Zara Larsson’s eyes light up when NME describes her brilliant new album ‘Poster Girl’ as “pretty loved up”. “Oh my gosh, it’s super loved up!” she replies excitedly. “I love to write about love and I love talking about love. I think I’m obsessed with love. Literally.”
It’s 10am and the Swedish pop firebrand is speaking over Zoom from her Stockholm home. It’s a bright and inviting space that bears a reassuring trace of lockdown living, a half-finished glass of red wine on the table behind her. “I actually had a friend over last night, and we had a lot of wine,” 23-year-old Larsson says by way of explanation. “I feel like I’m getting a different kind of hangover from when I was a teenager. But I did say that 2021 is going to be my alcohol year. So, let’s go!”
Larsson says she’s generally a wine drinker these days, but also likes the taste of tequila – both strong options, I say, though probably best not to mix them on the same night. But anyway, let’s get back to love. “It’s the reason we’re all alive and for me; it’s the whole point for our existence,” Larsson says. “I’m the sort of person who falls in love with people in, like, four seconds. It’s just a really big part of who I am.”
If you didn’t already think that Larsson is head over heels in love – she recently said “it’s just not legal to feel this good” – ‘Poster Girl’, her third album, would seem to make it pretty plain. The record begins with the blissful shimmer of her 2020 single ‘Love Me Land’, on which she sings: “Never thought I would love again / Here I am, lost in Love Me Land.” Other highlights include the soulful bop ‘I Need Love’ – “like an addict needs a drug,” she purrs – and ‘Need Someone’, which features the wonderfully self-assured couplet: “I’m happy I don’t need someone / I’m happy, but I want you.” The penultimate track ‘FFF’ turns out to be shorthand for “falling for a friend”.
Still, Larsson politely deflects my suggestion that ‘Poster Girl’ is a kind of concept album about entering into a joyous new relationship after a break-up. Back in August 2019, amid internet rumours that she’d split from her boyfriend, the model Brian Whittaker, Larsson shared an Instagram meme that read: “When you get your heartbroken but it’s OK because the street’s been waiting for you to be single again.” Later that month, she confirmed to People magazine that she was indeed “single right now”.
“I just think of it as a collection of really good pop songs,” she says today. “And yeah, most of them just happen to be about the emotions you would feel when you break up with someone or you meet someone new. And that’s because those are the things that I find most interesting in life.”
She pauses briefly, then adds: “You know, I really wanna write pop bangers [which are] uplifting women’s anthems, but I’ve tried so many times and it’s so hard to not make it super-cheesy. I think I’ve tried like 10 times to make a feminist anthem. But I’m gonna keep trying and I will do it. I will start to incorporate my views on the world into my songs a bit more. But right now, I guess a lot of my songs are about love and relationships.”
I put it to Larsson that the album already has one: ‘Look What You’ve Done’, a disco break-up song on which she sings with an infectious resilience: “This girl’s having fun.” “Yeah, that one I feel really empowered by,” she concedes. “It’s really got some beautiful melodies, that song – it reminds me a little of ABBA in the verse. That one was fun to make because I do look at myself as a very strong woman. But at the same time, because I am so strong, I sometimes like to write songs that reveal… not that I’m weak exactly, but what’s the word? Vulnerable.”
“I’m gonna keep trying to write a feminist anthem”
Larsson points to the album’s lead single, ‘Ruin My Life’, a melancholy tune with a somewhat masochistic-sounding hook: “I want you to ruin my life, yeah / To ruin my life, yeah, to ruin my life.” “That one’s not very empowering,” she says with a low laugh, “which is kind of why I wanted to do it. There’s definitely a strength in being vulnerable and I wanted to show that. But a lot of the time, I do want to bring that ‘I’m the shit’ vibe to my music. Because even if I don’t feel that way in the moment, I do feel that way a lot.
“You know, sometimes I do look at some of the guys [I’ve dated] and I’m like, ‘Ha ha ha – I’m thriving and you’re in a pile of shit!’ Those songs feel good to write and I think they feel good to listen to as well.”
Larsson’s strength sustains the strikingly simple ‘Love Me Land’ video, which shows her – as she puts it – “dancing my ass off” in a bare room bathed in purple light. She spent about six years of her childhood training at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, so she’s clearly a confident mover, but it’s still a pretty brave visual. Because there’s nothing to distract us from Larsson and her dancing, we’re forced to focus on her and her alone.
Larsson also radiates a warm confidence throughout our hour-long interview. She talks fast, laughs a lot and takes conversational detours when she feels like it. She says it was a “privilege” to collaborate with K-pop juggernauts BTS on their 2019 single ‘A Brand New Day’, and praises the group’s “commitment to making the song absolutely as good as it can”, but doesn’t sound as though she was overwhelmed by the boyband. And although she’s clearly comfortable in her skin, she does admit to experiencing “nerves” while working on ‘Poster Girl’.
Her second album to be released outside of Scandinavia, it arrives nearly four years after Larsson’s international breakthrough ‘So Good’, which cracked the UK top 10 and went Platinum in the US after spawning the huge hits ‘Lush Life’ and ‘Never Forget You’.
Larsson attributes this delay partly to COVID-19, but there appear to have been creative stutters along the way too. Though her 2018 hit ‘Ruin My Life’ makes the tracklist of the 12-song album, the very decent 2019 singles ‘Don’t Worry Bout Me’ and ‘All The Time’ are absent. Today, she says candidly: “Eventually I got to the point where it was like, ‘I really want to release the album now. If not now, when?’ Because you can always find excuses not to have a release, which is what I’ve been doing for like four years.”
She lets out a self-deprecating laugh. “You know, I don’t think I will ever feel like the timing is right. Maybe it’s because I feel under pressure or I’m scared of failing – whatever that is.”
Larsson’s fear of failing – whatever that is – is understandable at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to pinpoint what makes a “hit”. Is it a song’s YouTube plays, Spotify streams, or the number of TikToks it soundtracks? These days, pop Twitter is quick to proclaim that a singer has entered her ‘flop era’. For Larsson, this fear must be compounded by the fact that she enjoyed massive success at a young age. In 2008, when she was just 10 years old, she won the Swedish version of the Got Talent franchise with an impressive rendition of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’.
Though she didn’t land a record deal during a subsequent trip to Los Angeles, Swedish indie label TEN Music Group snapped her up in 2012. A year later, she topped her country’s singles charts with a dramatic ballad called ‘Uncover’.
It didn’t take long for international success to follow. Appearing on the cover of NME in late 2016, she told us in no uncertain terms: “I want as many people as possible to go to my concert.” In 2015 and 2016 she sent no fewer than six singles into the UK Top 20, including the skittering ‘Never Forget You’, a duet with London singer MNEK; the club-ready Tinie Tempah collaboration ‘Girls Like’; and the utterly irresistible ‘Lush Life’, one of the best pop songs of the decade. Then, in 2017, she partnered with Clean Bandit for the chart-topping dance banger ‘Symphony’. It still ranks among both acts’ career highlights, Larsson’s emotional vocals adding some red-blooded grit to Clean Bandit’s precision-tooled beats.
“I hate toxic masculinity – it makes the world a worse place”
Since then, Larsson’s chart positions outside of Sweden haven’t been as sky-high – her last four singles didn’t crack the UK top 10 – but her pop star stock remains premium. “And at this point I just want people to hear my new music and I want to stop being so scared of how it’s going to go,” she says. “Because honestly, what could go wrong? That I sell one album. If that happens, I’ll make another one – that’s how I see it now. And that’s how I’ve been seeing it the whole time I was growing up in this industry.
“But because my first [global] album was ‘So Good’ – literally! – I felt pressured, I really did. And then eventually, I was like, ‘Nah, you can’t keep going on like this because the longer you wait to release this album, the less people are gonna care anyways. So just fucking release it because it’s great, it’s fun and it’s my form of escapism.”
Since she broke through globally in 2016, Larsson has also become known for calling out gender inequality and speaking powerfully about the horrors of sexual assault. After a fan was reportedly raped during her set at Sweden’s Bravalla Festival in July 2016, Larsson tweeted: “Fuck you who shamelessly raped a girl in the audience. You deserve to burn in hell. Fuck you for making girls feel insecure when they go to a festival. I hate guys. Hate hate hate.”
