Robyn was just eighteen years old when she first hit the UK charts in 1997 with upbeat teeny pop songs like ‘Show Me Love’ and ‘Do You Really Want Me?’. With notorious mogul Max Martin (he of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears songwriting fame) penning much of this early output, Robyn was little more than a cog – a small but perfectly formed one, of course – in the machinery of the major label pop world. She later moved from RCA to Jive, but after one too many of the fickle industry’s ebb-and-flow cycles, Robyn bought her way out of her contract and took her career into her own hands.
The freedom of being her own boss paid dividends, and handsomely too. Her first self-released album, 2005′s genre-splintering Robyn, was a number one smash in her native Sweden. Word soon spread to foreign climes, much faster than the album itself, which was finally released internationally in April of this year. With a universally acclaimed live show and a near-rabid, if still cult, fanbase, Robyn is loving every minute of her pop resurrection. Three years of getting her hands dirty clearly hasn’t dampened her spirit, her numerous charms or her sparkling star quality.
When Robbie de Santos met up with Robyn at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen for a chat, he found her bursting with non-conformist creativity, wit and intelligence, a mix between the super-professional (telling the bar manager not to interrupt because SHE’S DOING AN INTERVIEW!) and the excitable, enthusiastic artist. It’s precisely this contradiction in her character that makes Robyn one of the planet’s most exhilarating pop stars right now. Here’s what she had to say…
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You wrote the songs we love so much on Robyn all the way back in 2004. Is it a bit of a drag to still be playing these three-year old songs or are you still really excited by them?
I am. I mean, you always get tired of your songs after you have lived with them for a while. But the UK release has two new songs (including the new single ‘With Every Heartbeat’, a collaboration with Andreas Kleerup). I’ve been writing new songs and when you come to a new country and you have to do new things and work with new people and work the record in a different way it keeps it fresh. I have my own record company so I get to do it in a way I’ve never done it before…it’s really scary to release an album where nobody knows who you are. You never know what’s going to happen and I still don’t, so I released it to go along with the shows to give people a chance to get to know me and then there’s the MySpace site, trying to get it going in this nice way where you’re in contact with your fans and I wanted to build it slowly.
Do you run the Myspace site yourself?
It’s run together with my management because I don’t have time to be there every day but I’m on there a lot, accepting friend requests and choosing who goes in my Top 8! I’m on there most days though. It takes so much of your time – like it’s suddenly 2am and you’ve been on there for three hours!
The album is very self-referential – there’s ‘Konichiwa Bitches’ and ‘Curriculum Vitae’ – and seems to have a Japanese theme. What inspired that?
It’s not really a Japanese theme, I’m really into manga and cartoons and that whole kind of superhero thing, but the word ‘konichiwa’ came from this Dave Chapelle sketch – I don’t know if you’ve seen it – the different races in the world are fighting over which celebrities belong to which races and so the black community says you can have Michael Jackson if we can have Eminem, and they decide Oprah is white, and nobody can decide whether Tiger Woods is black or Asian. It’s really funny. Then RZA from Wu-Tang Clan came up on stage and they decided he wasn’t black, he was Asian, and he said “konichiwa bitches”. I heard it and just loved those words together. I didn’t have a name for my record company so I took it. But for the album, it’s not really a Japanese theme – it could be just as much punk or hip hop. It could be anything really!
How have you found controlling yourself as an artist? Is it scary? Do you find yourself answering the phone a lot more?
Yeah, it was scary at first. I had to make all these decisions that I’d never had to make before. I wanted to make them but I was kinda unable to. I wanted it to be like this, but when you get that power you realise how hard it can be to tell people what you want and to fire people and decide salaries. It was really something that I had to learn. But now I feel really comfortable in it; it really doesn’t take away from my creative process. It’s probably the other way – it helps me to create an economic situation where I can be creatively safe. I’m not worried about being dropped or doing what other people want me to do. So if you have the energy to really educate yourself and get into this strange world then it really pays off as an artist.
