After a trio of fabulously rude, giddy records that were both sexually explicit and mordantly funny, Swedish pop powerhouse Tove Lo – beloved of Lorde, Courtney Love and Kylie Minogue – took some time out. “I was sick of myself,” she tells Gary Ryan as she headlines Girls To The Front, the NME gig series that celebrates badass women and non-binary artists. She reconnected with herself on upbeat new album ‘Sunshine Kitty’, which explores a new sense of peace. As she puts it: “It feels pretty cool to be comfortable in my own skin.” PHOTOS: Moni Haworth.
Tove Lo is sweating from head to toe and, as she takes to the stage of London boozer The Shacklewell Arms, perspiration drips from the rafters.
“It’s way too fucking hot in here!” she exclaims, before joking: “Use it as an excuse to get naked!” – some gleefully oblige. In front of a rabid 200-strong crowd, it’s by far the most intimate gig the Swedish pop powerhouse has played in some time – she’ll be performing at the 2,300-capacity O2 Forum when she revisits the capital for her tour in March – and fans have been queuing outside since mid-afternoon, some having travelled from as far away as the Czech Republic.
Producer Jax Jones has turned up to see her, and bops appreciatively to their recent collaboration ‘Jacques’, a slick, flirty house banger detailing her one-night rendezvous with a French beau, which includes the tongue-in-cheek battle-cry of ‘Je m’appelle Tove, get the show on the road / I’m down for one night, let’s go!’
“I’m sweating but my nipples are still hard as you can see,” she tells the crowd with a laugh, referencing ‘Disco Tits’’ quotable lyric “I’m wet through all my clothes / I’m fully charged, nipples are hard / Ready to go.”
Tonight is the latest in the NME’s Girls to The Front series of gigs, a series that champions women and non-binary artists, creating a safe-space for fans to enjoy music. In a way, that’s Tove’s MO: her image is that of a sexually-empowered, weed-smoking, don’t-give-a-fuck pop icon-in-waiting who implores the audience to be themselves.
It’s a joyous, liberated bacchanal where boys kiss boys and girls snog girls. She’s here to showcase tracks from her latest album ‘Sunshine Kitty’ – her fourth, released last month – which is comparatively happier than her previous work. Introducing latest single, the giddy headrush of ‘Sweettalk My Heart’, she wryly comments: “It’s about love. Which I’m excited I can still feel after so many heartbreaks!”
She has a point. Tove Lo first caught music fans’ attention in 2013 with ‘Habits (Stay High’), on which she relays a tale of numbing an emotional break-up in a haze of hedonism. Lyrics were both mordantly funny and desperately bleak. This established the tone for the three albums that followed – 2014’s ‘Queen of the Clouds’, 2016’s ‘Lady Wood’ and 2017’s ‘Blue Lips’ – which located the post-Robyn euphoric/melancholic Scandipop sweet spot. On those records, she specialised in pulling the grenade-pin out of her life, exposing the shrapnel and wearing her imperfections, darkness and sexuality like a crest. She’s the doyenne of queer-leaning (Tove is bisexual), straight-talking heartbreak.
When we meet in an upscale hotel the next day after the show, she cuts a cheerful figure far removed from ‘the saddest girl in Sweden’ – an early media nickname given to her which has, annoyingly, stubbornly stuck. She’s in a more “stable place” than that which defined her turbulent previous LPs, she says. After the releases of ‘Lady Wood’ and ‘Blue Lips’ – a two-album post-mortem of the beginning and demise of a relationship – she was exhausted.
“I was sick of myself,” she explains, running her hand through her dip-dyed blue hair. “So I was writing for other people. When I came back and started to write for me, I was like” – she affects a startled double-take – “‘Oh! These songs are really happy!’” She reacts to the word like a dog encountering a frog, before laughing, “A lot of it felt effortless – I wasn’t as troubled writing this record. I was in a pretty calm space so that was a new feeling for me – I wasn’t writing from a place of chaos.”
