It takes a lot of confidence for any aspiring performer to go on national television and sing their heart out in front of millions of people. It takes even more guts to go on national television and sing two of the most iconic, hard-to-nail ballads in the pop music canon, but that’s exactly what Zara Larsson did as a contestant on Sweden’s Got Talent in 2008. She was 10 years old. It never occurred to her to do anything less.
An angelic-faced, blue-eyed blonde, Larsson won the show handily with her self-assured renditions of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” decimating her competition with a killer combo of talent, charm, and fresh-faced beauty.
Now 17, Larsson still radiates boldness, not to mention a powerhouse voice, which will certainly help as she launches her career in the U.S. with her debut single “Uncover” for TEN / Epic / Kemosabe. Larsson is already a bonafide superstar in Scandinavia, where she has released two EPs, Introducing and Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself, and an album, 1, on the Swedish label Ten Records (also home to Icona Pop and Erik Hassle). “Uncover,” which Larsson first posted on YouTube, was her breakthrough hit, topping the charts in Sweden and Norway and earning 3x-Platinum certification (as did Introducing). Her follow-up singles, “She’s Not Me Pt 1 & 2” and “Bad Boys,” also garnered success on the Scandinavian charts, as did 2014’s Top 10 hits “Carry You Home” and “Rooftop.”
Many of those tracks have been collected on Larsson’s six-song Uncover EP, an R&B-flavored pop confection filled with relatable lyrics, catchy hooks, and melodies designed to show off Larsson’s impressive vocal range. Larsson says she chose them for her U.S. debut because “they were the ones that we knew people liked the best and that I liked the best.” Taken together, the songs sketch out the many sides of love, whether it’s hidden (“Uncover”), jealous (“She’s Not Me”), supportive (“Carry You Home”), heartbreaking (“Never Gonna Die”), wistful (“Rooftop”), or downright joyful (“Wanna Be Your Baby”). “The songs are about love because love is pretty much the key to everything,” Larsson says.
“’Uncover’ is about two people who want to be together, but can’t let anyone know. As soon as they’re alone, they can finally ‘uncover,’” Larsson says. “I don’t think of it as a cute love song, it’s more about people who can’t be seen together because society tells them it isn’t okay, like people in same-sex relationships.”
Such thoughtful declarations are not unusual from Larsson, who grew up in the socially progressive Swedish capital of Stockholm. She may have favored big-voiced mainstream songbirds like Whitney and Celine growing up, but now her music taste leans toward R&B and hip-hop and she cites Beyoncé, Eminem, and Nicki Minaj as favorites. Her father, an officer in the Swedish Navy, loved AC/DC, Metallica, The Sex Pistols, and Queen and he passed on his love for the latter’s theatrical swagger to his daughter. Larsson can’t remember a time when she wasn’t singing. “We had no furniture in front of the table because that was my stage,” she recalls. “I had this special area marked out where I could dance and sing. My younger sister and I would put on shows for my parents and their guests.”
In 2008, she decided to try out for Sweden’s Got Talent, encouraged by the second-place finish of a friend of hers the previous year. Of her winning performance, Larsson says that she barely remembers her time on stage. “Watching myself that young is very weird, but I’m very proud of what I did.” The win led to her signing with independent music company TEN Music Group in 2012, followed by posting a video for “Uncover” to YouTube in 2013. “I thought maybe I’d get 20,000 hits, maybe 100,000.” The official version has now racked up over nine million views.
Larsson’s success in Scandinavia has led to other significant moments in her burgeoning career, including supporting Cher Lloyd on the British singer’s 2013 North American “I Wish” Tour (“The American audiences didn’t know my name, I didn’t have any songs out, and still people were screaming and shouting, it was so crazy,” she says), and performing “Uncover” at the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo backed by an orchestra and choir. In April 2013, Larsson was signed by L.A. Reid to Epic Records and Dr. Luke to his Kemosabe Records label.
With guidance from two of the music industry’s biggest players, Larsson is looking forward to releasing her music in America, which she calls “the center of the entertainment universe. People in Sweden are obsessed with America.” Establishing herself in the U.S. will also give her the opportunity to do what she loves best: perform live for as many people as possible. “My dream is to stand in front of 60,000 people in an arena and know that everyone came because they wanted to make memories with me,” she says. “That’s a beautiful thing. The more successful you are, the more people are going to come and be a part of the music.”
