When Agnes’s clubbing anthem Release Me became a huge European hit in 2009, spending ten weeks in the UK top 20, it was a breath of fresh air: shiny, happy, glam-sexy euro-disco was back. With the noughties behind us, and eighties style, fashion and music thoroughly rinsed out, is it too early to talk about a nineties revival?
Perhaps not. The nineties was the decade when the dancefloor ruled the charts, with hits such as Ce Ce Peniston’s Finally, The Nightcrawlers’ Push The Feeling and Show Me Love by Robin S. And there is a connection between the latter and Release Me – both were forged in the same Stockholm studio in Sweden, where the tradition for chart-topping dance-pop goes all the way back to Abba, via Roxette, Ace of Base and the legendary collective of songwriters and producers SweMix, behind everything from hands-in-the-air clubbing anthems to white-label DJ bootlegs of everyone from Human League to Michael Jackson.
Now, with euro-disco back in vogue, Swedish production ace Anders Hansson has helped a new pop sensation, 21-year-old blonde bombshell Agnes Carlsson channel the perfect mix of dance, love and pop through her new album. An artist whose soaring voice matches her smouldering good looks; who describes herself, tongue slightly in cheek, as “feminine, golden and glamorous”; and who is equally at home performing with just her acoustic guitar or taking UK arenas by storm with N-Dubz and Cascada on the Clubland Live 3 tour.
“She is a great singer, an emotional singer: she adds such quality to a song when she sings it,” Hansson says. “And she is an immaculate live performer, even though she is still very young. It was our intention to make a record for the dancefloor, but not like a house producer with an add-on singer; this is crafted pop music: accessible, danceable, but song-based.”
The effortless power of her voice – which sounds far beyond her years – has evoked comparisons to legendary soul divas, but Agnes is a down-to-earth girl whose talent far outweighs her ego. She remains modest about her career break – winning Swedish Idol in 2005 aged just 17, despite having almost no previous performing experience.
“It was overwhelming,” she says. “Before the competition I had only performed one time on stage. And that first time I was so nervous that my legs were shaking and I couldn’t control my voice. So I had to learn a lot – how to control my nerves and sing live for millions of people. That was really good for me. But then also when you are in the competition you live in a little bubble. After the final you have to start to work hard to see the real world.”
After her televised triumph, at which “even the big guys, the security, [were so moved they] started crying and crying”, Agnes was signed to Sony BMG and released two albums, Agnes and Stronger. “Everything you do, you learn something from it,” she says diplomatically. “I like them, but my first album I recorded in six days. And it was like that for my second one. It can be difficult because when you’re directly signed to a label after Idol…” But then she reveals that she was able to sign a new deal with the Swedish independent Roxy Recordings – and in the UK to 3Beat Blue/All Around The World.
Freed from the Idol conveyor belt, Agnes gravitated towards her natural calling, a dancefloor-oriented pop sound – and with her new label properly behind her she was introduced to the songwriter and producer Anders Hansson. Agnes recalls when his name first came up for the album “They said maybe you should just meet first and see if you like each other, as opposed to just working together.” They got on – so well that Hansson ended up producing an album that helped Agnes realise her vision, Dance Love Pop – effectively her debut in many countries, including the UK — and break away from the reality-show pop factory. They ended up co-writing four songs together, including Release Me (a top-ten hit in 11 countries peaking at No3 in the UK; the video has received more than 10m views on YouTube.
“A lot of things changed for me when I started to work with this album. I really liked it, because I knew that I wanted to do something totally different to the two others. I wanted to do uptempo, disco-orientated songs and I really wanted to work with Anders because he felt the same way.
The songs aren’t complicated – but they resonate the way good pop should. Take the follow-up single to Release Me, I Need You Now. “I don’t think that is a difficult song,” she says. “You’re just putting it all out there: I need you now! But at the same time that is so painful.” The themes are simple, universal, but Agnes’s stunning, soulful vocals and Hansson’s tight, driving production are pop alchemy.
