Astrid S on Touring With Zara Larsson, Navigating Industry Politics & the Long Road to an Album: 'I'm Very Opinionated'

Astrid S
Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Astrid S performs on Late Night with Seth Meyers on Feb. 27, 2019.

“I just Googled how to get rid of nerves,” says a beaming Astrid S inside a cushy gray dressing room at Late Night with Seth Meyers, where in a few hours she’ll make her U.S. television debut. “I went through it step by step. First one is to practice, and that’s what I did. The second one is to tell yourself these sentences: I am fully capable of this job. I can do this...” 

She can’t remember the other affirmations at the moment, but she keeps talking into the mirror, as her hair and makeup team get her camera-ready. The 22-year-old Norwegian singer (born Astrid Smeplass) likes to have a lot of alone time to hype herself up before a performance, so on this overcast afternoon in February -- not that you can spot a window deep inside New York City’s 30 Rock complex -- she’s decided to knock out glam process and our interview in one sitting.

“I usually curse really loud to let the pressure off and go through it in my head,” she says of her pre-show rituals. “Especially in the twenty or thirty minutes before. It’s important for me not to feel like I’m stressed or getting dressed or…”

“Getting your hair and makeup done?” her hairstylist chimes in as he attends to her platinum bob.

“Yes! Sometimes that’ll be the case, and then I don’t feel I can perform as good as I would if I were able to have some time to tell myself I’m fully capable of the job.”

There are no doubts that she’s capable: Earlier in the day, she ran through her slinky single “Someone New” nearly half a dozen times on the freezing Studio 8G soundstage, blocking out her dance moves and practicing every smirk and well-timed head nod. But she’s also spent more than half a decade working toward pop stardom after getting her break on Norway’s Idol franchise in 2013. Her blend of visceral electro-pop and witty, singer-songwriter lyricism on songs like “Breathe’’ and “Think Before I Talk” have already helped her amass millions of monthly streaming listeners, though she’s eager to take her career to the next level with one particular milestone that's eluded her: Releasing a debut album.

“I say this every year: ‘This year I’m going to make an album.’’ she says. “And then a year passes and I don’t have the album. So hopefully it'll be finished later this year, but we’ll see.”

She’s not the only artist of her kind who’s had to wait around. At a time when rap rules, reigning pop stars like Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish are steering the charts away from glossier dance-pop and streaming services are forcing artists to rethink album rollouts, the old playbook for reaching diva status has been rendered mostly useless. Just look at the past few years: Bebe Rexha released three EPs touching on everything from alt-pop to hip-hop until her surprise country crossover “Meant to Be” allowed her to drop last year’s Expectations LP. Camila Cabello had a few starts before “Havana” cemented her status as a solo star -- she’s more or less banished her official post-Fifth Harmony debut, “Crying in the Club,” from her setlists. And while Dua Lipa achieved major stateside recognition with “New Rules,” stardom was hardly overnight -- the song was the sixth single from her debut album (and owes plenty of its success to its viral music video). 

How do you know when you’ve achieved the necessary critical mass for a full-length album? Astrid S isn’t sure -- and she's not sure anybody really knows in the wild west of streaming. She is, however, taking steps to develop her fanase and raise her profile: When I meet her in the Late Night dressing room before rehearsals, she’s editing video footage of her recent travels as she tries to get into vlogging. Just a few days earlier, she was in Milan checking out Fendi at Fashion Week, as part of an effort by her label to help position her as a fashionista. (The video for “Someone New” practically doubles as a modeling reel -- it’s basically three minutes of Astrid rocking fierce outfits and athleisure.)

She’ll leave the data-crunching up to the crowd of executives from her label, Island Records, who are gathered outside her dressing room, ready to cheer on her big debut. (Spoiler alert: The performance goes off without a hitch.) “I think it’s impossible to totally look away from all the numbers, but to me that takes away from the inspiration and motivation,” she says. “It’s hard to let the numbers sink in anyway. The coolest thing is to do live shows and see actual faces, because that’s really good proof of people connecting to it. When it says 20 million streams, what does that mean?”

When I ask her how’d she feel if her label told her she had to push back the album and release an EP, she starts to laugh. “That actually just happened a couple weeks ago,” she admits. “So I might put out an EP before an album. Which is fine! I can’t be that stubborn. I have some songs that are ready. I don’t want people to have to wait until next year for next music. So making another EP, even though I don’t want to… I just don’t want to keep people waiting for too long.”

For now, she’ll do the only thing she can do: Practice, and remind herself that she is fully capable of this job. Below, Astrid tells Billboard about her current tour with Swedish singer Zara Larsson, navigating industry politics and her focus group-style approach to releasing music.

Your tour with Zara Larsson is like a summit of Scandinavian pop singers.

We asked if I could be the support act, and then I thought, “Ugh, I don’t know if her team is going to be okay with that.” Usually there's this unwritten policy where people want the opposite gender as the support act, to be not competitive. I mean, me and Zara, we have the same haircut and do pop music and are the same age, so I’d thought they'd never say yes to that. [Laughs.] I'm really happy she wanted to bring me on tour. I think her fans are amazing. Because we kind of do the same thing, maybe there’s a bigger chance they'll like what I do as well.

That really happens? People talk openly about not having two women tour together?

