Sigrid is much more than the latest buzz-name in pop music. She’s the real deal, an artist who has the potential to redefine what it means to be a popstar.
From the joy in her music and performances to the storytelling of her lyrics - whether that’s the universality of “Don’t Kill My Vibe” or the heartbreaking cinematic allegory of "Strangers" - the world the 21-year-old has created is infectious. It’s a world that’s unpretentious, natural and founded on the old-fashioned virtue of talent.
In 2017 Sigrid cemented her status as the year’s breakout artist with a place on the BBC Music Sound of 2018 longlist and Apple’s ‘Up Next’ picks. But Sigrid Solbakk Raabe’s story isn’t just about its central character, it’s also about her family, her friends and collaborators and the Norwegian city of Bergen.
To deep-dive into the story, as well as talking to Sigrid about her art, we spoke with her brother Tellef, also a musician and who encouraged his sister to write her first song, Annie Christensen, her A&R at Island Records, who won the race to sign Sigrid, and Geir Luedy from the management company Made, who oversaw the success of AURORA.
They all agree on three things; Sigrid is ridiculously talented, resolute in her ambition for her music and one of the friendliest people you could meet. All of those descriptions are undeniable. Speaking to Sigrid isn’t a conversation with a media-trained pop star but someone who’s infatuated with music and is honoured that people love her songs. On 2017 she says “Oh God, it’s been a crazy year, crazy. It’s gone really fast. We’ve done so much cool stuff and I’m so lucky to do this with my best friends. I think ‘crazy’ is the best word to describe it.” In a thank-you note on Facebook, Sigrid used the Norwegian phrase for the word - 'Steike Tulent' - instead, which is of course a much better way to say crazy.
We speak the day after her final live appearance of 2017, where she shared a bill with John Legend and Zara Larsson at The Nobel Peace Prize awards in Oslo. Before she can take a well-earned rest however, Sigrid has one more appointment in her diary - getting her wisdom teeth removed. Yet her infectious positivity makes even a visit to the dentist sound pleasant. “I’ve done it before, I’ve got two wisdom teeth left, so it’ll be fine.”
Sigrid grew up in the seaport of Ålesund, where, encouraged by their music-loving parents, she, Tellef and their sister Johanne immersed themselves in music as children. Tellef recalls an arrangement of the Neil Young song “Give Me Strength” that Sigrid, Johanne and their Father wrote together. “It's amazing, it was a bootleg track we got access to because our Dad is a fanatical Neil Young fan, the whole family is, and that song is really special to us.” Sigrid recently talked about it for the End the Silence campaign in aid of the Hope And Homes For Children charity.
As a teenager Tellef developed a taste for punk and hard-core music and shared his musical discoveries with Sigrid. “When she was eleven I made her a member of the Ålesund TurboJugend chapter, she was in the fan club of the punk band Turbonegro! I played her Coldpay’s first two albums and that sparked something in her, but she figured out she was more into pop. I’ve been more into the indie scene and Sigrid has focused on writing pop bangers.”
The Raabe siblings transitioned from listening to music to writing it. In her early teens Sigrid “tried to write for a year or something, but I never finished a song” but that changed when Tellef was playing a solo show in Ålesund in 2013. “Siggy was joining me on backing vocals and I said ‘You can perform a song if you want’ - but he added one condition - ‘it has to be an original song, you need to stop doing covers.’”
Having previously covered songs by the likes of Neil Young, Feist and Kings of Convenience, Sigrid wrote “Sun” in a week and performed it with Tellef adding harmonies and a friend of his on banjo. “It was my first self-written song. I have to thank Tellef for that, that’s how I discovered song-writing and I’ve been writing ever since.” Tellef describes it as a “cute, country-pop song about her disappointment at not getting into the international school Johanne and I attended. She was first in the waiting list and hoped she’d be accepted. She wasn’t, but what’s come out of it is a musical career.”
