This week Swedish pop phenom Robyn made true on a promise to fans and released her long-awaited new album, Honey (Konichiwa/Interscope). The album arrives eight years after she presented her seminal Body Talk to the world. Created in studios in Stockholm, London, Paris, New York and Ibiza, Robyn teamed up with Metronomy’s Joseph Mount, long-time collaborator Klas Åhlund, Adam Bainbridge (a.k.a. Kindness), Mr. Tophat and Zhala to create yet another monumental work. In honor of the release of Honey, we revisit our 2008 cover story where she spoke candidly about her musical ethos and process.
Words: Zel McCarthy | Images: James Morgan
Robyn might be the world’s best kept secret pop star. After tracking her down across three continents, we finally catch up with her on the beach in Sydney. Okay, maybe she wasn’t on the beach when we found her, but she was in Australia for the third time in six months promoting her latest self-titled album.
For those not familiar with the platinum haired 28-year-old Swedish singer and her newest hits “With Every Heartbeat,” “Be Mine!” and the heralding “Konichiwa Bitches,” take a moment to introduce yourselves, or perhaps be reintroduced. As you may recall, Robyn has been to the US before, in a time when we were all a little younger, a little richer, and a little more naïve. Barely old enough to buy cigarettes in the States, She stormed the US pop charts in 1998 with her hits “Show Me Love” and “Do You Know What It Takes?” as a sort of pre-Britney sentinel. Like Spears, Robyn’s first songs were penned and produced by the Scanda-super producer Max Martin. And like Spears, Robyn was poised to be a teen queen of pop. But her first experiences in the US weren’t exactly what she’d imagined it would be. “As a sixteen year old most of the information I had about America was through hip-hop music. It was through Biggie and Snoop and TLC.”
Not only was Robyn surprised by the “corporate suburban culture” of her teen fan base, she found it hard to be the artist she thought she could become. “I felt like I was struggling to conform to this new culture but also the culture of the record industry,” she says of her early career. So she retreated to Sweden and made what she now calls “a very introverted and pretentious second album” that was never released beyond her home country. Her label wasn’t into it. “They thought I was crazy not doing what Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears were doing.”
And in a way, she kinda was. Robyn walked from the flesh baring hit factory career of her peers to figure out what kind of music she really wanted to make. “On my third album I tired to compromise, to make something that worked for me and my record label,” says Robyn of her second Sweden-only release. “And that didn’t work either. That’s when I realized I couldn’t function in the major label industry anymore. My first thought was I would stop making music, and I called my dad and he said, ‘You just call me back when you’ve thought about this for a couple weeks.’”
Ironically, ten years later, Robyn has returned to a more pop-inspired aesthetic than ever, albeit remixed, essentially, by a woman who doesn’t believe in the rules of pop stardom.
Her fourth album, Robyn, finally comes to North America this year after it was first released in Sweden in 2005. By any litmus, it’s a pop album of the best variety: a collection of songs to suit different moods and settings, each with varied production, all connected by the voice of one artist. What distinguishes Robyn from Robyn Is Here, her debut from over a decade ago, is time, updated production, and the maturity of an artist. “I have a love for great pop songs,” she jokes.
Robyn is what happens when an artist gets to do what she wants with the people she wants to. In terms of production, it’s largely a collaboration between her and Klas Åhlund, guitarist of Swedish electro rock outfit Teddybears. The two linked up at the suggestion of friends.
“Klas and I had known each other for some time because Stockholm is so small. We had met but we didn’t hang out but people were telling us ‘you should work together,’ We were very disciplined, like, ‘let’s start hanging.’ It was very professional,” she says somewhat jokingly.
One night, when both Robyn and Teddybears had gigs in town, they met up for a beer with mutual friend and collaborator Andreas Kleerup. “These guys come up to us, and they spotted that it was me, and they wanted a picture and they didn’t look like nice guys. They just wouldn’t stop following us. Klas and Kleerup got in this huge fight with them, the police came, and people were really hurt. Klas spent that evening in jail.”
