Tove Lo Aims To Stay High With Lady Wood
Tove Lo is walking directly into bumper-to-bumper traffic. Terrified, I run to catch up, convinced my interview subject is about to get pancaked by a tractor-trailer. But she’s fine — it turns out that the Swedish pop singer has mastered the art of New York City jaywalking. She seamlessly strides across the jam-packed intersection with ease, ignoring the diesel fumes and angry drivers, still chattering as though we haven’t become separated.
The reason we’re barreling through traffic in the first place is that I’ve invited her out for coffee — just to stretch our legs and enjoy the early fall weather. Tove is immaculately dressed for New York in September, wearing a striped sweater, black skinny jeans, and chunky platform boots. But, her management says, Tove (full name: Tove Nilsson) isn’t drinking coffee anymore. As of five days ago, she’s officially traded caffeine for matcha lattes, or, as cafe Cha Cha Matcha (our destination) describes it, “finely milled Japanese green tea leaves, traditionally prepped with hot water into a frothy, whipped beverage.”
Tove, whose stage surname is Swedish for “lynx,” a favorite animal of hers, knows “matcha” doesn’t sound tasty enough to warrant speed-walking into traffic. She pulls a face while talking about the drink, which admittedly does resemble something like steamed AstroTurf. She just laughs, promising, “I’m learning to like it! I eat with my eyes, so I’m like, ‘This looks fun to me!'”
Even better, cutting out caffeine is helping her to sleep soundly for the first time in her life. “I’ve had four nights of full sleep,” Tove reports with satisfaction. “I wake up, and I’m like, ‘What time is it? Oh, I’m supposed to get up now! This is crazy!’ But I used to drink six to eight cups [of coffee] a day, and that’s a lot.”
As we walk, the almost-29-year-old reveals that she’s also recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to New York — something she used to talk about doing with fellow Swede and best friend Caroline Hjelt of brat-pop duo Icona Pop, for whom Tove has written a handful of songs (the bombastic “We Got The World,” “Light Me Up,” and “Ready For The Weekend,” among others). Now, in addition to her apartment in Stockholm, Tove’s got a new place in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Not that she’ll have much time to spend there: She’s a few weeks out from dropping her sophomore LP, the cheekily titled Lady Wood (arriving on 10/28, one day before her birthday, via Island Records).
The album, Tove says, is about the last two years, which saw her transition from a professional songwriter to a bona fide Top 40 superstar, courtesy of: a few smash singles (the brooding “Habits (Stay High),” the desireful “Talking Body”); high-profile collaborations (“Close” with Nick Jonas and “Heroes (We Could Be)” with DJ Alesso); tours with Katy Perry and Maroon 5; an invitation from pop’s biggest songwriter, Max Martin, to join his exclusive songwriting collective, Wolf Cousins; and an equally well-received EP and follow-up debut, Truth Serum and Queen Of The Clouds, respectively, both released in 2014.
But even with all of her success, Tove still suffered from health maladies: the aforementioned insomnia, plus an ulcer and a much-publicized case of vocal cord cysts, which demanded surgery and a mandatory respite from performing. “It breaks my heart to say I have to cancel all shows for the next two months,” she wrote in a note to fans in December 2014. “I’ve been looking forward to start this new year with you, come meet you and play for you… But we just have to hold out a little longer.”
Tove spent her recovery in Stockholm in early 2015, during the coldest months of the year, with almost no sunlight, feeling frustrated at not being able to do the very thing that defines her career: sing. “I was mostly just freaking out and going insane,” she says. “I started remixing my own songs. I started writing short stories again. It was so dark. That’s when you can really go into a little room and just create.”
Time passed. Finally, a few weeks prior to South By Southwest 2015, Tove was permitted to try singing again. To her great relief, she could do it. “I’m usually never nervous, but I was shaking, like in high school, when I first started to sing,” she told Billboard at the time. “The show went great. It’s amazing to be back! But I have to be very careful and very healthy. The worst are alcohol and cigarettes — the two that are legal. I stopped smoking weed too. I just eat it — it works just as well.”
Now, close to a year later, the singer who built her early career via a slew of dusky tracks about hedonistic, inebriated behavior remains more committed than ever to her changed lifestyle — though not without the occasional indulgence. (In Lady Wood press materials, she describes smoking from an apple bong with rapper Wiz Khalifa.)
