As anyone with ears will tell you, Sweden is quite good when it comes to fostering amazing pop talent. With Stockholm’s Tove Lo, however, the typical mould of elegant heartfelt electropop has been beautifully corrupted by the sort of lyrical honesty and rawness that not only ruffles feathers, but makes you want to clutch your hand to your chest and wail along at the top of your lungs. Having self-released two examples of her unique take on pop – the clattering blood-letting of Love Ballad and the raw, but disarmingly melodic Habits (the latter earning respect from everyone from Pitchfork to Popjustice) – Tove Lo is ready to take her pop confessionals to a whole new level.
Music was always going to be something Tove Lo was involved in. Her high school, for example, wasn’t like most high schools. Run by teachers whose motto apparently was “fuck reading, let’s play music”, it was here that Lo met both of Icona Pop, forming bands left, right and centre and learning how to write songs. Singing in bands was something Lo also took outside the school gates, fronting a math rock band and playing what she affectionately refers to as “shitty” venues. “I wanted to write but couldn’t play anything and the guitarist in the band put music to my lyrics so that’s how it all started,” she explains. “It was such hard music and it would change key and tempo all the time. You had to understand it, like mathematical rock. We’d play all these awful bars where there were no monitors or anything. It was always pretty rowdy, so I got a lot of stage experience.”
At the same time she also started working on her own demos in-between earning money as a session singer. “I think I just started to feel like I wasn’t really into that music anymore,” she explains of her need to spread her wings. “I wanted to experiment more with other sounds and not keep it so organic. I was into the electronic stuff that was happening and the guitar player was very against that sort of stuff. I started producing my own songs on my computer which was fun.” Perhaps as a sign of her intent, those early recording sessions took place in a freezing cold shed turned makeshift studio. “My cousins had a shed outside of their house. It wasn’t heated so I had this heater in there and sometimes in the winter it would be minus ten,” she laughs. “The days I didn’t have a session I’d walk my dog there and just sit there all day and produce my own songs. Habits and Love Ballad were kind of started there actually.”
In-between living her life, writing songs about the various ups and downs in her life (break-ups, drink and drugs, raucous nights out and emotionally barren mornings after) and earning a living, Lo also set about cultivating her songwriting career. At a party held by her friends Icona Pop to celebrate them signing a record deal, Lo decided it would be a good idea to harass some people from said label. “I just walked up to someone and said to him, ‘you have to hear my songs, they’re amazing’,” she giggles. “It was just to get some feedback from someone. He was like ‘who the fuck are you?’, but I forced him to give me his email address and so I got that and sent him some stuff. He replied saying there was something there and we sort of planned a meeting in Stockholm.” From there she signed a publishing deal with Warner Chappell and before long she found herself being flown out to LA to hang out at pop songwriting legend Max Martin’s house via newfound friend, and fellow songwriting legend Alex Kronlund. “It gave me so much more confidence because at the beginning you don’t know what you like. If someone says it’s good you almost immediately believe them.” The impromptu meeting has since resulted in Lo becoming part of Martin’s pop songwriting team, working on some of the biggest forthcoming pop releases.
But it’s with her own songs that Lo’s real songwriting chops come to fore, as evidenced on her excellent debut EP, the tellingly-titled Truth Serum. At its core is Habits, which garnered so much blog buzz it lead to not just a deal with Universal but the attention of hugely-respected pop label Neon Gold, who are releasing a special limited edition of Truth Serum on vinyl in America, as well as hosting Lo at their SXSW showcase. Shifting effortlessly from verses that detail the lengths people go to to forget their pain (visits to sex clubs, casual sex with strangers, lots of drink), to a chorus that soars with barely restrained anguish, Habits is anchored by Lo’s impassioned vocal as it wraps itself around the line, “you’re gone and I’ve got to stay high all the time to keep you off my mind”. “Habits is about my ex,” Lo shrugs. “It was a lot of passion and pain clouded by smoke and it was chaos. Really up and down. He then changed his life around and joined a Buddhist movement and I wasn’t ready for that at all so I left.” Did she ever think of restraining her honesty in any way? “I don’t like to filter it. I get into a flow and get it out, but if I stop myself I just think ‘why? Why be subtle? Just say it as it is’. It’s not ‘I’m a single girl, let’s party all night long’, it’s more ‘I’m really destructive right now and I don’t care’. I think my honesty bothers some people.”
Raw, unbridled and packed full of sky-scraping pop hooks, the rest of Truth Serum follows Habits’ lead. From the sleek, electronic pulse of the ludicrously catchy Not On Drugs to the jungle and drum’n’bass influenced Paradise, to the devastating melancholia of the musically upbeat Over, it’s a collection that not only showcases a sharp new talent but sets a new standard for emotional pop music. The EP closes with perhaps Lo’s catchiest moment so far in the shape of Out Of Mind, a song that rushes along over a mesh of fizzing synths while Lo defiantly picks at a relationship, the chorus repeating the line “you’re out of your mind to think that I” before the resolution of “could keep you out of mine” brings with it a sort of heartbreaking resolution. It’s another example of Tove Lo’s greatest strength; the ability to cloak emotional honesty in the sort of songs you want to jump about a room to, drink in hand, singing out your emotions with a big tear-stained grin on your face.