“Good morning!” chirps Tove Lo with gleeful enthusiasm as she dials in on our Zoom call. We met one week earlier in London, on a scorchingly hot afternoon in Holborn for our cover shoot which saw the Swedish singer don designs by the city’s eclectic creative community. Swirls of lime green ribbon and dramatic black sculptures adorn her body yet she has no trouble in being upstaged by the garments. I tell her how much fun our team had on the shoot day. She grins, “Me too.”
Today she’s calling from LA, where she’s taking respite at her home before embarking on her next global tour for her forthcoming album Dirt Femme, which has become the secret soundtrack to the BRICKS office this summer. With influences from the funky world of French and Swedish dance music, Donna Summer, and LCD Sound System, Tove Lo relatably describes her fifth studio album as “me asking questions and talking about my feelings without really having any answers for any of them.”
Questions about her identity and femininity, conflicting feelings about love and commitment, and her past struggles with body image all appear on the record, which she started scribbling in a lyrics notebook during lockdown. This process mirrored that of writing her first album, Queens Of The Clouds, before she knew what would await the next decade of her career. Returning to pen and paper, alone in her bedroom, was key for the artist to share the deeply intimate lyrics and themes that appear on Dirt Femme.
“I’m always very personal in my songs. But this one has another layer of vulnerability,” says Tove. The harsh stop that the pandemic forced on every artist’s career also urged the 34-year-old to think back on her life. “[I wasn’t] doing any shows, I wasn’t putting out music, I was just being a person in my house,” she continues. “I think that played a really big part in why it’s so, I guess dramatic and emotional and all that.”
[I thought] ‘What if we ever decide to have kids? Does that mean we have to start to live this very typical square life?’ I just started to spiral in my mind about losing touch with myself in a way and then I was like, ‘What’s wrong with wanting those things? Why is that wrong? Why am I so against that?’
But that’s not the only life-changing development that the singer has faced recently. Despite the provocative ‘anti-boyfriend’ narrative that has characterised her discography, Tove married producer Charlie Twaddle in 2020. “[My old friends and parents] were so happy that there was one thing that we did that was traditional, and that made me start to think, ‘No! That’s not the life I want!’”
Tove draws on the experience for track ‘Suburbia’, exploring ideas of commitment, external expectations and traditional family values. “[I thought] ‘What if we ever decide to have kids?’” recounts the artist. “‘Does that mean we have to start to live this very typical square life?’ I just started to spiral in my mind about losing touch with myself in a way and then I was like, ‘What’s wrong with wanting those things? Why is that wrong? Why am I so against that?’ I guess that was maybe the thing, when I got married, even though I feel like I’ve found the only properly open-minded, straight white man,” she continues, while I jokingly ask her where she found him.
But there was no need for concern, for it is far from a conventional marriage. True to Tove’s party-loving persona, the couple eloped to Vegas with a few of their friends and now live in a collective in LA, sharing a home with five housemates and a dog. “Honestly, I’ve never wanted to get married. I’ve never thought of it as part of my dreams, but I love being married to him,” she smiles. “He’s great. And it just feels like it’s the same love, and I like knowing we’re in this together. I don’t know how to explain it better than that. We’re a team.”
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that love is a clear leitmotif throughout the album. Tove has also shifted perspectives in her songwriting process, particularly when compared to her earlier work – her independent, commitment-phobic, single-girl chronicles have made space for romance and vulnerability. “I feel like it’s funny, because now we’re in a very good place, so anytime I write a breakup song or a ‘you betrayed me’ kind of song, it’s me writing about my biggest fears,” explains Tove who, in true Scorpio style, has been frustrated in the past by dependency and neediness: “I can’t do that anymore with him because now I can take care of myself, but I can’t picture my life without him, and I think that is new, but I’m fine with being that vulnerable.”
Sonically, Dirt Femme is a blend of many genres, or as Tove puts it, “a really cool blend of worlds” and “a complete mixed bag of everything.” The record flirts between dance music sub-genres, from the murmuring bass of cinematic ballad ‘True Romance’, to the grungy, garage band-like feel of ‘I’m To Blame’ – harking back to Tove’s early music taste – and the old school Donna Summer-like disco beat in fanciful yet relatable melodrama ‘No One Dies From Love’, written in collaboration with long term creative partner Ludvig Söderberg.
You see so many variations of those sides in people and it really doesn’t have much to do with what gender you are or what gender you like, I think it’s a personal way of being. You’re not trying to force being one way or the other in terms of femininity and masculinity so I feel that, and I love that about the queer community.
Unlikely collaborations have also become a signature of the songstress’s music, and this album is no exception, with the tracklist including features from American rapper Channel Tres, deep house artist SG Lewis and with Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit. “I’ve listened to First Aid Kit since forever and I felt that was kind of an unexpected and fun new thing that people wouldn’t expect from this record,” explains Tove. “And then with Channel Tres, I’m a huge fan, and I’ve been to a lot of his shows, so that was also paying a nod to that genre that I really like and a lot of music has been inspired by.”
Tove tells me Dirt Femme, her first album to be released independently under her own label Pretty Swede, is the perfect description of her. It’s all about embracing femininity, and she champions every iteration of it across the tracks. “Personally, I used to think of what you would call the traditional feminine traits – being in touch with your emotions, being more vulnerable, more emotional, more compassionate, empathetic – those traits are very much a big part of me,” she explains. After initially viewing these traits as weaknesses, the artist has evolved to accept her feminine attributes. “When I was getting into the industry, I noticed that if I enhanced or leaned into my masculine traits that would get me more respect in the room with all the men,” she notes. Comparatively, Dirt Femme sees Tove lean into the emotional and compassionate sides of herself, harnessing her vulnerability into strength and confidence.
