The Feminist Pop Star Behind Summer's Most Enchanting Tracks

You may not have heard her name but there’s a good chance you’ve heard her voice. Norwegian singer/songwriter Astrid S supplies the enchanting vocals on deep house duo Blonde's latest track, "Just For One Night" and previously sang on Norwegian DJ Matoma's 2015 single "Running Out", both of which you've likely heard on the radio or a dance floor without realising. Now, it's time for her own music to take centre stage.
Having won an MTV Europe Music Award last year for Best Norwegian Act and accompanied Troye Sivan on his European tour, the 20-year-old electro-pop prodigy has just released Party's Over. The six-track EP features her single "Breathe", which was picked as a ‘tune of the week’ by BBC Radio 1’s Scott Mills, and songs co-written and produced by Cass Lowe, who has previously worked with Zayn, Snakehips, Chance the Rapper and MØ.
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Scandinavia has exported some stellar female pop stars in recent years (Robyn, Lykke Li, Annie, Tove Lo, Icona Pop, MØ and newcomer Sigrid, to name a few) and Norwegian teen culture is having a moment, thanks to the internationally adored teen drama SKAM, so Astrid S couldn't have picked a better time to launch her career to new heights. The video for her latest earworm single, "Such a Boy", co-written with Lowe, even features SKAM star Herman Tømmeraas, aka Penetrator Chris.
Astrid – full name Astrid Smeplass – who currently lives with her best friend in Oslo, spoke to Refinery29 about her whirlwind career to date – and the heights she hopes to scale next.
How old were you when you first started doing music? How did it all start for you?
My family isn’t very musical but my mum and dad noticed I was really into singing – more than the average 2-year-old – and they were really good at serving my needs with music. When I was 6 they signed me up to piano lessons and got me a keyboard. I was in the marching band for several years and had singing lessons but I quit for a while when I was about 12. Then I rediscovered music again when I was 15. I started listening to John Mayer, I bought a guitar and that’s when I started writing songs.
How does the songwriting process work? Do you write your own songs?
I write most of them. There’s been one that I didn’t write, “Hurts So Good”, which was written by Julia Michaels and I absolutely love. I can really relate to it and I knew I wanted to be on it and sing it myself, but I do really love when I’m able to write my own songs. It feels better.
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How do you write your songs? What inspires you?
Usually I write down ideas when I’m on a plane or in the car or when I’m travelling. It could be about when I’m all by myself and I’m just thinking about something someone said to me or did to me or something I’ve experienced, then I’ll suddenly get a weird sentence in my head or a word that explains it or a melody and then I’ll write it down. It could be about one of my friends’ experiences – if we had a chat about a boy or she told me about a situation, that could inspire me. Often I’m inspired by movies, I watch a lot of movies.
How much creative input do you have in your songs, videos, what you wear and everything else?
I would say 94%. I’m very strict with everyone I work with and everything has to be on my terms. I have to have the final say because it’s my face and my name that represents everything we do and everything I put out. It’s my own brand. The music is the most important thing to me and it’s about me and my life, so I think I have the right to have 94% of the control. But I have three people around me, who I trust and have a lot of respect for, and their input and opinions matter a lot to me, but sometimes I know what’s best for me. It’s about finding that balance, but I definitively have the most say.
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Is that quite rare? I know a lot of young pop stars don’t really get as much input into the direction of their careers.
Yeah, I think you definitely have to set the record straight. Sometimes you have to be a bit strict and tell people you want to be in control. I understand it’s hard and very uncomfortable at times, especially being young and inexperienced. People think they know better than you. But with the way the music industry is now – anything can happen with social media and you don’t need to know the right people – if you have a great song, it will do good things for you. No one can really know what will become a hit or not. No one is that experienced anymore and I think that’s a good thing. For me, it’s just important to have control and be able to write my own songs. Some people don’t need that, some people think it’s more comfortable to let other people take control and let them lead the way.
You say you’re not afraid to tell people what you want – do you think that has anything to do with being Norwegian? Norway is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world (it ranked third in the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report)...
Absolutely, yeah! I grew up thinking there was no difference between being a boy or a girl. I remember being so happy about being a girl, but I was in my own bubble – my mum and dad never treated my brother and I differently and they let me be independent and in charge at home. We have a very open relationship – any opinion is important to discuss and everyone has an opinion in my home, so maybe it’s easier for me. And also because, as you said, that’s how a lot of families are in Norway.
