All photos courtesy of Era Istrefi
If you're looking for a late-season wildcard for Song of the Summer, the smart money's on "BonBon" by Era Istrefi. (It’s already accrued 128 million hits on YouTube.) With its deliciously suggestive hook of "Bet you wanna taste it," this super-catchy club tune sounds kind of like a Euro-pop remix of a long-lost Rihanna x Major Lazer collaboration. But who is Era Istrefi, in her neon pink faux-fur hood? We tracked down the Albanian star and over Skype, met a cool, confident, and focused artist. Already huge in her home country, now she’s set her sights on success Stateside. With the ink now drying on a US record deal, we wouldn’t bet against her making it happen, tbh.
Noisey: Did you ever expect "BonBon" to become a global hit? Why do you think it's exploding like this?
Era Istrefi: No! It's the first time in history that an Albanian-language song is becoming a global hit—it's never happened before so how could I expect it? I think it's something to do with the way that music can be so powerful. When it transmits the right kind of energy, it can break all the boundaries. And I personally think that the Albanian-language [lyrics] actually make the song sound more unique.
What's the song actually about? What inspired you to write it?
What inspired me to write it really was the fear of being single and the fear of walking this world alone. I wanted to create something which pushes people to feel independent and to love themselves and have fun. The only thing that matters in the end is who's having more fun. That's my main goal in life!
A lot of people have pointed out the Rihanna vibe on "BonBon,” but who are your main musical influences?
My musical influences are kinda everywhere. It's so hard to choose between them, but if you want, I can mention some? Well, Rihanna is obviously one—I can simply say that I grew up in the Rihanna generation. And when I was 16 I discovered Jamaican music, so dancehall and reggae really, really inspire my music. And Lana Del Rey is one of my faves too.
Lana Del Rey actually surprises me. What is it you like about her?
When I'm love with someone, I see no flaws in them—and that goes for Lana Del Rey as well. Another thing I would like to mention about Lana Del Rey is that I used to underestimate the emotion of sadness, but Lana Del Rey and her music taught me that sadness should be appreciated and should be used for art too because it's truly a beautiful emotion.
And what drew you to Rihanna?
Rihanna is the type of girl... I think that she breaks the limit and she doesn't care about being that civilized and formal. She expresses herself the way she is unapologetically, and that has inspired me the most because that's brave. For me, it's really brave. At the moment I’m also listening to all of Drake’s hits. I love the fact that he did dancehall this year with Popcaan. I knew very early on in my life that Jamaican music can be so powerful; it just makes me feel good and brings out my positivity.
Obviously "BonBon" is the first track we've heard from you, but how long have you been making music in Albania?
Well, I'm 22 now but I first released a song in Albania when I was 19. It was popular straight away—I became popular in 24 hours, I swear! Because my big sister is also a singer who's very well-known in Albania, it was easier for me to become famous. At first, my fans were just younger people, but now it's older people too. Anyone who sees me in the street wants to talk to me! I feel so welcomed there, it's just normal for me now.
What’s the music scene like in Albania? Do you think more Albanian artists can score global hits?
I live in the main town and once you become famous there, you become famous all over Albania. It has its opportunities to express yourself and share your talent —have shows, have fans, have amazing moments. It has everything an artist needs. So far, I'm the first and the last to become so huge in the music industry all around the world with Albanian-language music. But in the future, why not? I'm optimistic that you'll be hearing more Albanian-language music because we have many, many talented artists in Albania and I expect great things from them.
It's interesting that you're blowing up now as two British singers with Albanian roots, Dua Lipa and Rita Ora, are also doing really well. Are you fans of theirs?
I know their music and I just feel so proud, you know, that they're from Albania and they’re doing so amazing. It’s really beautiful. I believe there's a quote that every dog has its day. So I'm gonna say that every country will have its day. No one from any country should feel isolated and limited in the world of music.
You've just signed a US record deal, so does this mean you're going to be making music in English?
Yes! That's what I've been doing in LA [these last few weeks]. I've been enjoying the sunny weather and doing studio sessions and it's all going super-amazing. I can't wait to release my next English songs.
Do you find writing in English trickier?
No. I enjoy it so much, actually, because even when I wrote my past songs in Albanian, I always started them in English. The demos were all in English, and then I translated them into Albanian. I know that sounds weird but that's how it’s always worked for me because I have been inspired by English music my entire life.
What are you aiming to achieve with your new music?
I just want people to like it—whether it's sad, happy, crazy, stupid or whatever. Whatever the emotion, I want it to be intense. I want people to get goosebumps when they hear my songs, and nothing any less than that.
Nick Levine is dancing round London singing “Bet you wanna taste it”… probably. Follow him on Twitter.