“I’m not the prettiest you’ve ever seen, but I have my moments,” sings Tove Lo. She continues: “I can get a little drunk, I get into all the don’ts / But on good days I am charming as fuck.” The chorus of Moments seems to be written at the very moment the insecurities of a young and broken heart are washed away.
If we were to value artists according to their ability to describe the ups and downs of youth, Tove Lo would be of platinum quality. Her 2014 debut album, Queen Of The Clouds, captures the changing moods and impulses – as ethereal as they are powerful – that belong to the night. Something along the lines of, “Hello. Shall we hook up? No, wait, have you heard this song? Shit, I need to call my ex. Can you wait here for a while? Hello, where the fuck did you go?! Oh, whatever.”
She grew up in Djursholm, one of Sweden’s most affluent neighbourhoods, where pink hair and studs weren’t part of everyday life, even among the teenagers. At 28 years of age, Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson has established herself in pop music’s premier league, with the single Habits (Stay High) as the star striker. The track about the just-dumped girl who spends her time going to sex clubs, puking in the bathtub and getting high parked itself at the number three spot on the Billboard Hot 100 (the follow-up single Talking Body reached number twelve). Since then, Tove has constantly been on tour.
Queen Of The Clouds was a themed album about the three stages of a relationship – the sex, the love, the pain – but it is also the soundtrack of teenage years turning into adulthood. Tove envelops her choruses in productions wide as the horizon, and then merges the grunge-like, no-filter voice of youth with what has always been a hallmark of the best pop music: a sense of an exact and absolute present.
The topics Tove sings about are easy to treat journalistically. But decadence is only interesting when combined with talent and a capacity for work. There are many people who can be all party animal, but few of them can perform at the level that a long-lasting international music career demands. When it comes to Tove Lo, each song and each soaring chorus bear witness to an artist that overflows with equal parts talent and skill. The execution is flawless.
It is mid-January and minus 20°c. Tove is back in Stockholm after two years of touring and she’s just started to map out the follow-up to Queen Of The Clouds. This time she will collaborate with Ali Payami (who has worked with The Weeknd) and the duo The Struts. Add Shellback, the right-hand man of Max Martin, to that mix and you’ve got a recipe for even more success.
“If you don’t have sound people around you who can help you keep your feet on the ground, you go mad. The team I have right now is great. I hope they think I am, too. Maybe they think I’m a total diva.”
How much do you work these days?
We start at noon and end around midnight. I recently went through all my voice memos from the last year. Sometimes I have woken up in the middle of the night and started singing a tune straight into the phone. Sometimes you hear that I’m at a rave. But this time, we are starting with the lyrics. Before, I’ve always received a track from my producer and then written texts for it, but this time we’re doing it the other way around.
Do you know what you want to achieve with the new album yet?
I want people to disappear into this album, as if it was its own little world. My goal will always be to write stuff that people can relate to. It means so much to me when people understand me and feel something, or tell me I’m giving them hope.
You used to write a lot of lyrics when you were younger, too, right?
Yes, quite a lot of dark stuff. I’ve always been fascinated by people with miserable lives and read those sort of biographies. You know, people who have been tortured or gone through some kind of trauma.
Why are you drawn to miserable people?
I’m from a very safe upbringing. Big house, Volvo, a family dog. So all the shit I’ve ended up in has been my own doing. The idea was to be a crazy teenager, you know. I remember an emo chick I really loved: Sarah Bettens from K’s Choice. You couldn’t find their album in any store, so I had to print the cover myself. She sang about how she was sitting in a dark room, crying and being angry. I could relate to that.
What was it like to go to a music school in the centre of Stockholm? Were there other people from your neighbourhood there?
No, but I loved going there. I could be myself. Where I grew up, you were expected to be a certain way and everyone was supposed to look the same. Most people at the school were from musical families and could already play lots of instruments. So I was scared shitless at the start. We performed the first day and it was only the third time in my life I had been on stage. I almost crapped myself.
But you are more comfortable today?
Of course. But I have bad days. And sometimes I’m worried about my voice. I had to have a throat operation a while ago, since I had scar tissue on my vocal cords. I had being singing too much, living too hard and I just kept going. Everything broke down in the end.
Were you scared you’d never be able to sing again?
