Tove Lo Doesn't Understand Women Who Don't Identify As Feminists

Eric Ryan Anderson
Tove Lo photographed Sept. 27 at Loosie Rouge in Brooklyn.

Every Wednesday, Tove Lo has a ritual. Whether she’s on tour in Japan, recording in Los Angeles or promoting her latest hit in Europe, as a member of Wolf Cousins -- the Max Martin-affiliated songwriting and producing collective -- the 28-year-old Swedish singer-songwriter is required to take at least one shot of Chartreuse, a green, potion-like liqueur not for the faint of liver. “It’s called the Wednesday Initiative,” she says with a raspy laugh. “I’m really bad at sending proof -- they’re giving me shit. I have to remember to do it tomorrow.”

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As the lone female member of a crew that has contributed to countless chart-crushing records -- Tove co-wrote Ellie Goulding’s smash “Love Me Like You Do” with Wolf Cousins, is all over Icona Pop’s hit 2013 LP and sang on Coldplay’s 2015 track “Fun” -- her career would be plenty impressive. But a few years ago she wrote a song that felt too personal, too specifically her, to share with another artist. Released independently in 2013, “Habits (Stay High)” -- which chronicles an alcohol, weed and sex club-fueled attempt to erase the pain of a broken heart and sounds sort of midway between Lorde and Lana Del Rey -- caught on online, first slowly and then all at once. A year after it came out, the song peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100; its video has notched more than a half-billion views on YouTube. Now, with her follow-up, Lady Wood (Island, Oct. 28), Tove is out to prove she’s no one-hit wonder. “She’s a true free spirit,” says Island Records chief David Massey, who signed her in the wake of “Habits.” “The way that she’s able to depict the modern world through the eyes of a new, modern woman is quite unique.”

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Today, wearing a black-and-white striped sweater, black jeans ripped at the knees and platform-soled Frankenstein-style boots, Tove — whose real name is Tove Nilsson (“Lo” means “lynx” in Swedish) -- is hanging out in the back room of a hotel bar on New York’s Lower East Side. She splits her time between apartments in Brooklyn and her hometown of Stockholm, where her dad is a businessman and her mom, tellingly, was a therapist. “I can explain all of my problems,” she jokes, “but I don’t know how to solve them.”

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At 15, Tove surprised her family by getting ­admitted to a prestigious music high school, where her classmates included the members of Icona Pop. (Robyn, whose second-wave career is a key influence, is among the alumni.) She wasn’t always into pop, though. As a budding ­musician she was obsessed with Nirvana and Frank Zappa; her old band Trembelbee trafficked in strange chord ­progressions and challenging tempo shifts. “She’s a rock star disguised as a pop star,” says Katy Perry, who had Tove open for a string of dates in 2014. “Her colorful words, turns of phrase and unique perspective keep me on the edge of my artistic seat -- and I think she’s just scratching the surface.”

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That unique perspective has helped Tove stand out among the polished stars who have spent the last two decades capitalizing on Sweden’s pop sorcery. Contrary to her hard-partying image, today she’s sipping tea and eating a takeout kale and ­avocado salad. Not that Tove is a teetotaler. She’s a fan of dive bars and Brooklyn warehouse raves, where she loves going unrecognized. “I kind of wish she could tour with us forever,” says Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine (Tove’s opening for the band’s current arena run). “We’ve already had some epic adventures: trying to get tattoos in New Orleans, jamming at an after-party in Miami, with Tove writing brilliant tunes on the spot.” But she’s also a vegan-leaning vegetarian who gave up ­smoking after her voice gave out ­following the tour with Perry.

The issue turned out to be cysts on her vocal cords, which required surgery and a long recovery period. It couldn’t have come at a worse time -- she had just begun writing songs for Lady Wood and was terrified that her momentum would come to a crashing halt. “Honestly, once I started writing, that fear just kind of disappeared,” she says. “I had so much to get off my chest.”

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The result, which combines even hookier pop hooks with edgier, more rhythm-based sonics, was written and produced with longtime ­collaborators The Struts. The lead single, the moody Gone Girl-inspired “Cool Girl,” went to radio in August, cracking the Hot 100 and racking up more than 16 million views on YouTube. The follow-up, “Influence,” is an even purer Britney-ish blast of pop featuring a verse from Wiz Khalifa. He recorded his part in the studio with Tove, who felt compelled to break her no-smoking policy and get baked with the MC -- smoking out of a bong he made from an apple. “I told him, ‘I know how to do it too,’ ” she says, cracking up at the memory. “He didn’t trust me.”

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Tove is happily single and focused on her work, feeling like she “doesn’t have time to give to anyone but herself.” Before she began ­touring, she never would have thought of herself as particularly ­political, but she found that her very Scandinavian belief in equality for all wasn’t a given elsewhere. “To me, it’s strange that saying you’re a ­feminist could be something women would shy away from,” she says. “Or men, for that matter.” The title of the new album -- a slightly toned-down version of “lady boner” -- is typical of her frank ­attitude toward sexuality and ­feminism. “You know how when you’re talking about ­someone’s strength you might say, ‘She’s a chick with balls?’ ” she asks. “Or if someone’s a coward, you might call them a pussy? That never sat right with me. Lady Wood is just a better word than ‘balls.’” 

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of Billboard.