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You touch on gender inequality in your new single, “Such a Boy” – how did that song come about? Was it inspired by anything in particular?
Yeah, I wrote it with Cass Lowe, a great writer and producer, and it’s about being younger and remembering people saying, “Don’t be such a girl”. It’s always been very negatively loaded and I’d never really realised until recently that it’s discriminatory. It pissed me off when someone told me that a couple of days before I went to the studio. I had a lot of questions about why it is that boys and girls are always being told to not be such a girl and why I’ve never been told to not be such a boy.
Judging from everything you’ve told me, I’m guessing you’d describe yourself as a feminist.
Yes, absolutely! I think it would be strange to not be, because feminism is about equality between the genders.
Have you experienced sexism in the industry?
There have been a few times when I’ve been writing with people in the studio and not allowed to open my mouth or have an opinion, which can be very frustrating. Something that's most frustrating to me is when people tell me what to wear and not wear. I grew up watching Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, with them wearing crop tops and miniskirts, so I always thought it would be the opposite, but people are always telling me to wear more clothes and not show my skin. To me, that’s as frustrating as being told to dress down, which I’ve never been told. I think it should be my decision and I should be allowed to show my arms or my tummy or my legs if I want to.
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What reasons do people usually give when they tell you to wear more clothes?
To be taken more seriously. But I don’t feel I should have to change my behaviour because women have become sexualised. People should learn that we can wear as few clothes as boys and men and not be sexualised. I should be able to wear whatever I want without being sexualised. I shouldn’t have to wear more clothes to be taken seriously.
We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. What do you most like to wear on stage?
I love wearing sneakers and comfortable clothes. When I played at festivals last summer I went through a period of wearing sports clothes – I’d wear Nike and adidas, jackets and tights. All very comfortable and I think it looks kinda cool.
You tweeted about the Manchester attack, which devastated all of us but particularly many in the entertainment industry. As a musician with a lot of young fans yourself, how did it make you feel to hear about it?
I’ve been good at keeping my distance from all of the news and terrorist attacks, especially while travelling. But this one got to me because I could really relate to the situation and could empathise with Ariana Grande and her team. We all feel responsible for the people coming to watch our concerts and it’s sad that the safety of being at a concert for fun and as an escape was ruined for everyone in that moment. It scares people and I hope it doesn’t take away the joy of being at a concert and that people will still come and see artists.
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Are there any specific items you have to take with you on tour that you couldn’t live without?
Not really. I’m a very easygoing person, I can survive with anything. In Norway I’m used to going on mountain hikes, bringing a tent, sleeping over and making my own food. It would be nice to have a toothbrush, though.
Can you see yourself living in Norway permanently or do you have plans to move abroad?
I’d definitely settle down in Norway. I’d love my children to grow up in Norway, eat brown cheese, go skiing and do all the things I did when I grew up. But for now I want to explore – maybe I’ll live in London or New York for a year.
What do you like about London?
I just love Europe and London is more international than Norway. There are a lot of producers and writers there. The look of it reminds me of the west part of Oslo, but also Paris; it’s just very European with the small houses and the streets. I like Shoreditch and Notting Hill.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations?
I don’t have any particular inspirations. I listen to different songs from different artists. I look up to Emma Watson – she seems really down to earth and a great role model. She’s very outspoken and politically engaged.
Could you see yourself getting involved in political activism?
Absolutely. Right now I’m sticking with music and putting all of my energy into that, but I’d love to be a part of a movement or a campaign or start my own campaign in the future. I’m very engaged in girls having the opportunity to go to school, wherever they live or whatever religion they’re from. I’d like to help fund or build a school somewhere.
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Who are you enjoying listening to at the moment?
I recently discovered Louis the Child and I’ve been listening to Kendrick Lamar’s new album. I’m always listening to the New Music Friday playlist on Spotify. I mostly just listen to a lot of different songs from different artists and genres.
What’s next for you?
I’d love to go on a big world tour with a band and a show that I’m proud of, performing the best music I’ve ever made to, hopefully, a lot of fans. I have a mini world tour this fall which I’m really excited about.
Astrid S's EP 'Party's Over' is out now.
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