Zara Larsson on growing up, the perfection of pop music, and new album Poster Girl
"I'm really happy I found the courage to just say how I feel about things," says the 23-year-old Swedish pop star.
When Zara Larsson wrote the title track for her third album Poster Girl (out March 5) with hitmaking duo Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, she turned to one of her favorite proclivities for inspiration. "It's just a fun song about weed," explains the 23-year-old pop singer. "They were like, f--k! You smoke so much!' I was like, 'Let's write a song about it!'"
These days, Larsson feels far more comfortable taking cues from her personal life and setting them to glitter-bombed bangers than she did on previous records. The Stockholm-born artist, best known Stateside for her top-20 hit "Never Forget You" with MNEK, has become a European juggernaut with her brand of icy, throaty vocals cultivated by high-profile collaborators (producers on her last album, 2017's So Good, include Charlie Puth, Steve Mac, and Stargate). But on Poster Girl, Larsson sings with purpose. "I'm really happy I found the courage to just say how I feel about things," she says.
The album also sees Larsson weaving themes of unrequited devotion and sobering flits of romantic toxicity into near scientifically engineered pop songs. With contributors including Max Martin, Marshmello and Young Thug, Poster Girl brands Larsson as a pop singer with range, one indebted to the perfection that pop music demands while infusing it with the specific honesty that it often curtails. It may not be the Swedish performer's ticket to Stateside dominance, but it has the foundation — something she's confident won't be lost in translation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've been working on Poster Girl for years. What sort of emotional state did this start from for you?
ZARA LARSSON: Well, it's quite tricky to say because at one point, I felt like the writing process started when I released So Good, just straight from that onto the next album. But if I'm being really honest, I feel like the majority of the album, funny enough, was being written the last week of writing, which was a few months ago. I think all of the hard work I did four years ago, it did lead me to this point. I am a grown woman now. I wasn't when I released So Good — I was a teenager, and I feel like that's quite a big difference in how I feel in life and how I want to sing about things.
"Never Forget You" was the first song you ever wrote. How do you think you've grown since then as a writer, and how does this record convey that growth?
I think as a songwriter, I feel way more confident and I know what I do and don't want to say. I have the courage to speak up and just voice my opinions. It's not even that dramatic when I say I voice my opinions, but at one point in my life, I was too shy to say anything. It's a very intimate thing to be creative with other people in any sort of creative field. Doesn't matter if you're a dancer or painter or writer. Sometimes, that just turns into therapy sessions, but only because you're sharing something that you've been thinking about. All of us probably have better ideas than what we think. But we're just too shy to express them.
Poster Girl is far less of a group effort than So Good. You worked a lot with Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels. What drew you to them in particular?
It was a delight to work with them. Not only because they're one of the most — both of them — insanely talented writers, but really good people. They're just people you want to be with: good morals, good values, good personalities, good heart, and really good writing brains. We would talk about life and just write it down. It's easygoing, there's no ego in there, which I think is quite important, and everybody just wants the best for the song. But you're right, though: I do feel this album is tighter because now I know the people I like to work with. For the next album, I would like it to be even less people. My dream is to steal all of my favorite people, go to a studio, and lock them in there and just work with them for two weeks and see what comes out of that.
The title Poster Girl is taken from a song on the record. What made you feel like that track could serve as the banner for the album?
I thought it was a really cool title. When you hear it, you're like, hm, what does it mean? Is she the poster girl? You know, it's actually not that deep. Funny enough, the song is literally about weed and I'm like, "Hey, I love you, weed. I don't say this to a lot of people but I love to smoke and I love you so I'm going to write a song about you." You could also hear it as a love song. And when you hear "poster girl," I felt it represented the album title. I feel it presented me as two types of people I am every day. I don't walk around super glammed up all the time. I'm very normal. I honestly look like a bag of s--t most of the time. I don't care. The other part of me is obsessed with flawlessness and my performance has to be perfection and I want glitter and glamour and fluff and the lights. Both are equal parts of me.
There are some themes laced throughout the record, one of which is when you know someone might be wrong for you in a relationship but you go for them anyways, like on "What Happens Here" and "Ruin My Life." Is this something that's recurring for you in your romantic and personal lives?
That's a good question. I'd have to say yeah, because I don't think about consequences at all. "Ruin My Life" is from the point in life I was in earlier. The song is also from 2018, but I really could relate to that feeling of, I want to be with you even if you're not good for me, even though you make me not have friends and you're being rude to me. And that's f---ed! I did have some valid criticism about it: don't romanticize abusive relationships. But the truth is, I think most women will be in not an abusive [relationship], but a toxic one, maybe once in their life. Hopefully not, but a lot of them are. I relate to that feeling of, I'd rather be sad with you than happy without you because you're scared of knowing what will happen if I don't have you. I took that from a personal experience where I was with one of my exes and it was my first boyfriend and we were dating and we did the thing, so afterwards he was like, I'm not going to tell anybody at school. I was so confused, like, why not? I did it because I wanted to, and you also did it because you wanted to. Why should I be ashamed of that? Other people are treating women with the sense that sex is something that's being done to them, rather than with them. That teaches women to also look at themselves that way. Like, maybe I could have sex with you if you do this and this for me, not because I want to. The truth is, women do it because they f---ing want to, because we're just people like men are. With that, I was just feeling like, tell your friends, I don't care. What are they going to say? If I'm a slut, you're a slut. You know what I mean?
Pop music is seeing a disco resurgence right now — particularly with Kylie Minogue and Dua Lipa — and there's an ABBA-adjacent tone to Poster Girl. What is it about that sound that draws you to it?
Everything goes in cycles. It comes back in a new version and new package but it still has the essence of another era in what we're doing. In 20 years, we'll be doing songs that are inspired by maybe the early 2010s. It's just a natural way of life. But I really like the sound because I've been sleeping on ABBA. It was around me growing up, but I never actually sat down and had a listen to them until not too long ago, and I [was] blown away. When you listen to the lyrics, the melodies, what? It's insane and timeless. Just this legacy of a Roxette banger; so many amazing Swedish artists having a legacy is really inspiring. I also like to dance. I like to move. When you can incorporate a really good funky song with what's hot right now... that's what pop music is, and that's what's fun about it.
You've had a lot of success worldwide, particularly in Europe and Sweden. You're big in the States too, but I feel like international artists always want to have more of a foothold here. Do you think this album is going to push that barrier further for you in the U.S.?
I hope so. I always do. Whenever I release a song, I'm like, this song is going to go number one. That's how much I want to love the song. I believe that every one of these songs off this album should go to number one. The truth is, no one ever knows. Not the people who work in the f---ing record industry, they don't know anything. They might think they do and they put a lot of money behind things, but I feel like no, they don't. Nobody does. Whenever I release this baby, it's out for the world to judge. If they want to hear it and listen to it, it's out of my control at that point. That's what's scary about it, and maybe that's why a part of me was pushing the album because I was scared at failing. But then I reached a point where I was like, f--k it, it doesn't even matter. I love this music and I love these songs and if I reach great success, then I'll be very, very happy. And if I don't, then move onto the next album and we'll go again. It's not deeper than that.
This interview has been edited and condensed