Nearly a decade after “Habits” propelled her to top-40 ubiquity, Tove Lo is ready to tell you that you’ve been pronouncing her name wrong this entire time. She’s left the major label she was signed to for the majority of her career and started her own, Pretty Swede Records. And she’s embracing the fact that her sound will always defy what we typically expect from pop music.
Her new album, Dirt Femme, is a daring exercise in these extremes: jumping from club banger to ballad, oscillating between ironclad and vulnerable, never afraid to contradict itself. It’s further proof that there’s no pop star more adept at encapsulating the gorgeous messiness of the human experience.
Ahead of the album’s release, we caught up for a wide-ranging conversation about choosing to go indie, that crazy Hot Butter sample in “2 Die 4,” and the wild nights that shaped Dirt Femme.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
The FADER: You took a break from songwriting during lockdown. What was that like for you?
It started with writing “No One Dies From Love” in January 2020. I was like, “I can’t wait to play this at the summer festivals. It’s gonna be the first song of the next chapter… setting the bar for what I want this next record to be.” I got to do a whole U.S. tour in February. I broke my foot, but I got a pink throne, and I went up there with my broken foot and finished the tour. I was very proud of myself. It was one of my favorite tours I’ve ever done. The crowds were incredible. It was sold out in most places. It felt like a lot of work had paid off, and we were looking at a very busy year of touring. And then, obviously, everything stopped, and there was no way to keep pushing my music. I didn’t have any new music to put out because when I’m in tour mode, I’m not in the writing headspace. So the pandemic for me was sit-back-and-listen mode. My record deal was up, so I had this feeling of, “Am I ever gonna be an artist again? Am I ever gonna tour again? Am I ever gonna want to write songs?”
I’m very present. I never really plan. I feel like the present is the future. That’s just how I am. I thought, “I’m not gonna want to write. I’m not gonna make a new album. I’m not gonna have any way to put it out. What if this is just the rest of it?”
That sent me into a pretty sad place for a while. But then, out of nowhere, I got asked to shoot a movie [The Emigrants] in Sweden. It was a period piece about the 1850s, and I played an alcoholic sex worker who was trying to find a better life, so she goes on a boat to America. I’m one of the three lead characters, and I’d never acted before. It was very much out of my comfort zone. It was challenging and weird and stressful and fun. And when I came back from that at the end of 2020, I was itching in my fingers to write again.
Filming at that time must have been pretty harrowing.
Sweden had very different COVID restrictions. We didn’t have a single case for the first two months we filmed. We were getting tested on set, wearing masks except for when we’re shooting. We were separated into groups to keep everything very controlled. And we were out in the countryside, so we weren’t around many people except for the people on set. When we switched locations, it started to trickle in, and that was a big challenge.
The movie is pretty dark. It’s showing a time when we were very behind in the industrial revolution. People were starving. Everyone owed money to the royal family because they owned all the land. You weren’t in charge of your own destiny. There was a rumor that in America they were giving away land for free, which wasn’t really the truth, but that was the reason a million Swedes — a quarter of the population — migrated here by boat around the 1850s. It’s a huge part of Swedish history. There’s a moment in the movie where we get to New York by boat and [are] supposed to take a train, but none of us have ever seen a train. You realize how far behind Sweden was: it was still horse and buggy.
It seems like you drew from the world of cinema for this record in the visuals and the lyrics, so it’s kismet that you then ended up acting in this movie at the end of 2020. Is there a particular film that you feel embodies what Dirt Femme stands for?
It’s a mix of a few: Ladybird, The Florida Project for the colors. True Romance and To Die For are in their too, obviously. Every song has a female character who is a movie character I like or loosely based on one: “2 Die 4” is Wonder Woman with Big Dick Energy, and “No One Dies From Love” is the damsel in distress who you see in all the action movies — glamorous, but needs saving.
And they’re all a part of me: “Pineapple Slice” is the seductive, forward part. “True Romance” is murderous but cute. She’s got a hammer. She’s on her way to kill somebody, or she already did, but she looks good while she does it.
For “Grapefruit,” you tapped into a side of yourself that you thought you’d moved past. Tell me about that.
