Prince, Parties and Pleasure: The Long Road to Robyn's Most Personal Album Yet
After a traumatic few years marked with loss, heartbreak and silence, Honey - out October 26th - is a triumphant return to glory from one of the world's best.
Header photo by Heji Shin.
Pain and sadness have always played a part in Robyn's music, right from the very start. The Swedish popstar's first song, written when she was 11-years-old, was about her parents' separation, and many of her biggest songs since have documented times of heartbreak and agony. In turn, this is what has made her music so important to so many. Missing U - A Message To My Fans – a seven-minute short film released in July before Robyn's first solo single in eight years – documents just some of the reasons why, interviewing club-goers at This Party Is Killing You, a Robyn-themed party held in Brooklyn (now across the entire United States) which the musician herself attended to the screaming cries of many.
"Robyn is the soundtrack of like my literal coming out of the closet for sure," says one fan, in a recorded message played to Robyn in the mini-documentary's early moments. "The last time I took this class he played Monument and halfway through the class I just started to cry because it's so inspirational and beautiful, but also so sad," says another named Russ Marshalek - one of the founders and organisers of This Party Is Killing You. "It doesn't matter where you're at in your life - you could've just bought a house, or your girlfriend could've just broken up with you or something - but there's still an emotion there in that song that you can touch."
This 'sad-banger' energy – a term I feel encapsulates Robyn's music perfectly – has almost become a fool-proof sign that you're listening to a Robyn song, as if mixing striking synth melodies; soothing, yet determined vocals; and these sombre lyrics has become her 'brand'. Be Mine!, one of Robyn's cult favourites from her self-titled 2005 album, combines darting cello and punchy synthesiser hits with lyrics about missing your ex-partner similarly to how Dancing On My Own – arguably her most iconic hit – does the same above its illustrious hammer-drilling synth melody ("I saw you at the station / You had your arm around whats-her-name," she says in Be Mine!'s spoken fourth verse. "You looked happy and that's great / I just miss you, that's all..."). Hang With Me, meanwhile, speaks of being scared of falling in love and relational trust alongside rapid synth arpeggios, while Indestructible does the same beside strings and thumping bass.
In turn, this uplifting-yet-sad sound has become one of pop music's most desired, echoed, adored and influential. "She has created such a unique sound that is so specifically Robyn," said Carly Rae Jepsen to Pitchfork earlier this year in a quote mirrored by Perfume Genius and prolific American songwriter Ariel Rechtshaid. "Robyn has definitely been part of paving the way for pop stars who fall a little to the left of the Top 40 norm," said Charli XCX to The Guardian. At her performance on Saturday Night Live last year, Lorde performed with a framed photo of Robyn, which sat on top of a piano played by good friend and pop super-producer Jack Antonoff. Hell, even Australian pedestrian crossings blare at a similar tempo and key as the synth in Dancing On My Own.
For many, Robyn's music offers a utopia they can turn into in their lowest points, at-ease knowing Robyn's soothing vocals and uplifting productions can draw out their emotions and allow them to find comfort and heal. However, over the last eight years, it was Robyn herself who needed this musical utopia.
After releasing her three-part album Body Talk in 2010 and the extensive touring that followed, Robyn was exhausted. She underwent psychoanalysis, where a therapist aided her in releasing repressed emotions four days a week for six years. She then hit a dark period, spiralling into a crash when she split with her partner Max Vitali – the director of Call Your Girlfriend's one-take video (they have, however, reportedly reconciled in recent years). In 2014, one of her long-time producers and good friends Christian Falk passed away from pancreatic cancer. In 2015, Robyn released a project alongside the late Falk and keyboardist Markus Jägerstedt as La Bagatelle Magique, only to cancel a planned tour of the project after one show.
Robyn was at her lowest of lows – so much so that she couldn't even find therapy in music. "I was in a very rough patch in my life and I think music gets really emotional when you're sad," she questions over the phone from Stockholm, where she's spending an early morning doing press interviews before heading to live rehearsals with her band later in the afternoon. "There was a period where I didn't really read or listen to music. I just didn't have space for it, basically."
Time passed and eventually, she was able to redigest music and literature. She started with the classics and her long-time favourites – Prince, David Bowie, Michael Jackson – before turning to club music, where she found bliss in the trance of DJ Koze's long-winding XTC, for example. It was almost like quenching a particularly strong thirst or reuniting with an old friend. "There was an amazing point where I started to love reading again and it was like swallowing books," she says, often taking long pauses mid-sentence to ensure her answers were calculated and precise. "I consumed a lot of literature and a lot of music for about a year or two. That's one of the best feelings in the world; when your brain is longing to listen to new things."
"I listened to some older disco and soul, and then all the people that I grew up with - Prince and David Bowie, people that were always around," she continues. "I also found new club music and things that were happening in the moment, which is I feel is harder than finding stuff that's already come out."
