A decade after she walked away from pop stardom, Swedish dance-floor diva Robyn is on the cusp of... pop stardom. But this time, she's not bending over backward to please anybody. [Magazine Excerpt]
For several bizarre hours on a Tuesday afternoon in September, Swedish pop star Robyn attends a cocktail party for Manhattan socialite Blair Waldorf. The event, of course, is as fake as the plastic strawberries stacked next to the chocolate fountain--they're shooting a scene for an episode of Gossip Girl--and the 31-year-old singer born Robin Carlsson lip-synchs to a stripped-down version of her latest single, "Hang With Me," as extras grip champagne glasses inside Silvercup Studios in Queens and try to look posh.
"Do you have artists here a lot?" Robyn asks a trio of staffers who have gravitated to her dressing room. The answer comes quickly--Lady Gaga and No Doubt (and, um, Sonic Youth)--which means Robyn is the third platinum-haired pop star to perform on the show, but the first without a platinum album. This century, anyway.
In 1998, she was a New York-based teen ingénue with a smash single, "Show Me Love," cowritten by Britney Spears/Backstreet Boys hit-maker Max Martin. But in 1999, the same year Spears slapped on a schoolgirl outfit for "...Baby One More Time," Robyn flipped off the industry and remade herself into a DIY electro queen. More than a decade later, the gamble is paying off: Robyn makes music she likes--shimmering, melodic disco that's equally suited for losing yourself on a dance floor or in your thoughts--and the overwhelmingly positive response to her latest albums, Body Talk Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, which hit the Top 10 on the iTunes albums chart and led to a performance on MTV's Video Music Awards.
"I didn't expect this," Robyn admits between scenes as she reaches into a black fanny pack for a Marlboro Light. Sitting on a bench near the stage's loading dock, she's wearing a gray sweatshirt with a torn-out neck, Flashdance-style, protecting her Gossip Girl wardrobe of red top and puffy black skirt, exuding the casual confidence of someone who's been onstage her whole life. Her parents ran an experimental-theater group in Stockholm, and traveling with them exposed her to club culture and progressive artists such as Laurie Anderson at an age most kids are grappling with Sesame Street; by 12, she had been discovered singing at school. "Being onstage and communicating with an audience was part of my life since I was very little, but I was never pushed into singing," she says. "My parents were so uninterested in me making music. They were just like, 'Do whatever you gotta do.'?"
Martin and the late Swedish producer Denniz Pop oversaw her blockbuster 1997 debut, Robyn Is Here. Being around these songwriters was a huge influence on her, as was the eclectic pop on European radio in the '90s. "You'd hear Guns N' Roses and Snap! and N.W.A," she says. "We'd have to make our own ways to connect them."
While "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know (What It Takes)" were hits in America, Robyn's passion was fading fast. "I was having fun, but it wasn't my dream come true," she says with a slight accent. "When you're 17 and you have an idea, people don't really listen to you. I came out of an environment where my parents were always pushing me to do what I wanted and be creative, and I was not used to the industry's way of thinking."
She returned to Sweden and put out two albums that weren't released outside of Europe, then experienced her Moses-on-the-mountaintop moment once she realized she could simply do it herself. "I'd always been a club kid so I was totally unaware that people had their own record companies," she says over Gossip Girl's lunch break, gulping down a plate of salad, rice and beans, and salmon in the studio's commissary.
She recorded her next disc, Robyn, for her own Konichiwa Records. "There was no A&R, no expectations, no one to answer to"--an ideal scenario for someone who'd later write a throbbing tune called "Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do."
A mix of finger-wagging hip-hop boasts, glitchy pop, and lovelorn reveries, Robyn came out in Sweden in 2005 and didn't make its way to the U.S. until three years later. But by the time Robyn signed a distribution deal with Interscope and returned for her first U.S. show in a decade, a funny thing happened: The Internet quietly spread Robyn to an unlikely new audience of tastemakers. "Sure the Internet is the future, but what we do on the Internet is still very primal," Robyn says. "It's all about connecting to other people, sharing emotion. It's our new feathers or face paint. It's all very raw. I think the contrast between those things is what's really inspired this new album."