of them are all original but others have gotten new mechanics. But I always make sure to have the old Sho-Bud pick up in there. That is what makes the sound and I love them. I know they are noisy and have a buzz, but they also have the cool sound of the old times that I haven't found anywhere else.
I use Fender Twin amps, as well as Fender Super Reverb and Pro Reverb. I also like to use my old Vox AC30. I play my steel through the AC30 and have a reverb pedal to add the juice. I recently found a Xotic BB preamp pedal that works fantastic with my steel guitar. It is not easy finding the right kind of drive for that instrument; it can quickly be too heavy sounding or take out the body of the tone. But this little pedal is fantastic at adding the crunch. I use delay, and have a Fulltone Tape Echo that I work with a lot. I am also very fond of my Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe pedal. It has the coolest kinds of tremolo and vibrato.
Congratulations on the release of your debut solo album, Coming Home. Did you do a lot of touring after its release in March 2011? Are you trying out new material as you tour as well?
I was very happy to release Coming Home, and I have done some touring with my band, mostly in the northwest of America. We did play SXSW both last year and this year, and that is always a great experience. I love that crazy festival. We do play new material when touring. It is a great way of shaping the songs, trying them out live. You quickly know if they work or if they need some more work to the structure etc.
Do you have a favorite song to play from the album?
I don't really have a favorite song from the album. To me the songs are quite different each of them, and show different sides of my composing and playing, as well as the collaboration with the great singers and musicians that took part of this album. Sometimes my favorite is "Intertwined" that I sing with Mark Lanegan, sometimes it is "The Anchor Song" that Rachel Flotard sings and wrote the lyrics for. Other times, I like the weirdness of “Vildspor,” with Jon Auer, or “Insekt.” But mostly I never listen to the recordings after I am done and it has been released. I move on, and don't need to hear it again. Until years later. Then it is fun to take out your old record and listen to it with the fresh ears that time and lived life will give to your perception of music.
Jack White asked you to join him in his upcoming tour. What was your initial reaction?
I was quite surprised but honored and thrilled that he needed a musician like me!
What is your process for writing music?
I write music in bulk. I can go with out writing anything for a very long time. I often get to think that, "This is it, I am never going to write another song in my life, because nothing is happening." But then suddenly something happens, and I write a lot of music all at once.
Who are your musical influences? What music do you find the most inspiring?
I get inspired by everything from Bach, Beethoven, Debussy to Beatles, Black Keys and yes, Jack White. All music I hear passes through the subconscious of my mind and will end up in the melting pot of inspiration that I drink out of to make music and play.
What’s next for you?
I am currently working on new material for my next album. I love that process. There is nothing better than slowly seeing your vision come to life. I often look back at what I write and think, "Where did that come from?" I didn't know I had that music inside me, but there it is.
Find out what’s next for Björklund at her official website.
Here's Björklund and a bevy of fabulous string players performing her song “Insekt”:
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Acoustic Bass Amps, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the co-producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.