october 26, 2018 10:00am
Robyn: Dancing in the dark
After eight years away the pop icon and person who gave us the perfection of ‘Dancing on my own’ is back with a new album, ‘Honey’. El Hunt meets Robyn to talk loss, love, football and what it’s like being queen of the misfits.
On a swanky London rooftop, perched precariously between the lofty spires of St Paul’s Cathedral and the futuristic Walkie-Talkie, Robyn’s bleach-blonde hair wobbles atop her head. Fists clenched, the Swedish pop icon is giving the sort of pep talk which would put Gareth Southgate to shame. Eight years out of the spotlight as a solo artist has made ample time for challenging pursuits – more on those later. But for now, Robyn is happiest letting her lunch go cold, in favour of talking very passionately about the beautiful game.
“I really like to watch football!” she declares. “Strange, maybe, but I think it’s very relaxing. When I used to tour here in the UK a lot, my whole crew were Tottenham fans, so we just ended up watching a lot of [their] games,” she explains, referring back to touring the ‘Body Talk’ trilogy. Across the course of 2010, Robyn binned off conventional album releases, and instead dropped three mini-records in a single year. The tour that followed was her final outing as a solo artist for eight years. “I was like, ok, this is my team,” she says. “Tottenham at that time really sucked, they were one of the worst teams ever.”
“I like that they really sucked, and they’ve battled back!” Robyn adds proudly. “They’re not giving up! If you meet these big teams, with all this celebrity and money, and star players, you have to own up to it, and not let go of your idea of yourself. They’re underdogs.”
Of course you would support an underdog, I eventually manage to blurt out in reply. Tottenham Hotspur have many Robyn-like qualities. Actual real-life Robyn, sat opposite, looks pensive for a moment, pondering exactly what a Robyn-like quality might be. She laughs. “I didn’t even know that when I started watching them! But yes.”
Where other pop giants have built their careers on escaping normality, existing on untouchable pedestals like the glimmering, immortal pop titans they are, Robyn’s music instead addresses the heartbroken weirdo in the corner. Grabbing them by the hand and yanking them into a dingy basement of sweaty, thrashing bodies, her true genius lies in clashing brightly euphoric light with darkness so dark that it throbs in an unknown place, deep inside your ribcage.
Starting out in a place that didn’t quite suit her, Robyn spent her teens as a major label pop star fighting against industry moulds. By the time she was in her mid-teens she’d already signed a record deal with RCA to release her debut single ‘You’ve Got That Somethin’’, and breaking through in the US two years later, Robyn’s early sound – smooth, slinking Rn’B-lite which abandons vocal gymnastics in favour of a grittier expression – influenced some of the biggest hits of the 90s.The hallmarks of Robyn’s single ‘Show Me Love’ ripple forward, directly influencing everyone from Britney Spears’ debut single to early P!nk. Meanwhile, Robyn wasn’t happy with being altered to suit the latest whims of the industry.
Over the next decade, she grappled with a lack of artistic control. She signed a new record deal with Jive Records, only for the company to be brought by BMG; the same owner of her original record label. Back where she began, the singer left Jive in 2005 to start her own record label, Konichiwa. In other words, Robyn knows a few things about battling through adversity and feeling like a misfit. Her music, too, lifts people higher.
There’s a reason why ‘Body Talk Part 1’s ‘Dancing On My Own’ – released in 2010 – speaks so closely and specifically to outsiders who feel alone in a room packed to the rafters. There’s also a reason why the “blissfully painful insanity” of ‘Hang With Me’ hits with pinpoint accuracy. “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her,” Robyn sings on the former, the pain of smashed bottles and broken hearts colliding with a swelling warmth powerful enough to pull you through. “I’m right over here, why can’t you see me?”. It’s impossible to name a purer, or more savagely perfect pop song about loneliness and isolation. The surging pain of ‘Every Heartbeat’ and the wishful but impossible fantasy of ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ come from that same dull, aching spot.
