Music by VICE

The Enduring Cult of Robyn

The Swedish pop icon is back with 'Honey,' her first album in eight years. We hung out with her to speak about it.

by Daisy Jones
Oct 18 2018, 2:45pm

Album artwork 

“Can I have one of your cigarettes?”

The words are falling out my mouth before I’ve had a chance to shove them back in. Is it unprofessional to ask Robyn for a cigarette? I’m not sure. But she’s flinging one across the table, and it’s already between my lips. And now she’s picking up her matches, leaning forward to light it. Robyn is lighting my cigarette. For a second, my mind tries to absorb the image. A crown of blonde spikes. The whisper of a flame. And then I’m breathing in horrible Marlboro smoke and the moment has passed, joining all the other moments before it.

I’m not the only person for whom Robyn is kind of an icon. There’s a look people give each other across a gay club when her songs come on—half an eye roll at our own eternal heartbreak, and half exhilaration because we know what’s coming, and that it sounds especially good on proper speakers. Her seven studio albums spanning 15 years, from 1995 until 2010, are monumental in their influence—to read a brilliant deep dive on the Swedish musician’s artistry, peep this recent Guardian longread—but in the years since, she’s also amassed a slower, more cult sort of following: one that exists on dancefloors (often queer ones), in dark basements dappled in pink and blue lights, in the spaces between sadly swirling your drink with a straw and deciding to knock it back, returning to the hot, heaving miasma of bodies beside you.

To truly understand why such a cult following exists, we need to lean in closer, to the music itself. Many of her most well-known hits—“Dancing On My Own,” “Call Your Girlfriend,” “With Every Heartbeat”—are rapturous, synth-filled dance tracks, their sound steely and glittering, like a carefully constructed robot. But they’re also more than that. She takes these immensely painful feelings—grief, jealousy, unrequited longing—and encourages you to lean into them, encasing yourself in sadness, euphoria, respite. I can’t think of any other artist who does that—at least not in the same way. “It’s just so relentless,” Perfume Genius recently told Pitchfork, in reference to “With Every Heartbeat” and that specific ‘Robyn Sound’. “She’s singing ‘And it hurts with every heartbeat’ over and over and over… She wants you to know that she’s still there, even though it hurts.”

Her upcoming album, Honey—her first in eight years (more on that later)—also combines those aforementioned elements. But the record equally sounds like nothing she’s released before. True to its title, a stickiness and softness and sensuality permeates the whole thing; the synths are warmer, the beats less clinical, her vocals easy, gliding and humming above them. Gone are the jagged electric thwacks that pound on songs like “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do,” replaced instead by a deep and syrupy glow. She’s still encouraging you to lean into your feels, but this time she’s also saying: ease up a little bit, slow down, let it go. “I’m never going to be broken-hearted, ever again,” she sighs on the closing track, later winking: “that shit got so lame.”

When I meet Robyn, on the roof garden of a central London hotel, the first thing I notice is that we’re wearing the same outfit: black turtleneck, black trousers, a small leather waist bag fastened diagonally across the chest. Her handshake is so firm that my fingers sting slightly afterwards, and when we collapse backwards onto an outdoor sofa to chat, I can’t help but think that neither of us came appropriately dressed for the unexpected autumn heat. We look like two goths, melting in the sun. “Can you see? Is the sun shining in your eyes?” she asks, probably because I’m squinting at her weirdly. “No, no, it’s all good,” I reply, her face a shadow against the sky.

In person, Robyn is calm and considered, warm and observant. Any of the chaotic energy that can come from the beginning of an interview—brief introductions, ordering drinks, fiddling with a voice recorder—is soon quelled by the steady pace of our conversation, and the gentle, direct way in which she approaches every answer. When we say goodbye, she decides not to crush all my fingers this time, and instead goes straight in for a hug, whipping out another Marlboro in the process. Before then, though, we speak about how therapy helped her write this new album, the power and nuances of loss and how dancing is essentially a religious experience.

Noisey: You released “Missing U” after an eight-year break from solo material. I love that track, but I especially love what you said in the video about how when you lose somebody, they somehow become more present.
Robyn: Yeah, that happens when you lose people! A friend of mine had died, but it also happens when you go through a breakup—for me it was both, actually, at the same time. I think that song is an exercise in trying to describe loss. It’s definitely a personal song. I wanted to explore what that feels like more than telling the exact story. I want people to be able to put their feelings into it—to describe that emotional state of loss.