She once claimed she needed to be downcast in order to write. “Looking back, I probably subconsciously sought out chaos,” she says today. “Obviously I wouldn’t see it in that way when I was in it; I was falling into situations that you know are bad and kind of being aware of it but still doing it.”
Even though it’s being released when the leaves are turning brown, ‘Sunshine Kitty’ feels like a perfect summer album. “A lot of the songs have sunset feel to them, which has added a dreamy element,” she says. “A lot of it has a sunnier vibe, even though it has those darker undertones and melancholy here and there. I think sonically it reflects me living in LA by the beach.”
She’d been splitting her time between New York and Stockholm, but relocating to California a couple of years ago made career sense: Wolf Cousins, the songwriting collective led by Max Martin (responsible for iconic hits such as Britney Spears’ ‘Baby One More Time’) that she’s a part of, have a studio there. “But then I also moved there for someone,” she adds, referring to her partner Charlie Twaddle – though she never mentions him by name. “It was a no-expectations move that turned into a good thing.”
When Tove started writing ‘Sunshine Kitty’s formidable lead single ‘Glad He’s Gone’ in a vodka-fuelled session with Shellback, “it originally started to form as a break-up song and I was like: ‘No, I’m not in that place right now.” Her eyes cartwheel. “I don’t think I can gather any more from that well!” she laughs.
So it ended up as a pep talk aimed at a recently dumped friend which, despite containing lyrics such as ‘Did you go down on his birthday? (Yep) /Did you let him leave a necklace? (Yep)’ boasts a killer chorus so undeniable that even Ann Widdecombe would find herself helplessly humming along.
‘Sunshine Kitty’s’ artwork mascot is a cute, mischievous cartoon lynx – her spirit animal since she was a child. Lo means Lynx in Swedish: Tove Lo was the nickname given to her by her grandmother aged three because she was obsessed with said animal in the local zoo called Tove.
Yet the record also continues Tove’s grand tradition of nudge-wink titles. ‘Lady Wood’ is, yes, a female boner. ‘Blue Lips’ is – ahem – the equivalent of blue balls. ‘Sunshine Kitty’, meanwhile, is “play on pussy power” and a reference to an episode of HBO’s Girls in which, says Tove, “Lena Dunham’s character talks about this author who soaks up the power of the sun through her pussy, ‘cos she tans her vagina and that gives her the glow on her face.” She laughs: “I thought that was a really funny description.”
There’s a comparison to be made between Girls’ no-holds-barred depiction of sex and sexuality and the carnal candour of Tove’s songwriting. The show influenced her. “It felt like a very inspiring way to show all sides of women”, she says. She’s started to realise how important that has always been to her, and recalls a tale from her childhood.
“When I was 11, I was playing tag in school and this boy ran up to me ‘cause he was going to catch me – and he kind of strangled me. It wasn’t on purpose, but he pushed too hard and he was a rowdy boy who had an intense side to him. I was upset and crying. I was sad and got scared and he was upset and crying and apologised. His mom called my mom and it was a whole thing.
“But I remember the teacher telling me: ‘You know, well it’s obviously not on purpose. I think he probably did it because he likes you. And I was like, ‘That doesn’t make it OK!’ I was really upset that they were like, ‘He hurt you but it’s OK because he likes you’, which is what we’re taught as young girls.”
Afterwards, her mother, a psychotherapist, applauded her. “My mom told me she was very impressed that I was not being like, ‘Oh he liked me!’. And it’s kind of what young boys are taught too about how to treat girls. It’s fucked up on both sides.
“So I think it’s always been a big deal for me not to get treated differently because I’m a girl, or having the same control and right to express myself and use my body in any way I want, even though I’m a woman. Since a young age I’ve rallied against the point of view that ‘Girls shouldn’t do that’ you shouldn’t do that because it’s not safe for a girl.”
She has, of course, encountered sexism, though. Tove says that, in early interviews, she was constantly asked, “Don’t you feel you should be a better role model?”. She adds: “I remember reading a review of a male artist, who sings about very similar subjects to me, next to a review of my work. With the male artist, it’s all: ‘It takes a lot to understand and get into the troubled mind of this man and his dark soul’. Whereas with me was: ‘This is a trashy girl’s party album’.”