To distil Robyn’s music down to one magical unifying essence, her strongest suit is her ability to rip disparate emotions into tattered shreds, before bringing them together into one big tangled ball of melancholic euphoria that somehow rescues you. Most artists dream of expressing themselves this vividly across that one rare masterpiece album; let alone time and time again, in a single perfect track. And yet when unimaginable loss hit Robyn hardest, twice over, she was left with a space so numb and infinite even she didn’t know what to do with it.
A few years ago, midway through a period of productive collaboration with everyone from the Norwegian electronic duo Röyksopp to Metronomy’s Joseph Mount, Robyn’s relationship with her longterm partner and artistic collaborator Max Vitali fell apart in front of her eyes. Though the pair have since reunited, the break-up plunged Robyn into a period of depression. And then in 2014, as work continued on the ‘Love Is Free’ EP with La Bagatelle Magique, she lost her beloved friend and bandmate Christian Falk to pancreatic cancer. Along with her other bandmate Markus Jagerstedt she then finished and released the music they began with Falk; speaking to the BBC, Robyn compared that process to “a ghost”.
Confronting permanent loss, and looking mortality square in the eyes sent her to the darkest places that her art couldn’t unmuddle. It forced Robyn to completely reassess the way that she creates; for several years she couldn’t find the words at all. ‘Honey’ – her first solo album in eight years – is her way of making sense of it all; the sweetness, strangeness and cruelty of existence.
“The more I enjoy my life, the more I’m scared to lose it,” Robyn says today. “Lose the people I love. The more present I feel, the more….” she pauses, wrestling her phone out of her pocket. “I don’t know the word in English,” she says. “Förgänglig”
“Let me Google it,” she suggests, her fingers tapping quickly away. “Well, this says perishable,” Robyn says, leaning across to show me the screen. “Transient.”
“The more you feel it, the more it slips out of your hands. That’s painful when you realise that’s what it’s like to be a human being. We’re limited, both physically because of our bodies, but also, the length of our lives. They’re not forever.”
Sitting in a room next to death, feeling it perched on a chair in the corner, waiting for it to inevitably rise to attention, is an experience that changes you permanently. Getting to know death intimately, in a strange way, and shepherding a person you love out of the door with death as you live on in spite of it, is perhaps the most painfully sad privilege of living. Death leaves behind a dull empty space that’s heartbreaking to leave; abandoning your brief window into death in order to continue with living life feels like a betrayal, somehow. As loss punctuates the emerald-dusted pavements of ‘Honey’, as ‘Because It’s In The Music’ gets spun back through the years by a single, memorable hook from an old song, ‘Honey’ hangs onto this bizarrely tranquil headspace as time marches forward. It’s a record filled with recurring flickers of what’s been lost.
“Watching someone die from a sickness is so grim and relentless,” Robyn says, referring to the final months she spent with Falk. “I think actually I feel really blessed to have had that experience, because I was able to be a part of it without being the person that died. Having access to what that means….” she hesitates. “I really cherish that time.”
“When I did perform ‘Missing U’ [for the first time live at Radio 1 In Ibiza] it was like really, really reliving the emotion of it,” Robyn recalls. “It was like, ‘oh god. I forgot what I felt when I wrote this already’. It moves so quickly, and I think I’ve been afraid of that,” she ponders. “I don’t want to let go of the calm and the presence I’ve had around this album, but I know it’s going to be impossible to stay in that space.”
Robyn originally began writing ‘Missing U’ – the lead single from ‘Honey’, and ultimately, her creative breakthrough moment – before these two life-altering events even took place. “The words just came out of my mouth, and I really didn’t know what it was about at all,” she admits. At first glance ‘Missing U’ is another stonkingly brilliant break-up banger – a Robyn special cut from the same pop-gold cloth as ‘Every Heartbeat’. On closer inspection, blurry memories blare through the heat-haze of flittering synths. It’s grief in musical form.
“I went through a break-up, my friend died, and this song took on those meanings,” she adds. “It took a really long time for me to finish it, and I think it was because I wanted to find a depth. Both in my music, and personally, that I wasn’t really in touch with.
It takes a courage to dig deeper, and I knew I had some digging work to do.”
