Last century, Robyn was signed to a major label. She enjoyed top 10 singles chart success in the UK and the USA with the single Show Me Love.
Then, in 2004, she bought herself out of RCA and set up her own company, Konichiwa – a bold first move in the Swedish starlet’s wholesale rebranding as equal parts cartoon-size pop starlet and hard-nosed DIY CEO.
Neither side of this new Robyn could be described as a pushover. We know this because Curriculum Vitae, which opens her eponymous album, tells us.
To the sound of rain lashing down and sinister synth-bells, a deep American male voice runs through Cartoon Robyn’s achievements to date in prizefighter MC style. “A two gazillion score in Tetris… She split the atom, invented the X-Ray and the cure for Aids, sucker punched Einstein… She used to whup schoolboy ass.”
Crucially, this hyping soliloquay ends with this epithet: “She is known for her wisdom, passion… and relentless determination to get paid.” As the stabbing synth pop sound of Konichiwa Bitches cranks up, you can almost hear her rolling her sleeves up and getting on with earning her crust.
Robin Miriam Carlsson is 26 years old. As befits the Stockholm-born star’s dual persona of pop princess and label head, her star sign is Gemini. Over a cup of coffee she is softly spoken, and at various points her shock of blonde hair periodically falls in a fringe over her face, before being pushed back. It makes her look coy.
I ask how she came up with the name Konichiwa for her company and for her single, Konichiwa Bitches.
“I didn’t have a name for my label,” she says, matter-of-factly. She wrote the song Konichiwa Bitches with Klas hlund of Swedish noiseniks Teddybears. “Me and Klas both liked this American comedian who used to be on MTV… a black guy. He had a sketch where the different races of the world tried to decide what famous people belonged to which race, and they were fighting over whether Oprah Winfrey was white or black, whether Michael Jackson was white or black… Eminem… In the end this member of the group comes up and they’re supposed to decide if he’s Asian or black and at the end the Asians get him. He goes up on stage and says ‘Koni-chi-WAA Bitches’, and it’s like the most funny thing I know. It’s funny and fiesty and cool.”
But what does it mean? “It’s not really about what it means. It means ‘hi’, which is a good word, but it’s more about that it was just there, and I thought it would be fun.”
Konichiwa Records was born and suddenly Robyn found herself having to rapidly skill up. “In the beginning it was a big change,” she remembers. “I had to learn a lot of new things and make an album at the same time. Switching in between those roles was kinda hard for me. But now it’s easy and it’s feeding off of each other and I’m really enjoying the business side now, even though that wasn’t the reason I started the label.”
Back in the day musicians would dream of being signed to a major – a fast-track route to fame and fortune, as it was seen then. Voluntarily leaving one, as Robyn did, is not the kind of decision to be taken lightly. Why did she give RCA’s parent company Sony BMG the boot?
“I wanted more freedom, more control. I wanted a better creative situation. So I just learned whatever I had to learn – how to be a boss, how to negotiate salaries, how to fire people… how to hold a budget, how to market a record. I didn’t do it all myself but I’ve always been involved in all of the bits of my career, even when I was signed to a major label. Writing your own music gives you this platform where you have to get involved in more aspects of your career than maybe other artists who don’t write their own music do.”
Robyn sees herself as much a writer as a performer. It’s that self-awareness that has led her to make the business decisions that have influenced her present-day position. But, as she says, she didn’t do it all herself – nobody does. “When I started my record company I was fortunate enough to bring in a couple of people I’d been working with in Sweden when I was signed to a major label. I brought in a press person and a marketing person that I really wanted to work with. And a money guy, somebody who took care of the budget and was really strict with me and taught me how to handle a budget for a record. These people supported me – I could never have done all that myself. But it was a great way for me to learn how to handle a record company – even though these people were in these positions I was in all the meetings making all the decisions. It really set me off. I’ve learned a lot. I really enjoy the business side now. I think it’s more and more fun. But I can’t compare it to making music – that’s where my heart is.”
In 2006 she contributed vocals to the Balkan-tinged Basement Jaxx track Hey U and penned the song that would become her first UK number one, With Every Heartbeat, with Kleerup. It wasn’t on the original Swedish album release, marking instead Robyn’s first new material since then.
That track aside, in essence she’s been plugging material that’s two years old. Why was there such a delay in getting the record out to listeners beyond Scandinavia? “It hasn’t been released until this year outside of Scandinavia because I wanted to do it in a really good way,” Robyn explains. “I didn’t want to go back to the situation that I was trying to get away from before. And so, even though it’s taken two years which I think is too long, I’ve been able to set up a situation for me here that I don’t think I could even have imagined how good it would have been a couple of years ago.”
She looked at the way in which fellow Swedes The Knife were releasing their music. As owners of Rabid Records, siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer have complete creative control over their music and are able to license it to territories and labels as they see fit. Robyn was impressed.
Her album track Who’s That Girl follows through on the admiration front. Recorded around the time The Knife were putting out their second album Deep Cuts, the track is instantly recognisable as a Knife track, but has Robyn’s anthemic pop shine to it in place of the duo’s more recent sinister electro-noir. “Olof is living in Berlin,” says Robyn. “He’s working on his new record there – he’s got his own studio and stuff. And Karin just had another baby and she’s in Sweden enjoying herself.”
