The downsides to life as an up-and-coming pop star can be considerable. The touring is exhausting. New rivals are forever nipping at your heels. There is the constant terror of sharing your innermost hopes and fears with the internet and with the world. But, for Naomi Namasenda, all of it is a price worth paying.
“Even if I’m scared, I still get excited by what I do,” says the Stockholm artist, dialling in from Madrid as she proceeds with a European Tour that will see her make her Dublin debut on Sunday December 4th.
“And sometimes, you’re not as confident. Or you’re scared. And you still do it anyway. The alternative is just not doing anything at all.”
Namasenda – who has adopted her second name as her pop brand – was never going to sit at home waiting for success. Instead, she is pursuing it, one gig at a time, one fan by dazzled fan.
In her corner are some powerful allies. Namasenda is a shimmering supernova at the heart of potentially the world’s most fashion-forward record label, London-based PC Music (she creates history as its first black signing). And with fans including megastar Charli XCX (an early PC Music trailblazer), she is an artist going places at a dizzying dash.
She has certainly drawn rave write-ups. “Endless sweaty euphoria” is how her sound was praised by Fader. “Absolute scorcher,” said Paper, the New York art-scene magazine, of her 2021 single Demonic.
The 29-year-old is driven. But not because she wants to be the biggest artist in the world. Motivating her is the desire to do something interesting, exciting and different.
“I wouldn’t say ambitious. It’s just that I get bored easily,” she says as she prepares to catch a train to the next city and the next show. “I want to live a very fun life.”
That desire to live her best, biggest life is imprinted on her music. And it marks her as a perfect fit for PC Music. With signings such as the aforementioned Charli XCX and the late producer and singer SOPHIE, the label has carved out a space as 21st-century pop’s answer to Motown or Factory Records.
Just like those labels, it has a driving ethos of collaboration and experimentation. And a signature sound – “hyperpop”, defined as “a maximalist or exaggerated take on popular music”.
“Maximalist” is also the perfect description of Namasenda, whose 2021 mixtape Unlimited Ammo, gave off the cordite punch of a fight scene from a John Wick film.
Action movies, as it happens, are one of her key references. The video to single Shots Fired has Namasenda playing the two halves of her personality, facing off against each other Die Hard-style.
“I love the maximalist thing,” she says. “Action movies have a lot of that in them. I get very easily bored. I love when a lot of things are happening. That applies to music, my everyday life, videos or movies.”
Hyperpop has been heralded by some fans as a 21st-century successor to punk: music that subverts expectations, upends apple carts, dazzles the unsuspecting. It is, to paraphrase Girls Aloud, the sound of the underground. Or, as Rolling Stone said of one of the label’s early compilations, a “super-catchy wad of synthetic bubblegum”.
“Synthetic bubblegum” might sound like hell to some listeners. But when so much pop feels designed by committee, PC Music has overhauled the genre from within.
AG Cook, the English producer, singer and songwriter who founded PC Music, hasn’t been universally thanked for his contributions to popular music, it has to be acknowledged. Undoubtedly the PC Music aesthetic is an acquired taste. Vocals can sometimes approximate the screaming of a thousand dying chipmunks. Grooves have the candy-whirl incessancy of an Oompa Loompa dance routine. This is Marmite music with all the trimmings.
That sugar-spun uncanniness has led some to wonder if the whole thing isn’t a prank, albeit a hugely successful one. Vice Magazine has, for instance, described hyperpop as “an elaborate joke”.
The degree to which the PC Music sound is a skit is something about which Cook has expressed a degree of ambivalence. It is possible, he has suggested, for a song to be both playful and sincere. You don’t have to pick sides.
“It’s just like real people – you can have someone who’s amusing but it doesn’t mean they’re pretending to be a funny person,” he told the Guardian in 2020. “It’s not like everyone’s method acting the entire time.”
For Namasenda the appeal has less to do with the reputation of PC Music and any sound attached to it than with collaborating with Cook. She would, in particular, prefer to be left out of the “hyperpop” conversation. She is an artist in her own right, not a part of an amorphous “collective”.
“For me, what I make is pop. Maybe the approach is a little bit more punk. I’m my own artist. It’s a lot of things going on at the same time in my music,” she says. “It’s more maximalist than minimal.”
Inking a deal with PC Music and working with Cook was the realisation of a lifelong ambition. She started as a devotee from afar of the producer – who has gone on to collaborate with Lady Gaga and Beyoncé (he has a credit on Bey’s dancefloor-slaying new album Renaissance). Reaching out, she was surprised to discover that he was an admirer of her early singles. Ever since then she’s been pinching herself.
“I’ve been a fan of AG’s production for a very long time. I really wanted to work with him. I wrote to him. We had a really good session. The first session we had we wrote [2020 single] Dare. And then he told me he wanted to sign me. It went quite quickly. One session and then I got signed.”
She was born to Ugandan parents and raised by her mother, whose enthusiasm for playing techno and electronica on the school run left a lasting impression on her daughter. Later, Namasenda became a fan of more mainstream pop. Living in Sweden, she adds, she’s never lacked role models when it comes to taking on the charts.
This is, after all, the home of Abba and Max Martin, the one-man hit factory who wrote ...Baby One More Time for Britney Spears and co-produced Taylor Swift’s 1989.
“As a six-year-old, I liked Britney, The Spice Girls and Robyn,” she says, referring to the Stockholm-born savant behind With Every Heartbeat and Dancing on My Own.
“Sweden is an amazing country for music. We’re just really good at making music. For six months of the year, because of the weather, we have to just sit at home and make stuff.
At school, she fronted electro band NextStep. Keen to have a career beyond Sweden, at age 18 she applied for and won a vocal scholarship from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
“For me, moving to LA wasn’t a big deal. It was something that I wanted to do. And I did it. And then when I didn’t want to live there any more, I moved.”
She wrote Unlimited Ammo during Covid-19 lockdown, recording with Cook over Zoom from her apartment in Stockholm. Going on tour with the songs has been an education. Her audience is not at the arena-filling level. Still, if cosy, her fanbase is intense – and it has been an experience to go on stage and have an entire room sing her lyrics back. She’s never experienced anything like it in her life before.
“It’s so weird, making all these songs at home or in a studio. And now you get to see how the songs have impacted on people. To get their stories. When I meet them after the show, it makes me really happy,” she says. “It’s such a weird experience. But it’s lovely.”
– Namasenda plays the Workman’s Club, Dublin on Sunday December 4