Popular music has long been a sanctuary for odd birds. But even by those standards, Ellinor Olovsdottir, the unforgettable voice behind such singles as “Down on Life” and “Love Me Badder,” is a rare species. “Society very much tried to change me as a kid,” she says of her upbringing in a pre-gentrified rough neighborhood in southern Stockholm. “They said I was wrong and everything I wanted was wrong.” She escaped as soon as she turned 18, and began traveling the world with a backpack, a notebook, and a desire for experience and defiant self-expression. During that time Elli (the name she prefers) discovered music as yet another super-open creative channel in her brain. Fast forward a few years and she’s adopted the moniker Elliphant, signed to Sweden’s Record Company TEN, followed by Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records, put out several hype-stoking EPs, starred in an iPad commercial, and is now preparing to release her long-awaited North American debut, Living Life Golden. “The thing that makes my project special is that I never had a favorite genre and I never had a pretentious idea of my music,” Elli says of her unconventional path. “People have their sound. They have their magic that they’re holding onto, their way of doing things. If I looked at myself like that, I could have been broken really quickly. Instead, I am very free.”
Elli’s unconventional, free-spirited approach to life and art may set her apart in the pop world, but given the response to her music thus far, it appears to be exactly what the pop world has been waiting to hear. From the moment she released her first single, the deliciously cheeky, lo-fi “Tekkno Scene” to her most recent banger “Step Down,” there’s been an unrelenting clamor to define and categorize her unique, rasta-pop meets hip-hop meets dance hall sound. She’s been compared to MIA, toured the world with Charli XCX, and counts everyone from Diplo to Skrillex to TV On the Radio’s Dave Sitek as a collaborators and creative co-conspirators. And then, of course, there’s Dr. Luke. “He’s a very, very spacey businessman and I like spacey businesspeople,” she says. “I had an opportunity to work with him, I liked him, so I did it.” For Elli, literally everything she does, from what she puts on in the morning — it might be Adidas sandals with socks and gym shorts or a skin-tight, day-glo tank dress — to what she creates in the studio is entirely about gut instinct and feeling. As a result, she has no limits. “I can work with anyone,” she says. “When people go into a session with some really cool musician and are like, ‘Nah, it’s not really my sound,’ I’m like, ‘That’s so weird!’” As long as she’s feeling it, everything is Elliphant’s type of music, and it’s exactly that diversity she showcases on Living Life Golden.
You’d be hard pressed to name an artist in recent memory who so nimbly borrows from so many genres and seamlessly makes them her own. The title track (co-written and produced by Dave Sitek) is a shimmering synth-pop gem, the sonic equivalent of a perfect summer seaside sunset, while “Thing Called Life” (T Collar, Nick Ruth) has a melancholic, brooding feel, and the lusty “Love Me Badder” (Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Tommy Tysper) is a straight-up radio-ready smash. Meanwhile, “Step Down” features Joel Little’s signature deceptively simple, laid-back, tropical island sound, but the lyrics are all riled-up punk rock grrrl. “I had just met this really cool person who I thought was my friend and suddenly I just realized that he was thinking maybe I was in love with him,” Elli says, letting loose a throaty cackle. “This is a situation people are going through all the time — you meet someone, maybe you have a little fling, but it’s not turning out to be anything. You really want to be friends but that person is too high on their horse, making you feel like you’re a stalker or something!”.
Bravery is the uniting quality in all of Elliphant’s collaborators. “Big Freedia is also very brave,” she says of the infamous New Orleanian bounce star and guest on the riotous “Club Now Skunk.” “And George from Twin Shadow, he’s a demon. He has a big smile, but he’s also very deep and he understands the darkness.” The track Elliphant and Twin Shadow did together is called “Where is Home,” and you could say it summarizes where the singer is in general in her head these days. Of the many songs she wrote for the album, more than a few prominently featured the word “home.” “Where is home?” she asks, laughing. “I have no idea. I’m working it out. I’m thinking maybe it’s inside.”
Pondering this question has been part of Elli’s life since she was a little girl, growing up in what she calls a “very classic modern liberal Swedish family.” Her parents were more friends than partners, and she has five brothers and sisters, none of whom are full siblings. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but for us, it worked out kind of cool,” she recalls. From a very early age, Elli was restless. “I gave up on the whole idea of learning from school,” the singer, who is dyslexic, says. “It didn’t ever really work on me.” Instead, she wrote poetry and drew and generally made art in order to be okay in the world around her. By her later teen years, she was on the road, traveling the globe in search of, well, a home.
As a girl, Elli’s mother ran a neighborhood restaurant for a short while. It was a place full of music and clanging dishes and joy. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Elli has it that she might do the same, one day. “A very small, simple place, where people can go and hang out and drink coffee,” she says. For reasons she can’t quite explain, she imagines this place in a small, quiet farming town in Portugal. “I don’t even know why,” she says. “I haven’t actually been there so much. But it’s a very liberal place, very good food, very good culture. I’m like an eighth-generation Stockholm girl. I’ve been in the city for so many generations. I think my spirit is really longing for something new.” First up, though: “I want to play!” Elli already has a million ideas for the videos she wants to make, the B-sides she hopes will get released, the stage show she wants to assemble, and the reaction she hopes her fans will have to this music she’s made. “I’m so ready for people to finally hear these songs,” she says. “With this album, it’s a little bit like: ‘Here you go, I rest my case.’”