Robyn, the Swedish pop singer, is splitter of the atom, inventor of the X-ray, wartime consigliere for the Cosa Nostra, world champion in Tetris. Oh yeah, and two-time Nobel Prize winner in superfoxiness.
Of course, those claims are all from "Curriculum Vitae," the intro on her self-titled album, which just belatedly arrived in the states via Cherrytree/Interscope. The 28-year-old Robyn Miriam Carlsson has already grabbed the U.S. brass ring once, with her two top-10 dance-pop hits "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and the platinum Robyn Is Here. Her American label questioned her intentions for the follow-up, however, leading her in turn to reject their suggestions of changes. The tongue-in-cheek CV is partly rooted in frustration that the executives couldn't hear her future even as she was "figuring out who I wanted to be."
As her successful career continued on other continents, Robyn ran into legal problems that, along with aesthetic issues, led her to form her Konichiwa label (no demos accepted) before the release of her fourth album, the vaunted Robyn. With production help from the Knife and Teddybears' Klas Ahlund, she went for full-tilt electro-pop on tracks such as "Konichiwa Bitches" and "Be Mine."
"That's the beauty of having your own record company and not having [middle men] involved," says Robyn. "Which I think is just stupid. I mean, why would any artist have to? A lot of male rock bands are just left alone to write their own songs. But female artists are always put in a position where they have to work with other names or songwriters who can deliver hits. I wanted to get away from that whole thing and do it from a starting point that was just about the music and about me finding people who were just as excited about this as I was.
"People I didn't have to pay, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars to even give me a beat. I think that when you do that, you just get so much better music done."
The 2005 release of Robyn gained much attention from internet "poptimists" at Pitchfork and the dearly departed Stylus with U.S. and UK label interest following. But Robyn held off on signing to one until last year, cutting a deal with Universal (Interscope and Island) on her own terms. Did she plan this country-by-country triumph, which saw her "With Every Heartbeat" topping the British singles chart last summer and Robyn triumphing at this year's South by Southwest? Not exactly.
"It doesn't surprise me, because I know over the years I've seen that I have a lot of American fans on my website, for example," she says. "So I know that people have kind of been checking out what I'm doing and importing my music and stuff. And now with the internet, everyone can get it if they're looking for it. When I came here and I did my first shows this time, and everyone was singing the songs and knowing all the lyrics—of course, you can't expect that [when the album hasn't yet been released]. It was a wonderful experience."
So how much does the bragging, over-the-top pugnaciousness of "Konichiwa Bitches" ("You wanna rumble in space, I'll put my laser on stun/And on the North Pole, I'll ice you, son.../Tear you down like I'm in demolition/Count you out like a mathematician") reflect Robyn's own personality?
"It's that whole frustration with not being able to do what I want to," she says with a laugh. "Having people trying to tell me what to do like I'm some kid. That was one of the big engines for this whole album. But I was also in a vulnerable situation where I was putting myself out there, risking a lot of money, but also my career with this decision. I was standing on my own; I didn't have the security of the major labels to back me up if my album didn't sell. So of course I was scared as well. Those two things, I think, are what you're hearing in songs like 'Konichiwa Bitches' and even the intro. It's being accepting that you're close to your fear, but you're also very strong as well."
After a quarter century of Madonna calling her own shots, shouldn't it have been easier for the suits to countenance the obviously smart Robyn doing the same after her first platinum CD?
"I think now they do because I've had some success in Europe with this album, so this time I've been able to sign with labels that are pretty much trusting me with my ideas. It's very, very different; that's why I'm releasing the album here. Otherwise, I wouldn't do it."
The time is right for Robyn in the U.S. Does it make a statement that some listeners (the major fan gossipmonger Perez Hilton, for instance) are just now catching up to a three-year-old recording?
"Yeah, in some ways you are very advanced in this country and you do a lot of things before anyone else, but in some ways you're also... slower." She laughs. "It's big, and there's so many people that have to filter what really comes through here, whereas in Europe it has a more local kind of thing going on there. But you can find things in each country...
"But you also have tradition. This is where R&B and rock music was born. Can't have everything, can you?"