Sunniva Brynnel - Accordionist

Sunniva Brynnel is an accordionist, vocalist and composer within jazz, improvised music and folk music. In 2017, she was awarded Albin Hagström Minnesfonds scholarship for accordionists through the Royal Academy in Stockholm. Sunniva comes from a lineage of seven generations of female musicians, and her mother – a Swedish folk singer – is one of her major influences. She was born in Uddevalla on the Swedish west coast and started to play the piano at the age of 5. From the age of ten, she went to a primary school which had a special focus on music – especially choir singing. A large repertoire of Swedish christmas songs is most of all what remains with her from these years.

Aged 18, Sunniva studied world and pop music full time at Ljungskile FHSK, Sweden.

She then went on to study Irish/Gaelic singing and music at DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama in Dublin. Her vocal teacher at DIT was Seosaimhin Ni Bheaglaoich. After a year spent in Dublin, she moved on to study jazz performance at Birka FHSK outside Östersund, Sweden. This year; living in the Swedish snowy midlands by beautiful lake Storsjön, and having both inspiring teachers as well as brilliant fellow students, made a big impact on Sunniva’s playing and composing. At Birka FHSK, Sunniva met guitarist Calle Jönsson, who insisted that every folk pianist should also play the accordion. And sure enough – she got herself an accordion and never looked back.

To be able to immerse herself in both jazz and the music of the British Isles, Sunniva then went on to study a BA jazz at Leeds College of Music, England, with composition as her major subject. Within her degree at LCoM she composed everything from small sized ensemble works to big band pieces. Her teachers at LCoM were, amongst others Jamil Sheriff, Rob Mitchell, Russ Van Den Berg and Dave Kane. While in the UK, Sunniva was also fortunate to study with accordionists such as Karen Tweed, Piero Tucci, Ian Lowthian and Murray Grainger. Sunniva graduated from Leeds College of Music in July 2012 (BA Jazz 1st class honours). She also has a Swedish music teaching degree from Gothenburg University (2016). She has shared the stage with amongst others Timo Alakotila, Neil Yates, Praful, Peruquois and many others. Sunniva is currently based in Boston, US, where she graduated with a Masters of Music in Contemporary Improvisation (Academic Honours) from The New England Conservatory in May 2018.

Interviewing Sunniva (She/Her) was a pleasure. She was actually one of the first people that I interviewed when I started this project, but I am only just now getting to her write-up. It was a pleasure to talk with her not only for the beautiful things she had to say about being queer, or her thoughts on music and her instrument. It was a pleasure because she is such a skilled and prolific interviewer herself that she made it very easy to talk with her. She knows that interaction and as a journalist she put me at ease. I encourage everyone to go to her website to hear her music, read her own interviews with some fantastic musicians, and hopefully see her play live somewhere.

{Jacob} - So you are at this point primarily an accordionist, but you also sing a fair amount and play piano as well, correct?

{Sunniva} - Well, yes, I suppose. But, I play less and less piano nowadays. When I moved to Leeds years ago to study jazz piano, I picked up the accordion for the first time. I instantly loved it. It was portable. I could take it between countries and festivals. Really, I could take it anywhere there was music. That became very important to me. I loved it so much that I took a gap year after my first year of piano just so I could practice accordion as much as possible. I never looked back after that point. From then on, accordion was my main instrument.

{Jacob} - What is it about the accordion that drew you in? The portability, for sure, is a plus. And it certainly carries melody and has dense harmony potential. Is it the sound of the instrument itself?

{Sunniva} - I love that it’s dynamically rich. And to be honest, I’ve never loved the repertoire that has traditionally be played on an accordion here in Sweden. It is always polkas and gammaldans, which are old dances. I was never into tango either, so I needed to find a type of music that I wanted to play with it. But then I heard these two accordionists - Karen Tweed, and Maria Kalaniemi. They both play music that I had never heard before on accordion. It’s kind of improvised music, meets folk, meets north sea Celtic and almost a Scandi vibe. They were a revelation. I don’t think I needed a female role model as a musician, but I do think that it helped that they are female. I think I needed some sensitivity and sensibility as a new accordion player, and somehow it came from those two women. It tends to be a very testosterone filled instrument. You can play very loud and very insensitively.

{Jacob} - I don’t have a huge background in accordion music, but that is all very much in line with my view of the instrument as it is often played. A bit one dimensional, a bit loud. Blunt maybe.

{Sunniva} - But you can play very quietly and with extreme sensitivity. People don’t fully think about the bellows. They allow you to whisper, but they also allow you to shout. Often pianists who play for the first time think the bellows are either on or off. That there is either no sound, or a lot of sound.

{Jacob} - So have you met your accordion idols?

{Sunniva} - I have actually! Karen Tweed became my main teacher. When I feel like I need some new repertoire, or a little inspirational boost, I still contact her and get a lesson. But, it was always an adventure to go find Karen for a lesson. Sometimes, I would travel to wherever she was on tour. And we never really knew if it was going to be an actual lesson, a hang out, dinner, or a deep chat about life. I feel that was important though. It was a bit free and with few boundaries, but it showed me what life as an accordionist could be like as well. I met Maria only once. We know a Finnish pianist in common. He was touring with her in Sweden and I went to meet her and have a lesson. It was early on in my career and I was very nervous, but I went to her hotel room to meet her for our lesson. I remember that I had heard that she liked dried blueberries, so I brought some with me.

{Jacob} - That is such a lovely thing to bring to a lesson!

{Sunniva} - I mean, I also brought her money, but yes, I thought the blueberries were also  nice. I would love to meet her again. She teaches at the Sibelius Academy in Finland.

{Jacob} - I would love to hear about your work as an improviser. How did you incorporate that into your playing?

{Sunniva} - I started playing piano when I was four. I was never a very good student and always preferred to write my own things rather than practice the pieces I was supposed to be working on. I remember writing my own pieces at the age of 8 or 9. I grew up in the small town of Ljungskile. It has only about 10, 000 people, but there is a jazz school and a jazz club there. I was very lucky. I lived in the countryside, but my closest neighbour was 8 years older than me and he was a jazz pianist. I idolized him. I loved everything he did. I spent years in the evenings going to his house and listening to jazz albums and listening to him playing the piano. Drinking coffee and sitting by the wood burning stove as I listened to him. So, that’s how I got into improvisation. Through him. My mother is a folk singer, but she has never composed. There was always music in my home, but the improvisation was from my neighbour. Though, when I was 15, my mother gave me Keith Jarrett’s the Köln Concert for Christmas. I know people sometimes think it’s a bit cheesy, but there are beautiful moments in it. I always think the album is a great gateway album into improvisation.

When I was 16 or 17, I spent a couple summers working at a spiritual bed and breakfast in Wales. They had a piano and for a couple hours a day I would sit and play and improvise. Sometimes some of the local boys would get high and come listen to me and my friend improvising on Swedish folk tunes for hours. They were having the time of their life.

{Jacob} - That is as good a story as I’ve ever heard about how someone got into improvising.

{Sunniva} - Yeah! And my friend who was at the B and B with me. She was also Swedish, and she would play the guitar until it was covered in blood and her fingers were raw.

{Jacob} - And do you keep in touch with your neighbour? Is he still playing?

{Sunniva} - I do. He still lives where we grew up. He doesn’t gig much which is too bad. I think the whole world would benefit from hearing him play. But, he’s also a wonderful painter and poet. He has many many artistic expressions. He keeps them very much to himself though. Which, I think is a loss, but who am I to say?

{Jacob} - Before we started talking today, you said that you weren’t sure that you had much to say about your identity and music. I’m curious what you have thought about, if anything, in relation to your gender and sexuality and the music you make.

