In a sweaty east London basement lined with paintings of kinky Care Bears and Mickey Mouse with a hard-on, Tove Lo has taken to the stage. The Swedish dark-wave-pop-icon-in-the-making gleefully yells out tracks from her recently released second album ‘Lady Wood’ – an uncompromising whirlwind of emotion, sex and massive bangers (think The Weeknd meets early ’90s Madonna). Suddenly Tove pulls down her top to reveal stick-on marijuana leaves covering her nipples. Drag queens gyrate and pout in the front row and everyone is simply having a wonderful time (even MailOnline, which posts a typically salacious blog about Lo’s “steamy display”). However, a few thousand miles away a megalomaniac reality TV star in a sandy toupee is about to be named the leader of the most populous country in the Western World. It’s a night of mixed emotions.
The next day NME meets Lo in her hotel. Real name Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson – the ‘Lo’ means lynx, a creature she recently had tattooed on her hand – this time she’s covered up but still as open and frank as ever.
It’s hard not to immediately discuss Donald Trump’s election, especially considering the deep-seated feminism that runs through Lo’s music and her entire creative process. Plus the fact she’s already been actively anti-Trump on social media (“My fuel for tonight’s gig was #trump rage. Grab em by the p***y, I’ll kick you in the face. And balls,” she wrote in October).
“It’s unbelievable people can think a man who speaks that way about women and minorities is fit to run a country so big,” sighs Tove, who currently splits her time between New York and her native Sweden. “Maybe he’ll run it into the ground over the next four years and then we can start over with something more humane. I’m hoping things won’t turn into chaos – but I’m prepared to see it happen.”
After spending her late teens and early twenties with goth rockers Tremblebee – complete with dyed black hair and emo sulk – Tove branched out on her own in 2011. She co-wrote songs for other artists including Ellie Goulding, Cher Lloyd, The Saturdays and Zara Larsson before releasing her own solo debut ‘Queen Of The Clouds’ in 2014.
A concept album about falling madly in love and just as madly out of it, it melded her two major influences, Robyn and Courtney Love, finessing the heady blend with classic Swede-pop panache. Its successor follows a similarly passionate path and is accompanied by a short film that was recently banned from YouTube for being too explicit.
Lo premiered Fairy Dust at famous Hollywood movie palace the Egyptian Theatre and (spoiler!) the 30-minute film, um, climaxes with Tove sprawled on a bed, hands in her knickers, enjoying some serious ‘me’ time. It’s an explosively sexual moment, but raw and real at the same time. We can’t quite see Little Mix following her lead any time soon.
“It could have been shot a million different ways,” she explains of the scene she’s warned her parents not to watch. “I could have been arching my back or looking more appealing, but it’s not about that. I’m here on my own and getting myself off. People might think it’s not that sexy, but you don’t see that much with women.” Sex runs through everything Tove does, but she’s doing it on her terms – this isn’t sexiness and nakedness for laddish Babestation viewers. This is sexiness for herself.
She hasn’t always been this confident, and in fact used to have serious issues with body image. “I haven’t talked about it a lot, but in my early teens, when my body started to develop I hated everything about it,” she says. “I was very uncomfortable.”
Yet around the time she joined her first band she started to become happier with who she was and what she looked like. “It’s a liberating and amazing thing to be comfortable with my body. I’m healthy and it works and for the most part it does what it’s supposed to.”
All this feeds into Lo’s frustration with the emphasis on women’s looks, not just in mainstream media but in our day-to-day lives. “It’s not that important,” she says, throwing her hands up. “We put so much pressure and emphasis on looks. People think it’s what they should be focusing on, but it’s really not. It’s OK not to be beautiful!” Such an attitude is surely a hell of a lot easier when you’re as slim, blonde and conventionally attractive as Lo, but her attitude is a step in the right direction. Fairy Dust co-stars Lina Esco, the actress and activist who founded the Free The Nipple movement after directing a 2012 film about the legality of women baring their breasts in public. “In the media, whenever you see a naked woman it’s always sexualised, or to please someone else’s eyes,” explains Lo. “I want to get to a place where women can be naked the same way that men can – funny naked or naked just to be naked.”
Lo’s obsession with getting her kit off also extends to her logo, which is basically a designer vagina adorning her music and merch. When we meet she’s wearing a ring and necklace, both in the shape of a vulva. “I like it,” she says with a coy smile.
The cover of ‘Lady Wood’ features the logo too, as well as a close-up image of Tove’s hand in her shorts. Like ‘Queen Of The Clouds’ before it, the album deals with love lost and found. “The relationship was amazing and unreal but then there was a very brutal break-up,” she explains. “But I write about every single piece of it and I appreciate all of it.”
The record takes you on the same journey as Lo, all the madness and mayhem included. “The whole album is about chasing rushes,” she admits. “I love to live like that because it gives me a lot of amazing moments and experiences, but I do realise it’s probably not a long-term solution to life.” Probably not in the long term, but it’s certainly working out well for her right now.