Since the days of ABBA, Sweden has been a reliable pop music breeding ground. But in the last five years, a new generation of artists has been pushing boundaries of Swedish music on the international scene. There’s still radio-friendly fare (Tove Lo, Avicii), but now also introspective indie (Lykke Li), web-savvy hip-hop (Yung Lean), and danceable electropop (Little Dragon) in the mix.
With the music of singer/songwriter Snoh Aalegra, R&B will soon be a major export, too. Born and raised in Stockholm, the 28-year-old Persian bombshell was reared on the great American soul songbook: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and her all-time favorite, Michael Jackson. With her booming pipes, Aalegra inked a deal at 14, grinded for a minute, and moved to London before landing in Los Angeles.
Now signed to Epic—which released her EP There Will Be Sunshine last fall—Aalegra has been hard at work with Kanye West hitmaker No I.D. on her debut album (she dropped the RZA-produced first single “Emotional” in February). We caught up with her between studio sessions to talk about writing songs and why Sweden has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
How would you describe your sound?
The core of it is soul. I don’t know exactly what genre to put it in, I just know that I grew up listening to a lot of soul music—Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Whitney Houston. I was inspired by all these great big voices, and I try to do music that’s timeless. “Emotional” doesn’t sound like a lot of songs on the radio right now.
How did you connect with RZA?
I met him at this Grammy party for Nile Rodgers. I was with No I.D. and we started talking. He heard some stuff and wanted to work with me. I heard the demo of “Emotional,” and I couldn’t believe that it was actually a new song. Plus, I had just gotten out of a four-year relationship, so the lyrics were speaking to me. It’s the only song on the album so far that I didn’t write, but I don’t have an ego. If it’s a song that speaks to me, I’m gonna do it. I’m just a fan of music.
What’s your process in the studio with No I.D.?
We sit and talk a lot about what I want to say with my music and how I want it to sound. I’m a huge fan of strings and choirs, and we use his heavy hip-hop drums—we try to mash it all together. I learned so much from working with him. When we finish a song, we do a test where we strip out all the production to see if it’s a real song. I love the process.
You mentioned the end of a long relationship. Does that change your approach to songwriting?
I’m personal in my songs, so, yeah, there’s going to be a couple more depressing songs coming up.
Is this your breakup album?
The main subject of the album is the struggle to be strong. It’s interesting: On my EP, I only have one love song. On the album, there are a few more love songs, but I like to write about life in general and not always a relationship.
When I think of Sweden, I think of pop producers like Max Martin. It’s interesting that your music is so drenched in R&B.
I was a big fan of all the pop producers, but my heart has always been with soul music. In Sweden we have a jazz festival, and I would try to see all these people like Angie Stone there when I was younger. We have a lot of indie artists coming from Sweden, not so much soul. The closest thing we had was Robyn when she came out, but it’s a different kind of R&B.
How do you like living in Los Angeles so far?
When I first came to L.A. I thought it was a bit soulless and lonely, but I’m starting to like it. The weather is everything. I’m from Sweden, where it’s winter, like, half the year. And it’s dark—we barely have any daylight. I mean, we have one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.
Yeah, we do. With the gloom and the darkness.
You’re making a strong sell for Sweden here.
But it’s beautiful, especially in the summer. You should go between June and August—the sun goes down for like four hours and then it’s up again. You’ll walk out of the club and it’s bright daylight. It’s trippy.
Styling by Kyle Blackmon / Hair by Marcia Hamilton / Makeup by Steven Aturo