Earlier this year, the ambitious, dynamic young Swedish pop star Zara Larsson noticed a Twitter tirade building concerning a female artist, very much one of her peers. ‘In music there is a lane that you’re expected to stay in,’ she says. ‘People have certain expectations about what you should do and what you can be. Being pretty, being skinny, dancing.’ This artist, she saw, was getting hate for doing just that. So Zara started thinking about some of the male artists who define their era. ‘They stand on the same spot for two hours on stage, in literally the clothes they woke up in that morning, doing nothing.’
The flagrant inequality started to gall. Certain personal experiences started to make sense. ‘Women are expected to be everything. Smart, but not too smart. Have an opinion, but not too much of an opinion. Stay in the middle but don’t be boring. It’s like walking a tightrope. There are so many expectations.’
The most excitingly powerful woman Zara has met in her short pop life so far is her boss at Epic Records, Sylvia Rhone. In Sylvia she saw a sea-change coming that she wants to be at the vanguard of, facilitated by social media (‘where we can be our own editors, not relying on magazines to tell people who we are’) and ennobled by the metoo movement. ‘I love Sylvie,’ says Zara, noting that she wrote about her in one of her blue-chip pop numbers, Make That Money.
‘She’s a boss,’ says Zara. ‘She’s been around. She’s very aware of not just the music but what’s going on outside of it, because she’s so plugged in. She’s not caught up in ego the way most powerful men can be. You notice the difference. Even when we go for dinners, it can be just me and her. It doesn’t need to be us and the whole staff who will sit around applauding everything she says. That’s very male. She’s genuine and supercool. Sylvia’s the boss I want to be one day.’
Welcome to the world of Zara Larsson, a new high watermark for bristling, bright, young ambition. Zara believes in the power of pop. The signs of her attaining all she dreams of are already good. As Zara steadies her ship for the release of second international release, at 20 years of age she can look at some impressive statistics already clocked up on her all-conquering pop wall chart.
Her last album and global breakthrough, So Good is the second most streamed album by a female artist ever on Spotify, with Zara since surpassing a staggering 5 billion streams across her career to date. Her biggest Youtube hit, the unmistakable ear-worm Lush Life has had over 580 million views. In 2017 she enjoyed a stream of sold-out European and South American live shows. She has performed for the Nobel Prize committee, Ellen Degeneres, Jimmy Fallon and picked up a couple of MTV EMA’s en route. Yet still she longs for more. ‘I’ve got to get out there and make hits,’ she says, with no small urgency.
Yet still Zara has something to prove to herself. Early in the industry she’d notice wandering hands at business dinners, men of power asking for hotel names and room numbers openly. ‘Men’s egos can be fragile, even at the top. Especially at the top. Feminism is a tool,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t mean equality, it is something you use to reach equality, whatever that takes. I’ve fought the bad guys. I argued with everyone. There are other people who might do this differently and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to be a feminist. It’s an ideology used for reaching equality.’
Zara cannot explain where her absolute faith in the redemptive power of pop music comes from. It might be something she accrued in the atmosphere, growing up in Stockholm suburbia. ‘Whenever I walk into a session and meet people who I’ve never met before, I say “I’m a pop singer from Sweden”, they’re like, “oh wow”.’ Maybe it was passed down from her dad. ‘He’s in the military, my mom’s a nurse. Very classic jobs. But he did play bass in a punk band when he was 14,’ she laughs.
Or, maybe, it’s in the national psyche. ‘We have a really good reputation,’ Zara says. Walking in the lineage of Abba, Robyn and Max Martin, even Ace of Bass and Roxette is a neat path for Zara Larsson to traverse, upending the magical touch they all have for a winning hook and an alchemical melody and rinsing it out with her whip-smart contemporary club sizzle. She’s cool enough not to worry about mentioning some uncool forebears. ‘Once one group paves the way, the easier it gets. I think people wow at the country because we’re such a small place. 10 million people live there.’ Zara’s intention is to follow in her countrymen’s lineage, to make good on all their groundwork.
Zara is one of the special ones. Straight-talking with an infectious enthusiasm for her skill and calling, pop feels like a vocation in her hands. Performance was in her bones from a young age. ‘I’ve been doing it my whole life,’ she says. ‘If there’s a chance of people looking at me performing, I’ve taken it. I’ve never been shy. It’s just who I am.’ Her stage manoeuvres developed precociously young. ‘We couldn’t have furniture at home. After every dinner it was like, “clear the living room, that’s the stage. After every dinner I performed for my mom and my dad. Sometimes I wrote my own songs.’ She knew she was different back then. ‘Me and my sister were raised in exactly the same way, exactly the same parents and she’s not like me at all. Whenever she started to perform she’d want to start again. She’d get shy. I’d just be like, “no, MOVE!”’ She laughs at the memory. ‘I was terrible. But I had no time for that. You’re shining or I’m shining.’
At the age of ten, Zara got her first break on Sweden’s Got Talent. After winning the competition, she thought her early dreams might resolve themselves. ‘I expected the record contract and it never came. So I thought my career was over and nothing was going to happen.’
At ten year’s old?
‘I know! But I was just very eager.’
Eventually Zara picked up a contract at 13. It was here that her rock-solid ambition began turning into something more wilful: artistry. After a year in development she heard the song Uncover and knew, instinctively, not only was this a hit, but this was her hit. ‘My record label didn’t like it,’ she says. She fought for the song to go out to radio in a version with no drum track, just the orchestral strings to cushion the gut-wrenching effect of her powerhouse vocal. When it strode to number one in Sweden, Zara was only 15 years old. It was her first industry battle won. The segue from young ambition and nerves of steel was translating into mass popular appeal. A star was born. The song spread across the continent, from Scandinavia through the rest of Europe.
‘You have to trust your own ears,’ Zara says of her pop process ‘I really had to fight for that song. I trust my guts. When I feel it, that’s the right thing to do.’ It’s a pattern that has stayed with her since, clocking up an astonishing hit portfolio, as both central artist, on the irresistible Lush Life and So Good, as duetter, with MNEK on Never Forget You and Tinie Tempah on Girls Like, and as the featured lead vocalist on global smashes for David Guetta (This One’s For You) and Clean Bandit (Symphony). These songs feel like they’ve lived forever. That’s the way it should be in the gospel according to Zara.
For Zara, creating hits is all part of the pop star’s job. The clarity of Zara’s pop ambition means that she has set herself a fabulous goal for her second international release. She wants it to have the platinum plated feel of a greatest hits album, eclectic in style or mood but uniformly strong and empowered in message. First single Ruin My Life ushers in the new era, blending a lifelong love of hip-hop and R&B into a frank admission of heartache (and its more masochistic qualities). “Ruin My Life is a song about that unhealthy relationship that everyone has at one point in their life. It’s toxic but passionate and addictive." On Pill For This, meanwhile, there’s the up-tempo airwaves banger; elsewhere, on Clubben, the downtown nightlife anthem. Wake Up is the great climactic swooning ballad, the one that might’ve pricked the ear of her other heroes, Whitney Houston or Celine Dion. And Nobody’s Home is her very favourite she’s recorded so far. When Zara talks about her songs, her eyes light up. ‘That song is a little heartbreaker,’ she says. You can see the shiver down her spine at sniffing out an inarguable hit.
Who will Zara Larsson at 30 years old? ‘An international superstar,’ she says. Her ambition is deeply infectious. ‘I will have stadium tours. I don’t know about family, but career-wise I’d like to have my own label. I want that. Hopefully a team of producers and writers I work with. I’ll have a house in LA, one in London, one in Paris but I don’t think I’ll ever 100% never leave Sweden.’
And what about Zara at 60? ‘Hopefully, exactly like Madonna,’ she says laughing, ‘Still going strong, still putting it out there, being edgy, provocative, amazing, taking no bullshit. Madonna didn’t just write those rules. Rock stars, men have done this forever. Now pop stars, women can too. She invented those rules.’