It’s About Time You Learned Tove Lo’s Name

Photo: Bobby Doherty

One night this summer, Tove Lo was in a bar in Brooklyn, getting hit on by a guy.

What’s your name, he asked, the singer recalls afterward.

Tove, she said.

What do you do?

I’m a singer.

Then she saw it, the briefest flicker of recognition. She watched his alcohol-infused synapses slowly make the connections.

Tove, like Tove Lo? he eventually asked. Whoa, you’re that chick?

This is something that happens to Tove Lo not infrequently. Which is sort of odd, because she is technically a huge pop star. “Maybe it’s that I’m so normal-looking,” the 29-year-old says, standing in her Williamsburg kitchen one Saturday this summer. Which might sound like false modesty, because with her septum ring and pale-blue eyes, Lo is not exactly plain, even now, dressed “like a dirtbag,” as she describes herself, in jean shorts and a T-shirt, her straw-colored hair in a just-woken-up position despite the fact that it’s past 2 p.m.

But you can see how she might not totally stand out in a pop-music landscape full of Nickis and Mileys and Gagas. “Maybe if I had a big blue Afro, people might be like, ‘Oh, that’s the girl with the Afro,’ ” she says, shaking a half-ounce of weed into a bowl of coconut oil for the “treats” she is making on the occasion of her friend’s birthday.

This is the main thing people remember about Lo when they realize that she is “that chick”: She likes to get high. This is because of her 2014 hit single, “Habits (Stay High),” which was about going out and getting fucked up to forget a romance gone bad (You know the one: “You’re gone and I got to stay high / All the time to keep you off my mind, oooo ooo”) The song went multiplatinum and two years later remains ubiquitous, along with “Talking Body,” the other single from her debut album, Queen of the Clouds, and a number of other earworms that, chances are, you have heard recently if you ever popped into an H&M or been to the hair salon. That song “Heroes” that was drifting out of random car windows this summer? (You know the one: “We could be he-ro-oh-oh-oh-ohes-ooo-ooo-oo-oo.”) That's her. The Ellie Goulding song from Bridget Jones's Baby soundtrack? Lo co-wrote it. And one could argue, as her labelmate Nick Jonas does, that she’s had a widespread influence over pop music in general.

“ ‘Habits’ and ‘Talking Body,’ when they first came out, they didn’t sound like anything else, and now everything sounds like them,” says Jonas. He means especially her lyrics, which, unusually for electronic music, can be so personal and evocative as to almost be uncomfortable. “Habits” had all the elements of a standard party anthem, but “Binged on all my Twinkies / Threw up in the tub”? That sounds like something that was lived, not dreamed up to maximize the sound of global wooos. It’s the aural equivalent of a Cat Marnell blog post. The barbaric yawp of the Basic Bitch. “There’s this honesty and vulnerability to her work,” says Jonas, “and not a lot of people will go to that place.” Which is why he called upon Lo last year for a duet, “Close,” which is roughly about the intimacy issues one encounters when, say, one is a former member of a boy band once forced to wear a ring declaring his virginity to the world.

While this kind of emo ultra-sharing may be more common now, people weren’t quite sure what to make of Lo when she appeared a few years back. Who was this oddly named Swedish person singing about sex and drugs? Was she, as the Village Voice posited, a “hard-drinking, hard-drugging, DTF party girl”? A dirtier Taylor Swift?

“So the dudes that you sleep with, should they be worried?” Lo recalls one interviewer asking, during her promotional rounds. “Say it’s me,” the guy apparently went on to say. “Say we're like — ” He made a humping motion “‘Oh, yeahI’m fucking Tove Lo. Should I be worried that you are going to write a song about me after?”

“Some guys were clearly confused,” says Lo. “Especially these certain types of guys who think that because I am open about sex they can talk to me in a disrespectful, objectifying way.”

Then, before she could really set them straight, Lo disappeared. As it turned out, like so many singers before her, the emotive throatiness of her voice was owing in part to a cyst on her vocal cords. One intense operation and two years later, she’s back, with a new album, Lady Wood. As one might gather from the title, the project promotes a rowdy sort of feminine empowerment. “It’s about reclaiming the female hard-on,” says Lo, who counts herself a fan of Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham and sees herself as having a similar audience: “Girls who have a lot of emotions and maybe tend to be too impulsive sometimes,” as she puts it. Or “normal girls with normal problems who are trying to figure out what’s right for them.”

“For me it’s always been a very sure thing that I am a feminist,” she goes on. “In Sweden, we have a ways to go, but it’s almost shameful to say you’re not. But here it seems like a very loaded thing to say. Like in interviews, they say [drops her voice to a serious register]: ‘Would you say that you are a feminist?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And they’re like, ‘Ohhh.’ So,” she shrugs, “I guess I’m just going to scream it from the rooftops now.”

Whether Lo can sneak feminist messaging into the decidedly retrograde genre of club music is unclear, but she seems determined to try. In her kitchen, she pokes at the batter, which she is actually planning on making into raw-food pot balls, because Lo is a woman of contradictions who in addition to having some very unhealthy habits is also mostly vegan. She picks off a piece from the side of the bowl and pops it in her mouth. “Hmm,” she says, chewing. “I’m kind of regretting not adding cocoa powder. It kind of masks the taste of the weed a little bit.”

