photographer / Santiago Felipe
story / Erica Russell
makeup / Colby Smith
It’s not a simple feat, cracking American Top 40 radio. For an international artist, it’s even harder. Somehow, Swedish electro-pop artist Tove Lo makes it looks easy. Originally released in 2013, “Habits (Stay High)” has become a sort of hedonistic sleeper-hit-gone-pop-smash, positioning Lo as one of the most exciting breakthrough artists of the year.
The artist, who was born in the south of Sweden but grew up in the suburbs of Stockholm, describes her childhood as being very creative: “I was into writing poems, short stories, painting, and making my own clothes. I was always making stuff or doing something creative. I had a very wild imagination.”
Despite this creative yearning, Lo didn’t realize that music was for her until her teens. She explains, “I come from a very academic family with a posh upbringing. But I was always looking for trouble. I didn’t really know I was going to go into music until I was a teenager. I had a friend in a pop group and became fascinated by the whole recording process. I liked to sing and thought it might be something I might like to do for the rest of my life.”
Music, as it turns out, became the perfect outlet for a young woman who had been grappling with so many emotions. “Whatever I’m feeling, I feel a lot of it. Either I’m really, really sad, or really, really happy, and I have no control over it. It’s always intense,” Lo explains before sharing, ironically, that her mother is a psychologist.
When asked about the personal impact of her mom’s career, she admits, “Of course it’s affected me; it’s a profession all about suppressed feelings. I guess it taught me to always have them close by, not to push them away.”
These days, Lo siphons all of those intense feelings – no matter how uncomfortable or raw – into her music. “I sing about the stuff I am afraid to talk about, you know? The things I might not like about myself or want to admit. Everyone makes mistakes and fucks up, so I think, why not just be honest about it?”
It’s an unusual modus operandi for an artist who exists in a pop space, an area of music typically reserved for candy-colored summer anthems and weightless club bangers. But for Tove Lo, pop music is ready for something a little darker. “I think that the genre in general is becoming a lot wider. All of a sudden, pop isn’t only this happy, cookie-cutter thing. I think a lot of people are tired of keeping up this perfect exterior.”
This brings us back to “Habits (Stay High),” the lead single off the singer-songwriter’s self-described cohesive, personal, story-driven debut album, Queen of the Clouds. In fact, the sheer success of such a fundamentally depressing, personal song wrapped in fizzy electro-pop speaks to a possible shift in the attitudinal standards within the mainstream pop sphere. At the very least, it reveals a certain lyrical talent for the artist.
“I am pretty bad at writing a fully happy song,” Lo shares, laughing. “The stories that I tell the best are the ones that dig a bit deep and reopen those old scars. Those are the ones that take you on an emotional ride.”