Popping Up: Icona Pop

Popping Up is our recurring look at new artists making noise on the music landscape. Because, hey — Madonna and Britney were once unknown, too.

On the surface, it’s hard to divorce Icona Pop from its cultural roots. After all, the duo, fronted by Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo hails, from Sweden — the indisputable mecca of all things pop. But, aside from this shared Scandinavian experience, there’s little similarity between the traditional Swedish pop hits of yore and the electronica-heavy brand of contemporary electropop currently being radically reinvented by Icona Pop.

The duo’s breakout single “I Love It”, a playfully sinister up-tempo number penned by UK songstress Charli XCX, has already been named one of the top songs of the summer by everyone from Pitchfork to Washington Post. A quintessential display of Icona Pop’s signature sound, “I Love It” nonchalantly delivers a story of impish revenge over a backing track of smartly arranged, driving sawtooth synthesizers — a far cry from the saccharine, bubbly daydreams of most female-fronted chart-toppers.

It’s a dichotomy Icona Pop immediately embraces and is quick to highlight. “We are very honest and direct with our lyrics,” Hjelt explains. “We want people to be able to dance and laugh and have fun to our music, but be able to cry to the music as well.”

Icona Pop, “I Love It”

MEMBERS: Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo

HOMETOWN: Stockholm

SOUNDS LIKE: Classic female-fronted electropop a la Robyn with a touch of the freaky, off-beat grooves of Grimes and Fever Ray.

DREAM COLLABORATION: “We would love to work with Prince,” Jawo remarks. “But who doesn’t, right?”

DYNAMIC DUO: Prior to meeting through mutual friends at a Stockholm party in 2009, Hjelt and Jawo both found themselves saddled with various musical projects that proved unfulfilling and stalled their individual growth as musicians. “I always felt like I wasn’t honest with myself,” Jawo admits as she shares anecdotes from her stint as a cowbell player in an otherwise all-male band. That all changed once she and Hjelt, discovering a mutual frustration with their current creative outputs and shared stylistic interests, agreed to become musical collaborators: “When we met, we just instantly clicked. Everything was so easy.”

“Both of us were very sure we would be solo artists,” Hjelt says. “Now I can’t imagine how it would be to be without Aino.” Jawo laughs, adding, “We have so much fun together!” And while fun does play an integral role in the band’s successes, Hjelt offers a more serious look into why maintaining a positive outlook and keeping the musical experience fresh has served Icona Pop so well: “If you’re not having fun, then don’t do it. That’s the key … That’s when you write the best songs and do your best performances.”

FINDING THAT PERFECT SOUND: During the early days of Icona Pop, Hjelt and Jawo spent time traveling across Europe to record and collaborate with a variety of producers and artists; the duo even briefly relocated to London to perform DJ sets at local clubs. “I think when you travel a lot, you get very good at writing a lot and finding inspiration,” Hjelt says. “You see so many people and … you build a lot of stories around that.”

“Most of our inspiration comes from distant music genres,” Jawo says, citing her and Hjelt’s love of everything from classical composers to minimalist techno. While such a collection of disparate influences might cause most artists to veer into stylistic inconsistency, Icona Pop is able to utilize these musical puzzle pieces to create a strikingly unique sound that is unlike any other contemporary pop act. “We really go with our instincts,” Hjelt notes. “I think it’s important to not be afraid to do that.”

YOU’VE GOT THE LOOK: Although Icona Pop’s distinct brand of dynamic, emotive pop consistently makes waves across the blogosphere, the band’s creative influence extends far beyond the musical world; the duo received some of their first exposure via French fashion line (and label) Kitsune, who included the glitchy, synth-driven single “Manners” a mix sold through its web store back in late 2010. More recently, Icona Pop has appeared alongside designers at New York Fashion Week and even dabbled in modeling. (Jawo was featured in hip UK clothing label Religion’s Spring/Summer ’12 collection.) “[Fashion] goes hand in hand with music in a lovely way,” Jawo says. “When we were recording songs in the studio, we would sometimes have to put on our nicest clothes — the clothes we wear on stage — just to get the same feeling that we have when we’re performing.”

Icona Pop, “Manners”

WHAT’S NEXT: Icona Pop’s still-untitled debut album is set to be released later this year on Big Beat Records. “It’s not going to be an album that’s going to have fourteen tracks sounding exactly the same,” Hjelt warns. “It’s been a journey, and I think you’re going to hear that on the album.” Jawo agrees, adding, “There’s been many ups and many downs.”

And while Icona Pop’s full-length LP awaits its release, Hjelt and Jawo acknowledge they already have big plans for taking their musical exploits to the next level. “We want to build a spaceship!,” Jawo announces, sharing details of an elaborate rig of drum machines, effects pedals and synthesizers the band wishes to incorporate into live shows. As female artists who not only write and produce a substantial portion of their material, but perform live as well, Icona Pop knows its presence in the electronic music scene is an anomaly. “There’s a lot of good girls out there DJing and performing, but they’re never headlining the shows,” Jawo continues, “We’re here to change that!”

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