News Icona Pop: A New Kind Of 90s Bitch

Icona Pop are a big deal. I realise this not just because of the sizeable crowd they’ve attracted to one of Malmö Festivalen’s smaller stages, nor the anticipation and nervous excitement that hangs in the air. Rather, it’s when the middle of their set is interrupted by a downpour of biblical proportions; nobody seeks shelter, nobody runs for cover. If anything, the dancing gets more frenzied and intense. Girls in denim shorts and sundresses bounce around in puddles, determined to have fun, and even those who normally wear the studied cool of bored indifference are mesmerised. Only one person bothers with an umbrella.

Such fan loyalty extends across the ages. Five minutes after their set, Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt appear at the backstage entrance where a sizeable yet unfailingly respectful queue has formed. Teenagers, hipsters, and starstruck kids – some as young as 7 – along with their impressed parents patiently wait their turn. Despite the biting wind and intermittent showers, they spend a full half-hour posing for pictures, chatting, and signing autographs. Every request is fulfilled, and no one leaves disappointed. It’s a level of fame they’re clearly used to, and one that comes with the territory as one of Sweden’s fastest rising bands.

Later, we’re ushered backstage just as the heavens open once again. Safely ensconced in their dressing room, ponchos and dripping wet outerwear are discarded. Polite to a tee – this is Sweden – the girls proffer beer and apologies for the weather. They look elated, but exhausted. A crippling schedule? They nod in agreement and point to their suitcases. “We’re living out of those at the moment,” sighs Caroline. “We just got here from Stockholm.” “And we’re leaving at 8am!” chimes Oscar, their chirpy and unfeasibly young tour manager who’s managed to procure some hot coffee. It’s a grind but, as Aino adds, “having such amazing fans, like all those people in the rain today, makes it worthwhile.” Which is just as well, as demands on their time are seemingly about to kick up another notch.

They’ve been touring pretty much non-stop for the last eighteen months, and it’s easy to see why there’s such demand for their shows. Live, the girls are a revelation. Tectonic bass drops and pounding beats reveal a far heavier, dubstep infused vision than anything they’ve previously released or hinted at, a dagger through the heart of any notion that they make fluffy, lightweight chart pop. It’s dirty, sweaty, and laden with effects, in thrall to clubland’s darker, more hedonistic side. It’s also infectiously good fun and, throwing heart shapes and high-fiving the front row, they genuinely look like they’re having the time of their life. I ask if this grittier vibe is a new direction. “We get inspiration from different places,” explains Aino, “and when we moved to London last year, we were very inspired by that. We DJ a lot, especially in clubs, and that reflects on the music we’re making today.”

“Also, it’s very important for us to constantly develop the live performance,” adds Caroline. “If it gets too comfortable, it gets too boring. When we play live, we use different pads, we use Ableton to run loops and stuff, and this was something we started to do to make it not only interesting for us, but also for people who’ve seen us before. We always want to make something different and new, and it’s going to continue to develop. So I don’t think it’s a very different direction, but its something we did mainly just for the live set.” “We still love really poppy stuff though,” continues Aino, “and on the album you’re going to hear a mix. You’re going to hear the clear development we’ve made over the last three years we’ve been recording, because we’ve changed as people as well.”

Ah, the album. Frequent delays have led to it gaining something of a mythical status, the lack of a concrete release date adding suspicion to the intrigue. Having told DIY over a year ago that it would be “done in a month” – “Was it really that long ago?” ponders Aino – we’re all still waiting. “We’ve been dumping people and getting together with new people,” she explains. “We were actually almost done with the album, but then we just felt ‘Stop. This doesn’t really feel right.’ We decided to take our time to make this album really us, which we think is important, ‘cause everything we release is going to be there forever.”

It’s a refreshing attitude to have in an age where churning out music-on-demand and “building on momentum” are all too often bywords for mediocrity, a trap they’re keen to avoid. As Caroline puts it, “It’s our first album, it’s our baby, and we felt we had so much more to say. Plus, we’ve been touring around the world for so long, with barely a day off, and that has really slowed it down.” Nor, according to Aino, did they rip it up and start again; rather, it’s been a case of constant evolution and embellishment. “It’s definitely the same, but we weren’t ready last year. We were rookies, and we’re only starting to feel ready now. You don’t ever think you’re ready to release the first one, but you just have to do it.”

Indeed you do, but it seems the world will just have to stay patient. After confirming, once again, that it was due in little over a month – in Sweden, anyway – they have since announced that the still untitled LP won’t see the light of day until 2013, with another EP, ‘The Iconic’, slated for October, taking it’s place.

To what extent this is their own decision is hard to guess. It can’t have been easy being whisked from obscurity to dealing with the major label pressures inside two years but they seem determined, and more importantly, together. They exude a confidence and self-belief that belies the reality of being two young women still feeling their way in the world, fending off a multitude of grubby hands all trying to get in on the action. “We’re back in control [of the album], and that’s the main thing,” says Caroline. “We felt that we didn’t really have total control, and now we do. We’re proud of that.”

