“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 different 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 London, 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 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.”
How did you get in to music?
I started playing guitar at 14, I'd learn different covers and upload them to YouTube. When I'd learnt enough chords I tried putting them together in my own way and writing my own songs as well.
I can't pick one so here's a few of my favourites: Bon Iver, Julia Michaels, Fleetwood Mac, Maggie Rodgers, Tove Styrke, Astrid S, Angus & Julia Stone, Ben Howard, James Blake
Where are you based?
I'm currently based in London, UK. I do love going to Stockholm to write music though, and I'm originally from Helsingborg, Sweden.