“Maybe We Found Each Other”: The Heartbreak And Healing Of Robyn
This is not a normal interview, because Robyn is not a normal pop star.
“I’d love to know what you’re hearing,” Robyn says, speaking over Skype from Stockholm. “That’s the thing, I would never know.”
We’re reaching the end of our interview, but neither Robyn or I have said anything in a minute or two. Off-hand, I’ve asked about a trilling noise in ‘Missing U’, the lead single off Honey, Robyn’s first solo album in eight years.
Most of the song is trilling noises — its twirling synths and arpeggios speak of a painful absence, one constantly felt and circling endlessly. Heartbreak envelops every part of the song, transforming pining into a dance break — it’s a decadence that speaks when the clichés of love inevitably fail the depth of the feeling, though Robyn’s piercing line “All the love you gave/It still defines me” comes damn close.
But for all of that, it’s this one sound, like a tram stop, that gets me: everything else loops, but it only appears once. What gives? It’s not a prepared question, but I have to know: without the time-stamp on-hand (it’s at 3.03, by the way), Robyn goes searching, but can’t find it. Which makes sense, of course, but I ask because in the moment it feels like she’d just know, you know?
With Robyn, there is so much to say, to blurt out. I’m awfully tempted to keep asking about ‘Missing U’, though the asking would be more of a monologue about how it articulated a recent heartbreak in ways nothing else quite did, that writing about the song cauterised the wound.
I don’t say any of that, thankfully, but still, this is not a normal interview, for Robyn is not a normal pop star.
Which is what we do talk about, loosely. Since 2010, when Robyn released a trio of mini-albums called Body Talk, she’s become a mythic figure in music. Songs like ‘Dancing On My Own’ and ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ established for the world what long-term fans have known since the ’90s: Robin Miriam Carlsson has a knack for turning pain into pleasurable, cathartic pop. It always feels like Robyn just knows.
When The Guardian ran a feature last month called “How Robyn Transformed Pop“, it wasn’t another superlative headline. While Robyn never quite reached the commercial successes of, say, Katy Perry, her music has defined the past decade, as producers and pop stars alike chase what Pitchfork calls Robyn’s “glittering melancholy”. You can hear her influence most clearly on two equally acclaimed (yet commercially cold) albums, Lorde’s Melodrama and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion.
This is not a normal interview, for Robyn is not a normal pop star.
But the transformation wasn’t in sound alone: it’s in an allowance of what pop can and can’t be. For critics and punters alike, ‘Dancing On My Own’ proved that pop platitudes had their own power beyond commercial value: if used right, they could balloon heartbreak into the ridiculous tragedy it feels like.
Then, she disappeared. Kind of. Since 2010, Robyn’s released three collaborative EPs, but nothing solo — nothing quite evoking that full-fledged ‘Robyn feeling’. In the lead-up to Honey, we’ve learnt through interviews the time away wasn’t just a shying from stadium success: a depression set in, spurned in part by the death of long-time collaborator Christian Falk in 2014. For years, she barely left her bed.
It was dancing that brought her out, slowly: losing herself to the freeing monotony of club music, to which she told The New York Times offers “no reward or conclusion”. Instead, there’s breathing space. As evident upon listening, Honey was shaped by these late-night experiences.
On the album, songs appear in the order they were written, beginning with the desolate ‘Missing U’. Toggling between tropical funk, ’90s house and robotic pop, Honey is a movement through pain towards absolution. Nothing heals completely, but, as we keep looping back to in our chat, it can be soothed and sweated out, momentarily — yes, on your own, but in a way, together.
I wanted to start with ‘Honey’, the song. I want to break apart its name: what does ‘honey’ as an image mean to you?
As an image, I don’t know. I think for me it wasn’t so much an image at all: it was a feeling. But I get maybe that’s what you mean.
I have that with words sometimes, [where I will] think about a word for a while. And with ‘Honey’ it started really early. What I liked about it was this juxtaposition, the contrast between it being a really everyday word, like “Honey, I’m home” — or just calling your loved ones ‘honey’ — and something that’s a substance from another world, from the world of animals that we don’t know anything about.
“‘Honey’ became about something totally different. I don’t know exactly what it means.”
And I thought that was funny. There was a contrast in that — I could just explore that for a little bit and it reflected other things I was thinking about too that had to do with what’s real and what isn’t — and then I started writing on ‘Honey’, and that was a long process.
[Writing ‘Honey’] was a thing I did when I was not feeling very happy, so it was a way for me to soothe myself. And as I felt better, the song also became not about honey at all: it was about self-love and sensuality and things that I think are very hard to put [into words].
It became about something totally different. I don’t know exactly what it means. I think maybe that’s what’s good about it: it’s a word that can hold a lot of different feelings.
Yeah, it’s pedestrian yet mythical at the same time — which is a segue, because it describes my relationship to pop music, too. And that song to me, it feels like it’s hard to believe that I first heard it a week ago, ’cause it’s like I’ve known it for a really long time.
Ah, that makes me so happy.
But that’s a core quality of your music: it says something I’ve already felt or am feeling. Which is something really intense to say! But I said it because I was curious: do people say things like that to you a lot?
But it’s really nice. I feel like that’s how I listen to music as well, so I’m one of those people. When I listen to music, it goes into every part of my body, the words are swimming around in my head, and I feel like I know the person that wrote the song. If I know it really well and I like it, then, I can know that person’s personality by just listening to their music. That’s how intense it is for me.
And I’m really happy that I have a fan base that listens to music that way, I take it as a compliment. Maybe we found each other, because we listen to the music in a similar way. ‘Cause I don’t think everyone does that, you know what I mean?
It’s a particular type of person — speaking of, when Perfume Genius was interviewed about your music by Pitchfork, he said that it felt like you were always gonna be there for him.
Quoting directly, he said, “I don’t know [Robyn] personally, but I just trust her…. There are other pop stars that I love where I’m made aware of my projections. I don’t know if Rihanna is actually the Rihanna that I think about, for example, but Robyn is mostly within her music, and that is more of a companion to me”.
That’s kind of a lot of pressure, right?
No, it’s not.
It’s not, no, because I think what he says there is the same thing that I feel.
When I realised you never really know what anyone else feels — you think you can know, but you don’t really know what goes on inside another person — that was a big moment for me. I felt like I lost the possibility to really connect.
But that’s what’s amazing about music and human beings: that we can talk to each other about how we feel, and can try to explain how we feel to each other. And we recognise our feelings in other people, which is a really important part of the world.
“That’s what’s amazing about music and human beings: that we can to talk to each other about how we feel, can try to explain how we feel to each other.”
What he says there, that I’m ‘in my music’, that is how I feel. In my music, I can put things out there that… you know, if I was to give an exact recollection of something that had happened, I would probably not have what it takes to recreate it. It’s really difficult, but in a song you can be so truthful to how it felt.
You really paint a picture, it’s basically recreating reality. Not by building up the same environment, but just with playing on your emotions — and I think if you’re a sensitive person, you can decipher that in a way that becomes very close to the truth.
But there’s still this other space open for other people to interpret, and to not have to be solid in the way [it’s] described, because that’s not how things are either.
In emotions and recollection of memories and feelings, I think it’s really important that that other space around it exists, ’cause things are so complex. That’s why I’m really myself in my music, but I don’t have to be: there’s also this space for you and other people to put your own feelings into.
When I grew up listening to music, that’s what I did. I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve had this feeling before!”, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That process of mirroring yourself in other people, I think it’s amazing.
Let’s go back to ‘Honey’. In that Times interview, you said that you didn’t want it to be a ‘normal pop song’, and then with The Guardian you cited house song ‘XTC’ by DJ Koze as a really big influence. In particular, you wanted to recreate how listening to it was ‘primal’ and ‘a trippy euphoria’. But how do you do that?
You work with two really good producers, [Metronomy member] Joseph Mount and Klas [Åhlund]. [Laughs] You spend a lot of time and you push them ’til they almost feel like they’re gonna go crazy.
I don’t know how to say this, but with ‘Honey’ — and this sounds maybe harsh — but Klas and Joseph, neither one of them know club music that well.
“That’s why I’m really myself in my music, but I don’t have to be: there’s also this space for you and other people to put your own feelings into.”
I mean, you can work with people better [at] club music but they’re all so, maybe not as well-versed in other things that Joseph and Klas are really good at. I don’t think anyone could’ve produced that track on their own. I think it was a collaboration between me and Klas and Joseph, really carving it out over a long time.
