Opening up a new phase, Tove Lo‘s fifth album sees her deconstructing and rebuilding her identity like never before.
Words: Abigail Firth.
Photos: Kenny Laubbacher.
Tove Lo never wanted a normal life. Her 2014 breakout single ‘Habits’ detailed partying hard and frequenting sex clubs to get over a breakup, flashing the audience is a mainstay at her shows, and she lives in a ‘collective’ with five friends in Los Angeles; it’s a far cry from the traditional upbringing she had in Sweden.
Yet something changed over the pandemic. For the first time since her career began, Tove Lo was able to slow down and think about what the future held. She took a break from being an artist, got married, finished up her major label record deal and entered a new phase of her career.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting that sort of traditional life; I just never felt comfortable in that world,” says Tove. Ironically, she’s in Bali for a wedding at the time of our chat and has just been to another in Italy. Of course, these are stop-offs amidst her returning festival season, perfectly depicting the contrasting sides of her life today. On fifth album ‘Dirt Femme’, she delves into her multifaceted nature, picking herself apart in ways she hasn’t before.
“I was writing from a place where I wasn’t like, being an artist,” she says of the process. “I was in stillness in my home most of the time, I wasn’t putting out music, I wasn’t touring, I wasn’t performing in any way, my record deal was up. It felt like I was kind of starting from the beginning. I think that affected the sort of vulnerability level.”
Tove’s never been afraid of being honest in her lyrics, and if ‘Habits’ (which is currently enjoying a resurgence thanks to TikTok) is anything to go by, that was clear from the start. She’s just as frank when penning tracks about getting high and copping off with a stranger in the dark as she is when it’s about a crushing heartbreak. On ‘Dirt Femme’, she’s treading new waters, but the strokes are familiar.
“I felt very free to play around with different styles”Tove Lo
Tove Lo followed up her time off with single ‘How Long’, the scathing breakup song that was part of already-iconic TV show Euphoria’s soundtrack, a show very in line with Tove’s early aesthetic, with plot lines that mimic her lyrics. But the change of pace was marked when ‘No One Dies From Love’ arrived. A synth-driven robotic 80s pop sadbanger that introduced the record’s themes of everlasting love and confronting death.
“I think every fucking song has death in it. I’m like, this is not how I planned,” she laughs. “I guess it’s the combination of actually being around a lot of death during that time, sadly, but also this feeling of loss in terms of like, ‘will I lose my life? Am I even an artist anymore? Am I gonna get my life back’, basically. There was this fear of loss and then feeling the presence of death that just made its way into the album, even though those aren’t the real subjects of the song.”
It crops up in the other two singles, ‘True Romance’, a striking cinematic ballad unlike anything else in her catalogue that pays homage to the film of the same name, and ‘2 Die 4’, the ‘Popcorn’ sampling club banger that reminds us she’s still got a party in her.
She didn’t always dwell on death, though. For almost a decade, she’s been living in the moment, if only by accident, packing her schedule so tightly she’s barely able to think past the next thing on her calendar.
“I’ve been the kind of person who’s like, ‘if the plane goes down, I’m fine because I’ve had a great life’, and I’d just be like, okay, I guess this is my time. When I would say that, my mom would freak, which is understandable. I kind of still feel that way, but not really. I think it’s changed a little bit in how I view it. I don’t know why, if it’s age, or if it’s just being in a place in my life where I feel very good and have a lot of people I care about and don’t want to lose. I think if you’re too careful in life, you’re going to miss out on a lot, but for some reason, there’s more at stake now.”
With her mind and schedule cleared, Tove started to consider what the future actually did hold for her. She started asking questions that didn’t have answers yet, which all play out on ‘Suburbia’ – “What if I don’t want the things I’m supposed to want? But what if I do in the end?” she sings in the bridge – a track centred around her new marriage to producer and director (namely of Tove’s own music videos) Charlie Twaddle and what would come next.