With an experience as quintessentially rock as that, of course they had to work together. The incident even inspired a line in the song “Handle Me.” With Åhlund, Robyn penned one of the first songs that began her reinvention: the bubbly, bleepy, and ridiculous “Konichiwa Bitches.”
“‘Konichiwa Bitches’ comes from me and Klas having fun with the classic rap theme of ‘I’m the best and everyone else sucks.’” With lines like “I’m so very hot that when I rob your mansion / You ain’t callin’ the cops you call the fire station” and an accompanying video that follows a live action animated Robyn with supersized objects and an acid-trip color scheme, you believe her when she cites the songs influences as Dave Chapelle sketches, going out with her girlfriends, Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes.
Just as the hip-pop beats and R&B-inflected crooning on her early hits and some of her newer ballads demonstrates the influence of American hip-hop culture on her work, “Konichiwa Bitches” is a sort of homage hip-hop comic icon Chappelle. The title, Robyn explains, comes from a Chappelle sketch about Wu-tang’s RZA. You don’t even need to know the premise to enjoy the humor in a Swedish girl quoting an African-American comedian’s joke about a rapper’s Asian heritage. It’s multinational (perhaps racially insensitive) humor only possible in the 21st century.
While she worked with Åhlund for most of the album, Robyn teamed up with Swedish sibling group The Knife for what would be a defining song for her. On “Who’s That Girl?” a rallying cry against pop culture homogeneity, Robyn effectively applies a can of sugary spray paint to The Knife’s typically icy synth pop. With this song in the bag, Robyn felt confident in buying herself out of her major label contract and founding her own label, naturally titled, Konichiwa Records.
“It seems through the ups and downs of her career, Robyn has been charting a map of human experience. While the tunes might be bubblegum, there’s no doubt Robyn is a more thoughtful artist than most. She’s self-aware enough to understand her appeal without being arrogant about it.”
Collaborations in pop music aren’t typically that collaborative, but for Robyn, they’re not only a group effort, but a personal one.
“I feel like I can’t work with people that aren’t a part of my process or that I don’t connect with,” she says. “Usually when I work with people like Klas or The Knife we hang out and we get to know each other and we have fun together, so the songs end up being really personal. Even though that’s not the only goal of my music, because I really feel like it’s the contrast that is important.”
“I don’t feel like I have to sit there with a guitar and spill my heart out and talk about what my life really is,” she continues. “That’s how I felt when I made my second album. I’m a lot more interested with what happens when my music reaches other people’s lives and how it can bring them into a world where they feel comfortable and they can connect on something. That’s what’s so cool about pop music. You have medium where you can talk about really simple things without being pretentious.”
Even though she’s been away from the charts for a while, she hasn’t been gone from the American pop consciousness. She sang lead vocals on Basement Jaxx’s “Hey U” from their 2006 album Crazy Itch Radio and even sang backup for Britney on her single “Piece of Me.” The latter came about as a result of Åhlund’s production work on the track alongside friends and fellow Swedes Bloodshy and Avant. In some ways, it’s a full circle moment for Robyn, even if she’s not too fazed by it when she reflects on the late ‘90s pop explosion that launched her career.
“I feel like, funnily enough, there’s a history where people looked upon that as very artificial and weird expression or branch of pop music. It actually has a meaning! Through the miseries of Britney Spears, and looking back at where the music industry was, I mean, people had so much money, and now they don’t. Looking back now, it’s a very interesting part of the history of the music industry. I’m proud of being a part of that. I’ve always had pop music’s back. Even when it wasn’t cool”
Her current brand of pop music is more like a re-imagining of what the genre can be. When some savvy fans and bloggers started sharing tracks from Robyn two years ago, she became somewhat of a cult favorite and an unexpected indie dance hero in the States. It took until late 2007 for the CEO and sole artist of Konichiwa Records to broker a deal with Interscope to put out her album, but the timing seems to be right. While she is saying “konichiwa” again to a North American audience, Robyn’s image—dramatically different from any other mainstream artist—is sure to help solidify her alternative fanbase, while she expresses herself.
“I wanna look like a fag,” she says of her appearance, before giggling at herself. “I feel like I’m trying to keep myself in check so I don’t go too far. People get offended sometimes when you don’t look like you’re supposed to. I’m really enjoying the visual part of what I do. I think because I grew up around the theater it’s something I feel very comfortable doing whether it’s what I’m wearing or my videos.”
