Zara Larsson is — let's all be quite honest with ourselves here — one of the world's better popstars, and she returns this week with pensivepop triumph Ruin My Life.
Stand by for embedded audio, followed by an interview from earlier this week.
The interview happened on the phone so feel free to insert all the standard "curled up on the sofa" / "taking a sip of her drink" / "frowns" interview stuff wherever you think it works best.
The new single is great! It feels a bit like it combines some of the intimacy of your first album with some of the bombast of your second.
That's a good way to describe it! I like that. I never really have a vision for my projects — it's never like I start something knowing the title, what I'm going for and what direction I'm going in. I never know. That's both a good and a bad thing — but all I do is look for really good songs, collect them, put them all together and make an album. That's really how complicated it is. So, not that complicated.
You've made it sound very simple but a lot of people still get it wrong.
I think the trick is to keep it simple. I'm so good at over-thinking things so I try not to get stuck in that. I'll just go for it when it feels good, and it feels right. You feel it in your body. More than anything you should trust your gut and stay true to yourself, and be authentic, and if you do that everything just goes along with it. Hopefully.
Do you think the music industry forces artists to unlearn that impulsiveness? Like, there's a lot of second-guessing.
You're right. There are so many people involved, usually, in a project. Especially if you're signed to a label. Everyone has their opinion: the radio and promo people, and the president, and managers and A&Rs. There are so many opinions! I'm lucky enough to work with people who really listen to me. But sometimes maybe there'll be a song I really like, and I'll record it, and I'll play it to people, and if I don't get the reaction I'm expecting then I'll doubt myself a bit. Even though I know it's a really good song. I'll think: "Maybe not. Is it really good? Is it really what I thought it was?"
I suppose so much of what was once guesswork is just data now: evidence in black and white that certain songs will work, that songs need to do certain things to avoid being skipped, all that stuff.
Right. But you never really know. All these people at the label or at radio, they talk like they definitely know what's going to be a hit and what's not. And some people have a really good ear, but to be honest they don't know if it will be a hit or not! THEY DON'T KNOW! They don't know if the people will like it, or if they'll stream or buy it, or if it will be a fluke… People don't know. I always remind myself of that when I lean towards thinking, "maybe I should listen to this old guy who's been in the industry for forty years." It's like, all the songs that have been really successful for me are songs I've believed in from the start and I've been pushing for. My first single I ever released, Uncover, is like 10x platinum in Sweden and nobody on my label wanted to release that. I had to fight for it. I had to say: "This is a great song." 1 At the time it wasn't a big thing to release songs without any drums. It had zero percussion or drums on it! Everyone was like, "no, this isn't going to work." I was going: "It's such a good song!" Camila Cabello was talking about this recently, about how Consequences was the last single from this album — a ballad with no drums. It doesn't sound like anything that's on the radio but sometimes that's what you need to go for. Of course the label wants a song that already sounds like everything else on the radio, but sometimes the biggest songs are what's NOT that: they're just a really good song.
You mentioned your record label just then but you sort of have three, don't you — TEN in Sweden, Black Butter in the UK and Epic in America. Who's been most involved in the new album?
It changes a bit. Or is has changed, from when I started. When I first started putting out music I worked really, really closely with TEN in Stockholm, I had my Swedish A&R… And then I started spending a lot of time in America, and so then it was my American A&R. This is my second international album and this is my fourth A&R on Epic — there are so many different people involved. I tend to always go back to the mother label which is TEN, but lately I feel like my closest team is my two managers — it's quite nice to not let all the other people always have a say, or for me not to have to deal with that. It's just trying to keep the circle a bit smaller, it works better that way.
Today I visited the room where Zara Larsson’s Lush Life was written and for a split second everything in my life made sense. Presumably it was tidier when history was made all those years ago. Thanks @TENMusicGroup for the tour! pic.twitter.com/Ny4wVv3lUT
— Peter Robinson (@Popjustice) September 26, 2018
I visited TEN when I was in Stockholm recently and they showed me the studio where Lush Life was written, and where I guess you've done a lot of work. The atmosphere must be quite different to the rooms in LA — which do you prefer?
