Robyn is a 10/10 sort of popstar: underrated but utterly brilliant. A constant presence on the radio without getting on your nerves. And she’s got class. In the electropop supermarket she’d be a succulent M&S Sunday Roast. Sorry…did you just choke on that metaphor? Then have a listen to her latest single ‘Dancing on my Own’. It’ll sort you out:
I went to interview her in autumn 2007, just after leaving school. The deal was: meet Robyn in the Palace Hotel on Oxford Road in Manchester. She’d give me ten minutes of her time and then we could all trot off home. Instead we kept talking and this scruffy, fresh faced student ended up being taken out for dinner by a gorgeous Scandavanian pop star that looked like an ice pixie and switched between chat about Madonna and Marx. At this point that I developed a misguided idea that all university would be like this.
The version here is cobbled together from a piece written for Manchester’s Student Direct paper and a longer transcript that wasn’t used. So it doesn’t really flow and the questions are a bit stodgy…but have a read. It won’t hurt.
If you haven’t got Body Talk Part 1, Buy it. But now, on with the interview with “the most killingest pop star on the planet”.
The modern pop star is 5ft tall, has a shock of a jagged blonde hair and speaks with a gorgeous Swedish lilt. She stays in five star accommodation, apologises profusely for being late and looks you straight in the eye when talking about music, a topic she approaches with humour and intensity. She understands the intricacies of the industry, runs her own label and somehow remains fiercely independent in this most restrictive of industries. But right now Robyn’s just bothered about what to eat.
“What do you think the chicken will be like? I’m quite tempted by it. Although the steak does look very nice and I need something filling before the show, especially if it comes with vegetables. Go on, you choose. Just so long as it’s organic.”
We’re in the Victorian dining hall at the Palace Hotel where the cost is proportional to the grandeur. I baulk at the twenty pound price tag and propose a more affordable Caesar salad. Robyn sighs and patiently explains that, as a multi-millionaire pop star, she can afford to eat well: “Don’t look at the prices, James.” We decide on the sirloin.
It’s hard to reconcile this stylish, unassuming woman with her role as 2007’s most credible pop musician, someone who came back from the wilderness and found her single ‘With Every Heartbeat’ working its way into the minds of the nation. It’s the sort of record that isn’t supposed to go to number one anymore. Not bad given that Robyn turned her back on the business aged 19: “My first record sold a million albums in America and both of my singles were top ten. I could have probably made a record that would have sold even more but that really wasn’t interesting to me. My reaction after making my debut album and having all that success in the States was to go back to Sweden and try to figure out who I wanted to be as an artist.”
The record company was predictably aghast. “I was stuck in a contract where I couldn’t release my records and eventually got out of the Sony contract before signing to Jive records. But after signing to Jive I realised that the rumours about BMG buying Jive were true and I was going to be back where I started. Even worse all the workers were really scared about loosing their jobs and so their wasn’t any commitment to my record.”
As a result her next releases never made it out of Scandinavia, Robyn inhabiting the curious role of being a massive star in her homeland and all but forgotten elsewhere. Eventually she ran out of patience and started her own record label: “I decided that I didn’t want to be in that situation anymore so gathered together a small group of people and ran everything on a freelance basis out of my kitchen.”
Are you pop or indie…where do you fit in? [Ed: note how things have changed in three years. Robyn? Indie? Eh?]
It all depends on what you call indie – whether it’s a music style or a way of running a record label. I’ve always made and always will make pop music. For me that’s not a bad word as I think it is for a lot of people nowadays. I think that ‘pop music’ has become a name for music of bad quality than an actual collection of points where various music styles can come together. Pop music is what reaches is a lot people and a style of music that is able to handle the modern times without turning it into something pretentious. It’s something that a lot of people connect to: it could be Bob Marley, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, Red Hot Chilli Peppers…to me it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is but as long as it’s something that communicates to a lot of people at the same time. It’s defined by what it does to the audience rather than what styles it sounds like.
Is your label a genuine independent?
“It’s completely my own company. Of course, I wasn’t starting from scratch as I still had a large fanbase in Sweden so I had some money to help us along. To be happy I just needed to try something different and then people started writing about the album on Pitchfork and I realised that it might be possible to release it outside Scandinavia. We tried to get the record licensed outside the UK and all the A&Rs loved it but their bosses just though it was too weird and too pop. We had the label already and just signed a distribution deal for “With Every Heartbeat” and before we knew it was at number one. I’m just really happy to be here and every step is great. I’m happy with how things are going. I don’t need the money. I’ve already made a lot of money in Sweden; it’s enough for me to live on.”
What’s your relationship with the Swedish music scene?
“It’s a small country and a small industry so everyone helps each other out. And there’s a lot of music that is very much made for Sweden only. We all grew up on the same stuff as you British but do it in our own way. It’s good to be isolated and sometimes, when you’re on the outside, you can see things clearer. When people came back and asked to sign the album then I decided I’d only do it if they gave me everything I wanted regarding creative control. And they did – and I think it’s the first time that they’ve done such a deal with an artist on my level.”
Is that realistic for a new band?
“I think it’s very hard to justify the role of major record companies with new bands. You should try and stay as independent as possible for as long as possible and then if you have a good enough record then people are going to want to be involved. You want to be able to use a record label’s contacts and offices without having to sign everything away.”
The bread arrives. She hesitates before choosing a white roll.
“I just want to write pop music. I want to connect with the largest number of people possible but I don’t have to fit into any scene. Pop is what reaches a lot people and a style of music that is able to handle the modern times without turning it into something pretentious.”
Why has pop become a bad word?
“I understand why. There’s been a lot of really bad pop music. There was always Ace of Base – which is really bad music – but who still connected with a lot of people. There’ll always be groups like Girls Aloud who play on what’s hot right now and turn it into great stuff for the radio. But now the record companies are panicking because nobody’s selling albums so they put their money into TV shows and create a world where there’s only ten videos on MTV, five songs on the radio and two artists that you read about. It’s become super extreme.”
Is it harder to be a ‘popstar’ nowadays, the icon on a platform?
“Anyone can be a popstar nowadays and you don’t need to be able to do anything to be famous. The concept has changed: people are so obsessed with celebrity lifestyles that the mystery that surrounded artists like Kate Bush and Madonna and Prince was what I admired about them. I loved the fact that they weren’t everywhere even if their music was. They didn’t have to do all that promotion.”
Robyn, a popstar that’s definitely not on a platform. Oh no. How much more evidence do you WANT?
What sort of audience do you get?
“I have a big queer audience – not just gays – but queer in every sense. It’s the outsiders, the people who don’t give a fuck what others think about them. You have the girls who want to be in Girls Aloud and the louty blokes but also the older guy who really appreciates music and the young punk who thinks she’s really cool when she’s rapping the lyrics to ‘Konichiwa Bitches’. It’s all over the place and I love that. The queer audience are great: I know they love me and I love them.
“I’ve had their attention ever since I was 15 and starting out. I grew up in a theatre family and my parents were always hanging around with all kinds of people. It was kind of crazy to tour the world at that age but I was very well prepared and there were always discussions about art, culture and performance. My motivation was to get into music, not to be part of the Disney Club. I don’t have a problem with being an ‘entertainer’ but I have a problem with other people implying there’s nothing to me.”
How does a three-year-old album still sound so contemporary?
“I was lucky enough to find very talented people to work with. I had a very strong vision of what this album was going to be and I have not tried to be a credible artist. I’ve used what I know I can do best. It’s an all-Swedish record, there’s no expensive American bling-bling producer involved.”
Er, yes, Robyn only gone and performed at the BLOODY NOBEL PEACE PRIZE.
But you created the most credible number one of the year!
“I know, but it’s credible because it’s not trying to be. I think the coolest artists are Johnny Cash and Nena Simone because they did one of thing all their lives and they did it really well. They never lost their sense of style or dignity. They never tried to cover everything; they just did what they were good at. That’s what I think I’m doing, holding pop back as I did with my first record. I’m not trying to be Gwen Stefani who has a fake hip-hop thing going, everything I do is real and what I grew up with and listened to and with all my Swedish friends. It’s basically just me. It’s taken me three years to release this record but every step has been so intense that I’ve been able to make the most of it and have a great time.
Aren’t you fed up with promoting this release?
“No! I have a new album in my head and feel stressed that I haven’t got into the studio yet but you don’t get these chances very often and very few people get a second attempt. It’s my duty to make the most out of theses situations.”
We talk politics. Despite being a wealthy musician Robyn professes her socialist, anti-materialist leanings (“My boyfriend works in a factory and all his friends talk about is saving up money to buy a plasma TV rather than spend time with their kids”) and is immensely proud of her home nation: she plans to take advantage of its free University education and forces us to write down the best places to visit in Stockholm. In return I attempt to explain the cultural impact that Neolithic stone circles have had on British culture and how key communist texts were written just around the corner. She’s utterly bemused but listens politely all the way through.
I venture that she keeps quite a detached image. She sighs. “I’m not very different from other people.”
It’s all very disarming. When Robyn insists, “I’m not very different from other people,” she’s actually telling the truth. Well, to a point. When the time comes for the gig I propose catching a Magic Bus for short trip to the venue: “Ah, you see I don’t really use public transport.” We part as she jumps into a waiting cab – she might seem friendly but she’s still a pop star at heart.