Entertainment & Arts

Robyn: Finishing an album in the face of death

Robyn and Markus Jagerstedt of La Bagatelle Magique Image copyright Universal / Island / Konichiwa Records
Image caption Robyn (centre) has scored top 10 hits with songs such as With Every Heartbeat and Be Mine

Swedish pop star Robyn was in the middle of recording an album with dance legend Christian Falk when he was diagnosed with cancer. She tells the BBC about the struggle to maintain the music's positive message after he died last year.

It has been five years since pop outlaw Robyn last released an album. Or, to be more precise, three albums.

Body Talk - an ambitious anthology of killer pop - was issued in three instalments over six months in 2010, followed by an extensive world tour, including support slots with Coldplay and Katy Perry.

The herculean effort left the 36-year-old exhausted and creatively depleted, and so she returned to Sweden to reassess her career.

There, she caught up with her old friend and some-time mentor Christian Falk.

A world famous DJ, he had worked with Robyn since she was 15, producing the title track to her debut album, Robyn Is Here. She later repaid the favour by adding vocals to his biggest hit, Dream On.

"He taught me so much about music," she recalls. "He started out as a punk bass player and then got into house music in the 80s and 90s, and from there he moved on to hip-hop and all kinds of music. He was like a magpie."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Robyn's single Dancing On My Own was Grammy-nominated in the best dance category

Neither artist was intending to make a new record. Robyn was on a break, while Christian was making a tentative return to the studio after developing tinnitus, a hearing condition marked by a permanent ringing in the ears.

"He stopped making music for a while," Robyn recalls. "He was not really in a good place, so he went to do this textiles handicraft course - doing embroidery and weaving."

The pair met up at Christian's house, where he casually played the singer some of his musical sketches.

"The things we were talking about and the things he was playing me were so interesting, I couldn't step away from it," Robyn says. "So we started working on something."

The project became Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique (literally an unpretentious, but magical, piece of music).

A love letter to dance, it incorporates everything from piano-driven 1990s house to the radiant brass of Miami disco.

The project reflected Christian's record collection which, Robyn says, encompassed "punk to house to two-step to 80s pop to Turkish folk music".

"It's such a good way of explaining how he made his own music. It was always a collage of all the thing he's been listening to. He knew how to respect references, but also turn them into something of his own."

Ghost in the machine

Recording sessions took place haphazardly over a year, after which Robyn asked the musical director of her tours, Markus Jagerstedt, to join them in the studio.

He was instantly impressed. "It felt like new kind of remixes of old songs that never existed," he says. "Not too retro. Still modern."

The musician had no hesitations about signing up - "in a way Robyn's my boss, of course, but I see her much more like a friend" - and he jumped straight into the writing process.

"Markus would work on his things, and send them back to Christian who'd chop them up and send it back to Markus who'd chop it up again," Robyn explains. "It was like a constant remixing of each other's ideas.

"But then," she says, her voice catching in her throat, "Christian got sick."

At the age of 52, the producer had developed pancreatic cancer - a particularly aggressive form of the disease, where fewer than 20% of patients survive the first year.

Christian hadn't even noticed he was unwell but, once diagnosed, his condition deteriorated rapidly.

Image copyright Photo via musikindustrin.se
Image caption Falk, who produced Neneh Cherry and Youssou N'Dour's hit single 7 Seconds, died in 2014

"We kept working as much as we could," Robyn says, hesitantly. "Then of course when he… at the end of his… his fight with cancer it got really difficult to be in the studio.

"We kept playing things to him, all the way up to the end. We mixed the first song two months before he died."

When the DJ lost his battle with cancer in July last year. Robyn and Markus, understandably, felt unable to continue with their project.

"We felt it was too… Too much to keep working," Robyn says.

"We knew we were going to finish it," Markus adds. "It just had to be the right time. We wanted to keep the energy in the songs,"

Even so, when the time came, revisiting the songs was "really hard".

The musicians were given access to Christian's computer - but delving into the hard drive brought back a lot of memories.

"You'd look through it all and there were all his emails," says Markus. "I didn't want to look at that."

When they eventually recovered their recording sessions, the files contained instructions that replicated Christian's movements in the studio.

"It was weird. The faders were moving up and down - almost like he was around," Robyn says.

"It was, really, like a ghost," says Markus.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Robyn will tour the Christian Falk project before resuming work on her solo album

Working on the tracks was "strange" but "healing", Robyn says. By June, they had finished enough songs to form an EP, which is due out this summer.

It is a defiantly upbeat record, with titles like Set Me Free and Love Is Free reflecting the hedonism and euphoria of the ecstasy-fuelled 1990s club scene.

"We wanted to stay positive," Robyn explains. "Especially when Christian got sick. He was in love with his life. It wasn't at all like we were there processing his illness. It was an escape. It was the other way around."

Robyn and Markus will tour the record later this year. Staying true to their inspirations, the duo are toying with the idea of combining live performances with a DJ set. "But I'll play some of my old songs as well," Robyn reassures.

In the meantime, the singer is starting work on a proper follow-up to Body Talk, after being "freed from the responsibility" by the relative anonymity of La Bagatelle Magique and last year's collaboration with Royksopp.

"I've been questioning if I really want to keep doing what I've always done," she says. "Both this and the Royksopp album are things I've been doing in the meantime, while figuring that out."

But she hints the new material won't repeat the platinum pop pursuits of her prior output.

"It's so easy to fall into old patterns and behaviours," she says. "There's always a time for change. I don't know exactly where that's going to lead me."

Love Is Free, the first single by Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique is out now on Universal / Island / Konichiwa Records. The mini-album will follow on 7 August.

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