Where does Ola end and Brother Leo begin? It’s a question that’s been rattling around in the constantly whirring mind of the Grammy nominated Swedish artist for a while, and like all good pop mysteries, may never be solved. Brother Leo means freedom.
The name comes from a reoccurring dream I had as a kid. In the dream I had a twin brother, he was a free spirit, brave, confident and always had the answers to everything. He had superpowers and his name was Leo.
A highly respected songwriter and producer in his own right, Ola Svensson has been reborn, ready to take on the world with an impressive array of songs and emotions, as Brother Leo.
The whole idea behind creating the alias was to provide an honest and creative place that forced me outside of my comfort zone. As Brother Leo I’m able to challenge and push myself as an artist and songwriter. In a way, I can be more me.
Fuelled by his winding musical journey so far, and spurred on to dig deeper into his creative expression, Ola, channelling Brother Leo, has crafted a suite of songs that are unafraid to alchemise his emotions and experiences into bold, unabashed pop anthems.
These are songs for the masses, communicating universal emotions. Be they playful like the sleek ode to love, ‘Naked’, or be they heart-breaking like the redemptive hymn, ‘Hallelujah’, or the zeitgeist critical new single, ‘Strangers on an Island’; a gold-plated banger produced by British dance music legend Fatboy Slim.
A career in music was never in Ola’s mind growing up: My mom pretty much forced me to take piano lessons and join the boys’ choir, which I’m super thankful of today but back then all I really cared about was football. I guess it was my first and biggest passion in life he explains.
While the piano faded out, football carried on and by the age of 17 Ola was playing professionally for former UEFA-cup team Trelleborgs FF. But a performance at school just before graduating would turn out to change everything.
Everyone knew me as the football geek, he smiles, I guess everyone was surprised that I could sing. So they were like ‘you have to audition for Pop Idol’. It all happened so fast, and that was basically the first time I found myself on a real stage, and in all honesty, I don’t think I was prepared for all that attention. I just liked to sing, and suddenly everyone knew who I was. It was kind of overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, I learned a lot and the experience opened up a whole host of opportunities.
The competition led to a deal with a label who released his debut album. It went straight to number one in Sweden, as did his first single. After the release of his equally successful third album, however, Ola felt uninspired and knew that something was missing. It was at this point that he realised he needed to make a change.
While the situation was difficult it had confirmed to him that a genuine passion for music was fuelling him; that he had to nurture it on his own terms. So he bought himself out of his contract and set up his own label Oliniho Records, with the subsequent album, Ola, peaking at number three and housing two further Swedish number ones. Spurred on by its success but exhausted by the process of being fully independent, he released one more album as Ola before realising he was about to crash.
At this point I even started to question whether being an artist was for me and, if it was worth it.
It was here that friends stepped in. He’d met Swedish songwriter and Max Martin acolyte Alexander Kronlund (Robyn, Tove Lo, Katy Perry) a few years prior and it was he who saw a spark in Ola.
Alex opened my mind, and inspired me a lot he says. He opened up another creative room in me that I didn’t realise I had”. Kronlund also introduced Ola to Julius Peterson, a publisher at Max Martin’s publishing company. Julius and Ola immediately started to work together and, without Ola’s knowledge, Julius sent some of Ola’s new demos out to producers and labels to gage a reaction. Ola, a perfectionist who’d not been kept in the loop as to who was listening to the songs, wasn’t even sure whether he wanted anyone to hear them. The reaction from labels, however, was hugely positive. Strangers on an Island, found its way to Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, who went on to produce it. Having scored seven UK number 1 singles, a million-selling album, and previously produced and collaborated with the likes of Blur, David Byrne and Calvin Harris, Strangers on an Island represents his first production outside of the Fatboy Slim moniker since 2011.
It was around the same time that the demand for Ola as a songwriter began to take off, seeing him write with the likes of Gnash, Akon and Hailee Steinfeld, to name a few. He also found himself co-writing with other hugely influential songwriters and producers such as, Shellback (Taylor Swift, Britney, Maroon 5), Ali Payami (The Weeknd, Tailor Swift, Ellie Golding), Patrik Berger (Lana Del Rey, Icona Pop, Charlie XCX) and Björn Yttling (Lykke Li, Lana Del Rey, Peter Bjorn)
Strangers on an Island was part of a triptych of songs that Ola wrote alongside the Elof Loelv (Rihanna, Tove Styrke, Niki And The Dove) produced Shine and Hallelujah that really kickstarted the Brother Leo project. Determined to create a more organic sounding pop confection that was unafraid to absorb the darker aspects of his life, he set about creating pop music that deals with emotions and hopefully makes people reflect and ultimately feel something.
This ethos is writ large in the tear-stained gospel of Hallelujah, a song that sprung from the darkest depths.
Hallelujah was written during the worst period of my life, he says.
I felt shit, I was lost. I tried everything to feel better: psychiatry, pills, drink. One night I found myself sitting on my knees by my bed with closed hands and I’m not religious in that way but I was praying. Everything was falling apart, I fell asleep with my clothes on and woke up the next morning with the bare bones of the song and wrote the lyrics on the bus ride to the studio the following day. God didn’t save me, neither did the shrink or pills, but when I wrote this song I found an escape, a place I could feel content. For me the music was the answer.
This is the kind of pop music we’re dealing with here; the kind that can offer solace, or playfully make you reflect, or communicate an emotion that perhaps is just lurking under the surface. The football player is still there. Of course, I want to score as many goals as possible. Brother Leo comes from a pure place moving freely over a whole spectrum of emotions and expressions. Over time Ola’s views on what constitutes success have shifted and whilst he wants his music to reach as many people as possible, it’s not the be all and end all. If it’s a song that I’m proud of and can stand by every word of it, then I’ll be happy, says Brother Leo
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