Once completed, ‘Missing U’ became a gigantic slab of sorrow lost on the dancefloor; inadvertently hitting on that honey-drenched Robyn sweet spot once again. “Going places we went, remember to forget,” goes the final verse, name-checking Robyn’s first collaboration with Falk (their 1999 track ‘Remember’). “Thinking how it could’ve been / I’ve turned all my sorrow into glass / It don’t leave no shadow.” And ‘Honey’ itself became the viscous golden glue binding it all together.
“‘Honey’ was such an important part of the album, for me, because it was the song that helped me discover self-care. Love, and that sensual quality I felt throughout the whole album was so important,” she explains. “I’ve been obsessed with this word for a long time, it’s such a weird substance, it’s both disgusting and amazing at the same time. That’s what self-love is, it’s not all good; it’s self-indulgent and also requires you to be deep and look at things that aren’t so comfortable.”
“It feels like a transcendent type of substance,” Robyn ponders. “That contrast between life and death, and sugar. Imagine being a human being 100,000 years ago and discovering honey. Like, that must have been insane!” she observes. “A wild animal made candy! The bees have made candy ever since then, way before anything. Way before alcohol!”
Robyn’s upturned phone still rests on the table, the word ‘transient’ glaring up towards the blue sky. Transient is a fitting way to describe ‘Honey’ as a whole. Compared with the angular, bombastic clout of her ’Body Talk’ records and her self-titled return as an independent artist in 2005 – all hefty pop bangers – this feels like a softer, gentler prospect that’s constantly shape-shifting. Pivoting around the house-inflected midpoint ‘Send To Robyn Immediately’ – a track she made with frequent collaborator Kindness – the record flows more like a fleetingly blissful club night than a conventional record. Constructed on cyclical rhythms which build and dissipate, ‘Honey’ starts out thrashing in the darkness, and gradually heads out to find the stark light of day. It’s a slow-burn of drawn-out gratification ripped straight from the clubs where Robyn, like so many outsiders before her, drowned her pain.
The cheeky spoken-word interruptions that pepper ‘Between the Lines’ recall New York disco pioneers Masters At Work, while the aforementioned ‘Send To Robyn Immediately’ is equally playful. The track samples Lil Louis’ frantically building dance staple ‘French Kiss’ (the original track, from 1989 culminates in a blissed-out haze of orgasmic moans – most certainly NSFW). And the syncopated samba rhythms of ‘Beach 2k10’ (learning to dance the samba is now Robyn’s other ‘main hobby’ other than football, she tells me) comes from a similarly hypnotic headspace, bathing in the over-all-too-soon heaven of a pingered up night on the white beaches of Ibiza. A little like life, the healing effect of dancing the night away in a hazy club is all too transient.
“I danced a lot on my own…” Robyn starts before catching herself and smiling. “No pun intended.”
House music, she says, continuing, has always been a huge influence, ever since she was whisked away to the States as a teen with the end goal of creating a perfect pop star. Robyn still has negative feelings about the time she spent being “shaped” as an artist; as she put it to The Guardian “I think it’s probably the worst thing you can do to an artist in their teenage years”. She merely murmurs in agreement when I ask if she’s she’s seen the inner workings of the pop machine in all lights; positive and negative.
“I knew I could change the structure from the bottom up, but it wasn’t something that I could fix within the system,” she says. “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.”
Looking around the pop landscape right now, things are shifting for sure. Charli XCX for instance, has stepped away from albums completely in order to release sporadic mixtapes. It seems a less regimented place, which perhaps encourages creativity?
I think it does too. It puts the human part of us all in focus. Not just the art, and the human part of the artist, but reflecting that in the people that are into the music as well. It is a demystifying time, isn’t it?
Whether it’s identity politics, or uncovering racism, or sexism, or the way that people deal with social media, the way that we’re sharing everything in our lives…the quality in between what’s real and what isn’t is being questioned all the time. I think that’s really healthy, and I think there are also, unfortunately, a lot of people who don’t have the tools to decode it. Then it becomes really unhealthy.
