In Conversation: Icona Pop

Charting success with Aino Jawo…

Icona Pop kicked their heels for a wee while, stewing in their hometown of Stockholm, awaiting the call to stardom. But when the call came, the pair of Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt was more than ready to answer.

Inspired by the melancholic melodies of their homeland, electronica ambassadors The Knife and crossover darlings Niki & The Dove, as well as the commercial slickness of so much stateside pop, Hjelt and Jawo’s early material tickled at a breakthrough in 2011 with the release of the ‘Nights Like This’ EP and a cracking debut single, ‘Manners’. That darkness can be heard in the lyrics to what was to become their dramatic entry onto the global pop playing field.

‘I Love It’, featuring a pre-‘Fancy’ Charli XCX, came out (of seemingly nowhere) and everything sort of exploded. The song went to number one in the UK in the summer of 2013, sold two million copies in the US, and since then everything’s been a blur. The girls have been on tour with Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. Surreal doesn’t begin to come close to what they’re still feeling.

As the campaign for their ‘I Love It’-featuring album of 2013, ‘This Is… Icona Pop’ begins to cool, with attentions turning to summer festivals and the writing of a third album, Clash got on the phone to Aino (right, in main photo) to check in on the status of all things Icona Pop. Mainly to make sure their feet are still on the floor, as those Swedish skies, while pretty, sure are easy to get lost in.

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Icona Pop, ‘I Love It’

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Straight in with the big one: how did the response to ‘I Love It’, when it stormed so many charts, affect the two of you? Because it marked quite the rapid rise in terms of pop profile…

I think it can depend on what kind of artist you are, how that affects you. For Caroline and me, I don’t think we still understand just how big that song was, how big it is. We were working really hard at the time, so maybe that prevented us from seeing just how big it was getting. But it’s been busy since – we’re having our first vacation in a very long time, soon.

I think it comes down to what you make of it, when you get that sort of success. You could become a diva, or a lone wolf, which might negatively affect you. But for us, I don’t think it’s changed us at all. We don’t care [how we’re seen], we’re just happy that people like our music. If it has changed anything, it’s that we now have this much bigger audience, basically.

The song had been around a while before it hit the charts. Did seeing the way it was picked up, at a second attempt I suppose, make you feel good, vindicated perhaps, for standing by it?

I definitely think that it was a beautiful way of doing things. We released the song in 2012 in Sweden, and then it spread like a virus, onto and across the internet. Suddenly we had to release it in Australia, because people were yearning for it – and then that same feeling spread to the US.

I think it was cool to see that happen, that way – and it gave us so much more time to work on our other material. I don’t feel anything negative about the experience, and it opened so many doors for us, to help us keep doing what we’re doing right now.

Was it a surprise to see it do better here in the UK, going to number one, than back home in Sweden, where it stalled a place lower?

It was like a freaking dream come true! We used to live in London, a couple of years ago. We were working so hard on our music then, and eventually we had to move back to Sweden. But to go back to the UK, with our song at number one, it’s… it has been like a dream come true. It was overwhelming, amazing.

We actually went back to our old apartment, in London, to see the people who we used to live with. They were like: wow! It was really cool.

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Making albums is very important, and should anyone be thinking that the format is dead, I just can’t… That idea just makes me sad...

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Icona Pop, ‘We Got The World’

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You mentioned having a holiday soon. Does that indicate that you’re coming, quite naturally, to the end of the ‘This Is…’ promotional cycle? Time for some rest and recuperation?

I mean, right now, we’ve almost got half of the next album written. So I’m really excited to get that finished, and to share it. I think our next album is going to reflect a little of what it’s been like on the road, in the wake of ‘I Love It’. It’s going to be quite chaotic as well, but I’m super excited to get it finished and out there.

So you’re not planning too much time off, then?

No, I think we’re going to get the new album out in January next year. I mean, why wait? To release any album is amazing. To get the next album out there, it’ll feel like closing this current chapter in our lives, so we need that album.

There’s a big topic in the British music industry right now, with people shooting the proverbial over whether or not the album format is dead. I’d say that some people might look to Icona Pop as an example of a tracks-over-albums artist, but you’re clearly enthused about the making of full-length statements.

Our dream was always to make an album. I think we were always aiming for that. Having an album, having it out there, that release is like the last page in your diary, the closure of a period in your life. For me and Caroline, making albums is very important, and should anyone be thinking that the format is dead, I just can’t… That idea just makes me sad.

Nothing compares to going out and buying an album, holding an album. That feeling, to own that little piece of art, is so beautiful. I know that there’ll always be some people saying otherwise, but I’m sure that even if the album was dead, it’ll come back to life again. We love things like Spotify, we’re big supporters of that – but that’s a service that’s great for finding new music, and I do use it for that, for times when I can’t get out to buy any new albums.