“Pop music has a reputation that I don’t think is deserved sometimes. Pop music is so much, it’s such a broad genre, it’s this huge thing and what even is the genre anyway?”
As she was writing “Sun”, Sigrid got some free studio time and things started to take off very quickly. Tellef explains “She recorded it a week after the show and uploaded it to a radio station Norway. A week later she was the emerging artist of the week.” Sigrid signed with Petroleum Records at the age of 16, but after releasing a couple of singles, decided to put music on hold and finish school.
Two years later, Tellef who was living in Bergen and part of the music scene, was joined there by Sigrid when she finished school at eighteen. They shared a flat with his fiancé and two of his friends. “I think we had a total of two pianos, ten guitars, a couple of basses and a banjo. It was definitely a musical collective. Sigrid quickly became a part of the scene, through my friends and network she found people to play with, the synth player in my band is playing in her band now actually.”
Sigrid describes Ålesund as “like a mini Bergen. Bergen has been very important to me. I have a very close relationship with Bergen, it’s where I met my band and management. Tellef was there and I wanted to be close to him and it was a very good network in the Norway music scene. It was ‘Aha! I should join him.’” Tellef adds that even though his connections were important, Sigrid “quickly found her own voice and her own thing. As soon as she got to Bergen she started really focusing her song-writing. Everyone noticed Siggy had something special, an intense stage presence and an absolutely amazing ability to write melodies and hooks in particular”
Bergen is a relatively small city but its musical scene is prodigious. Tellef attributes this in part to the large student community. “The city has 40,000 inhabitants and 32,000 students. Most of them live in the city, the community is vibrant, they’re all young and engaged,” When Tellef lived in Bergen (he now lives in Cambridge where he’s taking a Masters degree) he juggled being a semi-professional musician with study “and that goes for most of the people in the music scene there, at least when they started out, they were all students.”
Sigrid’s manager Geir Luedy has been a key player in the Bergen music scene, both as a manager and a musician, so why does he think the city is so vibrant musically? “I’ve done a lot of thinking about that. I’ve survived a couple of Bergen waves, in the early '90s there were three bands and I was in one of them. We all got signed to major labels in Oslo, which was huge.” But the problem in the early '90s was the lack of infrastructure; “there wasn’t any management and it all kind of died, but lately the business understanding has gone up to a really good level. We have a network of record companies, publishers, managers, promoters and agents, so we can get the music out there. We’re a small community, but we’re very strong on the structure side.” Accordingly, Luedy thinks another reason Sigrid came to Bergen wasn’t just because the music scene was so good “It’s the way we’ve structured everything, having a studio and taking good care of the producers so they still want to work for us is one of the reasons we keep on producing great music.”
Tellef sees a clear divide between Bergen and Norway’s capital Oslo. When Sigrid recently won the emerging artist of the year at the influential radio station P3’s annual awards, she was the only winner who sings in English. The hit of the year went to Cezinando, live artist to Karpe Diem and the honorary prize to the rapper OnklP. “The three Oslo artists that won all sing in Norwegian and Sigrid, from the Bergen scene, sings in English. If you look at the Bergen artists who are doing well - Kakkmaddafakka, Kings of Convenience, Röyksopp, AURORA - they’re all singing in English and that might be a factor.”
He describes Bergen as “the cultural capital of Norway, for sure. The major institutions and the music industry are predominantly in Oslo, it’s a much bigger city, but in Bergen there’s lots of pride of what’s going on culturally. Wherever you go you bump into people from the music scene. Everyone knows each other and a lot of the musicians play in the same bands. There’s a definite sense of community, collaboration and people sharing experiences.”
As with other parts of her story, Sigrid’s initial meeting with Luedy was fortuitous. She went to a show by dePresno “a really cool Bergen musician and he’s signed to Made. I just walked up to Geir and said ‘Hi!’ We had a meeting and signed a couple of months later, it was a really nice period of just working together without signing anything, seeing if this could be cool.”
