That’s a fact I’ve learned.
The Swedish star’s heady electro hits seem to live and die by the party
“I can’t flash my tits on TV, that’s just a fact that I’ve learned.” At the time of our interview, Tove Lo’s third album Blue Lips hadn’t yet been released (it came out in late November) and she is prepping for a performance on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Her brand of pop is provocative, to say the least, and with a penchant for whipping off her top mid-gig, I ask her if she’s worried about the Jimmy Fallon audience being too conservative.
“The crowd at the actual show are always really like ‘woohoo!’, you know,” she says. “I got into a lot of trouble when I did Swedish Idol and I grabbed my crotch for a second and people were like ‘Oh! What are you doing? All the good girls watching this’, and I’m like ‘come on’.” No one tells her to tone it down, she says, but they might tell her: “‘Oh, I think you’ve enough side boob’, you know?”
Born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson, the Swedish pop star started writing music when she was 11 and went on to to study in Rytmus, a music school with an alumni that boasts Robyn and Icona Pop. After a brief stint in a math rock band, she landed a publishing deal in LA with Warner/Chappell Music. There, she dove into a pool of songwriters captained by Max Martin, the Swedish producer responsible for some of the biggest pop songs by Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift.
If people have a hard time talking about sex, they get a bit red in the face
With this deal, she wrote Icona Pop’s single We Got the World and co-wrote Girls Aloud’s incredibly bonkers and fast-moving 2012 single Something New. She would later write for Hilary Duff, Ellie Goulding, Lorde and Zara Larrson but in 2013 her own music career would skyrocket with the release of her second single Habits.
“People have been singing about this, like, forever. Taking drugs and music kind of go hand in hand for a long time and that’s just how it’s been. But, I guess, it’s mainly been unusual in a commercial pop world because that’s where it’s usually polished and you shave off those things that are too raw or too out of what society tells you that you’re supposed to do. That stuff . . . you’re supposed to just hint at it and you’re not supposed to say it flatly, I guess.”
Underbelly of love
And Tove Lo never just hints. Her music flaunts the underbelly of love and although she’s a chart star, she’s non-conforming. At the age of 30, she has perfected her style as a songwriter and performer. She’s blunt, poetic and thanks to her long-time collaborators The Struts, a Swedish production duo consisting of Jakob Jerlström and Ludvig Söderberg, her heady electropop music has a stainless steel edge.
When you choose to date a songwriter, they’re going to write songs about you
Blue Lips is the follow up to 2016’s Lady Wood. Did she enjoy watching people’s reactions when they suddenly realise what your album titles mean?
“Yeah! People usually find it really funny. If people have a hard time talking about sex, they get a bit red in the face,” she says laughing. “Obviously, Blue Lips is a play on blue balls, the same with Lady Wood being a play on having a boner – it’s a lady boner – and I think, to me, I like to connect the two because it’s the second half of Lady Wood. It’s phase two. The last few chapters of it. And the other thing is that it’s about frustration.”
Tove says that a carefree upbringing in Djursholm, a relatively posh area north of Stockholm, left her with a hunger. She wanted more. “Never being fully satisfied is such a common thing for a person like me, who has no reason to be. My whole life has been chasing that thing. I think that’s when we, the western world, look at what a lot of people have, and what we need becomes a chase for something else. A lot of the time we always want more. We are never satisfied.
“The instant gratification doesn’t really do that much for you in the end. That’s kind of what it stands for,” she says, referring back to the meaning of Blue Lips, and the ease at which we can indulge in hedonism. “I question that of myself a lot. How long can I keep going like this? It’s going to start fading. I love having layers to things. I love having the, kind of, cheekiness but I have a thought behind it.”
Like her previous albums, Blue Lips is divided into chapters – Light Beams and Pitch Black – and it documents the rush of a new relationship and its ultimate demise. The relationship she narrates is real but as a promise to the people in her life, the identities are obscured. “I’m talking about my frustrations and my feelings in a situation that happened in my life but I don’t want to write a song about people in my life. [I wouldn’t say] ‘this is a song about my best friend, it happened to her’ or ‘this is a song about my brother and this happened to him’. I keep it.”
So does she think that Taylor Swift, for instance, crosses a line when we know who her famous exes are? “I hear you on that but I’m also like, when you choose to date a songwriter, they’re going to write songs about you,” she says with a cackle.
To judge by the music, Tove falls in love on the dance floor and when her heart breaks, that’s where she goes to put the pieces back together: from the rolling highs of the wicked Disco Tits to the lows of the album’s closing track Hey, You Got Drugs. She is what we would refer to as a “sesh mot” in Ireland. She lives and dies by the party, with music, sex and drugs working as the cure and the cause to her inner demons. She believes that the dance floor is where we really let go of our responsibilities and revelations can be born in moments of desperation.
“You stand in the middle of the dance floor and you’re kind of like ‘what am I doing here? What is this? What am I doing this for?’” she says, describing a flash of clarity under the spinning disco ball of a clammy and overcrowded club. “Those times, they can be the worst times but that can also be some of the best times. You know that.” Blue Lips is out now on Universal.
Topless [Indio, California] [Abril 2017]
Topless [Londres] [Noviembre 2016]