“Grapefruit” is a song I tried to write for 10 years. I struggled with eating disorders from when I was 15 to around 20. I did my best to keep it hidden from family and friends, but they eventually found out. [They told me] to get help, and I did, but I didn’t really take it seriously. The drive to be in control of it was more important still. But then I went to a vocal doctor because I was having problems with my voice, and he looked down my throat and said “Oh, you’re bulimic aren’t you?” I denied it, and he was like, “You don’t have to talk to me about it, but I can tell you that if you keep going, you’ll lose your voice.”
That shook me. I was like, “Am I gonna treat myself this way to a point where I can’t do the one thing that makes me happy?” So from that day, I started working on getting better. I went to therapy. I worked on trying to find a way to love and accept my body the way it is. With that kind of disease, it takes a long time to recover. A lot of people never fully do. They always have a complicated relationship with food. You have to at first break the behavior and then deal with what’s actually going on, because it’s rarely about the way you look or about food; it’s about something else, something deeper. It was a few years of hard work for me to get to a point where I felt comfortable in myself, but I did it.
I’m so happy that I was healthy by the time I started releasing music and becoming a person in the public, because the criticism and comments… They scan you up and down and try to find things to shit on you for. It’s quite intense. I’ve mentioned in interviews that I used to not love my body but now I do, but It felt out of nowhere for me to speak about it. But now that I’ve written a song about it, I have to. Every time I flash my tits on stage or tell everyone to not retouch my body in magazines and ask that I get to look the way I look, that’s a small victory for me because I didn’t even want to look at myself for many years of my life.
What triggered me to write this song is that they asked me to lose some weight for the movie, which wasn’t much. And it wasn’t like, “You’re fat, lose weight.” It was, “You’re playing a starving character. Would you feel okay losing some weight?” I said, “Yeah, I can do that,” and I went on a diet for the first time in 10 years, and all these memories started flooding over me — remembering how exhausting it is and how nothing else matters when you’re in that state. I had to write it all down and get it out of me.
Were you at all hesitant to set these very evocative images and lyrics to this huge pop song that you’ll have to perform again and again? Or did it feel empowering?
Both, for sure. When I’m working on the video and doing the choreo, I feel quite exhausted after — physically, but also emotionally, because it’s taxing to throw myself into that state again. But it’s already quite rewarding. It feels powerful, like it could really reach people in a special way and I can’t keep it to myself. I also like the contrast of the very dark, intense lyrics with [the sound of] the song. You’ll be dancing and singing along, like, “Wait, what’s she singing about? Hang on.”
The contrast is important to me because I’m not in that state anymore. If I was still feeling that way, I’d want the music to be more sad and intimate. But because I’ve prevailed, it’s important that the music feels hopeful. If I’m going through something like that, I don’t like songs that tell me how I’m supposed to feel. When I’m feeling myself and having a good day, like, “Yeah, I look hot today,” I love listening to feeling-yourself songs and body-positivity songs. But when I’m not in that state, I want to listen to something where someone feels the way I do, where they describe what I’m going through. That’s why I wrote the lyrics that way: They’re not hopeful. They’re just like, “This is the situation.”
This album gives me whiplash in the best way. I’m listening to one song, thinking to myself, “Your vocals have never been so stripped back and raw,” and then the next song is the clubbiest thing you’ve ever done. This duality is something you’ve played with across your career, but it feels punctuated this time, like one side can’t exist without the other. Talk me through that.
I [took longer] to write this record, so I had more time to experiment sonically. When you have a really short amount of time, it’s easier to make a sonically similar, cohesive world. At first, I wanted to make more stuff that was in the world of “I’m to Blame,” but nothing ended up being as good as that. I couldn’t really master that way of writing. I did it for one song, and I was so proud of it, like, “This needs to be on the record.”
I stopped worrying so much about it needing to be cohesive and just let it be honest and have its raw moments of, “This is also a part of me. I’m a human being. I’m this, but I’m also that.” You can’t put anyone in a specific folder. There’s so much to us, and we change through experiences, but something at the core of you is still you. I wanted to let everything live on this album. The thing that ties it together is me and my words. That can be enough. The thread through all of it is me. I’m the essence of the album.