Love and relationships feature heavily. “Yes, but for me love doesn’t always have to be about a boy. It can be about your family and friends; they are the most important people in my life.
Agnes Carlsson was born on March 6, 1988, in Vänersborg, a small, picturesque Swedish town, nicknamed “Little Paris”, which sits on the tip of Europe’s third-largest lake, Vänern. Her father is an environmental engineer, her mother a nurse and social worker. Agnes is the youngest of four children; she has two brothers and a sister.
“It’s a beautiful place. I really liked it. But when you grow up in a small town, some people have a really small view of the world. And when you don’t have the same thoughts as them…. When I was younger most of my friends were girls. But after a while the girls were not, you know, nice to each other. There was one who controlled everything. If everyone didn’t do as she was saying, she got mad. It was when I was 13, or something like that. And I said to them, I don’t like this, it’s not OK. But everyone turned against me. And when you are in a small city, if a group of people don’t like you then it’s really hard to find other people.”
A life that seemed idyllic on the outside was at times anything but. “If you grow up in a bigger city, you have a lot of different kinds of people, and everybody doesn’t have to be the same. But in a small city everyone is so afraid to be different, and to not do what everybody else does. And that was something I really didn’t like.
As a coping mechanism, “it was important to have something to do after school”, so Agnes took violin lessons and joined a choir, even though “I hated singing in the choir because my voice didn’t fit; you have to listen to the others and not stick out too much”. Whenever she was home alone she would play Whitney Houston and Beyoncé Knowles songs “at the highest volume” and sing along. “Whitney’s voice is so emotional, and if there’s one thing I learnt from listening to her, it’s that it’s important to put emotion in.”
It wasn’t until she was 16 that she had one-on-one singing lessons. One year later she won Swedish Idol and was signed to Sony BMG. Extraordinary.
So far being famous has been, well, pretty good actually. “People in Sweden have been happy for me,” she says. “We don’t have paparazzi, and I think other countries are much more crazy when they see a famous person. In Sweden it’s not really like that. When people have come up and said things to me, they have been kind and supportive.”
Dance Love Pop, then, is Agnes’ creative rebirth – and her creativity is flourishing in other ways too. “I have designed some of my on stage clothes,” she reveals. “I love fashion and I think when you’re on stage it’s great to have fun with it. You can have more freedom and I love that.”
“The first time I did it was for the Melody festival in Sweden [in 2007]. I put together a golden catsuit that was like a second skin. I love to be feminine, golden and glamorous. And I did another for a tour, and some dresses too. When I was younger, my mum always said to me, Don’t wear big earrings or really high heels, you see in Sweden you’re not supposed to be too glamorous. I don’t know why. Now I always wear the biggest earrings and the highest heels! And lots of jewellery. It’s my dream to one day design my own jewellery – but that is for the future. Right now I am focusing on the music.”
It’s paying off. Agnes may not have had much me-time this year, but it was still pretty cool when her friends texted her from Ibiza every time they heard Release Me in the clubs (which was often). “I don’t have much time to hang out. But this summer I had a one-week vacation in Italy, and one evening we were walking past a club and we heard Release Me…” A busman’s holiday, then. “I heard this summer it was the fifth most-played song in Europe. It was wonderful to hear that.”
Agnes was recently signed to a mega-deal with A&M/Interscope Records in the US by Ron Fair. He’s the man behind Black Eyed Peas’ and Pussycat Dolls’ success, and he also launched Christina Aguilera’s career. With Agnes’s follow-up singles I Need You Now and On And On storming the charts in Europe, with Release Me firing on all cylinders across the Atlantic – reaching No1 on the US Billboard Dance Chart – the future for Agnes is as golden as one of her slinky catsuits.
“Anders and I were talking about the album title, and it’s always so hard to choose a name for an album,” she says. “So Anders said maybe we should pick three words that describe the sound. Dance, love, pop: we chose them together. I think they sum it up the best.”