Tove Nilsson got her start as many pop musicians have: by writing for other artists. Previous to her solo success, the Swedish star—known by her stage name Tove Lo—penned songs for Girls Aloud, Cher Lloyd, Lea Michele and Icona Pop. When the latter threw a party to commemorate the signing of their first record deal, Nilsson arrived with intentions to celebrate and network simultaneously. After handing her demo to a staff member in attendance, a publishing agreement with Warner Chappell followed, and her whirlwind of a career began brewing.
Three years ago, Nilsson’s first single, “Love Ballad,” did fairly well on the UK charts, but it was 2013 break-up anthem “Habits (Stay High)” that got the Internet buzzing. This led to a record deal with Universal, and in 2014 she dropped her debut full-length Queen of the Clouds. Critics and fans alike praised the gut-wrenching emotion in her songs, made possible primarily by her universally relatable source of inspiration: failed relationships.
Despite a medical emergency this past winter, Nilsson persevered and flaunted her resilience. She’s already back at it, delivering electrifying live performances most recently at South by Southwest. Paste talked with the 27-year-old singer about recovering from vocal cord surgery, using four-letter words in singles, and how she introduced her home country to Twinkies.
: Back in December, you announced you were taking time off to have surgery on your vocal cords, which had developed cysts. What was that recovery process like?
Tove Nilsson: I guess it had been growing a while and I had been singing very intensely. From zero to 100 for me. Last year was my first everything. First shows, first interviews, first time at festivals like SXSW. Just a crazy schedule. I had been feeling it for a while but didn’t want to say anything. Then in November, I saw a doctor in New York and he looked at my vocal cords and said, “They look really, really bad, but we don’t know what it is.” I went back to Sweden and took a little break before going on the Katy Perry tour. But I was still feeling it, so I went to a doctor while I was in Sweden. He said, “You have a cyst, and you need to operate.”
I got to finish the tour, which I felt was a big accomplishment for me after hearing that. The shows were really short and we had days in between, so it was fine. When I came back home, the doctors told me to finish the shows, have Christmas vacation with my family, and then have the surgery. January 3, I came back and went in for the surgery. The scariest part was after. They put you to sleep and go through your mouth, which is every singer’s nightmare. Then they wake you up, and they’re like “Okay, now you have to make a little humming noise so we know that your voice is still there.” Fortunately I could hum, but they also said I couldn’t make any sounds for five days. You can’t cough, you can’t talk, can’t make any sounds whatsoever. So I went home and was isolated for like two weeks. It was about two months of getting back into things, getting used to singing again. SXSW was my first set of shows back after my surgery, which is a little intense, to go from zero to that.
: What was your reaction after your first show back?
Nilsson: Oh, amazing. The first show we did, just hitting notes I hadn’t been able to sing in two years. I was like, “What, we only get 40 minutes?” It’s been really, really good to get the confidence back. Before the surgery, I wasn’t having that confidence, that I could have my voice the whole set. It was really hard to know I’m able to do this, but I can’t. I couldn’t trust it. So it’s good to be back.
: Your live shows are full of energy. How do you keep up that charisma during a hectic touring schedule?
Nilsson: I think so much of it is just feeding off the energy of the audience. I’m always exhausted after a show, even if it’s just half an hour. I can really turn it on, but I’d rather have a few hours of peace and quiet before the show, to just not talk to anyone and relax. Then I’ll have a little bit of time hanging out with my band before we go on. I think having complete calm, so I can gather energy helps a lot. But I get so much from being out there in front of my fans. Singing gives me a lot of energy. I might pick one or two songs where I’m just going to sing, only focus on that and not the other things. But I love the feeling of being worn out after a gig.
There are some nights where I don’t get enough sleep, or we’re traveling a lot. And then I’ll go do a radio show, and the DJs are usually so energetic. And they’re like, “Why aren’t you excited?” I say, “I am excited, I’m just Swedish. This is my excited. I can’t get to an American excitement level.”
: Occasional too-peppy radio interview aside, we enjoy a good horror story—what’s your worst live show memory?
Nilsson: If you go way back, it would be when I was in my old, typical, fresh-outta-high-school, let’s-play-stuff-that’s-really-hard-to-play band. We played a pool table or bowling alley or something, with all these brats there. It was the completely wrong music for that kind of place, but they were just screaming, “Get off the stage!” and “You suck!” all night long. I was probably like 19 or 20. So I was like, if I can handle this, I can handle fucking everything.
: America got its first taste of you with “Habits.” Was that actually written after a breakup?
Nilsson: It was. You know, that song took me a long time to write. The verse, those lyrics I had written as a poem at first. It was during a really bad time in my relationship—you know, a lot of jealousy, a lot of controlling. I was just like “fuck this” and started rebelling against it quite a bit. I wrote that song right before we ended it. It was over, but not over over. I knew what I wanted to sing in the chorus, and tried to write it with tons of different people, but they never got it. Finally I was like, okay, I’m just going to be honest and vulnerable, and just tell it like it is. Everyone’s been through that, just being numb. The chorus was probably a few months after we’d broken up, but I was still in that zone of going crazy and hiding the tears with substances of different sorts. You can tell in the recording—we tried to re-record the vocals, but it had to be the demo, because you could tell it was really coming from the heart.