“It’s almost as if because you drink or party and make mistakes or behave in one way, you can’t be taken as seriously as a woman, whereas it’s not the same for a man. I can still be a deep person who has something to say and has artistic expression. So that was frustrating at first.”
It’s a double-standard she tackled on the frat-bro-pop satire ‘Bitches’. Last year a remix of the track united her occasional collaborators Charli XCX (“My baddest bitch!”, Tove beams), ALMA, Elliphant, and Icona Pop.
“I wrote that song with the mindset of, ‘This is the sort of shit that as a woman it’s completely scandalous to say. But as a man, it’s like – pfft! – you can sing dirty lyrics any day”, she explains. As if to prove her point, a Rolling Stone review noted: ‘It’s admirably uncensored but it may leave you craving a shower’.
‘Sunshine Kitty’ reunites Tove with rising Finish pop star ALMA, who guests on ‘Bad as The Boys’, a tropical bisexual break-up anthem that sees Tove channelling her first unrequited teenage crush on a girl,
“I knew for ‘Bad as the Boys’, I wanted tell the story of a female artist who was also into girls because I wanted it to be coming from a real place,” she says. “I said ALMA, ‘Hey babe, do you like the song? Do you relate to it?’. And she was like, ‘Holy shit! I relate to this so much!’ It was important to me that the song didn’t feel like a statement – that it felt like this is just a story that’s about an experience of mine that is as real to me as if it were a boy.”
Tove Lo is a burgeoning gay icon. “I love that there are so many queer artists at the front of pop,” she says. “For me, sexuality is a fluid thing and it’s hard to be just the one way.” She adds with chuckle: “But maybe that’s just because I like both!”
She grew up buffered by relative wealth and privilege (her father founded a financial technology company) in Stockholm, a city that enjoys a relaxed attitude to nudity, weed and sexuality. So ‘coming out’ was never an issue for her. However, she has played places around the world where tolerance is slender, where, she explains, she has been warned, “’You can’t do propaganda for being gay or wear rainbow flags’”.
Did she see Matty Healy from The 1975 bringing a male fan onstage in Dubai and kissing him in flagrant contravention of their anti-homosexuality laws that could have saw him being punished by up to 10 years in prison?
“Yeah. I’ve met him before – I love him,” she says. “It’s a struggle because you think: do I make a stand and not go to those places? But there are kids who are stuck in a place where they’re not accepted, and you need to show up for then. But for me to just get up onstage and sing my songs is a protest – because they’re clearly telling my point of view. But I think he’s honestly braver than me – and it’s an amazing thing that he did.”
Other collaborators on ‘Sunshine Kitty’ include “Brazilian funker” MC Zaac on the Stranger Things theme-meets Latin-beats of ‘Are u gonna tell her?’. “We had this drunken session in the studio where we went, “I can’t believe we’ve taken it there!”, Tove laughs). Doja Cat, too, appears on the phosphorus Latin lust of ‘Equally Lost’.
But the big name that Tove ticked off her “bucket list” is Kylie Minogue, who duets on the girl code breaking ‘Really don’t like u’, a more illicitly spiteful take on Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’. “You know when you walk into a party and see your ex with a new lover for the first time and you just hate that new person?” she questions, rhetorically. “It’s not their fault or anything but you just hate them. It’s about that and the vulnerability to admitting to that feeling because it’s not a feeling you should be proud of, but it’s just there.”
At 31, Tove was born the year that Kylie released her first single ‘The Locomotion’ and her ‘80s Stock/Aitken/Waterman calling card ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. They met two years ago when they played the same charity event in Hong Kong. “She said she wanted to work with me so I made a mental note of that and thought: ‘When I have the perfect song, I’ll send it to her and see if she’s into it and she killed it. Meeting and working with her is still unbelievable – teenage me wouldn’t have believed me if I went back and told her that.”
