tove lo talks shifting musical landscapes and the state of scandipop
Plus, how she started over on her new album, 'Sunshine Kitty'.
It’s a tentatively dry Tuesday in London, the first reprieve after a weekend of downpours -- but Tove Lo is bright and beaming in her hotel suite, looking for all the world like she’s fresh from a beach holiday. In reality, she’s fresh off Mighty Hoopla's stage in Brockwell Park where, to a crowd of gay stans, she performed her new single Glad He’s Gone and danced to Talking Body with a rainbow-clad Kate Nash. Between the lapels of her oversized tweed jacket, a huge red heart logo peeks out from the chest of her throat-hugging mesh top. Tove is all loved-up, and dressed for a happy new chapter in her life. Her new album, the optimistically titled Sunshine Kitty, will be our first glimpse into her brave new world.
“Always with my records, my life is the inspiration,” she begins, sinking into the plush hotel sofa cushions. “After New York, I moved to LA and it took me a while to feel at home there. A whole song on the album is about that, just getting used to a life in the sun…”
Maybe it’s odd to think of happiness as something one might have to adjust to, like a new job; but the Swedish lyricist has historically felt more at home in the darkness. Her breakthrough track Habits (Stay High) in 2013 became the sacred text for the sad party girl/guy, and set the tone for the solo discography that followed it. A river of melancholy flowed through her three albums -- Queen of the Clouds, Lady Wood, and Blue Lips -- where she sang to pulse-pounding beats about drugs, sex and the disappointment that often accompanies them (blue lips, the female equivalent of blue balls, was a characteristically crude metaphor for how intense wanting often leaves one in agony of longing). Her video for hey you got drugs where she sobbed her way through a funfair ride in Paris’ Tuileries Gardens was perhaps the perfect visual representation of her high octane brand of pining.
Lo’s music evolved directly from the homegrown Scandipop vernacular of her Swedish idols Robyn and Lykke Li. She went to the same music school as Robyn in Stockholm, Rytmus Musikergymnasiet, making her -- in our eyes -- part of the very bloodline that perfected the art of the sad banger. “I would call what I do Scandipop because of those three elements; you can dance, cry and drink to it,” she jokes. “It has to have a little bit of that melancholy nerve but still make you move.”
Lo graduated directly into this Scandi tradition of songcraft, where she spent several years behind the scenes writing for other artists. She worked with Icona Pop, and was soon introduced to Max Martin and inducted into his Wolf Cousins songwriting collective. When 2013’s Habits (Stay High) launched her solo career, she became instantly recognised as the heir of the Scandi sad banger and its irresistible chart pull. But in the six intervening years, the pop music landscape has changed a lot, and so has the formula for writing a hit.
“I think people listen to music differently now,” Lo muses, one tattooed hand fidgeting with a chunky silver ring. “They have favourite artists still, sure, but it's almost more about favourite individual songs now. People can make their own playlists. We don’t consume music in the same way. What I love about being part of Wolf Cousins is it’s all about feelings still -- you pay attention to how something makes you feel, you kind of throw structure out the window a little bit.”
Much has been written about the decline of the banger, the rise of the lower-tempo sad bop and the growing unpredictability of number one hits. Lo’s later singles, as well as the brand new Glad He’s Gone, reflect this general trend in pop, moving away from rigidly machine-cut bangers and towards more slow-burning nuance and unconventional choruses. GHG speaks from the slightly involved perspective of a girl who hates her girlfriend’s ex, and at 91 bpm is a little less heart-racing than 2013’s Stay High, at 110bpm. The lyrics though, are still unmistakably Lo, explicitly evoking bodies and their fluids: ‘did you let him leave a necklace?’
“What’s cool now is there’s space for everything,” she notes. “One song could be the most classic pop song you’ve heard and it goes to number one, and then the next number one could be this completely new different sounding thing. Kind of like what Billie Eilish is doing, totally in its own lane.” It’s not the first time she’s praised the teen star, who’s held up as a talisman of the new age of pop.
The structures of streaming services like Spotify have altered the way that pop success is quantified. Genres are increasingly blurred and mashed together, and charts are no longer in thrall to Anglophone writers as we see English lose its status as pop’s lingua franca. Perfectly engineered bangers no longer soar effortlessly to number one; weird sphinx songs like Lil Nas X’s Country Roads find novelty in hybridity.
