We introduced you to Mapei back in December, when interest in the rising Swedish-American singer was at a boil, thanks to her addictive single “Don’t Wait.” Now, the Stockholm-based artist—born Jacqueline Mapei Cummings— is following through on that promise with Hey Hey, her debut record (out today) that features upbeat party music layered with heart and soul. Mapei, who in 2009 scrapped a record she’d been working with French DJ duo Justice, began her career has a rapper, and while this record features bursts of pure hip-hop and spoken word, what stands out are her undeniable pop hooks. This musical evolution can be traced to her collaboration with Magnus Lidehäll, who’s produced tracks for Britney, Kylie, and Katy. We caught up with the 30-year-old singer in a New York City hotel room to talk about starting over, writing political music, and wanting to have her heart broken for art’s sake.
Your first record is coming out, but you had originally recorded your full-length with Justice and scrapped it. What happened?
Yeah, but I didn’t finish it. It wasn’t mixed and the songs weren’t fully written, but I did almost a full album with them. It was just more their style than my style. It felt like I was a feature on it. I was just having fun listening to what they were doing. It wasn’t really my thing—I couldn’t really stand for it, but they did their part really well.
Would you ever consider releasing any of the songs you recorded with them?
Maybe one. Maybe one to some blogs or something.
Can you tell me a little bit about your record and the inspiration behind it?
What inspired me was to inspire myself—to have fun with things. I was in Sweden, and it was cold and dark. There’s not much to do. It’s not like here (in New York) where it’s so fast-paced, so it’s not as stressful. You just end up in your thoughts a lot. I didn’t want to be depressed, so I was like, I’ll do music and have fun. A lot of the songs ended up being poppy, fun, positive and uplifting.
Have you always been a musician? Or did it become your career after you were doing something else?
I’ve always been into singing, drawing and artistry. I put out a song on the Internet when I was 18. I drew my own album covers and came up with titles growing up. It’s always been around, but I would still not say I’m a professional musician.
What kind of other jobs did you have during that time?
Restaurants and telemarketing. That’s about it. I studied media in Sweden and I went to a community college here in New York.
What sounds and musicians inspired your record?
It’s a collage of everything. My songs have a pop structure, but there are influences from everything—there are guitar riffs and spoken-word. The sound of an ice cream truck inspired the song “Blame It On Me.”
How did that happen? Was it just going by?
Because Magnus, the producer, was just playing with sounds and I was like, Oh this sounds like ice cream trucks I heard growing up. So, we decided to keep it.
Who did you grow up listening to? Who has kind of resonated with you while you’ve been songwriting over the years?
I love Mary J Blige. I love Saul Williams. Pop music. Right now I’m listening to a lot of Top 40 R&B. I like the things that they’re doing there, even though the beats sound the same sometimes. It’s really uplifting and fun. Albums were really important: I really liked the Ray of Light album by Madonna. The It Was Written album by Nas was really important.
How did you end up touring with Lykke Li? Did you guys know each other beforehand?
We were in the same clique in Sweden.
You guys should form your own Swedish girl pop super-group.
Yeah, totally. She just contacted me on Facebook and was like, “Do you want to go on tour with me?” I was like, Yeah, sure.
You’re super stylish. What’s your style inspiration?
I didn’t know I was super stylish. (Laughs) I really like this designer Ann-Sofie Back. She’s from Sweden. Sometimes I wear sweats and Reebok Classics and sometimes I’m really dressed up. I would say I’m laidback with a feminine touch.
So, your lyric video for “Change” was super inspirational. Did you have a lot of creative control over that? It got a lot of buzz.
No. The directors sent it to my label and I almost started crying when I saw it because they really captured New York characters. It was cool, but they just sent it to me. I wanted the song to be more political than it is, but then I just came up with some uplifting lyrics for it. I came up with the chorus first, and then I just belted it out like I did with “Don’t Wait.” I wanted to write powerful protest lyrics, but it didn’t happen, so I just came up with those lyrics.
What do you mean by political?
Just talk about poverty. I say “we try hard to get by.” The things I’ve seen here—it’s kind of unfair, the extreme ways that exist.
Have you ever experienced poverty firsthand?
Not really since I grew up in Sweden. There’s not much poverty there since education is free. Growing up in the States when I would go back and forth, I grew up in the hood there. Most people live in the projects. Sometimes you see that people feel like there’s no way out.
What’s the most challenging thing you’ve had to deal with as a musician?
I just have a very humble approach to it: I don’t take anything personally, like comments or anything people write on the Internet. That can be challenging though – not listening to what people say on the Internet because I just want to see what people are saying there.
With regards to the songs on your record, what are the most meaningful songs to you?
I think “Second To None” means a lot; it’s about our generation and how everyone’s trying to make it. There’s pressure to go to school early when you might not even know what you want to do. You just do it because of the norms of society. “As One” means a lot—it’s about everyone comes together as one. It has an innocent approach to life—I hope everyone comes together as one. It’s me going back in my childhood the way I used to think then—no racism and no evil.
Do you think your album has one big message to it? From the songs you’ve talked about, it seems like yours is really about a bigger message to society.
It’s just me talking to myself and sharing it with others: it’s me trying to amp myself up, talking about dreams and changing thyself. I wish I could talk about love and breakups. That’s a big challenge. I wish someone could break my heart so I could write an album like Amy Winehouse.
What’s something that the U.S. can learn from Sweden in your opinion?
Free education is needed. There wouldn’t be as many homeless people. It would be a better place if education was free.