This kind of gender defiance is perhaps what has helped her cultivate strong roots in gay and lesbian communities worldwide. “I’ve had a good gay following ever since my first album. I don’t know what it is,” she wonders. “Anyone that can relate to my songs, that’s good. My songs are written about men, but for me, my audience is queer, in the true sense of the word. Yes, some of them are gay, but a lot of people who like that music that aren’t gay are queer in the sense that they’re on the outside. I feel at home in a queer culture. I feel more comfortable on the outside looking in.”
As her songs and videos filtered into the US via the web, some speculation has arisen about Robyn’s own sexuality. “For the ‘Handle Me’ video, for example, we felt like going extreme with the makeup for fun. Instead of doing big lips, we decided to go hardcore with my eyebrows. I’ve always been a fan of those amazing Audrey Hepburn eyebrows. Then, when the video came out and it was on YouTube, all of these American people started to write that I looked like a dyke. To me, it was obvious that I was playing around. They’re almost like Charlie Chaplin’s, very unnatural.”
Baffled by the association between her eyebrows and her sexuality, Robyn is undeterred in her interest in America, or her queer audience. “I still think there’s a distance in between what’s ‘queer’ and what’s ‘dykey’ or negative in Europe and what it means in America. To me, sometimes there’s a conservative way of looking at how women are supposed to look and what makes you a homosexual. I think it’s interesting that it’s still like that.”
Of primary concern to Robyn is how her fans relate to and experience her music. Each track on the album is designed to either form a connection between artist and audience, or at least make them dance. “Cobrastyle,” her reworked cover of the Teddybears song continues the same bravado of “Konichiwa Bitches,” but songs like “Be Mine!” and “Bum Like You” are more narrative and more personal.
There aren’t too many people who can cite Russian futurist poets and Dave Chappelle as influences for their work, but Robyn does it adeptly and with a sense of humor about herself in the process.
“We wanted ‘Be Mine!’ to be—it’s about how you feel when you get dumped. We wanted to write it through a 15 year old person’s perspective because things are so black and white then and that’s still how you feel even if you’re 35.”
Sometimes, as for “With Every Heartbeat,” the experiences she sings about aren’t hers: “Me and Kleerup were writing in Stockholm and the song was being made for his solo album. He had this track for a long time and he asked me if I wanted to write on it. I wasn’t sure I was going to do it, but I was in my car one day and this melody just came to me and I sang it for Andreas and he really liked it. The lyrics ended up being about him and his girlfriend because they were breaking up at the time. Even though they’re not about me, but I can relate it to my own life, it’s happened to me as well.
It seems through the ups and downs of her career, Robyn has been charting a map of human experience. While the tunes might be bubblegum, there’s no doubt Robyn is a more thoughtful artist than most. She’s self-aware enough to understand her appeal without being arrogant about it.
“People are a lot more interested in what goes on inside of me. Even though most of these songs are about relationships they’re more about me, and what I experience as a woman in Western society.
“I’m reading this book about [Vladimir] Mayakovsky, who was this Russian poet, and he had this very complicated relationship with this woman Lily Brik, and they were futurists and communists and very modern people for their time. She had lots of relationships, she never really committed to one man, and they were very interesting people, but even though they were modern, they were still very stuck in the role of being a man and the role of being a woman. I think that’s what ‘Bum Like You’ is about. No matter how you think you’re rebelling against a particular way of being, you’re not, because you’re still stuck in this pattern of just confirming to a conservative way of looking at love.”
There aren’t too many people who can cite Russian futurist poets and Dave Chappelle as influences for their work, but Robyn does it adeptly and with a sense of humor about herself in the process. For Robyn, what she does isn’t about challenging the status quo as much as it is about being herself.
“I’m a person, and I’m a feminist and I’m politically aware, of course but I don’t feel like I need to make a political statement with my music. What I do with my music is very personal and it’s how I describe my life. Mostly, it’s fun. Sometimes that becomes provocative but I don’t really think about it.”