Zara Larsson On Her US Debut LP, Beyonce & International Hit Singles: Idolator Interview
Sweden has been exporting great pop music since the height of ABBA-mania in the 1970s. It’s a tradition that continues today with artists like Tove Lo, Robyn and Zara Larsson. While the latter is just getting started in the US, she has already built an impressive portfolio of international hits including power ballad “Uncover,” breezy banger “Lush Life” and MNEK duet “Never Forget You,” which recently became the diva’s first top five hit in the UK.
I caught up with the 17-year-old in Los Angeles last month and asked about her plans for America. Zara revealed that she’s promoting dual singles in the US and furiously finishing up her debut international album with an impressive line-up of producers. We also talked about the newcomer’s obsession with Beyonce, her unique approach to social media and Sweden’s pop pedigree. Find out more below.
How did you get your start in the music business?
It became serious when I signed with the Swedish record company, TEN. I was 14 at that time. We were just in the studio for about a year before we came out with an EP. I was stressed out by then because I was like, “I’m not going to make it. How am I supposed to make it? Why is my song going to be a success.” You know? But we decided to release the EP just two months after I turned 15, so in February 2013.
That’s so young.
Yeah it is right? But I was really stressed out like, “We got to do this now.” You know? I thought we were waiting way to long. And we released it and “Uncover” just exploded in Scandinavia. It was number one in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Those three countries were the only countries we released “Uncover” in. We just went back to the studio and did a second EP. It went really well and then we decided to just make an album. It sold platinum in Sweden. Then we were like, “Yo, we should take this overseas or push it in Europe because we have always been focusing on Scandinavia.”
Which was a good thing because I feel so prepared now. I feel really confident in what I’m doing and what I don’t want to do. I feel really good. Of course in America everything’s much bigger, but I’ve done it. So it’s not like I’m a total rookie. I’m glad that we started out in Sweden, in my home country, so we could try out a few things — what works, what doesn’t work. I know now and we are aiming for the first international album.
“Uncover” had an unusually long shelf life. Did you know you were onto something special?
Absolutely. The funny thing, like you say, it took two years before we were like, “Maybe we should push this song outside of Scandinavia.” It became a pretty big deal in Europe, but maybe the song is a bit dated for America because it’s not a new song. So we are pushing for “Lush Life” now, which is I feel is really fresh.
I love “Lush Life.”
It’s a fun song. Also “Never Forget You” with MNEK. There’s a lot going on, but I find that really fun! So, it’s not like I’m promoting one song. I will probably do that when we find the single for the album. Then we’re going to pick one song and promote it worldwide, so it’s not like four different songs.
Your vocal on “Uncover” is so impressive. Did you get voice lessons as a kid?
No, I never had vocal training. I don’t think it works. I think it’s a waste of money. Literally when I go to the vocal coach I’m like, “You are teaching me nothing.” You know? I think it would be good to have a vocal coach to kind of keep the voice I have, so I don’t break it or damage it… but I never went to someone to develop it or make it sound the way it does today. I’ve always been singing. My mom can tell, I’ve been singing just in my room.
How did you connect with MNEK?
To be honest, I was supposed to be in a session with this other writer, Astronomyy. That was basically my very first session. I was not a writer, but I really wanted to write. Before I signed the publishing deal that I’ve signed now, I was like, “Maybe I should try it out before I sign something.” I didn’t know if I was good or bad. I had never done it. Astronomyy’s not a top liner, he’s a producer and a good writer but you know, he’s not a top liner.
So we brought MNEK in because I know that he is a great writer and he produces too. So we got in the studio, which was basically set up by the labels. It was just such a vibey day the song basically wrote itself. It took two hours and then we had a new song. It was like, “Wow! Is it that easy to write a song?”
Probably not for most people.
Right. After that session, I figured out I just had a really, really good day. All three of us had a really good day.
Yeah! MNEK was like, “Wow, this is so good!” We were having so much fun and I was so inspired by [Justin Bieber and Jack Ü’s] “Where Are Ü Now” because that had just been released and we were just vibing. After that we did a lot of songs together. I’ve been in London in his studio quite a few times. We have like five or six songs. We’ve been working on my album. “Never Forget You” was supposed to be a song for me, but then he was like, “I want to do it.” And I was like, “But I want to do it.” We couldn’t agree on that, so our labels were like, “Just do a duet.” Which was such a good thing to do, I’m really happy we did that.
It’s been a huge hit around the world. Is this the song that’s going to break you in America?