I remember getting into the industry and being surprised at how difficult things are. It’s a lot of politics, which is sad and annoying. When I was going to have a support act, I wanted this girl, and my team was like, “Nah, you have to [choose] a boy.” I was like, “Why is this thing?” And then I ended up bringing the girl anyway. But it’s really cool that Zara’s bringing me, and hopefully that’ll inspire people to take two girls on tour -- what could be better?

You’ve said that your song “Emotion” is one you tinkered with for a long time. How did it evolve after you wrote it? 

We made it in early 2017, so it’s been around for a long time. When I sent it to my managers, everyone was super excited about it, but they wanted it to be really good, so they got paranoid: You need to redo the vocals, you need to speed it up, you need to slow it down, take this out, put this in. I spent a year trying all the things people wanted me to try. And then ironically, a year passed and we ended up releasing the demo version from the studio -- exact same vocal, exact same tempo. It had a feeling I couldn’t keep when I redid the vocals.

How do you sort out what feedback to listen to and what feedback to ignore?

I don't know if I do sort out anything. I very much look up to everyone I work with and have a lot of respect for them, which can be a curse sometimes. I could love a song, but if someone says, “It’s not that great,” then I believe it. There’s no right or wrong, so I shouldn't necessarily be affected by what everyone else says. If the people around me don't like a song even though I love it, I don't see the point in putting it out, because they maybe wouldn't work for it and be inspired to make it happen.

When did you know that an album was the next step for you?

We were all stoked on making an album a couple years ago after my first EP, and then it’s just become difficult logistically: I had a tour, I did promo. There were so many things on my calendar, I didn’t have much time to write. So I made another EP, and then last year I took a break from everything except writing. Sometimes you lose track of why you’re doing this, and to me, the songwriting is why I started. That’s the magic to me. Now that I have so many songs, it feels like a more natural thing to make an album because I’ve evolved as a person and a songwriter.

How do you decide which of those songs to release? If your label was like, “We’re putting out the album next week, send us the 12 tracks you want on it,” would you know what to do?

Oh wow -- that wouldn’t be possible! Usually when I write a song, I have four people I send songs to. Sometimes they won’t reply, which is super annoying, but usually they reply and discuss and make a plan for how we want to finish it. It’s important to make a song that everyone [in my inner circle] likes. It’s difficult when we have a song where three out of the five of us like it -- that might result in the song not being put out.

Because we’ve been working on the project for so long, the people I work with listen to music in a different way. There’s one song that has been around for so long that I think they are getting tired of it. For a couple after months I wrote it, we were like, “We have to make this work, we have to put it out.” Now it’s been in my Dropbox for so long, everyone’s like, “Nah, we should make some new songs.” Which is a bummer, because I think it’s a good song. It would be great to be open to not everyone loving all songs.

Is there even such a thing as a song that everybody likes?

I don’t know one person who doesn’t like “Africa” by Toto.

Earlier you mentioned taking a year off to recalibrate and focus on songwriting. Tell me about that.

After I released “Think Before I Talk” [in August of 2017], we had a meeting in December. They said, “We should put ‘Emotion’ out in January and keep the momentum going.” I remember feeling very overwhelmed and anxious about the thought of that. I felt like everything had been going full-speed since I was 16, and I just needed time to evolve as a songwriter. In the meeting, I was like, “No! I can’t! I need some time off! I need to figure out what I want to say, what I want to sound like, who I am as an artist, what my identity is, why I want to do this and what I have to say.” They were super understanding and supportive of my choice.

Knowing when to say no can be a hard thing for some people.

I’m a very direct person. I'll always say what's on my mind. I'm very opinionated and very stubborn. When I was a kid in school, there were a lot of opinionated boys, but I would get a lot of comments on it -- "She’s so bossy, she’s so stubborn." No one would comment on the boys. I remember going to school sometimes, telling myself, “I'm not going to speak out, I'm going to be silent, I'm going to be in the background.” It’s kind of sad. I’ve always been opinionated, which is fine as long as you're open to discussion and not like, “This is the only way to do it.”

When you were taking that year to focus on writing, were you in proper writing sessions, or were you just at a piano at home by yourself?

It was a nice mix. I started around January and had five months of trying out producers and songwriters, just writing, writing, writing. And then from May until the end of last year, I was writing by myself. I have a playlist on Spotify with lots of different acoustic karaoke versions of songs that I’ll put on if I’m on an airplane or a bus, and I’ll make lyrics to those chords. I made a song to an acoustic karaoke version of “Wildest Dreams” by Taylor Swift. I like to write by hand and carve out words with a pen. Especially in the studio -- sometimes everyone disappears into social media, so it's nice to put away our phones.

Artists often compare sessions to speed-dating, which sounds draining. Is doing five months of studio sessions like doing five months of first dates?

Yeah, I was burned out by the end. The thing is, I’ve made some of my favorite songs in sessions where I was super frustrated and didn’t feel good about myself and didn’t get along with the person at all. But I’ve also gone back to those people and had a great day. You never really know if that one extra time is when you write your best song, which is kind of the magic of it.

It must be hard to take breaks when there’s that voice in your head going, “But what if today is the day?”

I know! I think I’ve only canceled a session maybe two times in five years because I can’t sleep if I cancel a session: “Maybe this was the day I was going to write the best song ever."