Robyn: 'I just want to be normal'
She spent her childhood travelling with her parents' avant-garde theatre troupe, and her teen years as a pop puppet – so is it any wonder that Sweden's most idiosyncratic pop star craves simplicity? Hugh Montgomery talks to Robyn about TV talent shows, youth gangs and Lady Gaga
Sunday 14 November 2010
Everyone knows what a difference a Gaga makes. In the past two years, the steak-wearing, Warhol-invoking Stefani Germanotta has reinvigorated the concept of pop music, bridging the gap between the commercial and the credible. And from Shakira's serenading of Glastonbury crowds with an XX cover to Take That's reportedly "weird" new album, the rest of the pop world has followed in her wake. These days, you're not a star if you're not seen to be trying to push some boundaries.
But if Lady Gaga flung open the door for a new wave of forward-thinking pop, then Robin Carlsson has long been determinedly cranking it ajar. In 2007, the now 31-year-old Swede who performs as Robyn came back from nowhere to hit number one with the single "With Every Heartbeat", a hands-in-the-air dancefloor weepie sung by a woman whose asymmetric peroxide crop and androgynous styling marked her out against the faux-raunchy sexuality of her peers. Issued on her own label two years after its Scandinavian release, "With Every Heartbeat" gradually reached the top of the charts thanks not to over-inflated marketing budgets, but slow-building word of mouth. "No one could have foreseen it," she reflects now. "It wasn't even your typical radio song: it doesn't have a proper chorus and there is this bizarre string part in the middle. But then people started calling into stations, and it happened... kaboom."
Three years on and Robyn has managed to stay ahead of the curve: where once she was subverting song structure, now she is subverting release structure with her Body Talk project, which has seen her serve up three albums in less than six months. Far from being a victory for quantity over quality, however, Body Talk Pt 1 and Body Talk Pt 2 have been greeted with near-universal acclaim, and the final installment, a quasi-best-of featuring five songs from the first two albums and five new songs, is out at the end of this month. '
If it's been an exhausting experience, that is not apparent from the poised, impish figure sitting in front of me, sipping tea, in an east London hotel. In fact, "relaxing" is how she describes the past few months. "It's a lot of work, touring while I'm recording," she offers by way of qualification, "but I'm relaxed because it's much more fun. I've got to go back into the studio continuously throughout the year. That way, I don't feel like this robot, which you usually end up feeling like when you're just on the road doing promo all the time."
There was no "conceptual idea" behind the trilogy, just a desire to get material out there as quickly as possible. In fact, you might go as far as calling it an anti-conceptual approach, possessed of an organic spontaneity that she thinks today's pop fans crave. "Everyone's talking about how no one is buying records any more, but to me it's quite logical. In the 1990s, music was so hardcore-marketed to a certain group of people that I think a lot of kids felt taken advantage of. They weren't allowed to create their own relationship with the artist. This way, I feel I'm respecting audiences, and bringing value to that release period where, as a listener, you often just feel like a sheep being marketed to."
She knows of what she speaks, thanks to her own early, hardcore-marketed career as a manufactured star. Signed to Sony aged 15, after being discovered during a school singing workshop, by 17 she had recorded her debut album Robyn is Here, and by 18 she had achieved international fame with "Show Me Love", an early offering from fellow countryman and pop svengali Max Martin, soon to cement his reputation as a hot-shot hitmaker with Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time".
But from the moment Robyn turned down a slot on the Backstreet Boys tour, she was to prove rather less malleable than the average industry moppet. Here was a girl who had spent her early childhood not in the Mickey Mouse Club but travelling Europe with her parents' avant-garde theatre company – an experience that left her with the unfortunate expectation of "being in charge of what you're doing". A girl who, in her early teens, was listening to hip-hop and hard rock and immersing herself in a home-grown youth scene called Kickers, whose look she has described as "skinheads crossed with LA gangsta rappers".
"I always wanted to make pop, but I wanted there to be space for references that came from outside that world, just like Neneh Cherry had references to her Scandinavian and African heritage, or the KLF, who were a super-commercial dance troupe but with roots in performance art. For me, that was what pop music was. But those references from my personal life or the way I dressed never made it through. The whole [industry] was very conservative and Americanised."