The artwork for the album is harsh and confrontational, but is also very aesthetically stylish. Does this somewhat represent how you would like be perceived – kind of punk, I guess?
I’d love to be considered to be punk! I think that all my life I’ve been in between things. I started out with this whole pop thing with Max Martin but I never felt part of that. But I still wanted to make pop music. I think that sometimes confuses people, but I think pop music can be deep and interesting and still reach a lot of people. That’s probably where I’m trying to be.
Back to Sweden. It’s always had a good reputation for good, pure pop music. Why do you think Swedish pop is received better internationally than, say, German or Russian pop music?
I think it’s about where we are on the map. Like, we’re outside of Europe but we’re very much part of the Western world. So we take bits of that and make it our own, but so do a lot of countries. We’re kinda isolated up there, you know. It’s very dark during the winter and people have to stay inside and do something. It’s a small country, too, and the music business is small. You have to listen to what other people are doing – there’s not that many people doing what you’re doing. You have to mix and that’s what’s kinda creating these meetings between people. You have to be open to things otherwise you’ll be totally alone.
Are you thinking of expanding your label?
Oh no! I don’t want to be a record company boss, that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to move away from. I think every artist should have their own record label. But I helped this friend of mine to release his album in Sweden, but we only sold fifty copies or something horrible! That was a one time thing!
Can I ask you, what’s the idea behind the magazine? I had a look on the website and it looked really interesting!
Well, it’s basically all about the fact that women musicians are under-represented in the majority of the music press and so we decided to make a magazine for anyone who’s interested in balancing things out.
That’s great! I thought it was a cool page and when I saw the logo there with the women singing I thought “cool, this is a girls’ thing”, because this discussion is kinda big in Sweden too, like evening out the balance…women are under-represented in a lot of ways.
Last year’s NME ‘cool list’ actually featured five women in the top ten – Kate Jackson from the Long Blondes, Lovefoxxx from CSS, Lily Allen, Karen O and Beth Ditto from the Gossip – but then they went and ruined it with some ridiculous quote where the editor said something about how great it is that women “can rock the stage, even when they’re wearing stilettos”
[laughs] Oh my god, that’s silly! It’s everywhere, isn’t it? You can’t get away from it; the music industry is just like any other industry. Sweden is such a good country for women and we’re very aware of our position. I think the most important thing is to look at it in a sober way. A lot of times feminism today is just about putting on stilettos and thinking “I’m going to rawk out, I’m going to be a tough girl. I can show my tits”. It’s like, c’mon, feminism is not a statement; it’s about looking at people in the same way.
I never get surprised when people are ignorant. I really hope everything is always moving forward. When my great grandmother was born Swedish women couldn’t vote and now I can do things that my mother couldn’t do. I think it’s cool to be a girl right now.
The Knife, who you collaborated with on ‘Who’s That Girl’, are in on the debate too. How did the collaboration come about?
They sent me Deep Cuts, their second album, it just arrived at my house in the post. I had a listen and I loved it; I’d never listened to their music before. I was surprised and I was so happy to hear such good music coming from Sweden, but also it was something I really connected to. It felt familiar and kinda close to me or to what I wanted to do. I really wanted to work with them and told them I wanted to. I called them up and I got this beat from them and I wrote the song to that beat. But it was great working with them and they were a real inspiration in setting up my own record company. I knew I wanted to do it and it was nice to see this band already doing it and having it really work for them the way I wanted it to work for me.
Are there any other Swedish people you’d like to work with like Peter, Bjorn and John or Frida Hyvönen?
I actually worked with Bjorn already – he’s the guy who plays the piano on ‘Jack U Off’ and the ballad version of ‘Be Mine’. I wanted to do some extra stuff for the Swedish ‘Be Mine’ single. I called him and we hooked up in the studio and recorded everything in one day. There’s loads of talented people out there! I’d love to work with Lisa Milberg, the drummer in The Concretes – she plays the drums really well. But I’m so pleased with the people I’m working with at the moment, especially Andreas and Klas (Åhlund, of Stockholm indie legends Teddybears), and The Knife of course. They were great to work with. And Christian Falk.