By Kendah El-Ali; photos by Piper Ferguson on April 23, 2013
Sweden has, historically, never been short on cranking out top-notch pop. In its hands, the genre has taken forms as varied as disco (Secret Service), dance (Ace of Base), rock (The Hives), indie (Lykke Li) and even the genuinely creepy (The Knife). But as the name suggests, the idea is to be popular. And being popular usually doesn’t mean being sincere.
When Stockholm’s Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt randomly met one night at a house party, an unusually grounded—if not inaptly named—pop duo were born. Stripped of forceful idealism, Icona Pop are light on dogmatism and heavy on having a good time. They also have a knack for lodging themselves in your aural memory in a way that is nothing short of subconsciously sublime.
Gleaning inspiration from both their motherland’s musical legacy and their recent world travels, they have managed to do two things largely unattainable in the world of pop: bridge the gap between alternative cred and radio-level appreciation, and provide the kind of tunes that empower women instead of exploiting them. And strangely enough, Jawo and Hjelt struck the unlikely balance while on what appears to be a swift path to becoming international pop sensations.
“It’s important to be yourself,” says Jawo, who is of Finnish and Gambian descent. “We’re lucky that people get who we are. Every pop icon that we love, like Prince or whomever, they’re just human beings also.”
“Totally,” chimes in Hjelt. “When we’re on stage, it’s who we are but it’s just us times 10. When we’re together, you can even hear in our songs that it’s empowering. It’s because we feel empowered by each other.”
While most pop music egotistically bemoans the loss of love, Icona Pop have a knack for turning broken hearts into battle cries. Their 2012 summer hit “I Love It,” penned by British goth-pop star Charli XCX, doesn’t exactly whine in the face of loss when the girls chant: “I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs…/You’re on a different road, I’m in the Milky Way…/You’re from the ’70s, but I’m a ’90s bitch/I don’t care!/I love it!” Though the song has all the electronic trappings of today’s familiar, Skrillex-inspired rock-y dance anthems, their outlook is neither conceptual nor copycat. It is refreshingly pragmatic, as heartbreak is what brought the pair together in the first place.
“I had just been dumped by a boyfriend. It was really painful—it was my first heartache,” giggles Jawo. “A mutual friend called me every day for two weeks and finally got me out of bed and took me to Caroline’s party. Caroline and I started talking, and things just grew from there. It was amazing, though. You have to see things in a positive way. Out of heartache, good things can come.” Hence, Icona Pop’s first song was born over a shared bottle of wine.
What has ensued since has culminated into international attention, running the gamut from a recent Elle Sweden fashion award and nods from French tastemakers Kitsuné to “I Love It” landing a memorable scene on HBO’s Girls. And while that energized, anthemic single has been the duo’s most recognizable outlet for self-assured feminine fury, their Iconic EP’s lesser-known “Good For You,” with a slow-rolling bassline and laidback melody, allows for a more pared-down, palatable pop hit that still reveals a confident, attitude-laden vocal prowess.
One of the secrets to Icona Pop’s four-year path from working odd day jobs to the jet set is in the fact that they are not beholden to generic idealism. They do a tasteful job of pasting together their myriad musical inspirations, opening them up to audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
“We feel very free when we write, we think it’s fun to play around and we love contrasts. We do whatever, but then call it our ‘pop music,’” says Jawo. “We have many different elements from a lot of other genres. It makes it more fun and interesting—we aren’t locked into boundaries, so we never say that something ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ Icona Pop.”
“It’s important for us to express what we’re feeling,” says Hjelt. “But we are bad at following what other people are doing.”
Beyond following the beat of their own drum machines, another secret to their up-and-coming success is an unrelentingly positive outlook on life—and an effort to drive that message home to their fans. While some girls fight over boys and compete against one another, Jawo and Hjelt come at relationships with a very different approach.
“Women are strong when they work together. I think we can empower a lot of guys as well,” adds Hjelt. “You have to throw yourself out there. Any road you choose will be bumpy. To believe in yourself and to be proud of yourself and your work is important. We’re both dreamers—we have huge dreams. I think you’re truly able to do whatever you want.”
“We definitely have a message, and I hope every woman—and man—out there hears it,” barks Jawo.
So, pregnant with their dreams, strangely selfless priorities and drive to knock Swedish pop out on their own terms, the girls are busy preparing to drop their debut album later this year.
“We’re in the last stage of recording the LP,” says Hjelt. “It just feels like we’ve been in labor for a long time with our pop-bellies—and soon it’s all going to pop out. People will really get to know us with this album. We’re both very excited and very afraid, but we’re ready!” F
Styling: Jardine Hammond
Hair + Makeup: Nikki DeRoest
Photo Assistants: David Uzzardi and Chris Pate
This article is from FILTER Issue 51