14th Anniversary coverstory
Written + Interviewed by: LEILA E. COLE
Born and raised in Sweden, 18-year old Zara Larsson became a household name there back in 2013 —and was personally signed to Epic Records by Chairman LA Reid, in (April) 2013. Further to having a 10x platinum #1 hit (“Uncover”) in Europe, the beauty is unmistakably making a name for herself state-side. Her collaborative smash with co-writer/producer MNEK has gone 6x platinum globally, and is now RIAA gold certified here in the U.S.
Currently working on her first international album, she took some time to chat with us, and grace our 14th Anniversary cover. Zara was an obvious choice —stunning, with such an uncompromising strength and unique tone to her voice. I’ve heard her vocals compared to Rihanna (who I love), but quite frankly Zara’s voice is incomparable in it’s own right, and special in all respects. Without reservation, Zara has the capacity to soar universally (among the ranks of some of today’s leading artists) with her melodic gift.
Q: You were 10 when you won Sweden’s version of “Got Talent”. What was that process like, before and after. Did that totally change things for you?
A: I mean, it depends on how you look at it. I think it’s a way bigger deal for Americans, than it was in Sweden. The process was basically, (1) I auditioned, (2) I did the real audition on tv, (3) I did the second show, (4) then it was the finale. And then I won. And that was it. So it was over within like a month. It went super fast. With shows like X-Factor or Idol, or The Voice, that’s every week. I just did the audition, and then there were eight other shows from other parts of Sweden, they then picked out the ‘favorites’, and then came the semi finales, and from the semi-finales they had the finales. So the process was pretty easy. Very fast. The audition was based on judges, but after that it was by fan votes.
So I did that. And after that nothing happened, so I went back to school.
Q: So how was that, going from the public exposure, to normal life?
A: I still had my everyday life; it was the same as before. Nothing changed. It [Got Talent] was just a bonus that happened in my life when I was 10, and it was really fun, I think. I went back to school with my friends; the same friends, and I just kept on doing music pretty low key. I went to a lot of different labels and record companies. And we went to LA when I was 11/12, and no one really wanted to sign me because they thought I was way too young. I was like ‘What do you mean? No I’m not! I’m ready!’ I was devastated, and very sad over that, because I thought that nobody wanted me, my career was over.. when I was 12.
I finally got signed when I just turned 14. That’s still really young. And when I think back on it, I’m very happy that I didn’t rush, because I could have signed with a label earlier, just for the sake of being signed. But I believe everything happened exactly the way it was supposed to.
Q: So tell me a little bit about your family. And what they instilled in your growing up. What was it like for you.
A: In general, they taught me to be a really good person. They’re not in music at all —well my Dad played bass in a punk band when he was 15, if that counts, but I don’t think it does. They’ve been listening to my music a lot, and I think they’ve raised me really well. They raised me to be “well behaved”. But what’s your definition of well behaved? I mean, I can eat with a knife and fork, I can be very nice to people, but when I was younger and asked my Mom if I could stay over my best friend’s place, and she was like ‘no’, I never accepted a ‘no’. Just because it was a no. I’ve always wanted to know why. Give me a good reason why I can’t stay over at my best friend’s house. Give me a good reason why I can’t eat candy on a Monday. Why can’t I do this..? I want a reason for everything. [My Mom] taught me to question everything. And how to think for myself. My parents have been so good at treating me like a real person. Sometimes I see parents and they treat their children like they’re stupid. You know what I mean? Mine have always treated me with a lot of respect. They treated me like a small person —which I was. They have always been encouraging me to debate; because my Dad and Mom, they’re super into debating. We’re having discussions every dinner —we’re talking about politics, and we’re talking about the world. They’ve been so encouraging when it comes to me having my own voice —not only singing, but having opinions —knowing what’s going on in life. I’m really happy that they raised me to have questions, and to not just listen to people. Or to just listen to authority because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I always try and think for myself. And I think they’ve done that really well. They’re so supportive. If I one day woke up and I said to my Mom, ‘You know what, I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to be a hockey player.’ She’d be like ‘Okay cool, let’s do that.’ So they’re always supportive of everything I do. And it just happens to be music.
Q: Tell us about your sibling(s).
A: I have one sister. And she’s also very good at singing. But she sings together with her friend. They just got signed. I’m super happy for her, and really really excited.
Q: How would you describe the first time you heard your song on the radio?
A: I was in Sweden. My sister was going to this birthday party and we had the radia on in the car, like we always do. All of a sudden they were like ‘Next up it’s Zara Larsson with her new song’. I was like OH MY GOD. We were freaking out in the car and blasting the song, and having a great time. Having a song play on the radio was a dream come true. It was a big thing for me. But now when I hear my song, I’m like can you switch channels (laughs)? I don’t even know how to behave —should I sing along? I don’t know, it’s just awkward.
Q: Tell us what went behind the record “Never Forget You” with MNEK.
