The two artists discuss their creative relationship, their taste for adventurous pop music, and Zhala’s single ‘Holes’ – the latest release on Robyn’s Konichiwa record label
Almost as soon as she joins our Zoom call, Robyn is bursting with enthusiasm to talk about the accompanying artwork for Zhala’s new single, “Holes”. The hyperreal images show the Swedish singer crawling on all fours clad in black latex, with a scaly-yet-fluffy CGI tail wafting behind her in purple and green. Zhala, who is speaking from her hotel room in Belgium, describes the look as a “hybrid cat“. From her home in Stockholm – where she happens to be wearing incredible trousers that have one purple leg, and one green – Robyn enthuses: “I feel like it’s a way for you to avoid being pigeonholed. It’s like a diversion. I always feel like that’s what Zhala’s doing – she wants you to lose your perception of who you think she is.“
“Holes” is the latest release on Swedish polymath star Robyn’s own label Konichiwa, which signed Zhala back in 2014, and released her self-titled debut album of shape-shifting electronic pop the following year. Today, Zhala remains the only artist signed to Konichiwa other than Robyn herself, and her singular artistic vision is becoming ever sharper, and more enthralling. “Holes”, which was produced by The Knife’s Olof Dreijer, is a writhing beast of a song, all ghostly melodies, intertwining rhythms, and a powerhouse belt of the line: “Your holes are the filthiest holes.”
It makes sense that Robyn and Zhala have such a close creative relationship, given both have such a distinctive, instantly recognisable musical identity. When they appeared together to DJ on Club DOMO this summer – the monthly livestreamed dance party that Robyn has been hosting throughout the pandemic – it made a chaotic, adrenaline-fuelled, joyous sense. Dazed caught up with them both to talk more about that party, as well as the meditative retreat that inspired “Holes”, the deep connection behind their working relationship, and the prospect of new Robyn music on the horizon.
Tell us about Club DOMO – what has it been like doing those virtual parties?
Robyn: So fun. It’s been the first time that I’ve had the comfort of doing a performance for a big audience, and then have a glass of wine and just going upstairs to bed. It’s the most practical way of touring that I’ve ever experienced. And it brings you even closer to what it is to perform, because all the logistics around it are much more simple. There’s no travelling, there’s no big stage that’s got to be set up or sound checks. It’s a totally different way of doing things, and it’s very calming to be able to be in that process, and just be in one place, and have it be quite playful and open and and free.
How have you both been dealing with the situation this year in general – I know Sweden hasn’t had a lockdown quite like other countries, what has it been like for you?
Robyn: I’ve never been so busy. I’ve been working a lot, I’ve been restructuring my business, and these Club DOMO things, and we’ve been working on Zhala’s release.
Zhala: Yeah, I’ve been really busy. Of course, there’s been some adjustment. But I think Club DOMO... I didn’t know it was going to be that fun! I thought it was going to be hard to really connect with the people watching. It was so fun. So after that... I’m just excited about the future, like, how can we adjust things and still do all this fun stuff, and continue to sing and perform and hang out with music together.
Robyn: I feel like we’re both always thinking about how to open up these spaces that lift people a little bit outside of that normal way of thinking around music, or what pop culture is. I see music and writing as a way to introduce other people to experiences and feelings. That’s not a solid thing. It doesn’t have to happen one way, it can really change and morph into so many different ways of thinking. It’s like storytelling; it’s a very malleable form of communicating, it doesn’t need to be performed or presented in a commercial way. That’s not the strength of the expression Zhala has – or me, either. I think we’re both making pop music in some way. But we’re both trying to push it a little bit.
Zhala: That’s what I think pop culture is, and that’s why we’ve been drawn to that. It’s this space where you can combine entertainment, music, but also break norms. That’s what we have in common, and how we connect.
Robyn: I felt starting my record company was a way to create a bubble, where I could start defining what it was that I wanted to do, instead of being a part of an industry or a business. I could shape my business or whatever around the values that I think are important. Now, in this moment, people actually have time to process, and music and culture has taken a little bit back of its value. When the economy is booming, and everybody’s consuming on this insane speed, things that are not really poignant go under the radar. But right now, that doesn’t work. Because everyone has time, everyone’s zoned into looking at things in a more existential way. And so, music and culture becomes again more in the forefront of everything. Not just for artists, but also for the universal experience of what it is to be a human being. We’re processing so much stress at the moment, both on a global level, about the future, about our personal lives and how they’re changing, and music. Music is not going to change the world, but it does help people to process their own lives.
You two are still the only two artists on the Konichiwa label. Could you talk a little about what your creative relationship is like? You both make pop music, but don’t necessarily want to be pigeonholed, especially not in a commercial way – is that what brings you together as artists?
Robyn: Yeah, I think it really is. For me, where we connect is really on this spiritual level that is really about how to put yourself in a trance. And we talk about that a lot.
Zhala: The relationship I have with you, Robyn, is one of the key relationships in my life. With all your experience, and the mentorship that you offer, and also we share music... You’re the only one I share that with. (Since) the beginning when we started working together – you have so much to give, and you give so much, it’s taken me a while to know how to exchange and give, and how we can make that grow. It’s still happening. It’s such a cool relationship.
