“Maybe it’s because I’m scared of death. I can’t even watch a funeral on TV because I have, like, a panic attack.”
That’s Zara Larsson, 18 years old, globally successful singer, trying to explain the source of her drive. The idea that her desire to create “the biggest and longest and tallest” of pop experiences might come down to a fear of mortality is a surprise, because she seems so without fear – hear the words of her ubiquitous hit, ‘Lush Life’: “I live my day as if it was the last / Live my day as if there was no past / Doin’ it all night, all summer / Doin’ it the way I wanna”. In person, too, she seems like the sort who takes her fears, skins them with her exquisitely sharp, raspberry-pink nails, and crafts a glorious future of them. But Larsson’s worries about the void are less about fragility and more about an impatience to cram in as much as possible before someone bangs that gong. “We’re here for a little, little bit of time, and I just wanna make the most out of it,” she says.
She’s certainly made a lot of her time so far. She was brought up just outside Stockholm, her father a military man and her mother a nurse. Obsessed with Beyoncé since the age of six, she knew early on she wanted to be a singer (“I’ve always just wanted people to look at me,” she says, with bracingly frank self-awareness) and at the age of 10 convinced her parents to let her appear on Talang, Sweden’s version of the …Got Talent franchise. She won with a thundering rendition of Céline Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’. It’s worth looking up on YouTube, to witness her self-possession in the face of wind machines, and the shocking force of the sound blasting from such a tiny body.
She’s still not the biggest physical presence, eight years later, but that impression of force and strength is still there. She’d felt ready for pop stardom aged 10, but labels weren’t so sure and an impatient, frustrated Larsson was forced to return to school and wait until she was 15 to sign to TEN Music Group, the Swedish label among those credited with making Scandinavian pop such a prominent force in recent years, from Icona Pop to Niki & The Dove to Erik Hassle. (The label’s also home to Hanna & Andrea, Hanna being Zara’s younger sister who, despite being “the quiet one” of the family, surprised everyone by following her sibling down the pop route.) TEN licences Larsson’s work out to Sony, through the Epic imprint in the US, and through Black Butter Records, now a Sony subsidiary, in the UK. The latter label is something of a kindred spirit to Larsson’s “mother company” TEN, having earned a reputation for addictive, sophisticated dance-pop strongly flavoured by the soulful uplift of ’90s vocal house: the likes of Gorgon City, Rudimental, MNEK.
Larsson likes having these two smaller teams between her and the corporate clout of Sony, and through them she’s been gradually introducing herself to different parts of the world for years now. She released two EPs in 2013, ‘Introducing’ and ‘Let Me Reintroduce Myself’, followed by another introduction in the form her 2014 album ‘1’, which spawned the Scandinavian megahit ‘Uncover’ (six times platinum in Sweden, triple platinum in Denmark) plus five other gold and platinum singles. ‘Uncover’ was then re-released worldwide in 2015, followed by ‘Lush Life’. (She was such an idol in her home country by this point that Swedish pop band Regimen wrote a song named after her, with an adorable video in which a young boy carries a life-size cardboard cutout of her everywhere he goes; in Australia, Björk recently played ‘Lush Life’ in her DJ set at the launch of her virtual reality exhibition, while in the UK it popped up on EastEnders, with characters singing along to it.) Then came her first proper co-writing session, with UK artist MNEK, who’d gone from writing and producing the likes of Duke Dumont and A*M*E’s underground dance-pop smash ‘Need U (100%)’ to working with Madonna, Kylie and Beyoncé. Their collaboration yielded ‘Never Forget You’, a song so good they couldn’t decide who’d get to record it, eventually plumping for a duet. It went Top 10 in eight countries, became a first US hit for both artists, and added some more platinum and gold to Larsson’s scorecard.
And then there was ‘Lush Life’. Delving through the many, many TV interviews on YouTube, you get a sense that, although she’s unfailingly polite and chatty, Larsson is tired of introducing herself now and ready to move the conversation on. “I was so young,” she keeps saying when asked, yet again, about Talang. The other favourite topic of conversation is that time when, bored, she pulled a condom over her whole calf and posted a picture on Instagram with the caption: “To all the guys saying ‘my d**k is too big for condoms’ TAKE A SEAT”. Along with some blog posts in which she forcefully spelled out the tenets of her feminism and explained why no, making men feel bad about themselves is not just as bad as misogyny, this led, with depressing inevitability, to online abuse. But Larsson fears only death, not keyboard warriors. “I also have so many people supporting what I say, so that balances it out. It almost uplifts me more. I’ve never met a single person that actually walked up to me and said [grimaces], ‘You’re a f**king c**t,’ y’know? But I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, ‘You’re amazing, I love what you do’.”
