Back in 2017, Sigrid released her debut EP, setting in motion a truly intriguing major label pop breakthrough. Awards, epic live shows and huge sales followed, and stardom changed every facet of her life as she swapped quiet, rural Norway for international success. As the campaign for her second album, How To Let Go, kicks off, the singer – plus Island Records, Made Management and UTA – unpacks her industry lessons and reveals how she used music to rediscover her identity…
WORDS: NIALL DOHERTY
PHOTOS: LASSE FLØDE
When you speak to Sigrid about her forthcoming second album How To Let Go, all roads seem to lead back to one song. For the singer and songwriter from Ålesund, a small port town in western Norway, it’s all there in the swooping rock-pop epic called It Gets Dark. It wasn’t the first cut to be released from How To Let Go, the follow-up to her UK Top 5 2019 debut Sucker Punch, but it is certainly the most important. For the artist born Sigrid Solbakk Raabe, this is the song that defines who she is as both a person and pop star in 2022.
“It’s the leading star off the record,” begins the easy-going 25-year-old over Zoom on a blustery Monday morning in late February. “It represents me but it’s also a new side of me. It’s a song about how I feel different between life in London and LA and then my life in Norway, which is very different, just culturally [in terms of] language, pace, things you do when you finish work, and stuff like that. I seem to never decide what I really want.”
Her new album pairs the euphoric synth-pop of her debut with more live-sounding instrumentation that takes in orchestral flourishes, widescreen guitar hooks, disco bangers, piano ballads, her love of Tame Impala, Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, Elton John and more. At the heart of it, though, is the sense of someone joining the dots between different versions of themselves.
“I’m probably more bubbly in English,” she says. “In Norwegian, I’m more chill. London is quite intense, there’s always something happening and it’s hard to turn things down. Norway brings out a different quality in life. But the song is about, ‘It’s fine and you can do both’.”
Elena Olivero, who manages Sigrid through Bergen-based company Made Management, says the idea for the new album crystallised around It Gets Dark.
“Sigrid knew from the beginning she wanted the album to sound more live and that vision became real when she wrote It Gets Dark,” she says. “After that session, everything came into place and she knew exactly what she wanted it to be.”
Sigrid says that the other message contained within It Gets Dark is how you need to experience the difficult things just to feel the highs in life.
“That’s what this whole new era is about,” says the singer. “I write reminders to myself with the collaborators I write with, and they’re all like, ‘It’s fine to find it hard to let some things go, it’s OK to not always say the right thing and not always make the right choices.’ I’m really scared of making wrong choices and it’s a lot about that. It’s different when you’re 21 and writing your first record and then you’re 25 and you’ve had an album out.”
There’s an added edge, of course, when that first album made the sort of impact that Sigrid’s debut did. Sucker Punch has 100,040 UK sales to date, according to the Official Charts Company, and has shifted over one million global units, while Sigrid’s global streams to date top 1.3 billion. There’s been a UK Platinum single with her joyous hit Strangers (829,590 sales), while Don’t Feel Like Crying (576,308) is certified gold. Her debut track Don’t Kill My Vibe has notched 390,617 sales. On stage, Sigrid’s connection is arguably more impressive, as demonstrated by the fact she sold over 17,500 London headline tickets during the Sucker Punch campaign. Later this year, she’ll play her biggest UK show yet at Wembley Arena.
Island Records UK president Louis Bloom says there’s no one else like Sigrid.
“On one hand, she’s from a tiny town in Norway but then she’s also travelling the world in London, New York and LA, and she’s equally comfortable in both worlds,” he says. “I think that’s interesting and she knows how to navigate all of that.”
Bloom believes Sigrid is about to make a big step up.
“She’s got that Scandinavian writing prowess but she’s also linked to UK culture,” he says. “She’s got a killer voice and can go to places that a lot of artists can’t. We’ve got to keep the authenticity she has, but then make bold, statement records and incredible creative.”