Which is a really weird feeling to have… You can’t really compare it to anything else.
Yeah, that’s exactly what it is – it’s very weird and really trippy. It’s kind of destabilizing, which is cool. Like all trippy experiences, it can be very informative and makes you grow as a person I think.

In what way do you think it makes you grow?
Because it puts you in your most vulnerable state. We don’t really talk about things. When you lose people—or, at least for me—it made me think about dying, some really heavy stuff. I don’t think there are many spaces in our regular western affective lives where there is space for that. But it is a very real thing, and something that all human beings have to deal with at some point in their life.

I don’t know if you feel like this, but when I think about death or loss, the good things feel sweeter. There’s an awareness that everything is fleeting.
Yes, it’s very bittersweet! This is what it is to be a human being—and the more you really appreciate life, the more you are scared of losing it.

This album is a lot softer than what you’ve done before. Why do you think it came out like that?
I was in a very vulnerable state. Before, my go-to way of dealing with challenges was to push through them, but I don’t think I could with this. When I wrote this album, I was really sad and reflective. My instinct was to calm down and try to be more present in my life. I had to find a more comfortable, relaxed space where I could learn how to take care of myself. When I started making music, it was from a place of doing things to make me feel good; listening to music I like, dancing. So I kind of had to seduce myself again—not push, but lure things out of myself.

Dancing has always held such prominence in your work, from the very beginning—whether in your videos, or the way in which people consume your music...
I’ve just always really enjoyed dancing, ever since I was a kid. My mom was a dancer when she was younger, and my parents did really experimental theatre, bordering on contemporary dance. I was used to seeing that, but also moving my body together with them and other people. I think it was the way I was raised. I just loved music that rocked me in a special way. When I came home from school, that’s what I used to do—before my parents came home—I would put music on and dance in the living room.

What kind of stuff would you dance to back then?
Well, one of the first was that album Prince made for the Batman movie. It’s totally overlooked. It was dark and conceptual and weird—he was wearing a Batman suit. Another one is the Kate Bush Hounds of Love.

That’s a good one to dance too! I feel like I got closer to your music from dancing and being in the club. I think a lot of people feel that way.
That’s great. I think about that a lot. That’s how I listened to music growing up, whether it was Kate Bush or Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson. I always got off on artists that—even if I’d never met them or didn’t know their life story—had these messages, and even through just listening to their music, I could figure out how they felt. Music becomes a time capsule like that, you can relive moments. That’s how I feel like my fans relate to my music as well. I’m really happy about that. But it’s also really interesting.

1539775321339-Robyn-cr-Mark-Peckmezian-012_RGB_F1
Image by Mark Peckmezian via PR

That must be a weird feeling, though. Knowing that you’re transferring your personal energy like that.
It is strange—but in the same way as when those heightened moments appear in your everyday life. It’s also my way of feeling hope for the world. The fact human beings are able to do that; that there’s this positive way human beings have to process things together, with music or visual art or popular culture in general. When that’s provoked in people, I think that’s really amazing and beautiful and always a miracle.

Totally! It’s kind of mad that the world can be so awful, but people will always go into a dark room at night and dance it out until sunrise.
But it’s also really natural and shouldn’t be weird. It should be a part of people’s lives. I think in Sweden as well—it’s very secular, religion isn’t a big thing over there at all—so maybe dancing is another way of dealing with things. We don’t have a big Christian culture, and I think religion gives space for people to be close to their emotions. I feel like it’s an important part of being a human being.

You have an especially loyal queer fanbase, there’s a definite overlap I think. Why do you think your music speaks to those communities in particular?
As a Swedish woman I am very privileged in the sense we’ve had feminist debate for very a long time—it’s quite evolved, and at the forefront—so I think a normal level of activism is more mainstream over there. So maybe outside of Scandinavia, that’s something queer people engage with more. I think queer people have to question certain things that others don’t have to, maybe, and in Sweden it’s easier because some of that ground work is done. That said, there are a lot of conservative people in Sweden as well. But I think my views have a lot to do with where I grew up, like my mum was pretty radical.

What is she like?
She’s great, she’s very sincere and kind of a stubborn and emotional person. She’s an actress and works in theatre. I don’t see her as much as I would like to. She lived in a different city so I couldn’t see her, but now she’s back in Stockholm. We’re close.

She sounds cool. Let’s speak about your new album, too. Especially the last song, “Ever Again.” You say you’re never going to have your heart broken ever again, which strikes me as a funny line because you probably will, we all will!
The whole album is kind of chronological—most of them are in the order of how they were made. “Ever Again” is an empowered song. Like, of course heartbreak will happen again, of course bad things will happen—you’re gonna die! But I guess it’s about how you approach it, how you decide to deal with it. You can definitely have your heart broken again but you can decide to not let it destroy you.

And you can choose not to take your previous heartbreak forward with you...
Exactly!

Why did you hold back from making an album so soon after touring Body Talk ?
I really wanted to, but I couldn’t. I tried. When I was writing “Missing U,” which was the first song I wrote on the album, I tried to finish the lyrics but they just came out really banal and muddy and I knew it would take me some time to figure out what I was saying.

That was at the end of 2014. I think I also had my eyes on this depth in my music that I knew that I wanted to explore, but I knew I wasn’t at that point. I made this disco EP with Mr. Tophatt, I made some music with Adam [Bainbridge, of Kindness] as well. I just took my time and waited for the moment I felt my head was clear. I was also in therapy, so it was big changing period for me.

Did you find therapy helped you get back to a place in which you could express certain feelings and experiences, for this album?
I think that’s what therapy is about, figuring out how you feel, not necessarily solving anything directly but understanding how you feel. It’s a long and complicated, indirect process. I was in therapy for another three years after that.

Pretty soon afterwards I was able to write again, once I’d made space for it. My therapy started working and I was writing properly and spending all my time on the album by mid-2015. But it was also a quiet period for me. I was back in Stockholm in the studio, sometimes traveling and seeing friends, but I wasn’t working all the time. It was very luxurious in a way, to be able to do that.

Sometimes you just need leisure to be productive, right? I can imagine it’s not the most productive environment when it’s like, "now you must do this."
No, exactly. When you’re touring and promoting, there’s less time for reflection. It’s fun to do this, and talk about what I’ve done, but I won’t be able to make more music until I have less to do. I think I’ll just make music when it’s time, I know there are songs I want to record, but it’ll have to be another six months.

What are your feelings right now surrounding this album? Is it exciting or nerve-wracking to be going through this whole process again?
I’m nervous in a way, because I want to know that people think, because I’ve put so much work into it and I hope people like it. But at the same time, I’m happy about what I’ve done so I’m not really worried. I’m excited about what’s going to happen, I wonder what kind of impact pop music can have, like is it that important? Sometimes I feel it is, sometimes I feel it isn’t.

Do you not think pop music is important?!
Well, I think it is, but when I was making this album I was really questioning it, like 'why am I taking up this space, what do I really want to say, why do I want to demand people’s attention like this and how do I make it meaningful?' Sometimes I feel like it is important. Sometimes I feel powerless, like there is nothing I can do.

Well I guess – to bring it back to what we were chatting about earlier – dancing in a club is why pop music is meaningful. Those spaces are valuable.
Yeah, that’s when I think music is meaningful. I don’t think music changes the world. I don’t think music has to be a political tool, but it think it helps release and helps people recharge and do important things.

I guess if it didn’t exist, people would probably be much more awful to one another. Imagine all that pent up energy.
Yeah! I saw this interview with Beyoncé, and she was asked “what do you think the world needs?” and she said “more strength” and it sounds harsh but then she said “I think we need more empowered men and women.” Like, I get it—I totally get that. At this point, there is so much stuff coming to the surface, we really have to be resilient, it’s a tough time. We really have to power through it.

How are you going to spend the next few months?
Working on videos, rehearsing for tour and also something else which I can’t talk about. It’s all going to be revealed. It sounds bigger than it is, but it’s just stuff that I’m working on. I’ll be rehearsing, singing, going to the gym. Lots of planning, lots of taking care of the people I work with, lots of organization.

What about after this interview? What are you going to do then?
I think I’ve got four more interviews after this.

Jeez. Do you find it draining? As in, discussing heavy subjects like loss and heartbreak over and over again?
Yes definitely—it is work, but also not in a bad way. When I’m true to my feelings—it’s really quite enjoyable.

You can follow Daisy on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

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