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Icona Pop Talk Shop: Swedish Duo on Romance and Revenge

Left to right, Icona Pop's Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo

When Swedish singers Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo decided to make music together, they had no idea what they were going to do. Literally. Though they attended the same music school in Stockholm, the duo’s electro-pop outfit Icona Pop was born out of a chance meeting at a party — Jawo had come out of a particularly grueling breakup and Hjelt was in a bout of artistic malaise, and the two felt an instant creative connection. Eager to work together, they decided to start writing and figured their musical direction would eventually come to them just as naturally as friendship had. They finished writing their first song exactly one day later.

Last fall, about two years after that first meeting, Icona Pop funneled their mutual love of dance and pop and released the day-glo, synth-laden single “Manners.” Their debut EP, Nights Like This, followed soon after, full of bubbly, bouncing beats and giddy keyboards leading anthemic hooks about youthful rebellion, ex-lovers, and girl power. Last month, the duo announced their plans for a full-length album and premiered the gritty, electro-burning scream-along summer revolt “I Love It,” written by Charli XCX.

We caught up with Icona Pop in downtown Manhattan on the day before their first live U.S. performance to talk about the band’s early days, their inspirations, and love.

What is “Icona Pop”?
Hjelt: It’s funny because people always think something is either “indie” or “mainstream pop” and they’re always going to try to label you. We never felt like we couldn’t do whatever we wanted to and still call it our pop.
Jawo: We see ourselves as very pop, electro-pop. I feel like everything is pop these days so it’s really fun and you can be really creative.

What kind of music did you set out to make when you first met?
Jawo: We didn’t talk about any kind of music. We didn’t know if it would become rock or reggae. We just sat down and just decided to write.
Hjelt: We were just very, very ready to get started. The day after we met we wrote our first song, it was called “Sheriff Came to Town.” We never sat down and discussed, like, “This is what we want to do, right?” We just threw ourselves out there and were like, okay, let’s start with this drum and see where that takes us. That’s how we’ve always been working. We’re inspired by all different stuff and just living our lives. We are a lot about feeling so our album is going to be a lot of different songs. It’s not like all of our songs are going to sound like “I Love It” or “Manners.” It’s always so hard to describe your own music. It’s a lot of galloping drums, twisted synthesizers, bittersweet melodies, and a punk edge. Futuristic.

Who were the pop icons of your youth?
Jawo: Prince is our main shared one. But my first CD that I bought was actually a mixed one. I remember the cover and everything, it was an Absolute record. Those were very big when we were young. You would collect them — one, two, three, four, five. If you had them, you were very cool. And you were very not cool if you didn’t have them.
Hjelt: I wonder if mine was the same one. It had the Prodigy and [the Babylon Zoo track] “Spaceman.”
Jawo: Yeah, I had that one! I had that one! I had that one! Oh my God, I so had that one!

Hjelt: And right when I thought I knew everything about you, I find out we would have probably been friends back then too.

Let’s do a “Then and Now.” What was your music like before you met each other? And what from that did you bring to Icona Pop?
Jawo: Well I had a band that was kinda punk-rock electro. It was six guys and me. I was playing the cowbell and singing. It didn’t feel like I had found the right spot in my music so I started producing myself. I kind of have a dream to eventually produce all of our music ourselves.
Hjelt: At the beginning we did everything ourselves. Then we had the luxury of working with good producers who could make what we were thinking. But, yeah, the big goal is to produce ourselves. My start, before I met Aino, I worked my ass off and saved a lot of money to come to New York. I was just trying to work. I learned how to play the guitar and was just writing and played one or two gigs. I lived in a random apartment and shared a bed with our friend. Well I didn’t know her then but she’s become a friend now.

Your songs “Nights Like This” and “I Love It” have this youthful romanticism about them. Where does that come from?
Hjelt: I think we write about how we feel. Everything happens very much in the moment. We never have the time to plan. It’s never like, “We have two weeks to write this song.” That never happens with us. If we get inspired, we sit up all night and write it on a bus, on a train, on a plane. It doesn’t matter where we are, we just have to write it right away. I think our songs, our message, is very direct.
Jawo: Yeah, definitely.
Hjelt: It’s very liberating. That’s why when we play live, we really feel like we’re going through it all again. You’re super happy and then you’re heartbroken all over again and try to pick it up all over again.

Tell us how you came to collaborate with Charli XCX for “I Love It.”
Jawo: We were writing a song together with [producer] Patrick Berger, who did “Manners.” We were sitting in the studio and he played us a really rough version of “I Love It” that Charli XCX had just written and we instantly felt like this was our song. It was everything that was going on with us and going through personally — love problems and all — so we asked her if we could use her melody and lyrics. And then we took those and took them to Style of Eye, this amazing dance producer and our friend, and he helped to make it more Icona Pop. It took a million tries but we finally got it right.

I wanted to ask you about the line, “You’re from the ’70s, I’m a ’90s bitch.” Is that about someone in particular?
Jawo: No comment! No, no, it is.
Hjelt: It’s also, like, when you meet someone that’s older, you hear that “Oh, when you get older you’ll understand.” Or “Oh, honey, you’re too young to get it.” I get so tired of that! You’re not smarter than me and age ain’t nothin’ but a number. If you’re in love, that’s all that matters and you should respect the person you love for who they are. Sometimes people get stupider when they get older!

Have any of these exes or past lovers come out of the mix and contacted you since these songs came out? Maybe thinking that a song was about them?
Jawo: Yeah.
Hjelt: Oh yes. Yeah, definitely! We won’t name names but they know!

That has to be pretty satisfying.
Jawo: I’m kind of glad. For example, when I got dumped, I didn’t think that a person should have to go through that kind of pain, even though everyone does. But I’m really happy that it happened because we would have never met otherwise. I was so consumed in my own life. And then when I met [Caroline] everything changed. So I guess I have to thank the guy who made me want to scream in a song like “I Love It.”
Hjelt: [“I Love It”] is all about that feeling of turning it around. When you’ve been sad, you’ve been laying in bed crying for days, and you wake up one day and you’re so tired of being that sad and you rise up and feel strangely powerful. It becomes like, “I don’t care. I love it. I love myself and I need to get on with my shit.”