Monday 11 November 2019

'I've always felt older than I am' - Sigrid talks fame, Greta Thunberg, and why she has a curiously Irish accent

Norwegian pop sensation Sigrid started writing songs at 16. Now 23, she tells John Meagher about staying grounded amid all the hype, her anger over the reaction to Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg and why she has a curiously Irish accent

Sigrid: 'I love the idea of making really big pop songs, like a-ha did, and to have them connect with a lot of people. That's what inspires me'
Sigrid: 'I love the idea of making really big pop songs, like a-ha did, and to have them connect with a lot of people. That's what inspires me'
Northern light: Sigrid on stage in her native Norway in August
John Meagher

John Meagher

Sigrid Solbakk Raabe may not look or dress like a typical pop star - and she doesn't act like one, either. She is recalling one of the early shows on her US tour, which concluded last weekend. She was sitting backstage, waiting to go on in front of thousands of adoring fans, when she found herself sucked into the vortex of online aggression.

The subject of the brickbats was Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental campaigner, and Sigrid - she dispensed with her surname in her early pop career - was furious. "I should have been thinking about something else because it was just before a show, but what I had been reading made me so angry," she says.

"I cannot understand how you can go on the internet and write so many mean things when you're not doing anything yourself. She's doing such a great job in making the environment first and centre of this big global conversation and you have idiots putting the age card or the female card on her. That's just stupid."

Sigrid had been at Thunberg's climate strike in New York earlier that very day.

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Northern light: Sigrid on stage in her native Norway in August
Northern light: Sigrid on stage in her native Norway in August

"She is a remarkable young person and she has the brain of someone who's lived far longer. And she has a way of communication that I haven't seen before. She's so on point and she knows what she is talking about."

Like Thunberg, Sigrid is Scandinavian, although it's Norway, not Sweden, she hails from. Norwegians are leading the world when it comes to electric-car usage - something Sigrid says she's proud of - but she's not one for idle platitudes.

"Norway has the potential to be such a green country," she says, "but you can't hide the fact that we built our welfare state on the oil industry. That's where all the wealth comes from. We were so poor before we found the oil and it has built a lot of opportunities for Norway. And it's been hard for people to accept that we have to adapt to the green economy. We can't rely on oil forever."

She is also thinking more than most of her peers about how it is possible to be a globe-trotting pop star and do her part to help the environment. "To be honest, I walk around with a bad conscience every day because I have to fly everywhere and I'm on a tour bus that probably uses a lot of gas.

"But we are trying to make our backstage rider more green - to reduce plastic and to eat organically. And hopefully that small step can inspire live music venues and festivals to reduce plastic."

Sigrid is 23 but looks younger. And yet, over the course of our half-hour conversation, it is difficult to believe she's not much older. There's a maturity there that belies her age. "I can't think of the word in English," she says, "but I've always felt older than I am. Maybe it's because I'm the youngest of three and I wanted to catch up with my brother and sister."

If the pop industry can be an especially tough place for young people thrust into the limelight, Sigrid seems remarkably grounded. "I'm surrounded by really good people," she says, "and I think that's important to keep your feet on the ground.

"I think you have to grow up fast as well. In a way, I feel like I'm running a company at 23." Which, when one considers the operation that assists her when she is touring and in the studio, is an analogy that's not far from the mark.

She says she has wanted to be a musician since her early teens in Bergen. "Both my siblings are really good musicians and that inspired me."

But she was the only one that made it work. Her brother, Tellef, is studying media and sociology in the UK and her sister, Johanne, is a consultant in Madrid.

"Part of me thinks I would have been in law if I wasn't doing this," she says, "but would I have wanted to study law for six years in university? Maybe I wouldn't even have got in. Another part of me wanted to be a teacher."

But pop beckoned and from her first tentative steps into the business, she has been touted for great things. In early 2018, she topped the BBC's increasingly high-profile industry poll, Sound Of, as the star most likely to 'make it' that year.

And in March of this year she released her debut album, Sucker Punch, to excellent reviews and impressive chart performances around the world. To say that the album was eagerly anticipated is quite an understatement, but Sigrid says she felt little outside pressure.

"You try not to get caught up in any of the hype," she says. "That's something that is outside your control. What you should do is to make the very best music you can.

"When I started writing music at 16, I thought there would be an album at the end of it. When, I didn't know. I didn't strategically start thinking about this album until a year or so before it came out."

She says she wanted to make an unashamed pop album, but one that would sound different to what's in the charts. "I'm a sucker for big choruses, for stuff that can go on the radio," she says. "But I wanted to make sure there was still a lot of me in the music."

As is so often the case now with today's fledgling pop stars, Sigrid was partnered with several songwriters and producers but she insists she decided what worked and what didn't. "The songwriting sessions were sacred to me. It's a very private process - a little like opening up your diary."

Unlike other female pop stars, though, Sigrid has not felt pressure to sex-up her music - or her image. It's a refreshing stance in world where young women are expected to look and act a certain way. She certainly stands out.

Anyone who has fallen hard for great pop music will be aware of how Scandinavia punches well above its weight. Sweden, in particular, has yielded an extraordinary number of stars relative to its population, but Norway is no slouch either. So, what's the secret?

"We're very inspired by Sweden and all the great musicians they have that have done so well abroad," she tells me. "We've great funding from the Norwegian state. We have something called Music Norway that provides tour support money and that's helped me immensely in my career.

"And we have a lot of music focus in our school. I grew up doing piano and singing lessons in my local school. It's a political concept that we all have the same opportunity wherever in the country you are, so even if you're in a very small place, you should be able to go to a music school."

Sigrid says the global success of Norwegian acts like a-ha have also inspired the generations that came after - including herself. When she learns that a-ha will be playing Dublin on October 29 - in the 3Arena, where she will perform in November - she seems unreasonably excited. "F*ck me! That's so cool. I'll have to tell everyone in the band about that."

The Dublin show will be her biggest headline performance to date and she is excited, even if she admits to being nervous. "I balance between being extremely cocky and nervous," she says. "I'm very humble about the opportunity I have and I feel very lucky with the way things have gone so far. But at the same time I have this sense of confidence where my attitude is, 'I f*cking belong here - I belong on this stage!'"

Curiously, Sigrid speaks English with what sounds like an Irish accent. "So many people have said that to me," she quips. "But I've no idea why. Maybe if I spent more time in Ireland I would be able to convince people I was Irish."

When she talks to Weekend, she is about to play the final date of her US tour in Austin, Texas. "It's been great playing this first tour in the US," she says. "We didn't know what to expect because we'd only played one-off shows and TV appearances. You never really know until you start playing shows, but the reaction has been really good."

And this weekend, she is back home in Norway to play a mini-tour there.

"My siblings translate the songs into Norwegian because it sounds so funny," she says, "but I'd never do that in concert. It just wouldn't work."

She's itching to get back into the studio - an environment, she says, that feels like work.

"It's where I learn and I learned so much about songwriting on this record [Sucker Punch] by working with Emily Warren," she says of her experience of the songwriter-for-hire who's worked for the likes of the Chainsmokers, Dua Lipa and Khalid. "She's the perfect balance between a hit machine and a soulful songwriter."

Sigrid is already thinking of album number two and she constantly makes notes on her phone when she's inspired. "You have to keep thinking about the future and about writing really great songs. I love the idea of making really big pop songs, like a-ha did, and to have them connect with a lot of people. That's what inspires me."

Sigrid plays the 3Arena, Dublin, on November 22

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