“My mom was out at dinner one night with some Italian friends, and they said, ‘Oh, they’re going to be the next pop icons.’” And just like that, Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt, the duo behind Swedish synthpop sensation Icona Pop, had a name and a purpose. After meeting at a party in 2010, the pair became fast friends and decided to form a band. They haven’t slowed since. “We just sat down with wine and our laptops, and we never discussed what kind of music we should write. Within two days, [we] had our first gig.” True to form, Icona Pop have already made a significant impact on the electropop scene with their uplifting tracks.
In 2011, the girls migrated from Stockholm to London. “Our thing is that we want to be where we have the most to do,” says Jawo. “The DJs, the different clubs – it was really good for us to go from our hometown and set out to be in a big place. We learned a lot that year.” After playing just one show in their new home base, the duo scored a management deal with Ten and were soon playing sold-out gigs around the world.
Since those early days of wine and laptops, the self-described “romantic rebels” have come into their own as veritable pop stars with their hit song “I Love It” appearing on MTV’s buzz list and recently being featured on an episode of the HBO hit series Girls. Their 2012 EP The Iconic EP made them an international sensation. The duo is still catching their breath with the whirlwind of their recent success, “We played at this place in Brooklyn called the Glasslands—that was amazing for us. We didn’t expect that to have too many people, but there was a line out the door for a long time, and they were singing all our songs—even songs that were only released in Sweden!”
“You have to try and be different. We’re not afraid of dreaming big,” says Hjelt. With inspiration coming from their travels, favorite movies and ’90s music, Icona Pop have exploded onto the scene with their high energy. Touring with Marina and The Diamonds and performing at SXSW, they tell us, “It’s the best thing I think we’ve ever done. The vibe has been great, everyone’s singing along…It feels like we’re living in a dream!” Clearly they are just getting started. Look out for their debut full-length album, THIS IS… ICONA POP out now via Atlantic/Big Beat.
Read the full-length, exclusive interview with Icona Pop’s Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt for The Music Issue of The Untitled Magazine.
Indira Cesarine: How did you get started with music? Tell me about the beginning..
Aino Jawo: Music has always been a part of our lives. We had a couple of bands before, and had them for years—almost two years before we started.
Caroline Hjelt: It felt like we couldn’t give 100% [to our other bands] because we couldn’t put our finger on what didn’t feel totally right. And that was so weird—we could both feel that we had a connection, and that there was something special.
IC: Between you two as artists?
Caroline: Yeah, we actually met at a party, at my place.
Aino: I had just had a terrible break up, we had a mutual friend who got me out of bed and took me to a party at Caroline’s place. And the first time we met each other—we knew we each were doing stuff—we said, “Let’s do something together.”
Caroline: Yeah I mean, it’s weird when you meet someone and it feels right, because you can only spend so much time with someone, but I never thought that I could work, hang out and want to be with the same person without getting annoyed or something.
Aino: We have so much fun. I think we would never have given this project a chance if we weren’t both down at the bottom, where everything hadn’t been working, you know? So when we met, we felt like we didn’t have anything to lose, so we gave it all of us. And I mean, we just sat down with wine and our laptops, and we never discussed what kind of music we should write. We actually produced and wrote our first song, and within two days had our first gig. So we sort of started Icona Pop within a couple days of meeting.
IC: Wow, that’s pretty amazing.
Caroline: Yeah! I mean your body tells you what to do.
IC: How did you come up with the performance name Icona Pop?
Caroline: We were looking for a name for a long time, but couldn’t find anything that felt totally right. And we asked our friends, our family, and told them all that we’re looking for names. And my mom was out at dinner one night with some Italian friends, they were all talking about our projects and they said, “Oh, they’re going to be the next pop icons,” which in Italian is Icona Pop. My mother thought it sounded cool, she texted us, we tried it out and thought it sounded right.
IC: How long ago was all of this? A couple years ago?
Aino: It was 2009 in the beginning, so about four years ago. It was all very, very fast.
Caroline: A while after we met, we moved to London and decided to go there because we were very interested in the music scene. And from the moment we got there, we started working with some producers. It’s only two hours away by train from Sweden, so it didn’t feel like too big of a step. Our thing is that we want to be where we have the most to do.
Aino: The DJs, the different clubs—it was really good for us to go from our hometown and set out to be in a big place. We learned a lot that year.
IC: So what was your breakthrough moment as a duo?
Caroline: We started working with our label and management, Ten. They’re like a little small family, we can call anyone there and work anywhere we like. We wrote and recorded “Manners”, put it on Myspace and a guy from Kitsune, this French label, called us and he wanted to have one of our songs on their compilation.
Aino: We were like, “What?!”
Caroline: “What! That’s so cool, are you kidding me?” So they put “Manners” on their compilation, that’s when we really started to travel more. It wasn’t until we released “I Love It” that things got really crazy.
Aino: Yeah, the last seven months have definitely been crazy. It’s going to be good to get some holiday in. (Laughs)
IC: So aside from your own work, you do you have a favorite band or musician? Do you have anyone you’re particularly inspired by?