Such “control freakery”, as she puts it, extends to their entire vision – videos, artwork, clothes – and they’re loath to let anyone interfere. “It’s about expressing yourself or, in our case, ourselves. When we write, we see videos, we see pictures, we see the style. Expressing the feeling goes hand in hand with the visuals, which can add to the song and the lyrics.” They are also lucky, as Aino concedes, that “lot’s of our friends do really cool stuff and help us out with videos, making clothes and so on. That’s a luxury, and one that not everyone has.” Determined not to repeat past mistakes of delegating artistic decisions, they know what they want – and what they don’t. “It’s important to work with people who respect and listen to us, and when people don’t, you have to stop, put your foot down, and say ‘Hey! This is me, and this is what I want.’ People will respect you more. If you try to please others, when they are just trying to please you, you end up in this weird situation where you don’t know what you’re doing. We want to show that we do.”

Several days before we meet, three members of the Pussy Riot collective were sentenced to two years imprisonment on trumped up charges of “hooliganism”. With issues of feminism and freedom of expression once again pushed to the fore, and Pussy Riot supporters and protest groups recalling the spirit of the Riot grrrl movement, it strikes me that Icona Pop are perfectly placed female role models; having success on their own terms and in control of their own destiny.

Do they feel any pressure to live up to such lofty ideals? Caroline nods. “Maybe not pressure but we feel proud to be part of that, and to be two, strong women in charge of what we do. It’s so important to be able to express what you want, and if you having something to say, you should really say it. You shouldn’t step back.” It’s a feeling of strength they derive in part, they explain, from their fans. “I feel a lot of positive energy [from them], and they really embrace us when we talk about being strong and believing in yourself, and in what you do.”

Sadly, they’re also all too familiar with inequality, and bristle at the patronising sexism they still encounter on a regular basis. As Caroline bemoans, “When we DJ, there’s still lots of guys out there, technicians or whatever, who’re like ‘Oh hey honey, here’s the play button, and if you want it to stop, you press over here.’ We just act all stupid, like ‘Oh, thank you, see you later’ and then just go nuts [on the decks]. They wouldn’t do that to a guy, and that says a lot.” The look in their eyes suggests it would be a brave man indeed who dared incur their wrath, an intuition supported by the lyrics of their last single, ‘I Love It’.

Laying bare the tensions and incompatibilities of a May-to-December relationship – “You want me down on Earth / But I am up in space” – it sees the protagonist crash her car into a bridge and throw away all her jilted lover’s personal belongings; pure War of the Roses revenge. It may not be autobiographical – it was penned by Charlie XCX – but they can identify with the sentiment. “We’ve both been heartbroken before,” says Aino, “and we were going through some love issues when we first heard it. Straight away I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s our song! We have to sing this!’” So they haven’t done any of those things then? They both giggle. “No!” protests Caroline, “But we’ve felt that way. It’s like a ‘Fuck you! You messed up!’ thing, which is why we didn’t sing it cute.”

With its pounding beat and buzzsaw synths, it’s been one of the summer’s most played party anthems. It also neatly encapsulates what makes them such an interesting duo; escapist hedonism mixed with a steely determination and forthright attitude, a moral message draped in night-time glad rags. The video, depicting the backstage and after-party high jinks of one gig in Paris, is a pretty accurate portrayal of how it’s received live – smiles, hands-in-the-air, and a mass bounce along, everyone bellowing out the central refrain.

Catchy and a bona fide floor filler, are they worried that they’ve set the bar too high, that people might be disappointed if they don’t deliver another ten massively bombastic tracks? Apparently not. “There comes a point when you have to stop worrying what everyone else thinks. You have to think ‘OK, even if people hate it, I love it!’” Caroline concurs. “Because then you can be proud, which is exactly what Icona Pop is all about. I feel that all our songs are good, I love them, so I’m not worried at all.”

Cynics might sneer about their most recognisable, and successful, tune to date being penned by someone else, and I’ve often wondered why pop is one of the few genres that allow artists to be open about co-writes. Of course, it’s more widespread than you’d think – did you know that Fame Academy winner David Sneddon was behind Lana Del Rey’s ‘National Anthem’? – but it’s not really openly admitted. Caroline gives the notion that it matters in any way extremely short shrift. “When it comes to collaborate with people, we think it’s great. We’ve been learning so many new ways of working, and getting to know so many nice people. Sometimes when you write with someone, you get this great idea and you can really see it in front of you. You start building something… but it feels like your song, and you adapt it to your heart, your body, and your feelings. In the end, it’s as much yours as anyone else’s.”

They revel in this modern, sharing environment, where spreading the love and mutual, artistic reciprocation are one antidote to dwindling income and revenue streams, and are genuinely excited about such opportunities. Having major label backing certainly gives access to better contacts; you might not get a “yes”, but with lots of doors swinging open, you’ll at least get the right number to call, something they’re eager to take advantage of. “We have a few [collaborations] lined up, but we can’t tell you - we don’t want to jinx it!” teases Aino. One that seems destined to remain out of reach – for now at least – is their all time hero, Prince. The girls josh about flying to LA to try and track him down, and how they grew up idolising him. “It’s funny, cause when I was little, I thought my mom would marry Prince,” confesses Caroline, “because we had all his stuff on the walls, everywhere. Vinyls, posters, everything.”

