Dance all night: Robyn chats choreography, clubbing and the making of Ever Again
We speak to Robyn and her long-time choreographer Maria ‘Decida’ Wahlberg about the inspirations for her latest music video.
After an eight-year hiatus, Robyn made a momentous return in 2018. With her new album Honey, the Swedish star returned with something slower – choosing to forgo the life-affirming pop anthems for a suite of tracks that, instead, simmer with a deep sensuality. Centred around loss, heartbreak and healing, Honey was more introspective than her previous releases but still charged with the power of lust and longing.
Those themes have been echoed in her videos, which have variously seen Robyn partying in Ibiza, appear in intimate close-ups and recreate scenes of youthful love. Her latest, directed by Colin Solal Cardo, landed just two weeks ago. Dressed in a white Louis Vuitton ‘fit – bearing classical touches with its ruffles – Robyn is placed front and centre in Ever Again. Across a dramatically-lit Mozart-inspired set, with statues strewn across the background, the star writhes against a microphone stand as though it’s a lover, working it as though she’s a rockstar from the 80s.
Now in clear view, as opposed to the flickering glimpses we see of her in the video for Honey, what sets apart Ever Again from Robyn’s other visuals is her use of movement. Physicality and sensuality have always been driving forces in her music, but in Ever Again, choreography plays a larger role than ever before. If in previous years dancing on her own was a conciliation for Robyn, in the video for Ever Again it’s a statement of power and independence.
We caught up with Robyn and choreographer Maria ‘Decida’ Wahlberg to unpack the moves in the video. Over Skype, we talk Mozart, Prince and clubbing with Louie Vega.
Let’s talk about this behind-the-scenes video. You mention that Guns ‘N’ Roses and Prince were used as references, which I think is really interesting. Could you talk about that?
Maria ‘Decida’ Wahlberg: Robyn is a big fan of Prince and so am I, of course. We started talking about how to move with a mic quite a while ago, and I’m as old as Robyn, so I remember the 80s and all the glam rockers that used to really work the mic, like Freddie Mercury and Def Leppard. There’s actually a clip of Steven Tyler from Aerosmith who talks about the mic as his girlfriend, and I found that quite interesting with that dynamic. I had so much fun working with that microphone because I felt like a young teenager being in my room and trying things out.
Robyn: We had lots of sessions where Maria and I would Facetime together with the mic stand, and then she would bring moves back to the dance studios that she had worked on, and we would try them together. I would make suggestions as well. We both were a little bit worried in the beginning because we wanted to do something with the mic stand and we thought it was a good idea, but it wasn’t a long thing, it was quite short. We had a couple of days where we talked about it like, how do we do this without it becoming objectifying? Like objectifying a woman’s sexuality? We also felt it was interesting that women hadn’t done this choreography before.
M: There were a couple of examples but not too many, which is weird in a way.
R: And not as many as there are men who had done it, for sure.
Ever Again is about heartbreak and seduction at the same time. How did you balance both in the choreography?
R: We talked a lot about sensuality, and how you work with your body in a sensual way in a video without it becoming a cliché – you know, a way of moving your body as a woman. But I don’t think it has to do with being a man or a woman; it has to do with how you portray vulnerability and sensuality at the same time – and power.
Maria has a really good word for this: stereotype-phobes. I think we both are stereotype-phobes, like when something gets too stereotypical it gets very cringey for me and Maria. There’s this move in the beginning that Maria came up with pretty early on: I run my hands down the mic stand and then I kind of hump it, like Bobby Brown kind of humps the microphone stand. And we were both like, this is so interesting because it is very sexy and it is not something you see women do with a mic stand. Or I have not seen that before, at least. So we were looking for a mix between being quite determined, taking [up] space with my sexuality, but then also finding moments where it becomes the song, which has a vulnerability to it. Prince did it always – not having to define your sexuality or your sensuality through a stereotypical kind of perspective.
M: Thinking about that song – which is the funkiest one on the album – and the vibe the song brought to the dance. It was interesting to start working with something groovier, more funky and more smooth than Call Your Girlfriend. I felt that I could do something really different than what we did on earlier albums.
R: It’s like a totally different way of dancing. I’ve been listening to a lot of Mozart over the last few years, and me and Maria have had Mozart for a reference for things we have done visually. He’s been like a spirit animal throughout making this album.
Why Mozart in particular?
R: I think there’s a playfulness and a kind of rockstar attitude in the way that Mozart was. It felt liberating to imagine him as the hero figure instead of someone more recent. I just read about this other artist who made visual art in the 70s and she, as a child, would do copies of Picasso paintings, and she would sign them as ‘Bicasso’ with a B instead of a P as a joke. Having the guts to imitate a male genius without taking it too seriously – it sounds political, but it really isn’t, it’s more [about] a kind of playful energy.
That Louis Vuitton outfit is fabulous and it’s a key part of the performance. How did you go about working with both Nicolas Ghesquière and Maria to co-ordinate the choreography with the look?
R: Nicolas was amazing. When you work with someone like him, and one of the best fashion houses in the world, your chances of getting things to work is much easier. We did two fittings in Paris, so it was while we were working on the choreography, and Colin was a part of this as well. We were talking about how much we wanted to show off the body, and we started playing with this idea of taking something off. I told Nicolas, and he came up with this idea for the top that I’m wearing.
It was very natural and organic. He put in these magnets in the shirt so I could take it off easily. I didn’t have time to practice with the shirt; I was doing it with my flannel shirt in my dance studio without knowing if the one that Nicolas was going to make was going to do anything similar. But it was actually easier to take off than my own clothes because it’s so structured and it’s basically two arms connected. Nicolas came up with the idea of tying these big pieces of fabric. We told him about our references – Prince and Mozart – and he totally got it. They were making these bespoke fabrics for this outfit – 3D printed lace that he hadn’t made before. They did it as a test.
How does the choreography in the video translate to your live tour?
R: I wanted to make a video that was directly related to the live show. We always talked about doing that, like the way it used to be. That artists would make performance videos, and then you would go and see the show, and it would be the same world. To me, that is so interesting; a very organic and natural way of communicating the energy of the music to your audience. This is the first time that we’ve actually done that.
What Maria has pushed this time around is social dancing. With the other tour I did before this one, we never had set choreography, we had certain parts that were structured, but a lot of it was just marking certain things, and within that there could be improvisation. With this tour, we decided to take that to another level.
M: Yeah and there’s a reference to Sheila E and Prince in a way; having an extra person on stage that you can bounce off and on in a way that gets you more excited. It’s more fun to be with somebody else than just alone, and of course, there are some structures on the tour, but the freestyle element is super important – and trying to catch that magic that you can’t really direct.
Could you tell me more about the way you two work together? When did you first meet?
M: At the end of 2009. That was before Robyn was about to release the Body Talk albums which I didn’t know would be albums at the time. [laughs] I come from a freestyle dance background, and at the time I was definitely still out there clubbing which I don’t do much of nowadays. Robyn called me up because we have a mutual friend and asked to take a coffee and talk about dance. We sat down for nearly two or three hours and it felt quite natural. It was a really good meeting, I remember.
R: I agree.
M: I talked to you, and you pretty much got what I was about at the time, but it was 10 years ago. It’s been a while.
R: We had those conversations where there’s a sixth sense. You get the little details that the other person is trying to convey. I feel we had different entrances into dance, I definitely wouldn’t call myself a professional dancer, but Maria is. But also we’re from a very particular kind of dancing which revolves around freestyling, which I do and understand from just clubbing a lot and seeing other people do it and doing it myself, but more as a way to go out dancing. We had a similar language, and then we worked on the Dancing On My Own video, right? That was the first thing we did together.
M: Yeah. You did some performances the year before, but that was the first big video. We started to develop the body language for the Body Talk albums, and it was really liberating for me because I came from a background where you had to be super tricky, [there was] a lot of dance elitism. So when I started working with Robyn we tried to get into some sort of feeling. We had this common interest for genuine pop music, referencing a lot of 80s artists like Eurhythmics.
Are there any videos that you think marks a turning point or breakthrough for you both in music or your working relationship together?
R: I think it would be Call Your Girlfriend.
M: And for me it was the U Should Know Better video. I directed that one myself and it was a different way of working; I learnt quite a lot about myself during that process. We are the same age but Robyn has been working with what she does when I was just a kid out clubbing. She was out doing shows and making albums, being on TV, doing music videos so she’s super experienced and that is a difference, I’d say, working with someone who has been in the business as long as Robyn. For me, I had the time of being a youth in a club without everybody’s eyes on me so I learnt a lot from Robyn, whether it’s styling or dancing or making music videos or talking about marketing strategies.
R: I would say the same for me, it’s the other way round as well. When I was working, achieving these things or at least being in an environment that was about achieving, Maria had time to explore the details of her expression in a way that I didn’t have time to until later. We’ve been able to support each other in those ways. I’m definitely just as much supported by her knowledge as I hope she is by mine. [One of] the longest and most continuous collaborations that I’ve had during my career is with Maria.
M: I hadn’t thought of that.
M: That’s crazy.
R: It is crazy.
Does dance inform how you make music?
R: Definitely. A lot of songwriting that I do is more about rhythm than the melody. The melody is always, of course, really important and something I find very challenging. I’m not saying I’m mastering it yet but I wanted to get good at that. A few years ago I started to realise how much rhythm decides what a melody is, it’s not just the notes – it’s just as much about how they’re presented in the rhythm, in the beat. There’s also melodies or lots of songs that have one note, but it’s the rhythm that makes it ‘ah!’ – something that people can recognise. With this album, I started just dancing and DJing and playing music in my studio. I did that for weeks and that’s how I started making music again.
Would you consider yourself a dance music artist?
R: I would say that I make pop music, but my biggest reference is dance music in a very wide way. Dance music to me is funk, house and disco – all the things that people consider to be club music – and it’s also hip-hop and breakdancing. Music that relates to dancing is what I’ve been listening to mostly.
Can you recall any formative dance experiences?
R: My first experience of dancing was watching my mum perform on stage; she was an actress. We were touring, and I was always watching them work from when I was just a little baby. My parents did this physical theatre which bordered on dance so they were doing a lot of rehearsing and it was a lot of physical body work that I was sometimes a part of: learning how to do roly-polys, standing on my head and also there was a lot of music around in my home. I always liked dancing, it was something that I did at home after school by myself. I took ballet classes but then I was more interested in club music. I definitely had important club experiences, and some of them were quite special because I was in New York a lot at the end of the 90s. I got to experience a part of the club scene there that I’m really happy I got to see.
What are some of your favourite club moments?
R: Going to The Shelter in New York in ‘97 to Body and Soul, which was still around at that time. And other clubs in the same space. Body and Soul was one of the most important club nights that Louie Vega had. I went there a couple of times and listened to him play which was eye-opening for me because I knew the music but then I got to see where this music came from, the environment it was made in and people who made it come alive. It was not just about the music, it was also about the dancers and all these different people: different ages, different races, different walks of life. I would also say [there were] a few nights I had listening to DJ Harvey. When he plays disco it’s quite amazing.
Any favourite dance crazes? Favourite viral internet moments?
M: My recent favourite dance viral moments are the videos to Rema’s #Dumebi and my favourite dance account is @jitmasters. Of course, there’s all the remakes and flash mobs of the Call Your Girlfriend choreography including Saturday Night Live’s, but that was just in the beginning of the birth of the viral video.