Great Britain

Zara Larsson: ‘I turned 18 and my mentors started making comments about my body’

Zara Larsson grew up wanting to be like Britney Spears. “I thought, ‘I want to be a superstar – I can’t wait for paparazzi to follow me,’” says the Swedish pop singer. “And now... I don’t know.”

It’s not that Larsson’s dreams are any smaller now than they were when she was six and putting on shows for her family. Or when she was 10 and won Sweden’s biggest TV talent show. Or when she was 14 and signed her first record deal. “I want to be number one, I want to be first, I want to be the biggest and the best in everything I do,” she says, at 23. She hopes that her new album, Poster Girl, does even better than its zippy, platinum-selling predecessor So Good (2017). She hopes its singles surpass the billion streams of 2015’s “Lush Life”. She’s just not sure anymore if she wants to be Britney-level famous.

“[When I was younger], I just saw what was in the magazines,” says Larsson, fresh from watching the new documentary Framing Britney Spears. “And like, ‘Oh my gosh, Britney went crazy and shaved her head,’ and everybody was laughing at it. But it’s not really funny. She was a laughing stock for so many years. Imagine now if you were sitting in a TV interview, and people were commenting on your substance abuse and laughing at it. Or like, ‘Hey you know what everybody’s talking about? Your boobs.’”

Larsson is speaking to me from a Stockholm studio, between rehearsals for an International Women’s Day live stream (naturally, she’ll be performing in an Ikea on the day). Dressed in a tie-dye hoodie, her hair scraped back into a ponytail, she is breezy and gregarious, never mincing her words, which tend to come out with more of an American lilt than a Swedish one. “Hopefully we are collectively waking up and treating people with a little bit more kindness,” she continues, “or holding people accountable.” She thinks the #MeToo movement is to thank for that. “It just flipped it. People were like, ‘Actually, enough.’ I feel like people have different conversations now. And there’s a lot more women, at least where I’m working, sitting at the big tables.”

That’s a welcome change, given how often Larsson’s had to “baby” older male executives. “Having to call them a lot to tell them they’re doing a great job or they’ll be really pouty and angry,” she says with a roll of her eyes. “And also when things don’t go their way, they might walk out of a meeting. And people are like, ‘He’s so passionate!’ While really, it’s just like, ‘What the f*** was that?’”

Larsson on stage at the 2020 MTV European Music Awards

Larsson may still be young, but she has been in the industry for long enough to witness its ugly sides. After winning the TV show Talang in 2008 – she sang Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” in the final – a pre-teen Larson set her sights on a record deal. It didn’t come easily, but she landed one in 2012, and her debut album 1 made her a bona fide popstar in her home country. It was the single “Lush Life” that made the rest of the world take notice. A dancehall anthem written by a crack team of Swedish songwriters (Larsson makes no bones about the fact she outsources half the songs she releases), it was the sonic equivalent of a cocktail by the pool; for one whole summer, those springy, sugary synths were on every radio station and in every supermarket. More bombastic pop songs followed, including the Clean Bandit collaboration “Symphony” – a violin-enhanced exercise in vocal gymnastics – and the clubby EDM banger “Never Forget You”. All three made it onto her album, which did big business – though Larsson stopped short of becoming a megastar.

The music industry wasn’t an easy world to navigate. She found herself being railroaded in meetings. “Imagine me being there, super young, and all of these older guys, producers, writers, executives, they’ve been in the industry way longer than I have,” she explains. “Why would I think that my opinion’s better? Why would I think that I know what’s good when clearly these guys have been in it for way longer than I have? It easy to be in that position and think: ‘Oh, but they know better than I do.’”

As Larsson grew older, she grew more assertive – but then a new problem reared its head. Older men with whom she worked started making sexual advances. “A very good majority of them are waiting for the day a girl turns 18,” she says. “Oh my gosh that switch, the change of tone that people had the day I turned 18… it was actually wild. All of a sudden, people way older than I was, that I had looked up to and that were mentoring me, were suddenly making comments about my body, or like, ‘What hotel do you stay in? What room do you stay in?’ And I was just like, ‘What the f***?’”

This was pre-#MeToo, she says. As strong-willed as she was by that point, she didn’t know how to react. “It was hard because I did find myself in situations where I just choked,” she says. “I’m a very strong feminist. I don’t budge. If anybody was trying to make a move I would hit them, you know what I mean? And then you sit there and feel some f***ing old man touching your thigh and you just freeze. And the woman I thought I was going to be at that point was just gone. And that scared me so much. And then you feel guilty because you didn’t say anything, or you didn’t make it clear enough that that was very inappropriate.”

