The last time I had a chance to speak to Agnes Thee Carlsson, known simply as Agnes, was back in 2010 at Soho House in Manhattan, at the stateside release party for her already international hit, “Release Me.” I was still so young and dumb then. Now I’m just less young.
Ten years later, we’ve reunited – in Zoom form, as is customary in a pandemic world – to catch up on everything that’s happened since.
For the uninitiated, Agnes first rose to Swedish superstardom after winning the second season of Sweden’s Idol, which she looks back on with a sense of appreciation for providing the springboard to her now well over decade-long career.
Despite the exposure however, Idol wasn’t responsible for the work it took to dig deep and discover her own artistic voice.
“It’s not about creativity or who you are as an artist. That was something I had figure out during the competition, but mostly after. For me, Idol was a platform where I started…it was really like a journey,” she says, thinking back on her first big break.
After winning the competition, Agnes quickly became a pop sensation in her home country before making moves onto the dance floor with her third album Dance Love Pop, extending her reach across international waters with songs like “On and On” – and, yes, “Release Me” – followed by an incredible follow-up, Veritas, in 2012. (“All I Want is You” is still chill-inducing.)
“You know, it was such a new experience. There were so many situations that were so new for me. I feel like Swedish people are so not used to, ‘Here I am, look at me,'” she says, thinking back on traveling to the United States upon her hit song breaking through in America.
“There was really a culture shock for me, just putting me out there and then I’m supposed to talk. That was a very new thing, but it was a great experience I think I really grew as a person by being there and doing that, but at the same time, it’s so important to be grounded in your own philosophy. When you go to the U.S., there are so many people telling you this and that, and how to be successful…it’s like voices everywhere. In Sweden, people are very respectful to your creative bubble. They don’t go in there – it’s a kind of respect for an artist and that place,” she went on to say.
“It’s important to be really grounded in who you are, and where you come from, and what you want to say and what you want to do. So it was great doing that, and sometimes very scary,” she says, adding that the English language barrier can be “very frustrating sometimes.”
“You feel like you’re half of the person you are because you can’t really speak the words you want to say, but at the same time I had some of the most beautiful moments there. I went to a lot of gay clubs and festivals, and that kind of love and support was overwhelming.”
But by 2015, she needed a break.
“It was all about, like, okay: I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and it’s been great, it’s been wonderful. I’ve been touring all around the world, and it’s been amazing, doing that, and always have like a schedule, deadlines…I felt like I needed to just have a break and to really get to know who I am and to grow as a person, and also as an artist and a songwriter,” she says.
“I started out when I was 16…and I felt like I had put myself in this little box. I felt like, okay, this is not me anymore. This is maybe who I was when I was 16, 17, 18, but it’s not me now…I want to go to the other side of the world by myself and go to this weird retreat about energies. I want to just cut up my hair. I had this kind of thing that my hair had to be really long, otherwise I didn’t feel comfortable. That was one of the first things I did – just cut up my hair. It was all about that.”
Although she went on to explore different parts of the world (and herself), music was never not floating right nearby: “During that whole time I was writing music, but I didn’t want to have a deadline. I just wanted to write and feel whatever came. At the same time, I started to learn about production because before i was always like when i wrote a song, I had to have someone else in the room to do it, so that was a big door opener for me to be able to create something all by myself,” she explains.
Following her extended absence, Agnes returned with the Nothing Can Compare EP last year, which found her feeling revitalized and re-inspired, still madly in love with dance music.
“I deleted everything from Instagram because I wanted to start fresh, and one of the first pictures I put out there was a picture of walking down the stairs…I had this kind of feeling that I want to start in the basement,” she explained.
“I want to start this journey in a completely different way. More of a underground kind of feeling…I didn’t do a lot of interviews at all, so it was like really getting out there and just starting to grow naturally in a way.”
As has almost always the case in various ways through the years, Agnes’ music stays centered on dance – and that’s remained her focus.
“I always come back to disco in different kind of ways, and why I do that is because I think I love the whole kind of philosophy around it. Disco for me – it’s the sound of being free. When I hear a really really good disco song, it’s when you can talk about existential questions, but you still have the beats in the background. Even though it can be sad, it can be dark, it always has this kind of uplifting thing around it, and it’s always like the light, and the tunnel…it’s like you stand on top of a mountain, you feel like the wind in your hair,” Agnes says.
The tight set finds Agnes working her way up the stairs from the club basement towards a higher state of disco euphoria, complete with hypnotic and pulsating anthems like “I Trance” and “Limelight” – and even a Paris Is Burning interlude.
“I love Paris Is Burning. You want to be free, you want to express yourself, and I think when people are free and do what they are supposed to do, you vibrate on another level, and that’s what you’re supposed to do,” she says, adding: I always go back to the disco queen Sylvester. For me he was like, the queen of everything.”
At the top of 2020, Agnes kept the good vibes going strong the dazzling “Goodlife,” and as of this summer, is having a moment of spiritual dance floor divination in the form of “Fingers Crossed,” a tarot card and crystal ball-filled surrealist, esoteric trip. Pure escapism, or a reflection of Agnes’ own experience with spirituality?
“It’s both,” she explains.
“In the music video, it’s very much playful,” she says, “but I truly believe that there’s so much out there that we don’t we can’t see and we can’t touch it, but it’s something there that’s more than us. I’m not Christian or anything, but I just believe that there are energies, and some people are able to to hear and see, and some of us not. I’m just surrounded by those who can.”
Having stepped away from the spotlight amid the rapidly transitioning state of the music industry, in this Brave New World of streaming, Agnes feels comfortable – inspired, even – to create in the changing climate of instant consumption.
“I think it’s so much more inspiring right now. It feels like people want to get to know and understand a lot more than before. You have so much more access to whoever you’re interested in, and I think that’s beautiful…you can bring people into your world, and they can be together with you on your journey,” she says.
“I’ve been going through so much since that time, but I truly believe it’s more creative now. There’s definitely more space, especially for collaborations.”
In thinking of working with others, Agnes has also been channeling the energies of fellow music-makers, past and present, into her production – especially those who’ve carved out their own legacies on the dance floor.
“Someone that I’ve been listening a lot to is [French producer] Sébastien Tellier…that goes together with the whole disco vibe,” she says.
“The early stuff [Giorgio] Moroder did together with Donna Summer, like “I Feel Love,” it’s so inspiring. It was something so new, and still, when you listen to it, it feels fresh. I’ve been listening to Moby, too – he brings people to the to the club, but he also opens up the sky. I love that kind of combination. When I look at how I want the album to be, it’s like: you can be down in the basement, but at the end we will like rise up. No limits.”
Although she’s not offering any specific hints as to what’s to come on her album, due out in 2021, one can assume that – much like the bulk of her dramatic back catalog, from “Release Me” to “All I Want is You” to “Fingers Crossed,” there will be strings.
“Production-wise, I love strings. What I love about strings is you can compare it with a voice: it can be very fragile, but when you put a lot of strings together, it’s so big. The vibrations are so close to a voice. I think that’s why I love it so much,” she says of the sound’s frequent fixture in her music.
The sound of strings just makes her happy, which is always key – especially in the pandemic.
“I believe it’s so important to do things every day, regularly, that make you happy,” she says when asked about how she’s passing the time and staying strong and energized in these Most Unprecedented of Times.
“I think we have to be serious about that. It’s so easy – one day goes by, two days go by, a week, a month, a year – and you don’t put energy in doing things that truly make you happy. That can be small things: like, okay, I love to go to the sauna, or swim or whatever, light up a candle…small things all the time that make you a little bit more happy.”
Another thing that ought to make anyone happy? The promise of even more Agnes still on the horizon.