Sweden’s Zara Larsson can make a strong case for being the hottest pop singer in the UK right now. This week she sits in two spots in the top 10 of the singles chart, with Girls Like, her lively collaboration with Tinie Tempah, and Lush Life, a solo single that sounds as if summer is here already. The latter, a sugary confection of handclaps and whistling, about nothing deeper than dancing all night and carrying on come morning, has been inching upwards for weeks now and may yet hit number one.
This scenario doesn’t feel particularly new to Stockholm-born Larsson, a tiny 18-year-old with braces on her teeth who is already on her third music career. At just 10, she won Sweden’s version of Britain’s Got Talent, singing Celine Dion and Whitney Houston covers in a preternaturally big voice. At 15, she had her first number one single and album in her home country, multiplatinum music that she isn’t even going to release over here as she starts from scratch once more.
“I feel like I’ve done everything, and now I’m doing it all again on a bigger scale,” she tells me in a loud voice made for the shopping malls of America, full of likes and yeahs. In the rest of the world she’s been introduced by a collaborative single with London singer-producer MNEK, Never Forget You. It went to number five here last November before Lush Life took things up another notch.
It’s not enough for Larsson, however. Dressed down with hair scraped back, minimal make-up and a loose sweater, she looks far too young to be this self-confident. “My mum said to me: ‘Did you really expect to be this successful by the age of 18?’ I was like, ‘Well, to be honest I expected much more.’ I thought I was gonna be selling out arenas by now. I’m super happy for everything that’s come my way but I’m not even close to where I wanna be.”
This is the kind of self-belief that results from singing in the public eye since primary school. “There wasn’t a moment when I woke up and thought to myself, ‘I want to be a singer.’ I just always knew,” she says. She didn’t try to learn a musical instrument (“Priorities! I can’t do it with my nails.”) – too much of a distraction from the end goal of clutching a microphone in the brightest spotlight possible. “I’m not from a musical family or anything like that. My mum’s a nurse and my dad’s in the military. But I do love the attention, from when I was very little. I want people to look at me all the time.”
She entered Sweden’s Got Talent (Talang Sverige, to give it its proper title) because there was no age restriction, unlike the X Factor or Idol shows. The previous series had been won by a ventriloquist, and her 2008 victory was followed by a magician, an opera singer and a man who solved Rubik’s Cubes. She won 500,000 Swedish krona (£42,600). “I didn’t do anything with the money. We went to America to meet a lot of record labels. But they weren’t interested, nothing happened and I was so disappointed.”
Next up, the Royal Swedish Ballet School until the age of 15. I can’t quite determine why she went there, as she insists that she never wanted to be a balllet dancer, but it offered more stage time for the budding starlet. “I auditioned for a music school and the ballet school,” she explains. “I didn’t feel like the music school was necessary for being a singer. I don’t want to sing in a choir, it’s just not interesting to me. I loved the energy at the ballet school. The day was from eight to eight, we danced every Saturday and sometimes Sundays too. I never wanted to leave. We were a family, we had so much fun.”
She was never teased about the telly show because her friends were all busy working in films or dancing at the opera house. Meanwhile, she kept trying to score a record deal, finally signing on the dotted line with a Swedish company at 14. Her biggest hit was Uncover, a powerful ballad in the X Factor style which she ended up performing in a red gown at the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo.
“I love the songs that I did then, I’m super proud of them,” she says. “Uncover was a big hit then but that doesn’t mean I wanna do it today. I get tired of the songs I wrote last week. I want something new all the time.”
Hence the fresh start, spending most of her time in LA writing with members of Swedish pop giant Max Martin’s team. A new album, intended to cement her as an international star, is expected in the summer. She’ll know it’s finished when she has “three more really good songs”.
She’s also full of praise for the work she’s done in London with 21-year-old Catford man Uzoechi “MNEK” Emenike – another precocious talent who was signed to a music publishing company at 14. “We just work really good together. When we work we can write four songs a day,” she says, outlining her philosophy for successful music making. “It should be easy writing songs. The words should just flow, the music should come naturally. You can’t make it too complicated.”
So she has no reservations about being defined as a pop act rather than a serious artist. “I’m mainstream as fuck!” she cackles. “I’m not hiding it! Top 40 mainstream pop, that’s me. But I am trying to stay away from the very… what do you call it? Generic.”
She’s doing a fine job so far. There are pop songs that irritate instantly, and those that you’ll happily play 10 times on the trot, loving them a little more each time. Lush Life fits the latter category. I don’t imagine she could ever be boring. This is the girl who went viral on Instagram at the start of last year, promoting safe sex by putting a condom over her leg up to the knee. “I don’t know what made me think of it. There was just something in me that made me wanna put it on my foot. Then it got all the way up to my knee and I was like, this is amazing! It’s so stretchy!”
I’m exhausted after my time with her. She’s still full of beans. She definitely has the energy and self-assurance to push this thing as far as it will go, and there’s a lot more to come. Look out world – her 15-year-old sister has just signed a record deal.