Ellinor Olovsdotter has the flu. The rising star known as Elliphant often gets sick when she visits LA, she explains, raspy-voiced and half naked, completely unself-conscious about her body. The globe-trotting former model 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 and MØ who are pushing the pop envelope.
In interview, Ellinor Olovsdotter is subdued. It’s on stage, in music videos and during a photoshoot for The Red Bulletin that she really comes to life as Elliphant, a wild, whirling, joyous performer who infatuates the camera with her exuberance. It’s this sense of self that informs her music. Inspired by Jamaican dancehall, dirty dubstep, ’90s rock and techno, her sound has drawn comparisons to M.I.A. and Santigold.
She’s also been compared to Rihanna, a likeness with which Elliphant isn’t entirely comfortable. “I’m a bit surprised by that because I would never have thought that people would think that we were alike,” she told Anthem magazine this year. “What I do is more experiential. It might be because of the way I use the words so it sounds like I have a Jamaican Patois dialect.”
With her ethereal, Jane Birkin-esque beauty and expletive-tinged honesty, Elliphant brings more to the table than your average pop princess. For starters, she’s lived a real life, growing up in the gritty Stockholm suburb of Katarina-Sofia, her mother a single parent with two kids by two different men, her father with four children from three different women.
“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 for the first time, that’s when I turned into a human being. If I had never left and travelled places, this person, Elliphant, would never exist. I would have been angry. I would probably have two babies and be on drugs right now.’’
Despite the hardships she suffered growing up, Elliphant says music was always a big thing in her family. “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 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.”
Olovsdotter suffered from attention deficit disorder and dyslexia as a child. She struggled at school and couldn’t envisage a happy future for herself until her grandmother took her to India at the age of 15. The country struck a chord with her, she dropped out of school aged 16 to return there on her own, losing herself just to find herself in the colourful, cacophonous streets.
She travelled to India regularly in her mid-20s, returning to Stockholm in between trips, where she dabbled in making music and funded her travels with kitchen work. She explored the urban music scenes of Berlin, London and Paris, where she met a Swedish producer who believed in her abilities. “I met Tim Deneve in 2011, just before going to England,” she says. “He is half of the crew Jungle. When I met him in Paris we were really wasted and he put on some music and 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 one of the volcanos erupting in Iceland.”
A natural disaster turned into an extraordinary partnership, and with Deneve and Krotkiewski’s encouragement, Olovsdotter morphed 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 they would turn out. Certainly not like this.”
With “this” she is referring to the break that burgeoning musicians dream of. The right person becomes your ally, the right producer sees your spark. After creating 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, such as Ciant Hear It, Tekkno Scene and breakout hit Down On Life, the video of which was lauded by Katy Perry, who tweeted: “One of the most bad ass music videos I’ve seen in a long time!” After Perry came interest from Dr Luke, the American producer who has masterminded one chart-topping song after another, and has an eye for female pop virtuosos like Perry, Ke$ha, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears and Rihanna.
Dr Luke signed Elliphant to Kemosabe Records, his imprint at Sony. “I was surprised by his interest in me,” says Elliphant. “He reached out to me. 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 else they have in Sweden.”
If all goes well, Elliphant has a shot at becoming one of Sweden’s biggest exports. But for now, she’s just happy to have a goal in life. “It takes so much effort and so much time to make music, you have got to get something back and get economics to work,” she says. “I realised I wanted it to be my life, not just some side project. Then I did Down On Life and I realised, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s be a performer.’”