If a record label drew up their perfect pop starlet, it would look a lot like 19-year-old Zara Larsson: blonde, energetic and vocally talented. But her look belies the ambition, sass, and pop culture savvy that Larsson has brought to the table ever since she was discovered on Sweden's version of Got Talent at the age of 10. With her U.S. debut album So Good out Friday, she's the latest in a series of Swedish exports, from Tove Lo to Max Martin, who have an uncanny knack for understanding how pop music works. It doesn't hurt that she has the pipes to back it up—and is coming of age as one among a generation of strong-willed young women in the the popular music landscape.
From childhood, as Larsson puts it, "I just want[ed] people to look at me all the time." Her popularity grew in Sweden after that talent show win, and she matured from a tween singer into an unfiltered voice open to discussing everything from birth control to boy troubles with the public. (In one memorable early Instagram, she called out boys who refused to wear condoms.) Her irreverent hits—songs like "Ain't My Fault" and "So Good"—are cheeky girl power anthems. (In fact, "Ain't My Fault" was initially a much less enlightened tune, a battle between two girls over the same guy. But as Larsson tells it, she insisted on swapping out the lyrics to adhere to "girl code" instead of singing something that would put other women down.) She's also hit gold on Spotify with her dance-ready tracks, where her collected streams add up to over a billion.
With So Good out March 17, Larsson is stepping into her spotlight, hyping hyping her work, her progressive political opinions and her favorite jokes on her social media feeds. As she explained to TIME, she's aiming high (think Beyoncé, her idol). So Good is a good start.
TIME: Tell us about your roots in music. Your family's not particularly musical, right?
Zara Larsson: I’ve always been the class clown. I love the attention. I just want people to look at me all the time. If I didn’t sing, I would most definitely do acting, entertainment, be a YouTuber—I just want people to watch me. My mom’s a nurse, and my dad’s in the military. They’ve been so supportive. But it really comes from me, wanting to do this.
Is there a story behind "Ain’t My Fault?"
My label heard it, and they were like, We love it. I was like, Great, but I kind of made it as a joke. It was very mean! It’s not who I am and what I stand for, so I had to change the lyrics. We made it more focusing on a guy. I feel like we kept the sass of it, but not talking down to another girl. And that feels good.
So that’s pretty important to you—the message?
Yeah—having a girl code. I do believe that music is politics; music is making a change.
You’re quite outspoken on social media, especially on Twitter. Have you gotten a lot of backlash?
I’ve gotten a lot in Sweden. I don’t think I’m saying any radical things; to me it’s just common sense.
What was the backlash?
I used to have a blog, and the majority of the posts I was writing about were feminism. I was talking about man-hating; it’s what I’m thinking about a lot these days. I guess it was just a lot of hurt men, and they had the meanest comments ever. Nowadays, I’ve grown up to be vocal and my parents have always taught me to debate and argue. I question everything. I have no problem [speaking my mind].
Has that ever been a problem in your career? You started so early as an outspoken young woman in rooms full of adults.
I think growing up in Sweden has been a good thing for me because people really do believe in equality, and they believe everyone should have the same opportunities. People have been taking me seriously; it’s not like, 'Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re a little kid.'
You have a lot of diversity amongst the dancers you choose to work with in music videos and onstage. Is that a conscious choice?
Partly, yeah. I think it’s boring if everybody would look like me onstage. I’m white; we’re very represented in everything. It’s not me who picks the dancers personally, but I want everybody to feel like, if there’s a little girl, she can look to the stage and think, Oh, that could be me. But it’s also, they were the best for the job.
What’s been the most challenging part of the last few years as you’ve developed as a star?
I’ve been really happy with everything, and also I feel like I’ve had a really good team; they respect my opinion. I’ve learned that I have the power to say no, so when I don’t want to do something I’m just like, I’m not doing that.
What have you said no to?
So many songs. I just said no—I will not sing that song. It’s a big step, because I know so many artists out there don’t really have a say in anything, and I’m lucky that I have a team that listens to me.
When you look up to other artists today—Beyoncé, Taylor Swift—what career are you looking to emulate?
Beyoncé. 100 percent. I met her after her Mrs. Carter show in Sweden. But part of me really wanted not to meet her. I just could not behave. I cried and I cried and I cried. It’s funny because the person you look up to for years, the only person you really idolize, is all the sudden standing in front of you—it’s surreal.