With Zara Larsson

‘Empowerment’ is a word that you would associate with Zara Larsson. The 20-year old Swedish pop powerhouse has laced her career with the term. There was her viral tweet where she fitted a condom over her leg, criticising men who claim “I’m too big for condoms.” There’s her Twitter account, which is a veritable horde of empowering, feminist comments that you would come to expect from a Beyoncé stan. And there was the moment last year where she joined forces with pop star du jour Dua Lipa as a backing singer for the Live Lounge, alongside fellow starlets Charli XCX, MØ and ALMA. They looked like a girl band from the future – or the future of pop music full stop.

When we speak to Zara, she’s coming off the back of her comeback single, ‘Ruin My Life,’ and preparing to release her next, ‘Don’t Worry About Me.’ The tracks will act as a preface to her as-yet untitled second album (third if you count ‘1,’ her 2014 collection which was only released in her native Sweden). Zara’s previous LP effort, ‘So Good,’ was her breakout moment on the international stage; ‘Lush Life’ hit number one in the UK and around Europe, ‘Never Forget You,’ a collaboration with British queer pop singer MNEK, hit the top 20 in the States. Now, Zara’s ready to take things further – and she’s taking her fans along for the ride.

“I’ve been working on [the album] for quite some time,” Zara says. “I have songs that I either couldn’t release on my last album, or songs that didn’t make sense with it. Songs that I still love that I want to put on the next one, which means [the recording] will be longer than a two-year process.”

Two songs in particular, hangovers from the ‘So Good’ sessions, have stayed with fans – the spiky ‘Wanna’ and the tropical vibes of ‘Permission.’ Zara wants to placate her fans, sharing that she still has plans for these bops.

“I love Wanna!” she quite literally screams. “It’s definitely going to be on the album. I’m working on the production now, to make it cool and fresh. MNEK did it with me, he’s phenomenal.”

Permission stans won’t miss out either; Zara says that she might put it on a deluxe edition of the new album, for “the people that have been riding with me for some time.”

For Zara, the release of ‘So Good’ must have been a been a frustrating process; the success of ‘Lush Life’ seemed to both speed up and stall her career at the same time, she became stuck in a promo purgatory for about a year. We wonder what she learned from this, and what she’s carried over to her new album.

“I love all types of music,” Zara says. “I got to explore that a lot with ‘So Good.’ It’s really fun to do it like that, I collaborated with so many amazing people. But I don’t have any collabs on my album right now, period.”

One thing we also bring up is the state of pop music right now, which seems to be in a great, innovative place, especially for female artists. Zara compares it to pop’s “prime” ten years ago. But, as ever, there’s always room for change; especially allowing women writers and producers their time to shine, which is something Zara’s grappled with first hand.

“When I’m writing, I like to write with a girl,” Zara says. “First of all, because it makes me feel comfortable. Pretty much everything is male dominated, you have to really fight to claim your space. I talk to my A&R, and they’re like ‘this guy made this,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah, but why can’t I have a girl in the studio?’ Because they haven’t had a hit? That’s because you don’t put her in the fucking room!”

For this issue, empowerment is the name of the game, as you can tell. Zara represents, to her fans, a certain empowerment: the choice to be yourself, live your truth, live the lush life. But we wonder – and, actually, have wondered for some time – whether Zara ever struggles to empower herself. How does she do it?

“Whatever you sing about, sometimes it relates back to how you feel,” Zara shares. “Or sometimes, it can be about how you want to feel. My next single, ‘Don’t Worry About Me,’ is like that. Don’t worry about me, worry about yourself. But in the moment, I didn’t feel like that. In general, writing is a great way of dealing with everything, it makes you feel good and confident.”

The theme also, it turned out, carries over to ‘Ruin My Life,’ where a heartbroken Zara implores her ex to… well, you get the idea. But there’s a dichotomy at work there; between what you want and what’s good for you, between what you need and what’s going to hinder you.

“I’m so much for being empowered,” Zara says. “Me being strong and independent. That’s my philosophy in life. I’m a human being. No matter how strong a feminist you are, and no matter how much you believe in equality and empowerment, you still get your heart broken. It’s also empowering to be strong, to be vulnerable enough to sing about that as well – I don’t think everything’s in black and white.”

We mention to Zara that we’ve interviewed her friend ALMA, who hails from Finland. ALMA made an interesting point about Finland’s relationship to pop music, given that their Swedish neighbours have been the nexus point for pop music for decades. ALMA said that the Finnish were outsiders, more likely to take risks. If we make this an allegory, this makes the Swedes the main clique; the Mean Girls. Zara Larsson is basically the Regina George of pop.

“I can totally see that,” Zara agrees. “I’m lucky in a way, because I’m Swedish. When I go to a session, everyone knows Swedish writers – there’s so many! I’m really lucky to come from Sweden, they really paved the way. That also means that, we do have certain rules or ways of writing songs that we can hear – that melodies so Swedish. We’ve carved up rules in a way.”

Speaking about the Swede’s almost supernatural ability to conjure perfect pop, Max Martin – the Uber-producer who has created hits for Britney, Taylor, Ariana and countless others – is someone who Zara has spoken openly about wanting to work with, but never got the chance. For her second album, however, this has changed

“We have been in the studio together!” Zara shares. “And do you know what’s so interesting about him? I’m going to have to shout him out, shout out to Max Martin! It’s not certain the songs we’ve done will be on the album, but I appreciate him so much. He’s the biggest producer, period. Of our generation. And he’s so humble and respectful, that’s why he’s where he’s at. He allows himself to take inspiration from new, young artists. He’s really up for new ideas and that’s why he’s fresh, that’s why he’s still fresh and still gets number ones. He walks into a room knowing he does know everything and that’s so beautiful to see, his someone that big can respectfully listen to what other people have to say.”

And finally, to finish, we ask Zara a deceptively simple question: three words to summarise the material for her new album. She takes a long pause. We think she’s hung up.

“One. Step. Up.”

And you know what? We believe her.

Words by George Griffiths

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