Tove Lo: A Swedish pop star in waiting

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

  • Published
Tove LoImage source, Record company
Image caption,
"Truth Serum is a storyline, the whole way through it's about one relationship."

Bummed out and drugged up, Tove Lo turned a failed relationship into pop gold. She talks to the BBC about her unflinching lyrics, and the correct way to pronounce her name.

There's a moment on Tove Lo's debut EP that will take your breath away.

It comes on the final track, Out Of Mind, where some bore is telling the Swedish singer "time will heal" her broken heart.

Suddenly, the music vanishes into a black hole and Tove yells: "Are you kidding me?"

It's pained and bruised and thrilling and glorious. A moment where meaning and musical intent align perfectly.

"I've always wanted my music to have that desperation," the singer says, "where you just want to strip your clothes off and run down the highway."

"I want the feeling where you don't really know what to do with yourself - in the vocals, in the production. Everything."

The 26-year-old cut her teeth writing songs for Girls Aloud and fellow Swedes Icona Pop, but her solo material is altogether more visceral.

Her Truth Serum EP is an unflinching document of a failed relationship. "Not my first," she says, "but certainly the most intense".

The key track is Habits, currently playlisted on Radio 1, and written in the immediate aftermath of the break-up.

"You're gone, and I've got to stay high all the time to keep you off my mind," she sings. The video finds her downing shots and hooking up with strangers, then crying uncontrollably in a nightclub toilet.

Image source, Universal Music
Image caption,
The video for Habits throws the songs tales of desperate hedonism into stark relief

"When they heard it, my friends were like, 'Boy, you're really giving it all away'," the singer says.

"For my family, I think it was harder. My mum gets a bit worried.

"She sent me a text: 'I can understand the new video gives a very honest perspective of the song, but I will never, ever watch it again.'"

Sadly for her mum, Habits - with its catalogue of bad decisions, bad boyfriends and banned substances - is all-too-real.

"I can't lie," Tove says. "What I'm singing about is my life. It's the truth.

"I've had moments where that [drug-taking] has been a bigger part than it should be.

"It's hard to admit to, and I could filter it or find another metaphor for it - but it doesn't feel right to me."

Despite her no-nonsense approach, Tove balances melodrama and melancholy with a twisted, and distinctly Scandinavian, sense of humour.

An earlier, self-released single, Love Ballad, parodies the preposterous promises musicians make in love songs.

"Chop off my hands, chop off my feet," she sings, "I'd do it for you. Ain't love sweet?"

At one point, she even threatens to set herself on fire. Not, one hopes, a lyric based on experience.

"No!" she laughs. "I have never set myself on fire... But I did once set another girl's hair on fire accidentally.

"We had an argument in a bar and she was walking away. I took out my lighter and kind of waved it in her direction, like "nyyerr", and it accidentally caught in her hair.

"There were fumes coming out, so I ran after her and patted her on the back to put it out, but she thought I was trying to hit her. It was really awkward."

She might sound like a handful, but in person Tove Lo is likeable and slightly shy - fiddling with her hair and book-ending answers with a soft giggle.

Image source, Record Company
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"Pretty much all my songs are the demo vocals, the ones I recorded at the start," the singer says

Born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson, she grew up in a "pretty posh family" in the Stockholm suburb of Djursholm.

Her life-long nickname "Lo" is Swedish for Lynx - a tufty species of wildcat she "fell in love with" while visiting an animal park.

"Three years old, I was standing with my face pressed against the glass," she recalls. "I didn't want to leave. So my parents started calling me Tove Lo and it stuck."

Home life was comfortable. "We had a nice house," she says. "We lived by the water and I was a pretty normal kid until my teenage years, then I dyed my hair pink and spiralled out of control."

The reason for her rebellion was one Kurt Cobain.

"I fell in love with the Kurt and Courtney story, even though I was only 12," she says.

Image source, Other
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The singer played her first UK show, backed by two drummers, last week

" I had all the posters on my bedroom wall - the black and white one of him where he has loads of eyeliner. I was fascinated by grunge and it started there.

"Growing up so safe, I think I was looking for something else."

Although she's switched allegiance from grunge to pop, her use of dynamics (quiet verses, thunderous choruses) is still indebted to the Nirvana template.

"I'm a lot more inspired by that stuff than I think," she says. "I like the music to be more direct - that's part of my way of writing without realising it."

No wonder, then, that the Truth Serum EP - which contains more hooks than a coat rack - has made people sit up and listen. But the singer insists she never intended to become famous.

"If I wanted that, then I would have gone on Idol (Sweden's Pop Idol) - and I got the offer so many times," she says.

"There's easy ways to get famous today if you want to. I had lots of meetings in the States, and they were saying, 'an artist is a business, we're going to turn you into an Empire!'

Image source, Record company
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The singer says her debut album will be ready this year.

"They would ask questions like, 'what would you wear to the red carpet?' and I would go 'I don't give a crap about the red carpet! Who cares?'"

Tove looks up to Beyonce - "she never makes a mistake, she's not flawed vocally, physically" - but sees her own career taking a different path.

"I'm a bit more rough around the edges. I couldn't release a fragrance - I don't even wear perfume - but obviously I'd like to have her audience!"

That day could come soon: Several magazines have anointed her a "pop star in waiting", and the singer is hard at work on her debut album.

"I feel I have the songs," she says. "That's what I love doing, so it doesn't scare me.

"But I want the album to have the kind of storyline that Truth Serum has - so it feels connected, not a bunch of songs put together. It all depends how long that takes me."

If that album makes her a star, and if she's very, very lucky, British DJs will finally learn how to say her name.

For the record, it's pronounced "Too-veh Lu" but Tove doesn't mind if people approach it phonetically.

"It's a Scandinavian name, so no-one's ever going to say it right in English," she laughs.

"And also, Too-veh Lu sounds a bit like 'to the loo' which is not so good. So Tove Lo is alright."

The Truth Serum EP is out now on Polydor.

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