Sex, Love, and 'Lady Wood': A First Date with Tove Lo
"What's the word for a female hard-on?" Good question! I grabbed some cocktails with the Swedish spitfire.
The Cool Girl. You know her—or at least how the idea of her is worshipped in American culture. She's that Instagram ice queen, down to fuck (and gives no fucks), but she's way too chill to catch feelings. She's doesn't wear armor to hide her emotions; she is the armor.
When I first listened to "Cool Girl," the irresistible first single from Tove Lo's sophomore album, Lady Wood (out October 28th), I was tempted to think the 28-year-old Swede was celebrating this trope. Over a thumping bass line, she repeats: "I'm a cool girl / Imma, Imma cool girl / Ice cold / I roll my eyes at you, boy." But in the second verse, she pivots: "Rules you don't like, but you still want to keep them / Said you were fine for whatever reason / Sure we can chill, try and keep it platonic / Now you can't tell if I'm really ironic." I couldn't quite parse if the song was a semi-reluctant acceptance of modern romance, or a playful critique of it.
To this end I tracked down Tove Lo and asked her on a date—our first. I was excited. And a bit nervous. What I admired most about her debut album, 2014's Queen of the Clouds, was her vulnerability, her rawness. Her video for the single "Habits (Stay High)" is a key example. It could easily glamorize the ways in which we numb our emotions—in the clip, we see her drink, dance, and hook up in a Stockholm club—and leave it at that. But near the end she breaks, shutting herself in a dark, graffitied bathroom, crying. I saw myself in her. And from the way the song blew up Stateside—it peaked at number three on the US Billboard Hot 100—I'm guessing others did, too. But I wondered: had her two-year rise from dark pop export to global pop star stripped her of her candor?
I meet Lo one autumn day at OTB, a cocktail bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We shake hands and then hug, and within minutes, we're lobbing quips at each other as if we were old pals. Over the next few hours, we discuss her dark alter-ego, her fierce feminism, and the challenges of being a female pop artist who talks openly about sex. And, no, she doesn't think being the Cool Girl is the way to go: "I feel like it should be seen as more strong and powerful," she says, "If you dare to be the one to show how you actually feel."
My biggest takeaway: Tove Lo is not a Cool Girl—and that makes her the fucking coolest.
Noisey: Tove! How are you? What have you been up to?
Tove Lo: Hi! Well, we're on the Maroon 5 tour right now, but we have a break because Adam [Levine] got his baby [with wife Behati Prinsloo].
So you're spending your break in New York?
I live here now! But I've also spent a lot of time in LA recently, and it doesn't feel like home. I feel more at home here. It just feels like I need to be in a place where I can walk, and the city is awake all the time.
The walking thing is a stereotype, but it's totally true.
People are like, "Yeah, here's this little area [in LA] where you can walk!" And I'm like, "Yeah, like two blocks!" But I spent a lot of time there when I was shooting all the [music] videos for Lady Wood, and the short film called Fairy Dust. It's named after the first chapter of the album. We're going to shoot one [film] for each chapter.
What is this first film like?
It's very dark. It's very sexual. It's very uncomfortable at times. It's getting a lot of mixed reactions.
From everyone who sees it! The people who've seen it who are really close to me—they can't watch it. It's like it's too explicit, or it's too much for them to see me in those situations… [my co-star] Lina Esco, the founder of the Free the Nipple Movement, plays Lorna, my self-destructive alter-ego. [The film is] kind of a love/hate relationship with [Lorna] through the five songs in Fairy Dust. There's choreography, and these monologues I wrote that [Esco] acts out.
How did the collaboration with Esco happen?
At first I pictured Lorna as being a really old, worn out, torn woman—sort of my worst nightmare, who I don't want to become. We were looking for someone to play Lorna, and we could not find the perfect person. And then she just kind of popped up… [Esco] is beautiful, but she has a very dark look. I met her and I was like, "OK, she's was going to nail it." Watching her act out those monologues—it was like the weirdest shoot day. I was crying through the whole thing.