“I work hard to make sure everything honestly feels like me”Tove Lo
“It was a very different vibe than what our parents would have wanted,” she says of the ceremony, where the pair eloped to Las Vegas in July 2020. “It was just like, relief from people around us being like, ‘Okay, so now when are you going to move out of your collective? When are you going to have kids? Now are you going to do all these traditional things?’ And then there are other people being like, ‘Are you still you?’ And I’m like, I’m still me. That’s where all those songs like ‘Suburbia’ came up in my head, like, fuck, wait, what are we? Is that what we’re headed to? No, we can make whatever life we want. That’s the good feeling about being married to someone who’s like you.”
It was during this period that Tove found herself looking back too. A casting in Swedish film The Emigrants reopened some old wounds when the role required her to drop some weight in a very short amount of time. She’d recovered from an eating disorder ten years ago, and found the request triggered some old memories, which she ended up exorcising on ‘Grapefruit’.
It’s probably her most personal track to date, and one that she’s been trying to write for a long time. Recounting how she felt back then, she explains, “I just remember feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. And I remember being so mean to myself.
“I also remember when I was feeling that shitty, I didn’t want to listen to songs that were singing about how great I should feel about myself when I just felt like a failure. I wanted to hear songs that felt like I felt, so I think that’s why I wrote it from that angle. It’s from the perspective of how I used to be and the kind of behaviour that you put to work; it’s like the only thing you think about. It’s very exhausting and draining, and looking back, it’s really sad.”
Even when tackling these heavier topics, Tove Lo isn’t one to compromise the banger value. ‘Grapefruit’ is a nostalgic pop hit that literally counts us through her thought process (“three, four, lose more,” chants the chorus), and it stops the more intense subjects from feeling out of place when positioned around party anthems.
In ‘Dirt Femme”s second half, a pair of collaborations with SG Lewis take us back to dancefloor Tove Lo, the retro booty call bop ‘Call On Me’, and the unapologetically horny ‘Pineapple Slice’, sandwiched around the sultry ‘Attention Whore’. Elsewhere, she plays with what a Tove Lo record could sound like, as she explores plucky, dreamy acoustic on First Aid Kit collaboration ‘Cute & Cruel’, and pushes herself vocally on ballad ‘I’m To Blame’, exploration allowed in part by the creative freedom she found in leaving the major label she’d released her first four records with and going independent.
“Songs are forever”Tove Lo
“I felt very in charge of the curation of it, how I wanted to sound and be. I felt undisturbed. Sometimes I want to do things creatively that maybe aren’t the most viable thing, you know, because sometimes I have a creative goal that overrides the commercial goal. I was just exploring. I felt very free to play around with different styles, and what ties it together is me. I knew that there were other parts of me I wanted to show that I haven’t really shown before.”
It’s hard to deny Tove Lo’s influence and involvement in shaping pop’s current landscape. She’s written multiple monster hits, namely Ellie Goulding’s Grammy-nominated ‘Love Me Like You Do’, and has been around long enough to see the attitudes towards her shift from bad role model to feminist hero. Yet Tove Lo seems to sit in limbo – never quite matching the success of her breakout single, nor garnering the same underground cult status as the Charlis, Marinas and Carlys of the pop world.
Still, when she’s asked how she feels about her legacy as she opens a new chapter, she’s clear that there’s nothing she’d change.
“I’m very proud of what I’ve made, for better or for worse. Maybe sometimes I haven’t always made, in the moment, the smartest move, but that’s also made it so that I am proud of every piece of music and art that’s out there. I work hard to make sure everything honestly feels like me and one body of work, but challenging myself because I want to make sure when I look back, I feel proud of it. I fucking love that at any moment, your song can take off and have a full journey again. Songs are forever, and I feel that the way we listen to music now, everything is so disposable. We’re just scrolling through it. But you know, songs will always be there, and I think they’ll find a moment again if they made an impact.” ■
Taken from the November 2022 edition of Dork. Tove Lo’s album ‘Dirt Femme’ is out now.