How Robyn cut through armor to find the human heart in Honey
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In 2014 — four years into self-imposed solo silence — pop icon Robyn finally began working on a full-length follow-up to her futuristic and ferocious electro-pop opus Body Talk, which spawned global hits like “Dancing On My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend” while courting the singer-songwriter a passionate cult of dedicated international fans. But a brutal romantic breakup and the death of friend and collaborating producer Christian Falk nearly derailed the Swedish performer’s creative spirit, leading her down a path of musical ambivalence that resulted in an unsatisfying mix of “contrived” sounds she couldn’t connect with. So, Robyn rebooted her emotional core, venturing out to clubs from Ibiza to Los Angeles to teach herself how to love and be moved by life and music once again.
“Losing people is destabilizing, [and] it can put you in touch with things you normally wouldn’t want to feel,” the 39-year-old tells EW of her mindset while prepping Honey, her upcoming eighth studio album. “You wouldn’t go there if you didn’t have to…. It’s like going on a real adventure.”
She describes the soul-searching piece as an un-conceptual mood record, born out of sessions with other “sad people,” as she calls them, like Metronomy’s Joseph Mount, Kindness musician Adam Bainbridge, experimental dance producer Mr. Tophat, and longtime creative partner Klas Åhlund — all of whom helped pull the Swedish pop star out from their collective pool of darkness to get in touch with the gooey, bruised, lonely, longing, yet ever resilient human center hidden behind the fembot armor of Body Talk.
Ahead of Honey‘s Oct. 26 release, Robyn reveals how she dug deep to craft her most vulnerable LP yet.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been eight years since Body Talk. How are you feeling now that Honey is about to beunleashed?
ROBYN: It feels really good and really exciting… I’m already longing for when I have time to make more music. I’ve enjoyed this period of me being a little bit more anonymous in my bubble. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to enjoy touring and seeing my fans, but it’s a different type of environment.
I know the breakup and Christian’s death had a major impact on you. How did those moments manifest themselves on the record?
The sadness happens quite early in the record. “Missing U,” “Human Being,” “Because It’s in the Music,” and “Baby Forgive Me” all deal with losing people. “Missing U” tries to explain the physical experience of what it feels like when you’re really sad, when you feel destabilized. Losing people is destabilizing [and] it can put you in touch with things you normally wouldn’t want to feel… It’s like going on a real adventure. Those adventures are scary because it feels dangerous, but maybe these songs are me trying to put whatever I thought, learned, and felt in a song to show people what I found on my travels.
You’ve said that you got to a point where you didn’t know how to make an album. Did you lose a connection to music, too?
No, I felt like it triggered me. I was so emotional that everything I did became too messy. I couldn’t listen to music because it made me feel too many things. I had to quiet down because I wasn’t shut off, I was the other way around, feeling raw and sensitive. Everything became intense and overwhelming.
As emotionally taxing as making this album was, it feels so smooth and free of that chaos. Why is it the antithesis of this period in your life?
I experienced it very un-conceptual; then it became cohesive. It was nice to watch it come together because I didn’t know if it was going to make sense. I started from the inside this time… You know when you feel you have to push through, but you realize you can be much more effective if you’re soft [instead]? I did that for a long time because I couldn’t push through the way I normally do. It was physically impossible because I was disabled by my sadness. That’s why the music is soft: I didn’t have the energy to do something pompous. I tried to lure some pleasure out of myself, like, “Hey, come back! Let’s go out and play!” [and] I just spent time in the studio with friends, did some traveling and clubbing… It was spontaneous. I learned how to dance samba. [It was] all about rhythm and groove. That’s different from how I’ve started albums before…. this time it was more about [me] rediscovering music, myself, and what clubbing is about.
Which night out reopened the floodgates?
I had amazing experiences listening to DJ Harvey at Pikes in Ibiza…. Sometimes you have moments when music hits you the right way. When I was in Greece my friend played me Sterac, [who] made minimal techno at the end of the ‘90s and early 2000s. It was one of the first things that moved me in a long time.
Was there also an element of wanting to shed a skin or any particular notions about you or your art the Body Talk era established? Is Honey a resistance to mainstream pop?
No, it was more I… wanted to be moved in a different way. It was about [finding the] rhythm that made my body feel good. Parts of Kate Bush’s music have it, like “Running Up That Hill.” Prince has done it. It’s mostly used in club music and disco.… It’s a rocking, galloping rhythm [on] Lil Louis’ “French Kiss,” one of the most amazing dance tracks ever made, that Adam [Bainbridge] sampled on “Send to Robin Immediately.”
That song and “Human Being” feel so warm and vulnerable against the robotic fierceness of Body Talk.
I had to put on some armor. There was important energy in [Body Talk] of trying my strengths and powers. It was nice to let it go and be more dynamic… But it was getting boring, and I wanted to be affected by other things than my own idea of the world… I wanted to find something softer; that’s why I started therapy and made the other records before Honey, like the disco EPs with Mr. Tophat and La Bagatelle Magique. I tried to explore other moods and feelings… I wanted to do something more layered and rhythmically different, but it wasn’t conceptual.
And Mr. Tophat produced “Beach2k20,” which is the strangest song on the album. It’s more like Drake’s “Hotline Bling” as an impressionistic tone poem.
That’s what I love about Mr Tophat. We made that disco EP together before the album, and he helped me explore other ways of making music where there’s no real conclusion. It’s dance music, but the songs can be very long, and he’s good at making those transitions and evoking a more transcendent way of taking in music, which is what club music is for.
These sounds are so different from the Body Talk era. When you started working on solo stuff again in 2014, you said it felt contrived. What felt contrived about it?
“Missing U” is one of the songs I was working with. I made a demo of that song very early on and I had the melodies and some of the lyrics were already written when I played it to Joseph, but I didn’t finish the lyrics until two years later because I knew what I wanted to say, but it was dependent on a certain quality I couldn’t access it at that time. I needed to understand myself better in order to put them into a song.
You worked with a small number of collaborators for Honey. How did you pool them together?
The first person I got in touch with was Joseph. I listened to his last two albums for a long time and I love his way of putting soundscapes together…. After seeing him once in Paris, we clicked, and did three or four songs from one session, so I went back to Sweden and I kept writing and working on the things I felt I needed to establish on my own, and then for a year I went back and forth from Stockholm to Paris where Joseph was.
“Honey” and “Missing U” were demos I made on my own, then brought to Joseph and Klas, but “Human Being” and “Because It’s in the Music” started as demos Joseph made and brought to me. The others were collaborations…. Writing on other people’s music or writing together is always how I work. But creating demos, fleshing them out, sketching out ideas on my own, then bringing them to other people was a new way of working.
Given all that went into it, I’m struck by how short this album is.
There are other songs that haven’t been finished yet, and I’m going to start working on them as soon as I can. Most of the time I finish what I start. But there are three or four songs I didn’t have time to finish for the album, but hopefully I’ll get to soon.
It’s an interesting note to end with “Ever Again,” which concludes the Honey with the lyrics “I’m never gonna be brokenhearted ever again.” Is that hope or assertion? Because fans love your songs about heartbreak!
You can take it however you want! Even if I told you what I hope for, the scary thing about life is I don’t know. No matter how much I’d like to not be heartbroken again, it’s not up to me… It’s a defiant song about standing up for yourself, but I can’t give an answer; I don’t know what’s going to happen.