Tove Lo Is So Much More Than A 'Cool Girl'

The Swedish star doubles down on ultra-catchy, radically truth-telling pop

Artwork by: Ariel Weaver

Video by: Joe Maziarski

“I was a little bit nicer with these,” a tattooed waitress at Seattle’s Citizen Coffee says, her hands cupping a pair of sizable tequila shots. 

“Really? Because they look just as big,” Tove Lo says as she grabs the glasses. It’s nearly 1:30 p.m., and the 29-year-old Swedish pop star has been wandering around the base of the Space Needle with her band. We ended up at Citizen to get coffee, which she didn’t know was a local specialty. (“Wait, this is where it all began?” she asks, with genuine curiosity, after being told that Seattle is the birthplace of Starbucks.) The shots are because she just found herself on the losing end of a dare-based drinking game with her tour photographer, Kenny. She gulps them down and laughs.

The singer, whose real name is Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson, is dressed casually today in jeans and a worn t-shirt advertising “Something New At First Bank,” with a copper bomber jacket emblazoned with her name and a giant vagina symbol embroidered on the back. All the band members have the so-called “vajackets,” which are vag-themed to match her new album, Lady Wood, though it’s not quite something every American seems to understand.

“What’s that?” Tove Lo says gruffly, impersonating a man the band met on the road who was confused about the rather tame oval symbol. “A vagina,” she offered, to which the stranger responded by shooing her away because he was “with his wife.” “Well, your wife has one!” she shouts, delighted by the recollection.

If anyone can get away with a pickup line like “You give me wood, you give me lady wood,” it’s her. Since she dropped her Top 5 hit “Habits (Stay High)” back in 2013 — a song in which she copes with a breakup by barfing up Twinkies and picking up “daddies on the playground” — the singer-songwriter has released a string of messy, unapologetically desperate hits about drug-addled sex and partying. At the same time, she's maintained a steady professional writing career, penning hit songs for artists like Ellie Goulding and Hilary Duff — pristine pop next to which her solo material can seem a bit off-the-wall. The general response among her writer peers when she started, she says, was “What the fuck?

Tove Lo is still figuring out exactly where and how she fits into the pop industry's spotlight, and she doesn’t act like the wild, brand-name pop star many listeners might expect. In real life she looks sort of unassuming, her bare face and shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair her go-to look onstage and off. But that doesn't stop people from confusing Lo entirely for the girl in her songs. Fans bring her home-rolled joints, and many critics write about her like she's a nymphomaniac. “People were always trying to figure me out, but they just didn’t get it,” Lo tells me. “People would say, ‘Oh, you seem like a lot of fun,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, you mean based on the music video where I’m fucking crying in the bathroom and a total mess?’”

“It’s about doing everything that feels scary, but still kind of turns me on a bit...”

And, granted, she is fun, just not a perfect double of her songwriting. Tequila shots aside, the girl likes hiking, keeps a vegan diet, and has an outspoken soft spot for rescue dogs (whom Lo invites backstage on tour, reaching out to local animal shelters that she promotes through Instagram). At one point during our walk through Seattle, while discussing rental options for her new record’s Los Angeles premiere party, Lo becomes fixated on a spacious property with a pool table. She argues for the pool table energetically with her manager, Brian, before pausing. “But I guess maybe that shouldn’t be the defining factor?” she admits with a smirk.

The Tove Lo heard on record is undeniably addictive. Her clearest peers are early Kesha and perhaps Bangerz-era Miley Cyrus, musicians who’ve perfected a certain strain of collegiate-bacchanal pop. At the wrong hour of the party, a character like this can be grating, the exhibitionist who suddenly doesn’t know when she’s had enough (or when we’ve had enough of her). But while Tove Lo’s American counterparts chugged whiskey to abandon and twerked without a care, you could find her lurking in the shadows of the kegger, her go-hard anthems turning sour with the flip of a lyric. “Swear it won’t take you long,” Lo insisted to a lover on her mega-hit “Talking Body,” which could play as a sexy come-on, but also ends up sounding dismally real.

