Zara Larsson On 'Ruin My Life' & Calling the Shots With Her New Album: 'At the End of the Day, It's Still Up to Me'
Zara Larsson has just burst into an a capella rendition of Post Malone’s “Better Now,” scrunching up her nose as she emphasizes the last word of each line with a slight feline snarl: You probably think that you are better nuh-eow, better nuh-eow/ You only say that ‘cause I’m not a-reow-nd, not a-reow-nd. “It’s pop melodies,” she says flatly, like this is something that doesn't need to be explained. Then she starts to laugh. “But it’s fun!”
No, this was not yet another cover for BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge, where in recent years the Swedish singer has put gutsy spins on hits by Beyoncé, Drake, Bryson Tiller and Khalid and Normani. Instead, Larsson, leaning on a couch after a Billboard Live performance of her new single “Ruin My Life,” was trying to prove a point about increasingly blurred genre lines in the streaming age: If she had recorded Posty's ubiquitous eff-you to an ex, she bets you wouldn’t think twice about it -- in fact, you’d probably chalk its undeniable hookiness up to the pop mastery that’s basically a birthright for all Swedes. It’s no wonder why the Grammys were reportedly putting Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys album in consideration for the pop categories and not the hip-hop ones.
Larsson, 20, is a keen observer of the changing boundaries of pop music: Her gold-certified international debut album, 2017's So Good, touched on everything from twinkling EDM (“Never Forget You”) to spunky dancehall (“Sundown”) and finger-snapping R&B (the Ty Dolla $ign-assisted title track). And she tells Billboard her only vision for her next album -- tentatively due in spring 2019 -- is simply capturing the musical zeitgeist. “[Pop culture] just moves really fast, and I’m just trying to be in it, honestly,” she says.
That doesn’t mean she’ll record just anything, however. Though Larsson won’t name names, she says she’s turned down songs and collaborations that went on to become huge hits for other artists simply because she wasn’t feeling the music -- sometimes to the frustration of her closest advisors. Larsson is also a careful steward of her many young female fans, and she sometimes re-records her singles before releasing them to revise lyrics she feels unnecessarily glorify toxic relationships or send negative messages about female empowerment. “I just try to stay as true to myself as possible in this industry,” she says.
Below, Larsson tells Billboard about the direction of her new music, why albums still matter in the streaming era and how she keeps her songs in line with her values.
“Ruin My Life” was originally conceived as a duet, and the version your label first played me also had different lyrics. Can you walk me through how that song has evolved since you first recorded it?
When it’s a collaboration, I feel like the dynamic of the song is different, because it’s more of a conversation. I recorded the song and talked to my team like, “I want it [for myself]!” But when I sang it just me, I thought the lyrics were a bit tragic. It became this really sad girl singing about, honestly, an abusive relationship. Like, “I miss you throwing your fist through the wall.” — hold up, what? That’s violent shit! So I didn’t want to talk about that. I always argue with myself: Does this represent me? Is this a good message to send out to my fans? With that version, I didn’t feel represented. So together with the writers, we rewrote the lyrics for the verses so it was a bit more about the emotional rollercoaster. I don’t want to promote [violence], but I still want to be able to tell my story and tell something that I’ve been through without being labeled a bad feminist or a bad person.
That must be a strange spot: You can’t just worry about whether people will like the song, you also worry about whether it’ll be deemed good or bad for woman.
Even if I didn’t do music, I would still be politically aware -- not only [about] politics but human rights and feminism. It’s just a big part of who I am, so I think that just comes naturally. It’s not so much, “Oh my God, will I get a hate hashtag on Twitter?” It’s more like, “Do I stand for this?”
How often do you find yourself tweaking song lyrics for similar reasons? I remember you changed the lyrics to “Ain’t My Fault,” which was originally about stealing another woman’s boyfriend, because you didn’t want the song to have a woman-versus-woman message.
It definitely happens, where someone sends me a song and I’m like, “I wouldn’t say that” or “That’s not me, I wouldn’t stand for that.” And when I’m in a room [co-writing], I’m very quick to be like, “Ah, I don’t want to say that,” and there’s no hard feelings. It’s very rare that someone’s like, “Don’t touch it.” I just find it important. When I look at my concerts, it’s quite diverse, but I just want to make a really strong message for girls. I don’t want to pit any girls against each other, and I hope I wouldn’t be with someone who’s punching holes in the wall.
The road to your last album, So Good, was a long one -- about two years passed between when you released the first single, "Lush Life," and when the album hit shelves. During that time, you explored a lot of different directions and worked with all kinds of writers and producers. How are you approaching making an album this time around?
I find it so hard! My original plan was to have the album ready before I released any singles. But then I was like, “No, I’m just going to keep doing sessions with all these different people, and then once the album has to come out, like, next week, then that’s the deadline [to pick the tracklist].” And just like with So Good, I don’t really have a vision for my sound. I’ll just stay in [what’s happening in popular music] so hopefully, when I look back at my work in 10 years, it’ll be clear, “Oh, this era was this, this era was that.” Everything in pop culture goes quite quick: The style and genre that’s the biggest now will maybe shift, and whoever influences pop culture now will be someone else.
It’s just like what I do with my Spotify playlists -- if it’s a good song, I just add that to my playlists. And hopefully, I’ll see a [throughline]. But we’ll see. It’s not finished. I change my mind five million times, so I don’t know what it’s going to end up being like or who I’m collaborating with. On the day of the deadline, that’s when I’ll know.
One thing you have confirmed, however, is the inclusion of the song “Wanna,” which you recorded for So Good and have performed live but never officially released.