But when I do get out there, and shop for an album, I feel 15 years old again. I used to go to second-hand shops, and go through all the old records.

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Icona Pop, ‘All Night’

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Speaking of tracks, to placate the playlist-supporting public, you’ve seen great success with having some of yours feature on TV shows, in advertising and in videogames. Nowadays, but how important to a band’s career is that sort of activity?

It’s been totally important, and such an amazing thing. ‘I Love It’ was in [the TV show] Girls, and it just blew up after that. There are a lot of people out there who don’t listen to radio, so to be able to get your song in front of a TV audience, and have them like your music, that’s massive. To get a good sync, it’s amazing.

Do you sometimes forget, or simply not know, what your music is going to be used in – and then it comes on and catches you by surprise?

Oh yeah. Me and Caroline, we’ll be in a club and our song will come on and we’ll start screaming, “Oh my god, it’s our song!” People are looking at us, like we’re freaks, and we’re dancing so much. But hearing even your own song in a new context, it can be like hearing it for the first time. We’ll be watching TV and one of our songs will come on and we’ll be, like: “Whoa, this is amazing.”

Also, I can feel a little embarrassed, sometimes, when I hear my own music. I can be a little, “Well, oh, yeah.” Y’know, it can be weird, so it depends on the situation. But, I do want people to know that it’s our song.

Sweden’s got a splendid reputation when it comes to this sort of electro-coloured, slightly askew pop. Did you have a great deal of domestic influences, going into making your own music?

Well, in Sweden, one of the biggest genres is actually indie-pop, and indie-rock. So I think that a lot of producers, and people, get influenced by that sort of music – and so that gives the pop that comes out of Sweden that edge. There were a lot of Swedish artists who I grew up with, like Neneh Cherry, ABBA, and then you’ve got Robyn, who’s amazing, and Lykke Li. So there’s a lot of good music coming from here.

We’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it is that’s in the Swedish water, getting into these artists and producers. And I think that it comes down to the melodies. I can hear a pop song, and tell that it’s Swedish, because it has these qualities that are quite like those of Swedish folk music. Swedish folk tends to be dark, and bittersweet, with this twist of happiness – and I think you can hear that, really quickly, in a lot of Swedish pop, too.

Do you think your music has evolved into a slightly more international sound? I listen to ‘Manners’, from 2011, and hear this distinctly Swedish brand of pop, something quite melancholic. Yet something like ‘All Night’, which came out last summer, has this slicker, more UK/US vibe going on.

Yeah, maybe. But then people will say to us, that we make all of this happy music. And we’re like, “Hmm, you haven’t listened to the lyrics, have you?” We love to disguise the heartbreak stories with happy melodies. I think ‘Manners’ and even ‘I Love It’ are in that vein – though ‘All Night’ is definitely a happy song, beside the bittersweet ones. They keep that Swedish mentality.

But we have developed as artists. We grew up with 1990s pop music, and I always wanted to be a pop star. But I think that we’re maybe a new type of pop star. We’re rock stars stuck inside he bodies of pop stars, because we don’t feel like pop stars at all!

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I’d recommend night swimming, and you have to be naked. A lot of Swedish people like getting naked...

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Icona Pop, ‘Just Another Night’

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You’re at Way Out West, in Gothenburg in August. What should those in attendance there, and at any other festivals you’re playing, expect from the experience?

We’ve been doing some magic with our live show. There are a lot of lights, and we’re playing after dark so that’s going to be beautiful – everything you see is going to be an extension of the music. There’s going to be a big screen, too… what do you call it? Like a video wall? A backdrop, of screens. We have some small surprises for Way Out West too, but we can’t tell – or else it wouldn’t be a surprise.

So, for anyone going to Sweden for the first time – maybe for Way Out West, maybe just for a nice holiday – what should they take away from their time there? What one thing should they do, or see?

I would go to an archipelago, and take a swim. That’s something you’ll never forget. The nature in Sweden is so beautiful, and so clean. In Gothenburg, where Way Out West is, there is an archipelago nearby (details) , so if you do get the chance to go out there, take it. I’d recommend night swimming, and you have to be naked. A lot of Swedish people like getting naked.

I know us Brits are supposed to all be prudes, but give us a few beers and I’m sure we’ll be right in there with you.

Oh yeah, well, you’ll definitely find out that we’re bad drinkers. I’ll see you at Way Out West? You’ll probably find me and Caroline naked, as we always try to take a dip. Maybe we’ll do it together – we’ll show you the real Sweden.

We’ll sync our swims, right?

(Laughs) That sounds good, see you later!

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Icona Pop online. The band plays Way Out West in Gothenburg, August 7th-9th, details here

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