I remember the first time I was in a big studio in LA. At one point I said something like, "oh my gosh, I'm craving cookie dough so much." Fifteen minutes later a runner appeared. A runner! We didn't have runners in the studio in Stockholm. Anyway, this runner appeared, in this big-ass room with this huge mixing table, and he had a really nice plate, and a lovely spoon, and a linen napkin. And there was cookie dough on the spoon. And I was like, "WHAT?" I was so not used to that sort of thing. I mean, it feels really good to work in those studios, but not because of that, or because of all the space, but because it will be like, "oh, Michael Jackson recorded a song here", or "last week Beyoncé was here", or you'll bump into Lady Gaga in the hallway. And there's an atmosphere of creativity, and [being around] people I look up to a lot. I do still record most of the songs in Sweden or London, but it's great vibes in those big studios. I can't lie. The thing is, I don't really care where I am as long as there's good people and a nice place to sit. A comfortable sofa.
Ruin My Life feels emotional but not in a straightforward hi-I'm-a-love-song way. There feels like darkness to it: where did it come from?
Absolutely, I can't lie: I've been there, when you're coming out of a bad relationship and you just know this person is really bad for you, but you can't help wanting to go back. You're like: "I know he'll ruin my life, he'll break my heart and I won't be able to eat or sleep for three months, but I WANT IT NOW." I think everyone's been there. Or after two drinks you can't stop yourself sending the texts. But… I also argue against myself when it comes to songs. I'm very careful with things I say. And I don't want people — young girls and women — to listen to the song and… Like, I don't want to be a girl who promotes bad relationships. "Just go back to him, it'll be fine." I don't want to do that. But I do also want to be an artist who can express something I'm feeling or that I've been through.
It's interesting that you brought up that dilemma, because I was going to ask about it but you clearly already had it on your mind. And I suppose it's interesting mainly in the sense that many or most artists wouldn't necessarily consider how lyrics are received…
That's definitely something I was thinking a lot about. I got the song sent to me — I wasn't in the room when it was written — and I really liked it, but it was originally thought of as a duet. I love to collaborate with people but I just didn't want it to be a duet. I wanted the first single from my new record to be just me. And it was very different when it was two people singing it: it had a different dynamic. When you took the other person off, it sounded like a really tragic story about a sad girl. It was quite violent at first, in the beginning — it was about this passionate relationship between the two people. It was quite dark. I changed the lyrics to make it a bit more emotional, I guess. At first it was like, "I miss you throwing a fist through the wall", and I was like, "uh, no, I would never be with a person who does that, that's kind of abusive." I'm very careful with what I talk about and how I say stuff, but I feel that with how I changed the song, it's now right in the middle of still being powerful, emotional and relatable, but still having a slight darkness about it. Just not too dark.
How important to you is it that the values you communicate through interviews and across your socials are reflected in your lyrics?
When I get sent a song that I didn't write from the beginning, I just know if I like it or don't like it. With Lush Life I didn't write a single word on that unfortunately, but I still love it. And I mean, some of the things I sing about have never happened to me, like She's Not Me… Well, now it's happened, but it hadn't when I sang it — I'd never been left for another girl. But the point is that with those lyrics I at least felt like I could say them as a person. As I grow as a person and as an artist I want to be a bigger part of it: my favourite thing is to start a song with the people in the room, and I really like to write. Lyrics aren't really my strong point if I'm honest, I love to do melodies and I'll help with lyrics but I know they're not my strong point — but at the same time I know what I want and don't want to sing. I love lyrics. I always look up lyrics to songs I like on Genius.com. And I have huge arguments about this with people from my label: they say nobody listens to lyrics. And I'm like, "well I do!" My one thing is: keep it cute, and don't be messy when it comes to relationships with girls… That's my one rule. I don't want to break the code of feminism or something like that!
You changed the Ain't My Fault lyrics for that reason, didn't you?
Absolutely, me and MNEK were just having a great time in the studio messing around and the label loved the song, but that version was so different from the version that's out now. It was about me stealing someone's man, but I didn't want to be that girl! I've never done that and I'd never talk to another girl saying "sorry you're not me, sorry I'm hotter than you." That's something I'm trying to stay true to… But then again, if that ever happened to me, or if I have a big fight with someone who happens to be a woman… Should I still tell my story? I don't know! It's always a battle between being the artist Zara and the 'me' Zara.
Who else have you worked with on the album?
When it comes to collaborations nobody right now, I haven't thought about that at all. I'd want it to be with people I look up to or who feel genuine — not just "I'm going to pay a rapper $500K to be on the song." And I've been thinking about how all the people I've collaborated with, who are all incredible, have been guys, except Grace in Clean Bandit. So it would be cool to do something with a girl. But it's hard to do those songs! Because most of my songs are about "ooh, love, from a heteronormative angle". It doesn't even have to be about girl power, I just want to collaborate with female artists. Charli XCX and I have been in the studio a lot together recently.
