Johan Cederberg is HNNY, a Swedish musician, DJ and Winnie the Pooh enthusiast, from which his ‘HNNY’ moniker is derived. A prolific producer, HNNY has authored some of the seminal dance tracks of the last decade, with a penchant for finding and manipulating samples into his distinctive brand of bright house and disco, he has found himself a trailblazer, if not the auteur of modern Scandinavian dance music which has found significant popularity with his longtime collaborators Axel Boman and Kornel Kovacs (with whom he started his own label, ‘Puss’ with) on their label Studio Barnhus. Not only has HNNY made enormous club contributions by bringing formative house tracks like ‘Nothing’ and ‘For the Very First Time’ to elated dance floors across the globe but he’s been the mind behind some of the most sensitive, delicate and expressive electronic compositions in recent times, with songs like ‘Most Pretty Girls Have Pretty Ugly Feet’ and ‘Cheer Up My Brother’ possessing a rare, stirring quality few electronic, or musical compositions across the board can boast.
At the start of 2016 HNNY cancelled his DJ tour and suspended playing live again indefinitely, citing personal health issues as the catalyst. After a little over a year later HNNY quietly released music again with a single side 12”, ‘Ta Paus’, an ambient leaning 6 track record. ‘Ta Paus’, or ‘Take a Break’ translated from Swedish was clearly a meditative piece of work and acutely personal. After his morning coffee on a crisp ‘minus 10 degree’ morning in Stockholm, we were fortunate enough to have an incredibly cognisant Johan lend us some time to discuss his hiatus from music, how he’s been occupying himself and his journey toward becoming a more balanced musician and person.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
Yeah, I have some stuff that I finished up recently-ish, It’s gonna be released now in the Spring, there’s also an EP that’s coming out pretty soon, one of the tracks from it is gonna be released this week.
Then the EP will come out in March and then there’s another kind of bit more, it’s old stuff, I found stuff that I did like 5 years ago that I’m gonna release a bit later, I don't know exactly when. Maybe like May or June.
Which label will they be released through?
I’ll do the same with what I did on the last one, I’m doing half of it by myself, I’ll do the digital by myself and then the vinyl is through Omena, it’s called.
This first EP you’ve got coming out, how long have you been working on it for?
It’s been a weird, like I… it’s different from the different tracks. I’ve had really long breaks, like one of the tracks I’ve been working on for like 7 years or something. All of the tracks I worked on a few years ago and then I picked them up, like now. So that’s also like the title, ‘2014.12.31’, which is just a date. So around that time is when I first started working on the tracks.
Why did it take you so long to revisit and finish them?
I just, kind of threw them away for a while, I didn’t want to work on them, I just couldn’t, maybe it was just to close to where I was at the time, the music was very personal and I was going through a super weird time, I was not well at the time, like not mentally well, I felt I can’t work on this right now, I felt I would feel just bad. So even then I didn’t know if this was good or bad at the time, so I just had to kind of throw it away. And then after quite a long time, one day I was just talking to a friend of mine, and he heard them when I was working on them 5 years ago and all of sudden everything just clicked, and I knew what the music was about in a way, because before I didn’t really know, I was too close to it.
Is there a sense of achievement in releasing this music now?
I guess in a way yes, I think so. It was something I kind of had to do, the whole thing, taking a break from stuff and just thinking about a lot of things, it’s so easy to do things, just do one thing, then another thing and another. I just needed a lot of time to think and process stuff, and yeah I guess you have a point, going back to these tracks and actually finish them was something I actually needed to do, because for a while I didn’t even work on music.
In this period off (music) what have you been doing outside of music?