Let’s not waste breath on trolls; talk is cheap. Larsson lives her beliefs, and not just through innovative ways of wearing contraceptives. Her next single, another co-write with MNEK, started off as a scenario where two women came into conflict over a man. “The original lyrics were, ‘It ain’t my fault your man’s calling my phone / It ain’t my fault you can’t keep him at home,’” Zara explains. “When we recorded it, I was like, ‘I can’t sing this! What?!’ So we had to rewrite it… You gotta have a girl code.” The new version has her telling a solo man that it’s not her fault he’s so damn hot, and she’s not responsible for the consequences.
As a young feminist and rabid Beyoncé fan, Larsson has witnessed her heroine’s recent political flowering with joy (a recent blog post on ‘Lemonade’ and its personal-political lyrics found her weeping with happiness). “I’m so happy to see her develop into an activist, because she can do no wrong. It’s just the perfect timing and I’m happy she’s talking about what it’s like to be a black woman in America… It just feels like this is the time where everybody should be involved… The world is just bleeding.”
She takes not just her love and study of Beyoncé but the whole craft of pop extremely seriously. Unlike many early records by pop artists, the songs on her second album aren’t desperate to assert her autonomy or define her by her age: there’s none of that ‘I’m not a little girl, I’m a grown, sexy woman’ shtick that’s become a genre unto itself, no sense of a coming-of-age being fetishised. The songs just sound like a cool, confident young woman living her life.
“I think my thing is that… I don’t know,” she says. “And that’s why I don’t wanna sing about ‘This is me, this is who I am’ because, like, even the question ‘Tell me about yourself’ – what are you supposed to say? ‘Ooh, I’m a happy girl, but I’m sad too’? People are so complex. Mostly I just write about feelings that people can relate to. Because, yeah, I don’t know who I am, and this is not my sound for ever… I’m a human, so hopefully I will always develop.”
The album, too, has developed and changed a lot. It was originally due out in May 2016, and some work was done with Dr Luke in December 2015. That was canned, along with most of the songs she’d written, and Dr Luke’s Kemosabe Records removed from the equation shortly before Kesha’s case seeking to be released from her contract with the label came to court. Larsson says she can’t know the truth as regards Kesha’s allegations of rape and abuse against Dr Luke, but was outspoken about her bid to escape Kemosabe, tweeting, “Often I wonder what’s wrong with the world #freekesha”. Like Kelly Clarkson, who described the producer as “kind of demeaning”, Larsson doesn’t have good memories. “He plays dirty… He definitely had something coming.” Not easy to work with, then? “He’s a douchebag. He’s known as a douchebag. And so it’s kind of like, that’s who he is. But you can be a douchebag, but at the same time… not be a douchebag. But I think he’s just a douchebag and a douchebag. I don’t really know him that well personally. But I’m happy I’m not a part of it.”
She’d looked forward to working with Swedish über-producer Max Martin too, but he was too busy to devote the time either of them wanted to her album. Instead, she pulled in some less expected collaborators, including MNEK. What we’ve heard of the album seems to dodge the obvious, taking a dance and hip-hop-informed route, from the fast-talking ‘Fault’ and its hard, trappy triumphalism (“I don’t mean to be rude, but I look so good on ya”) to the more ’90s R&B feel of ‘So Good’, written by Ty Dolla $ign, and the summery yearning of ‘Sundown’, with Afrobeats star Wizkid. ‘What They Say’ shows off her big, glossy, electronic ballad side, while the ragga-ish ‘Walk Away’ seems to be about sticking with what you want, not letting others tell you you’re not ready: “Say I’ve got to run before I walk, so I walk away”.
Holding firm is a skill Larsson learned some time ago; despite the many voices involved in her label/management set-up, final say rests with her, and with TEN. “I was 15 when I started, and they’re all basically men and middle-aged and know what they’re doing, so when I was 15 and I was saying ‘No,’ that was scary. But I’ve had time to develop my self-esteem and the ability to say no, because that’s the most important thing that you can do.”
And her aim’s been true. The pop landscape is ever-changing: with the commercial success of EDM and its crossover Calvin-Rihanna bangers, the edgier underground dance hits coming from the likes of Black Butter, and the darker, weirder, but still hugely successful pop being made by the likes of the Weeknd and Beyoncé, it feels like you can be doing it the way you wanna, and still be really, really big. Does Larsson think she can be really, really big?
“Yeah,” she answers, firmly, before I’ve even finished the question. “That’s what I really wanna be. I have some friends and they’re super-hipster. And they’re like, ‘All I wanna do is sing in a jazz bar and to just make it to pay for the rent.’ And I’m like, cool… That’s not what I wanna do. I want as many people as possible to go to my concert. Like, I just saw Beyoncé here in London: two nights, 85,000 people in the audience. I can only imagine what she feels like standing there on stage, like, ‘All these people came for me because they love my music and we’re all here right now to make this magic special night…’ To do, like, legendary. Because why not?”