While Tove had certainly been to hell and back on a physical level, unsure of whether she’d ever sing again after her vocal cord surgery, she had also spent the last 24 months grappling with her newfound status as a burgeoning pop celebrity. Directly prior to Queen Of The Clouds, she’d tackled a seemingly endless series of press days, photo shoots, red carpets, award shows, televised performances, and on-camera interviews. For someone whose first priority used to be writing for other artists (in addition to Icona Pop, she’s also written for Ellie Goulding, Cher Lloyd, Girls Aloud, Zara Larsson, and Hilary Duff, among others), the lifestyle change was an enormous adjustment. Journalists would want to know everything about her, and she’d struggle for how best to describe herself. “I never thought about myself this much in this way,” she tells me. “And I grew up with it — my mom’s a therapist.
“I enjoy talking about why I write songs,” she continues. “But what used to scare me [was] taking responsibility for every answer and every question. When someone would be like, ‘What is your favorite designer?’ I would be like, ‘I have no idea.’ And I would feel bad for not knowing. I never did have any media training or prepared answers. I’ve had some really strange interviews, where they’ve been like, ‘So, what’s your most fun thing to do?’ And I’m like, ‘You know what I want to talk about? What’s the fucking deal with it being so hard for people to say they’re a feminist? Everyone should be a fucking feminist.'”
Tove may not be one for canned responses (actually, she is so unabashedly herself in-person that the idea of her offering anything disingenuous seems downright ridiculous), but it’s precisely her outspoken, unapologetically passionate persona that makes her so appealing to audiences. Her breakthrough single, on which she opines about chasing insobriety to avoid the pain of a breakup, hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The similarly epicurean “Talking Body,” where she spins words of lust into love (“If you love me right / We fuck for life / On and on and on”), reached #12. Her debut album, which housed more decadent pop bangers (“Gun,” “Like Em Young,” “Not On Drugs”), went to #14 on the Billboard 200. Clearly, the United States didn’t need much convincing to get hooked on the Swedish pop export.
Lady Wood is equally frank and honest. But unlike Queen Of The Clouds, instead of addressing specific stimuli, it takes more of a generalist, bird’s eye view of Tove’s penchant for “chasing rushes,” as she puts it. “It’s how I’ve always lived my life, in terms of everything. If [Queen Of The Clouds] was all about being vulnerable and crazy when it comes to love, passion, [then] this is tying that story together with the other parts of my life, which is performing and being onstage and those kinds of rushes. And then just any kind of high, whether it’s drugs or not.”
Broken into two chapters, “Fairy Dust” (the high) and “Fire Fade” (the comedown), Lady Wood purposefully references the slang term for, well, feeling horny. Its first few songs, featuring titles like “Cool Girl,” “Influence,” and “True Disaster,” pulse with slick production and enticingly reach out with sharp, immediate hooks. But the latter half of Lady Wood plays out like an exhale on the fingerpicked “Vibes” (featuring an assist from Joe Janiak) and the lamenting “Flashes.”
“Cool Girl,” though charged with chapter-one seduction, is also meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, as it references a literary figure and movie character made popular by Gillian Flynn’s 2012 mystery-thriller Gone Girl. Flynn’s disappeared antagonist, Amy, describes a “cool girl” as a “hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
In the eponymous track, Tove imagines herself that “easygoing” fantasy woman, cooing, “You can run free, I won’t hold it against ya / You do your thing, never wanted a future.” But the words are delivered with a touch of sarcasm. “There are all of these rules that you make for yourself that don’t matter,” she says. “I’m in this place now where I’m questioning all of that.”
When it came to Lady Wood‘s aesthetic, which she helmed with Swedish-pop experts like Ilya, the Struts, Oscar Holter, Ali Payami, and Rickard Göransson, Tove didn’t walk into the studio with a definitive plan. “Nothing’s ever really calculated,” she explains. “I had an idea for what I wanted to do sonically. I was like, ‘OK guys, for this round, let’s techno it up.’ I had been going to all of these fucking awesome underground raves. I wanted this minimal vibe in the production. And I wanna add my pop melodies and vocals to it.”
Another major difference between Queen and Lady Wood is the appearance of guests. On the chilly “Influence,” Tove called up Wiz Khalifa, whom she had met earlier in the year. She wasn’t sure he’d be into it, but he enthusiastically came on board for a brief but rapid-fire verse. “I always thought he was really cool and I liked his style,” she says. “I was just like, ‘I’m just gonna ask him. The worst that can happen is he says no.’ So I met him at Billboard Awards, and just asked. And he was like, ‘Yeah, send me the song! Let’s get together in LA!’ He was so cool and humble and nice. [And] he always looks so fuckin’ badass.”