Who’s That Girl is now relatively old. Does she see further collaborations with The Knife ahead? “For them it’s very much about their own records and right now they’re having a break, so I don’t know if they want to get together just for me. But we’re in contact, and they’re both lovely people.”
The Knife’s London-based management, who also manage Moby, Royksopp and Mylo, embarked on a joint venture with Konichiwa in the UK. “It’s an independent release here with distribution through a major company,” she explains. “We’re licensing the record to a couple of other countries in Europe. And now major labels are starting to recognise the value of what we’ve created… We’ve put in our own money and now there’s a totally different profile than what we had six months ago.”
She sounds tempted. It turns out she is. “Now I’m in a situation where I’m tempted to go back into the major world. But we’ll see. If I’m able to keep my creative control then there’s no reason for me to stay independent, if I can align myself with a bigger organisation. But it all depends on what kind of independency I can keep.” She tells me she knows she can sell 200,000 records on her own, without a major, but she also knows that selling more than that on her own becomes easier with one on board. It follows that the relationship needs to be equal. Robyn does not lack ambition.
Relationships between labels and artists are rebalancing everywhere, I suggest. Robyn is pleased about it. “I think it’s a healthy development as it means that artists who really want their records released are going to have them released. I think if I was signed six months ago I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this as good as I’ve done it. It would have been watered out, too many people would have been involved at that early stage. Now I have a totally clear profile and people know exactly what the record is about. I can be signed for the right reasons.”
It’s still very unusual for a pop act to go down the indie route, I suggest. “There’s not a lot of people releasing pop music on independent labels,” she agrees. “But I think that the whole industry is changing and what you’re going to have is that major labels will be more of a distributor and not a creative company, and hopefully that’s how they’ll look at collaborating with artists in the future. Artists will have their own labels, their own creative set-up, production company, where they can release the records they want to make and they just release them through a major.”
She’s well aware of her target audience for those releases. I suggest it could be summed up as electroheads and gay men. “Isn’t that the same thing?” she laughs. “I think that’s a lovely audience to have. I’ve always had a gay following, ever since my first record actually. I always try to keep it close – it’s definitely an important audience.” She believes some of her appeal to gay men lies in her sense for drama. “I see myself as an actor when I go on stage, but also when I write lyrics. I think that pop music is the perfect medium for dealing with the human condition and talking about banal and really stupid things without being pretentious. I think a lot of times that’s how we feel, dramatic and childish and big inside, but our outer world isn’t really able to handle that a lot of the time. And expressing that can be very difficult. But pop music gives you that space where being dramatic is okay.”
Dramatic is one thing, but what about Curriculum Vitae’s extravagant posturing? Are these rap-style claims a defence mechanism, one little blonde lady psyching herself up to do battle? “I always write from my personal experience, but I definitely exaggerate,” she admits. “I want the listener to be able to feel what I’m saying. I don’t think it’s interesting to tell people I woke up in the morning and I went to the toilet and I had a zit on my chin. That’s not really what moves people.”
For Robyn, pop’s special superpower is its immediacy. “You get this instant connection that crosses boundaries and really doesn’t care if you’re this or you’re that… Everybody knows what it’s like to be DUMPED. To feel worthless and to be crying on your way home in the rain. That’s really what it’s all about. It’s not about the super personal moments or the super exaggerated cartoon moments either, it’s about the contrast between. To me that’s where life really is. Sometimes you feel strong and you feel like, Fuck everybody I can do whatever I want, and sometimes you feel like you’re a little shit and nobody looks at you, nobody cares about what you’re doing, and you’re just alone. Maybe it sounds kinda schizophrenic, but I think we’re all moving between those different extremes.
“I think I can be both. You don’t have to decide which you want to be. Of course I’ve never invented the cure for Aids, but it’s still fun to say it because it stands for something that I would love to have been able to do. Maybe I didn’t create a medicine. I started a record label, or I did something else that I’m proud of. It’s all about getting straight to the emotion, and trying to describe that.” Her listeners, she says, get that.
I ask how she goes about creating this drama, these extremes. Where does her music come from? “Handle Me was from those two words… Konichiwa Bitches was my love for Salt’n'Pepa and Technotronic… Be Mine’s music came first, from Klas. It’s different every time.”
Does she enjoy collaborations? Her work with The Knife and Kleerup, it could be said, has been instrumental in her successful relaunch. “I’m not a jammer. I don’t like to collaborate too much. I think being a songwriter who travels around collaborating with everybody is really humiliating. Sometimes it makes you feel like you’re a machine. I like to find people that I like working with and stick to that.”
As for her burgeoning UK profile, she couldn’t be happier. “I’m kind of enjoying being here in the UK and being a debut artist and not having any pressure. I feel like I have a secret weapon. I’m a debut artist with 10 years of experience. Without that experience I wouldn’t have been able to start Konichiwa Records. Everything’s been leading to this moment. It all makes sense now.”
So what’s next? “I’m already doing the next album. I’ve started writing it. If I hadn’t been starting to write new music I’d have been really bored at this point.” Already in 2008 she’s guested on a remix of Snoop Dogg‘s track Sexual Eruption. Robyn’s Tetris score shows every sign of climbing higher.
Robyn’s eponymous album is out now through Konichiwa/Island. The single Who’s That Girl gets a UK release on 14th April 2008.