Watching last November’s U.S. election from the safety of her home in Stockholm, Swedish electro-pop iconoclast Tove Lo was stunned by the results, and she admits that she’s still in shock. “I don’t understand how so many people can think that this is what society should be like, that they’re so unsatisfied with their situation,” she sighs, dejectedly, admitting that she couldn’t relate to attacks on women’s fundamental rights, like pro-choice and equal pay.
“Because as a woman growing up in Sweden, I was raised in a way that you were able to say and do whatever you want, the same as men. And just that feeling of knowing that the most basic things – like being in charge of my own body, and being in charge of my own sexuality – that that’s all of a sudden not going to be okay anymore?”
The composer of hits like “Habits (Stay High)” shivers. She can’t comprehend how such caveman concepts could be mass-marketed as American progress in 2017. Currently touring the States behind her iconoclastic new sophomore set, Lady Wood – a sexually-frank, female-empowering statement featuring her logo on the cover, an outline of a vagina, complete with clitoris, replacing the Os in her name over a photograph of her hot-pantsed crotch (and Yes, the title is a humorous reference to the woman’s equivalent of a male erection) – she vows to be honest with her fans, to a fault. “I have no plans to censor myself,” she says. And she hasn’t held back anything, to date, as she makes clear to PureVolume.
PUREVOLUME: The War on Women never ended. It was in stealth mode for a few years, but now it’s overt again.
TOVE LO: Not, it didn’t. And now it’s just taken a new turn. And I’m definitely pro-choice. It’s a woman’s body, and she chooses what to do with her body. So no matter if the reason for the pregnancy is horrible, or if it’s an accident, it’s still her choice. That’s the way it is over here (in Sweden). When it comes to that, we have free clinics that you can go to and get help – you get the care you need without having to be rich or do it in secret somewhere. And we learn about sex from an early age, and there’s an open discussion about the fact that women should be as sexually free as men. There’s no ‘If you have sex you’re going to die’ (fear-mongering), or making it something shameful or ignoring it. And that’s the main thing – it should not be seen as something sinful, just because you’re a girl or a woman.
PV: As they say, A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.
TL: Well, it’s more about men and women not necessarily needing each other to be able to live by themselves. It’s more about wanting each other – wanting to spend a life together, or even hours together. And I think when you have those equal terms, for whatever genders, that’s when it becomes real and truly equal. But when you have that ‘You cannot live without me, but I can live without you’ sort of power structure? I really don’t think that works. And with my first album (2014’s Queen of the Clouds) I was very surprised how people were saying I was this sexual, provocative girl. And I thought that first, I’m going to get reactions for being very open and honest, and for being like, “Hey – I fucked up. I’m sorry.” That’s what I thought people were going to react to, because in pop music, you usually won’t take the blame. But singing about sex and being open and blunt about that? Well, that’s been going on forever, so why is that a thing? I didn’t think it would be like, “Don’t you think that you should take more responsibility for young girls?” I was like, “Well, I don’t feel like I should have to do anything, other than be who I am and not apologize for that. And I guess that is taking responsibility for young women.” And even if I’m not, it shouldn’t matter. I should be able to just be who I am and not be questioned all of the time. So I thought, “Fuck it. I love doing things all the time that give me rushes, and that’s what life is for me. So I’m going to keep right on doing them.” I definitely didn’t want to back down from any of the things I was criticized for. So I just went for it (with Lady Wood), even harder.
PV: And you really pushed the envelope at the recent ARIA Awards in Australia, with your sheer red dress with its leather uterus and fallopian tubes, sewn in at groin level.
TL: Thank you! My stylist who was styling me from Sweden said, “Hey – what do you think about doing something like this?” And I said, “Oh, I am totally in! That’s awesome!” I’m comfortable in my body, so I was totally comfortable with it being like an X-ray dress. And again, I knew it would probably get some attention, but it was crazy, just the reaction. I did a bunch of interviews the day after, and people were asking, “Are you okay?” I was like, “Oh, it was that bad?” But I guess I just enjoy being the girl with lady wood!