She was looking for anything that felt good, favouring tracks with particular rhythms and energies that she was able to find solace in. "What I listened for was groove and rhythm and this particular way that I wanted my body to feel when I was moving to the music," she explains. "I wanted the music to rock me in a particular way, and I found a lot of that in club music."
Photo by Mark Peckmezian.
Club culture has always influenced Robyn, both personally and musically. One of her earliest collaborators were Swedish club pioneers The Knife, who encouraged Robyn's distancing from her previous label, which eventually led to the foundation of her own, Konichiwa Records – a place where she could be free to experiment and explore her fascination with club music. After her separation with Vitali, she found comfort in the clubs of London, Paris and Ibiza, with late-night favourites such as the aforementioned DJ Koze epic reigniting her primal reunion with music and literature.
For Robyn, club music has always been empowering. There's a particular freedom in dance music that draws her in like none other, even in some of her darkest moments. "I think club music and club culture is amazing; it's such an amazing culture," she says, her voice flurrying at a speed that emphasises her passion. "It's spread all over the world and it's always encouraged people to come together in a space where they can be themselves and explore things that maybe they wouldn't be able to explore in other places – like emotions, states of mind, and all kinds of things – it's amazing."
"People who make club music are usually the people that make lots of different kinds of music, which is not really common for songwriters and producers in my world," she continues, suggesting why she's drawn to the producers she's worked with for much of her illustrious career. "Like, a club producer might make a house record, then something super chilled and ambient, then techno music, and then they collaborate, or they make an EP, or a 12-inch, or an album. It's a very fluid world, which I like. I like it when things are not in a box." Armed with synth-driven productions and an unbeatable euphoria, Robyn's music wasn't just ahead of the pop music curve – it defined the curve. It makes sense that she's attracted to things outside the box.
In 2014, inspired by club music yet still held down by agony, Robyn started work on what would eventually become Honey - her forthcoming sixth album. She met Joseph Mount - frontman of British electronic band Metronomy - before returning to Stockholm and working on the album herself. There, she learned how to produce, driven by this body-moving groove that had captured her in the years earlier. "I knew that there were loads of people that I could work with, and some people that I really wanted to work with [on Honey]," she says. But she didn't, forming the blueprint of the album's rhythm and tone on her own before bringing other producers on board. "I knew that even if I brought in the people that I really wanted to work with when I didn't know how to describe what I wanted in the album, they're going to describe it for me," she continues. "I didn't want that. I wanted to describe it myself."
Eventually, by 2015, she had found that groove on a song she named Honey. From there, Mount returned to help Robyn build the album further, joined by longtime collaborator Klas Åhlund and at times, British producer Kindness and Mr Tophat - who co-released an EP with Robyn, Trust Me, back in early 2017. Honey, the single, grew to become a passion project of sorts. She worked on the single meticulously for years and after a demo of the single premiered in the closing credits of an episode of Lena Dunham's 'Girls', fans were calling for its release with the half-plea, half-meme #ReleaseHoneyDammit.
"I don't think I'm a control freak, but I like things to be good," she answers, asked whether it was perfectionism or something else that left Honey being a work in progress until just a month prior to its release. "I think with a lot of the songs I've done before, I would've been happy to leave it to other people to take care of the production. But on this album and Honey, in particular, I had an idea of what I wanted it to be and I don't know if I had heard anyone do that, so there wasn't a blueprint to work off. It was a really, really long process."
While Missing U and its glitzy synths may be a strong opening, the album's centre-piece is undoubtedly Honey. It sits somewhere between the euphoria of Missing U and the album's more tender and emotive moments, oozing with the sensuality and pleasure that defines much of the album's indulgent feel. It was worked on alongside Mount and Åhlund for years, becoming their song. However, in saying that, there was a particular thing that kept Robyn coming back to Honey time and time again.
"Neither Joseph or Klas are club heads, so I had to protect that part of the song," she says, speaking of the single's rhythm that Robyn had found herself captivated by as Honey transformed time and time again – up to just weeks before release. "Because I don't know how to produce very well, it just took longer than what I've ever done before. I had a really particular idea, and I wanted it to be what I had heard and experienced."
Following a turbulent eight years devastated by loss and heartbreak, it would make sense that Honey - Robyn's first album since 2010's three-part Body Talk - be sombre and sorrowful, and in a sense, it is. On Missing U, the album's most emotive yet fundamentally Robyn moment, she sings about the losses she's faced over the last eight years ("The space where you used to be, your head on my shoulder / All of the plans we made, that never happened / Now your scent on my pillow's faded, at least you left me with something," she sings in the single's chorus), while on Baby Forgive Me, her voice echoes with such sentiment and sadness that it's hard not to grieve with her.
