Why you should care

Bumping EDM with a twinge of nostalgia for Lauryn Hill? Sigh and soar with Naomi Pilgrim.

Swedish-Barbadian songstress Naomi Pilgrim is a slow-burn star.

Her soulful pipes dazzled RedOne — yes, Lady Gaga’s producer — when she was just 14. Not quite ready for the limelight, she spent years singing backup before taking herself seriously. But a slow and steady start has worked out more than fine for Pilgrim. Over the past six months alone she’s dropped her debut EP, a new single and accompanying video, and hopes to release her second EP next year. If you find yourself bumping EDM with a twinge of nostalgia for Lauryn Hill circa Miseducation, prepare to find sonic bliss in Pilgrim’s dreamy, R&B-infused electropop.

Pilgrim, 29, has dusky eyes and a sweet, pillowy face, and her Swedish accent is tinged with a slight Caribbean lilt. Speaking by Skype from a Stockholm recording studio in an old church basement, she recalls spending her whole life immersed in music — her Barbadian father sang in a reggae band, and she grew up in Stockholm with her Swedish, music-obsessed mother, who blared Jimmy Cliff, Michael Jackson and Sade on vinyl. Pilgrim sometimes wrote songs in her diary, but she saw music as purely cathartic. She dreamt of becoming a lifeguard or horse-mounted police officer.

I reached a point that I wanted to do something for myself.

— Naomi Pilgrim

Until one day when she was standing on a Stockholm subway platform, “goofing around, singing Britney Spears” with her family. “I thought we were alone.” Except for a certain RedOne. The producer — for Swedish pop band A-Teens and later Lady Gaga, among others — invited her to record. Fed up with enduring racial slurs from her classmates, and teachers dismissing her complaints, Pilgrim left high school for six months to work for RedOne as a demo singer.

After returning to school, though, she hesitated to jump headlong into a music career. A severe perfectionist, she dreaded singing in front of the teachers at her performing arts school. Three times a week, they graded students’ performances, critiquing their expression and confidence. A few made direct digs: “You’re never going to be someone. What are you doing here?” Pilgrim suffered from “serious stage fright” and hated “the whole thing of being judged for your passion.”

She quit singing and sank into a musical depression, her inspiration run dry. But she found herself singing in “inappropriate” places, like the convenience store or the cafe where she worked, and getting butterflies when she did. “I started to connect with my voice again,” she says. “It was like my spell was broken, and I felt like Ariel (from The Little Mermaid).”

She began jamming with her musician friends. Outside school, “music was fun again,” she says. She perfected her craft as a backup vocalist for Lykke Li, Agnes Carlsson and others, taking mental notes on their creative process. Her friends urged her to step into the limelight. But Pilgrim lacked the confidence to go solo. Here and there, she wrote snippets of songs, and then fussed endlessly over them.

Then something changed. “I reached a point that I wanted to do something for myself. What does my music sound like? How far can I push myself?”

One evening, she opened a guitar track on her computer that her then-boyfriend had composed. Filled with a sense of urgency, she sat at her kitchen table and scribbled the lyrics in a black Moleskine notebook in between sips of wine and drags from cigarettes. A few hours later, she finished the song — a sad, atmospheric track about deciding whether to stay in a relationship — and spent a few more weeks on production. “[W]ith this one, it was home free. I just loved to listen to the song,” she says.

It’s totally an opportune time for her to make it big.

— Ilana Kaplan, music magazine contributor

Soon after Pilgrim committed to a solo career, the head of artist development at singer Jasmine Kara’s record label approached her after spotting her play piano for Kara. He later introduced her to producer Fredrik Okazaki.

The two joined forces on Pilgrim’s eponymous EP, released in February. It showcases smoky vocals layered over lush soundscapes that nod at her Swedish roots, coupled with chill island beats. Breezy opener “Rainmakers,” about heartbreak and childhood, starts with a thumping bass line dotted with water droplets as Pilgrim crescendos into a full-bodied, head-swaying chorus. It’s a contrast to dark, swaggy “Money.” “No Gun” opens with a tropical steel drum that builds into a shreddy bass line laced with spacey blips and gurgles.

Pilgrim’s strengths lie in her songwriting and vocals, says Ilana Kaplan, a contributor to Noisey, Paste Magazine and others. “She uses nostalgia as a big factor in her songwriting.” Grammy-winning producer/composer for Sony ATV and Studio 1 Zero co-owner Josh “Igloo” Monroy praises Pilgrim’s “bold new sound,” but thinks her vocals could use some refining — “not exactly how she sings the phrases, but the mixing and effects around her vocal.”

Still, her odds of stardom look bright, even if distant. She “has a solid chance at being successful,” Kaplan says. The music scene is ripe for an artist like Pilgrim. “Her music definitely embodies a larger trend — R&B-infused electropop/dreampop” made popular by FKA Twigs, SZA and others. “It’s totally an opportune time for her to make it big.” But amid so many other electro-R&B songstresses, “she needs to find her own … way to stand out.”

And her debut EP is achingly short — she needs to “put out more new tunes soon,” Kaplan says. Pilgrim says she hopes to release her second EP next year. She teased listeners with a new single, the shimmering, whimsical “House of Dreams,” released in May and written after a breakup left her “longing for a space that’s totally mine.” The video features the cherubic chanteuse folding origami cranes and twirling on a pool table in a rosy, Victorian-style mansion, as flickering stop-start techniques slice through the gauzy cinematography.

Pilgrim’s come a long way from the perfectionist music student, although she admits Okazaki occasionally needs to snap her out of it when she gets hung up on her vibrato. “Music is life, and life is not perfect,” she says. And her own music? “It’s the sound of my heart breaking free.” Sigh and soar with a soulstress whose star promises to only burn brighter.

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