PV: How did you arrive at that term for an album title?
TL: Well, I heard it. I heard a girl on a TV show, and I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something like, “Hey – I’m losing wood over here!” And I was like, “Oh! So that’s the word for it! And do girls say that, too?” And I was thinking how you would say it, and I knew it wouldn’t be Girl Wood. But how about Lady Wood? And then I Googled it to see, and this entry came up, saying ‘The female equivalent of a hard-on.’ And I went, “Yeah! That’s it! That’s what it is!” So I put it into a song, and then I kind of realized that it was probably the best album title. So it kind of says that – instead of saying, “I’m a chick with balls” – “I’ve got lady wood.” So it made perfect sense to call my second album that.
PV: Men are probably secretly envious of a woman’s ability to give birth. Now that’s real power.
TL: I’m not a guy, so I can’t say. But now, for the first time, some of my friends around me are starting to have kids, And all of them are like, “It’s the most painful thing I have ever experienced. But I will do it again!” And I really admire that. It scares me. But I admire it.
PV: You just through another physical trauma when you developed vocal cord cysts. How terrifying was that?
TL: It was terrifying, honestly. And there are a lot of angry lyrics I wrote then. First of all, it was so exhausting just to have the surgery, because I was still singing on them at the time – I was still touring when they were so bad. And once I got the surgery, I was in so much pain. And they said, “Just do a little hum, so that we know your voice is still there.” And I thought, “If I don’t hear a hum, my whole world is going to fall apart.” But there it was – “Hmmm!” And then I had to be quiet for five days, and I was totally isolated for five months. And after voice rehabilitation, it took me a year to get back to where I felt like I had control of it, singing-wise. It was a long journey. But it was worth it.
PV: You worked for years as a composer with Max Martin’s Wolf Cousins collective. What did you learn from him?
TL: I think people always try to figure out his mind. But honestly, what I learned is to keep it simple, but still interesting and able to make you feel something. Which is really hard to do within a pop framework. So you have to make it a simple type of song that stays with you, but it still has to have sentiment or meaning. I mean, it doesn’t have to be deep. But it still has to have something that grabs you. But he’s never talked to me about the rules, in all the time I worked with him – he’s all about picking out your strongest, simplest ideas and holding on to that, instead of trying to add more and more.
PV: In “Lady Wood” anthems like “Influence,” “True Disaster,” and “WTF Love Is,” you’re not afraid to liberally salt your lyrics with the parental-advisory-earning word ‘fuck.’
TL: Yeah. For me, I understood that – even if you’re not the writer yourself – you can still sing a song like you mean it. So for me, it would be really hard to sing someone else’s verse. But because (in Wolf Cousins) I’ve always been writing for others, I know when you connect with someone, like, “We’re seeing the same thing here – I’m just going to help you say it.” There’s such a difference in hearing artists record something that they love, instead of doing it because they feel like they have to. And onstage, I demand a lot from my crowd now. In the beginning, I was like, “Holy shit! You guys are here? What the fuck?” And I still feel that way now, like, “I can’t believe you guys are here to see this! But I demand that they’re with me. Like, “I’m going to give it my all tonight, and I need you to do the same.”
PV: If you could have a one-on-one audience with Kellyanne Conway – who basically sold her own gender down the river – what would you say?
TL: Well, I mean, it’s more like this – I don’t know her. I don’t know what fight she’s fighting on the inside, or how she grew up. And just because I can find out facts about her doesn’t mean that I know her. But I would try. I’d want to sit down face to face with her and go, “Okay – what do you have to say? Explain this to me.” But at some point, I would also be like, “This is not the way that you want to be going, because it’s bringing a lot of shame.” I mean, live your life the way that you want. But don’t put obstacles in the way of people who don’t want to live your way. That’s how I feel about it.