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Robyn on Hip-hop, ‘Chappelle’s Show,’ and Being the Madonna of Sweden

Photo: Suzan / PA Photos / Retna

The 28-year-old Swedish pop singer Robyn played her first-ever New York show a few months ago, at the Highline Ballroom; it was a packed house, by her account, and full of kids who knew all the words. Odd, for a few reasons: First, Robyn’s debut, Robyn Is Here, highlighted by the single “Show Me Love,” went platinum in the U.S. almost ten years ago, back in the Britney-Christina-boy-band heyday. And second, Robyn, the album she was promoting at that Highline Ballroom show hadn’t yet been released in America. In fact, courtesy of your standard label drama, nothing that Robyn has recorded since her debut has seen an official U.S. release. But thanks to championing in the indie music press and good old music piracy, her 2005 album is finally getting a Stateside release. This week, Robyn, and Robyn, come to America.

So, the shorthand of your story is usually that you came over here with a bunch of songs written by Max Martin, disappeared for ten years, and now you’re back. But the truth is you were recording the whole time.
I can’t say that it’s weird because I know the business, and I know how journalists have to angle stuff to get people interested, whether it’s comparing me to Britney or saying it’s a comeback. But it’s just the way it works. Most people that hear my music before it’s been released in America know my story. And with my record company I was able to build it this time in a way that’s more organic. It’s a real relief.

Your label’s called Konichiwa Records, and you have a song called “Konichiwa Bitches.” That’s a reference to Chappelle’s Show, right?

Were you a big fan of that show? Did they have that in Sweden?
I love Dave Chappelle. I think he’s a genius. When me and Klaus Ahlund — who produced and co-wrote a lot of this album — got in the studio, one of the things we were vibing on at the time was Dave Chappelle. We watched that sketch and just thought it was hilarious. It’s an obvious reference, too, to the music I grew up with, which was hip-hop.

Yeah, you’ve said that hip-hop was your punk rock. Is that something personal, or was it because in Sweden hip-hop wasn’t as easily distributed or accepted?
Well, you tell me, at that time, was hip-hop commercial in America? I guess it just started? You tell me, but I guess, hip-hop, it wasn’t what it is now.

Well, yeah, if you’re talking about NWA getting letters from the FBI and stuff like that…
Exactly, exactly. For me, it was even before that. [And] it was Technotronic, which was a super European group, with “Pump Up the Jam,” but it was still this girl on there rapping like it was 1982. To me, hip-hop music is American music — it’s Biggie and it’s Snoop and it’s Wu-Tang and all that — but it’s also a place where I felt where I was free from genre. It was a very kind of punk environment where kids got into lots of different things, you know?

Pitchfork has been really big on the new album. Did that surprise you?
When I made this album, I had no idea about having an international career again. It was really something that I did because I felt that I had to because otherwise I wouldn’t be happy as a human being. When sites like Pitchfork and other people started to write about the album, it kind of gave me the courage to believe that there was still an audience out there for me. And without sounding corny or pretentious, that’s such a blessing.

Just to get a sense of how big of a star you are in Sweden, is it tough for you to walk down the street? Do you have paparazzi?
No, we don’t. It’s really a good country to be famous in because people let you be. It’s not like America and it’s not like the U.K. … but yeah, I’m the, you know, the Madonna of Sweden [laughs].

Last question , and it’s kind of cheesy, but we were watching the “Show Me Love” video, and you look almost exactly the same as you do now. What’s your, um, beauty secret?
[Laughs] There’s no secret at all. It’s just that I was blessed with chubby cheeks, and I was born in a country where it’s really cold and there’s no sun so I don’t get wrinkles.
—Amos Barshad

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Robyn on Hip-hop, ‘Chappelle’s Show,’ and Being the Madonna of Sweden