When you put out “2 Die 4,” you said “I wanna make something iconic.” Tell me how that song built itself around the “Popcorn” sample. Had you ever sampled anything before?”
No, it was my first time.
So this was historic. Why that song in particular?
It was an idea that grew out of nowhere in a session. Me and Oscar Gores, who I’ve worked with a lot over the years, were assigned to the same collective, and we had two or three days together in the studio. The album was starting to feel like it was coming from different eras of dance music. I was thinking about “Attention Whore” and “No One Dies From Love,” and we started talking about trance music, those synths and that intense tempo. I used to hate it as a kid, and now I think it’s so cool.
Oscar started playing around with those synths, and I was like, “I love this, but we’ve got to make it slower. It can’t be 140 [beats per minute]. I can’t make melodies to that.” But all of a sudden, I started singing the melody, and I was like, “Wait, this works so well on these chords.” I showed it to him, and he’s like, “Oh, wait, it’s Crazy Frog.” I’m like, “Yes, but no. It’s ‘Popcorn’ by Hot Butter originally.” And we pulled it up and listened to it. I was like, “I’ve never sampled anything before. Let’s just play with it and hope the OG writers approve.”
That’s how it started, and we finished it in a day, which is rare — maybe because we had the main melody already. There are a few cool remixes [of “Popcorn”], but none where someone sings the melody, so that felt unique to me. It was hard to figure out something with a sentiment in that complicated melody. Once I had it, it felt like [a song] for when someone is feeling down: “Let me take you out and we’ll make out and have fun, and you’ll feel better.” It sounds pretty much the same as it did when we wrote it that day.
Your love for the club and for dance music is so pervasive on this record. Were there any wild, game-changing nights in particular that made it onto this record?
We went out to this festival called Desert Air in Palm Springs by this old airplane museum. I saw Channel Tres perform there — he’s featured on “Attention Whore.” In L.A., it’s hard to find clubs with good sound that play house and techno where people are there just to dance and listen. And this was one of those nights where… you go on a journey with the DJ. I got to feel that without any disturbance there. “Attention Whore” was inspired by wanting to make something hypnotic and sexy that felt like a journey. And the tracks with SG Lewis… We’ve had some really wild nights together in L.A., so those songs just grew from us being friends and making music we both love.
Has there been a DJ or producer who’s been inspiring you in your own sets these days?
I’m a huge fan of Fred Again. I love anything instinct(uk) puts out… Ida Engberg, Honey Dijon… My crew is a big group of music nerds, and we all love to go out and dance together. We live in a collective, five people who all DJ. We have a little dance music project together called Associanu, and I also have another crew of just girls called Ladies of Leisure. We opened for Fred Again when he did a secret show at a club in L.A., and that was another one where everyone was in it together.
What’s your back pocket song, like, “This is gonna set the crowd off, but they don’t know it yet?”
Let’s talk about Pretty Swede Records and the decision to go indie. What did that mean for this record in particular?
My deal was up, and I wasn’t sure what to do because I was signed out of Sweden but with a commitment from the U.S. — classic major label setup. I definitely needed that at the start of my career. It made it possible for me to break in the way I did in America and build my platform, so I’m very grateful. But at this point, I know exactly how I want to express myself, and even though they never stopped me from putting something out, [it felt like I wasn’t] getting the support I thought the record needed at times, and it would be frustrating.
I went to a few meetings with major labels after my deal was up. I got some offers, and they weren’t bad, but something in my stomach didn’t feel right. I felt like I was gonna have to fight for my expression constantly, and I was like, “I have such a good publishing team. My manager is a miracle worker. I’m super close with my creative director. I feel like there’s a way to do this on my own that’s more favorable to me.”
Were there any new challenges you weren’t expecting in taking this new step?
I have to make sure I’m on top of everything being done and that I’m outsourcing things to the right people. I have to be more involved in the business process, but I don’t mind that. It’s a learning curve, but in the end, it’s all pretty straightforward: “Do I want to spend the money here or there?” Sometimes there might be a wrong decision, but I’m learning as I go.
Now that Dirt Femme is done and ready to take on a life of its own, what will you carry from it into your future work?
The playfulness and the vulnerability, and letting it take the time it takes to write the next record. That was very critical for this one to be as good as I feel it is.