That Live Lounge you did with Dua, Charli, MØ and Alma was a real moment, I thought.
I was really happy when she called me and asked if I'd join her. I wasn't doing it for myself — like, "yeah, I'm going to get so much publicity" — it was just fun and I love all the girls we did with it. It was a really good time.
It felt like: this is what a girlband could be like in 2018.
I KNOW RIGHT?
Going back to Ruin My Life, you've said that you kept changing your mind about what the first single should be. What else nearly made it?
I think I have the next single lined up. I'm very excited about that. It's very different from Ruin My Life. It's called Don't Worry About Me and I guess you could say it's Ruin My Life Part 2, in that it could be following up the story. It's saying: "don't worry about me, you should worry about you." The idea is that now you're over this guy you're like, "whatever, I'm over you, I don't care for you any more, I see you in my call list, why do you care?" So you're over this guy now, hopefully. The production is like housey dancehall, kind of in the world of Passionfruit by Drake. I love it and I'm very excited.
Correct me if I'm wrong but it feels like the process of making this album must be quite different to last time. In the sense that Lush Life's success was either an accident or a surprise, and it was followed by a period of trying to build an album and international artist launch around that success in real time…
It was SO messy. Really messy. Every territory in the world had a different opinion, of course. America [she seems to mean the American label rather than 325m people across fifty states] didn't like Lush Life at all! So we said, fuck it then, we'll just put it out in Sweden. So that's what we did. Then it took off in Sweden and spread to the Nordic countries, then France, then England literally a year after I released it. By that point Uncover became really big in France, and then at the same time Never Forget You became big… So it was a fucking mess and nobody was on the same page. Which was kind of fun, but also a bit annoying if you're trying to break it. In Europe Lush Life was a big success and I think it would have been in America too if they'd jumped on at the same time. They were just like "uh, no", and then when they saw people liked it, it was kind of too late. It's the same with Never Forget You: they were like, "no, it doesn't sound like US radio, it's too European", but then it got on the radio and people seemed to really like it. And it takes such a long time to get something on the chart in America! You have to do everything manually! You have to physically drive to all the places and be like, "hi! Here's my song!" It's definitely a lot of work. Hopefully this time it will be the same song and everyone will be on board.
I saw an interview with you where you were like, "it's time to break America, I want to do numbers, I want to be massive" and, well, first of all it struck me how refreshing it was for an artist to be straightforward about their ambitions. But also: it must be difficult as a pop artist to have those ambitions and to also want to do something that's creative, when there are so many cheap shortcuts other people take.
It's tricky! I'm always joking and saying "I can't wait until I'm really big so I can do whatever the fuck I want." 2 Beyoncé is a great example: one of her best albums is Lemonade because it tells her story, from her marriage, and as a black woman, and it has such a deep meaning to it and it's kind of revolutionary… But it wouldn't have been the same thing if that had been her first [album]. If she wasn't the Beyoncé she is today, it wouldn't have been the same thing. I'm very lucky in the sense that I'm not doing stuff I don't want to do just to have a hit. But it's hard not to be an industry plant, but still to want to be commercially successful.
Of course, some people are happy to just do whatever it takes to be famous…
Yes! Some people just want to sing on big stages and have hits and do big numbers but after a while, if that's what it's all about, you'll lose yourself when you don't have that any more. Everyone's careers have ups and downs, and hopefully mine will gradually go up and up, but even so you have your dips, and everyone has worst and best albums. If you're stuck on having Number Ones and sales, and if you're just obsessed with that after five albums, you're not doing it right. I think creative freedom comes with being successful, but I'll definitely stay true to myself for my entire career. I don't see myself doing something I don't like just to prove myself to my label. That would be terrible: releasing something even I don't like, wanting commercial success, the song's a fucking flop, nobody likes it including me… That would be a terrible feeling!
Also pop music fans are so sophisticated now that they see right through it. They know.
They do, definitely.
When's the album out?
Next year, hopefully spring.
I mean, we've been here before. 3
I know right! I don't dare to say a month because then people will hold me to it.
It feels like there's more control this time.
Yes. I feel very good. Very good about this whole thing.
Ruin My Life is out now!