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Nine Songs

Sweden’s Loreen may well take the Eurovision trophy home to Stockholm for the second time this weekend. But what makes her tick? Alan Pedder gets to know her through the songs that shaped her life.

12 May 2023, 08:30 | Words by Alan Pedder

Growing up in the central Swedish city of Västerås, Loreen Talhaoui never thought that she would have a career as a recording artist.

“I don’t think I even wanted to be an artist,” she says, speaking over Zoom from Liverpool where she’s preparing for the final sprint of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. “Singing was just a sanctuary for me, it was my space where I knew exactly who and what I was with no issues.”

Her parents, both Moroccan Berber immigrants, had five other children before divorcing when she was only 6 years old. Being the big sister with responsibilities, Loreen grew up faster than most, developing a strong sense of intuition and a love of being alone. Although the music lessons she had at school left her cold, it was a different story at home where she could shut herself in the bathroom for hours on end and sing along to Whitney Houston and Céline Dion songs, studying them intently, note by note.

At 12, she bought herself an out-of-tune, secondhand piano by saving up the pocket money that other kids would spend on chocolate and sweets. She learned to play by ear, just as she had learned to sing, listening to tapes and CDs borrowed from the library. Music remained her passion throughout her teens, but it wasn’t until her sister persuaded her into auditioning for Swedish Idol in 2004 that the Loreen we know and are somewhat in awe of was born.


It was a very bumpy start, mind you. Loreen has described her Idol experience as “traumatic,” though she’s grateful for the path that it started her on. At 21, the destiny she’d been blind to was suddenly made clear, even if it took a while longer to get there. In 2011, after several years working in Swedish television as a presenter, producer and director, Loreen stepped into the world of Eurovision by entering her first song, “My Heart is Refusing Me”, into Sweden’s hotly contested Melodifestivalen, where the national entry is chosen. When it failed to cut through, despite being a chart hit, she returned the following year with “Euphoria”, which took her all the way to the Eurovision finals in Azerbaijan and back again, crowned queen.

An indelible smash that still sounds fresh 11 years later, “Euphoria” sold over 2 million copies worldwide and became the UK’s most downloaded Eurovision single ever. Two albums followed, Heal and Ride, and a third entry into Melodifestivalen in 2017 with a stirring, political performance of “Statements”. Sweden made a poor choice that night, but they’ve made up for it this year with “Tattoo”, bringing Loreen back to the main event as a favourite to win.

Sitting in her hotel room in Liverpool, looking out over the Mersey, she's in lively spirits despite the intense schedule of the past few months and the two weeks that lie ahead. She admits to having been a bit nervous about sharing her Nine Songs. “Well, I don’t even know myself,” she half-protests when I suggest that talking through them will let people get to know her better. But as it turns out, that’s not strictly true. The more we talk, the more it seems she knows herself more deeply than most. I think you have to, to be able to do what she does. To be able to access a part of herself that’s closed off to many, a space where all thoughts fall away and pure instinct takes over.

That’s the space she’s aiming to be in when the first note of “Tattoo” starts up tomorrow night at the Eurovision finals. “I can’t let the thoughts in, because then everything goes to hell,” she says. “It’s interesting because when I was a child, I knew what this space felt like and I knew how to get there. Then somewhere along the way I lost it, because I went out into the world, but more often than not it’s very easy for me to end up there now. The moment the song comes on, I’m there. My mind is not even in the picture. There are no thoughts. And then, when the song is finished, it’s the same feeling as waking up from a dream. It feels completely zen.”

That’s not a word you could use to describe the Eurovision green room during the tense and lengthy voting process, but she'll no doubt take it all in her stride. For her, it's not about the winning, it's about communicating in a way that's fully, fearlessly Loreen. "You have to tell your truth," she says. "Because the thing is, people will feel that."

“Nànnuflày” by Tinariwen feat. Kurt Vile and Mark Lanegan

BEST FIT: Did I pronounce that correctly?

LOREEN: [laughs] Yeah, you actually did! I’m not really sure what nànnuflày means, because even though it’s a Berber word, which is my native language, there are different dialects. Tinariwen are from the Sahara desert, so they are from somewhere south of where my family are from, and honestly I don’t understand all the things that they sing.

