“It’s a been a long journey, and at times, a huge mess,” ALMA laughs when we ask her how she’s feeling about the impending release of her debut album Have You Seen Her?
The Finnish pop singer’s greatest charm is her blunt honesty – something very refreshing in a world of rehearsed press lines and controlled narratives.
But what is clear when it comes to ALMA is that – now at least – she’s totally in control of her own narrative. We’ve just wrapped her first Gay Times photoshoot and walking in she knew exactly what she wanted her style to be, needed very little guidance in front of the camera, and nailed everything that was asked of her with no fuss at all. Considering she had flown in from Helsinki the night before, and had been in Los Angeles merely days before that, she’s full of energy.
“I’m very excited that I finally feel like I have this album out,” she continues. “It feels like when you graduate. It’s been a crazy ride. I started when I was 16 and now I’m 23 and I’ve grown up so much. The album tells that story – from my childhood to this day. I can’t be more proud of myself.”
ALMA first came to prominence in her home country when she was 17, competing in the seventh season of Finland’s edition of Idol. By 2016 she’d released two Top 10 singles with Karma and Dye My Hair, but it was third cut Chasing Highs that saw her bag Top 20 placings in the UK and Germany in 2017. From there, plans for a full-length debut album were put into motion.
“It was very hard to know which direction I wanted to go in,” ALMA admits when it came to writing a full collection of music. “I didn’t know what it was two years ago.” She retreated to writing sessions in Helsinki and Los Angeles, chopping and changing ideas until she struck upon the track that would inform the rest of her debut. “Cowboy was the song when I understood what I want to do and who I am,” she explains. “After that it was clear.”
The key, she discovered, was to start being totally honest to who she is. Cowboy centres on trying to fit into new social circles and discovering yourself as you come out of your teen years, something she had to deal with in more intense circumstances than most young people. “When I first moved to Los Angeles I felt so small and so emo,” she smiles. “Everybody was so energetic and positive, and I felt like I was just not fitting in at all. I needed to create an alter ego or something, to be like ‘I’m going to survive, I’m gonna make it through, I’m a motherfucking cowboy!’ It was a line that was in my head all the time.”
ALMA took this idea to pop hitmaker Justin Tranter, whose previous credits include tracks for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Britney Spears. “He’s always encouraging me to be super honest,” says ALMA. “All the craziest lyrics that I write, he’s like ‘Yes! Let’s go with that.’ So he was like, ‘I know you’ve got something, go and freestyle.’ So I did and literally the chorus just came. After that studio session it became so clear what I wanted to do, and what we wanted to do together because he’s executive producer of the album. He’s on every track.”
Considering Justin Tranter transitioned from Semi Precious Weapons frontman to chart bop connoisseur, it comes as no surprise that his musical expertise is the perfect fit for ALMA’s punk goes pop style. But ALMA says that it’s also the fact that they are both from the LGBTQ community that makes their professional partnership so effortless. “Sometimes it’s hard to write with other female people or even straight people. They just don’t get me. It’s like when you see a gay movie that’s been directed and created by everybody who is straight – it’s a bit fake. It’s like watching porn. It’s like, fuck that, that’s not real. Sometimes it’s very hard because I’m like, ‘I wouldn’t say it like that,’ and then I get pissed off and I’m like, ‘Just fucking let me write this song by myself!’” She stops with a smile. “Nah, I’m never rude to anybody. But with Justin it was just so easy because he understands.”
Until this point, ALMA has resisted speaking about her sexuality during interviews. There have been light references here and there, but it was with the release of her recent track Summer that she was more explicit about it. She publicly dedicated the track to her girlfriend. “At first I was like, ‘I’m not going to talk about my relationship.’ Especially in Finland because we had a couple of annoying leaks where paparazzi were on our doors. I got super anxious and was like, ‘Is this what my life is going to be like in my fucking home country?’” she tells me. “Then I refused to care. I see so many artists who have a secret, or they don’t want to show on social media that they are partying, and I’m like, ‘If I want to do this as a career, then I need to be honest.’ I don’t want to stop partying because I’m fucking 23 and I need to do that. I don’t want to stop loving my girlfriend and not posting pictures of us like every other human does.
“I just needed to find a balance, because I’m still a normal human being and I don’t wanna ever see myself as a celebrity. I don’t want to hide anything – even if I do have more followers than my friends. I dunno, I just saw so many artists hiding stuff and that’s why people go crazy. I just refuse to do that. If people don’t like me as I am, if they think I’m partying too much, or I’m gross because I have a girlfriend, then okay. I’ll have to take that otherwise I will feel anxious.”
