“I Love It” may have been one of this summer’s biggest songs, but the Icona Pop hit was actually released in the group’s native Sweden last year.
Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt have been heating up music charts and revving up dance floors around the world ever since teaming up some three years ago. The EP Nights Like This preceded their first bona fide full-length (the eponymous Icona Pop), but their first U.S. album—This Is…Icona Pop—doesn’t drop until next month.
Meanwhile, the ladies—both in their mid-twenties—have issued a string of successful singles, from “Manners” and “All Night Long” to “I Love It” and the new “Girlfriend.” Aino and Caroline will perform all those hits and more when Icona Pop visits House of Blues Cleveland on September 15th.
“I Love It” has featured in commercials for Samsung Galaxy S4 and Microsoft Internet Explorer. The giddy tune has also appeared on FOX’s Glee, HBO’s Girls, and ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. If you haven’t heard it, you’re one of a diminishing few.
We had a chance to speak with Aino earlier this month, right before Icona Pop played Grant Park in Chicago for Lollapalooza 2013. Our mid-afternoon phone conversation found the singer vivacious, upbeat, and eager to swing through the Midwest on the group’s first headlining tour ever.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hello, Aino! Nice to be speaking with you!
AINO: Hello! Hi, how are you!
CME: Pretty good, and yourself?
AINO: I am fantastic!
CME: So where are you calling from? If I’m looking at your calendar correctly, you’re stateside for Lollapalooza.
AINO: We are in Chicago. We’re doing Lollapalooza in a couple days, so we’re just having some pre-show fun!
CME: You and Caroline have played festivals before, but Lollapalooza’s still got to be one of the biggest things going, even if it’s just a one-off annual thing now. Any pressure?
AINO: That’s the biggest festival in America, so it’s a lot of pressure—but I’m so excited. It’s just so nice to be back in the States again.
CME: You two played a rally in Washington, D.C. back in June for the Capitol Pride 2013 event. How was that?
AINO: It was amazing. The crowds are always treating us good. The support is amazing.
CME: You’ve played America before, but has Icona Pop ever been through Cleveland? I can’t remember.
AINO: I’m not sure. I think we may have been there once. I’m not sure about that, actually! We may have been there a couple years ago.
CME: So tell us a bit about how you and Caroline met and started doing music together.
AINO: We basically met at a party at Caroline’s place. This was five years ago. I’d been dumped, and Caroline was so frustrated—she had a lot of things going on in her life. But when we met, there was just this instant connection. I asked her if she wanted to write together, and the day after I went to her place with a computer and a bottle of wine and we wrote a whole song. And we decided on the spot that it was so easy to write together, that we were a band! We got kind of stressed out, because we didn’t want anyone to know we’d started a band. We booked a gig without having any songs, but then a month later we were standing onstage playing five songs. It was interesting. We didn’t have enough, so we had to kind of improvise!
CME: Do you both come from musical families?
AINO: Our family members are good musicians, but they’re like hobby musicians. And I’m half African—half Gambian—so I’ve always been surrounded by a lot of music and I grew up with everything from reggae to classical to punk. But my big thing was that my brother produced a lot of music, so we got to borrow his studio when he wasn’t there. So I started to produce a lot. I had played in a band before where I was the singer with six guys, and I played cowbell! But I left because I didn’t feel they understood quite what direction I wanted to go in with my music. So I learned on my own by having my own adventures in the studio, before I met Caroline!
CME: Your biggest hit, “I Love It,” was written with Charlie XCX [aka Charolotte Aitchinson]. Could you tell us a bit about her, and how the song came about?
AINO: Charli is a friend of ours. We’d both worked with a producer in Sweden called Patrick Burger. She’s from London. She came to Sweden a couple times, then we went to hang with her in the U.K. And she just basically…when we were in the studio recording “Good For You”—a song from our EP—we heard her rough version of “I Love It” and asked if we could use it. And she was really happy about it. So we made it our song, and put in the pop choir and chanty-thing that we’d had going as our Icona Pop sound. That’s how “I Love It” was born.
CME: Listening to the words to that song, one could interpret them as being not just about love or relationships, but about anything you like.
AINO: Exactly! It’s not all about love. You can put your own situations in there. It can be about quitting a job, or anger about whatever. And when we sing that song live, or a lot of songs we have, you can sing it with these faces in front of you and it becomes this dramatic thing with the audience. It’s just so beautiful!
CME: You did your first full-length album in Sweden last year, but This Is…Icona Pop will be the first international release. What’s the street date on that?
AINO: It’s going to be our U.S. release some time in September.
CME: Sweden’s known for its musical exports. Seems like every decade or so a new group comes out that takes the world by surprise: Abba, Ace of Base, Robyn…now Icona Pop. Do you and Caroline feel like musical ambassadors, in a sense?
AINO: It feels like, when you go back to Sweden…you have these people you don’t even know coming up to you and saying, “We’re proud of you for representing Sweden.” It’s an honor, because Sweden is such a picky country when it comes to music and fashion and a lot of things. But if you look at other countries in Africa or around the world, you can find Swedish people everywhere. So we feel honored—but we don’t feel pressured, because the people are going to choose what they like, and obviously they like what we do!
Watch the video for Icona Pop’s “Girlfriend:”
CME: What’s an Icona Pop stage show like? I’m sure there’s a lot of costume changes.
AINO: We’re geeks with equipment onstage. There’s this spaceship, and a table between me and Caroline with a lot of different electronic gear. And we just build stuff from loops. People can expect lots of energy and love spreading from us. I think it’s important to have a show together with the audience, to connect with them. That’s half the show right there, to be able to sing to them and not just be pushing the buttons. It’s important.
CME: How hard is it to maintain a relationship when you’re traveling so much? Are you able to keep touch with your families back home?
AINO: When it comes to love it can be hard. It’s hard to build something when you’re always away. Then again, music is like our first boyfriend! We kind of chose this lifestyle! But with love, if you want it to work, it’ll work. I always miss my family. Especially my sister’s son; he always seems so much more grown up every time I go back to Sweden. He becomes more like a big human being! But it feels like…we’re just so happy right now, and I know that when my family knows I’m happy, they’re happy, too! They’re behind us 100%. They’ve always been at my side. We have the best families in the world!
CME: It’s been said the name ‘Icona Pop’ is Italian for ‘pop icon,’ and you got the idea while discussing possible names for the group with your parents. How’d that come up?
AINO: Yeah, it’s Italian. Caroline’s mom was at this dinner with us, and that’s how it came up. They’re like, “Oh! You’re going to be the next pop icons!” We thought it was a cool name, and it’s important with a name that you feel it represents you. And with Icona Pop, it’s about more than just us. It becomes about all the pop icons we grew up with, like Queen and Madonna. So it’s like a celebration of all the pop icons. But at the same time, it does explain who we are and what we’re doing.
Icona Pop with K. Flay, Sirah, Alex Angelo. Sunday, September 15, 2013 at House of Blues Cleveland. Tickets $20.00 / $22.00 DOS. Doors at 7:00pm.
Tickets still available: http://www.houseofblues.com/tickets/eventdetail.php?eventid=81002