Sweden is known as a thriving neutral turf — an even-tempered utopia, reflected by its achromatic and minimal designs. But upon closer inspection, it harbors aesthetic and emotional extremes: consider how Abba’s (or even Ace of Base’s) supreme dance music could sound angelic and ominous all at once, how the Swedish black metal underground continues to flourish, how the eldritch electronica of The Knife has pervaded international pop trends. New Stockholm-based duo Icona Pop expertly balance their nation’s shiny/shadowy tensions in their brooding electro-pop and personal style.
The duo’s visual style embraces the moodier side of that duality. They favor the monochromatic palettes typically associated with Nordic design, citing the Swedish brand Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair as a favorite. “I have this lovely sheer dress from them with no arms, so I look like a bat.” says singer Aino Jawo. “But sometimes I’ll forget that I don’t have arms in it, and knock over the microphone stand! But I like to emphasize movement onstage.”
The fashion community already has taken note of the girls’ lithe, versatile appeal: like the most enduring Scandi pleasures, their music and style can take on many dimensions. Dolce & Gabbana beat many music blogs to the punch, featuring Icona Pop in their magazine, Swide, this summer. “We’ve been asked to play a few fashion parties back home, ” Jawo says. “We’d love to do more soon, in London and New York City, if it’s a good fit for us.” They created a “dirty mix” for French fashion/music label Kitsune which, according to the girls, “shocked” listeners with its lewd approach (much to their own delight).
They’ve always been playful, experimenting with their looks and sound, noting their past style growing pains with a groan and a wink. Jawo says her mother’s “hippie” style influenced her significantly. “She came from Finland and met my dad, who was African, in Sweden. She came from a pretty preppy family, and she rebelled. So, I used to dress funny. A lot of prints.” Her bandmate reassures her, “You looked cool!” Of her old wardrobe trials and errors, Hjelt recalls, “I used to look awful. I was a hip-hopper at one point, braids and all. Huge pants. I was listening to a lot of French hip-hop. Then it was soul, so I was doing a Sixties look. What I listened to definitely influenced my choice in clothes.”
Bandmate Caroline Hjelt says the duo are exploring the transformative qualities of clothing, and accents like UV paint, onstage. She hails fellow singers Planningtorock and Fever Ray as major aesthetic influences. “[Fever Ray] is incredible. S he represents the dark and twisted and creative side of Nordic culture, ” she remarks. “I love her outfits, the way she plays with imagery and movement, her voice, it’s a new level of experience.” Hjelt says she and Jawo often swap clothes for their performances, and play with new silhouettes in a similar manner. “I have a dress that has different layers to it, so when I move it creates cool visual illusions, like I have several bodies.”
The ability to project many suggestions, many moods at once is proving integral to Icona Pop’s identity as musicians, too. “Even the happy songs have a sadness,” says Hjelt of the danceable dichotomy she and her fellow twenty-something bandmate Jawo have created. “A song with upbeat lyrics might have a downcast melody. That’s life, and that’s also very Swedish,” she adds, noting her heritage’s moody underbelly. “The country is pretty dark. Literally. Nine months of the year, we have little sun. People get into work mode. In the summer though, we drop everything and celebrate.”
Stream Nights Like This, Icona Pop’s debut EP, out now:
Icona Pop’s just-released debut EP, Nights Like This, is equipped for all seasons, including parties – incidentally how the duo formed. Aino Jawo quips, “I got dumped by my boyfriend, and a mutual friend forced me to go to a party Caroline was hosting. We just instantly fell in love as friends. It was like, ‘Where have you been all my life?'” Soon, the girls, already singers in various stages of career exploration, were working together as partners-in-crime, teaming up in Jawo’s brother’s studio, toying with the sequencer Logic, and laying the groundwork for their first songs, including sparky breakout single “Manners.”
Collaborators were brought on deck to draft a unique sound; they were hand-picked by the girls, based on instinct (“we make all our important decisions that way,” Hjelt notes.) “We started working with [Swedish pop producer] Elof Loelv, who is the same age as us and incredibly creative. He really helped us develop our sound. He made it stranger.” Jawo agrees: “We wanted crazy drums, we wanted twisted production. We’d be describing to him in the studio what we could hear in our heads, and suddenly it was a real sound!”
Crossover success seems imminent, thanks to a sold-out gig in New York City earlier this year. That experience rewarded itself many times over, leading to a “booze-fueled” collaboration with Manhattan-based producers and Neon Gold labelmates, The Knocks. The result, the immense rave-up “Til The Sun Goes Down” is a future single already topping the Hype Machine charts. Alongside the popular title track, “Nights Like This,” it makes convincing (and contagious) case for pop without borders in 2011. Rolling Stone premieres the stylish “Nights” clip today. No doubt you’ll be hearing it on radio — and runways — sooner than later.
Watch the American premiere of “Nights Like This”: