In a parallel universe known as Sweden, pop singer Robyn Carlsson started off as Britney Spears and ended up as Gwen Stefani. More than a decade ago, a teenage Carlsson worked with producer and fellow Swede Max Martin just before he penned ” . . . Baby One More Time.” But while Spears rode the teen-pop wave to its late-Nineties zenith, Carlsson retreated from the spotlight after having a Top Ten hit with “Show Me Love,” from her platinum 1997 debut, Robyn Is Here. “It was frustrating for me to be a teen star,” she says. “I didn’t look at myself as a role model. I wasn’t ready for that responsibility.” By ’98, she says, “it felt like this huge machine was taking me somewhere that I didn’t decide to go.”
Suffering from exhaustion and general over-it-ness, Carlsson canceled plans for a tour with the Backstreet Boys and returned to Sweden. A decade later, she’s finally back on these shores with Robyn, a joyful electro-pop LP reminiscent of Stefani’s recent work. Now, with raves from everyone from indier-than-thou blogs to gossipmonger Perez Hilton, the twenty-eight-year-old is on the brink of an international comeback, one that she never anticipated.
“It’s pop music, but it’s OK to like it,” Carlsson says a few hours before appearing at Hilton’s South by Southwest party in Austin — an event where her performance had members of Vampire Weekend and Kings of Leon singing her praises. The idea behind the album was to craft something that would sound commercial and artistic at the same time. To that end, she hired experimental brother-sister techno duo the Knife to produce “Who’s That Girl” — a pop diatribe about men’s unrealistic standards — and Teddybears guitarist and songwriter Klas Ahlund for nearly everything else.
Robyn’s avant-garde impulses — as well as her desire to speak to a pop audience — come from a childhood spent traveling Europe with her actress mom and director dad, who ran their own experimental theater company. Though she says she learned as much about storytelling from her parents as she did about songwriting from Martin, she never wants to take her music too seriously. “I definitely considered my parents to be pretty pretentious when I was growing up,” she says. “Hip-hop and R&B music were a way to separate myself from them.”
Music videos were hard to find on Swedish television in the Eighties, but she managed to videotape a few episodes of Yo! MTV Raps and watch them over and over again. “When I started this album in 2004,” she says, “we just sat down and listened to old records — a lot of Neneh Cherry and Prince and, like, stupid Miami booty music. We loved the way the production was really simple and there was space for a voice.”
But Carlsson’s new sound didn’t go over well with her former record company, Jive, which, she says, was not pleased with singles such as “Who’s That Girl.” “Of course they didn’t like it,” she says. “They thought it was weird and that this wasn’t pop music at all.”
So in 2004, the singer started her own label, Konichiwa Records. Robyn, released in the U.K. last year and due in the U.S. on April 29th (a digital EP is out now), will be put out through a licensing agreement with Interscope imprint Cherrytree — a deal that leaves Carlsson piloting her career for the first time.
“I don’t feel like I have the need to detach myself from what I did before,” she says. “But I don’t feel the need to have it all make sense, either. It is what it is.”
This story is from the April 17th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.