{Sunniva} - There are a couple things that I think about as a musician, a woman, and a bisexual person in this world. The first is that I never want to be described as a female musician. In my other life a music journalist, I think the same thing. It is so uninteresting to describe someone by their gender. It’s not only boring, it gives me the creeps. It happens so much in music journalism as well. There might be an all female jazz band, and all the writers describe it as something “cool” or “innovative” but it’s just a band of musicians. So I know that I never wanted to be seen as a female musician. As an improviser though, probably 80% of the musicians I have played with have been men. I have thought about Karen and Maria a lot though as inspirations. I don’t know if there is a way to say that they are or are not inspirations because they are women, but when I listen to their music, and I listen to the music of my other inspirations (who are often men), I think it is truly their music and not their gender that matters to me. I know that often people say that it is important for young girls to see themselves represented in the work they want to do, but for me, I just saw musicians. I just wanted to play like these people and their gender didn’t matter much to me.

{Jacob} - Do you think that because you come from a family where there have been generations of female musicians, even though they are in entirely different fields, that you didn’t feel the need to have someone else show you that you could be this or that. Your mother and grandmother are living proof that you could be a musician if you wanted to.

{Sunniva} - Yes, that is probably accurate. There was never any question. It was just obvious that I was going to be a musician. For me the question was more if it was possible to have a family as well as be a musician. My mother had five children and I saw how difficult it was to balance her professional life and the family. But, no I never questioned being a musician. My great grandmother was a harpist, and my grandmother a cellist.

{Jacob} - That sounds like a musical utopia if I’m honest. There are a few people in my family who played music to varying degrees, but I don’t have memories of playing with anyone.

I’m curious about the LGBTQ scene in Sweden. I’ve spent a bit of time in Denmark and Norway and it felt somehow different from Canada. Here, there is a strong sense of community. That no matter your walk of life or background that there is a queer community waiting for you. From what I saw while in Scandinavia it was not quite the same vibe.

{Sunniva} - I would say that is probably correct. I think in Sweden, queer people are so accepted and part of every community that we don’t have the same need for connections and organised efforts. I know they exist here of course, but I think it is just so common. Maybe it is just the world that I am part of as a young artist, but I would say that it is very normal for people to identify as queer. There is a sense in Sweden that you can do whatever you want. Dress as androgynous as you like. Have sex with whomever you want and identify as whatever gender works for you. Women don’t need to be pretty, and men don’t need to be vikings - though there are a lot of beards around.

{Jacob} - Canada is still grappling with being othered. Although we are very far ahead of many places, of course, there is still a feeling of railing against the norm. I don’t think that is a bad thing, but I do find it interesting.

{Sunniva} - Reacting against something often means that we live entirely within the thing we’re reacting against. To me, queer is just being able to be completely myself without barriers. Which is the ultimate freedom! Not having to be defined by myself or others. Sweden is certainly lucky for the moment. But there are political movements happening across Europe (including Sweden) that are bringing back more conservative and traditional values. They are of course also racist and homophobic. So, we are not completely safe from it all. But within certain groups, people are very safe and accepted. Within the folk scene, or the free jazz scene people are certainly free to be who they are. When I was 19 though, and I met my first girl, my mother went bananas. People can be very accepting, but when it comes so close to home it is harder.

{Jacob} - It is certainly harder sometimes when it is your own family. I was lucky. I had a very easy coming out. But, I had no idea at the time how lucky I was. I always assumed that there were people who had a difficult coming out, but that they were rare. Obviously as I grew up and started meeting people, I realized that I was the rarity.

So, of course one of the reasons ClassicalQueer exists is to highlight people’s art and work. What are you up to next? Where can people reading this find you in the real world and hear you play?

{Sunniva} - Well, I have a new album out called The Letter, which can be found through my website. It is based on different poets from around the world. Lebanon, Sweden, and a few other places. I’ll be in Boston and New York as well performing over the next year. I’m also performing in Sweden fairly often.

{Jacob} - I hope people visit your website and find somewhere that you’re performing! Thanks again for chatting with me.