Now aged 21, Thea Gustafsson grew up in the city of Örebro, becoming immersed in music by her accordion and flute-playing father who introduced her to some of the greats. “I love Ella Fitzgerald,” she says, “I remember singing ‘All Of Me’—and the whole scat solo—on tour with him when I was four or five.” At the age of eight she picked up the violin, which she’d use to compose her own music.
After leaving high school, Thea enrolled at the Musikmakarna Songwriters Academy of Sweden, the prestigious place which kickstarted the careers of LÉON and Skott. But there, worlds away from the diet of soul and jazz she’d grown up on, she decided the whole pop thing wasn’t really for her.
“It was all basically ultra-polished Swedish pop hits, and I didn’t know how to do that, really,” she says. “If you did anything besides pop it was—I wouldn’t say wrong, because people thought it was cool—but it was still weird. I just wanted to fit in, because it was my first experience away from home, and I didn’t know anyone.”
The school began to separate its students into two distinct camps; topliners and producers, and she didn’t slot neatly into just one of those. “I was like, I just make music! I’m a creator…?”
“It was a dark time but it was also very good for me to experience that,” she explains of her first taste of the industry. Undertaking an internship at what was then Avicii’s label, she found that the worlds of house and EDM weren’t where she belonged, either. Entering into the music business as a topline vocalist, she achieved high profile collaborations under a separate name—and millions of streams in the process.*
But the relentless sessions with all-male producers began to grate on her. She knew she was capable of both the production and the vocals. “I was like, I can’t do this any more—having all these dudes mansplaining, sitting with their spread legs,” she says. “I was just so frustrated. When you have a really clear vision yourself, it’s difficult to compromise.”
“I always had this voice inside me—society’s voice—that was like ‘No, you can’t, ‘cos you’re a girl, that’s for the boys’.” One particularly bad session with a producer (“I felt the whole panic that you feel when you think you’re not good enough“) led her to develop a whole new guise; Becky and the Birds.
Where pop tends to value visibility, Becky and the Birds favours obscurity. Her moniker of choice came about through writing her debut EP, an experience that dredged up some dark emotions, leaving her battling depression. “I felt like I really needed someone to project these emotions onto—like Sasha Fierce! Because otherwise it was all on me—Thea Gustafsson, and it became really heavy. As soon as I decided to change my name it just felt so good.”
Into that EP, she’s decanted her prior frustrations with the music business, as well as the darkness of her depressive period. The result; a genre-spanning blend of lush electronics, nods to trip-hop and ‘90s R&B, stitched together with soul-stirring spoken word vocal samples and noises plucked from nature.
“I start with a sound, and then a melody,” she says of her process. “Melodies are the most important thing, actually. I always do the lyrics last—arranging all the harmonies, melodies. I think that comes from my violin-playing. I love putting everything together in arrangement.”
“I want people to feel it,” she says of the EP, explaining how she personally experiences synaesthesia, visualising colours and patterns when hearing music. “I want it to be about the art, and to build a whole world around it, with visuals—art using all of the senses. I don’t want it to be so much about me, or what I look like.”
Being completely in control of her sound comes at a price. “You go kind of insane when you’re writing by yourself —you’re stuck with all your thoughts, there’s no-one next to you saying, ‘This is good!’ It’s kind of a fragile thing, but that’s when it becomes magical. God, that’s so cheesy! But its true.”
This quest to tell stories, and her will to express her own unique, genuine experiences, is the essence of Becky and the Birds. Though her initial journey through the industry may not have been plain sailing, at least some positive has come of it. “Since I started I’ve actually had so many female friends who’ve started producing—proving it’s possible is important,” she says.