Robyn: It feels endless, in a way. Infinite. It feels very equal. We’re equally strong, and very supportive of each other, but it feels very free at the same time. I think we have a lot of respect for each other and each other’s creativity. Also, I think we relate to telling stories in the same way. I know that Zhala understands what it means to be inspired and hit by a story. We know what happens when it clicks, and how that chemistry works. We talk about that a lot – how do you do that in the most effective way? How do you not get stuck in these traps, around what you think you need to be doing?
Zhala: I mean, the first time I heard Robyn, I was nine years old. For me, after school, I would listen to your first single, and I was just like, ‘Wow. This person is doing pop music, is a pop icon, and she’s different. She’s doing something – and she’s from Sweden. That’s possible, in this time!’ Like, that creative freedom, you know?
Robyn: I felt the same way when I heard Zhala’s music for the first time.
Zhala: It’s that space of freedom you create for someone else. You’re really good at that – at being able to express something that is universal, and people globally can really connect to. And I have other influences and references, just because of my (Kurdish) background. But there was always space with you, and in Konichiwa, for that to exist. Now it’s 2020, it’s not so strange to be who I am. ‘Queer’ is a buzzword, and you can be queer and a person of colour, but a couple of years ago, that was not how it was. You’re such a social hacker – you were inviting me to these places, and I could really feel, like, ‘Wow, I don’t think there’s been a queer person of colour in this room before, or in this space.’ It’s just the way it’s been historically. And now, I feel commercially, I’m more welcome everywhere.
“(Pop culture is) this space where you can combine entertainment, music, but also break norms. That’s what we have in common, and how we connect” – Zhala
Robyn: That’s beautiful.
Zhala: Yeah, but it’s also that I could be in that space and be myself. It wasn’t that I was invited to be there and adapt. I could just be who I was.
Robyn: When I started listening to your first album, I fell in love with the music right away. You know when you’re just hit by something, you recognise the place where it comes from? It feels totally organic, like a part of your language already. And that’s the same way I feel when I listen to Prince or Kate Bush. These are people that I’ve never met, but I know what it is they meant when they talked about their feelings. It’s very special to be able to do that.
Zhala: We talk about pop, and pop is something that’s supposed to be easy, you know, easy to communicate. And I felt that way with you. Like, I am pop, and I can exist in that. My debut album is all about love, but it was also about expressing something that wasn’t adjusted (in order to fit in) to the wide world, that I’ve been having to adapt to always. It’s like, maybe it’s not always pleasant, maybe it’s not always made for your ears to listen to. But it’s for me to express and liberate. With you, I was never anything else. I was just being an artist.
Robyn: This is the thing: we are all the same, but we wouldn’t know that if we weren’t different as well. That’s the beauty about pop culture, or this expression frequency that we’re talking about, is that because you are different from me, when I feel connected to you, or because I feel connected to your music, your otherness sends that signal through a prism where I’m forced to look at myself. I think that’s what good storytellers do. Like, “Purple Rain” is a song about love. “Heroes” is a song about love. They’re all songs about love, but they’re written by these different people that describe that process in different ways. But if it’s a good story, you can still connect to it, you can still feel it, even though it’s like through a person or an experience that you’ve never had before. And it puts your own experience in a new light that you wouldn’t have had if you were just looking at it from yourself. And it’s fucking amazing.
I love what you said about both of you being storytellers and that feeling of when a story just “clicks”. With that in mind, could you tell us more about “Holes” and the story you wanted to tell with that song?
Zhala: Honestly I’ve tried to explain it, and I end up just ranting about everything and nothing. I don’t know if I should go into that hole, really.
Robyn: I think that “Holes“, because it’s made from a poem – a ‘pornem’, actually (by artist Amanda Apetrea) – for me, it’s about desire, and I feel like it’s a song that talks about how you enter yourself through your shadow places: the things that might not be accepted, things there are not considered beautiful, but that those things are a way into who you really are.
Zhala: That’s a beautiful way to say it. The other way I have described it is: ‘everything beautiful grows out of a filthy hole.’ That came from... I did Vipassana meditation, it was a 10-day meditation retreat, and the guru, every night, there was this one-hour lecture. In one of them, he tells this story about a son and a mom. And the son is like, ‘Mom, you have such beautiful hair.’ And then she serves some food, and there’s hair in the food. And he’s like, ’There’s hair in the food! I don’t want to eat it.’ And she’s like, ‘You just said that I have beautiful hair.’ I was just tripping on that. That’s when I was like, ‘The name of the song is ’Holes’!’ Because I was singing, ‘Your holes are the filthiest holes.’ And I was like, there’s beauty in that.
How about you, Robyn, you said earlier this year that you wanted to spend 2020 writing in the studio. With everything that’s happened, have you been able to do that?
Robyn: Yes. I mean, I’m working away on everything at the same time right now. One of the things I’m doing is that I’m starting to write again. I have some songs that are left from the last project that I did, or the last album. I have this idea of what I want to do. So...
Zhala: It’s so good! It’s so fucking good.
Robyn: It is really exciting. I’m just doing a lot of practical things at the moment, restructuring my life. So I’m not full time in the studio yet. That’s my plan: to be in the studio full time, from like, end of this year.