I’ve chosen a Tinariwen song because when I saw them live it was the first time that I saw my heritage being represented on stage. It was in Stockholm, actually. A friend of mine took me along to their show. I didn’t know they existed up until then, but I knew instantly that they were my tribe.

I’d always seen myself as a ‘beyond borders’ type of person and I thought my heritage was not so important to me. But seeing Tinariwen in concert brought up so many emotions in me. Standing there and seeing the way that they were dressed, the way that they were singing, and all these dances that I remember from my childhood, I realised, ‘My god, heritage does have a meaning. It does matter.’

I said hi to them after the show and got to know them a bit, and we connected. Later, I was looking back at some pictures and I realised that, looking at my career, there were certain things I’d done subconsciously that referenced my heritage. Creative choices I’d made like singing in a certain way or painting my face in a way that comes from my tribe. And from that moment on, I knew I wanted to bring my heritage into my music.

That’s one of the reasons why I chose Tinariwen, but also this song, because it’s very, very spiritual. It’s desert blues. It has all the chanting. I feel like if you want to cleanse your body, you can always listen to this song.

Music is very powerful, the way my people see it. We use it for things like healing and opposing stagnations and stuff like that, so there is a huge respect for music in Tuareg or Berber culture. I actually wouldn’t call this song music, I would call it sound healing in many ways.

“Batwanes Beek” by Warda

BEST FIT: I know that Warda has been one of your biggest musical idols. Tell me the story of how you developed such a deep admiration for her.

LOREEN: I think my first encounter with Warda was actually hearing my mother singing her songs, especially this one. I have so many childhood memories of hearing her singing “Batwanes Beek”, but also hearing Warda herself. We had a cassette tape of hers that was just on repeat in our home. So I grew up with this music, with this woman, and she’s influenced me a lot. I think you can tell from listening to “Tattoo”. There are pieces of her in it. If you listen to the middle eight, it has almost the same vibe and the strings as “Batwanes Beek”.

Listening to Warda was my first encounter with really thinking about music, really thinking about how to sing. I didn’t go to music school or anything like that. What I did was just listen to certain songs over and over and over and learn from them. I’m not talking whole albums, just individual songs, and “Batwanes Beek” was that song of Warda’s. The rest of my family would be like, ‘Oh my god, she’s listening to it again.’

As a child I would often take the tape player into the bathroom because the acoustics in there were better. I’d turn off all the lights and just listen. That was the thing that I loved the best. That’s how weird of a child I was. My mother would be like, ’Aren’t you gonna go hang with your friends?’ and I’d be like, ‘No, I’m just gonna hang out in the bathroom with Warda in the dark.’ It took me years to understand what she was doing with her voice.

That’s my memory of this song, and it has just been following me my whole life.

It’s a passionate love song, as far as I understand it. Very grand emotions and huge, dramatic strings.

Yeah, it’s a love story. People in Arabic countries can be hopelessly romantic. It’s a cultural thing. She basically sings that this person is with her everywhere, in spirit, and it’s painful in many ways. She’s in love with somebody and he’s basically haunting her dreams. I think it’s a perfect love song. There’s a lot of struggle.

I didn't realise how much this song has been sampled, and how much Warda has been sampled in general. Like, you can find parts of “Batwanes Beek” in a Britney Spears song, in an Aaliyah song, and so many more.

Yeah, very much. Oh my god, Timbaland sampled her big time with Aaliyah! [sings “Boy I don’t know what to tell ya”]. I'm gonna sample her too now!

“All is Full of Love” by Björk

LOREEN: Björk is seriously one of my biggest inspirations. I think she’s so spiritual, so free, so creative and so connected to everything. I’m a spiritual person myself so her music resonates very well with me. I think you can tell that she’s an artist who communicates things that most of us don’t even understand. She’s so ahead of us all.

When I listen to music, generally the lyrics are the last thing that I listen to. For me, a song gives a certain energy and sometimes when you listen to the lyrics, the energy there doesn’t match. The singer is saying something else with their voice.

With Björk, the landscapes that she creates with her music and with her words are so inspiring. The phrase “All is full of love”, I never really got that until about 10 years ago. It was really hard for me to understand that at first. Like what does she mean, all is full of love? But then I had an awakening and suddenly I could feel what the song was about. Everything is energy, and energy is love.