Kylie’s not the only one smitten. Lorde, who Tove looks up to, was the first person who fangirled over her – telling her of ‘Habits (Stay High)’: “‘’What a chorus! You’ve definitely got a Top 40 on your hands!’”. They eventually co-wrote ‘Homemade Dynamite’, a standout moment from Lorde’s 2017 album ‘Melodrama’.
Courtney Love posted the ‘Habits…’ lyrics in 2015 on Instagram with an invitation to hang out. Despite being a huge fan of Hole and Nirvana, it’s an offer Tove still hasn’t taken up: “Our paths haven’t crossed yet but I’m hoping for it one day!”.
The same year, Taylor Swift invited her to duet ‘Talking Body’ on a date of her blockbusting ‘1989’ World Tour. “It was an unreal moment to hear 56,000 people singing my song back at me with pyrotechnics and Shawn Mendes behind me,” Tove says.
Months before, she’d thought it was “a hoax” when Chris Martin emailed, inviting her to sing on the Coldplay single ‘Fun’. “I started my response with ‘Hello prank emailer….,” she laughs. Two years later, Nick Jonas asked her to feature on his single ‘Close’. “It was the hardest video shoot I’ve ever done. I was bruised from head to toe because we were doing crazy choreography on wet cement in barely any underwear. He’s a creative machine and works harder than anyone I’ve met.”
For ‘Sunshine Kitty’, Tove pored over the journals she’s kept since she was nine years old. “I read them thinking, ‘Oh, you have learned a few things! You have grown as a human!’” she says. “It feels pretty cool to be comfortable in my own skin now and who I am – because I spent years figuring that out.”
Tove has struggled with anxiety and depression. She explains: “I was in and out of feeling really depressed when I was young and I was looking to feel something that wasn’t that grey, wet blanket – because that’s the thing: it takes a lot of effort to smile. It takes a lot of effort to laugh and be alert and aware of your surroundings. At least that’s how it felt to me – so I was just experimenting with stupid teenage stuff as a way to feel something that would actually make my heart race.”
She graduated from Rytmus, the Stockholm music school that counts Robyn – and Icona Pop among its alumni. After a stint in a math rock band called Trembekee, Tove went solo while also working as a songwriter. She penned the likes of Girls Aloud’s ‘Something New’ and The Saturdays’ ‘What Are You Waiting For?’ with noughties pop-factory Xenomania. “I’d just go in and sing my ass off for five hours. It was trippy because you’d never write a full song – you were just giving your melodies to them, not knowing who they’d go to”.
She was also the first female songwriter in Wolf Cousins, the Stockholm-based collective overseen by pop Svengali Max Martin.
“You want to do your best and it’s also really great mentorship,” she says of the collective. “But it’s also brutally honest – there’s no sugar coating it. If I play something to Max Martin, there’s always that moment where I’m like:,‘Oh fuck! That thing I thought isn’t good enough really isn’t’. Every detail is scrutinised.”
She’s recently been in the studio with Dua Lipa: “She’s an amazing girl, an amazing writer. My favourite time in the studio with her was probably when she had me try all these typical British candies and we had this crazy sugar rush and were dancing around the kitchen. We turned into little kids again.”
When writing for other artists with the diamond-certified Wolf Cousins team, she’s expected to write a ‘hit’. For her own material, though, she goes renegade. Beneath the brain-burrowing hooks and soaring choruses are raw no-filter lyrics that could be less radio friendly if she pissed in Greg James’ coffee. She could be viewed as part of a trend for ‘unpopular pop’ artists such as Charli XCX and Troye Sivan, who struggle to gain a foothold in the Top 40 despite having vast fanbases. Her highest chart position was ‘Habits (Stay High)’, which came in at Number Six. How does she judge success?
“Whenever I write for myself, I can’t compromise with it. It has to be what I feel so sometimes the world will be in tune with that and resonate with it, sometimes a lesser amount of people will,” she laughs. “If I start thinking: ‘Will this connect?’ or ‘This needs to be for radio, I’ll lose the whole point of what I’m doing. If I don’t stand for it 100 per cent, then I can’t release it.”
There’s an irony that Tove scored her first Grammy nomination in 2015 for Ellie Goulding’s ‘Love Me Like You Do’. which soundtracked 50 Shades of Grey, a film whose soft-focus fantasy, commercialised sex (which is like being spanked half-heartedly with a Boden catalogue) is the polar opposite of Tove’s emotionally honest take on the subject.
Sometimes her approach to sex is funny, as on the video for her 2017 single ‘Disco Tits’, which features a puppet giving her head while she speeds down a desert highway, like an episode of Sesame Street brought to you by the letters NSFW. Sometimes it’s brilliantly bracing in its frankness, as in ‘Bad as the Boys’ lyric: ‘Love hurts when you’re fingering’. And other times it’s arty –see Tove’s ambitious, self-scripted short film accompaniment to ‘Lady Wood’, which was temporarily banned from YouTube because of an end shot that depicted her enjoying some me-time.
Does she ever feel a pressure from people expecting her to be provocative?
“I never feel like I need to ‘top’ my last sexual output,” she laughs. “I just go with the vibe and energy of the song. If you start thinking about what other people are going to think about your creation, it stops being for the real reason that you’re making it.”
“I know it’s pop but I still think of it as my artistic expression and how it’s me working through my shit, whether it’s happy or sad or sexual or angry. So if I start to think ‘Oh I can’t do this, what are people going to say?’, it won’t feel authentic; it will be forced. So it has to come from the heart – or from the body!
“If people are saying ‘Why wasn’t she naked in this video? She was naked in the other one’ – then I think they’re listening to my music for the wrong reasons.”
One of the traditional communal bonding moments of live shows occurs during ‘Talking Body’, where she lifts her T-shirt to flash her chest. The crowd – both female and male – join in. “People who come to my show are really excited about it and it’s a moment we share,” she says. I tell her that in Belgium, I saw a smattering of men criticising her for being an exhibitionist. Despite probably barely raising an eyebrow when they dispatch a dick-pic, a woman with agency threatened them. “I know!” she says. “But at least I’ve awoken something in them. I’m not in control of what they think – sometimes I’m barely even in control of what I’m doing!”
When Donald Trump became president, she tweeted ‘World shattered’, and there’s something transgressive about Tove’s control of her body in a period where the US president is threatening to deprive other women of control over theirs. But Tove says that the rise of Greta Thunberg – who hails from her motherland – has given her hope.
“She’s an amazing, brave, smart girl,” she says, “and I really like social media for the reason that that’s how people became aware of her and now she’s speaking to the world and leading the charge – and inspiring people of her own group who are the future and have been failed by their parents and older generations on climate change.”
Six years after she broke through, you could argue the world has finally caught up with Tove Lo. With nihilistic shows like Fleabag revealing similar dissolute truths and artists like Billie Eilish continuing her bloodline with pop-confessionals on sexuality and self-loathing. She’s a “huge fan” of Eilish, and says, “She really is in her own lane and speaks for a generation and is someone to look up to”. Tove has even been in the studio with Billie’s brother Finneas for some tracks she’s remaining tight-lipped about: “We’re fans of each other’s’ music and he’s a really good lyricist so it felt like a fresher, freer session – though I can’t say anything about the songs.”
With ‘Sunshine Kitty’, Tove’s found an acceptance that she can create torrid, dark emotional pop with depth, without having to succumb to those feelings. “In every interview, I’ll be asked about being the ‘saddest girl in Sweden’, and interviewers expect me to be offended by it,” she laughs. “But I was actually proud of it! My songs were emotional and vulnerable and sometimes combined with sadness and this was at a time when you weren’t allowed to admit to your weaknesses and mistakes in pop. Now it’s a different climate.”
“I’m always going to have chaos in my life,” she concludes. “But now it’s balanced chaos.”
Listen to ‘Sunshine Kitty’ by Tove Lo, out now.
Styling: Annie and Hannah
Makeup: Loftjet using Charlotte Tilbury
Hair: Preston Wada at Opus Beauty using Hidden Crown Hair