So Robyn endured years of frustration, tentatively resisting her bosses' attempts to turn her into a Swedish Christina Aguilera. Her second album, 1999's autobiographical My Truth, featured two songs she had written about her guilt over a secret abortion. When she was asked to re-record parts of the album for the US market, she refused. It went unreleased outside Scandinavia, as did her third, 2002's Don't Stop the Music. All the while, she fell between two stools. "I felt like I wasn't true to myself, or doing something that was commercial either," she recently told one interviewer.
Finally, in 2004, her disillusionment peaked when the label expressed disdain for "Who's That Girl", a collaboration with her fellow Swedes, the experimental synth-pop duo the Knife. Inspired by the band's fiercely autonomous ways, she bought out of her deal and founded Konichiwa Records, improbable a move though it was. "Before I started working with the Knife, I didn't have any friends that had their own labels," she says. "I was never an indie kid, I was a club kid. I never went to indie festivals, I didn't know anything about that world. They were just like, 'We've got a single, we're going to put it out when we want.' And I thought, 'Hmm...' It related back to what my parents had done with theatre and it suddenly made sense."
What's followed, through 2005's self-titled Robyn and this year's Body Talk trilogy, has been the flowering of a uniquely mercurial talent. With her independent status writ large, provocative statements abound on the albums. Part 1 opens with "Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do", and there are outré stylistic turns from dancehall to traditional Swedish folk. Her audience, accordingly, has strayed far from the teeny-bop demographic: a mix of everything from "a huge gay following" to "lots of ghetto girls and 35-year-old white males", she says.
For all her gestures of edginess, however, her most indelible tunes remain pop with a capital P: girlishly sung, soaring Euro-dance anthems such as "Hang With Me", "Dancing on My Own" or "Indestructible", which channel a determinedly adolescent sense of romance and heartbreak. Is she surprised that they have connected so readily with those aforementioned 35-year-old males? "Maybe they just have a little girl inside them waiting to get out?" she coos coquettishly. "No, I don't think it's surprising at all. Aren't we all always rewinding to that point when we were really emotional all the time? Every time you fall in love, it's like you're back [at that age] again. I don't think anyone really grows old."
Robyn the interviewee mirrors her music's confluence of innocence and experience. At times, her conversation spills over with phrases such as "awesome" and "super-exciting". At others, she projects an impregnable self-possession. Such is the case when I bring up the subject of TV music talent shows. "I don't really care," she shrugs. "It's not like I'm afraid to say anything about it, because I can totally say it's not my kind of music. I just don't know if it makes a difference or not. I don't even really view any of that stuff as music. And I don't see how it's going to affect people badly or wrongly; I think that the people affected by it, they'll figure out sooner or later that it's not what they like. Or they won't... I just don't care!"
What about the new wave of quirky female stars? Does she care about them? Although she thinks they're "super-cool", she has repeatedly refused to offer more detailed opinions on any of them – most notably, Lady Gaga. "I understand that people want to compare. But I'm very conscious of trying to get away from the place where I have to justify my position as a woman against someone else. That's when you usually start judging other people, as if it's a competition. There is no competition – it's just a bunch of girls doing stuff."
Competition aside, it's not hard to see why the Lady Gaga comparisons might irk. For all that they are both quirky and electronically minded, the Swede's no-frills ethos is the very antithesis of the New Yorker's lavish exhibitionism. "There is something liberating about the feeling that the music is enough," she explains. "A good live show stands on its own two feet: what we're doing is not about the pyro-technics, it's really about the band and the audience communing with each other. And it's the same with the music. I wanted to get away from that feeling that to make some noise in the pop industry, you have to be so extreme, so vulnerable, in a way that doesn't feel human."
Two days later, as I watch her at her London gig, it is an ethos made gloriously incarnate. A 1990s rave throwback in her black crop top, red leggings and galumphing platform boots, and backed by flashing techno lighting, she stalks the stage and throws her off-kilter shapes with a peculiar strain of guileless imperiousness: a picture of dynamism worth a thousand choreographed routines.
As to next year, her plans are simply "to keep on going". In January she will get back in the studio again, and she will "definitely" keep releasing music in the same way, she says. "I don't want to have that thing where I make an album and then I'm super-constantly present in everyone's life for three years, and then gone for the next three. I just want to take a month off and record some music, then tour for a bit, and then record some more music. I just want to have a normal life, like everyone else, you know?" If she is a pop pioneer, then she's also just a very reasonable girl.
'Body Talk Pt 3' is out on Konichiwa on 29 November
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