It didn’t just happen once. It happened many times. “There’s a lot of incidents that are quite minor but the intentions were clear, if you know what I mean,” says Larsson. “And I just didn’t know what to do. Because usually that person has a lot of power and they know that. ‘Oh, what are you going to do about it?’ You know? The older I get, the more I will be like, ‘What are you doing?’ But many times, I was just in shock, so I froze.”

We move on to happier topics: Poster Girl. It’s been four years now since Larsson’s last album, and in the world of pop that might as well be a lifetime. Little Mix have released two records in that time; Ariana Grande three; Taylor Swift four. Larsson is well aware of this. “That momentum is not there,” she says with a shrug. “I’m not Rihanna. People won’t wait like that in the pop world. The pop world moves fast. So I’m starting over in a way. I’m like, ‘Hey guys, what’s up? I’m alive.’” Was she pressured by her label to keep that momentum going? “Yeah, but I lost it,” she says with a shrug. “So it was fine.”

She could have continued making Poster Girl for another 10 years, “but at some point it’s like, ‘I just want to get it out’”, she says. Now it is. And while it doesn’t stray too far from the sound that made her famous, punch-the-air pop looks good on her. She wrote the album with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter (who has written for everyone from Gwen Stefani to Lady Gaga), and I would put money on at least one of its songs soundtracking a slow-mo shot on Love Island before the year is out.

Maybe it’ll be the seductive, staccato “FFF”, a song about falling for a friend; it’s what happened with her now-boyfriend, the dancer Lamin Holmen. “Usually I’m a f***-on-the-first-date type girl,” she says, “and then we’ll get to know each other. This time it was the opposite. I knew him for years. We had a lot of friends in common. And then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘S***, am I crazy or is there chemistry between us?’” It worked out. “I feel like everyone who has feelings for their friends should go for it,” she says.

The object of affection on “Ruin My Life”, meanwhile, seems like bad news: “I want you to ruin my life,” she begs over and over, atop a slinky beat. “I want you to f*** up my nights.” It’s the oldest track on the album – it’s been out since 2018 – and it’s racked up 500 million streams. Larsson knows it’s “not very empowering” – but not everything needs to be. “It has a positive aura – it’s quite unapologetic,” she says, “It’s like, ‘Ruin my f***ing life then.’ I’m so not ashamed of feeling weak, or like I’m struggling, because everybody does. And if you act like you don’t, then you’re lying. And I think there’s a relatability in that that people do enjoy.”

In an age of social media, even the biggest pop stars on the planet are expected to show us the grimy details of their lives. Does relatability come at the expense of mystique? “These days, people don’t listen to your music because they feel like you’re an unreachable superstar, they do it because they feel like they’re almost supporting a friend,” says Larsson. “But Beyonce, who is my biggest idol, I don’t want her to be a real person. It’s weird. I want to keep her on this pedestal and I want to keep her ‘Godified’ – make her bigger than a person, because she’s influenced so much of my life that she’s almost like this mythical creature. And by being so accessible, it does take away the huge stardom that people used to have, where the only time they could see them was literally if they went to their concerts.”

Still, this past year, the internet has been the only way Larsson’s fans can have any access to her at all. Concerts have been out of the question. “It’s been sucky honestly,” says Larsson. “Seeing numbers and views and likes is not the same thing as seeing real people at shows or festivals. I’m like, ‘Is this even what I want to do?’ Because I haven’t done what I love for a long time.”

She eventually decided that, yes, it is what she wants to do. “My boyfriend reminded me, ‘It’s a part of who you are, and you’ve been doing this since way before anybody knew about you.’ It’s like a form of therapy for me, and no one can take that away from me.”

But why stop at music? “I hate that life is so short and I want to do a million different things,” she says. “I want to be a teacher, I want to be a pilot, I want to be a doctor and a lawyer and I want to be a director, and I want to make movies and be an actor. But I’m really bad at just doing things for the fun of it. If I paint, I can’t just paint, I need to have the best painting. If I go and ride horses, I’m like, ‘OK, so I’m going to be on the national team in a year. I have to win gold.’” She laughs. “It’s just the person I am, I guess.”

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