How Zara Larsson became a pop phenom

From the glorious harmony-laden anthems of ABBA or the epic power ballads of Roxette, to the hit-making powers of Max Martin, Scandinavia has often led the way when it comes to earworm pop. But in the 2010s, it upped its game considerably with a string of assertive, forward-thinking female artists that have put many of their American and English counterparts to shame.

Robyn is, of course, the queen of this particular movement, but the likes of Tove Lo, MØ, Sigrid, and Lykke Li have all been nipping at her heels in recent years. And in 2016, a precocious teenager named Zara Larsson entered the picture with an impossibly infectious blend of pop, electronica, and R&B. What's more, it seems she shows no signs of stopping. As the starlet revealed in an interview with The National in 2019, "I've been on the road now all summer long and it is very hard. I'm also not a person of discipline when it comes to stuff I think is fun."

The Swedish singer has since achieved global chart success, picked up numerous awards, and worked with countless high-profile artists. But how exactly did she manage to assert her place in the realm of Scandi-pop greats? Let's read on and find out.

Zara Larsson began her career gracefully

Zara Larsson has been known to bust a few moves while on stage, but her dancing background is far more Anna Pavlova than Ariana Grande. The star began her performing career while attending the Royal Swedish Ballet School up until the age of 15. But there might be a good reason why you've never seen the Swede pirouette.

In a 2017 interview with the BBC, the singer revealed that she's not quite as supple as she used to be: "I was very flexible. It really taught me a lot about discipline and how to use my body. But these days I'm about as flexible as a ... erm, a safe!"

Larsson then recalled an incident with her personal trainer in which she was asked to run 200 meters. The vocalist did her best Usain Bolt impression the first time around, with her coach telling her she can run "pretty fast." However, when he told her to do the same thing one more time, the blonde crooner couldn't help but throw up.

She won Sweden's Got Talent

By the time that Zara Larsson graduated from the prestigious Royal Swedish Ballet School, she was already a TV talent show winner. Aged just 10, the youngster entered Talang Sverige (Sweden's answer to Simon Cowell's globally successful Got Talent format), where she triumphed over a pianist, magician, and one of the country's best professional jugglers.

Larsson was awarded half a million Swedish krona (approximately $50,000) for her winning performance of Celine Dion's weepie "My Heart Will Go On." Her cover of the Academy Award-winning Titanic classic then reached number seven in her homeland's official chart. However, this first wave of success didn't extend beyond the show.

In 2016 she admitted to daily London newspaper the Evening Standard, "I didn't do anything with the money. We went to America to meet a lot of record labels. But they weren't interested, nothing happened, and I was so disappointed." It turns out, the crooner expected further fame after winning the Swedish talent show. "I'm not from a musical family or anything like that. My mum's a nurse and my dad's in the military. But I do love the attention, from when I was very little. I want people to look at me all the time."

Zara Larsson topped the Swedish charts

Zara Larsson had to wait another five years to follow up her debut single, with "Uncover" only arriving in 2013. Thankfully, the Swedes who voted for her during her talent show days hadn't forgotten about her in the meantime. The track, which showcased a more mature R&B-pop sound, raced all the way to the top of the charts.

Taken from her debut EP, Introducing, the single also launched Larsson to fame outside her homeland, peaking at number one in Norway and reaching the top five in Denmark and France.

Larsson's winning streak continued a year later with the release of her first full-length studio effort. Featuring input from Carolina Liar's Rickard Göransson and fellow homegrown solo artists Erik Hassle and Tove Lo, the appropriately-titled 1 also topped the charts in Sweden and spawned the Top 10 singles "Carry You Home" and "Rooftop." It was the first single, however, from Larsson's sophomore that truly propelled her to global stardom.

She enjoyed the Lush Life

Indeed, the irresistibly catchy "Lush Life" not only dominated the airwaves across Europe during its 2015 release, but it also introduced the US, Canada, and Australia to Zara Larsson's many talents. Her first entry on the US Hot 100 also featured in countless TV shows and ads, most notably in a trailer for Freeform dramedy The Bold Type.

But Larsson had to work hard to make "Lush Life," which was co-produced by Freedo (Little Mix, The Chainsmokers), a hit all around the globe. She filmed two official promos for the track, with the first featuring the star dancing against a white backdrop aided by some dazzling visual graphics and the second a similar performance-based effort, only boasting more color and more elaborate choreography.

By the end of 2016, "Lush Life" had gone platinum in no fewer than 15 different countries, while its Spotify count stood at a staggering 700 million plays in 2018. As the second music video's director, Mary Clerté, said in a behind-the-scenes clip for the making of the vid, "Zara is really really easy to work with. She's super easy-going. Obviously, she's a pro. She knows what she wants."

Zara Larsson racked up the collabs

Zara Larsson built on the success of "Lush Life" with an even bigger US hit — the MNEK collaboration "Never Forget You" peaking at No.13 in 2016 on Billboard's Top 100. And from then on, the Swede didn't stop working with other artists.

She recruited rappers WizKid and Ty Dolla Sign for her own material, guested on hits by Tinie Tempah ("Girls Like"), David Guetta (the official Euro 2016 anthem "This One's For You"), Fedez ("Holding Out For You") and Tom Walker ("Now You're Gone") and lent her vocals to Poo Bear's debut LP, Poo Bear Presents Birthday Music.

Even the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic couldn't stop Larsson from adding to her list of collaborative efforts. She joined acts as varied as Coldplay's Chris Martin, grime MC AJ Tracey and fellow Scandi-pop export Sigrid on a cover version of Foo Fighters' "Times Like These" as part of the charity collective known as Live Lounge All-Stars.

She was championed by Time magazine

"One of the most promising talents in pop music." That's how Time magazine described the then-18-year-old Zara Larsson after placing her in their annual Most Influential Teens list in 2016. The Swede joined the likes of Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez, Barack and Michelle Obama's daughters Sasha and Malia, and the youngest-ever Nobel laureate recipient, Malala Yousafzai, on the poll celebrating youngsters who have made a significant impact across the globe.

Having just turned 20, Larsson was too old to make the cut in 2018. However, she was still recognized for her talents on another prestigious list. The singer joined fellow chart stars J Hus and Dua Lipa in the entertainment category of Forbes' yearly 30 Under 30 poll. The long-running business magazine didn't reference her net worth. However, other sources suggest that Larsson had raked in a cool $10 million during her rise to fame.

Her sophomore album went Top 40

While Zara Larsson's 2013 debut album, 1, made little impact outside her native Sweden, 2017 follow-up So Good reached the Top 10 in no fewer than ten different countries. It also gave the vocalist her first entry on the Billboard 200, peaking at No.26 in its first week of release.

The record, which spawned three US Hot 100 hits, "Lush Life," "Never Forget You," and "Ain't My Fault," boasted some pretty impressive songwriting pedigree, too. Notable names on the credits included hitmakers-turned-stars in their own right, Julia Michaels, Charlie Puth, Snow Patrol guitarist and Courteney Cox's on/off boyfriend Johnny McDaid and the madly successful singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran.

The critical response was largely positive, too, with Allmusic's review concluding, "Like contemporaries Daya, Steinfeld, Bebe Rexha, and Dua Lipa, Larsson delivers polished R&B-influenced pop gems that shine bright like diamonds while maintaining a too-cool-for-school factor that helps to distinguish her from the bubblegum."

She sang on one of 2017's biggest hits

In 2017 Zara Larsson followed in the footsteps of Jess Glynne, Sean Paul and Anne-Marie when she guested on an uplifting dance-pop smash from electro-classical outfit Clean Bandit. The Swede's euphoric vocals helped to propel "Symphony" all the way to the top spot in the UK, Croatia, Latvia, and across Scandinavia as well as pole position on Billboard's US Dance Club Songs and Bubbling Under Hot 100 charts.

Co-penned by Norwegian hitmaker Ina Wroldsen, the third release from the group's sophomore What Is Love was practically inescapable during the summer of 2017. Its video, which sees Larsson and the band don their swankiest attire for an orchestral performance, has been viewed more than 900 million times. And its Spotify play count is nothing to scoff at, either.

Interestingly, "Symphony" was covered in 2019 by BAFTA-nominated actress Suranne Jones. The star of Doctor Foster and Gentleman Jack recorded the track with the Half Moon Theatre's youth group for charity compilation Got it Covered.

Zara Larsson is an activist for social change

Zara Larsson has become almost as famous for her social activism as for her effervescent sound. In 2019 she criticized Demi Lovato for her neutral stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, telling the Disney Channel graduate that being disengaged in politics is a blatant sign of pure privilege.

Larsson has also spoken out about abuse within the music industry, fronted a joint campaign launched by Durex and (RED) to encourage safe sex ahead of World AIDS Day, and got into a spat with fellow Swede Günther over the issue of gender inequality in festival line-ups.

The singer told Harper's Bazaar in 2016 that she was encouraged to speak about what she believes in from a young age: "Both my parents are very educated when it comes to social issues and being woke about what's going on in the world, and they've been very supportive of me having a voice. I have always been allowed to express myself and not agree because it's okay to not agree with people."

She's a fashion queen

Zara Larsson further established herself as one of pop's most stylish newcomers in 2017 when she joined forces with high street chain H&M to launch her own clothing line. And this wasn't a case of simply sticking a star name in front of a product as a marketing tool. The Swede was apparently heavily involved in the designing process.

In a statement about the "fierce and feminine" collection, Larsson said, "I have had so much fun working with them to design pieces and create a campaign that reflects my personality. I can't wait to see how girls everywhere wear the pieces to add to their own personal style."

So what kind of items could Larsson fans add to their wardrobe? Well, one of the most striking was a denim jacket emblazoned with a pink feline and captioned "Cats against catcalling." Other eye-catching outfits included a black crop top boasting the title of her biggest hit, "Lush Life," a pink hoodie featuring a list of Larsson-friendly phrases and a pair of crushed velvet platform thigh boots.

Zara Larsson toured with Ed Sheeran

In 2019 Zara Larsson joined artists as diverse as hat-wearing troubadour James Bay, glam-rock revivalists The Darkness and former Radish frontman Ben Kweller on the 14th (yes, 14th!) leg of Ed Sheeran's seemingly never-ending Divide world tour.

Of course, Larsson was no stranger to the ubiquitous main act — he co-wrote "Don't Let Me Be Yours," the sixth single from her sophomore, after all. And in an interview with The National following her support slots, the Swede revealed that Sheeran had been nothing but a gentleman. In fact, he even found the time to say hello to her parents.

Larsson said, "Before we went out on the road, we didn't honestly expect to even see [Sheeran] — because it's a big tour, there's just hundreds of people involved and he will be physically far away. But he's the kind of person who goes out of his way to make sure everyone feels welcome. And I think it's such a special thing — he don't need to do that, y'know what I'm saying?"