When it came to making her sexuality more widely known, it wasn’t shame or fear of it negatively impacting her career that made her hesitate. It was quite simply that she didn’t see it as a big deal. “For me, I’ve lived so openly. I’m so free and I’ve never understood that being gay can be exciting. For me it’s just so normal,” she explains. “But then when I understood that maybe it is exciting, and that it’s seen as bad in some places, and that me being open could help some people, then I started to want to talk about it more. I never want to bring out my girlfriend to galas or stuff like that, because she is everything to me and I don’t want to mess her up because of this world. But I still don’t want to hide anything.”
While ALMA has just come out publicly to the world, she’s been out to friends and family for some time already. Conversation quickly turns to the moment every LGBTQ person faces with uncertainty as they begin to discover who they really are: the moment you tell those closest to you. “Literally my mum just saw me kissing a girl, and that was it,” ALMA laughs. “It was so embarrassing. We didn’t talk about it at first. Me and my mum, we always talk in the car. We always open up to each other when I’m driving. I was just like, ‘Okay mum, you probably know that I’m gay.’ And she was fine with it. With my dad, I think we never even talked about it. It was just obvious. My mum and dad, they are the best. My mum is very artistic and used to be a fashion designer, and she just loves me and my sister just as we are.
“I know I’m very lucky,” she continues. “All of my friends are gay. For me, coming out was so easy because I didn’t even have straight friends. The girls like girls, and the guy friends like guys. We are a group of 10 friends and we have one straight, and we are always laughing that she is the one that gets singled out. We’re all like, ‘Oh you’re fucking straight!’ It’s all just joking though – there’s plenty of love.”
So who were her LGBTQ role models when she was growing up? “Lady Gaga! Born This Way, obviously.” There is literally a gasp in agreement from every other gay person in the room. “But other than that, there weren’t many,” she adds. “I’ve never connected with male gay artists. For some reason, it just doesn’t help me.” ALMA, however, is very much at the forefront of a long overdue surge of brilliant queer female musicians breaking through at the moment, becoming the role models their younger selves craved.
She is also part of one of pop music’s most enviable sisterhoods. Last year for her performance of IDGAF in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge, Dua Lipa assembled a girl power supergroup including Charli XCX, Zara Larsson, MØ and ALMA. “Dua made a group chat and was like, ‘I know you’re all in LA, but you need to come you motherfuckers!’ We were like, ‘OK, we need to come,’” ALMA recalls. “I’d had a session that day and I was like, ‘I need to cancel because this is a good thing.’ Literally the next day we were in the car on the way to the airport. Billie Eilish should’ve also been there, but she had something else. Almost everybody in that group chat was like, ‘Okay, I can come.’” It was a special moment of female unity that felt so rare for pop, but really shouldn’t.
“That’s what I love about Dua, that she is so successful and working hard, but she’s always very nice and wants to help,” ALMA continues. “I remember when I first met her and she was like, ‘I know your song Chasing Highs, I love you!’ That is super rare. For me, I didn’t know anybody – only Charli – so those kind of things are so important. They give you so much power, like, ‘Yes, she likes me and she likes my song.’ So many people are just like, ‘Oh I know her, but I’m not going to say anything.’ I hate that. We should all give compliments if you like them. So I love that about all of those girls.”
When I suggest that it was a performance that sent such a powerful message to their female fans as it showed women supporting each other rather than the media portraying them as rivals, ALMA’s tone hardens. “Yeah, and fuck that,” she says. “It’s true. It’s easier for men to do something together because they’re not compared to each other. Even when I started doing music, every interview started with ‘So you compare with this and this artist’, and I was always like, ‘What?’ The first time is okay, but when that happens 20 times it gets a bit annoying. I do get why it’s hard for females to collaborate and do stuff together. People always see us as competition for each other.”
With her debut album Have You Seen Her? on the horizon, beyond chart placings and streaming figures, ALMA hopes it has a lasting impact on the people who connect with it. “My music helps me so much. This album, I probably wouldn’t be this sane without it,” she admits. “So I hope other young people and every human can get good feelings out of that album. It’s very therapeutic.”
Having listened to some of the new album (Bad News Baby is a future bop), we’re happy to report that it’s unapologetically queer. “I hope it inspires other gay female artists to be more honest,” ALMA says. “I’ve heard so many times, ‘Let’s just make this song into a ‘you’ version.’ I grew up changing songs’ perspectives to my way, switching ‘he’ to ‘she’. Now is a good time to just be honest.” She stops. “Straight people can just translate my songs to their own way. There’s so much stuff for them, so now’s the time for them to switch it.”
ALMA’s debut album Have You Seen Her? will be released soon.
Photography Jakub Koziel
Words Lewis Corner
Fashion Umar Sarwar
Hair Magdalena Tucholska
Makeup Cassie Steward
Fashion Assistant Antoine Caballero