A year later, when someone on Twitter claimed that it’s “because of girls like her [that] people think that feminism is about hating men”, Larsson replied bullishly: “I’ve said it and I’ll say it again. Man hating and feminism is two different things. I support both.”
Is she still getting trolled for this tweet? “Yeah, I guess, but that wasn’t the only thing I said [in that vein],” she says. “I used to have a blog where I wrote a lot about feminism. And the more I wrote about it, the more angry a lot of men got. And that was when I started hearing the term ‘man-hating’, so I started reading up on it and getting educated on the… I have such a hard time saying this word in English, ‘patriarchy’. Oh, I said that pretty well today, didn’t I?”
Larsson explains that reading up made her realise that Western society is built on “centuries and centuries of structures” that reinforce the patriarchy. “And then I was like, ‘Fuck that!’ So hating men is just hating toxic masculinity, essentially,” she says. “And men hate that too, even if they don’t know it, and even if they think they’re against feminism. Even if they’re like, ‘No, I’m a strong man’, it’s like: yeah, but you hate that really – you know deep down that you wanna cry. You’re really just a human being who sometimes needs a hug and love and comfort, but you can’t tell your friends that because you think it would be ‘gay’ or emasculating or whatever.”
“I’ve dealt with so many men that you need to baby a lot”
Larsson says with a wry smile that her 2017 tweet “definitely got people’s attention”, but admits she’d probably phrase it differently today. “Maybe now I’d say, ‘I hate toxic masculinity’. Because I do – it makes the world a worse place, it really does, and it raises men to be not very kind people to themselves and to women specifically.”
Larsson co-wrote songs for ‘Poster Girl’ with singer-songwriters Julia Michaels (who’s American) and Kamille (British), and says that she never wants to be the only woman in a songwriting session. But to this day she’s never worked with a female producer – something she finds “so sad”. Part of the problem, she says, is the way the music industry legitimises a certain brand of male bravado. “I’ve met guys who are like: ‘I’m a producer, I’m a photographer, I’m a stylist, I’m an investor, I’m a director, I’m a lighting guy’,” she says. “And everyone’s like: ‘Yeah man, yeah you are!’ And it’s like, how can you really be all that? But when a girl says she’s a producer or good at making beats, people won’t even believe her.”
She also brings up misogynistic comments rapper Rick Ross made in 2017 about not having signed a female rapper to his label Maybach Music Group: “I never did it because I always thought, like, I would end up fucking a female rapper and fucking the business up… I’m spending so much money on her photo shoots. I gotta fuck a couple times.” (He later apologised and said: “My comment is not reflection of my beliefs on the issue.”) Today, Larsson tells NME: “I was confused by that, but I wasn’t really that confused. It’s really sad that you can’t just be a really talented woman [in this industry] – you have to be, like, ‘fuckable’.”
Larsson says she’s in a fortunate position compared to many female artists, because her international label, Epic Records, is headed up by a woman, Chair and CEO Sylvia Rhone. “I fucking love Sylvia and I feel like she understands me,” Larsson says. “But it’s very rare to have a woman, especially a woman of colour, sitting in a boss’s chair. And the difference is, from my perspective, that she’s just less like a baby.”
Her disarming frankness makes me laugh. “No, honestly! I’ve dealt with so many men in this industry – executives – that you just need to baby a lot,” Larsson continues. “But when a man says ‘I don’t want that to happen’ and walks out of the meeting, people don’t call him a baby. They call him ‘passionate’. Eugh.”
With the hour drawing to an end, I ask if Larsson ever regrets anything she says on social media or in interviews. “I’ll probably hang up this call and be like, ‘Fuck!’” she replies with a laugh. “I’m a very talkative person and a very anxious person. The number of times I’ve said to myself: ‘This is the last time I’m ever speaking my mind.’ I honestly can’t help myself. It’s very stressful for me, but it’s just part of my personality at this point.”
It’s also a large part of her appeal: Zara Larsson is the brilliant, loved-up pop star who isn’t afraid to say exactly what’s on her mind.
Zara Larsson’s ‘Poster Girl’ is out March 5