“The best pop music comes out of intense personal experiences,” reckons Sweden’s most exciting new musical export. And Lilly Ahlberg knows plenty about both those things: her state-of-the art pop is engaging and various kinds of brilliant, drawing effortlessly and accessibly on real moments of turbulence in Lilly’s own life.
Her latest EP, Call Me, is bursting with ambition, big tunes, and flashes of real life. In Hurting, recorded in LA, she delivers “an apology… But not really” as sings of the end of a relationship — “the first time I felt like I really had hurt someone” — and tells her former lover: “I hate to see you hurting.” Then there’s Fool, about being strung along by someone who’ll never make you happy, and most notably a new song called Moonlight, which Lilly bills as her most honest song to date and came to life last year when Lilly had found herself at a difficult crossroads in her career.
Lilly’s been performing ever since she picked up her first guitar at the age of 14, when her brother offered to show her how to play Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car. “Because of my love for that song I just couldn’t resist,” she remembers. “I sat up all night perfecting it, and I even learnt how to sing along to it whilst I was playing. The next day I was so proud, so I decided to record a video and put it out on YouTube for my friends to see.” Even when that YouTube upload found fans far beyond Lilly’s friendship groups, she wasn’t convinced by the idea of being an artist. “I used to think being a singer was lame,” she laughs. “At school when friends said they were going to be a popstar I used to be like: ‘Nobody from here is ever going to be a popstar’.”
Fortunately, Lilly moved around. Having been born in Italy before spending the first two years of her life in England, she moved with her family to the tiny Swedish town of Älmhult (famous as the home of Ikea’s head office, where both her parents and most of the town’s other inhabitants worked), then again four years later to the slightly larger town of Helsingborg. At 11 she moved to Norway for three years, then back to Sweden, then to Sydney, then back again to Sweden. “Moving around so much is tough,” she admits, having finally come to rest in south London, “and I was never in a serious relationship with a guy because I always knew I’d move anyway. But living in different places has shaped me so much as a person. It’s given me an edge.”
Wherever Lilly’s found herself music has been a constant, both at home and online, where a community of fans — quickly topping 100,000 subscribers — began to grow around what became regular uploads. This led to collaborations with other YouTubers and, back on home soil, she found that she could tap into Australia’s lively singer-songwriter community, which in turn led to live performances in local cafés and music venues, as well as frequent visits to weekly music workshops where ideas would flow freely, and Lilly could hone her songwriting. “My YouTube channel kept me in touch with people even when I was moving around,” she adds. “No matter where I am the channel was always in the same place — and people could always find me.”
In 2017, management and a development deal with a label brought Lilly to London. “I was totally by myself in a new city, and I had to grow up pretty quickly,” she remembers, “but I forced myself to do it.” She released lusciously-produced electrobop Bad Boys — a song written about the night Lilly and her best friend went to confront the friend’s ex, who’d been messing her around — as well as winsome belter Needing You, but just as her career was picking up pace her development deal came to an end, and so did her working relationship with her management. It was a jolt that prompted Lilly to question what she was doing.
“There’s a line in Moonlight that asks, ‘should I stay or should I go?’,” Lilly says, “and that’s exactly how I felt about London — and music as a whole. I was thinking: ‘Why am I in London, working in a bar? I didn’t come here to pour pints — I came here to make music.’” She sublet her room and went to stay with her family in Sweden for three months. “I waitressed, I went in the sea, I collected my thoughts,” she explains. It didn’t take long for those thoughts to crystallise. “After a month I was missing London. I knew I had to come back and try again.”
Which brings us to 2019 with Lilly now hitting well over a quarter of a million monthly Spotify listeners and releasing the Call Me EP — the sound of Lilly Ahlberg (with new management and a new label deal) coming out fighting. Naming the EP after the song Call Me is a big statement for Lilly: “My former label hadn’t wanted me to release Call Me, but that was the one I wanted to release for ages,” she says. “Now I can decide for myself what’s right to release. I feel more like a more sincere artist now I can do what I want.”
Though Lilly’s influences range from Astrid S and Dua Lipa to The 1975, James Blake and Niki & The Dove, her music packs a fresh, sophisticated and creative twist that’s 100% Lilly, reflecting her belief that “pop music’s about being liberated — it means you can do anything without being confined by genres”. “I think of my music as being like a leather jacket combined with a lollipop,” she continues, “it’s rugged and confident, but playful too.”
In a way, you could learn a lot about Lilly just by examining her growing number of tattoos, many of which she’s adapted into an innovative range of merchandise: the three birds she got on her 18th birthday (her brother has the same), the Venus symbol she got with her friend in Stockholm to represent girl power, the daisies to signify the part of Sweden she once called come, and the English rose that symbolises her move to England. The latest is ‘SMILE BABE’ written on her hand — “something my mum always says to me when I felt fed up”. It was intended as a memo-to-self during tough times, but with bright days ahead of her Lilly won’t need reminding much anymore. And the Call Me EP is just the (new) beginning.
“It’s all about living life to its fullest,” Lilly smiles. “I don’t want to look back and regret not following this path. I’d rather live my whole life trying to fight for this than give up and do anything else.”