When I finally understood it, it was like a touch of freedom in many ways. This must have been before “Euphoria”, and I think it explains a little bit why that song and the performance of that song was so spiritual. I wasn’t very much in a spiritual space before, but as I said, this song was an awakening. And Björk has a lot of songs that awaken me.

Although you didn’t understand the song until much later. would you say your connection with Björk as a performer, as an artist, was quite instant for you when you first heard her?

Yeah. I think we see things in a similar way. I feel like the landscapes she creates are always so ancient, and I love the way she uses sounds from nature. If you listen very closely, you can hear that she’s including nature in her songs, like the sound of the wind or of water pouring, or the sound of sand.

I also have this deep love for nature, especially these days, I don’t know what is going on. Like, I can just be completely overwhelmed with love in places like Iceland. Actually, Iceland is one of my go-to places. I go at least once a year.

The first holiday that I ever took by myself was to Iceland, in 1999, and it was completely mind-blowing.

I think people are so funny sometimes. I’m not supposed to talk about this but there are religious people out there who talk about the paradise that supposedly comes after this life, blah blah blah. I’m like, ‘Guys, have you looked around? You’re waiting for this beautiful paradise to come but you just have to go to Iceland!’

Yeah. Like, paradise is right here and we're ruining it.

Oh, but the planet will survive though. It's us who won’t.

“TERRITORY” by The Blaze

LOREEN: My love for “TERRITORY” actually started with the music video, I’m sorry to say. Seeing that video was almost like reliving my teenage years, every summer in Morocco. At first I even thought The Blaze were Moroccans like me, because of the way they portrayed the connection between the friends in this video, and also the environment. It felt so familiar. Being on the rooftop and having parties with these old grandmothers and aunties just sitting around. Though there wasn’t so much smoking in my experience, at least not for me.

It's a similar story as with Tinariwen. It just blew my mind to see my culture represented in this way. After seeing the video, I listened to the song again and I thought it was beautiful. I listened to it like a crazy person for at least a year. That’s what I do, I listen to the same four or five songs until I eventually get tired of them. I remember I had a trip to Marrakech and up into the Atlas Mountains, and this was the song I was pumping the whole time. It’s still one of my absolute favourites. I think it’s really powerful.

I also really like the first song they came out with, “Virile”. It’s the one with the two guys in the video. I thought that was very interesting, especially being set in a Muslim country. The video showed these two guys and there was obviously a relationship, but you couldn’t really tell what kind of relationship it was. Were they family? Was it a friendship? Or was it a love relationship between two boyfriends? I think the fact that you didn’t really know made the video even more interesting.

“Maria También” by Khruangbin

LOREEN: I had to put Khruangbin on this list. I mean, this song is so fucking good! Where do I start? I remember when I heard this song for the first time, it just blew my fucking mind.

I love it because it’s my heritage, in many ways. It just makes me happy whenever I hear it. Khruangbin in general have this calming energy around them. A lot of Arabic classical songs can be pretty intense, I would say, with so many things to feel. But like Tinariwen, Khruangbin are giving that music a modern touch.

It's about creativity. It’s about this new generation of musicians going out there, taking their heritage and mixing it up. You can see it with Rosalía, too. She’s like, ‘I love flamenco and I’m gonna mash it up.’ It’s like love beyond borders, you know? It’s hard to be prejudiced when you mix things up, and the more you mix it the merrier.

When I heard “Maria También”, I felt proud of being North African, because it has that North African touch to it. [theatrical voice] It brought me a lot of joy, darling!

I went on a trip to LA and I was listening to this song the whole time. I remember we were driving on the way to Joshua Tree and listening to it, and I’ve never felt so Kill Bill in my entire life. Like, this song could actually be in a Kill Bill movie. It would fit the scene where she cuts him up, man!

Have you seen the video for this song where they show footage of all these exiled Persian women artists, and then they make them disappear at the end? It’s so powerful.

It’s crazy that I haven’t watched it! I’ve only seen bits and pieces from the video. Um, I actually think it was on Spotify because it’s looped [laughs].