Tove also teamed up with video director (and now her personal creative director) Tim Erem to make a short film called “Fairy Dust Chapter 1.” Chances are you’ve already seen one segment: the video for “Cool Girl,” where Tove is pictured shaving her head and writhing around on a glass coffin. “I want Lady Wood to be a visual experience as well,” she explains of the short film. “[And] I realized while we were shooting [that] I love acting. Taking on a character. It’s another outlet for the emotions and everything that goes on up here [points to head].”
Erem, who met Tove at Coachella last year and also directed her “Movements” video, had been approached before to do creative directorial work at an artist’s side, which could entail everything from consulting on their visual branding to selecting photographers for photo shoots. He’d passed on every offer (and chances are he’d had many — he’s also directed Rihanna’s “Work” clip and Major Lazer’s “Lean On”). But working with Tove felt different. It brought out the best in him.
“I thought she was one of the most creative artists I’ve ever met,” Erem says over the phone. “She has this personality of making people better. She talks in — I call it ‘unicorn language.’ At first you don’t understand what the fuck she’s talking about, but I found a way of understanding her.
“Tove doesn’t want to do anything like any other people have done,” he continues. “I think she has the same character that Madonna has, or Lady Gaga. She always wants to do something new. She always wants to be outside the box. I work with so many artists now — and they all want to be that person, but it never adds up. They always take a step back. But even when she thinks that I’m stepping over the line, she says, ‘Fuck it, let’s try it.'”
The relationship is clearly symbiotic, with Erem pushing Tove to produce more filmed material than she ever had in the past. “I’m way more exhausted after five days of shooting videos than I am after a whole tour,” she laughs. “I guess I like to torture myself. And also Tim loves to torture me.”
In 2006, Tove met Christian Bjerring, with whom she formed the rock quartet Tremblebee. The project lasted a few years, ending in 2009, and by then Tove was more interested in exploring pop singing and songwriting. Her first two singles, “Love Ballad” and “Out Of Mind,” failed to make a significant impression, but when “Habits (Stay High)” was released, everything changed. DJs wanted to remix it (the Chainsmokers, Oliver Nelson, FIXYN, and Hippie Sabotage have all reimagined it). As Tove and I walk away from Cha Cha Matcha, we hear the familiar strains of “Habits” — it’s playing in the cafe next door. We stop at the same time, turn to each other, and break out in a stream of giggles. “Does this happen to you a lot?” I ask.
“It happens every…” she trails off, trying to downplay the moment, before admitting: “It happens quite often, to be honest. And every time it feels fuckin’ so weird and cool at the same time.”
Part of Tove’s ascent can be attributed to her connection to Max Martin, whom she met after getting signed as a songwriter in 2011 to Warner Chappell Music. The following year, she met another songwriter named Alex Kronlund at a birthday party, where she had impulsively jumped up onstage to sing with the band. Kronlund, a childhood friend of Martin’s, was impressed. “He was like, ‘I love your voice, do you write as well?'” Tove recalls. Kronlund was so taken with Tove that he convinced her and her publisher to let her travel to Los Angeles to meet the man responsible for hits from top 40 titans like the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Pink, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande, among countless others.
“Alex was supposed to pick me up,” Tove says, recalling the moment she first landed in LA. “He wasn’t at the airport — he said there was some driver with my name on an iPad. I grew up pretty fancy, but I’d been living off of nothing for years, just kind of selling furniture to make rent. So to have a driver come with an iPad with my name on it, I was like, what the fuck’s going on?
“The driver was like, ‘I’m supposed to take you to Max Martin’s house in Beverly Hills.’ I was like, Oh! OK? And I’d never met [Martin] before; there was no connection. The only thing I knew is that he had been listening to and mentoring the two producers I’d been working with right away when I got signed. So basically I came to his house where Alex is hanging out. Alex was like, ‘It didn’t really work out with that place you were going to stay, so oh, hey, Martin, do you mind if she just stays here for a bit?'”
What’s the fucking deal with it being so hard for people to say they’re a feminist? Everyone should be a fucking feminist.
