“She breaks the mould”: how Robyn’s pop classic ‘Body Talk’ changed the game

A decade on, collaborators Kleerup and Sophia Somajo and famous fan Charli XCX reflect on the Swedish star's incendiary musical trilogy. By El Hunt. (Photo credit: Joe Scarnici/FilmMagic)

A decade ago, Robyn changed the landscape of pop forever, condensing and building upon her two mini-albums from that same year and unleashing the final instalment of ‘Body Talk’ on her own label, Konichiwa Records.

Released as a trilogy over the course of 2010, the run shook up an increasingly outdated way of putting out music in the internet age and spawned some of the Swedish artist’s greatest songs of all time: ‘Dancing on my Own’ (which NME crowned the best song of the 2010s), ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ ‘Hang With Me’ and ‘Indestructible’ among the biggest hitters. And flying in the face of past convention, the independently-released, rapidly-created trio paved the way for more experimental, alternatively-minded pop stars to find a place in the landscape in years to come.

Post ‘Body Talk’, pop is a home for curveball moves – think of any of the last decade’s most celebrated and influential stars, and they all share a love of rule breaking in common. Christine and The Queens and Lorde are perhaps Robyn’s most obvious predecessors when it comes to channelling an outsider’s pain through the glimmer of a disco ball, but in reality, her influence has changed the whole shape of mainstream culture. With the exception of Madonna, who was arguably doing it anyway, pop’s biggest icons have adapted to suit a faster-paced world of reinvention, where genre is increasingly irrelevant.

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Rihanna’s eighth album, 2016’s ‘ANTI’, was a raw and sprawling rejection of pop polish, with a surprise Tame Impala cover to boot. Taylor Swift, who has recently been vocal about the importance of retaining creative autonomy, made her latest album, ‘Folklore’, with Bon Iver and The National. And in recent years Ariana Grande and Charli XCX have both embraced more organic routes to releasing music – forgoing traditional drawn-out campaigns in favour of more immediate projects that feel less like weighty artefacts, and more spontaneous documents of the present.

“Robyn has always been an example of someone doing things completely on her own terms,” Charli XCX tells NME. “She is someone who breaks the mould, and who’s always felt exceptionally free to me. I think Robyn’s sporadic release cycles and experiments with the way music could be dropped had an effect on me subconsciously. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, but it’s something I definitely think about a lot with my own releases now.”

When NME crowned Robyn Songwriter of the Decade at this year’s NME Awards, many of the other artists in attendance credited her enormous influence. “Robyn, you inspire every single artist doing pop music right now,” Taylor Swift said, collecting Best Solo Act In The World. “She has paved the way for pop artists who don’t play by the rules,” Charli XCX explained, speaking alongside Christine and The Queens after presenting Robyn with her prize. “She never compromised with how she wanted to exist as a woman,” Chris added. “She grew older, wiser, and she kept being around without being smoothed out or shying away from deep issues. I think this is really powerful as a woman. It’s multi-faceted and I love it.”

She deserves credit for being the first independent artist in pop,” agrees Swedish artist and songwriter Sophia Somajo, who has written for the likes of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and Christine Aguilera, and was a co-writer on Robyn’s ‘Body Talk’ track ‘Time Machine’. Somajo usually uses cryptic pseudonyms for her songwriting work, wary of her own solo material being lumped in with “‘the Britney Spears songwriter” tag. Collaborating on ‘Body Talk’ was different – “because it’s Robyn,” she laughs. “Growing up in Sweden she was something new, and she inspired so many young girls including myself. I’m one of the thousands of girls who cut my hair in the same short bob,” she laughs. “I just wanted to do it for a 12-year-old-me.”

“Internationally it was really rare to run your own label,” Somajo adds. “I think this generation of female pop artists that have a DIY identity have all been influenced by Robyn – sometimes they may not even think about it. She’s got an indie mentality with commercial success, and is maybe the first woman to fuse that and not care about the rules. I remember when I started getting interested in music you had to choose [between indie acclaim or mainstream clout]. She’s 100 per cent changed the industry,” she says, “and the way that especially women and girls see that there are opportunities. You don’t have to do what “they” tell you to do,” she says, referencing the old school establishment. “You can do it your own way.”

Five years before releasing ‘Body Talk’, Robyn left her major label deal to start the independent Konichiwa – and released ‘Robyn’ that same year. You suspect her first record alongside her long-time collaborator and producer Klas Åhlund was self-titled for a reason – it marked a musical rebirth from an artist who had long felt penned in by the inner cogs of the music industry.

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Alongside the genius simplicity of ‘Be Mine!’ and the eviscerating pang of ‘With Every Heartbeat’, it showed a freewheeling, playful side to an artist once shoved into the mould of a clean-cut ‘90s teen pop star. What if I’m nothing like her,” Robyn sang on ‘Who’s That Girl?’ – her words about heartbreak also a neat metaphor for the pressure she felt to conform to narrow expectations. “I know there’s no such girl / I swear I can’t take the pressure.” And with ‘Body Talk’ Part 1’s ‘Fembot,’ Robyn alludes to similar ideas. Fresh out the box, the latest model,” she deadpans robotically, later adding: “Fembots have feelings too”

She did what every artist who makes a difference does,” says the Swedish record producer Kleerup, who collaborated with Robyn on their joint smash single ‘With Every Heartbeat’ in 2007, and co-wrote and co-produced ‘Body Talk’ track ‘In My Eyes’. “She releases what she wants, and gambles. She did a song called ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do,’” he says, nodding to the opening track of ‘Body Talk Prt 1’, “and that says it all.”

“I knew I could change the structure from the bottom up, but it wasn’t something that I could fix within the system,” Robyn told NME for our digital cover story in 2018. “I spent so much time trying to do that, and it got to a point where I was like, this is not going to work. It was definitely disconnecting that helped me do what I wanted to do.”

Robyn in her early days. Credit: Getty

Undoubtedly, ‘Robyn’ paved the way for the classic that followed – and with ‘Body Talk’ Robyn swerved from airy Rn’B into a darkened, strobe-lit club. Taking its name from a London gay club, the album laid the template for a different kind of pop – rather than offering pure, otherworldly escapism, ‘Dancing on my Own’ and ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ were bittersweet, aching with lonely pang of isolation, and yet still digging out pockets of joy beneath the pain.

Take a brutally effective lyric like Lorde’s observation that we order different drinks at the same bars” (‘Green Light’) or Lana Del Rey’s eminently quotable ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ (“Godamn, man child / You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you'”) and you can trace an unbroken line from these newer sad bangers, straight back to ‘Body Talk’.

“Getting to the point is what pop music is about,” says Sophia Somajo. “Pop music has to be communicative. ‘Dancing on my Own’ is just perfect, melody-wise, in how it plays on your feelings. The production is really fresh. And lyrically it tells it exactly how it is. Everyone knows that feeling. It’s not trying to be poetic. That really is craftsmanship. That’s not random. Music isn’t only intellectual – it’s also instinctive. “I keep dancing on my own”. Perfection is often in simplicity. It’s just real.

““It’s cool to be in your own space, dance on your own terms” – Robyn

‘Dancing on my Own’ in particular sings to the lonely misfit shoulder-shimmying alone in a gloomy corner. It was in part a reflection of where she sought out sanctuary as a teenager – early in her career, Robyn would use trips to the States as an excuse to party at some of the city’s most influential house nights, including the near-mythological Sunday club. “Ever since I was 17 and working in America, I was in New York a lot, and I was lucky enough to go to one of the last Body and Soul nights at [famed club] the Shelter,” she told NME. “It’s cool to be in your own space, dance on your own terms,” she said, “in the middle of all these other people doing the same thing, it’s really important. Utopian.”

And when it comes to expressing the raw essence of a feeling atop an infectious melody, with the kind of brutal simplicity that floors you, Robyn is unparalleled. Perhaps it’s because she never left behind the emotional bombast of pure pop, even as she forged her own path and pushed the form into experimental new places.

And this rare concoction is what makes ‘Body Talk’ a lasting classic, as Charli XCX attests: “‘’Body Talk’ was an album that I experienced as a teenager and one of the first albums where I generally felt so inspired by both the pop aspects and the more intricate experimental aspects. I thought it was one of the coolest albums ever.”

In making, ‘Body Talk’ Robyn worked alongside a team of faces old and new. Much of the record was produced by Klas Åhlund, who became a trusted collaborator after the artist left her major label deal, and also worked on Robyn’s most recent album ‘Honey’. Diplo produced and played on Prt 2’s ‘Criminal Intent’, while Snoop Dogg features alongside her on the deliciously haywire ‘U Should Know Better’. The Norwegian dance group Röyksopp appear on the third and final ‘Body Talk’ album track ‘None of Dem’, while ‘In Your Eyes’ collaborator Kleerup had previously written ‘With Every Heartbeat’ with Robyn.

She also enlisted the pop powerhouse Max Martin – who had originally worked with Robyn on many of her records in the ’90s – to produce ‘Time Machine’. Robyn has previously stated that reuniting to make music entirely on her terms felt “nostalgic” and symbolic of how her career had come full circle.