A: We were set up in the session together, thanks to our management. I told my label that I really wanted to write songs for myself. You know —be in the sessions and actually write them. Before that I was just basically recording songs that people wrote for me. I wanted to be a part of it —a part of the process. So they set up the session in LA. Astronomyy and MNEK are both British, but we were in LA together.. I’d never met them before, so I was a bit nervous, but very very excited. I kind of knew what I wanted to talk about, and I kind of knew what vibe I wanted. I told MNEK that, and he produced it. He’s hands down one of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s so talented —I have no words for it. He made the track in like two minutes. Maybe 5.. maybe 10. Anyway, it was in a very short time. We were very much inspired by Justin Bieber, Jack Ü and Skrillex’s record “Where Are You Now?”. There’s a ballad in the beginning, then a huge drop. And all of a sudden you’re like “What is this?”. The melodies and the lyrics —we had a great flow. And I remember I texted my manager “This.Is.A.Smash.” I’ve never done that with songs before, but I knew it —my first song, and it’s a smash. After that day we sent the record around to different people, and everybody loved it; they were obsessed with it. I was just very excited about it. And then MNEK was like well actually I kind of want it. And I was like “Oh hell no”. So our labels had a conversation, about who was going to do it, who was going to give it up.. I really wanted to do it. But we both wanted to do it. After a while we decided on a duet. I was totally fine with that. It made perfect sense to me. It really felt comforting to have another person on this first big hit in America. I’m not alone on this journey. Maybe for my next single it’s going to be just me, myself and I.
Q: Who would you say you’d love to work with creatively, moving forward?
A: Ooh tough one. Honestly I don’t know. I just feel like there’re some people that have done a lot of things, but I’ve been in sessions with them and just don’t vibe. If we don’t vibe, then I just don’t care what you’ve done before. Or it could be the opposite. I feel like I work with a lot of people that maybe aren’t as big as Max Martin —he’s the greatest. And he’s genuinely so nice, and a good person —I love that. We haven’t worked together yet, but hopefully we’ll do that very soon. I’ve worked with his team a lot. The people I’ve worked with, regardless of whether they’re big names now or not, maybe they will be in the future. It’s an honor for me to be on their journey —like they feel it’s fun to be with me on my journey. I think all these people are going to do great things in the near future.
Q: What do you find to be the most challenging thing about your career so far?
A: Right now, nothing is challenging. I think finding good songs to my album is pretty hard though. Because you never know what people will like. There are so many things out there. It’s a lot.
Q: How do you go about drawing inspiration, do you just vibe out and just listen to songs that are out there, do you get feedback from your friends and you just see what their currently into? How do you go about that creative process, when you’re putting songs together.
A: I think a lot of my inspiration comes from my own life. My feelings, what’s going on right now. And I’ll sing about that. But yeah, of course what my friends are listening to, what’s hot right now.. like Spotify has the great thing, “discover” new music. (they totally know what I’m into). That’s what’s so awesome about today’s society when it comes to internet. You can find billions of songs, whenever you want. It’s not hard. There’re periods when I’m like I’m not going to listen to music for a while, or, I’m not going to “discover” new music. I mean, I listen to music all the time, but my main inspiration is my own life. I feel like when you’re creating something, you know if it’s good or not. You don’t have to overthink it. But I do that, I overthink stuff —but you don’t have to, you just have to go with what you feel is good.
That’s good to know, because your fans know that they’re getting true Zara, and it’s not something that’s been filtered from somewhere else. So it’s very genuine, which is awesome.
Q: Who are some of your idols, music wise or other?
A: My number one is definitely Beyonce. She is my number one, my everything. She’s basically my musical religion. Everything she does is just perfect. I think she’s just perfect. She’s not even human. I mean, I don’t even know what to say. She’s EVERYTHING. I’m speechless. So that is my number one, and basically the only person I idolize. I listen to a lot of different music; my Mom is a huge fan of like old divas, Etta James, Aretha Franklin. And my Dad is a huge rock metal fan. His favorite band is The Motorheads. But he also listens to stuff like Eminem and Biggie, which is weird. But it’s just like a combination —I guess I listen to everything because I grew up listening to a lot of different stuff. I would definitely say that my favorites are R&B, Hip Hop and Pop.
Now that you mention the ‘old school’ and voices like Aretha Franklin, it makes perfect sense, because when I was listening to “Never Forget You”, there’s a point towards the end where you’re hitting these notes and I was like “OMG, I had no idea this girl had this in her —because when I first discovered you it was through ‘Lush Life’ (that was my jam.. that was my song) [“Yep!” Zara hums ‘Lush Life’ briefly], and then I hear this one, and I’m like OMG this is amazing, good for her. Hitting those notes, it’s incredible.
A: Aw thank you! Yeah, it’s a good song for showcasing my voice on.
Q: What would you say your Top 3 favorite songs right now are?
A: I love Anderson Paak. So probably “Drugs” by Anderson Paak. “Intoxicated” by Ashley Dubose and Bryson Tiller “Self Righteous”. I’m so down for that. I love that song.
Q: Do you have any plans to add anything, let’s say fashion related —maybe acting, to your resume in the future?
A: Well I would love to act. I would absolutely love to act. Other than that I don’t know. I’m just trying to focus on my music. If something pops up, I’ll do it, if I like it.