Tove Lo is aware of it all, and seems more stimulated than intimidated by the ever-changing rules of music. It’s clear that she’s looking forward to giving Scandipop an update, with Sunshine Kitty offering much of the same cutting edge experimentation: “There’s a track on the album that feels like a Latin-Scandinavian Stranger Things theme song,” she teases. “It’s so much easier to make music now, and that’s how you end up spanning genres. You can be in a room writing and you’re not really figuring it out, so you send it to someone else. And then you’re like ‘oh actually I want a feature on this, so let’s bring in this artist,’ and they write their part with someone else, and then you send it on to someone else to produce it. You have samples, everything’s connected, everyone’s reachable. You can hear inspiration from somewhere completely different. And you can do everything on this,” she gestures emphatically to my Macbook on the table between us. “You don’t need anything else. People complain that now there’s twenty people on every song, but it’s because people have realised it’s way more fun to work together.”
Luckily, there’s a serendipitous link between Lo’s personal life and the shifting currents of pop music. Just as Gen-Z have killed off the musical genre and once-steadfast rulebooks are being rewritten, so too has Lo arrived at a point in her own life where she has more degrees of freedom in her writing, and can meet the new challenges pop has thrown up. While she was once quoted as saying she was incapable of writing good songs that weren’t downhearted, she’s enjoying a newfound flexibility.
“I started writing Sunshine Kitty after my massive touring year in 2017 and I was kinda like, ‘holy shit, that was a lot’. After releasing Blue Lips and the short film, I’d kind of completed all the missions I had set out to do and I was just like, ‘oh my god I’m so sick of myself!’. I started writing for others again and it was a nice break from my own head.” One of the many hits Tove Lo has co-written, it should be pointed out, is Lorde’s totally brilliant Homemade Dynamite.
“Then when I started doing sessions again for the new album, I was surprised to find I was writing kind of happy songs. I’m in a good place in my life. I’m in love and happy”. (Lo has been dating boyfriend Charlie Twaddle for some time now, though she doesn’t say anything more about him.) “There’s the same sort of cheekiness but a happier tone on the new record in general," she hints. “And some of it has a more acoustic feel -- there are guitars on there, which feels new to me.”
"I feel bad for Tove Styrke -- I fucked up our name.”
With genre boundaries breaking down, and even Tove Lo, once dubbed “Sweden’s darkest pop export” by Rolling Stone, beginning to skew towards cheery bops, are we officially kissing goodbye to the brooding dancefloor Scandipop we’ve known and loved for so long? “Denmark and Norway are producing a whole new wave now... like MØ, Astrid S. and Sigrid. There’s a bunch of Norwegian producers that are doing really well too,” Lo says. “And I feel bad for Tove Styrke -- I fucked up our name”, she jokingly apologises to the young Swedish singer. But these new Scandi artists on the market seem like a slightly different proposition, not just in that they’re no longer solely coming out of Stockholm, but in that their music tends to be more unreservedly upbeat.
“I think that’s because the younger Scandi artists are more heavily influenced by American culture,” Lo theorises. “Swedes are more like ‘let’s talk about it, let’s get into the darkness here’. But American culture doesn’t want to talk about sadness, they want to put on a happy song and escape.”
In a choppy landscape, where globalism is deconstructing and reassembling the essential characteristics of genres in new mashed-up modes of expression, it’s increasingly likely that Scandipop proper will fade to be replaced by more contemporary iterations. But while the Scandi artistry may be changing form, its influence certainly isn’t waning. “One of the girls who co-wrote New Rules is Norwegian,” Lo reminds me. “The Scandis are still everywhere; it’s not just about the artists, it’s about the songwriters. They’re all still there. Max Martin was part of the new Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber song, and Can’t Feel My Face with The Weeknd. And I’ve been in the studio a bit with Dua too,” she adds, casually.
As for Lo herself, now 31, the future seems brighter than ever and she’s excited about making new kinds of music… as well as old kinds. Sweden’s duchess of the deep dark dancefloor is not giving up her title anytime soon. She might just wear it with a bigger grin this time around. “There are still some club bangers coming,” she promises. “I’m passionate, just without all the crazy painful drama stuff. I think I’ve just come to terms with being an intense emotional person.”
“Right now I’m as stable as a person like that can be,” she smiles.