Why does Scandinavia keep on producing effortlessly cool and hugely influential female pop stars?

Robyn, MØ, Annie, Lykke Li, Icona Pop, Tove Lo and Zara Larsson are merely the tip of the iceberg as Nordic women continue to shape the pop landscape

Shaun Curran
Tuesday 07 February 2017 18:17
Swedish singer Lykke Li
Swedish singer Lykke Li

What is it about Scandinavia that keeps on producing effortlessly cool and hugely influential female pop stars? The last few years alone have seen a never-ending conveyor belt of boundary-pushing, chart-troubling Scandipop acts that have left their male counterparts in the shade: Robyn, MØ, Annie, Lykke Li, Icona Pop, Tove Lo and Zara Larsson are merely the tip of the iceberg as the Nordic women continue to shape the pop landscape in their own image.

“It’s something cultural,” says Swedish singer-songwriter MY. “There are great opportunities growing up here with public music schools, loads of studios and government-funded programmes so kids can learn music. It’s a great start. And we’ve got so many female role models, great pop writers. There’s lots of equality here.” Norway's Dagny has a simpler explanation: “Pop is in the water and comes out in great songs.”

Whatever the reasons, the wave of Scandinavian women making emotive pop bangers shows no signs of stopping. MY and Dagny, along with musicians such as Alma and SKOTT, are leading the way for the new generation of Scandipop artists set for success in their homelands and beyond.

Swedish songwriter Pauline Skott aka SKOTT

Dagny’s shiny, energetic sound is already making the Norwegian one of pop’s fastest-rising stars. Last year’s incessant debut single Backbeat was plucked from obscurity by Zane Lowe on Beats 1 before it was even fully finished: three days later it had received over 300,000 plays on Spotify.

“It wasn’t even mixed and mastered on Spotify,” Dagny says. “When we put the new version out people started saying ‘hey this is not as kicking as much as the other version!’”

Not that it dampened the song’s appeal – to date Backbeat has been streamed over 24 million times. A deal with Universal inevitably followed, the first fruits of which can be heard on the excellent, hi-energy, LA-written Ultraviolet EP. Yet all of this might never have happened: after 10 years songwriting with no breakthrough, Dagny was ready to give it all up. “I had a serious moment last year. I thought I can’t keep doing this. I didn’t feel challenged or excited. I was like I’m 26, I’m too old! But my parents (both musicians) convinced me to carry on.”

Being older has given her perspective. “I got to know myself, get more confident. I feel ready for it now, to take charge of my career and make my own decisions. I know who I am now.” That meant finally embracing her love of pop music.

“I was in denial about my love of pop for a long time,” she laughs. “I was like, pop sucks! But I found my way back again. Pop is what makes me excited.”

Four songs into her career, Swedish songwriter SKOTT takes a more refined approach. Already championed by Katy Perry and Lorde, Huw Stephens made her latest single, the despondent, leftfield disco of Lack of Emotion, his Tune of the Week on Radio 1.

“It’s pretty hard to understand,” SKOTT says. “Katy Perry and Lorde are the fairy godmothers of these tracks. It’s unreal to think about it.” SKOTT’s contemplative melodic vision has already manifested itself in varied guises: Wolf, for instance, is understated noir-pop recalling Lana Del Rey. Her inspiration is drawn from her unconventional childhood growing up in what she calls a “traditional village” run by outcast folk musicians who adhered to age old customs and wore matching, mediaeval costumes.

“I know it sounds ridiculous! But it wasn’t like a commune where you share everything like hippies. We have a food store and stuff, we don’t trade. But we didn’t have a radio, so I didn’t listen to much pop when I was a kid.” It has shaped the way that she writes songs. “I found the melancholic, sad folk songs so beautiful as a kid and wanted to write my own ones like them. When you start writing on violin there are no chords so the melodies have to be strong on their own.” But even if SKOTT’s songs have so far showed many dimensions – “it’s more fun to write a song and then ask what production would fit this song” – they have the thread of her personality running through them.

“I need to feel something in my tummy when I listen to the music. A bittersweet feeling. I think it’s the harmonies and melodies that make you feel like that. The melody language is quite similar.”

Despite having the least Google-friendly name in pop – “everyone says that, but it’s too late to change it now!” – MY is making waves with her noticeably un-Swedish brand of punk-pop. Think Paramore’s Hayley Williams if she’d grown up in the Swedish woodlands taping American hits off the radio. “Where I grew up in the forest there wasn’t much around, so I used to make these playlists, which was a lot more effort back then. I loved Britney and the Backstreet Boys, but also Jimmy Eat World and The Used. I didn’t really care if it was messy or rocky or poppy, I appreciated great songs.”

Growing up with an emo attitude – “I didn’t do the whole make up thing but I was emo at heart” – has shaped MY’s songs. Second single Pretty Little Liar, an infectious bubblegum-punk tale of heartbreak, sounds more Stockton, California than Stockholm.

Swedish singer MY

“It’s not very Swedish to bring that element into pop music. But it’s such a big part of me. I have a great vision to mix those two, to have that US influence with the Scandipop element but be modern about it, bring the guitars back into pop music. I think we need it. I know it’s not really usual but that’s the thing. That’s why I want to do it.” MY now has to whittle down the 80 songs she has written to form a coherent album. “It’s going to be tricky. But they’re not all about heartbreak though, don’t worry!”

Alma is TV talent contest alumni, but that is about as much as she has in common with your average pop star. With neon green hair and a brash attitude to match, the 21-year-old is challenging perceptions of pop stardom. By her own admission, her “rough” schooldays have left a scar that has yet to fully heal. “I wasn’t the most popular kid, I was a slow learner and didn’t get good grades. The school system was wrong for me, there was too much pressure and anxiety. All of my ups and downs are why I’m writing.”

Finnish singer songwriter Alma

Alma dropped out of school at 15 and, after failing to get into music school, landed a place on Idols, the Finnish X Factor. Her life “went crazy” after she came fifth, giving her impetus to pursue a singing career. “I never even understood I was a good performer, I did it because it made me feel better. After the programme, it was the first time I decided to write what I feel. I found a new way to express myself.”

Her debut single Dye My Hair is a wonderful slice of house-pop rebelling against conventional ideas of beauty. “It’s a ‘fuck you’ for everyone who says being different is not cool”. It’s a promising start: one that Alma hopes will eventually make her Finland’s first big Scandipop export.

“I really want to be the first one that breaks through in the UK. Everyone in Finland is really hoping that I’ll be the one. I have green hair and I’m a bit crazier than everyone else, but people want me to be successful.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments