Immediately prior to flashing a crowd of festival-goers at Hangout Fest 2015, Tove Lo sat down with us on the beautiful beaches of Gulf Shores. It was bad for our hair, but fantastic for conversation, as we touched on her monster hit album, her writing process, and what’s next for the queen of dark-edged pop.
St. Lucia’s playing the same time I am, but I’m very excited to see Foster the People. Foster the People are my Number 1.
Your album Queen Of The Clouds is divided into three parts: The Sex, The Love, The Pain. What was the significance of that division?
It’s basically the pattern of my old relationships. It’s just showing that when things start passionately they usually end in pain, because you can never really have the one extreme emotion without the other. So if you’re extremely happy it comes with extreme sadness. There’s no way around that, really. Because you can’t keep either feeling going for that long, the body doesn’t have enough in it to last. So if you’re experiencing an amazing high, you need to know that there’s going to be a comedown. I’m not talking about drugs, I mean in your actual heart and feelings! (laughs)
Some people say they write better when they’re unhappy or going through a breakup. Is that the case for you?
I used to think so. Now I’m really happy and loved, so I was like, “I’m not going to be able to write songs anymore.” But I actually have, I’ve written some great songs. They’re not as sad. But again, I think whatever extreme emotion you’re feeling makes it easier to write. And usually when people are really sad or down, that’s when they let those feelings out. So I think it might be a little easier. It’s easier to let go.
You recently worked with Adam Lambert on the song “Rumors” off his new album, The Original High. What was it like writing with him?
It was great! I was a little nervous because he’s such a big star and I’d never met him before. Most artists I’ve worked with were people I’d known before. But he was so easy to work with, and so nice. We wrote the lyrics together and really connected on the theme of the song. And he’s such a good singer. So listening to him record it, I was just like, “OK, I’m just gonna lean back and let him do his thing.”
Did he do any Queen songs for you in the studio?
I actually went to see him in Hamburg, and he was SO, so amazing! Because how do you follow Freddie Mercury? But he just hit every note perfectly and was very respectful, thanking people for letting him take that role. It was awesome. Chills.
You’ve written for incredible people like Icona Pop, Ellie Golding and Girls Aloud. And you’re part of Max Martin’s group of writers, the Wolf Cousins. What is your writing process like?
It varies a lot. Usually I have some kind of lyric idea, like a story in my head that I want to get out. I play a little bit of piano, so usually I start there and make a beat and then send on to one of the Wolf Cousins to help make it into something big and awesome. Melody almost always comes last for me, which is weird. I usually have the lyric first. I change around the lyric when I find a melody that I like, but I rarely start just singing over a track. I usually must have some sort of thought, like ’Here is the feel and the story,’ and then I can find melodies that work with whatever I want to say. I can’t hear if the melody is good or not unless I have a lyric put to it, so it takes a little longer for me.
You started off writing poetry as a kid. What were those poems like?
They were pretty dark. They were more like short stories. It was a lot of me being a detective, finding friends or family members murdered. I would act out these little things like putting knives in my dolls, and hide them and find them and put clues for myself. It was really silly. But it was very much about death and things you wouldn’t really talk about. Everything where you’d ask your parents and they’d just say, “You’ll know when you’re older.” That stuff.
I read an article recently called “Why Is Swedish Pop So Damn Good”. And it’s true, you have the best pop music in the world, between you, and Lykke Li, First Aid Kit, Niki + The Dove, Avicii, Robyn, the Cardigans…So let me ask you, why is it so damn good?
Well, a lot of the Swedes have migrated to L.A., but they still only work with each other, which is kind of funny. So you come and you’re like, “Wow, everyone’s Swedish here, too.” But I don’t really know why [it’s so good]. We’re good at following the “pop rules” and then finding interesting ways of breaking them. So people will feel that pop recognition, but there will still be that little thing that breaks the rules so there’s something new and exciting about it. Maybe the melancholy helps, too. It’s always dark, so we have time to write and we don’t want to do anything else. (laughs) It’s a combination of hopeful and a dance-y beat that you want to move to, but the lyrics can be really sad and emotional. I think that’s a good combo that we’re good at.
Was it difficult to adjust to being a pop singer from a songwriter?
It’s been really amazing. But the stuff people focus on doesn’t always have to do with the music. So sometimes I have to keep reminding myself that, at the end of the day, it’s about the music. It doesn’t matter what people think about what I look like or what I say— it’s about the songs. I have to keep reminding myself about that when other things come in that seem to be the focus for some people. But it’s mostly been amazing. My fans are so sweet to me, and getting to go places like this [Hangout Fest] is crazy! So mostly it’s been a really cool ride, being behind the scenes and then stepping out into the spotlight.
Is there a moment for you that stands out above the rest?
The one that comes to mind now is when I played my first sold out show. I think it was in Orange County. And Robyn was playing in L.A. that same day, so I was like, “Nobody’s going to be there! It’s going to be so empty!” People were like, “It’s sold out!” And I kept saying, “Yeah, but nobody’s going to show up.” I was really nervous about it. And during the set people were so excited! When I held out the mic for “Habits” during the last verse, they all sang every word, and it was so cool.
Your music is more honest than most pop songs, and a lot more personal. Is it scary at all to perform something like “Habits (Stay High)” in front of a crowd of a thousand people?
To be honest, not really. Of course, if I started thinking about it, it’s like, “Shit, all of these people know so much about me and probably have opinions about it.” But the people who come and watch me and sing along are usually singing from the heart because they’re feeling it, too. So it’s like, “Yeah! You and me, babe!” It’s good, I like it. If people start asking me personal questions, it’s like, “Hey wait, how do you know that!” And then you think, “Oh yeah, because I sing about it in the song.” Usually it just makes me feel good that so many people can relate.
That must be so bizarre.
It is! It’s a whole different world. When I’m writing I’m not thinking about what anyone else is going to say about it. It’s usually when I play it for the first time for people and I see them reacting to the lyrics like, “Whoa.” That’s a little nerve-wracking. But once it’s released and out there, usually I feel good about it.
Do you feel like pop music is sexually repressed?
Not in too many ways, but I think sometimes people make sacrifices lyrically because you can’t say that or else these people are going to get offended. People are always going to dislike what you do. If there’s someone who loves you, there’s always going to be someone who hates you. That’s just how it is, and that’s something you need to get used to. You’re never going to be able to please everybody. And if you do, you’re just going to be a bland, grey, nothing. It’s good to have something to say that makes people react.
Can you tell us what we can expect on your new album?
My new album! I’ve started writing a bit. It’s still going to be personal and emotional, because that’s who I am. But I’m experimenting with the new beats and where I want to go musically. Now I’ve got this whole minimalist deep house thing going, so there’s going to be a lot of those kind of beats. I’m playing with urban melodies a little more, I’m getting my swag on. I’m like, “I’m a white pop girl from Sweden, but I still want to try this!” So I’m experimenting a little bit. You’re going to get a lot of me, but you’re also going to get a lot of new musical influences coming in. So that’s exciting!