It’s probably very difficult to make good sense of the Strummindude project without first understanding The RPM Challenge and what that’s all about.
The RPM Challenge is an annual album production tour de force, started by The Wire, a now defunct independent weekly magazine in New Hampshire. The event attracts artists, bands and musicians from around the globe, uniting for 28 days around the common, individual challenge of composing, recording and producing an entire album, all within the month of February. A completed challenge is defined as a compact disc containing at least 10 songs or 35 minutes of material, distributed to The Challenge HQ in Portsmouth, NH, postmarked March 1st at the latest. During the nine years that the event has been held, more than 3000 albums have been produced. Seven of those are Strummindude albums.
Although it might also be considered a moniker of sorts, Strummindude is first and foremost a musical project and a vehicle for the creative output of Jana Persson, musician and composer out of Stockholm, Sweden. After having enjoyed a successful carreer as a renowned session musician, touring and recording with some of the greatest Swedish and Norwegian artists and bands, predominantly within the Christian contemporary music scene, Jana’s musical interest turned more towards composing and performing original material. Fronting Swedish pop band Vagabond, he scored a national hit single in the early nineties, and was penning the bulk of the material for this band. He later formed the country rock outfit Tumbleweed Trail, which gained nationwide recognition and made appearances on national tv and radio. The band was also known for hosting Country Music Club nights at select establishments around Sweden, typically having guest artists from the elite of the Swedish music scene appearing as a part of their shows. Tommy Körberg, E-Type, Mikael Rickfors, Lotta Engberg, Theresa Andersson, Jan Johansen and Mats Ronander have all joined them on stage at their shows.
“Well, “ says Jana “that might actually be an understatement, ha-ha! But there’s a simple explanation for this. The thing about the Challenge is you never look the other way when the muse comes calling. You follow her lead, wherever she takes you. There’s no hope completing an album in 28 days if you get picky about what kinds of song ideas you get. Be it twisted classical pieces, jazzy stuff, booming progressive rock, country ballads, fast paced metal or music hall romps – if they make it to the front seat of my musical mind, I’m taking them for a spin.”
“To me,” he continues, excitedly “stretching the limits and going out on limbs is where the fun is in all of this. That’s where I draw the energy from. If there’s anything keeping it all together, these album projects, it’s most likely my own hopefully recognizable flavour of melody weaving and then maybe my voice. The rest of it is pretty much all over the place. A playful, happy scattering of musical trifles and melodic truffles, if you like.”
Drawing from a mélange of a musical background, the pool of creative influences on Jana’s songwriting is vast.
“When you’re a hired gun in the music industry, you need to be up for almost anything”, Jana explains. “And my musical tastes has always been pretty broad, which has been fortunate. I was classically trained at an early age, and later taught myself about the magic of chords and progressions from a book by Warren Nunes that I borrowed from a friend.”
“Growing up, I was an avid music fan. I listened to everything, all the time. Then I usually tried to reproduce it on the guitar. Or sing it. Or follow the bass line. I got really into rock music in the 70’s and bought and exchanged LP’s with my friends a lot. That’s really where I had my schooling, if anything. Queen, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Status Quo, Alice Cooper, The Eagles, Styx, 10 cc. Played those vinyls to shreds.”
In late 2007, when Jana first got wind of the RPM Challenge, its bold mission statement bore a special appeal to him.
“Yes. Maybe not right away. I laughed it off at first. Thought it was a bit silly. With the background I have, I know what goes into making a record. So, doing a whole album by yourself in a month seemed impossible to me, at first glance. But then I got more curious and actually researched the site. And to my surprise I found some pretty good stuff on there. So I told myself – well, what the hell, why not! Try anything once and all that. I thought it would be interesting. A learning experience.”
Jana continues, “I didn’t have much in the way of recording equipment at home at the time, so that was the first thing to take care of, at the outset. Just putting the thing together, the computer stuff, the software, the studio setup basically. It was very much bare bones that first year. I was holing up in a spare room in our house that used to be a sauna. I had a laptop PC on a camping table, a microphone and a pair of headphones, and that was basically it. But I prevailed and produced that album. Probably more out of sheer bloodymindedness than any real knack for it, ha-ha! But the sense of achievement was great, and I’ve been back for more every year since.”
The former sauna has since been converted to a proper home studio, and has served as home base for all subsequent Strummindude projects. But some of the recordings of the later albums have included parts recorded at other locations as well.
“I’m blessed with many good and charitable friends”, Jana says. “And they are kind enough to contribute to the music I make, year after year. I send them stuff and then cross my fingers and hope that they’ll think it’s good enough to warrant their participation. I never know what I’m going to get in return though, if anything, so that’s always very exciting, to see what they’ve come up with. I love that part. And it’s always great. Of course. They’re excellent musicians. Their stuff never fails to elevate the songs to a new level. I owe them, big time!”
Over the years, the Strummindude album projects have turned more and more into collaborative efforts. Even the songwriting, in particular the lyrical side of it, has seen some lasting partnerships evolving with time.
“Will Gough and I started collaborating back in 2011, on the Kaleidoscopy album, so he’s been helping me a lot with the words these past years. The way that works is it frees up time for me to do more music stuff instead. Which is needed, and also I’m better at that than weaving words into melodies that are already there. That’s hard work, and I’m extremely grateful for the help with that process.”
Since the fall of 2013, the songs of the Strummindude albums have been the focus of a five-piece band that has formed, where Jana has chosen to take a little bit of a back seat.
“Robert, the keyboard player on most of my albums, called me up one day and asked if I was interested in participating in a band he was starting. I said, sure, and went into it pretty open minded. The only outspoken goal for the band was to try and get together some original material and to shoot for doing some gigs in the future. Since all of the band members go back a long time, it’s always a great thing to have a valid excuse just to see each other as well, on a semi regular basis. It’s been great fun, and the band is taking some of my songs in new directions compared to the album versions. That’s very exciting, and hopefully it won’t be too long before we’ll be able to take on some gigs and put the material in front of an audience, where it belongs. Very much looking forward to that!” Jana concludes.
– JS Harris