Being an openly pansexual woman herself, Tove doesn’t believe that femininity is tied to gender or sexuality, and recognises the unapologetic nature of the queer community when it comes to identity. “You see so many variations of those sides in people and it really doesn’t have much to do with what gender you are or what gender you like, I think it’s a personal way of being. You’re not trying to force being one way or the other in terms of femininity and masculinity so I feel that, and I love that about the queer community,” she shares. “If the straight community were more open to that, I think we’d see a lot of more different, well-rounded and balanced human beings, and we would see way less toxic masculinity.”
I’ve tried to write the song [Grapefruit] for a very long time, and I’ve not really been able to put the right words to it. I needed to be away from life as an artist, and just write without thinking about how this was going to be tricky in terms of reaction, to then dare to go there.
Tove continues to explore identity and image on the track ‘Grapefruit’, which she shares is about her own past struggle with eating disorders. “I’ve tried to write the song for a very long time, and I’ve not really been able to put the right words to it. I needed to be away from life as an artist, and just write without thinking about how this was going to be tricky in terms of reaction, to then dare to go there,” she reveals.
The song was written after Tove, 10 years into her recovery, had to go on a diet for her role in the remake of the Oscar-nominated Swedish film The Emigrants. “I started thinking about and remembering what I would do to myself, and I was thinking, ‘How could I do that to myself?’ All those thoughts were coming up, and it made me quite sad. I just had to write a song about it,” she explains.
The lyrics flow over a dance-pop beat and narrate the exhausting hardships of the illness, which Tove was luckily able to put behind her before her career properly took off. “I had been well for quite a while, and now every time I go on stage, I flash or wear very little and be sexual and show myself off,” she says. “I would tell people to not retouch my body – that was all a victory for me every time, because I used to hate it so much and did not want to be in photos. It was a long ride, but it was towards feeling very positive around my body and then loving it, as I should.”
That’s not to say that the singer hasn’t had to (fiercely) hold the line against the industry-wide pressure put on women in music apropos image and style. Coming from Sweden to a daunting America, Tove has faced the controlling nature of major record labels. “I was coming straight into a commercial major label in the US, with views on what I should look like and do. So I was just doing everything against what they wanted me to do, because that’s not me, you know? It was important during that time for me to have a low-key, messy, grunge style and not overdo it.”
I would tell people to not retouch my body – that was a victory for me every time, because I used to hate it so much and did not want to be in photos. It was a long ride, but it was towards feeling very positive around my body and then loving it, as I should.
FULL LOOK: TOVE’S OWN
While she still values feeling 100% herself in every look, Tove’s style has since evolved and taken a different, more daring form. I was able to attest to this during our photoshoot, as she unveiled her jaw-dropping tour outfits and fabulous jewellery collection to me, each piece coming with a funny or sentimental back story. She credits the TV show Ru Paul’s Drag Race, which she was recently a guest judge on, for her new-found confidence in fashion and glam. “Watching Drag Race and seeing the skill and talent and all those looks made me think, ‘Wow, this is a performance, it’s an expression and it’s art.’ It really inspired me to step out more, add something, elevate.” The show has also promptly inspired Tove to reconnect with her femininity while staying true to herself. “I very much identify as a woman and I now love being a woman. It played into me liking feeling a bit glamorous and making characters or bringing a look, but I also always want there to be a bit of an edge or a rawness to it.”
Movies with strong heroines have been another big inspiration for this cinematic album, particularly on tracks ‘True Romance’ and ‘2 Die 4’, with the first paying tribute to cute but murderous Alabama Burley, and the video for the latter quite literally portraying Tove conquering a planet as “Wonder Woman with BDE”, wearing designer Whitaker Malem’s bronze Phallus Belt & Bustier, complete with a giant metallic strap on.
Dirt Femme “feels like it could all be part of this grand end of the movie soundtrack, it’s like the final scene of every movie,” notes the artist. “I had this idea of assigning a movie character to every song that’s loosely based off of characters I like, or a part of me that I feel like I want to show off and what I feel like is the embodiment of the song.” Tove reinforces the importance of visual storytelling and worldbuilding when constructing an album concept, and deems it almost equally important as writing and essential to her creative process. “It’s just about having a wild imagination… My favourite thing to do as a kid would be to just sit in my room or stroll around outside, and just paint scenarios in my mind,” she recalls while telling me about her past habit of scaring other children with creepy, detailed stories about cannibalistic neighbours.
Having achieved so much already, Tove’s next steps aren’t easy to anticipate, but her cinematic sensibilities might lead her to Hollywood sooner than she thinks. For now, she’s visualising a Game of Thrones-style dark and surrealist flick, “but with a pop soundtrack,” she clarifies. And that couldn’t be more fitting for the musician’s illustrious career. “There always has to be a little bit of a twist on everything I do, because my number one thing through it all is that I’d never want it to be too perfect.”
Chiara joined the team at BRICKS magazine in 2021 as the assistant to Founder and Editor-in-chief Tori West and is now Managing Editor. Chiara’s experience and approach to production, public relations, event organizing and digital media are shaped by her interests in queer culture, sustainable fashion and sex positivity.
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