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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral