Entertainment

Robyn: ‘I didn’t want to be a role model’

Robyn performs at Coachella in 2015Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Robyn: “I think I’m in a good place”

In the eight years since Robyn last released an album, pop grew around the void she left.

No self-respecting pop album is now complete without a “sadbanger” – a song you can cry and dance to at the same time – in the vein of Robyn’s Call Your Girlfriend or With Every Heartbeat.

Artists like Dua Lipa, Troye Sivan and (especially) Carly Rae Jepsen have built careers out of her fusion of tenderness and club beats.

Katy Perry called her “the epitome of effortless cool” and when Lorde performed on Saturday Night Live last year, she put a framed photograph of Robyn on her piano, explaining that Dancing On My Own had inspired the tone of her second album, Melodrama.

“It’s happy and sad, fiery and independent but vulnerable and small, joyous even when a heart is breaking,” she wrote on Tumblr. “It’s just perfect.”

But all this attention gave Robyn the heebie-jeebies.

“I was reluctant to be a role model,” she says carefully. “I really didn’t feel comfortable in that position for a long time.”

Her main concern was that being venerated could limit her horizons.

“It becomes weird. You’re expected to do things because you’re role model. But it has to be that you’re doing things because you want to. That’s how you become an example in the first place.”

‘My salvation’

Robyn has fiercely protected her independence ever since her mid-20s, when she extricated herself from a punitive US recording contract.

She’d been a teen star in the late 1990s, scoring a global hit with the song Show Me Love. But her label refused to release her second album in the US – partly because she insisted on including two songs about abortion.

“My record company thought I was crazy,” she told the BBC in 2007. “They were like: ‘Why don’t you just do what Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears are doing?’

“I understand that but I wanted to do my own thing. I make really commercial music but I still want to be able to explore a more radical way of expression. So it took time for me to find a place.”

She took back control in 2004, buying back the rights to her demos and setting up her own label, Konichiwa Records, in Sweden.

People told her she’d lose money, she says, “but it was really my salvation”.

For the next six years, she worked non-stop – writing, touring, remixing, promoting and recording; culminating with 2010’s ambitious Body Talk project, a three-volume anthology of laser-blaster pop, recorded and released in the space of just six months.

Then Robyn disappeared…. well almost.

Image copyright Konichiwa / Island
Image caption The singer’s life turned upside down in the gap between her albums

There were a clutch of EPs with Royksopp, Mr Tophat and her side project La Bagatelle Magique; but nothing captured the adrenaline rush of a Robyn solo record.

Her vanishing act was prompted by a period of painful personal change. She split from her long-term partner, video director Max Vitali (they later reunited), and lost her musical mentor Christian Falk to pancreatic cancer.

At the same time, she started an intense course psychoanalysis to help navigate the impact of childhood fame and her parents’ divorce.

“I was slowly getting myself back into a space where I could make music again,” she reflects.

From the outset, she knew a new album had to sound and feel different.

“It’s so easy to fall into old patterns and behaviours and things you feel safe in,” she told me in 2015 as work on the record began.

“But I don’t feel safe any more in being safe. There’s always a time for change. I don’t know exactly where that’s going to lead me.”

Image copyright Konichiwa / Island
Image caption Robyn’s Honey album, was met with rave reviews and a place in several end-of-year lists

After the upheavals in her personal life, she knew “the emotional tone I wanted to reach” would be “soft and vulnerable and open” but it took time to locate it.

“I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it – so I really had to go back to school. I went clubbing a lot. I changed how I was writing. I learned new software. I was listening to a lot of disco.”

You can hear her evolution in progress by seeking out the different incarnations of album’s title track Honey (“there’s enough for a full album of different versions” Robyn says).

A demo she played on Radio 1 earlier this month is delicate and abstract; while a later attempt, which appeared on Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls, recalls the squelchy basslines and sequenced synths of Body Talk.

But the final (and best) version is sensual and dreamlike, thrumming hypnotically as Robyn promises: “You’re not gonna get what you need / But baby, I have what you want / Come get your honey”.

In some ways, those lyrics were a message to her fans – because Honey, the album, doesn’t delivers the immediate pop fix they demanded.

Liberated from the constraints of verse-chorus song structures, Robyn’s new music is stretched out and imperfect; reflecting the singer’s years-long process of grief and self-excavation.

What does it means to be human, she asks? To live through loss? To preserve yourself without shutting down?

Amplifying Robyn’s emotional instability, the music constantly shifts and mutates. A bass line will appear in a different time signature to the rest of the song, slipping in and out of sync, casting the singer adrift.

“Those uneven periods of rhythm felt good in my body,” she says. “They’re more potent. They give you a more trance experience than others. And that’s what I wanted to dance to.”

It’s impossible to overstate the importance that dancing holds for Robyn. At home she practices samba, finding it so moving that “it makes me cry”. In the steamy haze of a nightclub, dancing becomes a spiritual, restorative act.

“The after hours, when people have been going for ever and ever and ever – there’s a kind of dancing that happens then that’s not so self-aware, that’s really about losing yourself to the music,” she says.

Fittingly, her album pivots around a dancefloor epiphany. After mourning Falk on Missing U and reconciling with Vitali on Baby Forgive Me, she finds resolve in the hypnotic beats of Send To Robin Immediately, declaring: “If you got somebody to love, give that love today / Know you got nothing to lose, there’s no time to waste.

From there, the mood lightens as Robyn gets giddy on the 90s throwback Between The Lines and kicks back on the ultra-chilled Beach2k20.

And the album ends with something totally unexpected: A Robyn song with happy chords, happy lyrics and a happy melody.

Never gonna be broken hearted / Ever again,” she sings on Ever Again. “I’m only gonna sing about love / Ever again.”

“I think I’m in a good place,” she says hesitantly. “I don’t know what happy means, but maybe happy?

“More positive. I feel good about things and, musically, I’m able to go in all kinds of directions now because I feel like I’ve gotten rid of a lot of filters.”

In fact, she’s even come to terms with being a role model.

“I definitely embrace it now. It’s very touching when people say they’ve been inspired by stuff I’ve done.

“And I understand the point of it: It’s really important to have female role models – or any kind of role model you can recognise yourself in.”

Honey is out now.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-46509722

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