Swedish chanteuse Anna Ternheim likens the foreign-exchange program she signed up for in high school to betting the family farm on roulette.
The rules were simple, the stakes were high. Once you applied, the wheel started spinning. When it stopped, the Stockholm girl was shipped off for a year to a strange new city.
“But it was actually exciting, not knowing where, not being able to choose,” recalls the Cocteau-Twins-ish singer, whose ball landed on Atlanta.
“And we always got these American high school movies in Sweden, and it was exactly like that there — there were gangs, there were jocks, cheerleaders and punk rockers, and I was totally surprised.”
There were more surprises in store. “The host family that I stayed with tried to make me go to Sunday school, and tried to make me join a church youth group to hang out with only good kids,” says Ternheim, who has since relocated to Manhattan. (She hits San Francisco on Sunday, playing Bimbo’s with Nordic divas Lykke Li and El Perro Del Mar.)
Her urban rite of passage was witnessing her first drive-by shooting, “with people bleeding and crying and an actual dead body. It was right after I arrived, and so scary I started to wonder, ‘where on earth am I?’”
But she did find her footing. She sat at the neo-hippie lunch table, and started playing the guitar she’d brought from home — first solo in class, then with a band in coffeehouses around Georgia. Yet just when she’d built up her stage confidence, it was time to return to Stockholm, where no such cafe scene existed.
Frustrated, Ternheim tabled her pop career and began studying art, then architecture. She wasted two years in Switzerland, working in a swank eatery as a crepe chef.
“But watching all these architecture students, who were so passionate about drawing, made me realize that there was something I was equally passionate about — music,” she says.
At 26, Ternheim issued her long-delayed debut, “Something Outside,” which nailed her a Swedish Grammy for Best New Artist. Two years later, “Separation Road” earned her two more. As she prepares to turn 30 next week, her ethereal “Halfway to Fivepoints” best-of anthology is hitting these shores via Decca. That’s why she moved here — to earnestly work the record.
But Ternheim is having trouble adjusting to New York.
“I’ve met a lot of rats in the city already,” she says. “Real rats, not metaphorical ones, around where I live. Even the old ladies who shop in my neighborhood supermarket — if you happen to bump into one, they turn on you so fast and start screaming at you. So I’ve learned that in America, you definitely have to be awake. All the time.”
IF YOU GO
El Perro Del Mar, Lykke Li, Anna Ternheim
Where: Bimbo’s, 1025 Columbus Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (415) 474-0365; www.ticketweb.com