Zara Larsson Talks Putting a Modern Twist on Classic Swedish Pop With 'Poster Girl' Album

Zara Larsson
Jordan Rossi

Zara Larsson

The "Ruin My Life" singer channeled Robyn and ABBA with her new set, out this Friday (Mar. 5).

If you tried to imagine the most Scandinavian thing you could ever experience in your life, it would probably look a lot like Swedish pop star Zara Larsson talking about modern furniture. While Zooming with Billboard from her home in Stockholm, the 23-year-old shows off a poster from Germany’s Vitra Design Museum that depicts over 200 iconic chairs throughout history, from simple wooden designs dating back to 1802 to sculpture-like creations that look inhospitable to those with intact spinal columns.

Some days, Larsson just sits in front of it and studies her favorites from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And when she has company over, it’s a fun conversation starter: What’s your favorite chair? Which one represents you?

Larsson’s younger sister, Hanna, who lives with her and is also a singer, was the one who bought the artwork. But Larsson has an eye for design, too. One of her favorite shows growing up was Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and she’s a fan of the before-and-after renovation videos that endlessly populate TikTok. Like plenty of bored young people, Larsson has been spending an obsessive amount of time on the app during the pandemic.

“It knows exactly what the f--k I’m thinking,” she says, her Swedish accent popping as she swears. “The algorithm knows you so well. Sometimes it’s scary.”

If this all sounds like Larsson started to lose it a bit during this past year of downtime -- well, she would not disagree with you there. “I felt like a little person floating around the universe without anything to anchor me down to reality,” she says. “I identify myself so much by my job: I’m an artist. That’s who I am. And when I didn’t have that, it was very confusing.”

It’s one of the many reasons she is eager to get back to work and release her second international album, Poster Girl, out Friday (Mar. 5). A glossy, disco-tinged twist on classic Swedish pop, the LP is something of an identity statement following 2017’s So Good, a sprawling grab-bag of global sounds that included breakout Hot 100 hits like “Never Forget You” and “Lush Life,” and was certified platinum in the U.S. It’s also been a longtime coming: Larsson started releasing tracks from Poster Girl in late 2018, but kept writing and recording with collaborators (like hitmaking duo Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels) right up through the pandemic.

“[My team and I] were like, ‘What if we have to wait all the way till summer for this to be over?’" Larsson says of her attitude this time last year. "And now look at us -- we’re still in this mess! But if not now, when? I’m really good at pushing stuff. There will always be a reason to push something.”

Below, Larsson talks to Billboard about doubling down on pop, how Justin and Julia helped her find her voice and -- just when you thought it couldn’t get any more Swedish -- her upcoming livestream concert in partnership with Ikea.

When you visited our offices in 2019, you said that you were delaying the album because it didn’t feel right to you yet. What was the issue?

I felt a little confused -- it was a bit all over the place. Which is kinda my personality, I can’t lie. I put my stuff everywhere, my thoughts are everywhere. And even though these days people listen to mostly playlists, I still wanted this album to make sense as a project. Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels really helped me out with that. I picked the songs I really liked, and they were on the same page: “Thank God you like these songs, because these songs you’ve done are our favorites as well.”

From there we just started building it around the vibe of the album. I was very inspired by ABBA. They brought it up: “This is giving me modern ABBA feels.” I started listening to a lot of them, and a lot of Robyn, actually -- just Swedish legacy icons that I’ve been hearing my whole life, but never really gave the attention they truly deserve. I’d never sat down and said, “Let me really listen to this, the melodies, the lyrics.” And I was thinking about the future -- what will make a really good concert. I like to write songs, but I’m a performer first and a writer second.

It’s funny to hear you say you wanted the album to be focused, because that was a fun thing about So Good: It had everything -- ballads, EDM bangers, tropical pop songs, Ty Dolla $ign.

It was so chaotic!

So with Poster Girl, do you have this a-ha moment of, “OK, this is what makes a Zara Larsson project, this is the throughline.”

No, I don't! [Laughs.] That's nice that you said that. You want some kind of signature sound. I have my taste, and whatever that taste is, I don’t really know [how to describe it]. Hopefully the more I release music, the more people will understand it. I haven’t been releasing that much music, though. When I look back [on the last few years], I think, “Ugh, I could have released three albums in that time! What the f--k!” But I just didn’t feel ready for it.