As Sigrid left the studio in LA in early 2020 after writing It Gets Dark, she had no idea just how much time she was about to have to dwell on its themes. Catching what she describes as the “last flight out” of the US as the pandemic began locking down nations, she went back to the family home in Ålesund. Instead of writing songs, she went skiing, hung out and ate dinner with the family. As the youngest of three children, she’s the quiet one when she’s back home. Her “super-extrovert” siblings are her best friends, she says, and it surprised her how quickly she was able to switch off from being Sigrid The Pop Star.
“It was scary how quickly my mind drifted off to do other things,” she recalls. “I was so in that Norway life that music just felt quite distant. I was onto another thing.”
She thinks that period being out of the game took a toll on her self-confidence. When she made the video for last year’s comeback single Mirror (137,320 UK sales), she wondered beforehand if she’d be able to do it.
“I was so nervous,” she remembers. “But I got on set and it took me 10 minutes and [everything] came back. I think if I lose focus, I get a bit nervous.”
Some good did emerge from the pause, though. Sigrid has learned that she should trust her gut more, and that her schedule can’t be one that absolutely hammers her.
“I know that I need a lot of time off,” she states. “My body just can’t handle too many days of work in a row and that’s just how I am. It’s something that maybe I didn’t want to accept but I am now, it’s fine.”
She’s also made peace with the fact that there’s people everywhere who want to share their take on what she should or shouldn’t do. That’s where trusting her instinct comes in.
“If there’s anyone younger than me coming into the industry and reading this interview,” she says, “I hope that what you can take away from this is that there’s gonna be a lot of opinions.”
Other things she’d pass on? That people change jobs all the time and, as the artist, you are the only constant, so believe in what you’re doing and enjoy it.
Her manager Elena Olivero thinks Sigrid is more relaxed, flexible and open these days. She’s having more fun.
“She learned to say, ‘OK, fuck it’ more often and I think that’s an important skill in the music industry, where two plus two doesn’t always equal four,” Olivero says.
Sigrid got down to work on the bulk of How To Let Go in Copenhagen with songwriters Caroline Ailin and her producer partner Sly (Dua Lipa, Mø), and she paints a picture of a considered process where ideas and songs were allowed to breathe. It was the opposite of her hectic debut.
“Sucker Punch was written in between all the travelling and the promo,” she explains. “You write a song in one day and the vocals you caught on the day are the ones that end up on the record because there wasn’t time.”
For its follow-up, there was a lot more back and forth, long discussions about lyrics and life and swimming in the ocean between sessions. Being in the studio with Ailin and Sly was to be around a “very cosy energy”.
“Caroline would come into the studio, bake sweet buns for all of us,” says Sigrid. “They have dogs, so there were always dogs in the studio and sometimes we’d go for dinner with Sly’s mum. It was a very homely set-up.”
The thing she marvels at most is the sheer pace at which Norwegian songwriter Ailin works.
“She’s super fast, it’s incredible, she can spit out lines for hours,” Sigrid says. “Caroline has really opened up some stuff in my vocal, taking it to different places. And Sly is a brilliant writer and producer, always coming up with new sounds, he was definitely a key part in finding my new sound.”
Sigrid says that different collaborators bring out different shades in her. Working with Emily Warren (Dua Lipa, Shawn Mendes) has opened up the way she thinks about life and helps her to make pop music that comes from a different angle.
“Emily knows how to make pop music, but her intention often comes from a way more alternative world and the merging of those two is just great,” she says.
But while Sigrid is developing as a collaborator, her vision is entirely her own.
“She controls the room,” says Louis Bloom. “She’s controlling the lyric and the message and that’s where you know you’ve got an artist proposition. The storytelling is really detailed and can only come from her.”
Sitting down to write these songs, Sigrid found all manner of lyrical themes pouring out of her, unified by an overarching theme of growing up and feeling at ease with your place in the world. The stomping electronic-pop of Burning Bridges delves into a break-up, Mirror makes peace with the fact people make mistakes, while she says there’s a “proper heartbreak one” that looks at a relationship from years back with a new perspective. The title How To Let Go, meanwhile, is taken from a track that reflects on how Sigrid is living her dream while also feeling nostalgic about a life before the spotlight.
