Through dynamic electro soundscapes, left-field quirks, sing-along chants and innate pop flair, Sigrid thinks BIG – less a pop concept than an invigorating blast of Scandinavian fresh air, a freckle-faced Norwegian in a hoodie, jeans and trainers, whose favourite t-shirt is a comfy white freebie from KLM airlines. Not only the singer, songwriter and arranger of euphoric, progressive pop, she’s smart, confident, uncompromising. No wonder millennials love her. “I figured out early on that it’s gonna be difficult for me to try and be anything other than who I am,” says Sigrid in her effortless English (with an accent sounding endearingly Irish). “I always said if I’m gonna do this - and I don’t think it’s in the Norwegian blood to be a pop artist! – it’s easiest to be myself and look like myself, where I can recognise myself.”
In the last 18 months we’ve all recognised a stunning new talent: she won BBC Sound of 2018, debuted at Glastonbury, headlined Shepherd’s Bush Empire, lit up festivals across Reading, Roskilde, Coachella and Radio 1’s Biggest Weekend, sang at the Nobel Peace Prize concert, covered Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows for the DC Comics movie Justice League, bewitched TV audiences from Later…with Jools Holland, The Late Late Show with James Corden and the Graham Norton Show (Dame Helen Mirren was on her feet), was nominated for Best Artist at the 2018 UK Music Video Awards (alongside Bjork, Christine and the Queens and Florence + The Machine), her streaming numbers today reaching 400 million worldwide. She’s captivated British Royalty, introduced to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at a Gala Dinner in Oslo in early 2018 where, she laughs, “I was running between the tables singing Don’t Kill My Vibe!” She’s a natural free spirit, more likely to bound across the stage in her scarlet hoodie than twerk in a fishnet leotard (just like her millions of fans). “I’m not up on stage because I wanna show off my outfit, I wanna show off my songs,” she smiles. “I just want to feel comfortable and I’m not gonna change that. I’m free to do whatever the fuck I want!”
Which includes, in these image-perfecting times, wearing no make-up whatsoever. “I do sometimes, a little, but I like being able to do <i>this</i>,” she says, rubbing a kohl-free lid. “Itch my eye!” Sigrid is pop’s freedom fighter, her debut 2017 single alone, Don’t Kill My Vibe, now an anthem for both millennial empowerment and the #metoo movement, sound-tracking a Netflix documentary this autumn on historical feminism (Feminists: What Were They Thinking?) An epic roar of defiance, it was inspired by early sessions with dismissive middle-aged producers, the fearless chorus saying it all: “You think you’re so important to me, don’t you?!” “It’s not what I intended but it really came at the right point,” nods Sigrid, who released the song eight months before #metoo began. “It was about being patronised in the studio, but that is part of the movement too, because it was <i>really annoying</i>.”
Here, she raises a middle finger straight into the air. Her galloping top 10 UK hit Strangers was Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac’s Hottest Record In The World in autumn 2017 and one year on so was latest single Sucker Punch, announced by Annie in October 2018 with the exuberant tweet: “My favourite pop record this year is about to be unleashed…” It’s a pop colossus: bendy synths wiggling into a euphoric vocal, with irresistible hooks and an explosive goose-bumps drop, a bona fide pop classic celebrating the voracious, dangerous hunger of new romance. It’s the single which defines her limitless ambition: to write festival-sized spectaculars. “When I write I always think of festivals, ‘main stage, what would I want to hear?’” she explains. “I want it to be <i>big</i>. With Sucker Punch, when we finished the song, I have a video of us just going...oooooorrrgh! I think we had a couple of glasses of red wine.”
She has an exquisitely fragile side, too. Dynamite, her stripped-back acoustic piano ballad from 2017 showcases both her singular emotive rasp and elegant lyrical maturity (to hear it is to weep). “You're as safe as a mountain,” she sings, beautifully. “But know that I am dynamite.” She tried updating the original with new productions, but why meddle with a masterpiece? “When a song works,” she notes, wisely, “it <i>works</i>.” All four songs appear on her debut album Sucker Punch, released March 2019, a collection of thrilling contemporary pop created with her core musical team: song-writer Emily Warren (writer of Dua Lipa’s New Rules) and Norwegian producers Martin Sjølie and Odd Martin Skålnes who Sigrid calls “The Martinis”. It’s irresistible, a rush of creative vitality coursing through head-spinning, unpredictable, deftly-wrought musical collages. Mine Right Now sees hypnotic, expansive synth-pop explode into a propulsive beam of energy, Sigrid roaring in abandon, “I don’t mind if we don’t get to forever! ‘Cos you’re <i>mine right now</i>…” Basic is a brooding, ecstatic, Adele-sized atmospheric, where she implores to a lover, “can we be basic, ‘cos you make me so complicated…” There’s the soaring, electro-pop-rap of Don’t Feel Like Crying, the gorgeous intimate charm of Level Up, the sweeping orchestral poignancy of Sight Of You, the stunning vocal dramatics of the lovelorn In Vain and the hypnotising skip of the remorseful Never Mine. Then there’s the astonishing Business Dinners, another sonic middle finger to an industry which sought to mould her, written in response to the countless courting UK labels she met in London at 19 years old. “You just want me to be pictures, numbers, figures, I’m just trying to be me,” she lilts, over a bouncy, ska-tinged sing-a-long which belies its sinister theme, where she dreams of escape, “swept over by the undertow, I just wanna swim and float”, like pop’s own Hans Christian Andersen. Featuring a chanting children’s choir, it was inspired by the spooky soundtracks for Japanese anime giants Studio Ghibli.
“It’s the most far-out stuff I’ve ever written,” she says. “But I have a good feeling about that song, it’s not conventional.” Neither is she: a uniquely creative spirit who refuses to take the easy route of repeating winning sounds, “because easy is no fun; it’s much more fun to challenge”. Sigrid Solbakk Raabe was born in 1996, in the coastal town of Ålesund, Norway (population: 50,000), its dramatic, beautiful, brutal geography inspiring her favourite word, “epic!”, a word which also describes her big-sky musical intentions. “There’s a romantic melancholy in the landscape,” she says. “And there’s a certain grace to heartache, a sort of…epic grace! I love dramatic pop songs.” She grew up immersed in nature and music, played piano from aged 7, loved the classic song-writing of her parents’ heroes Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, alongside her own heroes “Abba…uh, Abba!” By the late 2000s she loved Amy Winehouse, Coldplay and especially Adele, soon forensically analysing the thundering drama of Rolling In The Deep.
“We’d had a lot of glossy American sounds, hard synths and production,” she remembers. “And Adele came with this singer-songwriter anthemic thing and I loved it. It defined my music taste forever.” Her two older siblings were also musical, her brother Tellef in a band (who now studies media sociology at Cambridge University), who encouraged her to write an original song she could perform alongside him on stage. At 16, she wrote her first song, the folky acoustic lament Sun and her prodigious talent flourished, by 17 signed to Norwegian indie label Petroleum and recording in Ocean Sound Recordings on the nearby island of Giske, the magical, water-front wooden cabin studio where she still writes and records today, the idyllic retreat which has also provided requisite vibes for Arcade Fire and Sampha’s gorgeous (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano. By 19 Sigrid was a rising Norwegian star and during those chaotic two weeks of business dinners in London sang for Island Records’ President Darcus Reese and senior A&R manager Annie Christensen, dazzling their ears with Dynamite and Don’t Kill My Vibe. “I remember Darcus was a bit…oof!” laughs Sigrid, miming the dropping of his jaw. “I was nervous, just staring at him. Singing is natural for me so I sing into people’s faces. And I guess they really liked it.” They really <i>really</i> liked it. Island Records signed Sigrid in the month of her 20th birthday, September 2016. Says Darcus Reese: “There are some acts you sign where it’s just a one-song listen. Where you’re thinking: I just know she’s a star.”
