Tove Lo Falls Into Fame: On ‘Habits,’ Opening for Katy Perry & Using Music as Therapy

Tove Lo, 2014.
Johannes Helje

Tove Lo

“Everything that I don’t really dare to say or speak about, I can sing about,” says the Swedish phenom.

Tove Lo is still trying to figure out how to mentally ready herself for her quickly approaching arena shows opening for Katy Perry, but in terms of physical preparation, the Swedish singer-songwriter is already freaking out about dressing the part of a pop star.

“At a shoot yesterday, a stylist asked me, ‘What are you planning to wear on the Katy tour?' I’m like, ‘Oh my God, fuck, I haven’t even though about what I’m going to wear!’” the singer tells Billboard, calling in while spending an afternoon poolside in Los Angeles. “I can’t wear what I usually wear [onstage] — I’m usually barefoot with, like, a t-shirt and jean shorts. I need to up my game.”

Figuring out what to wear in front of thousands of Katy Perry diehards: it’s one of the trappings of accidental fame. Lots of artists brush off the idea of chasing fans once when they have begun accruing them, but Tove Lo has stumbled into a singing career without ever embracing the notion of becoming a full-time singer. “I thought, my career is going to be my songwriting,” the 26-year-old Stockholm native admits; she planned to manage an “artist indie career on the side” as an outlet for her more personal compositions.

But then one of those revealing songs, “Habits (Stay High),” took off in the United States, nearly a year and a half after its April 2013 self-release. Opening with the line “I eat my dinner in my bathtub, then I go to sex clubs/Watching freaky people getting it on” and built around Tove Lo mewling “uh-uh” repeatedly, the song’s downbeat twitch unexpectedly took off at alternative and pop radio, and reached a new Hot 100 peak last week, now residing at No. 16 on the chart. The song, which also crossed the million-download mark last week according to Nielsen SoundScan, precedes Queen of the Clouds, a debut album so blisteringly honest and unapologetically uncensored that Lo is afraid people will see too much of her.

“There are days when I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I’m so stupid. Everyone’s going to know everything about me,’” she says. “I’m giving away so much of a story that not even only mine — it’s also about another person, which you know can be very sensitive.”

Indeed, Queen of the Clouds, due out Sept. 30 on Island Records, is about a breakup, just as Lo’s March EP Truth Serum detailed a poisoned relationship. The full-length goes to great lengths to provide a complete portrait of the singer’s romantic struggles (it’s divided into three sections: ‘The Sex,’ ‘The Love’ and ‘The Pain’) as well as of the singer herself, with biting refrains rooted in blunt self-examination. Lo holds nothing back on the sexual advances of “Talking Body,” examines fleeting chemistry on “Timebomb” and ends the chorus of “Moments” with the line, “I can get a little drunk, I get into all the don’ts/But on good days, I am charming as fuck.”

“I started to use music almost like a therapist,” she says, “where it’s like, everything that I don’t really dare to say or speak about, I can sing about.”

After growing up in a Swedish suburb under the name Tove Nilsson and attending Stockholm’s Rytmus Music School, Lo scored a publishing deal and started linking up with pop producers who wanted to explore her songwriting trove. She co-wrote “Ready for the Weekend” with her friends Icona Pop (she used to write music in a group with the duo’s Caroline Hjelt) and helped pen songs for Girls Aloud and Cher Lloyd. “Habits” didn’t make a dent in the U.S. upon its release in early 2013, but things started picking up when Lo signed to pop mastermind Max Martin’s songwriting collective at the end of last year; Lo continued her work with Ludvig Söderberg and Jakob Jerlström, the Swedish production team known as the Struts, whose development Lo says was greatly assisted by Martin. “I think it helps being Swedish,” Lo concludes. “We stick together, it seems like.”

“Habits” started making its way to pop fans earlier this year, after Lo performed at South By Southwest and was shouted-out on Twitter by Ellie Goulding. Since then, the singer-songwriter was named a VH1 ‘You Oughta Know’ artist, an iHeartRadio On The Verge artist and one of the openers on Perry’s tour in Australia, which kicks off in November. And as "Habits" spends its third week in the Hot 100’s Top 20 and fifth week atop Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, Lo’s debut album is arriving at precisely the right moment, with a performance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on Sept. 23 and a Sept. 30 appearance on “Watch What Happens Live” primed to promote the full-length.

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“We want to get the body of work out so that people understand that [‘Habits’] is just one of several very strong singles,” says Island Records President David Massey. Although “Timebomb” and “Moments” were both released ahead of the album, there’s no official follow-up single yet, and won’t be for some time. “There’s four or five [potential singles],” says Massey, naming songs like “Talking Body,” “Got Love” and the previously released “Not On Drugs” as some of the tracks under consideration.

Most of the masters for Queen of the Clouds were approved only a few weeks ago, after Lo worked on the album between Europe and North America on a portable studio she keeps in her grandmother’s old carry-on bag. With a short U.S. headlining tour that began Sunday night (Sept. 21) in Los Angeles serving as a warm-up for the arena dates with Perry, Lo will be spending the next few months away from home, and is adjusting to the life of an in-demand pop figure while still exploring the corners of the genre.

“I like the darker-vein kind of stuff,” she says of pop music. “I get excited when bands like Fun. and Lorde get to the top — especially with [Lorde], she writes personal stuff that really strikes you. It’s about her, and the voice, the lyrics, the minimal beat… There’s a rawness to it that I really love, when it’s not too polished.”