Before she made a splash in the U.S. with her two hit singles, the reggae-tinged Platinum-certified “Lush Life” and the double-Platinum collaboration with MNEK “Never Forget You,” Swedish pop singer Zara Larsson was already a star in Europe thanks to her two EPs (Introducing and Let Me Reintroduce Myself) and a string of multi-platinum singles (“Uncover,” “Carry You Home,” and “Rooftop” that appeared on her 2014 album 1. She was also featured on Tinie Tempah’s “Girls Like” and David Guetta’s “This One’s for You,” which was the official song of UEFA Euro 2016. In just two short years since releasing 1, the relentlessly hard-working Larsson has seen her career go into overdrive. Over the summer, she performed with Guetta during the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Euro Cup and opened for her idol Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour in London. She was named one of Time magazine’s “30 Most Influential Teens of 2016″ and became part of the Spotify Billions club for racking up over one billion streams on the digital platform. In the fall, Larsson delivered a show-stopping performance at the MTV EMAs and took home awards for “Best New Act” and “Best Swedish Act.” She was also nominated for “Best New Artist” at the 2016 MTV VMAs and has performed on nearly every major morning and late-night talk show, cementing her American fanbase as she recorded So Good, which will be released by Epic Records in January 2017.
The fact that “Lush Life” popped up in both Björk’s DJ set at the launch of the Icelandic star’s virtual reality exhibition in Australia and on British soap opera EastEnders (where the cast sang along to it) proves that the now 19-year-old Larsson is among those rare artists who can appeal to the mainstream, but also remain credible in more rarefied circles. An avowed feminist, Larsson is beloved by fans for her outspokenness and candor both in the press and on her social media platforms — another rarity at a time when most artists are afraid to speak their minds. “It should be a no-brainer to speak up about important issues and have a voice,” she says.
Larsson’s confident personality is all over So Good, which also showcases her powerhouse voice. As GQ put it: “Much of Larsson’s appeal lies in her ability to fit into a song. Her vocalizations are chameleon-like,” adding that she can shift effortlessly from full-tilt electro-pop diva, as on “Never Forget You,” to Rihanna-esque Barbados twang, as she does on “Lush Life.” Larsson’s shape-shifting vocal ability serves the eclectic, genre-hopping nature of her album, which though strongly rooted in pop, contains songs influenced by R&B, dancehall, British house, and skittering EDM. The MNEK-produced single “Ain’t My Fault,” is a strutting, trap-tinged pop banger, while the Monsters & Strangerz-produced “I Would Like” is club-ready mélange of house-influenced synths and bouncy electronic percussion. The ’90s R&B-inflected “So Good” (featuring Ty Dolla $ign) and the soaring ballad “What They Say” enable Larsson to show her softer side with soulful vibes and slower tempos.
“My vision was basically just to collect a good amount of great songs that I love and take it from there,” she says of So Good, which features collaborations with Stargate, Charlie Puth, The Monsters & Strangerz, MNEK, Livvi Franc, J Hart, MACK, and X-plicit, among others. “It’s pop, but there are some rhythmic songs, some dance songs, some ballads. I’m not trying to prove to people that I’m super mature, like ‘Look at me, I can do sexy songs.’ It’s just who I am and it’s what I like.” In a September cover story on Larsson in Britain’s NME, the writer said of the album: “There’s no sense of coming-of-age being fetishized. The songs just sound like a cool, confident young woman living her life.” “From the bottom of my heart, I really like these songs,” Larsson says. “If I didn’t sing them myself, I would have them on my Spotify playlist. That’s how I feel.”
After co-writing “Never Forget You” with British songwriter and producer MNEK, Larsson was eager to contribute melodically and lyrically to So Good, which she says is dominated by songs about love. “That’s the theme that keeps coming back,” she says. “You can write about love in many different ways. It can be happy love, sad love, jealous love, even self-love. ‘What They Say’ is about believing in yourself. Don’t listen to the bullshit. Do you because you are great. It’s a very strong, positive message without being cheesy.”
Such emphatic declarations are not unusual from Larsson, who grew up in the socially progressive Swedish capital of Stockholm. Her father, an officer in the Swedish Navy, loved AC/DC, Metallica, The Sex Pistols, and Queen and he passed on his love for the latter’s theatrical swagger to his daughter. Larsson can’t remember a time when she wasn’t singing. “We had no furniture in front of the table because that was my stage,” she recalls. “I had this special area marked out where I could dance and sing. My younger sister and I would put on shows for my parents and their guests.” When Larsson was 10, she tried out for and won Sweden’s Got Talent, which led to her signing with independent music company TEN Music Group in 2012, followed by posting a video for “Uncover” to YouTube in 2013. “I thought maybe I’d get 20,000 hits, maybe 100,000.” The official version has now racked up over 139 million views. In 2013, she performed “Uncover” at Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo backed by an orchestra and choir. The same year, Larsson was signed by L.A. Reid to Epic Records.
As she gears up to release So Good, Larsson claims that it feels like a great first album. “I’m really proud of every single song on it,” she says, while acknowledging that it’s just another step on her road to global superstardom. “I’m on my way, but I’m not even close to where I want to be. I want to sell out stadium after stadium. I want to make multi-platinum records. I want people to connect and love my music, and I want to give love back to them. I want major things. I’ve never been satisfied with anything in life, and I probably won’t be in music either. It’s not like I’ll wake up one day and be like, ‘I’m just going to settle down now and be happy.’ I think I’ll always have a hunger for more. That’s just the person I am.”