Swedish Duo Icona Pop Talks New Music and Feminism
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Icona Pop became a household name. The Swedish pop duo, comprised of Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, made waves with their hit “I Love It,” which played as the soundtrack to a particularly memorable scene in Girls. Now, nearly eight years after the duo formed, they’re working on brand-new music, having spent the past few years or so touring.
This time around, with a large loyal fan base eagerly anticipating new material, expectations are higher. After being catapulted into the international spotlight, the two girls finally took some time to relax and get invigorated, taking advantage of the calmness they found in Los Angeles, where most of their collaborates also live. In light of their new single “Brightside,” as well as a new music video being released on Monday, the pair spoke to Vogue.com about being on the road, getting bored in order to get creative, and speaking to young people—particularly females—about making their voices heard.
What was it like working on new music after years of touring?
CAROLINE HJELT: When it comes to being in the studio, it took a while for us to get back. In the beginning, we wrote and produced everything ourselves. Then we got two producers that we started working very closely with, but then when everything took off, we didn’t have the same time to just sit in the studio and work on a synthesizer or record. We then had the luxury of course to work with people that we really loved working with, but it was a different way of writing. Suddenly, we were not in the studio at all. Then we were traveling so much. So getting back in the studio was like us to sitting down, just looking at each other like, “Hey, how you doing? Where are we now?” And just starting to dare to dig on everything that you haven’t really processed in a long time. So we’ve been crying and laughing. Really, it’s like going through your diary. That’s why it feels so good now. It took like a month before we felt like we’d written something that we were really proud about.
I can imagine that it might be more stressful working on new music now that you have a fan base and certain expectations.
AINO JAWO: That’s what I think we’ve been trying to be in the studio, creating our own little bubble. You can listen to people so much that sometimes you forget who you are. Now it’s kind of like the beginning again when you’re excited about everything. It feels really, really good to be back.
How has your sound evolved?
HJELT: I feel like we’re almost going back a little bit to how we sounded back in 2009, but of course mixed with where we are right now. But it’s still very electronic, and it’s important that the grit’s still there, but with pop melodies.
JAWO: “Brightside” is about our friendship. Because we felt like we had this period of time when we were able to have a slower pace, and we kind of had to take care of some other business. I’m just very happy that I’m doing this together with my best friend. It feels like through the years, with all the good and bad that we’ve been through, it feels like our friendship’s just grown so much stronger. We always write about things happening in our lives, and before it was a lot of partying. That’s why a lot of good party songs came out of that. Then there were a lot of emotional things, like love, and now our love lives are good.
JAWO: It feels like love forms you a lot. Like the heartbreaks I went through in the past 10 years, that made me a certain kind of person and I react to things in a certain kind of way, which is sad but also beautiful. So when you go to the studio, you go back to those feelings a lot.
Why do you think it was hard to get back into the studio this time around?
HJELT: On tour, when you have so much to do, you might go through something that’s very, very hard in your personal life. But you don’t process it; you just put it aside because you don’t have time. A lot of the time, going into the studio forces you to relive all of those scenarios, like you getting dumped, or something happening to your family. Sometimes it can be very emotional to go to the studio. That’s why it’s so important to be in there with people that we trust. You have to feel like you can be as vulnerable as you want to be. Because to write well, you have to be in contact with your emotions constantly.
JAWO: To be able to perform in front of people and tell you how much a song means to them, that’s why we do it. We want to make pop that moves people, because a lot of times the lyrics might not sound deep but they mean a lot.
HJELT: I feel like our sound is still kind of bittersweet. It’s very happy in one way, but maybe the bassline is darker.
JAWO: We like to disguise heartbreak in happy melodies.
You have a new music video coming out on Monday. How do you approach visuals for your music?
HJELT: We decided to do it with a very small team. We styled it ourselves and then worked very closely with the director, because we had a vision and it’s just us two in the video.
Is this the first time you’re so involved?
HJELT: No, we’ve always done that. We’ve even done videos just ourselves. We usually have a vision and we’re control freaks, so we usually come with a script and say this is what we want to do. Obviously, with “I Love It,” we were so busy we didn’t have the time to do that. So it was fun to do it again.
You two are also active in spreading feminism across this country and your own. What have you been up to in that realm?
HJELT: We had a consciousness tour while we were traveling around to different colleges, and we would talk to a group of like 20 girls for like two hours before every show, just asking them about life and how they were looking at different things and things they were going through. They asked us stuff and we asked them stuff, and it was so inspiring, and such a good way of connecting with fans.
What do you think of the election here and its effect on women?
JAWO: We grew up in families where it was a very friendly place and everyone thought genders should be equal. We were fighting for that. Sweden has come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. It’s such a passionate thing to just sit down with a lot of girls and ask them about working in male-dominated fields. It was so interesting to hear their point of view and what they thought about it. Because when we started, there weren’t that many girls that played weird electronic instruments, or girls deejaying. So we always got questioned about if we were deejaying for real. And they didn’t mean anything bad; they just didn’t know better.
A lot of the female producers I’ve spoken to have faced a lot of sexism in the studio from males who assume they don’t know how to actually produce.
HJELT: Unfortunately, as a girl, if you’re doing what we’re doing, you have to really [be adamant] about going and getting what you want. And being very loud, kind of. Sometimes you don’t feel like being like that, and not everyone is like that in their creative process. But society kind of informs you that you have to. We’ve been talking about how important it is to ask questions, like, “Why did you say that to me?” It’s very interesting how people will answer. You don’t have to think alike, but if someone says some weird shit, I want to understand it . . . it feels like it’s easier to talk about it without arguing. And it’s important because that’s how you stop them from doing it over and over again.
JAWO: It feels like we also have a racist party in Sweden that’s becoming bigger and bigger, and we were thinking that hopefully people will get more involved in voting, or like Caroline always says, in the ’70s.
Why do you think the ’70s were more ideal?
HJELT: Everyone had an opinion. They were discussing things openly. Artists were writing music about their political standpoints, and people were out demonstrating on the streets. I kind of like the feeling when you believe in, yes, I am one person but together we can make a change. Because it feels like people have lost hope in thinking that they can be a part of making a change. We talked to a lot of young kids this year, and when we’d ask about voting, a lot of them responded that it doesn’t matter, because they felt they couldn’t make a change anyway. We just wanted to cry when we heard that because it’s so important to dare to care. Don’t give up on your country. It’s like, if you have a voice, speak up, and if you have money then do something. It’s so important. I feel like situations like this suck, I mean it’s terrible, but hopefully it will bring people more together so people can start thinking and acting. Now people can’t just turn their backs, because this affects the whole world.
Do you want your music to reflect what’s going on politically?
HJELT: I guarantee you that when we go into the studio, something will be written about what’s been happening—maybe not specifically, but it will be inspired by that and how it’s been affecting people’s lives. When we were coming here from Sweden, we bet that it would feel different. What we can do, we’re gonna do.