“Do For Love” by 2Pac

BEST FIT: This song came out in 1998, when you were around 14 or 15. Were you already into hip hop at the time?

LOREEN: Yes and no. I’m the eldest of six siblings and my baby brother – well, he is the one who came after me – had such good taste in music. He was always one step ahead when it came to music.

He always brought home cassette tapes of music that I didn’t know at the time. Because I was a big sis and I was having to get stuff done, okay? Anyway, I wasn’t allowed into his room but I knew he had this ritual type thing every now and then when he bought a new cassette and he was going to listen to it after school, sometimes with his friends.

I remember sitting outside of his closed bedroom door one day, without him knowing, listening for what he was going to play because I knew that I was going to like it. And “Do For Love” by 2Pac was one of the songs that came on, and it was so fucking great.

He wouldn’t allow me to listen to it and we didn’t have that much money at the time, but I loved that song so much I would try to find ways to steal the fucking cassette. I tried to find other ways to hear it as well, but none of my friends had it. So, for a while, I remember just getting home before him and just hoping that he would play that fucking song. The same goes for “Aerodynamic” by Daft Punk, but I threatened to kick his ass if he didn't give me that tape [laughs].

Discovering 2Pac through my brother was actually my first encounter with hip hop. I do think 2Pac was really one of the greatest rappers, because he had that soft voice and really deep lyrics. So, yeah, my brother and I had the same taste but he was one of the cool kids and I wasn’t. I mean, he never stood outside of my door. It would have been like, ‘What are you gonna listen to now? Céline Dion?’

“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston

LOREEN: I was brought up in a family that sometimes struggled financially. I don’t like to say that we were poor but we didn’t have that much. We were six kids and we couldn’t afford a lot of things, so we had to play with what we had. There was no space for me to take singing lessons or whatever, I just had to teach myself somehow.

My mother had a record player, and she had a lot of Whitney records. And really, I had two teachers: Whitney Houston and Céline Dion. I would listen to what they were doing with their voices. I’d really study them, but only through listening. This song, “I Will Always Love You”… this song was my school, you know? At the time I was just a kid. I didn’t have a developed voice. It took me years – and I mean years – just to learn how to do that first part [sings “I-i-i-i-if I”].

As I said, I wasn’t the kind of kid who had many friends. I remember I would run home after school to listen to this song, and other songs of hers too. So I feel like I did my 10,000 hours with Whitney, just having her teach me how to use my voice.

BEST FIT: I love that. And if you had to choose one Céline Dion song, which would it be?

[thinks] Maybe it would be “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” because it’s so beautiful. She has so many beautiful songs. Oh wait, what was that ballad? Not the one from Titanic, the other big one where she’s crying in the video. “All By Myself”!! Let’s talk about that one, too.

It’s a classic!

Yeah. Honestly, my family were so tired of me singing this song. It’s funny because they were tired of me but they let me go on doing it, because I was a 'special edition' type of child. It was a lot of responsibility for me, as the oldest sibling, helping my mother. But one of the ways she gave back was to let me do my singing until very late. As I said, I would go into the bathroom, turn off the lights and just sing for hours. It was my sanctuary. And we only had one bathroom, you know? My mum would tell my siblings to go to the neighbours’ and pee there instead [laughs].

When I look back today, I can just imagine how it must have sounded when I was going up to those high notes with the undeveloped voice I had at the time. Actually, I remember there was a neighbour who came over to say, ‘You know what, it’s pretty late. You should maybe tell your kid to shut up,’ and she was like, ‘You should go home!’

And where's that neighbour now that you're representing the country for the second time at Eurovision?

[laughs] Yeah, that’s crazy!

You know, my mother was only 16 when she had me, but the thing is she was so aware of certain things even when I was a child. Like, she knew to just let me be me, and she gave me that space. She understood that there was something going on with me. Not necessarily that I was going to have a career in music but something, because, seriously, I could be singing in the bathroom for three hours at a time. Which is a pretty long time to hear someone going waaah, waaah. So yeah, maybe she just knew that I would do something with it one day, I don’t know.

