Sunday Edit: Summer with Coco O

"I need to gather my energy to be able to share it."

Danish singer Coco Maja Hastrup Karshøj, aka Coco O., wants to do it all herself – and she can. She is done with putting her career in the hands of men who want to tell her who she must be – because the fun bit is being creative and developing is meaningful.

This summer she will be performing at the Syd for Solen, Roskilde, NorthSide and Musik i Lejet festivals. Read on to find out about her pre-performance preparations, about role models who fall from grace and what she wants to use her voice for.

You achieved international recognition in the duo Quadron and worked with major stars like Pharrell Williams, Ariana Grande, Jay-Z and Tyler, the Creator, but when did you yourself feel that you had your big break?

When you’re in the middle of everything, it feels like small steps every day so it’s difficult for me to put a precise date or time on it, but when Robin and I came home to play at Roskilde in the summer of 2013, I could really feel that something had changed. A huge number of people had come to our gig, many more than we had expected, and when I was mingling at the festival afterwards with my friends, all sorts of people came up to me and wanted a photo. Our second album had just dropped in both Denmark and the US, but I had moved to LA where I wasn’t recognized in the street. It was freaky – like two parallel, but completely different lives. It was a good thing that I wasn’t at home in Copenhagen when everything was peaking.

How does the prospect of playing at festivals this summer feel?

I’m fine with it. Performing at festivals is fun and enjoyable. There isn’t very much pressure because it isn’t just my gig that people’s experience is bound up with. That makes things more relaxed. It’s less ego-based and more about community, and I hope that people will want to come and see my performances.

How do you prepare to go on stage?

Before, I always used to withdraw and tell my band that I was going off to do my makeup so that I could collect my thoughts and concentrate on what was about to happen. On this tour, I take five minutes to meditate before I go on stage. I need to gather my energy to be able to share it.

I have had two to three outfits made that I can change between for the various gigs to minimize the chaos in my head. That means that I don’t have to worry about what to wear. I would really like to have a makeup artist because sometimes my makeup looks like I don’t know what, but it really helps to put your ‘face’ on. You really need to wear a lot of makeup for anyone to see that you’re wearing any when they’re far away from the stage.

Are you nervous before a concert?

I become insanely nervous, almost more than when I was younger. On the other hand, it stops when I’m on stage. When I was younger, I was a bit more loose about things being OK. Now I worry about all sorts of things that might go wrong. Maybe it’s the fact that with time I’ve become more introvert. Maybe I’ve landed in my natural self. Maybe you’re supposed to be very extrovert when you’re young. You have to go out and get something out of life, try a lot of things and meet a lot of people. I’ve thought a lot about the fact that we romanticize youth. There are so many songs about being young, free and wild while there’s a shadow over the whole period that comes after that youth. As if it’s something negative, but I think that getting older is great. Feeling that I’m developing. There are so many things that I wasn’t interested in when I was younger that are now opening up to me mentally.

What is currently occupying you?

I hardly know where to begin. I feel it’s all connected. I’ve become more politically aware. In reality, I wouldn’t call it political because it’s just life, but I think about feminism a lot, and it’s given me an awareness that I haven’t been able to express earlier.

I’ve really been in love with Tove Ditlevsen for a long time, I’ve read everything she’s written, and I miss her when I finish one of her books. I often find that if I become preoccupied by an author, I just throw myself into all that writer’s books. But now I’ve started to dive down into feminism and the writer Maya Angelou who I feel is a black, American Tove. They are both very good at depicting the raw reality, but at the same time make it so poetic that one can’t stop reading at all.

I’ve also just been to Glyptoteket to visit the exhibition with the French painter Suzanne Valadon who was a model for painters like Renoir and was part of the art scene at the beginning of the 20th century. It was really exciting. The way they talk about her lines being masculine. The fact that you can say that something is either a masculine or feminine line. As I see it, it’s problematic that men cannot relate to feminine music, lines or writing. This means that as a female artist your audience is narrowed down to half the population from the outset. Many men have a problem with their femininity whereas women are better at being able to make room for the masculine. It isn’t a threat to us.

I’m also concerned about the climate crisis. I’m reading On Time and Water by Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason which is about the fact that people find it so hard to set limits for themselves. We’re so greedy and don’t think of the generations coming after us. We could all be living well, but we want more all the time. Men oppress women because they can. White people oppress black people because they can. We exploit the Earth’s resources because we can. Greed is something we can all recognize in ourselves to some degree or another. It can be hard to stop yourself eating more ice cream if it’s there. It can be difficult to stop smoking or drinking more wine although we know that it’s not good for us. And as far as my own industry goes, greed and growth are used as marks of success, something I believe has to stop.

