This pieceÂ originally appearedÂ in the November 2010 issue of SPIN.
For several bizarre hours on a Tuesday afternoon in September, Swedish pop starÂ Robyn attends a cocktail party for Manhattan socialite Blair Waldorf. The event, of course, is as fake as the plastic strawberries stacked next to the chocolate fountainâtheyâre shooting a scene from an episode of Gossip Girlâand the 31-year-old singer born Robin Carlsson lip-synchs to a stripped-down version of her latest single, âHang With Me,â as extras grip champagne glasses inside Silvercup Studios in Queens and try to look posh.
âDo you have artists here a lot?â Robyn asks a trio of staffers who have gravitated to her dressing rom. The answer comes quicklyâLady Gaga and No Doubt (and, um, Sonic Youth)âwhich means Robyn is the third platinum-haired pop star to perform on the show, but the first without a platinum album. This century, anyway.
In 1998, she was a New York-based teen ingĂ©nue with a smash single, âShow Me Love,â cowritten by Britney Spears/Backstreet Boys hitmaker Max Martin. But in 1999, the same year Spears slapped on a schoolgirl outfit for ââŠBaby One More Time,â Robyn flipped off the industry and remade herself into a DIY electro queen. More than a decade later, the gamble is paying off: Robyn makes music she likesâshimmering melodic disco thatâs equally suited for losing yourself on a dance floor or in your thoughtsâ and the overwhelmingly positive response to her latest albums, Body Talk Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, which hit the Top 10 on the iTunes albums chart and led to a performance on MTVâs Video Music Awards.
âI didnât expect this,â Robyn admits between scenes as she reaches into a black fanny pack for a Marlboro Light. Sitting on a bench near the stageâs loading dock, sheâs wearing a gray sweatshirt with a torn out neck, Flashdance-style, protecting her Gossip Girl wardrobe of red top and puffy black skirt, exuding the casual confidence of someone whoâs been onstage her whole life.Â Her parents ran an experimental-theater group in Stockholm, and traveling with them exposed her to club culture and progressive artists such as Laurie Anderson at an age most kids are grappling with Sesame Street; by 12, she had been discovered singing at school. âBeing onstage and communicating with an audience was part of my life since I was very little, but I was never pushed into singing,â she says. âMy parents were so uninterested in me making music. They were just like, âDo whatever you gotta do.ââ
Martin and the late Swedish producer Denniz Pop oversaw her blockbuster 1997 debut, Robyn Is Here. Being around these songwriters was a huge influence on her, as was the eclectic pop on European radio in the â90s. âYouâd hear Guns Nâ Roses and Snap! and N.W.A,â she says. âWeâd have to make our own ways to connect them.â
While âShow Me Loveâ and âDo You Know (What It Takes)â were hits in America, Robynâs passion was fading fast. âI was having fun, but it wasnât my dream come true,â she says with a slight accent. âWhen youâre 17 and you have an idea, people donât really listen to you. I came out of an environment where my parents were always pushing me to do what I wanted and be creative, and I was not used to the industryâs way of thinking.â
She returned to Sweden and put out two albums that werenât released outside of Europe, then experienced her Moses-on-the-mountain-top moment once she realized she could simply do it herself. âIâd always been a club kid so I was totally unaware that people had their own record companies,â she says over Gossip Girlâs lunch break, gulping down a plate of salad, rice and beans, and salmon in the studioâs commissary.
She recorded her next disc, Robyn, for her own Konichiwa Records. âThere was no A&R, no expectations, no one to answer toââan ideal scenario for someone whoâd later write a throbbing tune called âDonât Fucking Tell Me What to Do.â
A mix of finger-wagging hip-hop boasts, glitchy pop, and lovelorn reveries, Robyn came out in Sweden in 2005 and didnât make its way to the U.S. until three years later. But by the time Robyn signed a distribution deal with Interscope and returned for her first U.S. show in a decade, a funny thing happened: The Internet quietly spread Robyn to an unlikely new audience of tastemakers. âSure the Internet is the future, but what we do on the Internet is still very primal,â Robyn says. âItâs all about connecting to other people, sharing emotion. Itâs our new feathers or face paint. Itâs all very raw. I think the contrast between those things is whatâs really inspired this new album.â
The three-part Body Talk (Pt. 3 is out this month, just in time for a U.S. tour) is Robynâs most expansive work yet, but donât read too much into the constructâCoheed and Cambria this ainât. âItâs a practical solution, not a conceptual idea,â she explains, and the staggered release allows her to mix touring with studio sessions, so sheâs never away from one for too long. âPlus, people go on the Internet and find the music they want,â she says. âItâs not about major labels pushing five records through the same channels and telling, âThis is what you should like this year.â As an artist, you look stupid if you donât recognize the new structure.â
Pt. 1 distills Robynâs romance with technology into âFembot,â where she paints herself as an extremely sexy android. But the albumâs centerpiece is âDancing on My Own,â an emo-electro empowerment anthem about watching an ex kiss his new girl thatâs a sequel of sorts to Robynâs weepy fan favorite âWith Every Heartbeat.â âI like sad songs; itâs just such a pure and classic pop emotion,â Robyn says, citing Princeâs âPurple Rain.â (Despite her penchant for lyrics about heartbreak, she has been in a relationship with top Swedish MMA fighter Olof Inger for the past eight years.) âLovesickness is the most extreme version of being an outsider or not feeling understood or loved,â she says. âItâs a universal feeling everybody connects to.â
Like her sister-divas Gaga and Madonna, for whom Robyn opened on the European leg of last yearâs Sticky &Â Sweet tour (âI got to be in one of her preshow circles when theyâre all huggingâwe were in Athens, so she was talking about Greek cultureâ), Robyn banks on dance musicâs ability to bring together a diverse audience. She considers hers to be â35-year-old white males, hipsters, badonkadonk girls from Brooklyn, goths, and nerdy kids.â But not exclusively. âI love her music,â Madonna tells SPIN. âSheâs a great songwriter and a very cool girl.â
âIf youâre an outsider, you can always find a club where thereâs other people feeling the way you do,â Robyn says. But all this goes deeper than discoâunlike most current pop stars, who grab tracks from whichever producer has the hottest goods, Robyn sticks with a few trusted collaborators and tours with the live band that includes two drummers. âI knew there was a way of doing pop songs that felt organic,â she says. Still, the mounting buzz and adulation surprises her. â[Body Talk] is a dance record and people look down on dance music here,â she says, shrugging. âI didnât expect it to do anything.â
With a few minutes left to close her eyes before her next scene, she heads toward her dressing room. âIf you can write good songs,â she says, flicking a cigarette to the ground, âyou can dress them in anything.â
Dressing up is definitely the theme of the day.
A few hours after wrapping on Gossip Girl, Robyn changes into a white dress and heads over to a real hoity-toity party, a four-floor Fashion Week bash for Vogueâs website. Big-name designers like Zac Posen glide around and pose for photographers while a DJ blasts Jamiroquai and Jay-Z. But when Robyn cuts through the crowd to join her keyboardist Marcus for a stunning, subdued four-song acoustic set, camera phones light up like the mock New York skyline sheâd left behind on the Queens soundstage. âWith Every Heartbeat,â naked without its synth pulse, still holds the room rapt, and fashionistas and waiters pack in shoulder to shoulder to get a better view.
If thereâs anything Robynâs self-imposed retreat taught her, itâs that none of this attention should be taken seriously or for granted. As a result, her brand of blonde ambition is maybe more measured than than that of some of her peers.
âWhatever happens is good,â sheâd said earlier, smiling. âIf I just get to do my music and make enough to pay rent, Iâm fine.â