Well I don’t know, I was quite down for a long period of time, then I didn't really do much, most of the time I was taking very, very long walks, thinking about things. I think what I did a lot a part from that thing, because I never went to music school, I never learnt too play anything, to produce or mix music, nothing like that I never learnt anything like that, I just started, because I started producing tracks when I was like 11 years old, at that time you don’t really know what’s right or whats wrong, you’re just happy you're making something. Like a loop, you’re just happy you made a loop on time, so for me, it took years before I even found out what EQ was, I made music without an eq for like 5 or 6 years and then like after 10 years, there’s like this thing called a compressor, what’s that? Oh yeah cool. So I came to a point where I can make it good, but there is something missing in my skill set, so I started studying a lot about mixing and production and playing the piano a lot, where I tried to learn a lot of things and I found when I was learning all these things it was very difficult to make music at the same time. Because you want to be free when you make music, you don’t want to think about all of these rules, you just want to make it, the rules you just want to have in the back of your brain. So I was more in study mode rather than just music making mode, but yeah It was quite interesting to learn about all of these things.
Stylistically, your last EP was more ambient leaning, how do you see this work coming out compares to your previous work?
I don’t know, I don’t think I’m the best person to ask. In a way everyone hears music in different ways. To describe it, putting it simply I’d say it’s somewhere in between the last one and the one before that. There are no bangers on it, there are some super party tracks, there’s a bit more special vibe, it was very much the time I was in then.
Did it take a long time to feel comfortable to make music again after such a long time?
I think the most difficult part was the transition from it, because I lost my confidence. It was very difficult, it took a really long time, and I feel even still, I’m not totally confident. When you’re really in it and you do it all the time you have a big confidence you don’t even think about it, that’s just what you do, it just come very naturally. Coming back was very strange, because for me it has always been very natural to make music because, I’ve done it my whole life. Then I had to start thinking about everything I did, it was very, very difficult.
Do you think you learning all these new skills has improved you or made it harder now to produce music?
I think it was just something I had to do, I felt I was a bit stuck, I had explored everything in that DIY version of it, that’s the thing, you have to move forward. When I made a new track, to me it felt like I repeated myself, it felt like i had explored this whole thing and i felt like in order to grow more I had to explore more about the background of producing and how stuff actually works.
So was this kind of this insecurity of not having a formal training the main reason you decided to take a break?
I wouldn't say that I don’t have this music education, I didn’t really care that much, it was more about I hit the wall with what I could make and do with the skills and the tools that I had, after a while you just have a way of music, that you have over the years found out and I felt a bit stuck, so it was that and then… I don't know what made what happen, but I guess I had kind of a crisis, like a life crisis and everything was very connected, it was the same with the music, it became a crisis, it sounds dramatic but I felt like I needed to do a lot of things.
So aside from your musical developments what else have you been working on?
Well I guess like everything really, just trying to learn a bit more about myself, especially when I became very critical. Because I was touring a lot and I was working a lot I didn’t really have time think about anything that I did, I just did stuff. It became very apparent that, holy shit, I have to think about things, I can’t just do things. I think sometimes in life you have a good balance where you do things and you process in them in a good way and then there are other times where you don’t have that time and you don’t process it in the right way. I guess it’s different for different people, but for me I just need that time to process things that I had done and just think about who I am, or whatever, that’s like classic kind of therapy stuff or whatever.
Whilst you haven’t been touring as much, have you been keeping in touch with the scene?
Umm, not that much, I get really tired of dance music. Actually I’ve been djing for the last two years I think, just like in the afternoon, it’s a very special thing (https://www.residentadvisor.net/events/1206971) . I’m not playing dance music at all, oh yeah you’re djing at a bar, but you think about the music you play there, like the most chill track you’ll play when you’re DJing at a bar - that’s like the most intense track I’ll play there (Hosoi).
I’m playing like Nora Jones records and it’s super nice, the sound system is incredible, it’s the best I’ve ever heard, it’s like a big living room. And I’m really enjoying that and it’s the same thing about exploring things, this is the same, how I got really bored of DJing at clubs, I didn't feel like I had anything to contribute anymore, it wasn't very fun, I didn't learn anything - I didn't explore anything. So I wanted to do this new thing for a really long time, where you’re playing music, great music and it’s at a place where it’s social in a nice way, it’s not a bar, sure, you can order a drink but it’s not a club or a bar, it has nothing to do with either, it’s something different maybe a bit likening to a coffee place but it’s very nice, the music is very nice and also the drinks. So this has been a lot of fun, just kind of exploring what kind of music to play there, because you know what kind of music to play in a club and it works, for this there is no text book to compare it to, so it’s been really fun to just try out different things and what works. Now it’s been going on for a very long time and it’s been nice, it’s always full of people, so that feels nice.
Do you think you’ll ever go back into a club sense again, or is that something you might leave behind?
I don’t really know, right now I’m not, it’s… my very honest answer is I don’t know. I don’t think I would do it tomorrow, I’m not sure if I’ll change my mind. What I’m looking for is what I get when I'm playing at Hosoi and that thing where I would find something new about it, because it was the same thing, it felt like the end of the road for me. I was DJing at a lot of really nice places, at a lot of really nice cities, played for a lot of really great people and it was super fun. But then I didn't really have anything new to do, and this is abstract but I’d need a new kind of way into the whole thing, so I would find it interesting because the process and exploring has always been the enjoyable thing not doing something because it works.
Do you think a part of it comes down to crowds and clubs expecting something specific?
Not really, I feel like people have been so open to the music I've been playing because most of the time I didn't play the stuff other people played, most of the time the music I played was so much softer, like people were playing really hard and I’m not really into that. For me, I wasn't very interested in dance music, I was more interested in music for music’s sake. Well, for a really long time I was interested in dance music, it is very interesting, music that has kind of two different purposes, music that sounds nice, that you enjoy just listening to, but also music that makes you want to dance and you become happy and it was very interesting compared to other music where you just listen to it, and that’s it. But for a while I’ve been just been interested in music that’s just music. Whenever I made dance music, I always thought about dance music, I had never been to Panorama Bar but I had a picture of Panorama Bar in my head, so then when I got there for the first time of course it didn't look anything like what I imagined. But whenever I made dance music I was thinking about this club, that was in my mind, Panorama Bar, and the track I was playing there and people were going insane. so I don’t know I was just interested for a while in different things, so I think that has to come back to me a bit more.
So if you were envisioning a Panorama Bar when you were making club music, what do you have in your mind at the moment?
That’s the thing and what I find interesting, it’s so much more abstract, so hard that’s the cheating thing with making dance music, it becomes a bit easier. When you make a song thats not dance music it’s very hard to know if it’s good or not, it’s too abstract. With dance music it’s always simple and you play it and if people, dance then this at least pretty okay because it makes people dance.
At the moment what kinds of music are you interested in or are there any artists you like?
Yes, there’s a million, I listen to so much music all the time. All kinds of stuff, I listen to a lot of vocal jazz from the 40s and 50s but then also more contemporary music. At the moment i’m listening to DJ Healer, he released this 3 hour mix of his own music and it’s just incredible, you must listen to that. So I’ve been into that. New kind of hip-hop, even like Ariana Grande, the latest Drake album was great, Frank Ocean always does a lot of good things. That kind of music is amazing now, I think it’s quite experimental also, it’s free in a way it wasn’t before. When I grew up the music in the top 40 was so horrible, it felt like every track everyone made, any one could have made it, like you listen to a Britney Spears track from that time and anyone could have recorded that, it was generic music and now everyone is so much more involved and it’s a lot more experimental. It’s a great time for music, it’s really really great.
So with the 40’s Jazz, I know you used to do a lot of sampling of sounds and songs, is that something you’re still doing in your productions?
It’s a lot of samples, still and always. That’s how I started making music, that’s hard for me to leave behind, that’s also a way I’m looking for music, I’m always looking for something to sample, even when I listen to something on Spotify or whatever, I have a gazillion screen shots on my phone where I just find a little thing and then I sample it, that’s just something I can’t remove from thinking about.