Just before the operation, when the risks became clear to me, I was very afraid. I remember waking up and the doctors asked me to make a little “mmm” to check that the voice was still there. Then I had to be completely silent for five days. No speaking, no clearing of my throat, no coughing up food. I almost choked to death on a spring roll.
Would you say you are a narcissistic person?
The only thing I do all day is talk about myself, write about myself and be photographed. I hang out quite a lot with an artist who’s been famous his whole life. We have a common acquaintance who told me that he never picked up the impulse to open doors. He always waits for someone to open them for him. I mean, that’s insane, but it isn’t really that strange because he’s never had to open a door himself. If you don’t have sound people around you who can help you keep your feet on the ground, you go mad. The team I have right now is great. I hope they think I am, too. Maybe they think I’m a total diva.
What if they have a secret group chat about you behind your back?
We actually do have a group chat, but people mainly post ugly pictures of me.
That doesn’t sound very nice.
But everyone does it. I mainly send photos of our tour manager. He always ends up in photos with the fans, making a really creepy face. Then you send that image and write “CREEPER”. We have almost become like brother and sister – it easily ends up that way when you are twelve people on a tour bus and you can’t take a dump. You have to say “I have to take a dump” and the bus stops.
You haven’t thought about getting a better bus?
There are no buses where you are allowed to poop. Everything goes straight into the ventilation and then the whole bus starts to smell.
That’s not exactly dignified.
But I love that little sardine tin. You get that camping trip feeling.
“I’m not a very political person, but I speak my mind. Like, I think grass should be legalised or that I should be able to show my breasts whenever I want to.”
When I read interviews you have given, they are invariably about how much you like sex and drugs, or that you are always sad. Are you sad?
Whatever. I have a dark sense of humour. And I feel at ease around chaos. I go between 50 feelings every day. But in the USA, they think it’s completely bizarre if I cry in a video. You are supposed to be some fucking superwoman. In Sweden, everyone just sort of wants to dig deeper: We see the glamour and the parties, but tell us about the darkness – what is really bothering you? But in the end, they just write that I party too hard.
Are you OK with people writing about sex and drugs when it comes to you?
I know I’m much more than that. But if people want to focus on it, let them. I don’t have the energy to worry about what people think about me. I’m old enough to know who I am. I’ve told my mum that she can’t read everything that is written about me. Of course, she does anyway. Sometimes she sends me messages: “Tove, there’s a man here commenting on everything you write and he has Nazi signs on his profile, you have to remove him!” Then I try to explain that I can’t remove him, because he’s on Twitter and I can’t control what he writes.
I have a friend who’s a columnist. Each time he thinks of something really stupid to say, that he knows people will hate, he has to write it. We’ve named it “Columnist Tourette’s syndrome”. Are you afflicted by something similar?
Yes! Once I said real love doesn’t exist and that you should sleep around until you get a disease and then it’s farewell. Irony doesn’t always work. But it makes me mad when someone tells me what I can and can’t do just because I’m a girl. They ask me if I think I’m a good role mode for young girls. Erm… yes? I’m not a very political person, but I speak my mind. Like, I think grass should be legalised or that I should be able to show my breasts whenever I want to.
Do you worry when you are about to release something that you think is quite far out there?
I think it will be like that with my next album. For the last album, everything was so new, and I didn’t realise how many people would actually be able to relate to it and like it, and how much I would have to own up to. If it keeps going in that direction, I guess people will start telling me even more that I need to be responsible.
But no one expects someone like Slash to care about that.
No, but I’m a girl and that means completely different rules. If I had been a dude, you’d give me a cigarette and I would sit and scratch my crotch. That’s the way it is, and I notice the difference. In Sweden, no one bats an eye if I flash my breasts and say that I like to have sex. But in the US, or France or England, they censor everything. Not violence, but everything sexual.
Is there anything left of the songs after that?
When I was performing on morning TV in England, they told me that I couldn’t sing “bite me” or “while I tease your finger.” But then you just say, “OK,” and sing it anyway.
Photography Johan Avedal
Styling Karin Smeds (LinkDetails)
Hair Kalle Eklund (Mikas Looks)
Make up Marina Andersson (LinkDetails) using YSL Beauté
Retouching Mods Graphic Studio.
This interview is published in the S/S 2016 issue of Bon, available in select newsagents now.