Formerly Lykke Li’s backing singer and now signed to Robyn’s Konichiwa Records imprint, Zhala Rifat makes brilliantly maximalist pop that combines elements of club music with influences from her Kurdish roots. Here the Swedish singer-songwriter discusses her musical upbringing and self-titled debut, and talks confidence, showmanship and naked rooms.

Hey Zhala, you had your album release party this weekend, right? How did it go?

It was a-ma-zing - it was so good. We had a naked room, and it was a success.

A naked room?

Yeah! You could only go in if you were naked, and it was full of people all the time; people were loving it, and a lot of people who just tried it out for the first time. So there was a really exciting energy around that, and then the show was great too, just really, really fun.

Can we talk about your musical background, please? What’s your earliest musical memory?

My earliest music memory is my father listening to Hare Krishna music. (Laughs) No, there was a really big mix of music, but I remember he would listen to this Hare Krishna song on repeat. (Laughs) I don’t know why I’m laughing! I think because I just remembered it now! And then we listened to ‘Lambada’ and a lot of Kurdish and Middle Eastern music, and then Bollywood music. Then, of course, pop music, or whatever they would play on MTV in the 90s.

Are you parents very into music?

Yeah, my father especially. I didn’t grow up with him, but he was there sometimes. He has a great voice, and he has really eclectic taste, so I was introduced to a lot of Persian music, and a lot of Middle Eastern music, mostly.

When you first started discovering music on your own terms, what sort of artists did you gravitate towards?

I had so many idols from when I was 10 ‘til I was 15; I loved everyone on MTV. It was mostly female superstars, like TLC and Aaliyah, and then I also loved the Spice Girls and Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Lopez. Also, things like one hit wonders – just songs that I liked, not linked to an artist. But I’ve always been going through phases and I’m a music nerd, so I would always search for different types of music. When I was 15 I started trying to learn more about indie and rock and Swedish music, and then when I was 17 I started clubbing and got into techno and acid all kinds of electronic music. It kind-of took over my life and now I’m still hooked on club music.

When did you first begin making music yourself?

Well, my voice is my main instrument, and I’ve been singing since I was probably six or seven. I always wanted to make music, but I wanted to sing in English, and my English was really bad at first. So, while I made my first song when I was 10 years old – and I would practise every day and perform in school – for a long time everything I did was kinda crappy. (Laughs)

You sang back-up with Lykke Li for a while. How did that come about?

I mean, Stockholm is really small so I knew her before she was famous, when we were singing in the same choir. So for her second album, Wounded Rhymes, me and Mariam The Believer sang back-up, and then she invited us on tour. I got offered a record deal around that time, but I didn’t want to release anything because I didn’t feel like I was ready with my music. So I turned down the record deal, and went on tour with Lykke Li for a year and half, wearing black clothes, singing these beautiful songs and playing with a great band. It was a great time.

I learned a lot from it too, in terms of production and how it is to tour, you know? I realised the things I want to do and the things I don’t want to do, just through experiencing it. I have control over what I do now, because I learned more about how it worked with Lykke.

You were the debut signing to Robyn’s Konichiwa Records imprint. She strikes us as the ideal mentor.

Yeah, I mean, I grew up listening to Robyn. And then we have mutual friends too, so we were acquaintances before she signed me, and I would see her at the same clubs. But, yeah, I think it fits me perfectly and she’s a great person to work with so I’m very happy. I remember when I was nine years old, I would sing along and dance to ‘Do You Really Want Me’ every day on repeat; it was my favourite song. And she was this cool 15 or 16 year old girl, and I was eight or nine, and I thought she was the coolest person ever.

For the benefit of anyone yet to hear your debut, what can they expect?

Well, they can expect a universe full of religious feelings and emotions. It’s very intense with a lot of love and thought.

We understand you purposely took your time creating it?

Yeah. I mean, I produced it with Mathias [Oldén], and we worked on music for two years before I released ‘Slippin’ Around’. At the time, that was the only song that was finished, so I released it so I could get a little bit more money to make the album. I would say we worked intensely for a year, working day and night, until we had the finished album.

It’s an intensely physical album, incorporating a real range of styles, from pop to electronic and Middle Eastern music. What was the goal, sonically?

I just wanted it be transparent and to be me. Also, I had this conceptual idea of making a classic pop album, because I’ve been wanting to do that ever since I was a kid. So I tried to play myself, growing up, showing the world from my perspective, with my feelings, and my view of life. I was also keen not compromise too much, you know? I wanted [the album] to represent exactly how I feel. And I think it’s the story that I wanted to tell because I didn’t adjust it to the pop industry or what pop music is “supposed” to be, with choruses in the right places and too much production polish. I didn’t limit myself at all.

Have you learned a lot about yourself in the process of making this album?

Yeah, for sure. I made the album with Mathias alone, and it got really personal. I don’t know if I would have been able to make an album alone at that time, because I’m a control freak and a perfectionist and I needed that support. It was a challenge and there was definitely a lot of personal development.

So I think I got more confident and I learned to finish something. (Laughs) I mean, I know how to finish stuff, but not something that means this much to me. Another thing is that though I feel naked when I make music, I’ve learned that sharing my emotions doesn’t mean that anyone owns me. I have more control than I thought I would.

Also, I proved to myself that I know what I’m doing, you know? A year before ‘Slippin’ Around’ came out, I would show people and no-one understood or got it. Everyone thought it was weird, and I was like, “What are you talking about?! This is a pop song! This is a great song.” And then when I released it with a video, everyone all of a sudden understood. So, along the way I’ve learned how people react to things in this industry, and I know to trust myself now. I mean, I always trusted myself, but now I have proof that I was right all along!

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

It goes in phases, really. A month ago, I would have said ‘Holy Bubbles’ and now I would say ‘Lunch’ because I really enjoyed performing it on Friday night. I think when you see me play songs live, you understand the concept and see how each song is different and yet still me. Personally, I like it when you get to know a song through the live performance.

What can audiences expect from the live show?

It all depends on the venue and everything, but we try to create an energy level where it’s almost like we’re in the audience performing, next to you. We want to make it feel like the audience is just as part of the show as I am entertaining them. But it’s still very much show time; I give my all!

So, what’s the plan for the rest of 2015?

I’m gonna do some touring in the summer and in the fall, and I’m playing some festivals in Europe. I’d also like to make a new video this summer, and start recording more music if I have time. That’s the goal.

Where would you like to be in 12 months time with your music?

Oh my god, that’s such a difficult question because if I say something and it doesn’t happen then that would be such a disappointment! Usually, everything I want to happen happens, so maybe I should just keep that to myself! (Laughs) But I do hope I get to tour a lot, and that my music will reach all over the world, to places that are far away from me. Ultimately, I hope that people find my music and can connect with it.

June 2015