“She proved that, being a Swedish woman in pop, you can do a song with Snoop, work with Max Martin and do stuff totally on your own,” Kleerup says. “She had a platform to make three records with all kinds of stuff on, and then she delivered.”

Somajo – who frequently works alongside Max Martin – sees the pair as a well-suited creative match, and says that both “seemingly very unaffected by fame”. She adds: “Martin is one of the funniest people I know. We joke around a lot of the time and effectively get the work done.

“A lot of [big producers], without mentioning any names, don’t really participate in the session. But Martin is extremely involved in every aspect, he’s not at all leaning back. I was very surprised by that. A lot of his peers that come from the same era have the sort of aura that comes from ’90s pop: suits and powerful men. He’s never had that. He’s the first male producer that I’ve worked with that is 10 years my senior, and has never treated me like ‘the singer’ or ‘the girl that gets to sit in on the session’. He never makes himself the boss, and he easily could.”

Robyn; Charli XCX
Robyn, Christine and The Queens and Charli XCX at the NME awards. Credit: Getty

Of working on ‘Time Machine’, Somajo recalls: “Martin said let’s try this song with Robyn and see what you guys can do with it lyrically together. I was like, Yes please!’ We had an idea for the song, and then Martin put me and Robyn together to hang out, talk about life, and write lyrics. That was a big deal! I’ve met a lot of big stars, but I haven’t necessarily had a relationship with them [and their music].” Working together on ‘Time Machine’ was a relaxed and intimate experience: during the session, Robyn played Somajo an early demo of ‘Indestructible’ and it moved her to tears: “She had just told me some personal things, and I started crying when I heard it.

“We spoke about where we were at with relationships, and it was really personal and fun. We wrote the lyrics, and they came very naturally. We were joking about conspiracy theories, and chatted about men we know in the industry, and the nature of the industry… It got really intimate right away. Nowadays if I meet an artist I will sit with them for an hour and talk about life. ‘Who are you in love with, what’s going on, who are you angry with?’”

Kleerup, meanwhile, met Robyn through Klas Åhlund prior to their collaboration on ‘With Every Heartbeat’. “I was playing drums for [Åhlund’s alternative rock band] Teddybears, and he and Robyn had a meeting. We went to the bar in Stockholm after, and walked to a gig – some paparazzi started yelling very nasty things to [Robyn]. When they said all these things to her, I felt like she shouldn’t take this. So I ended up beating them up. It was a big street fight, and Klas ended up in jail, actually. I had one guy in a headlock, and then somebody hit me right on the nose and I started bleeding a lot. Klas screamed ‘run!’.

“Robyn has done things completely on her own terms” – Charli XCX

“They were after me, a couple of metres behind, and I ran into the ladies’ restroom. It was like a movie: I could hear them, but they couldn’t see where I was. I went back into the gig with toilet paper stuck in my nose, and spoke to Robyn later. That was the first day we met. I felt like I had to protect her because they were so mean to her. She helped me immensely when I found out I had ADHD, too.”

The pair drifted apart after working together on ‘Body Talk’, but Kleerup looks back fondly on their work together. “I remember our song being a killer demo. Robyn had this Prius car, and she was always blasting music –  this demo for ‘In My Eyes’ sounded awesome. We said, ‘This is perfect’. She’d already done ‘Body Talk Prt. 1’ and at that time I was living in Gothenburg and she came to visit. We haven’t spoken for a long time – not since [Robyn’s La Bagatelle Magique collaborator] Christian Falk’s funeral. I really miss her; I hope we can work together again.”

After releasing the third part of ‘Body Talk’, Robyn took some well-earned time out to figure out what she wanted to say next. After branching out into a series of collaborations – with La Bagatelle Magique, her ‘Body Talk’ collaborators Röyksopp, and Metronomy’s Joseph Mount – she returned eight years later with the gorgeous and soft-edged dance-pop record ‘Honey’. It was a flawless album that built even further on the aching void that pulses in the ribcage of a song like ‘Dancing on My Own’ – taking intense loss and grief and thrashing it all out on the dancefloor. It’s an all-consuming listen as viscous as molten nectar.

And it’s undoubted that the trailblazing spirit of ‘Body Talk’ paved the way for everything that came afterwards: from both Robyn and virtually all of her alternative-leaning pop contemporaries. A decade later, her fierce independence has arguably influenced every pop star we have, and music is a richer and far more interesting place for her refusal to stick to the rulebook.

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