Tove Lo is one of Popjustice's favourite new pop people. As a vocalist she hints at euphoria and melancholy in equal measure, as an artist she delivers a winning combination of ambition, passion and proper pop magnetism, and as a songwriter she's achieved the not inconsiderable feat of being picked to work with both Xenomania and Max Martin.
Best of all, she has big tunes. Tove recently signed to Polydor and her debut EP, 'Truth Serum', is out in April. It's brilliant. Really very brilliant indeed.
We had a chat with her recently, and here's what happened.
Hello Tove. On your Facebook page you describe your music as ‘Dirrrrty POP!’. Can you explain what that means?
Well for me it means that it’s raw, not filtered, and I suppose the vocals are about meaning what you sing, and not being afraid to show your bad side.
Showing your bad side is interesting. Because a lot of artists when they’re writing about love and life do so from the perspective of someone who’s been wronged by the other person. But in your songs there’s a feeling of “I’m an idiot as well”.
Yes. I guess I have a harder time saying that to a person in real life, but in my music I can say: “I fucked up, I’m sorry.” My songs are an opportunity to be honest. I take that to deal with my own issues. There are a lot of ways to blame other people, but it’s always two people in a relationship. I get sick of hearing people going “oh, he or she was such an asshole to me, he cheated on me sixty times”, and you’re like, “well why did you stay?”. The answer is always: “Because I love him.” And, you know, if you love a broken person you’re going to get hurt.
Have you ever set fire to anything you shouldn’t have?
Yes I have, actually. I set a girl’s hair on fire once. It was kind of an accident.
Yes. She said something really dicky and I was a bit drunk and I just kind of threw the lighter out and swooshed it, as if to say to my friends, “I should light her hair on fire”. But then it actually did catch on fire so I had to start patting her on the back trying to put it out. And she thought I was trying to hit her. It was all a big misunderstanding.
Do you think decent pop needs an undercurrent of despair?
It doesn’t have to, but for me to really feel something for it, it does. I can listen to something and think “this is a great song, but I’m not moved by it”, and I probably won’t listen to it again. It needs a sense of desperation, especially in the vocal. I like to listen to desperation.
Is it harder to write a happy song than a sad song?
For me it is — I’ve tried, and I’m useless at it. Oh look, there’s some beer coming for me! [General Swedish chattering in background] You should see this room I’m in. I’m lying on one of these lounge beds that women in the olden days who wore corsets sat down on if they were going to faint. One of those.
Is it a bit like a therapy session?
Tell me about your dreams.
Well, my dreams are kind of coming true right now, or I’m hoping they will. To go around the world playing live and writing songs with amazing people — doing that forever is my dream, along with having tonnes of people singing my lyrics.
From where you are now, it seems like you could become either a Robyn-type popstar or a Katy Perry-type one. From what you’ve just said about people singing your lyrics it seems like you would like to be quite huge. Is that true?
Everyone always says “I’m not doing it for the fame”, which is true for me too, and I’ve always said I don’t care if there’s three or 10,000 people in the audience, but I remember when I did that feature on ‘Strangers’ with Seven Lions and I saw a clip from when they did a concert, and there were 7,000 people singing along to my voice and my lyrics. And I watched it over and over again. And I was thinking, “what if I’d been there, and they were singing with me?” Thinking about what you asked, and wondering who I identify with, and I think I can’t identify with ‘Roar’, but I can identify with ‘Call Your Girlfriend’. So I’d say I identify more with Robyn, but I’d love to have as many people come to my shows as Katy Perry.
Surely the ideal situation is Katy Perry releasing ‘Call Your Girlfriend’.
Exactly! I’ll be the good mix between them!
And you’ve got an EP coming out soon, but you’re still writing for other people as well?
I’m focusing more on me at the moment. Things come up from work I’ve done before — “this artist is doing this song now” — so for example I’ve got a song with Lea Michele, I think. But those songs seem like a while ago now. Now I want to focus on getting an album together and I’m just picking through my demos seeing which ones will make it through.
How many have you got it down to?
Well, I think there will be a few from the EP because I’m really happy with the songs from there, then I have about ten or fifteen more that I’m picking from, and I’ll write some new songs too. It’s going to be tough.
Why don’t you send your demos over and I’ll tell you the best ones?
Oh that could be fun! Sure. I’ll send them over! That would be perfect. They’re all quite rough, but I’ll send them over.
I was kind of joking but please do.
Well, why not?
If I’d said that to Britney she’d be like, a) I don’t actually have any of the songs I’m working on, b) sign an NDA, c) no.