In saying that, it's also an album with incredible versatility and range. Following the international success of Body Talk, some presumed that Honey would follow suit when it came to its sound – only solidified by Missing U's euphoric sadness that wouldn't feel out of place amongst Dancing On My Own or Call Your Girlfriend. Honey, however, is far more complicated than that. Human Being and Baby Forgive Me are washed-out and stripped-back, presenting a more ballad-like side of Robyn's electronica that's thick with sensuality and emotion. Between The Lines is driven by a nostalgic, 90s-esque funk beat which is brought forward into the future 20 years – playful, robotic-sounding distorted vocals and all. Beach2k20 offers a tropical paradise intertwined with chopped-up spoken word. Because It's In The Music is an ode to the disco anthems Robyn commonly found solace in, driven by strings and an irresistible energy.
Across the album, however, one theme sticks – that rhythm. "When it came to music, I couldn't do anything that didn't feel exactly right. I had to be really careful with what I was doing to be able to make music. Otherwise, I'd just give up," Robyn explains on the album's beginnings. "The thing that made me feel good and want to write was this kind of groove that you can find in the sound of music – Michael Jackson does it a lot. I just listened to a lot of stuff that made me feel that way, and when I started to play around with those certain rhythms, songs happened - slowly, slowly, slowly," she repeats.
She doesn't delve into the rhythms and melodies she found peace in any further than saying that she's found them in club music and Prince's work alike, but the drive to create an album built on pleasurable melodies means Honey is an indulgent release. The future-pop pace of Human Being feels like it would soundtrack a swaying wedding waltz, filmed in slow motion on an old-fashioned video camera that carries the same nostalgic pleasure when it's filming a late-night sweaty dancefloor; humans swaying to the pulse of Honey's thick bass kicks. While the rhythms and melodies in question may not be identifiable to anyone but Robyn, its footprint on Honey is obvious. "I've worked hard to find a groove on the album that I like, that's maybe not as straight as it used to be," she boasts. "I'm really happy."
Photo by Heji Shin.
Typically, Robyn is a reserved person. In interviews, she often palms away questions on love and her personal life, and since the Swedish culture usually disapproves of overly adoring the famous, she's even able to walk around Stockholm without the camera-flashing fan-fare you might find from a similarly influential musician in Los Angeles. Honey, however, is Robyn opening up, leaving no stone unturned as she soundtracks the lowest of lows – and the few highs – she faced in the years post-Body Talk above the flashing, electronic beats that give her stories a glitzy platform.
Missing U, as mentioned, is Robyn grieving her losses; "I miss you," she sings. The album-closing Ever Again sees her go through that classic 'if I don't date anyone, no-one can break up with me!' phase, crying "never going to be broken-hearted, ever again!" in the song's chorus. Because It's In The Music, a string-backed moment of disco euphoria, is Honey's most uplifting moment. "Because it's in the music, heavenly bodies moving, I'm right back in the moment, and it makes me want to cry," she sings, almost as if she soundtracked the moment she finally found solace and warmth in music once again. "I've had that lyric for a long time and I didn't know what to do with it, but it started to make sense on that song," she explains. "It's a place where there is pleasure and sensuality - it's a very, very soft and very nice place."
Finding the sweet pleasure after a dark time is one of the album's central driving forces. It's Robyn diving into those dark years head-first, searching for anything at all that'll bring fulfilment and desire back into her life – collaborators, rhythms, even things as seemingly meaningless as the sweetness of honey, but how it's also a word people use to describe their loved ones in the same vein as 'pumpkin'. "Even when it's painful and sad, I think [Honey is] about riding the wave in a way, or having some kind of curiosity about what it is that you're feeling," she says.
Now, after years in the darkness, Robyn is back on top. "I'm really happy now. I'm really excited and proud that I made the album that I wanted to make," she says. "I really love what I do and I'm really excited that it's going to come out." In saying that, however, she's also still processing a lot of the emotions and feelings that went into the record, triggered by things such as interview questions that force her to actually remember the process behind Honey. "[Writing Honey was] cathartic, but I'm just trying to be present," she says. "I don't know if I'm always really experiencing it because I'm working so much. That's a good reminder though, because that's really what I would like to have more time to do."
In times of darkness and turbulence, many have turned to Robyn's music for help – coming out; relationship ends; loss. However, in Honey, it's not just her fans finding a utopia in Robyn's music, it's Robyn herself. In the creation of Honey, Robyn has delved into her vulnerability to create an album that is more healing than any of her last, and that shows – even before the album's release, many have already said how Missing U particularly has helped them through their own darkness. "Good music, in a way, keeps you listening, but it does so in a way where it's staying open enough for you to have space for your own feelings," she says. Robyn's music, as complex and emotional at it can be, proves this to be true – it's dense and thick with meaning, but open enough that people have taken hold of her cries and turned them into personal moments that'll stay with them forever.
There's no-one that does that quite like Robyn.
Robyn's new album, Honey, is out October 26th via Pod/Inertia Music. Pre-order it HERE.