Your ‘Body Talk’ album trilogy explored the idea of technology versus humanity. Since the start of your career, so much has changed. At the beginning you were one of the few people who had email. You used to deliver your music to labels on VHS tapes. How do you look upon technology now?
I still really like it, I think it’s an amazing thing, and I think it’s gonna help us, I really do think that it’s gonna help us to solve a lot of important problems. I also think that, as with everything, when we romanticise or idealise something the way we do with technology, it’s almost… the reason why people get so excited about technological advances is because it makes us feel like, um, like we won’t die? Like we can overcome everything.
That is not constructive, unfortunately. I sound so, how do you say, goody-two-shoes right now, but putting a car in space… what does that mean? What’s it going to be for? I don’t understand! There’s lots of other things you can do with technology, but I think the core of it needs to be something else. A lot of times it just becomes about trying to beat death, you know? That’s really scary to me. I think that creates a lot of suffering for other people.
As much as the world is an entirely different place to the one that greeted Robyn when she signed her first record deal, one massive influence still lingers from that time. You suspect that the independent spirit of the dance music that Robyn soaked up in her first trips abroad also went on to inform her intense grasp on euphoric melancholy, along with Konichiwa – her record label
“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 the Shelter,” she says, referencing François K. and John Davis’ near-mythological Sunday club staple. “Coming there… it was like, oh my god, this is where [house and techno] was made. It was an important moment for me, and something that opened me up to club culture. I’ve been wanting to explore ever since then.”
“If you think about the good clubs you’ve been to, that’s usually because there’s an atmosphere that’s open and welcoming,” she points out. “If it’s a good place, then you feel like you’re allowed to be there. I love the contrast between those two things, because I think that’s also what life is like… “ she ponders. “You never know what other people are feeling or thinking… you never know. At the same time you want to connect, and you can connect with other people; the balance between these two things, all the time.”
“It’s cool to be in your own space, dance on your own terms, in the middle of all these other people doing the same thing, it’s really important. Utopian,” she adds.
Robyn has always enjoyed the democratic feel of a perfect club night, and similarly, you get the impression she values the importance of being a touchable artist. She may be an undeniable icon of pop – with an enormous legacy around her – but she’s also the kind of person who cheerfully sneaks into her own tribute nights. Doing just this at one particular club night in Brooklyn is exactly how she chose to debut ‘Missing U’ for a room of elated fans.
“There’s something really interesting about the intensity of being a celebrity or whatever,” she tells me, her intonation providing invisible inverted commas, “someone that people know. There’s something really exciting about the contrast in between that and the super intimate relationship you have through the music with your fans, or the artists that you love.”
“It leaves a lot of space to talk about things in a way that doesn’t become private,” she continues. “It becomes personal, which is nice – it doesn’t become private or weird. I always really enjoy that, and you know what? I think it’s almost a challenge for me,” she admits.
How so? “I became ‘famous’ – whatever – at a very young age, it was really scary for me, and something I really struggled with at the beginning in my teenage years. I’ve always wanted to own the situation and demystify it. Not the music or the feelings, but I wanted it not to scare me. I wanted to feel like it liberated me…”
After eight years struggling through loss, sadness, and at times, boredom (“accepting that boredom,” she says, proved vital in pushing through creatively) ‘Honey’ is a record that digs deeper than ever into the darkness Robyn’s music has always dwelled in. When it comes to bottling up grief into something that sounds oddly tranquil and super raw at the same time, it’s flawless.
“You know what?” Robyn announces abruptly, “I’d like to order a glass of wine! I think you can choose for me,” she says, spinning around to face a slightly stunned waiter. “I want something that’s not sweet but not oaky. Minerally…” she muses. It turns out that Robyn likes her wine like she likes her music; encompassing all kinds of things at once.
As I get up to bid farewell to Robyn and her minerally wine for the day, I check my phone to find that Tottenham Hotspur have just been subjected to a thrashing at the hands of Liverpool FC. True to form, they smashed in a goal in the third minute of final time, just to prove they’re still fighting.The underdogs strike again.
‘Honey’ by Robyn is out now.