Among Tove Styrke’s victories this year – invites to tour North America supporting Lorde and Europe with Katy Perry, and the release of a third album that is her best by some distance – the Swedish singer also experienced her most embarrassing moment as a musician.
“On the first night of the Lorde tour, I sang with no music without knowing it for two minutes,” she says. “I could hear the band in my earphones but for some reason they weren’t coming out of the speakers. My first ever show in an arena!”
But did she crumble? Did she lay down and die? Oh no. “It was okay. I knew I could handle it. It actually worked as an icebreaker. When we did get the bass and the guitar, everybody screamed.”
If it had happened when she began her career at just 16, things might have been different. But this 25-year-old from Umea, in the north east of Sweden, feels like a worldly-wise veteran these days. “I’m in a place today where I know that I’m good at this, and I can say that and mean it. That’s very reassuring. I’m able to walk onto a stage and feel like whatever happens, nothing’s a big deal really.”
Such confidence has enabled her to make a strong contender for best pop album of 2018: Sway contains less than half an hour of music and just eight songs, but every one is as perfect a marriage of form and function as a graceful, minimal piece of Scandi furniture. Her self-titled debut album, released just before her 18th birthday in 2010, and the follow-up, Kiddo, from 2015, sounded busier, more eclectic, with songs including the dub reggae-style Borderline and the playground chant oddity Even If I’m Loud It Doesn’t Mean I’m Talking to You. Now her music is streamlined, precision tooled.
New songs include Say My Name, built on little more than a bassy blips and a twanging ukulele line, and On the Low, a spacious ballad on which her voice becomes high and intimate. The whole collection pulls off one of the hardest tricks in pop: being immediately likeable without becoming eventually tiresome.
So of course I complain to her that it’s too short. “I really wanted to make sure that every song on there was the best thing I could make,” she replies. “I’d rather spend more time on fewer songs. I don’t like filler. I’m actually very happy that I did it that way because I love every song. When I’m performing, I’m thinking, ‘Oh yes, this one! Now it’s time for this one!’”
She knew when she was making it, with producers including her fellow Swede Elof Loelv (who has also written for Katy Perry and Rihanna) that they were doing something different. “I really wanted to strip things down. It was the opposite of my previous project, where the main rule was that there are no rules. This one was about restraint, making sure that every part is good enough to be there. And when you make it that minimal, it asks more of the song. You’re going to hear every word, every melody, and it all matters so much.”
It sounds like its creation, mostly in a Stockholm studio, must have been unbearably tedious. “We spent two days just making the handclaps on Say My Name. Two days on one small sound for one song!” But the end result was worth all the extra effort. It’s rare to meet an artist who can convince you that they’re completely happy with their work. “A lot of people never feel like an album is done, but to me it really does feel done,” she says. “I’ll spend time making stuff right that nobody else would ever care about. As long as it’s not done, it feels like an itch. But when you fix them you don’t feel the itch any more.”
She maintains a buoyant, positive attitude throughout our conversation, speaking with an upbeat American accent. Everything’s brilliant, and she’s experienced nothing but love while touring with these far bigger singers this year, whether the speakers work or not. “Lorde asked me onto her tour because she heard Say My Name when it came out and really, really loved it. I’m such a huge fan of her as well. I really admire her. The fact that I can make something in Sweden, and put it on the internet, and somebody like her can find it and like it enough to book me for her tour – It feels like the world is really open and it’s such a nice thing,” she gushes. “There was a very welcoming atmosphere. One night they put up a makeshift bar between our buses so everybody could get to know each other. On the Katy tour as well, everybody is so nice and Katy is so chill. The atmosphere has been very warm to us.”
She only falters for a second when I ask why her headline London gig next week, just after she plays her last show on the Katy Perry tour in a Stockholm arena, is in the tiny, 300-capacity Borderline. Even if she’s not arena-ready in her own right, those big-name associations and the brilliance of her new music ought to have earned her a bigger UK fanbase than that.
“I know, it’s sold out! I’ve had so many people tell me they couldn’t buy a ticket. I realise now we probably should have booked a bigger place,” she says. “But if you did get a ticket, it’s gonna be really amazing. It’s not just me who does a show, it’s me and the audience together. That gets intensified when you’re in a small room and it’s really cool.”
Even the start of her life in the spotlight, as the third-place finisher in the 2009 season of Idols, Sweden’s version of The X Factor, gets nothing but praise. She was the youngest competitor at 16, and sang Can’t Get You Out of My Head by Kylie in the week she was eliminated. She’s not sure what that year’s winner, Erik Gronwall, is doing now, but thinks he’s in a rock band. As for her, the show earned her a record deal with Sony and she’s still with the same team today. “I very rarely credit things to luck, but ending up with really cool people from the start, I’m really lucky and so grateful,” she says.
Looking back, she knows she wasn’t as good at this as she is today, but nor is she embarrassed. The first song she ever wrote herself, Chaos, is on her debut album, and she says she still likes it “for what it is”.
“I remember Idols the same way you remember going to summer camp as a teenager or a thing you did in school. When I see pictures of it I think, yeah I did that. But I’ve changed so much and done so much since,” she tells me. “My old songs are like old tattoos. You might not do the things you did when you were 16 now, but you still understand the state you were in and you love and respect yourself for who you were.”
Good and bad, it all laid foundations for some truly special music in 2018. Tove Styrke’s new songs deserve to be heard in all those arenas.