You were crying watching her?
Yeah. [The monologues] are very obviously personal to me. The whole film still has that dark humor to it, but it's a very raw and open [look at] what's going on in my head—no matter how normal [my exterior] seems. That's just how I work through things. I'm not embarrassed to show my [darkness] to people. It doesn't scare me, but it scares the people around me. And that's what scares me.
I very much relate to that.
You know what I mean? I'm like, "Mom, I'm fine!"
"I'm good, I promise!"
And she's just like, "Fuck no!" And she's a therapist!
Yes, she has her own practice in Sweden. Anyway, I spent a lot of time in LA during those weeks. I also wrote the record there, and in Stockholm. And a bit in Nicaragua, as well.
I have never been to Nicaragua! How did you end up there?
My label puts together these songwriting camps there [at Maderas Village, a surf retreat with a dope recording studio]. I was there for New Years, and I had the best time of my life. It was at the end of a very intense year—2015 was just very fucking intense and amazing and also, like, horrible heartbreak. So I ended the year sort of crawling into the jungle with all these people that I know and love and love working with. It was me, The Struts, who produced most of my album, Captain Cuts, Phoebe Ryan…
I was just listening to her new song "All We Know" with The Chainsmokers!
She's so fucking cool. The first time I met her we were having a party at the house I was renting in LA, and my friend [who knows her] was like, "Oh, can I tell Phoebe to come?" And I'm like, "Yes!" So she comes to my house just like, wasted, with Jell-O shots in her pocket. And she's like, "I brought you some Jell-O shots!" So I ate a Jell-O shot out of her hand.
That's amazing. So, how long have you lived in New York?
Since April! I haven't been here that much because of touring. But since we were teenagers, me and my friends would come here and go out with our fake IDs and be like, "New York is the best place in the world!"
What neighborhood would you go out in?
Probably SoHo or Meatpacking. Or here in Williamsburg. I remember one trip, there was one crew that was like, "We don't leave Brooklyn!" So we were hanging with them. But then there was that other crew who was like, "We won't leave Soho or Manhattan!" They were like, all the fancy dudes that we would sometimes hang out with. We'd go to The Box a lot. There's no place like that in Sweden.
I don't think I've ever been to The Box.
There's no need. Maybe go just to experience it once.
If I do go, I'll tell you about it!
I'll go with you! I've also been to a lot of warehouses in Bushwick at like, 5 AM. Whenever there's a warehouse techno party, I'm in.
Do you go to raves?
Yes. They're my favorite thing. That was a big inspiration for me for Lady Wood. I kept sending all these aggressive minimal techno beats to my producers, but then I wanted to add my pop melodies and lyrics to it.
Yes! I just listened to the whole album—it has a real narrative. How would you explain the overall concept?
For me, the whole album is about chasing rushes. Whether it's in terms of passion or love or whatever, I always believed something has to be as passionate and intense as possible, or it's not real. Now, I'm kind of realizing that's not true—that it's not the storm; it's the calm. But whether it's getting high from being onstage, or getting high on a drug, or falling in love, or having sex—it all has this similar adrenaline curve, or emotional curve.
I want to talk about the single, "Cool Girl." What's the story behind the song?
If I had to put it into one sentence, it's shining light on all these weird power games that we play in a relationship—especially like, why are we so afraid to show our real emotions? I don't think we would have that crazy need to define things, to put the label on it, if we just trusted the emotional connection. I've played that game. I'll probably play that game again. I can always tell very early when someone is playing that game with me. And I'm like, "Fine, OK, go on, do that — I'm ready and I'm here, whenever this is done. Let's just do this!" I feel like it should be seen as more strong and powerful if you dare to be the one to show how you actually feel. It's almost like the more cold and more unfazed you are, the more you have the upper hand.
