Since the release of her ubiquitous hit ‘Lush Life’, Zara Larsson has been on the fast track to pop stardom. “I’ve always just wanted people to look at me,” the frank and funny Swedish singer tells Emily Mackay
“Maybe it’s because I’m scared of death. I can’t even watch a funeral on TV because I have, like, a panic attack.”
That’s Zara Larsson, 18 years old, globally successful singer, trying to explain the source of her drive. The idea that her desire to create “the biggest and longest and tallest” of pop experiences might come down to a fear of mortality is a surprise, because she seems so without fear – hear the words of her ubiquitous hit, ‘Lush Life’: “I live my day as if it was the last / Live my day as if there was no past / Doin’ it all night, all summer / Doin’ it the way I wanna”. In person, too, she seems like the sort who takes her fears, skins them with her exquisitely sharp, raspberry-pink nails, and crafts a glorious future of them. But Larsson’s worries about the void are less about fragility and more about an impatience to cram in as much as possible before someone bangs that gong. “We’re here for a little, little bit of time, and I just wanna make the most out of it,” she says.
She’s certainly made a lot of her time so far. She was brought up just outside Stockholm, her father a military man and her mother a nurse. Obsessed with Beyoncé since the age of six, she knew early on she wanted to be a singer (“I’ve always just wanted people to look at me,” she says, with bracingly frank self-awareness) and at the age of 10 convinced her parents to let her appear on Talang, Sweden’s version of the …Got Talent franchise. She won with a thundering rendition of Céline Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’. It’s worth looking up on YouTube, to witness her self-possession in the face of wind machines, and the shocking force of the sound blasting from such a tiny body.
She’s still not the biggest physical presence, eight years later, but that impression of force and strength is still there. She’d felt ready for pop stardom aged 10, but labels weren’t so sure and an impatient, frustrated Larsson was forced to return to school and wait until she was 15 to sign to TEN Music Group, the Swedish label among those credited with making Scandinavian pop such a prominent force in recent years, from Icona Pop to Niki & The Dove to Erik Hassle. (The label’s also home to Hanna & Andrea, Hanna being Zara’s younger sister who, despite being “the quiet one” of the family, surprised everyone by following her sibling down the pop route.) TEN licences Larsson’s work out to Sony, through the Epic imprint in the US, and through Black Butter Records, now a Sony subsidiary, in the UK. The latter label is something of a kindred spirit to Larsson’s “mother company” TEN, having earned a reputation for addictive, sophisticated dance-pop strongly flavoured by the soulful uplift of ’90s vocal house: the likes of Gorgon City, Rudimental, MNEK.
Larsson likes having these two smaller teams between her and the corporate clout of Sony, and through them she’s been gradually introducing herself to different parts of the world for years now. She released two EPs in 2013, ‘Introducing’ and ‘Let Me Reintroduce Myself’, followed by another introduction in the form her 2014 album ‘1’, which spawned the Scandinavian megahit ‘Uncover’ (six times platinum in Sweden, triple platinum in Denmark) plus five other gold and platinum singles. ‘Uncover’ was then re-released worldwide in 2015, followed by ‘Lush Life’. (She was such an idol in her home country by this point that Swedish pop band Regimen wrote a song named after her, with an adorable video in which a young boy carries a life-size cardboard cutout of her everywhere he goes; in Australia, Björk recently played ‘Lush Life’ in her DJ set at the launch of her virtual reality exhibition, while in the UK it popped up on EastEnders, with characters singing along to it.) Then came her first proper co-writing session, with UK artist MNEK, who’d gone from writing and producing the likes of Duke Dumont and A*M*E’s underground dance-pop smash ‘Need U (100%)’ to working with Madonna, Kylie and Beyoncé. Their collaboration yielded ‘Never Forget You’, a song so good they couldn’t decide who’d get to record it, eventually plumping for a duet. It went Top 10 in eight countries, became a first US hit for both artists, and added some more platinum and gold to Larsson’s scorecard.