THE RETURN OF THE CLUB: ICONA POP’S NEW ALBUM IS HERE FOR THE NEXT ROARING 20S

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Caroline and Aino, the duo behind Icona Pop, met in the midst of heartbreak at a mutual friend’s party in 2009. Now, fourteen years later, after a pandemic that threatened the club, which was their sanctuary, they are returning with the album Club Romantech, bringing the best of 2010s electropop to a new era, returning with the glittering heartbreak that was— and is— their signature. But in 2009, they were just two club kids dreaming of world domination, with their best friend at their side.

         Aino wears Dress, ISSEY MIYAKE. Shoes LES PETITS JOUEURS. Caroline wears Dress, ISSEY MIYAKE. Earrings, LARUCCI. Shoes, LES PETITS JOUEURS.

When they met at their mutual friend’s party, their connection was apparent, and they made plans to work together like so many artists do. They actually did sit down to write together, and found their collaboration something unique, creating an energy of its own. “We felt like we were on top of the world,” Aino said. They were almost immediately comfortable being vulnerable when writing together. “You’re pouring your heart out. But with Caroline, it felt so natural.”

Early on, they had big plans: world tour, world domination. Their electric connection was visible to them, but they needed to share it with the world: their band wasn’t real until the world recognized it. “We didn’t even talk about it, we just did it. It was just you and me looking at each other,” said Caroline. That pure energy would become a recurring theme in their work. 

For a while, they lived in Caroline’s mother’s old apartment in Stockholm which had become an artists collective, surrounded by people that were heartbroken, and those that had just fallen in love. The duo went clubbing every night, Aino was still heartbroken, and they struggled hard to get their name out while making ends meet. In other words, they were having the time of their lives. “It never felt depressing in any way because we had a mission, and we fought so hard for it. It was a beautiful time,” said Caroline, smiling fondly. 

Much of their music straddles heartbreak and joy, in that the lyrical content and the sound couldn’t be more different. “The best songs are bittersweet ones where you can disguise hard themes in happy songs,” said Aino. “Those are my all-time favorites, because you can cry and dance at the same time.” Even though their sound is typically upbeat, they intentionally imbue the lyrics with the emotional valence of heartbreak. “When you’re heartbroken, you’re so open and so emotional. That’s when you write the best music because you’re so in tune with your feelings. So we always try to create a heartbreak, a fake heartbreak. We also go back to old feelings, or if someone else is going through something, then we write about that.”

At the same time, they try to approach writing and production with an open mind. But they always end up in the magical line between joy and sorrow. “That’s where we love to create,” said Caroline. For some songs, like “Faster,” lyrics are more pared down, allowing the production to shine. There too, the instrumentals feel imbued with some complex emotion, tugging at your heart even as you start to dance. Beyond the cathartic experience of dancing, making music also can free them from painful emotions. “You can feel the release. It’s processing something that’s been on your mind or in your body,” said Caroline.

Aino wears Jacket, MICHAEL CHAMBERLIN. Top, zzzz. Caroline wears dress, Archive from NEW YORK VINTAGE.

On top of the issues they faced as emerging creatives, they also battled misogyny, as women in a male-dominated scene. They had to constantly prove their skill, and answer questions about the authenticity of their sets (do they trigger for real?), and about their collaboration (catfight?). Sometimes, they were the only women playing at a show. “I wish I could just put my energy into making good music and not always have to be prepared for a fight,” Aino said. Though there are echoes of heroism in overcoming injustice, the energy the fight requires takes away from their musical energy, in addition to the prejudices they already face, doubly disadvantaging them. 

Tops, Stylist own. Jewelry, MOSHINO.

Fast forward to the pandemic, and several hit songs later, including the iconic “I Love It” featuring Charlie XCX, Caroline and Aino left LA for Sweden early on, knowing something big was coming, but expecting to return in a month. The lockdown was less restrictive in Stockholm, so they went to the studio. There, they had, after fourteen years, the time and space to reflect and think. They wrote every day, working on the songs that would become their new album Club Romantech. “It kept us alive,” said Aino. “Though it was this horrible time in the world, we found it to be a very quiet and reflective time in our lives, which was that we got super bored, basically. That’s when creativity starts to work very well.”

From that quiet, static vantage, they gained a new perspective and love for dance music, which is everything the pandemic was not. They were writing their best club album during the quietest time of their lives, something they attribute to fantasizing about clubbing, dreaming about the stage, and realizing, through its absence, how much they loved dance music. They were predicting the zeitgeist, writing the kind of music that the post-pandemic crowd is craving: creative, fun, and weird tunes. 

In Aino’s words, “It’s a pretty weird dance album.” They had no rules when they started to write and didn’t know what to expect. Songs that at first seemed too much worked perfectly later on. Their weirdest song, in their opinion, is the unreleased “Stick Your Tongue Out”. For me, it’s “Spa,” which feels at some parts rock, but is also wholly electro. It’s definitely a weird one. “Spa” was made in collaboration with SOFI TUKKER, and several other songs on the album feature guest artists. 

Dress, JEAN PAUL GAULTIER. Eyewear, archive from NEW YORK VINTAGE. Earrings, ALIITA.

“Some people think it’s weird to hang out with us when we work because we are so comfortable working together,” Caroline laughed. “And we can be quiet for a very long time. We really feel each other’s energies.” Their working relationship is grounded in mutual respect, and is just as close as their friendship. When Caroline doesn’t like a song, but Aino does, Caroline will listen to the song with fresh ears. “Because then I want to like it,” said Caroline. “Sometimes I’m like, you know what? You made me listen to the song. And now I really like it.”

They also wrote Club Romantech while both heavily pregnant, which juxtaposed with the club bangers they were producing. “Our kids are gonna love dance music,” joked Aino. “Also the hormones when you’re pregnant— we cried a lot. And we talked a lot. It was absolutely the best thing that could have happened.”

Full look, MOSCHINO.

Now, as mothers, they make better decisions and cut out BS without hesitation. “I don’t have time for stuff that is not important. We have something now that is much more important than anything,” said Caroline. It also made them realize what they valued in the big picture, which in turn helped them focus on their artistic goals. “As an artist, you have a really big ego. Everything is about you and your project. Then when you have a baby, nothing else matters, really. You understand that this is the real thing in life. That took away the pressure: when we were writing music, we were like, Okay, this needs to be fun. We need to love what we are releasing, we need to really feel this,” said Aino. 

They have not yet taken the kids on tour, but are excited about the uncharted territory. Caroline told me, “We will figure it out along the way. I’m so excited for that journey, to see the world through my kid’s eyes, and to show our kids our world as well.”

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Photos | Shervin Lainez 

Styling | Phil Gomez

MUA | Colby Smith

Hair | Netty Jordan

Story | JoAnn Zhang

Cover Art | Pearl Zhang

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