“Sometimes it’s necessary to not function,” says Robyn in the most functional, Scandinavian way possible: quiet and measured and with the soothing tone of some sort of woodland creature emerging after a long, restorative sleep from a cave of mystical wonders. In fact, it’s been four years since Robyn stopped touring for her beloved 2010 Body Talk trilogy, four long years in which her legend has lived on, out of step with her actual self. “When I was challenged before, I would go into this mode where I was pushing through the challenges and getting off on that liberated feeling of being able to explore desperation and passion and frustration and all that.” In recent years, she says, “I was getting bored of that. I was looking for some deeper understanding of myself.”
That Robyn could ever have had a question as to whom she is may come as a surprise to those who’ve come to see her as 21st-century feminism incarnate — a woman in full, thrilling command of her essential weirdness. It wasn’t just her lovelorn lyrics or her synth-sweetened hooks; it was her way of presenting them just as she pleased, dressed as a bonbon or with a planet on her head, thank you very much. Hits like “Dancing on My Own” — whose cultural influence likely exceeds even its 114 million Spotify streams — made Robyn the rare star who transcends pop while also somehow exalting it, and artists up to and including Taylor Swift took note.
As Robyn explains on a call from London, however, her career has long been a question of how much of the world’s expectations to take in, and how much to keep out for the sake of her own inner freak. Born Robin Carlsson in Stockholm in 1979, she spent her early childhood touring Europe with her parents’ experimental-theater troupe, the only child among a bunch of performers fully committed to their unique vision. “It’s definitely a challenge when you’re little to be exposed to a lot of different environments and cultures,” she says. “ ‘Lonely’ is too strong a word. But I didn’t have many I could share that with.”
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That outsider perspective stuck with her after she was discovered at age 14 — at a school assembly, by visiting Swedish group Legacy of Sound — and turned by force of marketing will (and the skill of superproducer Max Martin) into the international pop sensation behind 1996’s “Show Me Love.” Being in a studio with “mainly just older men” put her again in a familiar, out-of-place role. “I was the visitor,” she says. “It wasn’t a bad experience at all, but it wasn’t a natural environment for me.”
What was bad was how different her artistic career felt from that of her parents. “Watching them do what they wanted was the first thing I was exposed to,” she explains. “That set the agenda.”
By the time a teenage Robyn was playing the Apollo and opening for Tina Turner in Sweden, she was more than aware of the limits of her major-label career, “how little nuance was allowed.” She wanted to write songs about an abortion she’d had; they wanted her to be the Swedish Britney Spears. After a breakdown in a hotel room in Chicago, Robyn cut ties with Jive Records and walked away from pop.
She didn’t make music for a while. When she started again, it was under her own label, Konichiwa, and with collaborators of her choosing: Swedish musician Klas Åhlund and the duo the Knife. With more freedom, more control and “more time to figure things out in a less pressured way,” she began “reimagining what pop music could be. I didn’t know, of course, if anyone would agree.” They did, with increasingly rapturous responses to Robyn, released here in 2007, and the triumph of Body Talk.
Success has a way of encouraging one to “push through” challenges instead of addressing them. “I think the Body Talk albums were a continuation of the first album I made on my own label, and so it felt very safe, and just very kind of natural for me to keep going there,” Robyn tells me. But by 2014, reeling from the death of a friend and the end of a relationship, she felt disingenuous continuing to make music in this vein. “I happened to find myself in a very vulnerable place. And I decided to explore it and not fight it, but just go with it and shut down and isolate myself a little bit.”
She traveled to Ibiza and New York and L.A. She took classes on digital music production. And she did psychoanalysis three or four times a week. For about a year, she worked alone, on both herself and her music. “Sometimes I felt like it was just about trying to get back to a place where I enjoyed things again. It became very practical: Like, OK, what do I do to feel good about music again?” She learned to dance samba. She learned that grief can be transformative. She learned not to have any plan.
“Sometimes I felt like it was just about trying to get back to a place where I enjoyed things again.”
Eventually, she learned, again, to see herself from the inside out rather than from the outside in. If a unifying theme of her past albums has been the euphoria of heartbreak — manic, defiant and powerfully emotive — she says that Honey, her new album, is softer, more redemptive. There’s sadness, but it’s contained by the fight against it. “Lack of connection is really painful for human beings, but it’s also maybe a way of having space to hear yourself more,” she says as our conversation draws to a close. We can all relate to how impossible it is to relate, “and that’s what music can do,” she continues. “It can give you this space where you can hear someone else talk about their feelings, and you can put words on your own feelings that way. That’s, I guess, where real connection can happen.”