“It’s quite sentimental,” she says. “You’re not going to get back that life you had before.”
She hears other artists exploring this theme, she says: “Billie Eilish has a song about it that I love, Everything I Wanted. It’s beautiful.”
Sigrid is reluctant to describe the self-exploration and questioning in her new songs as an identity crisis, though, it’s more a coming-of-age hurdle to navigate. With a charming nonchalance, she pulls a “that’s a bit strong” face when the phrase “identity crisis” is put to her.
“I’m sure I’ve said that once, but I’m also 25,” she shrugs. “It’s more like, all of a sudden, you’re grown up now.”
One thing that did make her question her place in the world, however, was being robbed of being able to play live.
“Of course, I lost the thing I love the most, which is touring,” she says. “The past two years have taken a massive toll on the industry and everyone who works in it.”
Sigrid returned to the stage at Lafayette in London last August, hitting the main stage at Reading & Leeds the same week. She has missed her diehards, too. She’s been keeping up with the various fan accounts – Sigrid memes, Sigrid Smiles, and the one where they find photos of Sigrid where she’s doing something a cat has also done – but it’s not the same.
“The number one motivation has been to go back on tour and perform and see people react to the songs and have that lovely community vibe you get,” she says.
“After two years of no live shows, success in this campaign is to get Sigrid on a tour bus!” nods Elena Olivero. “I honestly can’t wait to see her on a stage again, it’s her natural habitat.”
Amy Collins, who is leading Island’s marketing campaign for the record, thinks a big part of why Sigrid has connected so well in the UK is that fans can tell when someone is genuinely present rather than conducting some promotional fly-by.
“She was here for London Fashion Week, she was available, and we could get her to do an interview for a Radio 1 Hottest Record,” says Collins, who notes that Sigrid has strong champions throughout UK media.
“It goes back to the simple strategy of spending time in the marketplace. She knows who she is and her DNA is all her own.”
Collins says that, all the way back to Sigrid’s initial releases in 2017, the singer has been a natural presence on social media.
“She’s authentic on TikTok,” Collins adds. “You can see very clearly with other artists when it’s been manufactured or is part of the project. Everything that has performed well for Sigrid is her genuinely being herself.”
Elena Olivero says the How To Let Go campaign will be successful if more people around the world discover what a “wonderful and talented artist” Sigrid is.
“The aim is to establish her as a strong and solid artist with longevity,” she says.
Louis Bloom simply adds that Sigrid is a force of nature.
“We match her desire and ambition,” says Bloom. “She’s got an incredible way of storytelling and it’s always about big choruses for her, so it’s deeply personal and universal at the same time.”
Bloom opines that Sigrid straddles two worlds: she is an act who is big at radio but who can win over a different set of fans with, say, an epic Glastonbury set (as she did as a newcomer to The Park Stage
“She’s got headline credentials in her as a live artist and she writes these commercial songs, but with a lot of heart, thought and emotion,” he says.
When it came to the A&R process for How To Let Go, Island operated with a hands-off style.
“It’s almost like an alternative artist approach, we empower artists to express themselves in a way that they want,” says Bloom. “I believe the public want real pop stars and I think that can only happen through the songwriting, telling the story. It’s all her. She’s just got this instinct for melodies.”
It wasn’t just her label who didn’t get a peek preview during the recording process. No one outside the core creators got a look-in, states Sigrid.
“I had a period of not showing anyone in the team any songs for a couple of months,” she explains. “I just took some time and they respected that, they were really cool with that and I appreciated it. They were really like, ‘Just take your time, we’re here, let us know.’”
She has a lot of respect for Island and loves being on a label with so much history.
“It was my first international contract, I’ve been there for years,” she says. “It’s an honour, it’s very exciting. I love that there’s so many great bands and artists on there as well, like Dermot Kennedy and Easy Life, lots of cool stuff.”
Bloom thinks Sigrid is emblematic of the current purple patch that Island finds itself in, having steered breakthrough campaigns for Sports Team, The Lathums, Yard Act, ArrDee, M Huncho, Unknown T, Ray Blk and more.