Is it like that dating in Sweden?
I feel like Swedes always see the other person's perspective. Like, if you are upset about something, you can be like, "I'm so fucking angry, but on the other hand I see your side too!" Whereas Americans are just like, "No! This is the truth and that's all I'm going to say!"
No! There's just one truth and that's it!
I'm hoping that getting older is going to change it, but I'm pretty sure it's not. I'm 28. How old are you?
Just turned 25.
Oh, congrats! Big step in life!
Quarter life crisis!
Halfway there? How old do you think I'm going to be?
No! I mean that, for me, I think 50 is going to be my age where I go completely off the rails or completely check out.
Also, I'm getting my hand tattooed later tonight.
Where are you getting?
A lynx! "Lo" means lynx in Swedish. I've been wanting to do it for a long time, and this is the one night that I finally was free. I'm getting it on my whole hand. I wasn't really nervous until my friend was like, "Yeah, that's going to hurt like hell!"
How many other tattoos do you have?
Three. My first one was my scorpion [on my shoulder] that I got when I was 17. But I also want to get my symbol—my "pussy" symbol [on the Lady Wood album art].
So that is what that is! In that vein, how did you come up with the new album title, Lady Wood?
I remember writing the bridge of the title track, and thinking that I wanted to say, like, "You're turning me on," but I wanted to find another word. Like, what's the word for a female hard-on? I think I heard it in a movie somewhere—they were just like, "You give me wood." And I was like, "Girl wood, or, Lady wood! Yes!" I thought it was perfect, because for me, music and sex have always been very related. I was surprised when I released my [first album], that people were so shocked that I was singing so openly about sex. I felt like I was defending myself for being a woman who was sexual.
[People would be] like, "Are you making out with girls and guys in your ["Habits (Stay High)"] video? And I was like, "Yeah." And then [they'd be] like, "Are you saying you're into both girls and guys?" And I was like, "Well, yeah!" What's the big deal? I guess when you're a female pop artist, you're expected not to really [talk openly about sex]. I get a lot of questions like, "Why do you choose to be so open?"
People really ask you that?
Oh, totally. I remember doing this one show, that was like a New Years Eve show. I was performing and I was wearing this leather, low-cut top. And I was like jumping around, making my little Jackson moves, just going for it. And they were like, "You can't do that. You need to pull your top up! Can you show less boob? Can you not dance so sexually?" I was like, "What the fuck? Why'd you even fucking book me for this if you don't want me to be me, here?"
It's like, drugs and sex are not going to go away. Kids are not going to stop thinking about that or doing that because you don't talk about it. That's where I'm like, "Right, let's just talk about it!"
Pretending something's not there doesn't help anyone!
And if you look at the "Habits (Stay High)" video, I'm not portraying this as a great way of life. I'm fucking crying in the end.
I remember the day I saw that video, actually. It doesn't glamorize numbing yourself at all!
I felt that making it! The video shoot was so fun though. We didn't really have that much of a budget, so it was basically me and a few of my friends—I had this harness and camera on, and we just walked around Stockholm and got wasted and high. We got to this club, and the guards and the owner knew we were coming, but all the people who were there had no idea. So they would come up to me like, "Hey, what are you doing!" And I'd be like, "Get the fuck out of the frame." It was like fucking chaos. And for the last scene, [my producers] were like "OK, just go into the bathroom and fucking cry." So I went into the bathroom and sat down and just started bawling my ass off.
You were really crying?
Yes! And then I ran home and didn't talk to anyone. Honestly, I'd just come back a few days before from a funeral in Australia, so I was already very broken up and tired. I mean, I can cry really easily!
I can, too!
Why is it viewed as so bad to cry?
It's not bad to feel your feelings!
You feel them and you let it go. That's how you process things.
Yes! Well this has been a great first date, Tove. Thank you!
All photos by Yudi Ela.
Avery Stone is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.