Tove Lo ultimately plays like the familiar, sympathetic poster girl for our sloppiest tendencies, every drunken hookup and backseat cab retch compacted into great pop music. It’s a construct that gets expanded even further on Lady Wood, a narrative-driven album that also comes with a Lemonade-style video suite. Both draw on emotions and experiences from the last two years of Lo’s life as she grappled with becoming a bona fide pop star, chasing rushes along the way. “It’s about doing everything that feels scary but still kind of turns me on a bit,” Lo says.

Throughout the album, she sleekens up her surly synthpop production as she takes on seedy thrills that eventually leave her cold. She’s the self-possessed, down-for-whatever chick on the Gone Girl–inspired “Cool Girl,” the drama-craving lover on “True Disaster,” and the deeply paranoid partygoer on the industry dart “Don’t Talk About It.” If there’s a Tove Lo motto, it might be the line she delivers on “True Disaster” in her quintessential “get at me” fashion: “Come on, zero fucks about it, come on, I know I’m gonna get hurt.”

In the videos for Lady Wood, Lo falls in and out with a young woman played by actress Lina Esco, chasing her through cinematic strobe-lit clubs, moldy motel rooms, and burning cars abandoned on city streets. It’s hard to know if she’s Lo’s lover; their limbs frequently intertwine, lips grazing. Ultimately, Lo says that Esco’s character represents everything she’s “terrified of becoming.” “Just alienated, bitter, angry, narcissistic, insecure,” she tells me. It’s a theme echoed in her video for “Cool Girl,” where, in the middle of the desert, head shaved, Lo gyrates on top of a glass coffin that contains a mirror image of herself. “I have those sides to me, I can feel those parts of myself, and while I have my good and bad sides just like everyone, I’m most creative when she’s very present.”

Tove Lo

Ariel Weaver/MTV

By the time we leave the coffee shop, Tove Lo is ready to party. Oh, wait, I mean hike. It’s a surprisingly nice day in Seattle, and Lo is taking advantage of it by walking the trails of the city’s picturesque Discovery Park. With homes in Stockholm and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Lo seeks out green spaces when she has a break between shows and bus rides (currently she’s on the road opening for Maroon 5). Her six-person crew, which includes her Swedish band members and management, follow in tow. They all love hiking, running, and doing yoga together. “We’re kind of like this big weird family,” Lo tells me, as if to clarify that they’re not a burgeoning cult.

On the way to the trails, where we’ll find a sprawling oasis of bunnies and meadows to roam around, Lo finds out that her music has reached a billion streams on Spotify. “How many zeros is in a billion?” Lo asks, readying a Snapchat post. There’s confusion and arguing as to how many millions make a billion. “Is it 100 or 1,000?” Some googling is done. “Is this because we’re drunk?!” Lo squeals, embarrassed.

“Now you’re a pop star, we need to doll you up and make you look fancy.”

She might be just on the cusp of becoming a household name, but she’s been working in the music industry for years. As a teenager, she had her first brush with pop when a friend who was part of Play — a wildly popular Scandinavian group that would go on to tour with Destiny’s Child and *NSYNC — invited Lo to come by a studio to sing a little for fun. “I was just fascinated by it all. The travel, the photo shoots,” Lo says. But it wasn’t until she applied and was accepted to Sweden’s prestigious music high school Rytmus Musikergymnasiet, which counts Robyn as an alum, that Lo decided she really wanted to pursue music as a career. Coming from a family of academics and lawyers, she found that her parents weren’t exactly into the idea. “They’ve admitted that they really didn’t think I would get in,” Lo says, laughing. “They were like, ‘Is she actually good?’”

After graduating, Lo worked at cafés and formed the rock band Tremblebee, a group she now describes as “impossible.” “If I told you what the lyrics were about, you’d get it and be like, whoa,” Lo says, noting that the band made its music hard to play and sing on purpose. “I would look up difficult words in English, like, 'This sounds cool, I’m gonna put this in!'” But a Warner/Chappell publisher saw the band play and heard something there, so he offered Lo a publishing deal. “I was just so excited that someone was interested in me, because nobody was,” she says. “My band, they were all rooting for me because they were my friends, but I tried to work with different producers and I just kept getting, ‘Eh, I don't really get it.’”

