Music is a universal language, an ephemeral space where people unite around shared passions and at least momentarily forget what may separate them.
Few breathe life into this concept as organically as Loreen Talhaoui, Sweden's singing sensation. The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, Talhaoui is a self-described "global citizen" with a sense of responsibility to give back to humanity and raise awareness for issues such as LGBT rights and quality education for young girls in Afghanistan.
"People need to take more responsibility for each other today. Egoistic thinking won't work in the end. Being a second generation immigrant, I strive to make something of myself but most importantly to make a difference in the world."
In 2012, when Loreen won the Eurovision song contest that took place in Baku, Azerbaijan she was the only artist to meet with human rights groups there. She has advocated for democracy in Belarus and LGBT rights in Eastern Europe, and is presently working with the well-known Swedish foundation the "Afghan Committee" to build schools with high-quality curriculum outside Kabul.
Perhaps this strong sense of a larger purpose stems from Loreen's upbringing. She is the oldest of eight and helped raise her seven younger siblings. She remembers vividly visiting her mother's family in Morocco as a child and seeing how they struggled against poverty.
"Because we were such a huge family singing became my sanctuary. Being alone and singing, was a way I gained energy. I used to skip school and sing alone in the local church. The priest knew I was there, but would close the doors and leave me alone."
But it was not until a special music teacher, an American from New Jersey, encouraged her to embrace her gift that she performed for the first time.
"She said 'you have a gift and the gift is for sharing. It's a responsibility to share it, it's not just yours.' She really helped me open up."
I met Loreen on a cloudy yet unseasonably warm Swedish morning at cozy hotel lounge in the central city square made by famous the "Stockholm Syndrome" incident. For nearly two hours, we shared vegetarian panini's "extra crispy" as she likes them, honeyed green tea and vibrant stories tinged with feminism, courage and authenticity.
Natalia Brzezinski: What does music and performing mean to you?
Loreen Talhaoui: It's give and take. In my tribe, in my family and culture, music has a purpose. When you sing either you want to cleanse your energy or give out energy.
When I'm on stage I usually end up in some sort of trance. The only thing that exists is me and the audience. There's strong energy that goes out from me when I sing and comes back from them, in a cycle of give and take. I want to create an energetic, sharing create atmosphere in audience. It's an amazing feeling but it's not about getting a high or getting a kick. Music either closes or opens up things inside you, it makes you think, it makes you feel, and in my music I always focus on what I can open up in me and in the audience.
Where do you find the motivation for your work in philanthropy and human rights?
I've seen things in my days. Having family that is still very poor today, having to struggle to bring food and have shelter, changes you. I was born in Sweden but spent summers and winters traveling to Morocco and seeing this-- seeing poverty, seeing women being treated differently. As a child, it bothered me so much but I felt helpless because you can't change it. Today, I can work to change it and I am.
Have you ever felt different growing up in Sweden because of your background or family?
I always felt different. When I visited Morocco,I felt more Swedish. In Sweden, I feel more African sometimes. I felt different in my town, I felt different even in my family from my siblings because I raised them with my mother. We were both children and struggled together.
For me, different wasn't so different. Different wasn't bad. I think we are all becoming more different around the world and also more the same. I see myself as universal and connected to all cultures.
Where did you get the gift of music from?
As long as I can remember I was singing. Music is a cultural thing. If you came to my village in Morocco, you would see that every woman is singing. It's part of their daily life. When they rejoice they sing, when they're angry they sing, they sing for everything and every emotion. My mother took that with her and subconsciously it must have passed to me.
How do you handle the pressures of being a role model?
Before this "fame thing" started, I was and am a very spiritual person. I could go away for 30 days, be quiet and just meditate. I know that fame is just an illusion. Fame can be harmful if you're not aware of what it really is and what it can do to you and people around you. Having this understanding and sense of reality helps me remain grounded. One day, I will do something wrong, I will disappoint people and people will be tired of me. But the "role model things" I do will live beyond the fame and that's what I work for.
Who is your musical icon?
All artists who think outside the box! There is a woman from South Africa named Lisa Girard, she did the soundtrack to Gladiator. She just sings, comes up with her own words that may not exist. She has the kind of voice that you can't tell if it's male or female. It's a very dark, really cool sound. It's a sound that doesn't even sound human at times. She is a role model for me; a powerful woman with a very special voice that doesn't care about the rules around music. I also really admire women that can manage it all; juggle relationship, kids, look good and have a great job. That's cool.
What inspires you in your creative process?
People. Sitting here and meeting you. It's why I work with human rights; people and their stories. Sometimes just a sound (Loreen taps a spoon on the side of the table as she said this) will inspire me. I can record that sound on my computer and start tweaking it. I'm such a nerd when it comes to creating sound!
I never write lyrics as a first step. I go into the studio, put on a track and let the subconscious mind speak. I know what I want to say in my soul and the sounds bring it out, not the other way around.
What was your big break?
Before Eurovision, my sister made me join the Idols contest in Sweden. That was first real
experience where I stood on a professional stage, in front of huge audience and dealt with media. I won 3rd place. That experience taught me a lot, it moved everything around inside me.
If you believe in God or something spiritual, it was as if something greater than me had come down and said 'Loreen if you want to be an artist, this is what it's all about.' I went to Idol and all of a sudden people were telling me the "right" and "wrong" way to sing, the "right" and "wrong" way to look, it was painful but I opened my heart and just sang. It was a punch in the face and made me see that if I want to be an artist I need to know my craft and be strong. I didn't want others telling me how to do my art, to write my songs for me, I wanted to own it.
After Idol, I took a pause. I wanted to find myself and learn my craft.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Confidence, fighting for my own point of view and remaining true to how I want to sound and look, how I want to create. It's in my bones but it takes so much strength inside to fight again the commercial side and people around you.
Today, I speak from the heart. I know how to write and produce my own songs but I prefer to work together with other creators like myself.
What do you do to relax on your day off?
I'm so bad at relaxing! But sitting like this with you drinking tea, this is relaxation for me, I love this. Perhaps it's the French side of me but I love to sit, have a cappuccino and take in the environment.
What's the best advice you've ever gotten?
My mother used to tell me that her mother told her that you get as much as you can handle in life. One is you're stronger than one understands themselves to be. When I get overwhelmed and stressed, this advice gives me peace. I tell myself 'I can handle this and more'.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Impatient. Universal. Is there a word for people that love other people very easily? I'm that too.