Robyn is stuck in a car that isn't moving. Looking out the window she can see a large construction site for a new house going up in downtown Los Angeles. "It's an old centre that's being rejuvenated after years of decline. We're heading for the freeway and Hollywood, we are supposed to shoot in Griffith Park today. But right now we're not going anywhere. It's pretty frustrating, we're trying to make it to the film site before sunset", Robyn says over the phone.
It's 6.15 in the evening, but her day has just started. She was up all night shooting film and didn't get to bed until 7 a.m. "So we're all in the car. It's me, the driver, my assistant Jonas and José, who looks after my clothes. Ha-ha, all my clothes! I'm only wearing one outfit in this film".
The film is a car commercial for Volvo, which will begin airing in a few weeks, following up on the success of their first commercial with Zlatan. Robyn wanted part of the commercial to be recorded here, in LA. "I have a pretty complex relationship with Los Angeles, but it's grown on me. I spent a lot of time here as a teenager, and I was pretty unhappy. I never felt like it was a place I wanted to spend time in, up until a few years ago when I started working differently, met new people and found some peace of mind. It became a completely different city. It's both a big city and something else, a nothing-place. You can disappear here".
Los Angeles is an iconic city, the scene of countless movies and TV-shows. "I've enjoyed conquering it. At first it was just endless and indefinable, filled with anonymous people. When I was younger I dreaded it. But I have found a new aspect of it, a regular town filled with normal people".
A few years ago Robyn bought a house in LA. She hasn't been there much - touring and other work got in the way - but she plans on spending more time there in the future. "But I don't think I'll ever move here".
"It's too far away from my family and everyone I know. It's a long flight, you get jetlag, and you can't go home just to celebrate someone's birthday".
We have to hang up. "Traffic is starting to move, I think we're going to make it there before sunset".
One week later Robyn picks me up from the train station in Gnesta. She's come back from Los Angeles to film the final scenes of the commercial, here in the forest. Trees, sunsets and sunrises, nature scenes where Robyn is off camera. We're heading to her house here, but we stop by Södertuna castle where the production team is in a meeting. The director is Max Vitali, who has directed several of Robyn's music videos. He is also her fiancée, and we're supposed to pick him up here. The castle is pale yellow against a clear blue sky when we sit down in the little café to wait.
It's been four years since she released the ambitious triple album "Body Talk", with hits like "Dancing on my own", "Call your girlfriend" and "Hang with me". Since then Robyn has had a guest spot on the American TV-series "Gossip Girl", performed on "Saturday night live" and been on tour. She has collaborated with a number of artists - Neneh Cherry, The Lonely Island, and Abidaz - but Robyn's upcoming album is her first release in years. The mini album, five songs that she recorded with Norwegian duo Svein Berge and Torbjörn Brundtland from Röyksopp, will be released around the same time as the car commercial.
It's not the first time Robyn and Röyksopp have worked together, a few years ago they collaborated on "The girl and the robot". But this time it's different. More together. "The boys have been playing together since they were like twelve. I've seen pictures of them in white turtlenecks and white jeans, standing in the snow in Tromsö with their synths. It's so cute! They have known each other for so long, it's like they're joined at the hip. And I've squirmed my way in there. They're my surrogate bandmates. I've always wanted to play in a band. So this time I wanted everyone to carry the same weight. I longed for that feeling of togetherness and they were into it, they really let me in".
Did you have a strategy for how you where going to get in on the inside?
Robyn laughs. "No ... But I heard about a cat with kittens who found two ducklings and made them a part of the family. I'm kind of like the ducklings. I have this game in my head where I'm part of their band, that there are three of us. And that's how it felt, for real. Especially in the song 'Monument'. We wrote that from scratch, the whole thing, from the sounds to the idea. That's when we started talking about releasing the songs as a band. We've always gotten each other’s passions, understood each other’s humour".
"Monument" opens with an offbeat rhythm and soft synths. When Robyn starts singing it's precise and rhythmic: "Make a space for my body. Dig a hole, push the sides apart". And then, in the middle of the song, the drums fade and all that are left are the soft, dragging synths. It sounds like a rainy, retro-futuristic version of old school science fiction. A muted saxophone echoes throughout the rest of the song. When I call Röyksopp's Svein Berge I'm pleased to see that his Skype ID is named after a character in the classic sci-fi flick "Blade Runner". "Torbjörn and I are both really into that stuff, we were big fans of 'Star Wars' when we were kids. The song 'Sayit' ties into that. I'm a sucker for that kind of dorkiness, balancing on the edge between cheesy and fun".
Your last song "The girl and the robot" was also science fiction. Why does it always turn out that way when you work with Robyn?
"Our chemistry is one of the reasons we get along so well with Robyn. We have the same cultural references, the same way of looking at life".
Back at the castle in Södertuna Robyn tells me about her childhood interest in fantasy and science fiction. She's read "Lord of the Rings" three times. A few years ago she binge-watched the TV-series "Battlestar Galactica". Last autumn she received a prize from KTH The Royal Institute of Technology for integrating technical theories into her music, and a couple of months ago students at KTH built a robot in her honour. They named it Robyt.
"I've gotten more interested in technology with time. I love the philosophical aspect of science fiction, it allows you to challenge and discuss the big questions in a carefree way. Although nowadays, what with the environment, it feels like this big cloud of doom has lowered itself over humanity. We need more than a way of escaping the real world; we need to deal with the big questions. What happens if we have to abandon Earth and move to Mars? Science fiction is turning into reality".
Are you positive about our future, or does it fill you with dread?
"Dread. I don't have a lot of hope. I had more when I was younger, but not anymore. We're in pretty big trouble".
When did your outlook change?
"Pretty recently, in the past few years. Maybe it's because I'm starting to feel more and more mortal. It might be an early midlife crisis. I spend a lot of time thinking about death, about the fact that it's all going to end, and what I'm going to do with my time until then".
What are your thoughts?
"You start to realize that there's not much time to turn things around. There is a period in your life when you're full of initiative and can influence things. And then you start to get older and have to think about yourself, your health, all of that. And that's what it's like for everyone; we all go through that phase. You realize that mummy or daddy isn't there to tell you to stop using fossil fuels. There aren't any governments taking responsibility right now. They're all going along with the global economy".
We're the adult generation. There's no one else.
"Yeah, it feels like we need to live longer lives to have time to do anything. I have this feeling that things keep slipping through our fingers".
Has that realization changed your life?
"I think I try to live in the moment more. Just be there".
You haven't panicked, starting exercising like crazy and drinking wheatgrass juice?
"I've been doing that for ages, ha-ha! Since long before I was scared of dying".
How does all this influence your music?
"That's a good question. I've never used my music as a political tool but I believe that everything is political, even if you're not trying. When I make music it's an opinion or taking a stance in some way. But I don't have an agenda. Maybe I should? It's more like a constant exploration".
You're on (political party) Feminist Initiatives latest album. Was that an easy decision to make?
"Yes. I still don't know whom I'm going to vote for, but my heart lies with FI and I've voted for them before. I don't know what I'm going to do this time, if I'm going to vote tactically or if I'll vote for the party I believe in. But it was a very easy choice to be on the record, FI’s agenda is extremely important when it comes to feminism and the fact that people have different opportunities. I wish that all the political parties looked at things the same way".
There's been a lot of discussion among the Left in the past few weeks about if a vote for FI is a waste, if it only helps the (centre-right) Alliance stay in power.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. It's really hard".
Where you a politically aware teenager?
"My parents have always been political, but not in their theatre. That was pretty taboo in the 70's and 80's. They were definitely leftist and took a stand, but their theatre wasn't about society and politics, it was about people, stories, and fates. Maybe I'm like them. And you can take a stance on political questions in other ways, with your VOICE/VOTE. Or at least I can. And I do, when it feels right".
In the last election it felt like Swedish artists were scared to take sides.
"Yeah. I was too! The young political movement wasn't nearly as visible that time. Just hinting that you had political sympathies was enough to get you labelled as uptight, it was all so ... old, in a way. The Social Democrat ladies liked you. I found that really hard, people already thought of me as kind of uptight. Being associated with people outside my age group scared me. But now there's a widespread and visible youth movement, on the left and the right. The two sides have come out of their corners to talk. It's different now. It's good".
We talk about being uptight. And about loneliness. Robyn was 15 years old when she broke into the industry in 1995. A child. Old interviews and reviews paint a strange, fractured picture. Robyn sang soul with a timeless voice, but at the same time her first big hit "Do your really want me (show respect)" is based on a playground song. She was a child star, but a precocious one. DN's Nils Hansson described her voice as "remarkably mature" in his review of her debut album. At the same time Göteborgs-posten wrote that she would "clean up in Småstjärnorna" (a Swedish talent show for children).
Robyn dropped out of school and moved to America. She made it onto the Billboard Top 10, twice, and became one of Sweden's biggest music exports. But these were also the years when Robyn was unhappy in Los Angeles, out of her home environment, with only managers and record label people to keep her company. It was during this period that she created an image of herself that would take years to shake off.
"I was so young when I started making music, and it all happened so quickly. It was a kind of self-defence: never talking about personal things, keeping a strong facade up in interviews. I was like Pippi Longstocking. I was made out to be some kind of role model, and for a while it was nice to have that image to live up to. But eventually it turned into a burden. I didn't know who I was, so falling into that role was both safe and frustrating. I fought with it for a long time, finding my own way, with my music as well".
But your second album was very personal. You wrote about having an abortion, you talked about it in interviews.
"Yes, sure, I did that ... It was like I wanted to talk about my experiences, even though I hadn't had many. That blew back on me. It was nice to just turn everything off".
You were 19 then. It might have been seen as uptight in Sweden, writing about your abortion, but how did it go over in America, where the religious right is a major factor?
"My second album wasn't released in the States, although there were people over there who listened to the songs anyway. I remember that there were things I couldn't talk about in America when I was 17 or 18 and released my first album there. There are a lot of subject Swedish kids have no trouble discussing, sex and feelings ... But it was really strange talking about those things with journalists over there".
"I was actually on an American educational TV-show about abortions. This was way before my own abortion, so I wasn't talking out of experience, but the conversation was about the difference in abortion statistics between Europe and America. I remember sitting there and talking about it the way a girl from Södermalm would, and everyone else was so worried that they would say something wrong. They were all was so sensitive to what kind of signals they were sending out to young girls when it comes to sex. Even talking about it".
Did you have anyone to help you with interviews, give you advice?
"No. My management team was good, and I had a couple of Swedes I trusted with my business and strategies. But they were all men building their own careers. God no, I had no one to talk to. No one my own age who shared my experiences. I didn't work with any other girls. No".
Robyn's fiancée Max Vitali slips into the café. He's done with work, so we hop into the car and leave Södertuna castle. Robyn's house is ten minutes away. She's driving; Max is in the back seat.
How long have you had the house?
"Since 1998. I had made some money, my parent's friends were selling, so I had a look".
So you bought a house in Sörmland when you were a teenager?
"Ha-ha! Yeah. Maybe I am a bit uptight after all".
It's a stunning spring day. The bushes in Robyn's garden are just starting to bloom. It's a modest cabin built in the 70's, looking out onto a little lake. Sheep wander around a paddock nearby. I'm given instructions and a laminated note with illustrations before I can use the bathroom. It's an incineration toilet; you have to pee into a brown paper bag, which is then burnt under the floorboards. It's rather chilly, so I get slippers. We sit down in a large, worn, light brown leather couch.
It seems like every child star reaches a point where they want to reinvent themselves, become less uptight, and so many of them turn into train wrecks. They turn to the other extreme. Why didn't you become another Lindsey Lohan or Macaulay Culkin?
"Some sort of self-discipline. I have no idea where I get it. But a lot of family members have had rough lives, maybe that instils a feeling of responsibility".
Were your ever close?
"No. I was definitely low for a long time after that first album. I mean, really. I didn't start feeling good until I had started my record label and taken control of the situation. It took me six, eight years to feel like I knew what I was doing again. So many things changed so quickly: I moved away from home, lived abroad, made money, lost all my friends ... It was a lot. I didn't make the smartest choices, I was a little ... on the edge. But I was never close to falling into a heavy addiction or anything like that! I was pretty close to my parents that whole time. I felt pretty damn lonely, but I was never completely alone".
But wait. You spent six to eight years living a life that made you unhappy?
"Yes. I released my album when I was sixteen. Eighteen, nineteen - crap. Twenty, twenty-one - crap. I started feeling better when I was twenty-three. But those years were also a kind of process. And it had a lot to with how the music industry was back then. I didn't think I had a choice! There were no options besides the standard musicians way of life".
You never thought: Screw it; I'll do something else?
"I thought about going back to school for a while. In retrospect I can't understand why it took me so long to start my own label. My parents had their own theatre group. But it's hard when you're alone ... If I had studied music I would have had friends doing the same thing, maybe I would have know some girls to talk to. But I went straight from the ninth grade to all that. I didn't have any kind of network that was my own, it took me a really long time to figure out where to start".
Is that how you saw it? Not having a network made it difficult?
"No, I though I could beat the system from the inside. But that wasn't a good plan.
How did you take that step, starting your own record company?
"Having nothing to lose. That it was better to risk everything than keep on going in the same way".
Robyn started Konichiwa Records in 2004. She says it was a challenge; finding a distributor, finding someone who would accept her terms. Finally Bonnier Amigo said yes.
"Back then they were a pretty rotten label, if I may say so. But they had nothing to lose, so I got a good deal, and it felt fun".
The following January she was a surprise act at the radio awards show P3 Guldgala. She performed her new single "Be mine", a song with frantic violins and rattling drums, co-written with Klas Åhlund of Teddybears Stockholm. I was in the audience. It was an astounding performance, the perfect pop song. A few months later her album "Robyn" dropped. The name signalled a fresh start, her reincarnation.
At this point Robyn was still feeling pretty lonely, she recalls. In recent years though she has found her place and surrounded herself with a group of people who all work in the arts. Röyksopp. Stylist and choreographer Maria "Decida" Wahlberg. Zhala, the first artist to be released on Robyn’s label, whose EP went on sale in February. Adam Bainbridge, better know as Kindness, whom Robyn has composed songs with. Robyn has several other collaborations in the works, besides Röyksopp, but there are no plans for a solo album at the moment.
"It's the first time I feel like I have a real network that I've built all on my own. It all started when I launched my record label and reached out to people I wanted to work with. Now it's turned into a kind of organic thing, built on partnerships with people I care about".
I might sound like a stalker, but I saw you a few weeks ago at a club in Stockholm. Debica was playing. You and your friends came in and just took over the place. You looked like you were having so much fun, it looked so nice!
"I like that! I'm having a great time right now. I think I've been looking to find my place in life since I was a kid. I was a tour kid who went to preschool part time. I never connected with people in my class, I was always moving, always on the outside".
"I've been looking for that connection, and maybe I've found it now. At the same time I've also given it up. You feel it at certain points in your life, but at the same time you're always on your own. What I have now with other people is great, because it's outside the record industry. Everyone is doing their own thing, it makes it more fun".
Kind of like an adult day-care, to make up for what you missed as a kid.
"Ha-ha, yeah, really. But it's all built on personal responsibility. That's why I'm working with Zhala, she's doing it all on her own. I'm just helping her with somewhere to do it. She would be fine without me".
Robyn gushes about Zhala. But it's not completely true that Zhala is doing it all on her own: Robyn and her manager spend a lot of time laying down strategies: What to release, when, in which country, what the plan is for Spotify...
Did you see yourself in that role?
"Not at all. I've avoided it on purpose; I didn't want to become a record label. It scares me, because I've hated it so much myself. But I enjoy doing it with Zhala".
You often talk about your dislike for the industry. But at the same time you work in it. How to you balance those two things.
"It is really hard. Every release causes a lot of angst. You reach the next level, but there's always a new boss at the end of the game. But that feeling is a good thing, it pushes me to keep learning. It can be a pain in the ass though, when you're trying to work commercially. I understand why some artists wear masks and refuse to do interviews. Sometimes I think I should do the same. But my career started differently, and I always end up getting dragged into that commercial stuff. I might not have ... accepted it, but I push my creative boundaries to balance it out".
Do you enjoy that contrast? Doing a bizarre backwards somersault on one of Americas largest entertainment shows?
"Absolutely, it's a kind of sport. I really don't care about success, so I just push it as far as I can. And they haven't kicked me out yet. It looks like I can do what I please. I love pop culture, and there's that tiny area between the fine arts and commercialism where you can still do what you like. That's were I am. Time stops there and it doesn't matter if it's commercial. It becomes something else, something that stands on its own".
Tell me about feminism. Have you always been a feminist, or did you have an epiphany?
"It's always changing, and I've gone through different stages. But I grew up with strong female role models in my family, which has meant a lot to me. Women who had their shit together and were more or less independent".
I sometimes feel that part of feminism is realizing that there are also weak female role models.
"I agree. That's what I mean with it changing. My first feminist awakening was all about being strong; it was a catalyst that helped me find the courage to do new things. But one day I realized that what I thought was independence and strength was in fact something else completely. We have these periods in life, where we shed our old skins. The past few years have been about being allowing myself to be weak and sensitive and soft at times. Both as a woman and as a person. It's about the choices we make in life. What we value, who we emulate. In the arts, as well".
How do you mean?
"When I was younger it was cool to be androgynous, look like a boy. It was a way of setting limits, protecting myself. Nowadays many feminists are sporting a softer look. They celebrate feminine things, pink thinks, cute things. It's exciting to see how everything turns itself inside out. It's a shallow aspect of feminism, but very visible. Dying my hair pink and wearing a short skirt while calling myself a feminist would have been unthinkable when I was sixteen and trying to prove my independence".
I see what you're saying. At first you feel strong on your own, completely closed off. It's so easy to fall into this feeling that you've climbed that mountain, and want to push everyone else off the top. It took me ages to realize that you have to surround yourself with other women.
"Yeah, it's amazing how stupid we can be. I couldn't see that, plain and simple. And it's the same for every other group that has broken free: You shouldn't compete with your allies! You're weak on your own! If you're used to being the only girl in a group, or the only successful girl, you get this idea that you have to be good at everything. You can't have any weaknesses; you can't ever show your vulnerability. It's like girl-power on steroids".
Max says goodbye, closes the heavy door to the cabin and heads off. He's going back to work at the film site. A few days earlier I had spoken to Per Carleö, Volvo's head of market communications, who has been involved in the commercial series that Robyn is a part of, along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Swedish House Mafia.
Max Vitali's involvement was a prerequisite from Robyn, according to Carleö. "Yeah, you can say that. But we all thought it was a given, he has directed videos for her previously and they know each other well. It was important that the commercial be true to Robyn".
What else did she want?
"She had a lot of questions about our technological and environmental projects. She called a lot of specialists in environmental technology and asked what their thoughts were. She was very involved, you could tell she cares about this".
How much are you paying her?
"We're not even going to discuss that".
It's late afternoon back in Sörmland. Robyn serves me coffee, while she drinks tea.
Why are you making this commercial?
"That's a good question. I like Volvo. I like what they stand for. They are a Swedish company that invented the three-point safety belt, but didn't patent it because they knew that would mean fewer people could use a safer belt. Things like that. This is a commercial for a wide reaching environmental project, and after a lot of research I realized it can really make a difference".
"I like driving. I do it all the time. At the same time I'm an environmentally aware person, I know I really shouldn't be driving at all. So what can you do? This is a way of discussing the fact that right now it's impossible for us to live in an environmentally sound way. That's a problem for a lot of people, a stress factor. We're stuck in a world based on systems that are fundamentally bad for the environment, and I don't believe we should stop living, or revert to the 19th century with horses and carriages. I think technology is going to help us into a new age where we can at least limit the effects of carbon dioxide".
It's one thing to realize that we live in a world where we have to make environmentally unsound decisions. But isn't it a completely different thing to make ads for the industry?
"I'm not making this commercial because I want to take responsibility, I'm doing it because it's fun. I've been given the opportunity to film something, illustrate my music visually and make some money! But convincing myself has been a process. It's a commercial. For a car. That's it. I don't think it's my responsibility to change people's attitudes towards driving, but maybe I can make some people choose a better car".
Ten years ago artists were given a hard time if they let their music be used in an ad. That's all changed along with the music industry. It's more accepted today. Is that a good thing?
"It's debatable. I don't know if it's a good thing. But I've never been scared of being associated with or earning money from commercial businesses - as long as I get to do my thing. I've collaborated with companies to make my music videos, because that's what you've got to do if you're not backed by a large label and have to put together your own marketing campaign. But it's my own choices, my own decisions. I don't have to do it".
"That where self criticism comes into play. It's played a huge roll, that juxtaposition of wanting to do things that I stand for, and taking responsibility on the larger, moral plane. It's really hard. But it's also really informative, realizing how everything is connected and separating my personal responsibility from what is part of society. It makes me question myself in ways I wouldn't do otherwise".
