Robyn on why loving is the bravest thing she has done

Oct 2, 2019 at 1:00 am
Robyn. Clare Shilland

Robyn has no idea if she's a pop star or not.

The 40-year-old Swedish icon isn't being disingenuous. And she's not fishing for evidence, either — of which there is plenty — when propositioned with the usual line of questioning designed for someone of her status, or for someone whose body of work serves a function far beyond pop's escapism.

"I don't know," she says. "I haven't been played on American radio for 15 years, and I don't have a lot of followers compared to a lot of other people on social media."

To her credit, she's not wrong. On Instagram, Robyn has 284,000 followers to Taylor Swift's 122 million, or perhaps more comparably, Kesha, who has 2.8 million.

For Robyn, her decades-long idolatry has been built on a foundation of intimacy, even when singing about distance or loss. The truth is Robyn has always been, to some degree, the exception to the rules of pop stardom, for no other reason than her music demanded it.

"Sometimes I am confused by how many people seem to know about what I do because I don't think of myself as someone that is playing in a commercial field anymore," she says. "I used to before, but I don't think that that's what I'm doing now. But I'm still really happy with it. I do want to reach a big audience. I don't know. Maybe I'm talking to a lot more people than I think I am. I do think that I have very dedicated fans and I'm just lucky that there are people who think what I do is important."

In the opening notes of "Missing U" — the first track on Honey, Robyn's first LP in eight years — it is made instantly clear that something has changed. Though almost identical to the intro from her career-defining single, 2010's "Dancing on My Own," here she abandons the mechanical sounds of synthpop for a warm, fleshy, iridescence: less dancefloor catharsis and steal-your-girlfriend energy, and more of a peeling back sheets to reveal empty spaces, pleas for forgiveness, and many instances of putting love in the driver's seat. An extension of her brand of melancholy-charged dance, Honey is both bitter and sweet, and, as usual, deceptively so.

Honey is the result of a series of turbulent events: the death of longtime producer and friend Christian Falk, a major breakup (and make-up), and 2010's fame-making Body Talk. She has publicly gone on the record to detail the years of intense, weekly psychotherapy sessions that followed Body Talk, during which she grappled with fame, grief, and the realization that her parent's divorce may have had a bigger impact on her than she thought at the time.

"I think it's very intuitive," she says of translating revelations unveiled during her therapy into songwriting sessions. "I don't know if I can describe it. I'm not in a period like that at the moment. I'm not writing, so I'm not very close to it. I don't know if I can describe it in a helpful way, but I think writing songs to me, it's a mixture between things that are very much in the subconscious. Also a lot of practice and strategy or, you know, actual, very practical things that I do, routines that I have and things that I listen to. It's a combination between the things that are very undefined and very concrete things, like how you organize your mornings."

On this particular morning, Robyn calls us from her father's home in preparation for her sister's birthday. She's in between performances and, when told she has a loyal fanbase in Detroit — where she'll be performing next week — she acts completely shocked. Robyn has no idea how cool Robyn is, and that makes Robyn even cooler.

In America, Robyn broke in 1997 with "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and "Show Me Love," two singles from her R&B-heavy debut, Robyn Is Here. Produced by Max Martin, (who, a year later, would be credited for penning and producing Britney Spears' debut single, "Baby, One More Time"), Robyn Is Here would be Robyn's only U.S. release until 2005's self-titled, self-released record — as 1999's My Truth contained two songs about an abortion (both of which she refused to rewrite for the U.S. market), and 2002's Don't Stop the Music was exclusively released in Sweden and Japan.

Her cultural influence following Body Talk was inescapable. She was featured on an episode of Gossip Girl; Lena Dunham turned to "Dancing on My Own" on an episode of HBO's Girls in one of the more memorable, non-cringeworthy moments of the series; and later, in 2017, New Zealand royalty Lorde would perform on Saturday Night Live with a framed photo of the Swedish singer on her piano. Six years earlier, SNL's Taran Killam recreated Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend" video, for no other reason than to annoy the cast and crew (and because the song is really fucking good).

Honey picks up where Robyn left off with nine songs that straddle despair and disco and, unlike previous outputs, it serves as a lesson in patience. Each track is a slow, rolling build without the anticipated climax prescribed to most music lazily labeled as being cathartic. What Robyn achieves this time around is more akin to meditation.

"I wouldn't disagree with it," she says when it is suggested that Honey is her most patient release. "Maybe it's not the word that comes to mind for me, but I don't disagree with it at all. I think yes, that's probably true. For me it was more about digging deeper into where I was, who I was, and I wanted it to be layered. I wanted to make things to be explored, and make something that would make people maybe stop and take a break and appreciate that a still place or a place where things can take time. So yeah, patience... maybe that's a great word."

On Honey's closer, "Ever Again," Robyn makes a hell of a declaration: "Never gonna be brokenhearted/ ever again (that shit's out the door)/ I'm only gonna sing about love/ ever again," adding, "That shit got so lame." As much as we want to believe her, Robyn — a dashboard talisman on a turbulent and joyful journey — loves love, and with that comes a risk she'll never ever not take.

"The bravest thing I've done is that I've really loved other people," she says. "I think it's about trying to be as brave as I feel like I can be. That's always my goal. I don't want to come out on the other end and say that I played it safe. That always changes how far you can go into something."

Robyn performs with ESG on Tuesday, Oct. 8 at the Masonic Temple; 500 Temple St., Detroit; 313-832-7100; Doors open at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are $69.50+

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