Entertainment & Arts

Tove Styrke: 'Writing a pop song is like solving a puzzle'

Tove Styrke Image copyright Emma Svensson
Image caption Tove Styrke: "I've been geeking out on songwriting"

It's called The Flow: A state of effortless concentration and enjoyment, where time just seems to melt away - and Tove Styrke has been getting a lot of it lately.

In fact, the Swedish star has already lost five months to making her third album... and it's still not finished.

"I've been really geeking out," she giggles down the phone. "Almost to a point where it's mathematical, trying to find the balance between all the elements".

When inspiration pounces, she can lose "hours, days and weeks" in the studio, "just bending different sentences and rhymes to find the best fit, to find the missing piece of the puzzle".

Pop, in particular, puts "so much focus on what you say," she adds. "You have to be really neat and concise. It's important you get it right.

"So it's about puzzling together a song, a good pop song, that makes sense. It really is a brain game."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The singer has been nominated for Sweden's Grammisgalan, their equivalent of the Brit Awards

The first result of all this effort is Say My Name, a gigantic pop fizzbomb that's primed to explode all over the charts this month.

It's a deceptively simple song built around a quirky ukulele riff, but the chorus sticks like Velcro.

"Say my name," sings the star, "wear it out like a sweater that you love, cause I can't get enough when you... say my name".

"I really love that chorus," she says. "It was such a good feeling when we nailed that one. Like, 'Yes!'"

Her painstaking perfectionism reaches a pinnacle in the vocals. Tove is understated and conversational, making you lean in to the song's coquettish flirtation, where most pop divas would have belted out the melody in one take and gone home for a sandwich.

"I don't understand how people do that," she protests. "I feel like the vocals are such a huge part of the production. Like, how do I sing this line? How much strength do I put into it? How can I make this melody as interesting as possible? How can I communicate this feeling even more."

"And it's the best feeling when you find that missing piece. It's like, 'Arrroooggahh!' Amazing."

And if inspiration dries up?

"I play solitaire on my phone," laughs the singer. "I have the song on in the background, and I play solitaire so I'm not concentrating so hard.

"It's a good way to make sure you don't overthink it. If you force the brain into shutting off then, suddenly, something will just come out of your mouth that fits."

Swedish Idol

Tove Anna Linnéa Östman Styrke was born and raised in Umea, an unassuming university town near the edge of the Arctic Circle, whose most famous former inhabitant is Stieg Larsson, the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Her mother was a ballet teacher; while her father was a musician, whose band Max Fenders scored a number one hit in 1975 with the song Vindens Melodi (Wind Melody), and who set Tove on the path to musical stardom when he gave her her first synthesiser.

Image copyright TV4
Image caption Tove ended up on Swedish Idol after a friend called an tip line to recommend her to producers

At the age of 16, she entered the TV talent show Swedish Idol, finishing in third place. It delivered her a solid fanbase, but she's not particularly enamoured of the experience.

"Its really hard to talk about music and a thing like Swedish Idol at the same time," she once said, "because they have nothing to do with each other".

"A competition like that, on TV, that's entertainment, that's a popularity competition... And afterwards, that's when you start making music."

Post-Idol, Tove released a rushed, self-titled album which went platinum in Sweden. But she was unhappy with the way she was being presented, and took a three-year break, moving back home to immerse herself in music and work out who she wanted to be.

The result was Kiddo, her second album, written from the perspective of a young woman finding her voice in a world that constantly tries to undermine and break women down.

It featured pop's best put-down since You're So Vain ("I bet you hit the ground hard when you fell for yourself") and flicked two fingers at the men who tried to turn her into a flesh-baring pop zombie.

"Hot glam seems far away from where I am / I can neither understand it nor demand it," she stated on a track called Number One.

Strident, sassy and self-confident, it's no surprise that the album was named after Uma Thurman's character in Kill Bill, Beatrix Kiddo. Time Magazine called it a "feminist pop triumph", while it made several critics' end-of-year lists in 2015.

Image copyright Emma Svensson
Image caption It's pronounced "Too-vuh Stairk", fact fans

Although Kiddo didn't sell in the quantities expected of a mainstream pop record, it won the singer recognition from tastemakers on Radio 1, Billboard Magazine and Rolling Stone; while a tour with pop band Years & Years gained her some real world fans.

"Being the support act can be a tough job but I couldn't have chosen a better audience if I'd hand-picked them myself," she marvels.

"I noticed they had fans who come back to see multiple shows and, after a while, they were all as excited to see me as they were to see Years and Years.

"Just walking up on that stage and singing to that audience was amazing. That was the best thing."

The 24-year-old hopes to capitalise on all this goodwill with her new single - which has just been made track of the week by Radio 1's Greg James.

It sees the singer turn her keen lyrical eye towards love for the first time, a move which was prompted not by romance, but politics.

"Everybody here [in Sweden] was depressed when Trump won, and you can definitely [see] negative political trends happening in Europe, as well.

"With everything being kind of heavy, I'm writing more as a way to escape the world. I want to be able to zone out for a minute and have a good time."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The star hopes to tour the UK again in 2017 as a solo act

Say My Name will undoubtedly be seen as a litmus test for Tove's new material at a time when similarly-tipped female pop acts like MØ, Bebe Rexha and Dua Lipa have struggled to gain a foothold.

But the singer is undaunted, saying she has a secret stash of hit singles hidden back in Sweden.

"I'm going to sound so full of myself but, whatever, I'm a pop princess," she laughs.

"I really feel like every song I've done so far is single material. I don't want to see any of them as 'just an album track.'"

In common with Calvin Harris, who has reportedly abandoned albums altogether, she is considering releasing music in a more ad hoc nature, either as a series of standalone singles or themed EPs.

"I really appreciate the album format sometimes," she explains. "Like, Beyonce's Lemonade album wouldn't work as a collection of singles.

"But a lot of people, at least in my audience, just pick their favourite songs and add them to a playlist.

"That means there's a lot of songs I spend time on that people don't discover. I just think it's a shame when all of the songs are really good!"

Tove Styrke's single, Say My Name, is out now on RCA Records.

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