Tove Lo

Ariel Weaver/ MTV

Lo started writing songs with the production duo The Struts (who would also go on to produce her solo albums) and placed hits like “Something New” with Girls Aloud and “We Got the World” with her pals Icona Pop. But she missed making music and performing, and she kept her favorite songs for herself. One of those songs was “Habits,” a viral sleeper hit that eventually became the highest-charting Swedish single on the Billboard Hot 100 since Ace of Base’s “The Sign.” The song earned her a recording deal with Island Records. “I was like, Holy shit, it's starting now,” Lo says of the break, which had her flying to perform in the U.S. for the first time. She struggled with some parts of her sudden rise, particularly the way fans and journalists approached her. “It was so fast, and I remember just thinking, like, Am I an artist or am I a pop star? I had the confidence, but not everything else that comes with being an artist.”

Everything else, in Lo’s case, was the right look, the glossy-magazine-ready passion for fashion, the perfect sound-bite description of herself. “It’s just like, Now you’re a pop star, we need to doll you up and make you look fancy,” Lo says. “And it does work. You look at a photo and think, You look good in this, but it’s not you. It’s such a fine line.”

She and Georgia Nott, of the New Zealand synthpop duo Broods, were Twitter mutuals before becoming IRL friends at a music festival in 2014. Shortly after, Nott asked Lo to sing on her song “Freak of Nature.” “I think both of us see how crazy and superficial the music industry could be and agree on what to avoid within it, one of the things being the whole physical-perfection thing that so many people strive for,” Nott tells me. “I mean, she’s gorgeous, but she doesn’t have a perfect smoky eye every single fucking day, you know?”

After recovering from vocal surgery on a cyst last year, Lo was a little shaken up, and felt she had “a lot to make up for” having been absent for a few months. So she experimented a bit out of her comfort zone, seeing if she could do what she thought a “pop girl” would do. “Just being more vain and trying to be a little more politically correct in interviews,” she says. She let photographers Photoshop her, and she even did little things like wear heels more. “People will push you in that direction, because that's what they know how to do," she adds.

I mention a recent interview quote from Zara Larsson, a Swedish pop star who’s currently making her way to America (and also someone for whom Lo has written), in which Larsson openly dissed a song she'd been given to sing because it “doesn’t sound like something [she’d] ever say.”

Lo cackles. “I fucking love that,” she says. “I don't know if it’s a Swedish thing, but no one tries to hide whatever's going on. You'd rather be like, ‘Well, this went wrong, but that's OK,’” she continues. “I'm not saying all of America is like this, but here I feel there are a lot of situations where my U.S. team will sort of panic a little bit or [say], ‘Oh, that got weird.’ I'm like, well, it's the truth, what do you mean?”

Tove Lo

Ariel Weaver/ MTV

The past few years have seen the rise of a new class of so-called alt–pop stars as the traditional poles of music stardom continue to crumble. Spotify can make your home-recorded hit go viral in a few days, artists broadcast their personalities through social media instead of carefully crafted press releases, and young women at the moment seem just tired, in general, of the hyper-manufactured idols of the early to mid-2000s. Artists like Lorde, Halsey, and Sky Ferreira have redefined what it means to be a pop singer not just by their origin stories but by the way they present themselves, their lyrics feeling like diaristic extensions of the average 15-year-old’s Tumblr feed. Singers like Tove Lo write their own music as opposed to having hits written for them. Being a “real girl," not some aspirational fantasy — that’s what young women want right now.

At the moment, it’s actually quite cool all across pop to be messy, or even to be a bit of a train wreck. Beyoncé gleefully smashes car windows with a baseball bat, Taylor Swift cuts famous ex-boyfriends down in her lyrics, and Rihanna drunk-dials lovers in the middle of the night. That's partly because in the post-Britney era, people are more aware than ever of the ways in which industry-built constructions of pop perfection can hurt women. So now we celebrate realness, or at least the curated façade of it. We want pop stars to own their wounds, because it’s confirmation that they’re allowed to be human.

