Last week Arjan Writes threw another one of his infamous ARTIST#TALK events (sponsored by HP and Windows) at the Hotel on Rivington in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His guests were the electro-pop duo Icona Pop, who are very dear to PopBytes’ heart. We have been following these Swedish ladies since their smash hit “I Love It” graced the web. I calculated how many times I’ve seen them perform and I reached the number eight. In just over a year we have watched Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo play every sweaty club and venue in New York City. We followed them to Austin to see them perform at SXSW and to Chicago for their stunning performance at Lollapalooza. Once “I Love It” was featured on every playlist and mixtape I curated for my friends, I discovered songs from their past. I stumbled upon the synth-obsessed “Manners” and my favorite song Icona Pop has ever recorded “Top Rated.” For a month, I listened to nothing but Icona Pop. But the real journey begins on one sweaty summer night in Brooklyn. Outside Glasslands, one of the premier indie venues in Williamsburg we caught Caroline and Aino stepping out of a cab. We couldn’t resist telling them how much we thought they rocked. Later on that night, they would tweet back at my boyfriend and in that instant we fell in love. The venue was dark and full of fog. From the first moment they mysteriously stepped on stage we were smitten. They tossed glow sticks and necklaces into the crowd and Glasslands transformed into an electro-pop-rave.
With only a handful of songs in their catalog they were able to cultivate a rabid following. The next time we saw them was in Manhattan at Santos Party House, a slightly larger venue than Glasslands in the Lower West Side. It was only three months later and there was twice as much fog, double the amount of fans and energy in the room. When Caroline and Aino stepped on stage and heard the crowd roar, they seemed overwhelmed by the reception. They held up their cans of PBR and cheered to each other before they started twisting knobs and pressing effects pedals, setting up their layered electro loops. Their set was a whirlwind of pulsating electro-house beats and was over before we could catch our breaths. Once their set came to a staggering end, the crowd was thirsting for more. Since they performed every song they ever wrote, they decided to encore with “I Love It.” Meaning they played it for a second time. It was the best kind of deja vu and completely surreal. I still don’t know which rendition was better. Caroline and Aino were smitten by the crowd, thanking the audience over and over again in their endearing Swedish accents. They were speechless, blowing kisses to all their fans. During the artist talk, they even refer to an article which criticized them for thanking their fans too much on stage. I have witnessed this on many occasions and the complaint is flawed. Their gratitude is endearing and humble. Not every musician is as earnest as they are. What’s unique about Icona Pop is their authenticity; their thank yous are genuine and wholehearted. Caroline and Aino’s smiles are infectious –– spreading love throughout every audience, in every city.
When asked to reminisce at the artist talk, Caroline and Aino mention their first headlining gig at the previously mentioned Glasslands. “It was such a good gig. It even sold out,” Aino says. In regards to “I Love It,” finding momentum in the states, Caroline says, “It’s the beauty of music. It happened so organically. The song grew a little force.” But the story doesn’t end here. “Anyone can write a good song, the hard part is selling that song,” she continues. They believed in this song so much they toured relentlessly for over a year, traveling all over the world to support it. They played every city, every venue, club, bar and event possible. Filter magazine parties, gay clubs, while in torrential downpours in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and even on stage with co-songwriter Charli XCX in Texas. Excuse my language, but they sold the shit out of “I Love It.” Not only is it Snooki and JWoww’s theme song but it was also featured on the HBO series Girls. In the episode, Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath goes on a coke binge and finds herself dancing and screaming along to the lyrics of the party break-up anthem and eventually gets too sweaty and trades her shirt for a mesh top some random dude on the dance floor of NYC’s Greenhouse was wearing.
But all of their relentless touring paid off. It was the song of the summer. “I Love It” peaked at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100. The first time I heard the song on the radio, I was driving over the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan on a Saturday night with my boyfriend. “Our girls made it!” he said and we never felt more proud. Icona Pop are a rare pop act that inspire this kind of sentiment. Their brand of electro-pop is emotive and striking. It’s often bittersweet –– telling stories of heartbreak lyrically but with uptempo melodies that ache to fill the dance floors of the world. Arjan pointed out that they disguise their heartbreak inside catchy melodies. “I [go] through every emotion on stage. Once I step off stage I feel empty,” Aino discloses to the roomful of bloggers and writers about their live shows. They’re live shows are emotionally and physically exhausting. For both them and their audience. It’s cathartic. They write sad songs you can also dance to.