When I was living in LA, I really realized what kind of privilege it is being born in Denmark. The United States is a super-capitalist country, and my illusions were completely shattered. It’s just a machine that has to be fed so that people can keep consuming and dreaming about having an enormous house, but there are so many poor people – not just the homeless on the streets, but also just normal people who live in constant lack of security and fear of not being able to pay their bills if they become ill because they don’t have healthcare. That really made me realize how lucky I am to have been born in Copenhagen.

Did that change anything about your career dreams?

That what I was working towards in the States was being signed by a major record company wasn’t what I wanted. I felt that I was being pressurized in a direction I couldn’t see myself in – and I wouldn’t have succeeded in it because I kept working against it. It wasn’t the life I was dreaming about when I decided I wanted to make music. Achieving commercial success requires so much work. You really have to be ice-cold, have grit and really want it. I identified more with some of the more minor artists that lived more of a hippie lifestyle.

Of course, everyone wants their music to reach a wide audience, but it’s about how many people you want to give permission to be part of the process and control it – only with the aim of making it generate money. Especially as a female artist, I feel that many people think they have good ideas on your behalf. Ideas about what I should be doing to become even more successful. But I’ve tried it and felt really sad when I did because I believe that the most fun you have is when you’re creating something yourself.

But I had the choice anyway. I’m my own boss, and I have to protect my integrity and the integrity of what means something to me personally so that I can continue to make music for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I’d chosen the other path. But I’m still practicing staying focused on that. Everyone has their own journey.

How do you feel about the fact that so much promotion of artists and their music takes place on social media?

When I was growing up, my idols were people I could read about in a magazine, cut out pictures of and hang them on the wall. There wasn’t that direct access on social media that we have today. It also means that you feel a huge responsibility for your success all the time. What more should I be doing? I want people to listen to the music that I’ve worked on so hard for so many years, but I’m an artist, not an influencer.

Sometimes I think it’s fun. Because, of course, I’m also a performer and think that it’s fun to do crazy things and showcase myself. I’m not against the fact that it exists. There’s also something great about the fact that we have platforms that are breaking the monopoly of the record companies. It just requires a lot of decision-making by the individual artist into identifying where it makes sense to put your energy. I can feel that I have to opt out of things on a daily basis. No, TikTok isn’t for me. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but what might be something for me? Taking control of the media that I think are cool.

So, if social media had been a thing when I was in my twenties and was living in the States, I would probably have gained many more followers. For example, if I’d posted pictures on Instagram the evening I met Frank Ocean, it would all have blown up. It’s probably just as well that my experiences from that period are in my own head and not on Instagram.

What would you like to use your voice for?

I think I’m getting the hang of it. I don’t think I’ve really felt that until recently – that I had something that others found interesting. But as I’ve become a more outspoken feminist, I’ve found that there are many people in the industry who identify with my experiences. It’s always surprised me, but I can see that I now have quite a lot of experience that younger women can use, but I’m very careful about using my voice too much. I don’t want to be just like those men who are never in doubt about everything they say being worth listening to. I’d rather that people came to me if they are interested in getting my advice.

What makes you proud?

I feel quietly happy when I feel that I’m not running out of ideas. That I can continue to develop creatively.

Who is your greatest role model?

Michael Jackson has always been my greatest musical role model even though he’s fallen slightly off his pedestal. To me, he represents an angelic energy, a soul who had been given a supernatural gift. He kept being open, almost too open. When I was younger, that enormous naïve presence in the world resonated with me. What he created musically and performatively was just so innovative.

It still captivates me.

What it also represents is being destroyed when you’re idolized from childhood in the way he was. He never got any peace, and, of course, he had mental health problems, but in the 1990s you just washed your hands and thought it was the stars’ own fault. Just like with Britney Spears. That fame and idolization is a double-edged sword. It has consequences.

When do you feel best about yourself?

I feel best when I’m productive. When I’ve been sitting in my studio and had an idea I think is really cool. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the creative success continues the day after. It varies a lot. I try to create structure for myself and not beat myself up too much about having days that aren’t very productive. If I come up with something I like, I usually think so too later when I’ve left it for a while. Then I know that there’s something in it. Then I just have to find a way of using it. I also feel good about going off to perform. I like being on the go.

What are your favorite Rudolph Care products?

For my face, I’ve always liked Açai Facial Oil. For my body, I like the things that sparkle and are shiny such as Golden Kiss Body Oil. The Açai Body Balm is also really luxurious after a bath or a swim in the sea. I like to take a cold shower every morning. I like the fact that it’s so unpleasant while you’re in it, but afterwards you just feel so great. It’s a bit like torture, like winter swimming, which I also do sometimes. I really like swimming.