Aino: We get inspiration from many stuff, but there are a lot of bands right now—we love Daft Punk—but a lot of inspiration comes from traveling, watching movies. A lot of the time we’ll write based on a character in a movie that we’ll pretend to be.
Caroline: And we both grew up listening to a lot of 90s music, boy and girl bands. And all the music videos! So of course, pop has just been this huge—
Aino: We love pop.
IC: Well I would hope so, considering the name of the band. “Icona Pop announces ‘I Hate Pop Music!” I mean that could cause some conflicts.
Caroline: That could be trouble or awesome.
IC: Tell me, do you guys have a mentor, or someone that guided you through your career?
Caroline: I have to say that our moms are like—even though they have nothing to do with the music business—it comes down to those people that are near you that you always know aren’t interested in business, but about who you are.
Aino: And what you feel like is key. We’re always talking so much about how we trust our stomach feeling.
Caroline: Your body always knows, and sometimes it just says, “Caroline, please don’t do that.” We are people who are so all-or-nothing all the time that if we feel like doing something, we do it 100%. It’s felt really good to have people from home and friends who let you close your eyes, listen to what you feel and not get affected by big business.
IC: Tell me about some performances you’ve done. Do any stand out in terms of particular places you’ve been to or crowds you’ve performed for that you have fond memories of?
Aino: We’ve been having a lot of fun. I mean every performance has been amazing, but there are a couple of ones that will always be special. Like our first one in Sweden, it was at this small place where we forced everyone we knew to buy tickets and it sold out! And even though it might not have been the best concert, afterwards it was still like, “Icona Pop actually exists.”
Caroline: And then also, I would have to say our first headlining gig in the States, in New York, at this place in Brooklyn called the Glasslands, that was amazing for us. We didn’t expect that to have too many people, but there was a line out the door for a long time and they were singing all our songs—even songs that were only released in Sweden.
Aino: On our tour supporting Marina and the Diamonds on the East Coast was the best thing I think we’ve ever done. The best time we’ve had. I mean, the vibe was been great, everyone’s singing along. Right now it’s just been hectic and it feels like we’re living in a dream.
IC: Have you guys ever had a difficult performance in your career?
Aino: Oh yeah. (Laughs)
Caroline: A lot.
Aino: A LOT.
Caroline: We’ve been traveling so much that we haven’t even been home once in the last five months. Of course there are times when you arrive somewhere and no one knows who you are, sometimes the crowd is tough and you just want to make it to the end of the set.
Aino: It’s hard to sing to no one. Or it’s hard to sing to just the sound engineers. I mean, you learn so much from that as well. One time we arrived, set up, played our hearts out at this venue in Paris called Le Baron and then someone pulled us back and said “We don’t play that kind of music here.” Especially that night, as they were playing more rock stuff and we didn’t know! We would just take whatever gig we could.
Caroline: And I think maybe you convert, you get one or two new fans, and then they go to your next show and that’s something. You find ways to make it work, we turn to each other and try to have fun with it and I think people can see that.
IC: And so how did you handle the situation at Le Baron, when you realized you were playing the wrong music to the wrong type of crowd.
Aino: You know, if we have fun on stage and we dance, usually even if people don’t know who we are they end up dancing, you know?
IC: And how did you come up with the look of the band, because you have a particular style—is this how you normally dress, or did you curate the look with certain ideas?
Aino: It actually came very naturally, it has stuff we like to wear and we always overpack because we always want to make sure we have everything we like, so we can look exactly as we want when we’re on stage.
Caroline: Yeah, and we don’t really have specific stage outfits, but we like to have loud pieces so that people in the back of the room can see us, because it’s just us on stage. So sheer fabrics and crazy jewelry; dramatic clothes. I think some clothes can just give you superpowers. If you have a shirt or a pair of jeans that make you feel strong, that’s the clothes that are giving you the powers.
IC: Do you have a favorite artist that you’re inspired by? In terms of contemporary art?
Caroline: I don’t think we have a specific that we look to; we just absorb a lot. We travel a lot and see a lot of different kinds that are all so inspiring. It can give us inspiration to write a song when we see a painting, or a dance performance. It’s art, it goes hand and hand with each other.
IC: Absolutely. Do you have words of wisdom that you live by?
Caroline: I think, don’t be scared. It’s better to try and make mistakes than not. You have to try. You have to try and be different. We’re not afraid of dreaming big.
Aino: We’re scared all the time, and we’ve been in really tricky situations sometimes, but it’s always been worth it. We always learn a lot from it.
IC: Can you just tell me, what is your average day?
Caroline: I think we wake up at a hotel somewhere, early, always ready to go to the airport, travel somewhere…
IC: You fly everyday?
Caroline: Everyday. We travel a lot. We’ve been traveling so much, we go to radio stations, a photo shoot, doing promo, and then we try to eat something. Then we have maybe an hour to get ready, then we have the show and then we end the night having a DJ gig somewhere, and do it all over again the next.
IC: It really sounds like you guys are living the pop star lifestyle.
Caroline: We love it. We do.
Aino: We don’t want to be doing anything else.
Photography and interview by Indira Cesarine.