Well I think as soon as you start making everything about being a business rather than people who love music, it goes wrong. Anyway you’re getting the songs.
Good stuff. Apart from what’s likely to be on your album, have you kept back a killer song? A song so amazing that you haven’t dared release it because you know one day a Madonna or someone will call and need a career-reviving megahit?
Oh, let me think. I don’t think so. I’m not secretive enough! I’m not patient enough! I try to be. I do have a few things that I’ve written recently and when I think of them I think, “wow, this is huge — should I do this or should I see if someone big wants it”. But I usually move on pretty quick. Maybe you can decide that for me when I send over my demos.
What is one of the titles of those songs, so if it pops up in two years as a Madonna hit we’ll all know what you were talking about? Or if not Madonna, another ultimate artist?
Well Katy Perry would be amazing — if I write something powerful I know she’ll definitely deliver. I would love to have a guy sing one of my songs. Someone like Mikky Ekko, definitely. If he did sing one of my songs I would probably die of happiness.
Let’s say Katy Perry shall we.
Well I have a song called ‘Imaginary Friend’. That would be a good one for Katy Perry. But I might do it myself. (Laughs)
If someone from Sony phoned you and said, “right, Tove Lo, we’ve invented a computer program based on Michael Jackson’s voice which means we can make him sing any song we like, and we’re basically making a brand new Michael Jackson album using new songs and our computer program”, would you give them the song?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. A computer is not a person.
It would sound just like Michael Jackson.
Yeah. It would be so cool to hear it. But you know it’s like when someone says “look at my bag, it looks just like a super expensive brand”, but deep inside you know it’s not the real bag. So I would say no.
Is it strange to have worked on a song two years ago, and then for someone to suddenly go “here’s my new single”?
It’s crazy — you remember doing the song, and you remember being excited about it, and then you pitched it and nothing happened. Then a year later, it’s like “oh, this artist wants to record it”. Then a year after that they’re actually releasing it. It makes you realise that you should never give up on songs: if you believe in them they’ll find their home.
Do you write better songs in the winter or summer?
It all depends what’s happened to me at the time. Usually the winter: I write when I’m on my own and isolated and it’s better to be like that in the winter — it’s easier to hide away.
You know in Batman at the start when his parents get killed and that one moment is what defines who he will be for the rest of his life?
Which one event in your life made you the woman you are today?
Wow. That’s a hard question. I think it was when I was 15, when I decided to apply to a hippie musical school. I’d maybe been on stage twice by that point, and I just sat at home writing all these lyrics that nobody ever saw. All these posh people around me were going to the ‘good’ school where you go if you get the good grades. Actually I got good grades too and I applied to the good school too, and I got in. But I also applied to the music school, got in, and decided to go there. My life changed a lot both for better and worse after that, but that was a really big choice for me.
Where were you when you made that decision?
I was sitting with the applications, and I was in my room listening to music.
What do you think the Stockholm music school taught you that one in London might not have done?
Well, the thing with that school was that it was very anti-pop when I went there. It was very much “you either do soul or rock or jazz”. I wasn’t very good when I started. What I really learned was to overcome any fear you have about getting up on stage. It was hard. I got a lot stronger from going there. It’s scary at first, when you’re a teenager and people are watching you: you fuck up and it feels like the end of the world. Then you realise that actually, nobody died. And you move on.
Do you see yourself as being in competition with other artists, or do you exist in a vacuum?
When you’re a girl-slash-woman writing pop there is obviously competition coming from all the acts coming out of Sweden, but I don’t feel like I’m competing with anyone. People will say, “you sound similar to this, or similar to that” but I don’t mind that. If it’s someone I like. There’s more space for more music now, with Spotify and the internet and that kind of thing. Nobody will cancel out someone else — there’s space for everybody. You’ve just got to make good stuff.
Well yes, kind of. But twenty years ago when people bought music they’d play it loads, and they’d develop a personal connection with it. And with there being so much music available now, you know that no matter how much you love something another great song will pop up in three hours. So you hear more great music but you don’t have an intense relationship with it.
That’s the bad thing, that makes me a bit sad. That it’s so disposable: “That’s good, but I’ll play with something else for a bit.” I mean I want to release the album of my dreams, but at the same time do people even really care about albums any more?
I suppose what it means is that as an artist you can’t make the assumption that people are going to spend time getting to know your music, and I suppose the point I’m leading to is that one of the things I like about your songs is that they make a strong melodic impact, but also a strong emotional impact, the first time you hear them. So obviously repeated listening is still rewarding, but it’s not necessary in order to get deep into the songs. They’re quite complex but very immediate too, and at a point when everyone is fighting for attention your songs grab attention very quickly.
