[Q&A] Robyn on the "reinvention" myth, playing to a pop audience, and rediscovering Euro-dance
Robin Miriam Carlsson, better known to you and I as ROBYN, can claim to have both had it supremely easy and amazingly hard in her quest for global pop domination. Easy, in the sense that she was discovered at the age of 12, had a major label contract at 16, and a Max Martin-assisted global hit ("Show Me Love") while still a teen.
Here she is, at age 13, singing the theme song to Swedish tv's Lilla Sportspegeln.
And at age 18, with her video for "Show Me Love"
But she has had it hard, too: being a teenage property of a major label is not always what it's cracked up to be, especially when the label honchos are determined to keep you a strictly Swedish phenomenon. As we detailed in last week's feature on her, Robyn overcame these obstacles by eventually buying out her contract, expanding her musical range to include brag-happy rap swagger and stuttering electro-pop. The result, 2005's Robyn, eventually became a second worldwide hit, and this time on her own terms. 2010 saw her follow it up with the gloriously danceable Body Talk; we catch up with her in Sweden a few nights after she cleaned up at the Swedish Grammys as she prepares for a North American winter tour that brings her to our own House of Blues this Friday, February 4:
So we’re looking forward to catching you in February at the House of Blues, but I noticed that you just announced that you’re going to be opening for Katy Perry this summer-- what’s your attitude toward that tour?
I’m just happy to be on the road and play to as many people as I can.
Right, right-- but do you feel like with a tour opening for Katy Perry, you’re working in a pop aesthetic that might be at odds with what a lot of your fans think you’re all about?
What do you mean, “at odds”? What are you talking about?
I guess I mean do you have to take a different approach to play to, say, a Katy Perry audience instead of those that come to your own headlining gigs, for example.
Well, as long as I get to do my show the way I always do it, to me it doesn’t matter in what context I'm in. And I think Katy Perry has an audience that I'm not really reaching at the moment, so it’s going to be really interesting to play for that kind of crowd.
You’ve been in the music biz since a very young age, and at a few crucial junctures you’ve had to rethink your approach in order to move forward. Do you, personally, find that your creative impulses are tied into a need to, in essence, “reinvent yourself” in the eyes of your audience?
I think to say that it’s about “reinventing myself” is kind of like a really lazy way of describing it-- not saying that you are, or anything. But I think that that way of describing that process is kind of like an old way of talking about pop music that’s stayed around since Madonna came out, and I don’t really see what I do as reinventing myself or trying to create any kind of headlines or-- I'm really just trying to be more and more just myself. And that of course makes every record a little bit different because hopefully I'm getting closer and closer to what is the core of what I'm doing. but I don't feel like the goal is to reinvent anything. the goal is to peel away what is unnecessary.
That’s a really interesting way to put it-- do you feel like this process of peeling away was evident even when you started out?
I dunno; I mean, I was so young when I started out, I was 16! And I don’t think that I was even close to doing anything that represented me as an artist then, because I didn’t know who I was gonna be yet. I was just trying stuff, having fun, but not really having a goal. I was discovered and I was just catapulted into the pop industry without really-- I was lucky, I didn’t have to fight for it, I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and I got to perform songs and record an album. it was something I wanted but not something I planned for at all. it took me some time to realize what kind of situation I was in and what I was going to do with that stuff.
Do you feel like your music is now is somehow more representative of who you actually are?
Yeah, I think I'm trying to do something that feels honest and warm and real, kind of. And then if it’s me, really who I am, I don’t know! that’s my ambition, but I don’t really know!
One thing that’s interesting about the music on your last two albums is that your songs, even if they have an upbeat dance feel, tend to be kind of sad at their core. Is that juxtaposition intentional?
Well, I guess I think that most people know what it’s like to feel alone, you know? And it’s not always a physical condition, it’s sometimes how you feel inside, and there can be millions of different reasons for why people feel lonely, we all have our traumas and fears and whatever, and it’s a universal thing that all people know, how that feels. It’s what drives us in a lot of ways, the things that we get past and deal with to be happier and stronger. I guess they’re sad, some of my songs, but I guess I also want them to be brave and empowering too. And then sometimes I do the fun stuff as well.
When you formed your own record company and released your self-titled album, there was an immediate difference in your presentation, in that a lot of your newer songs had an overwhelming sense of confidence, a kind of cocky swagger that wasn’t there in your teenage material. Was this something that had been repressed in your earlier music.
I think that I always had that, but I never had the opportunity to explore that in my music. Because before, I would get a request from the record company, like “This is what we see you as” and “This is how we’re gonna market you”. And it’s almost like delivering a product, you know what I mean? That’s what I was doing and I was doing it quite well, but I was uninspired by that whole process. So the last album was the first album I did where I really was able to free myself from that pressure of having to deliver something that had to meet certain expectations.
What’s also interesting is that although you’ve taken far more control of your career and your music, you remain a supremely collaborative musician, working with a lot of cool producers and writers on your new material. What’s the difference between this collaboration and the way you would work with people when you were younger?
Well, I mean look, collaboration is always fun, and I’ve always enjoyed making music. My first three albums, making them I was having fun and a lot of those songs I'm really proud of. I look at them as my school, my way of getting to know myself and my way of writing songs and stuff. But the difference now is that I choose everyone I work with myself, it’s not people being presented to me by someone else. but also the process we work with is very different because there’s nobody who has to listen to what we’re doing or okay it or have any opinion until it’s done, so it’s an uninterrupted process. And I chose to work with these people after making some really important decisions for myself, like working on a smaller scale, and being less focused on the results. Or maybe more focused, I don’t know. But having fun! But, you know, the mechanics of how you work with someone, that’s still the same for me.
Body Talk has a real Euro-dance feel to it-- was there a specific influence for that sound for this record?
I played in smaller clubs a lot during 2008, 2007, and that totally affected the album. It kind of reconnected me to my roots. You know, being a teenager growing up in Europe when dance music was really important, the whole rave culture in the UK, and hip hop and pop music started mixing with dance music in really strange ways, like we had artists like Technotronic and The KLF and Neneh Cherry.
Do you feel like dance music is ascendant right now?
Yeah, maybe! Especially in America; I mean, if you look at festivals, they seem to be back in America-- Coachella, etc., and dance music is making an impact on all kinds of genres. I mean, R&B, sure, but even rock music is influenced by dance music at the moment. And you have underground movements like, I dunno, Major Lazer and stuff like that making an impact on the commercial world, which is really interesting.
When you are writing songs and working on new material, how hard is it to balance this desire to, you know, see what’s out there, what’s going on musically, with writing music about yourself and what you are personally going through?
Well, with my music, I don’t like to only reference, you know? You also have to get to a place where you are trying to create something of your own. References are important to being part of a scene or some kind of like-- well, even if it’s not a genre, some kind of community, and that’s always been an influence for me, and I think that’s what music is about, you know? Whether it’s a time or certain type of music or whatever, it gives you a context or a light quality that I like when it comes to pop music. I want music to mean something, but I also want music to be very directed and uncomplicated.