It’s an infatuation that continues to this day according to Aino, and informs a lot of what they do. “The first photo-shoot we ever did, like everything in the beginning, was very inspired by Prince. I cut my hair off so I looked like him, and we bought this strange stuff we put on our hair. We ended up with these timeless-looking photos, with such dramatic poses. It was so beautiful.” They remain hopeful that one day, if they’re lucky, the dream could come true, and I’m struck by the warmth and knowledge they have, not just for Prince, but pop history’s major players. Refreshingly, they’re not opportunists, cherry picking the right influences to drop into conversation; they talk with the genuine, giddy, wide-eyed wonder of fans, and are incredibly well versed.

Of course, being from Sweden, perhaps that’s no surprise; growing up in the country that spawned ABBA, perhaps the world’s biggest, best known pop group, and following the footsteps of contemporaries such as Robyn, Lykke Li, and Niki & The Dove must have some lasting effect. Other Swedish artists I’ve interviewed have insisted that, far from being a burden, such historical success acts as liberation, evidence that anyone can do it and inspiring people to try. The girls agree, but are equally at a loss to explain it.

“Everyone always asks ‘What’s in the water? What is it about Swedish pop?’ and I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to that,” admits Caroline, although Aino has an interesting take about why pop in their homeland isn’t such a dirty word and awarded far more critical acclaim than in the UK. “I think pop was kind of dirty here too, to a certain extent, until Robyn came along. She made it cool. She was this independent woman, she wasn’t just a product. She was very different compared to other people just being a face, and everyone working behind that, and that might be one of the reasons. The word is not that negative any more, at least not here, but I don’t know why it’s like that in the UK.”

Caroline has a theory. “I think because there’s so much of it. I mean, the market in Sweden is very small, and it’s picky as hell. Stuff that works over there might not work over here, because it’s a different market. We [Sweden] developed our own sound, you can really tell when it’s Swedish pop. People are very sensitive about pop here, it’s like they embrace it. But also, as Aino says, that changed not too long ago.” Either way, for a country still obsessed by the Eurovision Song Contest – they won this year – and as crazy about the X Factor as anywhere else, it’s interesting that room is made for more spirited and independent artists, and that quality and chart success need not be mutually exclusive.

Our discussion turns to the future, and their plans for the rest of the year; more touring as it turns out. There’s also the small matter of a move to New York, something they’re extremely excited about. All this travelling and relocating can’t be cheap which, given the limited number of their songs currently available, must add to the pressure to produce a commercial hit. I ask what, in their eyes, would constitute success. Aino is unequivocal. “As long as we’re happy, that’s the most important thing. Of course we have to please other people, but as long as we put out something we like, we can’t give any more.”

With that in mind, they continue to write and create on an almost daily basis, leading to a surfeit of material. Maybe the real reason for the album delay is a restless tinkering, a belief that each new track is better than the last and deserves to be heard. As Caroline admits “We recorded a song just yesterday that I’m so excited about, I can’t even express it! We were literally dancing out the studio afterwards.” Aino takes up the story. “We met this awesome girl in LA, Coco Morier, and she’s just one of the coolest girls we’ve ever met. We wrote this song with Mike Snow, and we flew her over to Sweden and made a brilliant song.”

So it’ll be on the album then? She looks doubtful. “Maybe. Not on the Swedish version, ‘cause it’s too late now, but it’ll definitely come out on… something. Maybe another album.” Another album? Turns out they have plans for all the material they’ve been hoarding. “We have some fun stuff planned for those. We might not release them as Icona Pop, ‘cause some of the stuff is really gritty, it has this really dirty vibe…” The glint in her eye immediately piques my interest, but sadly they have nothing to play me. How do they choose what to re-use? Easy says Caroline. “It’s like important thoughts; you can drop them and you know that the most important ones will come back. They’ll be bugging you and pushing you to be re-used if they’re good.”

Even their oldest material is destined to see the light of day. “One of the first songs we ever wrote, ‘Sheriff Came To Town On A Big Black Horse’, well remember that name,” advises Aino, “because we’re going to use it for something in the future.” They attempt to sing it for me, but get no further than the signature line before collapsing in a fit of giggles. I still have no idea how it goes, but like everything they’ve done before, I bet it’ll be far from boring.

As they head off do more press, to be followed by a well-earned early night, Caroline reminds me why they attack such a punishing schedule and all the attendant pressure of fame and expectation with a spring in their step and a heartfelt smile. “We need to create to function, and to feel good. When we open our minds, we just sometimes smash it all up into these weird constellations…and it can really be like magic.” Pop’s 2012 poster girls doing it for the love, a fitting image in an age of austerity and harsh realities. One can only hope they make it to the other side.

Icona Pop’s new EP ‘The Iconic’ will be released on 16th October.