You can just add extra songs to a deluxe edition in two months -- everyone’s doing it.

Yeah! I have so many songs left. I'm down to release a mixtape. No pressure, just put it out [and have people] hear this music. Something that wouldn't be about the charts or be about the sales. Just for fun. 'Cause there's a lot of music. I feel sad thinking about all the songs in all artists’ computers that will never see the light of day.

I was surprised by how much of a dance-pop record this album is, based on some of the singles.

“Talk About Love” doesn’t really represent the album, you’re so right. That’s the song that is least similar to the others. But I think it makes sense with the love theme, and I do want some other vibes. When you go to a live show, you don’t want to hear the same song 15 times. At least that’s not what I want. I was really excited when Young Thug wanted to be a part of “Talk About Love,” because I think he fits well with pop artists. He’s got really sick melodies. I don't really look at Young Thug as a rapper -- he's singing, you know? And he really brought himself. He didn’t compromise his artistry for a pop song and make it not Young Thug-ish.

During a listening session for the album late last year, you mentioned that when you’d go to recording sessions, songwriters and producers would say, “So we hear you’re making an R&B album.”

I'm like, “Where did you get that? Who said that? I didn't!” I do love to be a little inspired by that -- because that is something I really enjoy listening to. But I love to sing and perform and pop. I think you can do a little mix of it. This album is even poppier than So Good.

I assumed it came from your American label, Epic Records, whose roster is packed with hip-hop and R&B acts. Are there challenges with navigating that environment as a pop artist?

I don’t think so. I don’t spend much time looking at what other people are doing. I’m actually quite bad in general at even listening to music, which I’m ashamed of sometimes. I feel like a really bad artist -- like every artist should be obsessed with music and play it all the time. Umm, I just listen to podcasts and my own songs!

But no one is really pushing me. I’d be cringey if they were like, “You should do more hip-hop.” I’m just trying to be myself and do whatever I like. You can be influenced by people, especially if you have a feature, but I'm not going to start rapping. I've tried it! [Laughs.] It was a Swedish song. I was like, “That was fun, but I’m not going to do it again.” So I don’t feel pressured. They love what I do.

When I was looking through the album credits, I noticed all my favorites -- like the title track -- were the ones you co-wrote with Justin and Julia. What makes them such good creative partners?

It's literally impossible to be intimidated by Justin and Julia, and that's why I think people work so well with them. Not only are they the most talented writers on the face of the earth, but they are also extremely nice, very warm and welcoming. You feel safe when you hang out with them. You feel like: It’s mom and dad! That's why I love to write with them. They just throw out [ideas] and it's all great, but I need to be really comfortable to open up.

I've never been a writer like that. I'm not a girl who goes into my bedroom and sits and opens my book and writes down words. No, I go in front of my mirror and perform for my fake crowd. So it’s easier to write with them because no idea is bad, it’s just us three writing, and I feel very involved. It just proves that being nice is always the best way to go.

This album also marks a certain pop star rite of passage: You worked with Max Martin on “Stick With You.”

It's funny, he wasn't even supposed to be there. He was just like, "Hey, can I come in and join you guys?" We were at his house, so we were like, “Uh, yes you can come in!” He's also one of the nicest, most humble guys I've ever met. I think that's why he's so successful. He's not scared of learning. When he goes into the room, in his mind, he's not the best one in there. He's just there to see what's up: “You're a new artist, what do you think? How would you sing this melody?” He's just always a student. And that's why he's still relevant. That's why he moves with the culture.

You’re teaming up with Live Nation and Ikea for a livestream concert on March 8, which is International Women’s Day. What does a livestream concert look like for you?

It’s gonna be [riffing] insaaaAAAaaane. It's like EMAs times 10. The set's going to be amazing. The clothes, amazing. The dancing, amazing. I'm so excited to be performing my new songs. But also I'm very excited because it’s happening on International Women's Day. We're putting a lot of focus on girls’ education and equality in the homes -- things that I want to shine a light on. A lot of issues that come with poverty [are tied up in] the sense that women can’t have an education. So it's bigger than me. And because it's a free concert streaming on YouTube, I really hope people can spare $1 or more if they want to for the charity. It’s gonna be sick.