Sigrid writes contemporary music for contemporary life. Her first two EPs released on Island – Don’t Kill My Vibe (2017) and Raw (2018) – featured both panoramic electronics and hypnotic acoustics, spanning real-life themes from dubious friendships (Fake Friends) to emotional game players (Plot Twist), to dishonesty (High Five) and chaotic lives (Schedules). She constantly creates, crackles with ideas, pushes for originality. “I’m always peeping over the producers’ shoulders, ‘change this, change that bit’,” she notes. “I do more than writing songs and it’s important to me to be recognised as an arranger too. But we have a very collaborative process, we go into each other’s space. I know when a song is good, I have a really good gut feeling for what works for my voice.” Her songs usually begin on Ocean Sound’s upright piano (she loves the feel of its “what d’you say, wonky tonk?”), walking along the often-stormy shoreline “soaking in the mountains and fjords”, finding infinite inspiration.
“I write all the time,” she says, with her infectious enthusiasm. “I have so many ideas! I look at it as going in to see if we can write something cool, as opposed to something we <i>need</i>. And I always want to make a single. Maybe that’s my generation. I just like really kooky pop songs. And of course ballads.” This summer she experienced yet another pop thrill: playing Norway’s Eugenfest alongside A-ha, the most famous Norwegian pop stars in history. “But the mad thing was we played <i>after</i> A-ha,” she grins. “I was a bit, are we <i>allowed</i> to do that? It was A-ha, me, then a DJ and I remember watching (sings the beginning of A-ha’s immortal Take On Me) ‘de-de-de-deet-dee’ and it was five minutes before I go on stage. Wild!” She’s equally as enthusiastic about her fans, surprising them this autumn by turning up, unannounced, at a karaoke bar in London’s Soho where the lyric video was unveiled for the glorious Sucker Punch. She recalls the moment vividly.
“They don’t know I’m here and I just open the door and start to sing along,” she beams. “And the reaction is…<i>incredible</i>. Screaming! And this really young girl was so shy and it was lovely. It breaks my heart whenever young kids come to the shows with their parents and they’re ‘this is my first show I’ve ever been to’. Or ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe is the first song I’ve ever bought on iTunes’. It’s just ‘uurrrk!’ Because I know how much that meant to me when I was a kid. Your first show, your first CD. For a kid to have Don’t Kill My Vibe as their first song with a lyric like that? That’s pretty cool.”
Sigrid is millennial to the core, finding endless musical revelations in the random digital democracy (she’s just discovered Queen, “epic!”) and engages with the real world, socially and politically. At school, politics was her favourite subject (she thought she’d become a politician, journalist or lawyer), her siblings members of informal youth political parties, while her parents encouraged talk of community and international politics around the dinner table. “I’ve always been interested in the world,” says Sigrid. “I care. And it’s hard to know what to believe now. What’s the truth anymore, who do you trust? And how d’you write a pop song about that!? But with the music it’s my goal to make big, big songs with hooky melodies, with meaningful lyrics that say something.”
At 22, with so many triumphs and plaudits already, she’s only just begun. This November she plays the UK’s Royal Variety Performance (guests of honour: the Duke and Duchess of Sussex), played a euphoric, sold-out show at London’s Brixton Academy and in 2019, the year Sucker Punch is set to become a classic debut pop album, plays the arenas her enormous songs will effortlessly fill, supporting George Ezra in March (including the 02) and Maroon 5 in June, with her five-piece band of lifelong friends (who excel at competitive card playing). “I am very ambitious,” says Sigrid, with a confidence beyond her years. “I want to succeed but it needs to be on my terms. I need to make music my way. Why would you even write a song about something you don’t care about? What if I was talking about music I didn’t love? That would be…<i>miserable</i>. I don’t want a miserable life. And what’s amazing is I’m allowed to do whatever I want to do.”
She smiles, mischievously. “But I also made that really really clear from the start,” she declares. “If I’m going to be known, I want to be known for making really cool tunes. I try to be real. I look at myself as a pretty genuine person, I don’t have any masks. And I want to do this for a long time. Sit by the piano when I’m 60, 70, with a cat beside me. And still write. Keep learning. I think I need to be an artist.” The rest of us? With the release of the irrepressible Sucker Punch, we’ve finally got: a world class, contemporary pop star, for real•