You have to feel a little sorry for Tove Lo’s new boyfriend. The singer and songwriter has it all mapped out for the poor guy on her debut album, a musical exploration of a previous relationship that is divided into three segments called “The Sex”, “The Love” and “The Pain”. Queen of the Clouds is also the finest pop album of the year so far, using real life material to give depth and emotion to sparkling Swedish electronica.
“It’s hard to be with someone who does what I do,” the 27-year-old tells me, meaning being a musician who tours the world, and also, documents her personal life in song without censorship. “It can’t be easy for him, especially when I’m always talking about this pattern that ends up with pain. Usually it doesn’t end well, but we’ll see.”
On her biggest hit so far, Habits (Stay High), she can be found numbing the pain of a breakup with drink, drugs and general hard living. The memorable first line goes: “I eat my dinner in my bath tub, then I go to sex clubs.” It went to number six over here last year. For the video, she strapped a 10 kilo camera to herself and wandered around Stockholm getting plastered with her friends.
After filming it a year ago, she went on to the Swedish Grammis (their equivalent of the Grammys, obviously) as a little known guest. This year she was there again as the belle of the ball, winning Song of the Year for Habits as well as Artist of the Year. “You’re always hopeful of one but when they called my name a second time, I was like, this is not real!” She thanked everyone in her life: “My frends, the guys I write with, my label, my parents for being supportive even though it can’t be fun to have a daughter that’s famous for a song called Stay High.”
Then she was back in the bath again at the end of the night, eating ice cream and vomiting. “I fell asleep in my tub eating B&J’s and puked a little,” she wrote on her Instagram page. “When I’m drunk I always wanna take a bath,” she tells me. “I was eating some ice cream, then I fell asleep, woke up and was sick a little bit. But I wasn’t sick on myself in the tub!” Quite right, Tove, you’ve got to have boundaries.
Her transition from Stockholm-born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson to notorious pop star Tove Lo (sounds like “to the loo”) didn’t always look like it would end up with her covered in glory at an awards ceremony. At school she was more into writing short stories. “They were all kind of morbid. I won a contest writing about a girl who stalks her best friend and eventually kills her. Everyone thought I was a psycho.”
In her late teens she attended Rytmus, Stockholm’s equivalent of Croydon’s BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology, which also educated the pop singer Robyn. She says she was probably one of the worst singers there, but nevertheless went on to land a job in the songwriting factory of Max Martin and Karl “Shellback” Schuster. That pair have made a staggering number of the biggest pop hits of recent years, including, most recently, Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off and Katy Perry’s Dark Horse. Tove Lo wrote melodies and lyrics for songs by Icona Pop and Girls Aloud.
She says of Martin: “You can tell he still loves music. He doesn’t assume something will do well because it has his name on it, like some big writers. He still has to feel something for a song.”
Her own work in pop’s engine room made it hard for music business people to see her as a potential star in her own right. “I had people telling me I wasn’t an artist. They thought I didn’t have the crazy, eccentric thing about me. I guess just being a normal girl is not what an artist should be.”
In person, sitting in her record label’s office in a nondescript part of Stockholm, she’s extremely pretty with feathers in her ears and a midriff-baring, sparkly top. But she’s right that she doesn’t have the intimidation factor of the intergalactic pop superstar. What she does have is the confidence to sing about her own sadness and destructiveness in a way that fans can feel is real. She’s not perfect, which is unusual in this world.
“I get a lot of people writing to me, saying, ‘You put the words to my life right now,’” she says. “You don’t always want empowering words: ‘You’re better off without him, you don’t need her,’ or whatever. Sometimes you just want to say, ‘I’m fucking sad and it hurts.’ It’s not always easy to admit.”
That goes against the idea of what it is to be a pop idol, and also to be Swedish, she says. “Here you’re expected to be a grounded person and a good role model. We have very high morals here, we’re very anti-drug. It’s very important to have a perfect surface. So when I choose to talk openly about private things, people say, ‘How can she even say that about herself? Why does she want to share that?’ It bothers people.”
It bothered the ex-boyfriend too, of course. As with Adele’s 21 and Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour, the subject of these songs of lovesick anguish doesn’t usually get a right to reply. “I’ve talked to him. At first he didn’t want to speak to me, which makes sense. But after the passing of time, he reached out again and said, ‘I’m really proud of you and I’m happy, even if not in a fun way, that our time together inspired you to write this amazing album.’ He probably doesn’t like who I’ve become I guess, but he knows it’s always been my dream so I guess he’s happy for me in some ways, and maybe disappointed in others.”
It hasn’t been easy for her either. The worldwide success of the single put her in high demand everywhere, and the resultant damage to her vocal cords forced her to put everything on hold for several months and undergo an operation. Her concert in Camden next week was delayed from an earlier date. Her album won’t come out here until May, when she can promote it properly, even though everywhere else in the world has already got it.
“I’ve had to learn how to say no to things, and have people around me that don’t push me too hard, because I’ll go ‘til I just crash. I don’t have a stop button,” she says. The pop world is particularly demanding. “A rock star is expected to act like a mess, sound like a mess, look like a mess. People don’t expect you to show up on time and be a professional. But when you’re a pop star you have to do all that and also look perfect all the time, and be a role model.”
So would she rather be a rock star? “I don’t think I would live very long if I was a rock star.” At least she’s honest. But it looks like this imperfect pop star is going to have a perfect year.
March 30, Koko, NW1 (0870 432 5527, koko.uk.com)