For someone who presents themselves as a Twinkie-vomiting mess, Lo comes across as quite well adjusted. Possibly this is because she is Swedish. Or maybe it’s that her mother is a psychologist, and growing up, Tove became accustomed to analyzing her feelings. As a teenager, she worshipped Courtney Love, painted her bedroom black, and wrote poetry and short stories her classmates thought were weird. “But I think that’s just being creative,” she says. “That’s what you do, you express things that most people feel, that aren’t easy to say, but you thankfully have an outlet for.”

“She is crazy and she is fun and she is wild,” says Caroline Hjelt, who met Lo at Stockholm’s Rytmus Music School. “And she has had a pretty dramatic love life.” But she was dependable, too. “If I was heartbroken and called her, she would come to me with, like, a pineapple.”

After graduation, the pair moved into an apartment in Stockholm. Hjelt formed her own band, the electronic-pop duo Icona Pop. Despite their address, which was “seriously on Techno Street,” Lo was still committed to being the next Courtney Love. “We got so much shit,” says Lo, pulling up a picture of herself in a grungy slip dress with her band, Tremblebee. “I remember we were at this pool alley, and this bunch of guys in fancy shirts were booing us out like, ‘Fuck you, you ugly bitch.’ ” She smiles. “I think I got a lot of inner confidence at that time.”

While Icona Pop took off fairly quickly, Lo “struggled for a long time,” says Hjelt. It wasn’t until she encountered Robyn circa Bodytalk’s release, in 2010, that she started to feel like there might be a place for her in electronic music, too. “I loved the simplicity of it,” she says. “It’s so hard to be clever and have a big message in five words. I thought, This is what I want to do.

Her break came after Hjelt invited her to the 40th-birthday party for one of Sweden’s top songwriters. There was a band, and Lo, who was drunk, grabbed the mic and sang a scorching rendition of a Britney Spears song the birthday boy had written. The move got her invited to Los Angeles, where she was absorbed into the cabal of Swedish dudes who are responsible for all Top 40 hits. Once there, she took a while to realize her advantage, which was that being a young woman herself made her more able to relate to young female artists. “It doesn’t matter if you are famous or not, there’s still the same questions,” she says. “ ‘Am I enough?’ ‘What am I doing with my life?’ ‘Is this real love?’ ”

Soon she was writing songs for Hilary Duff, Girls Aloud, and Ellie Goulding, and others. “I was like, ‘Okay, songwriting is going to be my career now, but I still want some kind of artist thing,’ ” she says. “But no one really believed in me. Not in that capacity.”

In retrospect, this may have been a good thing. She worked on “Habits,” which began as a poem, for months, before eventually releasing the song herself. “It took off like crazy,” she says in her apartment. Suddenly, the labels she’d been writing for were looking at her as an artist. Sort of. “Everyone was like, ‘Okay, we have this song, but we are going to have to make her into something,” Lo adds, forming the raw dough into balls. “We will have to create something. She’s not a star. I mean, no one actually said that to me, but, you know, I’m not a fucking idiot, I would pick up little comments.”

The emphasis on her looks and clothes bothered her. “It’s fucking weird,” she says. “Because I’m a girl, it’s supposed to be such a big part of my life. I mean, I love getting ready when we do red carpets, I’m not putting that down, but it seems to be much more important that I look good than that I perform well.”

The scrutiny hurt, but more than that it agitated her. “Honestly, I kind of felt like, You guys are all stupid,” she says. “I have tried for years to find my fucking artist thing. I know what it is. My thing is that I am me. I’m a normal person, I am in the dirt with everybody else, writing about everyday emotions.”

She started refusing makeup in photo shoots and scuttled the first video for "Habits," replacing it with a piece of vérité that followed her through a club as she took shots, made out with strangers, and ugly-cried in the bathroom.

After it hit, she barely had time to gloat. She was doing shows or promotional appearances nearly every night. “It was so unreal, just in terms of like, it’s my dream,” she says. When the annoying interviewer humped the air in front of her, she decided not to play along. “I was a little bit terrified because this station has a lot of listeners, and I was worrying, If I say something, is he not going to play me?” she says. “But then I just decided, ‘No, I need to stand up for myself. Feeling respected is more important. So I just go, ‘That would never happen. I’m not going to say anything more about that.’ And it felt so good.”

As Lo well knows, not all highs last forever. On tour with Katy Perry before her vocal-cord operation, she was waking up barely able to speak. “When I broke down and went to the doctor, he was like, ‘How the fuck are you even talking?’ ” she recalls. It took nearly a year after the operation for her to regain control of her voice.

Lo arranges the raw-food balls neatly on a plate. She taught herself the basics of making edibles when she was recovering from her surgery, since she couldn’t smoke anymore. Absent the cocoa powder, she’s decided to whip up a cashew-vanilla icing, to mask the marijuana flavor, and as she speaks she adds apple slices as an extra garnish. “At the moment, I have no walls. There’s no guard up,” she says, as we head to her back porch. “I am only realizing that as I’m saying it. I haven’t really processed it. I think it comes from kind of being on my own and fighting for it by myself for a long time. You kind of build up this, like, I am vulnerable, but I am also really fucking strong. I have a strong thing going on in here.”

She slices a ball in half and gives the larger piece to me, and for a moment we chew in silence. She’s right, the frosting really helped. You can’t taste the secret ingredient at all.

Styling by Rebecca Ramsey; Hair by Korey Fitzpatrick for Exclusive Artists Management using Kevin Murphy; Makeup by Colby Smith for Sephora Collection Colorful; Blouse by Chloé

*A version of this article appears in the October 31, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.