ELLIPHANT, rising star from Sweden, has the flu tonight. She often gets sick when she travels to L.A., she explains, raspy-voiced and half naked in her dressing room, completely unselfconscious about her body. Real name Ellinor Olovsdotter, 27, the globe-trotting model/MC from the wrong side of the tracks is part of a Nordic new wave of fierce dance-pop divas (alongside fellow Swedes Icona Pop, Robyn, Lykke Li, MØ) who are pushing the pop envelope.
In an interview, her charisma is undeniable but subdued; it’s during a photo shoot that Elliphant really comes to life, a wild, whirling, joyous performer who infatuates the camera with her exuberance. It’s this sense of self—the model’s ability to translate two dimensions into three—that informs her music as well. Inspired by Jamaican dancehall, dirty dubstep, ’90s rock and techno, her sound has drawn comparisons to M.I.A. and Santigold. But her presence evokes that of another star, and it’s a comparison Elliphant is uneasy with—Rihanna, whose good luck has similarly been hard won.
With her ethereal, Jane Birkin–esque beauty and expletive-tinged honesty, Elliphant brings more to the table than your average hipster pop princess—she’s lived a real life for starters, growing up poor in the gritty suburbs of Stockholm, her mom a single parent with two kids by two different fathers, and her father with four children from three different moms.
“My mom was a junkie,” she says. “She had a lot of problems. Sweden was so rude to my mom. So rude to me. The Swedish system killed me. When I left Sweden, that’s when I turned into a human being. If I had never left, this person, Elliphant, would never exist. I would have been angry. I would probably have two babies and be on drugs right now.’’
Hers was a large, extended, chaotic family in which music, she says, was one of the few luxuries they could afford.
“My mom loved music and she was into the whole ’90s thing,” she says. “I was pumped with music; we would stand there waiting for her for hours while she was going through albums in the record stores. She bought maybe 10 CDs a week when I was a kid. Everything from David Bowie to the B-52s to early techno to Frank Sinatra. Everything.”
Suffering from ADD and dyslexia, Olovsdotter struggled at school and failed to envisage a happy future for herself until, at the age of 15, her grandmother took her to India. She found peace in the colorful, cacophonous streets there and a year later returned by herself, dropping out of school at age 16, losing herself in India just to find herself. She traveled to India frequently in her mid-20s, returning to Stockholm in between trips, where she worked in a kitchen while dabbling in her own music. She traveled to Berlin, London, and Paris, exploring the burgeoning urban music scenes in those cities, and meeting a young Swedish producer in Paris who believed in her as a performer.
“In 2011, I met Tim Deneve, one of my producers, in Paris just before going to England,” she says. “He is half of the crew Jungle. When I met him we were really f*ck-faced and he put on some music and he said he wanted to try to maybe write music for other artists, with his producing partner Ted Krotkiewski. Then I went to London—and I missed my flight home to Stockholm because of the Iceland volcano erupting.”
A natural disaster turned into an extraordinary partnership, and with Deneve and Krotkiewski’s encouragement, Ellinor would morph into Elliphant, writing lyrics and melodies while her producers took care of the beats.
“The real history of me and music started the first time I went to India and got into the jam sessions,” she says. “I felt the music and I really wanted to be a part of it somehow. I was into recording sounds. I wanted to create the biggest sound bank in the world. I had all these ideas about music, but I never knew how it would turn out. Certainly not like this.”
The “this” that she refers to is the break that burgeoning musicians dream of—the right person becomes your ally, the right producer sees your spark. After achieving some buzz in Stockholm, Elliphant teamed up with TEN, the Swedish music management company behind Icona Pop and Niki & The Dove. In 2012, Elliphant was unleashed on the world, track after track of dubstep-inspired dancehall, like “Ciant Hear It,” “Tekkno Scene,” and the breakout hit “Down on Life,” whose beautiful video, shot in Iceland, was lauded as best video of the year by Katy Perry. And then, after Perry, came the interest of Dr. Luke, the producer who has masterminded one chart-topping song after another, and has a particular eye for female pop virtuosos: Perry, Ke$ha, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears—and yes, Rihanna. Luke signed Elliphant to Kemosabe Records, his imprint at Sony.
“I was surprised by his interest in me,” Elliphant says. “He reached out to my label. I don’t really know how it happened. I didn’t reach out to him. I think maybe it was because of Icona Pop becoming such a huge thing, suddenly all these big wolves in the industry were hunting for what more they have in Sweden.”
If all goes well, Ellinor has a shot at being one of Sweden’s biggest exports since ABBA … or IKEA. Which would be worth a celebration, she says, throwing on a shirt and vowing that tonight she will go out and have a beer, L.A. flu be damned.
“It takes so much effort and so much time to do music, you have got to get something back and get economics to work,” she says. “I realized I wanted it to be my life, not just some side project for me. Then suddenly I did ‘Down on Life’ and I realized, ‘F*ck it. Let’s do this. Let’s be a performer.’ ”
Beat princess: @ElliphantMusic
Check out the November 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands October 15) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.