No shame. I’m like, “It’s getting on the fucking record, I love it.”
Why didn’t it make the cut the first time? It just took time to realize that it was a banger?
I think so. There was a lot of compromising. When I released my first one, I had so many good songs that didn’t make the album because I didn’t want to do a 28-song album. I wanted to keep it short and sweet. I also have a new A&R that I didn’t work with on my last one -- his name is Joey [Arbagey], Camila [Cabello] and I have the same A&R -- and he’s amazing. So he sent me that song and was like, “What the fuck is this? This is great!” And we were like, “We know!” Maybe it wasn’t the right timing, maybe it didn’t really fit in. But I just really want it to be out there now because it’s a good song. I always think about that -- can you imagine how many good songs are out there in the universe that will never be released?
I was surprised to hear you say you didn’t have a particular sound in mind for the new record, because the other three songs I’ve heard were darker and moodier and drew a little more from what’s happening in R&B and hip-hop right now. So that wasn’t the goal?
No, not really. It’s funny, because so many writers and producers I work with are like, “So you’re doing an R&B album?” I’m like, “Who said that?!” That’s just a rumor. But it is a bit more mature, maybe it’s a little more vibe-y. My true essence is when I’m on stage, so I always think: Will this be a good song for my live show? Will this be good for choreography? I will say that I definitely have some fun, upbeat pop songs that are maybe leaning a bit toward EDM [on the new album].
Yeah, it’s one of my absolute favorites. I’m so excited for that one. That’s probably going to be the second single. It’s almost like “Ruin My Life,” part two: I don’t give a fuck about you anymore, get out of my mentions, get out my DMs. Like, “Bye, don’t worry about me, worry about you.” I love that.
Did touring So Good help you realize anything about what you wanted from your next album or your next live show?
It definitely helps me realize what songs I love singing and what songs just sound good. Because some songs are just so comfortable and fun to sing, while others might sound great but will fucking kill me. That’s why I don’t do “Funeral” live. If I do that song three shows in a row, my voice is gone. I hate that, because I love that song, but it’s always a bit of compromise [between] what you want people to listen to in their headphones at home and at the concert. I just didn’t realize when I did that in the studio how hard that was going to be on stage, but you won’t really know until you’re touring with it.
What about the opposite case: Were there songs that you gained a new appreciation for because you loved singing them live?
“TG4M” is my favorite song to perform live. It’s a banger, but it’s just in the perfect pitch for me. Something I really want on this record is songs that will show off the vocals. It’s very easy to get stuck in that Drake-like monotone, and I love to listen to that, but I just want to be able to sing, where people will be like, “Oh my gosh, she can actually sing!” But I still gotta be able to sing it live on stage.
With your last album, there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen: Your Swedish label, TEN; your British label, Black Butter; your American label, Epic -- even Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records was in the picture at one point. How many people are in your inner circle now?
Way less. I have my two managers, and then Joey and Sylvia [Rhone], who runs Epic. Those four I would say I’m closest to this time. TEN has actually been less involved, because I haven’t really spent time in Stockholm with the Swedish A&Rs. I hopefully will do a little writing week or two when I get back to Sweden, ‘cause it’s very nice to hang around with those writers as well. Everyone’s really respectful in the way they’re listening to me about what I want to do, what I don’t want to do. It wasn’t even a struggle on my first record, but there were definitely a lot of opinions. But at the end of the day, it’s still up to me.
You’ve spoken before about how you’ve turned down songs and collaborations that everyone around you thought would be huge. Does sticking to your guns get easier or harder the further into your career you get?
It’s the same. What’s nice and not nice about the whole thing is, no matter if you’ve been in the industry five decades or are a hundred years old, you actually don’t really know [what works]. You don’t! No one can foresee the future. And also, if I don’t like the song, again, do I really want to be on it? You’ve got to stay true to yourself. I get that if you want to be a mainstream, popular, played-on-the-radio artist, you have to make compromises. But at the same time, do you? Do you want to make a big compromise where you’re like, “This doesn’t sound like me, I don’t like the song, I don’t want to do it even though people tell me it’s a hit”? No one really knows [if it’ll be a hit]. No one can tell me “This is what’s going to happen.” Some people have been right, for sure. But I still don’t regret the nos -- or the yeses. Like, “So Good” fucking flopped, you know what I mean? I still love the song. I’m happy I did it.
What does the rest of your year look like?
I’ll jump back into the studio and hopefully release my next single by the beginning of next year, and then I’ll see how “Ruin My Life” goes and how people react to that. It feels really good so far, but in America it takes such a long time before you know how it goes. So we’ll release the second single and drop the album hopefully early spring. With So Good, I felt like I already released all the singles before the album, and then the album came out like, “Here’s my singles... plus, like, three songs.”
Did that bother you?
No, I like it. There’s so much [emphasis on] streaming and putting songs on playlists -- it’s how you get people to recognize you. So I thought that was a good choice, because “Lush Life” was killing it, “Never Forget You” was all good, “I Would Like” [did well] in the U.K. I released an album because I wanted to collect everything.
This time I might do it the good ol’ fashioned way and work the singles off the album [after its release]. It’s been a year and a half since I released an album, and I feel like the year after was very quiet because I already had all the singles out. I don’t plan on taking a year and a half off again. I’m not Rihanna -- I can’t wait four years to release an album and [expect that] people will still care. All these new amazing girls and guys are coming up. I just want to keep people interested and be able do what I do and tour without it being like, “Thank you, two people who came.” I still think an album is important, no matter how you put it out.