“Frozen” by Madonna

LOREEN: I didn’t know Madonna at the time. I was deep into my Whitney Houston and Céline Dion phase, and Madonna was not even on my radar. But one day me and my family were out shopping – we always had to help because we were raised by just our mother, that’s all – and I remember that as we got in the car and started to drive out of the parking space, I saw an album that someone had thrown on the street. I said, ‘Mommy, stop the car,’ and she did, so I went out and picked it up and it was this album, Ray of Light.

It was destroyed a little bit but I was so excited to take it home and listen to it, whatever it was. And now it must be one of the albums that I’ve listened to the most in my life. One that’s taught me so much about music. Can you imagine? I found it on the street. This is a true story! The rest were fake [huge laugh]

BEST FIT: It does sound like it was sent to you.

It really was sent to me. I know each and every song on that album, word for word, and I know all of the details. I picked “Frozen” because that song has been such a huge inspiration, production-wise, and I think you can hear that in “Tattoo” as well.

I was brought up in a spiritual home, blah blah blah, but I think at some point you have to find your own way to that spirituality yourself. And for me, Ray of Light was the first time I really felt that. There are so many beautiful messages in this album, like that part in “Frozen”… “You only see what your eyes want to see / How can life be what you want it to be? / You’re frozen, when your heart’s not open.”

Right. There are layers to that song, and part of that is searching for enlightenment or some kind of transcendence. I like that it’s open to different interpretations, which I know is something that you are very much into and try to convey in your own music and performances.

I think sometimes, Alan, you do get things sent to you for a reason. Like with “All Is Full of Love”, it’s like there’s somebody out there who’s sending you guidance, you know? And that guidance can come in different forms. It might be a person but it might also be an album that you just happened to find on the street.

I am very sure that this song and this album was sent to me for a reason, some sort of musical Bible to carry with me throughout my whole life. I mean, each and every song on Ray of Light has helped me at some point in my life. Every now and then I think about it, and when I listen to certain songs it can be like, ‘Oh, okay, life wants to show me this now. Alright, good. Thank you, thank you.’

Another interesting thing about Ray of Light is that Madonna said when she was making it that she wanted to bring in a lot of Indian and Moroccan influences.

I know exactly which songs have the Moroccan influences! I think there are actually three or four songs where you can hear that they’ve recorded sounds from the medina. You can hear people talking, you can hear the donkeys and all these other beautiful sounds of the medina.

“Savior (Interlude)” / “Savior” by Kendrick Lamar

LOREEN: These days there are two people I take guidance from. One is Eckhart Tolle and the other is Kendrick Lamar, and they are both on “Savior”.

First of all, I think Kendrick is an amazing artist. He’s very inspiring in his brutal integrity. But in terms of personal development, I think this most recent album is the first one where I can really call him a poet. Especially in this song. The way it begins with “Kendrick made you think about it but he’s not your savior,” and then he goes on to break all these illusions that we have. I think that’s so necessary. He’s basically empowering people to make them understand that they have to take responsibility for themselves.

Sometimes when I listen to him, I’m like ‘Oh my god, I have to learn those things,’ so I would say that his songs have also been an awakening, like Björk’s. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to include him in this list, because I feel like if you need guidance, you should just listen to Kendrick. If you want to know what you’ve been doing wrong, you should just listen to Kendrick. Go listen to Kendrick if you want to know all these illusions that you’ve bought into.

With Eckhart Tolle, people are like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want to listen to him. I don’t do that mumbo jumbo,’ and I’m like, ‘Hey people, Kendrick Lamar says the same thing. He’s just a cooler character.’

Which Eckhart Tolle book is the passage from at the beginning of the interlude?

I think it's from The Power of Now. I mean, he speaks about the same things in his other books, but The Power of Now sums it all up very well. It also took me many years to understand. I didn’t understand shit at first. It was all ego this, ego that. I’m not an ignorant person but, like, what the fuck are you talking about man? What is that?

Seriously, though, that book is really, really good, because it’s also about mind control and not identifying with your thoughts, because we do that every now and then. I mean, if you look at the mind and how it works – it’s in the future, it’s in the past, it’s over here, it’s over there – it’s so unpredictable. It’s crazy. And this is our guidance, you know? We have to take control of that sometimes.

"Tattoo" is out now. The finals of the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest take place tomorrow night in Liverpool.

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