When we mention Sigrid’s take on their first meeting Luedy breaks into a good-natured laugh. “Well, there’s more to it than that!” Luedy had a strong relationship with Petroleum Records, “we absolutely love working them. Its run by a guy called Kim Paulsen, he’s a good friend and does AURORA in Norway.” Luedy was aware that Sigrid signed to Petroleum when she was sixteen, “I also knew that “Sun” went straight to radio and that she kind of disappeared. I asked Kim about it once, ‘What happened with that Sigrid?’ and he said ‘She didn’t want to do it anymore, the management was wrong and she wanted to finish school.’”
Two years later Paulsen called Luedy to tell him Sigrid was moving to Bergen to resume her music career and asked if he wanted to have a meeting with her. “I said ‘No, I’ve never heard anything by her and I’m not interested in picking up anything new.’ AURORA was going really well and I was concentrating on that.”
At the dePresno show Luedy went to the bar “and this girl came up to me and said ‘Hi, can I have a meeting with you?’ I said ‘Of course you can, who are you?’ She said ‘I’m Sigrid.’ I didn’t know what she looked like and I was intrigued by her approach, she was the most charming girl in the world, there was no way you could say no to a meeting.” He pauses before adding what clinched the deal, “Then when I heard the songs, there was no doubt.”
“With all the artists I’ve worked with in twenty-five years I’ve never met such a young talent with songs that go from A to Z. It was ‘this is proper song-writing, they’re finished songs and they’re all fucking hits, this is unreal.’ So I was ‘Yes, hell yes, let’s do it.’”
After initial sessions in Bergen and Berlin writing with other producers Luedy realised the songs weren’t an improvement on those Sigrid already had. “The production wasn’t what we were looking for, the songs weren’t better, but it was still ‘we need to find a soulmate in the process of producing your own songs.’” Enter Martin Sjølie.
Luedy bumped into Sjølie at the by:Larm festival and told him “‘I’ve got this new artist Sigrid, do you want to give it a go and write some music with her?’” Sjølie, a huge admirer of AURORA said “if you’ve found something new that’s that good, then I really want to do that.’” Two days after the session Sjølie sent Luedy the demo of “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” “That was another milestone, it was where everything started on the production side. Sigrid was really excited about it.”
Tellef remembers his sister “always sitting by the piano humming, she’d come up with a catchy melody, write lyrics later on and it’d turn into a really good pop song. We knew big stuff was going to happen and then we heard “Don’t Kill My Vibe” for the first time in the kitchen back home.” Sigrid and Tellef have always played their demos to each other, but when he heard her new song “I knew it was a hit, it was a fantastic song.”
Sigrid says that when she wrote it with Sjølie “I knew I had a good feeling, but I had no idea it was going to go so fast, or that this year would be as crazy as it turned out to be. I still love that song and I’m very happy it was my debut international single. Martin’s the producer and songwriter I work the most with and I’m very happy I got a friend and long-term collaborator out of it as well.”
“Don’t Kill My Vibe” reached the ears of major record labels and landed in the inbox of Island Records’ Annie Christensen, who hadn’t heard about Sigrid until she received a link from Sigrid’s lawyer, Paul Spraggon who also represents Adele. “He’s lovely and well-respected in the industry. There were about thirty songs but “Don’t Kill My Vibe” caught my attention straightaway, her voice was so great and it’s a unique song. I thought the message was very interesting and I wanted to know what she was all about.”
“Of course you feel the pressure, that’s part of being human, if I didn’t feel the pressure at all I’d be a bit weird...maybe."
Christensen played a couple of songs to Island’s president Darcus Beese, whose immediate response was "get her in". The next day Sigrid and her keyboard player came back and played three songs in Beese’s office. Christensen says “It was stripped-back keyboard and vocal. It was one of the most moving meetings I’ve had, and I’ve worked here for thirteen years.” When Sigrid started singing, rather than being cowed by playing in an office, in sporting terms, she took the game to them. “She didn’t break gaze her from us. The way she sang and the emotion she put into it blew us away, I know that’s an overused phrase, but it was such a moment. It was as much as we could do not to lock the door and tell her to sign straightaway.”
Island weren’t the only label in the running however, so Beese and Christensen took “affirmative action” and along with Island’s head of marketing, Liv Nunn, flew to Bergen the following week. “We had some food and drinks, played shuffleboard and had a nice time. Obviously we needed to tell her we were going to do the best by her and the music, but we also wanted her to know how important that bond is, and that that kind of relationship is a marriage.”
For Sigrid, Island’s visit to Bergen not only showed their commitment, but how the relationship would work. “Signing a deal is a huge decision. When you do this, you want to do it long-term and build a strong relationship, because this is my second family and that’s how it needs to be. You’re working together a lot and need people you get along with, but it’s also important to work with someone you know is going to go the extra mile, who really wants this.” Christensen and Sigrid speak almost every day and Christensen explains their working relationship is built on trust. “She has to be honest with what she wants and how she wants it done and I have to be as well.”
The artist that Sigrid is today sees the current musical climate as genre exclusive and draws inspiration from a wide musical church, yet she feels pop music doesn’t get the credit it should. “Pop music has a reputation that I don’t think is deserved sometimes. Pop music is so much, it’s such a broad genre, it’s this huge thing and what even is the genre anyway?” As well as pop she listens to “Rap, Rock, Neil Young, early Taylor Swift, EDM and Grime. I think that’s a common thing for a lot of musicians right now, it’s always been like that, but now you listen to music and there’s no rules. I think that’s the way with pop as well.”
Why does she think pop music has an unfair reputation? “Sometimes it’s ‘Oh, you make pop music?’ as if it’s less cool. But I think pop music is fucking cool, pop music is so honest, it can be so much. There are silly pop songs of course, but there can be silly songs whatever the genre.”
She says that her favourite songs are '80s power ballads with such unpretentious zeal, you’re reminded how pure her love of music is. She breaks into the chorus of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can Make You Love Me” and asks “Is that from the '80s? It sounds like it, it’s that type of nerve. I love everything that has a nerve, that has a message and wants to say something, I think that’s the power of music” she explains “Sometimes just saying the words isn’t enough, that sounds really cheesy I know, but sometimes you just need to roar” and she breaks into an infectious and very loud roar “You need sing it out and that’s what I love.”
She explains that was her ambition for “Dynamite”, which she wrote with Askjell Solstrand in Bergen.
“That’s the message we wanted to convey and it just felt right singing it that way, there was no other way.” Sigrid recalls when they finished it they considered changing the lyrics. “We thought ‘You're as safe as a mountain, but know that I’m dynamite’ was such a cheesy line, but our management said ‘Nope, it’s so good as it is.’ I’m very happy we decided to keep it like that because it’s nice - it is cheesy - but sometimes you’ve just got to tell it as it is.”
As Sigrid stands on the cusp of another extraordinary year, I ask what the pressure of being so heavily tipped for success brings. Luedy and Christensen aren’t blasé about it, but the question prompts them to focus on what really matters, namely what a talent and songwriter they have on their hands. Luedy says “I’m always extremely ambitious, I always want to go to the top. With Sigrid, it’s very easy to understand what she’s doing, the songs are universal, the lyrics are fantastic. I think she deserves a place right up there, Top 10, worldwide, next year.”
Christensen adds that “There is pressure, sure, but we’ve got a bank of songs which are undeniable. Whether I think they’re A-List radio-tracks or not; a lot of them just tell her story and others are just beautiful moments.” She cites “Strangers” as an example of not taking the safe option. “It was quite pop, big production, all guns blazing, but that’s just one side of her. She’s got a very beautiful, stripped-back acoustic side as well, you can tell on “Dynamite” that’s just another part of what she does. I want to make statements and Sigrid does too. Putting out quality music, watching her grow and grow as a performer, an artist, a writer and as a human. She’s just an awesome human. She’s great.”
Sigrid is aware of the hype, but her first response to the question is one of humility. “It’s an honour to be doing this and the reception has been great. I feel very humbled, especially speaking to people who’ve been in this business for a long time.” The likes of Chloë Grace Moretz, Elton John and Lorde expressed their approval, but Sigrid adds “Of course you feel the pressure, that’s part of being human, if I didn’t feel the pressure at all I’d be a bit weird maybe. There’s a lot of expectations, but I love it too, I’m quite ambitious, it gives you more drive to keep going.”
In terms of when her album will be finished, Sigrid says “I don’t want to promise anything, but I can say that I think it’s going to be out in 2018. The most important thing for me is I want it to be as good as it can be. It’s crazy, I’m making my debut album.” Luedy laughs about the task of selecting the track-list from Sigrid’s huge arsenal of songs. “Yes, that’s going to be tough. I’ve never heard of Sigrid going into the studio and nothing coming out of it, something always comes out of it, always.”
“I’m very proud to say I make pop music, but you know what? I have no idea what type of music I’ll be making in a couple of years."
Ultimately, the reason Sigrid makes music is down to the simple fact that she loves doing it. “It’s my favourite thing to do over everything, I love being onstage with my band. The fact that people are listening and I receive messages from all over the world is special. It means a lot that something I’ve written in a happy or sad state of mind can mean something to someone else, you can’t compare it to anything else.”
Sigrid’s infectious love of music and talent has struck a chord not only with her growing army of fans, but also with those closest to her. As we wrap up the conversations, the themes of her talent and personality come up again unprompted. Christensen says “It’s the way she is, she’s lovely to be around, she’s got that warm nature, but it’s her music, the songs. She’s very prolific, when she delivers things the messages are always clear and always really beautifully put.” For Luedy, its Sigrid’s ability to tell a story. “I’ve got sixty-three Sigrid songs and it’s all about the story. When you look for a new story, you look for a new voice to tell that story. I strongly believe Sigrid has a new voice. It’s not acting, she stands out, I’ve seen huge artists and I love good music, but sometimes you have somebody who just stands out.”
As much as she loves pop music, Sigrid views her art as fluid. “I’m very proud to say I make pop music, but you know what? I have no idea what type of music I’ll be making in a couple of years. I’m planning on doing this for the rest of my life and we’ll see what type of music I make. I make whatever comes naturally on the day, it’s as natural as speaking in a way.”
Sigrid’s learned that for all the best laid plans, the music industry is also about seizing the moment. “The funny thing is you never know what’s going to happen. You could get a phone call asking you to step in on a show at the last minute and you’re ‘OK, cool, let’s do it.’ I love the fact you have some sense of what’s going to happen but it’s all about adapting while staying true to yourself and your values.” Tellef feels such adaptability is part of his sister’s raison d'être.”Sigrid’s got unique talents, she’d have gotten into the music industry at some point, but she could also have done something else. She’s a really clever girl, she still says her Plan B is studying law.”
Sigrid’s unique talents are also inspiring those around her, Christensen says she can’t express enough how much Sigrid has galvanised the staff at Island. “I don’t think I’ve worked on a project where everyone has felt so thrilled, passionate and excited. It’s such an amazing feeling, she’s got so many ideas and is so forward thinking” before adding a crucial point “but she knows what she wants. She’ll shut things down if she doesn’t like them.”
Sigrid is a new type of popstar, an artist who is fiercely determined but equally fuelled by humility rather than grandeur. “I’m super-excited for 2018. I’m so humbled to be able to do this, this is what I love to do. I’m lucky, very, very lucky.”