“I’m sick of this real shit, give me something I can dream about!”

“Pop music used to be this sort of happy escape where everything was polished and pretty, everything you’d think people would want,” Lo says. “But whenever there’s too much of something we always want something else. We’ve had too much of the unattainable pop star and now it’s like, Well, what’s real? But after a while it’s gonna be like, I’m sick of this real shit, give me something I can dream about!

The pop train wreck can be its own kind of dream — something that’s easy to glamorize and dramatize. But that feels a little harder to do with Tove Lo. It would be easy to peg her as some sexy wild child, dreamed up like a male fantasy, but there’s always something a little off about her writing, which is remarkably unique. From her use of “lady wood” (a response, she says, to people calling her “a chick with balls”) to her awkward reference to “baby-making bodies we just use for fun” on “Talking Body,” Lo’s lyrics can be weird or goofy. At one point during her live set she turns her back to the audience and runs her arms up around her sides like she’s pretending to make out with someone.

There’s a too much quality to Tove Lo’s music — the way she describes sex as “fast and greasy,” or how she never lets you forget that intimacy can have its dark sides. It’s the sound of a woman with shaky ethical boundaries, but in a way that feels devoid of a male gaze. I’m reminded of female characters with real chutzpah, the sort of impulsive ones that populate Jill Soloway and Lena Dunham’s TV shows, or the dark novels of Jade Sharma and Nell Zink. Because buried under all the glitter and empty PBR cans is what sounds like a well of aching insecurity. “I’m not the prettiest you’ve ever seen, but I have my moments,” she sang on her debut record, like a fragile offering to listeners who might, perhaps, judge her too harshly.

Tove Lo

Ariel Weaver/MTV

People do judge her for over-sharing, for putting her flaws center stage, even though Lo thinks they’re pretty basic human vices to begin with. “People always ask, ‘Why do you need to share this?’” Lo says animatedly, curled up on the green-room couch backstage at the Key Arena before she warms up for her opening set. A highly detailed coloring book that Adam Levine brought by a few minutes ago sits on the coffee table; Lo tells me that coloring in the books relaxes her. “And I’m like, ‘What is so fucking bad about it?!’" she adds. "Everyone has dark thoughts, everyone has bad days, but still we choose to not share that because people get so uncomfortable whenever someone’s too emotional or sharing something sad.” She sighs. “We're always living trying to make ourselves smaller,” she says.

“Like, in Sweden, they don’t care about sex at all, but they find it really troubling that I sing so openly about drugs,” she says. "And I understand why that can provoke people, but these things don’t go away when you don’t talk about [them]. When I’m in America, I don’t know why I shouldn’t be able to say some things. It’s super weird to me that I have to censor myself. ‘Well, that top, you can’t really wear that.’ I’m just throwing a little tantrum, because it pisses me off so much and I know it’s just because I’m a woman.”

From one angle, Tove Lo might be the latest representative of “real girl” pop, a songwriter in control of her self-image. From others, she might just be another iteration of the hedonistic idol, minus Xtina’s leather chaps or Rihanna’s S&M whip. Either way, there’s catharsis to hearing her completely inhabit and own her messiest moments: the self-medication, the rereading of someone else’s sexts while she’s lying next to her boyfriend, the mumbled declaration that she might feel dead inside at this party. The drama of Tove Lo’s music is remarkably tangible. You might know a Tove Lo, or be her on a bad night.

“We have so many weird ideals and pressures, just putting ourselves down all the time," she says. "The most everyday things, like, I got drunk and, fuck, I texted when I shouldn’t have, or, God, my hair isn’t shiny; all that bullshit that makes us feel bad about ourselves. And I guess it feels good that I can be up here doing what I do — someone who maybe should be more perfect, but I’m doing all that shit too! It makes it easier. Let’s just bond in our insecurities.”