Club music is such a different way of listening, [it’s] the groove that I felt really strongly about, and knew what I wanted it to be and how I wanted it rock me and feel in my body.
But with pop music it’s really hard to mix melody with that kind of slow and dewy way of listening to music. ‘Cause as soon as you put a melody on it, the magic disappears a little bit. Then you start hearing the chords and start hearing that there’s a song there and you kind of lose this feeling that you wanna stay in.
That was the challenge, to find a balance between how much song and how much just club-y experience. And I can go into detail about how you do that, but that’s really boring.
To get to ‘Honey’, there are five songs beforehand on the album. Given that the album is in the order songs were written, where does Honey start with ‘Missing U’, and where do you end up by [closer] ‘Ever Again’?
‘Missing U’ is the low point, I think. Maybe [the second song] ‘Human Being’ [is] even lower.. [but] ’Missing U’ is when things are disintegrating. It’s a very particular feeling, I’ve been there a few times where I know, ‘Okay, this is gonna be bad, this is gonna be really bad’ [Laughs].
“There was a big freedom in getting to a place that I was really scared of and learning how to deal with it.”
I was so happy when Joseph made the arpeggio in the beginning of the song — ‘cause it just sounds exactly how I felt when I wrote that song: that it was extremely painful, but also very exciting. But I wasn’t excited in the way like, “Oh this will be cool!”: it was exciting in the way that I really didn’t know if I was gonna make it out of it, I didn’t feel like that was certain.
Then I think also on the other side of that, there was a big freedom in getting to a place that I was really scared of and learning how to deal with it. Both of those feelings are enough for me, and that’s where it starts.
And I’m still shook on ‘Ever Again’. For me it’s not a happy song — well, it’s a happy song, it’s a joyful thing, but I think, it’s open to interpretation. It’s not saying that [heartbreak] won’t ever happen again: it will probably happen again. It will.
At the end of the day you know you’re gonna die, there’s no way around it. Even if you live happily ever after with the person you love, at some point you’re gonna have to split up anyway. So I think there’s no way around it, the only way is how you can deal with it maybe, what kind of mood you can put yourself in, how you can break that anxiety.
I was really struck by the trance-y middle — ‘Baby Forgive Me’ and ‘Send to Robin Immediately’ — because it felt like a moment of reckoning, or at least, of “I will feel this again and it will be fine”. It reminded me of tiring yourself out on a dance floor, just slogging through it. Was that what it felt like, or what dancing offers you?
I think for me those two songs were maybe a little bit like ‘Honey’, a place where I could feel, that was soothing.
I wouldn’t describe it as therapy; more like comfort. I wrote lots of songs in the beginning and then I had a big break… you can’t be excited because when you have no energy and you’re just really sad or whatever, I think it’s really hard to get excited about stuff.
What got me excited was dancing, but in a very soft way, like luring myself out of my sadness in a way, getting back in to it. And the only thing that really did that for me was singing something really groovy, I would listen to the Marvin Gaye album, What’s Going On.
‘Because It’s In The Music’ describes that too, playing a song on repeat because it opens you up. One lyric that really stood out was: ‘Are You Getting the Same Feeling?/I Keep Playing [The Song] Anyway’.
Talking about the dance floor earlier, and this idea of communicating with people through it, does it matter if someone doesn’t quite connect with a song or a moment in the same way?
No, I know. It sucks. But, I don’t know if that’s maybe too much of an expectation. It’s the hard truth, but I think maybe that idea of knowing or feeling or being totally connected with people isn’t realistic.
That’s what’s cool about music, you have moments where you can relate to the same thing. You can listen to the same thing, at least talk about what it is that you think.
Yeah, you can gesture towards something and be like, “Ah, this song, ‘Missing U’”, and then somebody else can be like “Ah!”. There’s something in that ‘Ah!’, even if you can’t quite say it.
Yeah, exactly. That’s why it’s so lovely to share music with people you love in the beginning. You just fall in love and you share music. It’s one of the best things ever.
Robyn’s Honey is out October 26. Music Junkee is throwing a party in celebration of the album in Sydney on October 27 — get all the details here.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.
Lead photo: Heji Shin