What are you going to do with the money?
"Make more music. Release albums. Film videos".
I was trying to remember if you had done anything like this before, and the only thing that came to mind was Date perfume in the 1990's.
"Ha-ha, yes. That's the only time I've done something on this scale".
Can you compare the two? Did you ask yourself the same questions then?
"Yes, and I decided to do it for the same reasons. I enjoyed it! My friends and I wore Date. It's the same today - I drive".
I ask Robyn about the future. Where will she be twenty years from now? About her involvement in Stockholm's cultural and local politics - she has been part of the debate about Slussen and backed an alternative funding plan. In 2005 she joined the Modern Museum's board.
"I would like to do more locally. That's all I really know much about - I know a little bit about being a woman, and a little about being from Stockholm. I like being a part of where I'm from. Maybe because I don't spend much time here, but it helps me fell connected. I could join a political party and become a local politician, but that's a full time job".
Show business has a way of freezing you in time - you're always living life like you're young. That can be both good and bad. Do you ever feel like it's time to grow up?
"I feel that way right now. I'm an adult and I need to start taking things more seriously so I don't waste my time. I don't know if I have to change my life, the important thing is to continue making music and taking it seriously".
I ask her about "Monument" again, I've listened to it a lot. Tell me what the lyrics mean, and I'll tell you what I thought.
"It's all about the physical experience of a person's limits. Or their personality. Their self. Their shape? I don't know quite how to explain it. Their identity, maybe".
There's a lot of worrying about the future in the song, looking towards a time when it's all over.
"Exactly, worrying about death!"
Have you figured out a way to deal with death?
"No, have you?"
God no. I wonder if it will only get worse.
"I think so".
That's horrible. Do you think it's the same for everyone?
"Maybe not all the time, but as soon as someone dies or there is a major catastrophe, it's there. Our society is built up on trying to avoid those feelings at all costs. Maybe it's like allergies. The less dirt you have surrounding you, the more allergic you get. If death was more present in our lives we might not worry about is as much".
I went to a funeral recently, a relative who was 96. She left a note where her last words where written down: "Good luck!” How do you get to that happy "Good luck!”?
"When you die you don't feel anything anymore. Maybe dying is nice, we don't know".
We obviously prefer anxiety to feeling nothing or we would kill ourselves. I wonder if that's what drives humanity, the feeling that it's better than nothing.
"All we can compare dying to is loneliness, and that's what scares us. I don't think dying is the same thing as being alone. It's horrible though if you feel alone when you die".
We have to rush out of the house in the forest so that Robyn can drive me to the train station. She's returning to the film site, where they are filming yet another sunset. The next morning she sends me an email. She wants to talk again. We meet up that evening for coffee in an Asian restaurant near her apartment building, just south of Södermalm. We clear up some details, talk a bit more about Röyksopp and Zhala. She also wants to make sure I've understood her correctly about the commercial.
"I don't know how clear I was, if you understood my decision to make this commercial. What did you hear me say?"
That you've wrestled with the decision, that you've spent a lot of time justifying it to yourself, and in the end came to the realization that it's both problematic and easy in different ways, and screw-it-I'm-doing-it.
"Good. I felt like I sounded more uncertain than I actually am. Because my minds made up, and I'm really enjoying it. Trust me, it wasn't an easy decision, but in the end I feel good about it. I've worked really hard and spent a lot of time working with Max to make a video that feels true to myself. I figured that I would take that commercial space, where a car ad would be anyway, and use it to talk about my own anxieties about the environment. I hope I'll be successful".
Before we leave Robyn pulls out her phone and shows me two photos. They are of two sculptures by Juliana Cerqueira Leite, taken at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Huge, abstract statues. Robyn saw them a few years ago. "She took two big lumps of clay and dug into them. One from the top and the other from below. She created a space for her body. These are moulds of the cavities she made."
If you look closely you can see feet and hands, knees and elbows punching their way out. It looks claustrophobic, hard.
"We talked about 'Monument' yesterday. These statues really touched me, and I was thinking about them when I wrote the lyrics. When I saw them I had just started therapy, which is all about shaping your own personality. It was like a physical manifestation of that process. Getting to know yourself".