Well that’s nice to hear. That makes me feel good.
So anyway congratulations on that. Can you describe the house you grew up in?
Well I grew up in a kind of posh area in Stockholm. The walls of my bedroom were yellow with flowers on them when I was little, then when I was 13 I painted them black.
Classic teenager behaviour.
Exactly. Anyway, we lived by the water in a two-storey house and my brother and I had rooms next to each other. From the kitchen there were big windows and you could look out straight to the ocean. And there was an island where one of my best friends lived. I had a bit of a crush on him, I would take my binoculars and try to see if he was down by the jetty. This was before we became friends. My door was full of stickers of Leo DiCaprio, then later Kurt Cobain.
What did you parents do?
My mum’s a psychologist. My dad has had a bunch of different companies. They’re both academic, there’s no real music history in my family. They weren’t very happy with my choices at first but now they’re very proud. Worried, but proud.
Do you worry that your mum analyses your lyrics?
Yes I do worry, and yes I know she does. She can’t watch the ‘Habits’ video. She sent me a text saying: “My dear daughter, I started watching the video, I realised it was not a mum-friendly one, I hope your life is good and not like in the video.” I called her and I was like, “mum, I’m fine, you did bad things when you grew up!” She was like, “I did not”.
Drugs pop up a lot in your songs and they seem to be associated with bad times, but isn’t the main point of drugs that they’re supposed to be fun?
Yes. I think they’re good fun.
But you associate them with bad times.
Well when you’re really really down and nothing brings you up, then that’s something that definitely will, without a doubt. You let your mind go and you let your heartbreak go. So even if I associate it with bad situations, it’s more like… The difference is between doing it for fun and doing it because you need to. Obviously it’s better to do it for fun than because you need to cloud your real emotions. But both ways it works pretty well.
Obviously when you’re down that’s the worst time to be taking drugs, because then you need to deal with the comedown.
That’s usually what you realise afterwards yes.
Lyrically the thrust of your EP seems to be “I am troubled”, “there is a darkness to my life” and so on. And I’m wondering if that’s a realistic description of your life, or if it’s a caricature, and if in fact you’re fine and just have bad points every now and again.
Well, obviously, being raised by a psychologist you do see a lot of psychologists, so that has always been my thing: I have the good and the bad sides that I go between. I feel like one part of me wants to be a great person, quit everything I’m doing, go and fight for nature and animals and people who are suffering and do something real and meaningful with my life. Then the other part of me wants to fuck up and die in a year and do everything that’s bad for me and have a lot of fun along the way. I’m always between those two people. That’s a very honest answer isn’t it? I really am having a therapy session here on this sofa. I can let things go easily, but when I’m very sad I do dive very deep into it. I need to do that to get out of it: it’s always up and down. I know I’m not alone in that. I’m a normally depressed young person.
It seems like perhaps you get happier and more euphoric than most people, and perhaps more down and depressed than most people get too, swinging between two greater extremes than average people?
I think that’s exactly it. You nailed it. Yes. That’s what it is: I feel a lot more. I feel a lot of feelings, either really happy or really sad.
Who were your role models as a teenager and do you think you’d be a good role model for teenagers now?
I was really into Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love who probably weren’t the best role models for a teenager but I was just amazed by them. I grew up very protected and very happy with great parents and I was just looking for trouble because I was really fascinated by it. I don’t know if I’m a good role model, I think in some ways I might be and in other ways definitely not. I don’t think a teenage guy will want a teenage girl to watch my videos, for example, but I do think if you’re strong and you do your own thing that’s a good example for anyone.
Do you feel like you’re in control of yourself?
No. Not at all.
When you’re out of control what do you do to get back in control?
I need someone I trust to tell me. To confront me. And to say: “What are you doing right now?”… And I have that in my life, so that’s good.
Whose advice do you listen to as an artist?
I have a really good team around me — my new managers are really amazing. The ones that have been with me through the whole thing — my publisher, he’s been really amazing too, he’s been holding my hand the whole way through. I trust him.
Do you endlessly analyse your decisions or are you impulsive?
I’m impulsive. I follow the first feeling — usually that’s right. Every time I’ve let myself be convinced to do something, and I see the result, it’s always what I didn’t want. So I try to trust my gut.
How’s that going so far?
Pretty well. I’ve questioned it a few times, but now I’m happy.
Is there anything else we need to discuss?
No, I’ve think I’ve already told you way too much!
The 'Truth Serum' EP is out on April 7 2014, via Polydor. Tove is on both Facebook and Twitter.