Red Bull Presents A Conversation With Robyn, Moderated By Kindness, At The Museum Of Modern Art, Monday, May 21st, 2018
Robyn’s roll call of influences goes as far back as Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin as she rode around Sweden with her traveling theatre group parents at the age of seven in a hippie Volkswagen , to all night raves in New York gay clubs as the newly emancipated sixteen year old idol discovered House, to just this year blasting Michael Jackson demos as she works on the eight years gestating (there were two collaborative EPs in the interim -both terrific) follow up to the Body Talk trilogy. She discussed all of this with friend, UK artist and electronic musician, and, in this case, interviewer, Kindness, as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Red Bull Music Festival at the Museum Of Modern Art last night.
If you’re a pop music fan, it is pretty fascinating, though the duo were a somewhat enervating sight, talking isn’t interviewing, and professional musicians should know to modulate their delivery for effect. Yes, you could glaze over but anytime you get to hear Kindness refer to Max Martin’s writing partners as minions is worth the price of admission alone. Robyn co-wrote and Martin and Shellback produced “Time Machine,” and collaborated much earlier, back around his Backstreet Boys years, with Robyn. The description of driving to Martin’s mansion in the Hollywood Hills to a breeding ground of composers and hook machines was like a light bulb moment… Robyn seems to take this world for granted but it is the essence of exotica for we civilians.
Despite being warned by Red Bull not to just do a chronological run through of Robyn’s life, Kindness decided to do just that and it was probably a smart move. Robyn is a showbiz kid, born in a trunk and out on the road with her parents experimental guerilla theatre group, doing weird stuff shows. Once upon a time they performed a car crash in slow motion on the streets of Stockholm where the young child, one of her earliest memories, watched this awesome piece of theatre of the real. On the road, in a van, lots of music was listened to, especially 1960s soul and glam King David Bowie. The influence on Robyn was that she worried melody but sang off beats, just like her hero Prince.
Her mother got pregnant again when Robyn was seven and taking two children on tour was too much so Robyn entered a short lived normal life that, unfortunately, ended when she was eleven and her parents had a very acrimonious divorce. Robyn felt traumatized by it and she wrote her first song “In My Heart” about the break up. By the age of twelve she had written the theme song to a TV show and at fourteen was discovered by a Swedish pop star at a High School workshop and there was no turning back.
Emancipated as a teenager, Robyn was signed to BMG and became a teen pop star before graduating to a more synth driven sound. While she had already been a star, in 2010, recording with Swedish rocker Klas Åhlund, she mixed Klas’ hard rocking sound and transformed it to synth pop. On her last two EPs performing solid, moved on to beats oriented, modern House, working with Röyksopp and the late producer Christian Falk, try the astonishing “Love Is Free”,. The next album promises to be a quieter, softer sound.
Body Talk is what caught my ear, this is what I wrote in 2010: “With Body Talk, Part 1, Robyn has crafted an excellent albums worth of pop, the way, say, Abba, dealt in pop. Two sure shots, a coupla eccentricities, a number of pure dance songs, a full on ballad and a weird Swedish folk song”. In 2011, strong performance at Radio City Music Hall (here) ,that concluded with an Abba cover, only added to my respect. The set at Govs Ball in 2016 thrilled me a lot less even as she had gotten much higher tech, still, it wasn’t bad at all. The Abba reference, while not one Robyn embraced last night, is the company she keeps in Sweden. The two have a lot in common, most clearly both are melodic geniuses with a taste for the beat, there is a coolness to even their deepest feelings, though Robyn seemed to being implying that she was more in touch with her own emotions and that what this long process of recording was amounted to a teasing out of true emotions made music. For the past six years Robyn has been going to a psychotherapist, the result was a stepping back and a slowing down, a form of perfectionism, but something else, a desire to find a place that was true to her, she played on Tools, and produced demos. The highlight of last night was the playing of a demo of “Honey” -the song she wrote for the HBO series, “Girls” and which she has stubbornly refused to release. new album is in the works, not finished but nearly there.
SOOOO… 90 minutes later, Robyn has quite some baggage: from her thwarted childhood and early emersion into the world of music and business, to this barely revealed memory of a teenage girl up to her neck in New York and somewhat totally alone, it is unbearably sad when you stop to think about it, “I was very brave” Robyn says and the point is that to spend your entire life immersed in show biz is a debilitating emotional hammering. With the possible exception of between the ages of seven and eleven, she has done just capped off by her parents divorce and her own two serious and broken romances. Though she can appear a little harsh, her voice that she uses to flick away from compassion to an off-center explanation (listen to “Call Your Girlfriend”) , an angular, projected face off, and her short cropped hair leading many fans to assume she is a lesbian, even the pantsuit she was wearing last night, seemed like all defensive poses. perhaps because she was raised in a socialist country, Robyn likes working with other people. Robyn made it clear that melody is her soft coiling backing and dance her in the pocket move. When you listen to her demos, it is evident that EDM is really a matter of taste. A demo of “Dancing On My Own” played during the interview had musical partner Klas throwing shards of metal rhythm guitar at the song and Robyn insisting on synths for the finished product. The point is: Robyn doesn’t really need EDM to signify, the songs live outside the genre. She is a great songwriter, and years after first listening to her, listening now she sounds even better than I thought she was. From 2010 to right this minute, to “Honey,” her standard of music is astonishing, she is becoming a legend.
Yet there is still that teenage girl trying to maintain her songs and her skills dancing on her own in a cutthroat business, “Do you remember being 17? Trying to get someone to listen to you?” Robyn wonders as we listen intently.