I mean, you never know. It’s big in Australia right now, it’s really climbing. It’s really climbing everywhere. The same thing with “Lush Life.” I feel like there’s just a great buzz about me and about my songs! And I think that’s great and especially if we have a really amazing song to push my album. I feel like people have kind of heard my name, but it’s like, “Who is she?” I think it’s a great thing.
Where are you in the recording process for the album? Will it include your hits?
I think we’ll have “Uncover.” I think we’ll have “Lush Life” and “Never Forget You.” They are singles. They’re not on any EP or album, so they will be on the album and maybe “She’s Not Me,” I don’t know but at least 10 new songs.
Apart from MNEK, who have you been working with?
I work with a lot of people, that’s why it’s so fun! I’m not like, “I just work with this producer and this writer.” I would say that the majority of the people I work with are Swedish, very unknown producers and writers but so talented. I feel like it’s a great combination when we work together because they know me, and they’ve known me for so long, since I was 14 and we’ve been working together since I was 14.
So they know exactly what I like and what I don’t like. So it’s not like we have to work hard to get a good song, because we already have a great connection and chemistry between us because we just know each other so well. I’ve also been working with Dr. Luke.
What’s that like?
He’s great. I can’t find the words to describe him. I really want to work with Max Martin too. I haven’t done that yet. I’ve met him a few times, maybe we’ll talk about having a session. That would be great because he’s such a genius. Rock City also, they are doing so great. They’re winning right now. Who else? Last time I worked with Eric Hudson, I’ve done a lot of R&B. I also worked with some people in UK. Just a lot of different people, which I love!
Is it a little frustrating waiting for the world to catch up and be on the same page?
Yes and no. I don’t really mind having all these singles out because I don’t get tired of them. When I’m in UK I sing “Lush Life.” It’s actually pretty fun, and I love all of my songs. I really do! Even though “Uncover” is literally over three years old, and I’ve sung it a couple of million times, I’m not tired of it because I think it’s a good song from the start.
Your social media accounts are also getting a lot of attention.
Ha! I’m just being really real, I guess. I’m just being myself. I don’t think I’m vulgar or trying hard to be provocative. I’m just posting about things on my mind that I find interesting or funny or pretty… like a normal teenage girl. I just post that to million followers.
That’s not so normal.
It really is though! It’s just weird when you think about all those people. Could you imagine having a big screen and a million people are watching it? No you can’t! The more followers I get, the more surreal it is.
I share your Beyonce obsession. Where did that come from?
You know what, at the beginning I was being a superficial bitch because I saw a poster of her and I was like, “Who is the beautiful woman?” That was my first impression of her and then I started connecting dot… like that beautiful woman is the same woman with that beautiful voice and I was obsessed. Because she is the perfect package of an artist — she can dance, she has charisma, she’s present. It’s so many things in one person that it’s just un-human to me.
I feel like it’s just un-human. Her voice and her songs. It really just speaks to me. That was the first person that I actually idolized because I had looked up to quite a few female artists like Whitney Huston and Celine Dion, but Beyonce was the one who took it to a new level.
What are you listening to at the moment?
At the very moment, it’s a lot of Bryson Tiller and Amy Winehouse because I just saw the documentary. I’m really inspired by her and her music. The funny thing is as soon as I come to America I get this obsession with Swedish hip-hop.
I’m not familiar with any Swedish rappers.
Right! But I just miss Swedish hip-hop. It’s so funny playing it in an Uber. I’m like rapping along because the drivers like, “Why are you talking like a Sim?”
[Laughs]. Speaking of Sweden, it’s such a pop powerhouse. What’s in the water?
There are a lot of theories. Maybe we just have this aura about us of being great musicians, so we kind of believe it ourselves?
So it’s a self-fulling prophecy?
Yeah! I don’t know, to be honest. Some people say it’s the music classes in school that make us discover music early. We have proper music classes in school, from elementary school up to high school and you need to be there. Also, in Sweden when someone says “I’m going to be an artist,” people are like, “Okay, yeah!” But it feels like in America, peoples say “No, you need to go to college, you need to do this and that.”
Maybe we are allowed to be artists because we’re supported by the state. Not that it’s relevant, but we have free dentist, free hospital, free daycare. It makes you a bit freer and you get to experience what you really want to do. Another reason is that we’re not that good at English. So I have this song called “Rooftop.” If an American wrote that, they would never write: “It was the 3rd of September, we were having a barbecue. You said hi, I said hi we were at a rooftop.” You would never put that in a song if you were American. It’s so simple! I guess it’s that simplicity. We are really simple.
Whatever it is, it’s working for you. Thank you!