“I used to watch MTV like a religion,” Caroline explains to us in the penthouse suite of the hotel. “We became humans in the 90s,” she elaborates while listing some groups that have inspired them. Acts like N’Sync and Backstreet Boys were all over radio and television and they had a heavy influence on their musical rearing. Thankfully they grew up in Sweden where they were exposed to lots of different types of music. “Sweden’s biggest artists are indie pop bands,” they explain. According to them it is a very picky and exclusive scene. It wasn’t until Robyn came along that things started to change. She broke down the walls that separated independent music from pop. “Robyn was a pioneer for pop. It wasn’t cool to do pop. She made pop so cool,” they gushed.
When asked about their friendship they both are enthusiastic about their origin story. It goes something like this: Caroline throws a party. Mutual friends bring along Aino. They fell in love (“in a real friendship way”). They talk about their dreams and aspirations. Drunkenly they agree to collaborate. But unlike most drunken promises they sensed something special about each other and they started writing music together. The first song they wrote was called “Sheriff Came to Town on a Big Black Horse” and described it as a “spaghetti western meets Britney Spears.” They claim to have superpowers that compliment each other well. “I wish I was attracted to women. We would have the best relationship. But we would be such a boring couple,” Caroline jokes. In a old British lady accent Caroline asks Aino, “Darling, would like some more coffee?” and the whole room laughed.
While riding on the success of “I Love It” they toured as much as possible. Sometimes headlining their own shows and sometimes opening up for acts like Marina and the Diamonds. They even joked about the fold-up tables they used to put all their electronic gear on. Since they were busy creating havoc on the road they had to record new songs anywhere they could. They had to make good use of their surroundings when they were inspired to write. They recorded songs in closets, in the back of cars, on their iPhones. According to Caroline it was probably the “sluttiest album ever made.” When they had time in the studio with producers like Elof Loevl, Stargate and Benny Blanco they worked “very instinctively.” According to the duo, recording songs in the studio is a very sensitive process. They need to feel comfortable –– since they are pouring their hearts out, they need the energies between producer and artist to align harmoniously. They used “On a Roll” as an example of this congenial connection. After listening to “On a Roll,” (which Arjan played a from a HP notebook/tablet Envy X2) Caroline explained how it was a very “naked and emotional” song to record. But working with The Cardigans guitarist Peter Svensson made it that much easier. “There are no rules in the studio. Do it on feeling. If it isn’t working, go for a walk, hang out with your friends, get laid,” Caroline explains. This sentiment can extend to all facets of Icona Pop. It could even become their motto.
Before “I Love It” hit radio, Icona Pop still felt like my little (electro-pop) secret. I knew they were generating a following. They were winning people over left and right. They garnered thousands of Twitter followers, they charted on the iTunes singles chart and were interviewed by every music blog and magazine out there. But it wasn’t until last March during SXSW that I knew I lost them for good. They played a very sought-after Vice showcase one evening in Austin and it was a madhouse (in the best way possible of course). All over Viceland, 90s kids were moshing and crowd-surfing. It felt like a punk rock show. I had to take cover from falling bodies and swinging limbs. They stood on stage in their signature pose –– one arm stretched up to the sky in a fist. They were smiling from ear to ear. A few months later I caught their performance at Lollapalooza in Chicago and I’m just one of thousands standing in the rain watching them perform new songs.
Serendipitously, the night before the artist talk, I caught them perform their last show of their current tour at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. The venue was just around the block from the first time they serenaded me at Glasslands. All of a sudden it seemed my (love) affair with Icona Pop had come full circle. But things were different now. This time in Brooklyn, they didn’t have to unfold tables to put their synthesizers and effects pedals on –– they had a massive fu*king spaceship to put their gear on. It was also the week their album This Is…Icona Pop was released in the states. To top it all off, thanks to Arjan, I had the opportunity to listen to their journey from fold-up tables to spaceships, on the top floor of a beautiful hotel in the Lower East Side. I even had the chance to tell Caroline how much their music means to me.
As I was in the elevator, descending down to the streets of New York City, with their newest single “All Night” stuck in my head, I remembered something Aino said during the interview. We want to make pop that makes people feel. Well, they certainly succeeded because I was feeling all the feelings at that point in the night. They have cultivated a new brand of pop that is taking the world by storm. They now share the airwaves with artists that have inspired them since the 90s. And they are doing it all while on a spaceship. If they follow their hearts, I see nothing but infinite galaxies of stars in their future.