Tove was stunned — the last thing she’d expected to do on her first visit to the West Coast is stay at Max Martin’s house. “But he’s so cool,” she says. “He was like, ‘How old are you, 12 or something?’ I was like, no, 24…’
“We didn’t end up working together that time, but I got to play him some of my stuff,” Tove continues. “He gave me pointers. From that day, he kept track of me a little bit. And then after a while when he was starting Wolf Cousins, he just kind of asked, ‘Do you want to be part of this?’ And I was like, ‘YES, I do. [But] do you mind if I still pursue my artist thing at the same time?’ He was like, ‘Do whatever you wanna do. But just know that I know that writing is definitely going to be a big thing for you.’ I was like, that will be my focus, but I still want to release some stuff of my own. And that took off, so it just kind of became the opposite [Laughs].”
Martin ended up being sort of half right. Songwriting has been a vital element to Tove’s success, but her own vivaciousness and point of view tends to creep in, making it so that she’ll keep a song like “Habits (Stay High)” for herself, thus catapulting her to worldwide fame and recognition. She’s also continued to combine the two art forms — singing and songwriting for her contemporaries — in a way that uniquely works for her. This past spring, about a year and a half since Queen Of The Clouds dropped, Tove co-wrote “Close,” the lead single for Nick Jonas’ sophomore solo album, Last Year Was Complicated, and even joined the pop soloist on the track for a duet. “Close” was a success, hitting #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. The two also performed it live at the 2016 Billboard Awards, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and Saturday Night Live.
Seeing the casual, matter-of-fact way that Jonas, who practically grew up in the public eye via the Jonas Brothers, handled the spotlight had a positive effect on Tove. “He’s done this his whole life,” she says. “He was very good at making it easy for me. Especially when it comes to those TV things, there’s so much put into three minutes, I get like, there’s no warm-up time! We’re on then we’re off! That was probably my best TV performances, [the ones] I did with him. I could just look at someone else [instead of the audience].”
Such nonconformist themes certainly worked their way into songs like “Cool Girl,” but those closest to Tove can attest to the singer’s authenticity. “She’s 100% herself,” Hjelt comments over email. “It’s so fascinating to see [Tove] grow as an artist but not change at all as person. In her lyrics, videos, performances and can people feel sincerity. No one tells her what to do, she’s just listening to her inner voice.”
Tove’s earnestness even spreads to passersby on the Lower East Side, one of Manhattan’s chilliest neighborhoods (and I don’t mean temperature-wise). She appears to warm the air around her, tossing a “You look good!” to a woman posing for a picture on the sidewalk, and, seeing a stubby-legged corgi, “Oh my god, are you kidding??” A young man witnesses this and smiles as he passes.
You could attribute such contagious energy to a lot of things: her newfound restfulness, the matcha lattes, or even something as simple as being choosier about how many pre-album release interviews she’ll do. “The first round we had to talk to everyone, like, ‘This is meee!'” she says. “And I didn’t know how to explain that.”
She’s also much more accustomed to the lifestyle change surrounding being a professional singer. “When I was a writer, I could be just an idiot all of the time, because you made your own schedule,” she says. “I was making music that no one heard and just got stoned in my studio. Whenever I was inspired, I would write, and whenever I wasn’t, I wouldn’t. I didn’t really care about the money side of things. I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m not getting another advance? I’ll just live off of nothing for a few months.'”
But will she ever return to full-time songwriting? Tove doesn’t rule it out. “I don’t think I can live this way for very long,” she says. “It used to be that writing my own stuff was a good break from writing for others. So now it’s kind of the other way around. I use my mind differently. It’s good to have moments where I don’t think about myself. That’s why touring is so good. When I’m touring and not doing any press, that’s when I get a step away.”
Supplementing her natural veracity, Tove has gained perspective from spending time as an artist and a writer, beginning her career in the background but working her way to the foreground. Losing that broad view, she says, is her biggest fear. “I don’t question being an artist because I love that,” she says. I love connecting with my fans, having so many people listening to me and my feelings, and feeling my emotions. But in no way shape or form am I worth more as a human being. Which sometimes is how people aim to make you feel. I think that’s very dangerous.”
She continues thinking out loud: “It’s true that there’s a lot of constant demand for my time and attention, but I’m always going to have to be okay with the fact that someone is always going to be disappointed in me. Or want more from me. But as long as I do my best to weed out what’s important… In the end, I’m like, ‘It’s not life or death. It’s only music.'”
Lady Wood is out 10/28 via Island. Tove Lo was photographed at Happy Ending in NYC.