“She’s a trailblazer and we love artists who inspire their fans, other artists and us,” he says. “She fits in perfectly with that. I want to sign acts from multiple genres and some may have different tastes or different approaches, but what unifies all of them is that there can only ever be one of them. That’s why I’m excited for Sigrid, there’s a point of difference and she cuts through.”
Bloom outlines that Island’s model is to look after the talent first and then build their fanbase and audiences.
“That’s what we do, and present them with the best opportunities, whether that’s creatively, strategically or commercially,” he says. “It’s about love, care and attention and respect for the artistry.”
Right now, Bloom says, Island is firing on all cylinders.
“The roster is really taking shape, the best it’s been for a while,” he states. “The year has started really well. We’ve had our fifth Top 10 record with ArrDee, we’ve got Yard Act being the most acclaimed band in recent years, Lola Young shortlisted for the BRITs Rising Star. They’re unique artists, we’re celebrating them in different ways and they all have a place on the roster.”
There’s more to come, too, he reveals.
“It’s not felt this exciting for a long time, there’s a lot of confidence and everyone is really energised, morale is really high,” he says. “It’s great to be back in the office. I’ve just been in an A&R meeting and it’s like, ‘Fucking hell, we’ve got so many great records to come this year.’ We’ve got some really important artists returning. I’m loving it.”
Sigrid kicked off her 2022 with the release of Head On Fire, a collaborative single with Griff that came out in January. They met at London Fashion Week last year, going into the studio soon after and only forcing themselves to finish a track because they knew their managers would ask if they’d actually done any work.
“It’s been cool to do things like music videos together,” Sigrid says. “When there’s this awkward break between shots, you can hang out and not just stare into the void. We talk about the music industry. It’s good to share and there’s not always the time to meet up and talk.”
The pair have grown close, and she’s also good friends with Atlantic star Maisie Peters, with whom she had lunch the day before our interview. As part of a wave of women reshaping the sound of contemporary pop, Sigrid is under no illusions about who is running the show.
“I think we’ve proven time and time again that there’s a lot of brilliant women doing great stuff in the music industry,” she says. “You look at the biggest artists in the world, you see Adele, Taylor Swift. Those two have been really good role models for me, and I know also for Maisie and Griff too. We’ve grown up listening to them.”
Sigrid has been told that she’s a role model too, but she’s not sure. She doesn’t want to get cocky.
“I think a good role model is someone who won’t always do the right thing,” she says. “I’m a human too.”
She found it difficult when people honed in on her outfits – typically jeans and T-shirt – during the Sucker Punch campaign, with some critics claiming that it was some sort of tricksy marketing ploy to convey a “normal” image.
“I got so confused because you’re reading and you almost start to believe it,” she says. “I was like, ‘Whoa, hold on, is it? Have I just thought it was me and then it wasn’t me?’”
The confusion came to a simple end, she states.
“You just wake up one day and you’re like, ‘fuck off,’” she laughs. “I like to dress up sometimes. Also, it’s just clothes! I still think the most interesting thing about me is the songs and the live performances, in my humble opinion!”
It’s part of a wider problem, she says, that women’s appearances are commented on a lot more than men’s.
“You can’t win,” she declares. “If you decide to show a lot of skin, then you’re going to get comments on that. If you decide not to show skin, then you’re getting a headline that says ‘How Sigrid Avoided A Sexual Image.’ That was literally a headline one time. Like, ‘I’m 21, for fuck’s sake!’”
She is more positive when it comes to talking about where pop music is at right now, feeling that it’s become a lot more alternative in the way it’s created.
“It’s like the rules have been turned upside down in my opinion and I really like it,” she enthuses.
She’s a big fan of Erase Me singer Lizzy McAlpine and thinks there’s a lot of inspiring things happening in the UK: “Holly Humberstone, Griff, Maisie, me, it’s really exciting!”.
Indeed, she’s giddy at the thought of getting back out there. She took some time out, figured out who she was and what she wanted. Like the star herself puts it, you just wake up one day and think, ‘fuck off!’.
Sigrid is ready to be a pop star again, and she can’t wait to get going…