It was hard to perform live at first because it was so close to me. Now it’s a little easier because it’s been a while, and I’m in a good relationship now. But also, everyone’s so excited when I sing it, so that helps. I still have to dig a little, though. I’ll never get over it completely. Just keep opening up those scars.
: There’s a Twinkie reference in the song. Do fans ever send you Twinkies?
Nilsson: [Hostess] sent me Twinkies, which is so funny. I thought Twinkies was just a word for “cookies,” not a specific thing. They kind of scare me a little bit because they last forever [laughing]. But they started popping up in Sweden, too. I had never seen them before, and I was at a 7-Eleven there and it was like “New product: Twinkies.” And I’m sure this is thanks to me.
: Prior to “Habits,” you wrote for other artists. Is the writing process vastly different when you’re writing for someone else?
Nilsson: I try not to draw on my own experiences, because then I can’t give it away. It’s too personal. It’s easier if I get to meet the artist and get to know them. It’s mostly about the lyrics—melody is fine, you can change that to fit their voice. But the lyrics, it’s like, would they say this? Sometimes you can tell when an artist doesn’t write his or her own song. You sing this song great, but it isn’t your song. And on the other side, there are some when it’s like, you didn’t write this, but it’s definitely your song.
It might just be that they’ve said something, or that’s just the way that they are, but as a writer you should pick that up. My main goal is to say something how they would say it, even if I might say it in a different way that makes more sense to me. It’s harder with guys for me. I’ll be like “You would say this, right?” and they’ll just say, “Uh…no.” Then I try another sentence [laughing]. It’s a challenge but I love it.
: Your album Queen of the Clouds is a concept album going through the stages of a relationship (sex, love and pain). Is that something you set out to do from the start?
Nilsson: Yes. I know when I’m on Spotify or whatever I’ll pick and choose random songs and make a playlist that way. But for my first album, I wanted to do it like this. It’s supposed to be a concept album and I wanted people to really feel the story. I used to write short stories and be very into telling those stories. That’s the whole thing—I want people to be able to see and feel the whole pattern of these failed relationships that I have.
I had to fight a little bit to make it happen. At first I just wanted the titles—Sex, Love and Pain—to be seen digitally. But everyone, iTunes, Spotify, all of them, said they couldn’t do the digital titles like that. I fought that for a long time, and then I just decided to make little intros. I think that turned out for the better, because when you’re listening through, you really get that it’s the next chapter. It’s been pretty amazing, the team I work with, managers and labels. They’re so on board with what I want to do. I have artist friends where that’s not the case, and I feel like where I’m at, they trust me and never try to change me. If anything, they say, “Just be more yourself.” Which is amazing. I don’t think many people have it that way.
: There’s an f-bomb in the chorus of your most recent single “Talking Body.” Did you have any reservations about making that a single, that maybe the profanity might hurt its chances of being played on American pop radio?
Nilsson: I never care about it because I think it’s so stupid. It’s a word, just fucking let it be, fuck, fuck. I knew they were going to want a clean version of it. With another song I have, “Moments,” the whole punch line is, “I am charming as fuck.” If that’s going to be a single at some point, I’d rather just bleep it. It’s not going to be like, “I am charming and fun,” or whatever. But usually I’m fine with finding another word for the clean version. I know that’s the deal for playing it on radio, and I want people to hear it. I kind of like when people hear it and then go in to listen to it online and get a happy surprise.
It’s weird because here it’s so conservative in so many ways, but in other ways it’s not at all. You have some real freaks here that do some crazy shit, then it’s like, you can’t even see your nipples through a shirt, or you can’t say these words. Even with “Habits,” the first note of the chorus is me saying “stay high,” and it got changed for radio without my approval. It’s the first word, you know? But still, people seemed to get what it was saying, even if they couldn’t hear it.
: You’ll be away from home touring for most of the year, but if someone is visiting Sweden, what are some things they should do or see?
Nilsson: Well first, you need to go in the spring or summertime. If you go on a weekend, you have to go to a place called Trädgården. It’s a club that’s outdoors and it opens in the middle of the day. They have shops with people selling clothes, there’s food, you can play ping-pong, drink beer, just hang out. That’s probably the most fun. You should go to SoFo, which is such a dumb name, but it’s the south part of Stockholm. Tons of cool shops, and a lot of great bars and food. In the summer, you should get a boat and go out to all the islands to go swimming. Do the classic: go to someone’s summer house where they have a sauna. Go swimming at night, then go to the sauna, drink beer. Classic summer night.
: Do you ever pour the beer on the sauna rocks?
Nilsson: Yeah—it smells like baked bread!