Tove Lo opens her new album on a voicemail. “Hey, what’s up man, it’s Mateo,” a voice sounds off in Italian, over a flowering Los Angeles-via-Stockholm guitar loop. “I heard about Uma. It sucks, but you know, you don’t eat the same dish every night. And by dish, I mean pussy.”
Sunshine Kitty is a patchwork record studded with these kind of specificities: there’s Mateo, Uma, Jacques, and the titular cartoon lynx, characters that are each flawed as they are frisky. And then there’s Kylie Minogue, Doja Cat, Alma, Jax Jones, and MC Zaac. But it all orbits back to Tove Lo — this is, after all, an artist who named herself after a lynx (lo) named Tova that once saw at a zoo. "There was an anger about being vulnerable," she says, regarding her older material. "Now, there’s an acceptance in being vulnerable." Though her steely persona may have softened, her biting humor and brawny hooks just keep getting sharper.
She’s a lot happier now than she was back in the days of Lady Wood and its sequel, Blue Lips, having recently moved to California to be with her partner of the past few years: “I found someone I would do it for, and I’ve never been this unselfish.” Though newfound sun-soaked bliss colors the album, Sunshine Kitty opts to embrace a certain messiness rather than lean into contentedness. Each of its tracks are delivered with rambunctious candor, from the walloping "Stay Over" to the comically venomous "Really don't like u." The morals may not be clear cut, but Tove Lo finds pleasure in their jagged edges.
Take, for instance, the gulp of post-breakup seratonin that is “Glad He’s Gone," a song that offers what may be most obscenely rational pop bridge of all time. “Did you go down on his birthday?" she asks her friend. "Did you let him leave a necklace?” It's all mounting affirmation for the big reveal: “Bitch I love you, he never loved you.” Tove Lo's always loaded her music with these kind of truth bombs, but this time around, she has more unrepentant fun with them than ever before.
In person, Tove Lo is as disarmingly frank and inviting as in her music. Just ahead of Sunshine Kitty's official debut, she swung by The FADER office to discuss how the album came together.
Talk me through the time period coming off Lady Wood. It feels like exiting such a huge undertaking as a two-part project must have posed its own—
Falling down flat to the ground like oh my god, I did it? That was the feeling. I was so set out to do it. I had been going through things that really made an impact on me: vocal chord surgery, a really bad breakup, and getting used to the new life I was living where people would get disappointed in me and want things from me all the time, while at the same time I was living my dream. There were so many lows and highs. Some things felt like I expected them to feel, and some things didn’t. I’m a very sensitive person in that I can handle a lot, but it all affects me. People don’t realize that, and I was pushed to do a lot of things.
So, I decided to push myself for something that wasn’t the most popular choice and make a really dark 30-minute-film for a pop album. My team kept saying, it’s gonna be censored, we can’t do this, we can’t use this song, you say ‘fuck’ in every song. But I had tunnel vision and needed to do whatever I wanted to do, and I was so proud of pulling it all off. I felt like I gave the fans everything that I promised them and worked through my shit, through the art. Getting through it felt like a big relief, even though I was exhausted from making the album while I was on the road.
After I shot the short film, I thought, I need a break from me. I need to not think about myself for a second. I started writing for other people. I wanted to just live a little before thinking about what was coming next. Once I eventually started writing for Sunshine Kitty, I felt like I was in a calmer place. There was no pressure coming from anyone for me to deliver anything by any point.
Lady Wood and Blue Lips felt sort of out of the realm of what certain people or top 40 wanted from you, but the risk seemed like it paid off.
Totally. I’m so proud that I did that. I wanted to create a world of what’s going on inside my head, and it was amazing to get to do that. With Queen of the Clouds, I had my whole life to write that album. I probably acted like I knew what was going on then, but I had no idea about anything. Suddenly I was doing interviews and shows in America. Everything was so new that —
It was hard to take it all in.
Exactly. Maybe now, for this album, was the first time that I actually got to stop and be comfortable in this life. I’ve found people that I trust. All my music is very vulnerable, but there was an anger about being vulnerable. Now, there’s an acceptance in being vulnerable.
So before this album, while you were writing for other people, did you ever feel like, oh, I should keep that.
“Anywhere U Go,” the last song on the album, was one of those where I felt like this is such a free, beautiful summer song. I wonder who’s gonna do this one. But it’s also very personal, about my move to L.A. and moving there for another person, and kind of hating it but knowing that it’s gonna be fine. I found someone I would do it for, and I’ve never been this un-selfish. It’s a vulnerable thing to do, but I’m happy to do it. So I had to keep that song. Same with “Equally Lost.” It’s a big identity of the album — the more hopeful tones. Writing from a good place was hard for me to accept.
It sounds like you came into this album with no preconceived notions of what you wanted it to be.
Nope. It’s almost like I did the complete opposite of the past two albums, where I knew what exactly what I wanted to do. This one I had to just let happen, and find it as I was doing it. As soon as it started to take shape, then I could create the world again.
So when did it start to take shape?
As soon as I decided to create this little lynx character and have it as a part of the art. I noticed the few songs that I had written had a lot happier vibe, and living in constant sunshine. I wanted the title to have a play on pussy power, because all of my album titles have been that. I saw an episode of Girls where Hannah was talking about an author she loves, and she says something like “she’s radiant, she glows, and what he does is lay out and tans her vagina, she’s soaking up the power of the sun through her pussy. That’s not moisturizer on her face, that’s sun in her pussy.” I just loved that line so much — it’s the source of all life meeting the source of all life.
You’ve seen Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” video right? MC Skat Cat was the first thing that came to mind when I saw Sunshine Kitty.
Yes! Trust me, that’s a work in progress. It’s my dream to do choreography with the kitty.
Once you created this character — Sunshine Kitty — did she bring a sort of different energy to the studio?
The mix of being very cute, but kind of savage and behaving in a different way than you would expect her to. If you’re a pretty girl, you’re expected to behave one way and people get frustrated when you don’t. That’s what I’ve been told, at least. She channels that, completely. We’re creating all these mini animations of her being a little bit of an asshole.
That calls to mind “Really don’t like u.” The sentiment of that song is kind of mean, but it’s something everyone’s felt before.
It’s vulnerable in that way! It’s admitting that you don’t have a right to be shitty at that person. You should be angry at your ex, or whatever, but you’re channeling it all to this new person. It’s a natural feeling and it’s nothing to be proud of, but we all have it.
Once I connected those dots, I started viewing this record as almost a classic early ‘90s record? Not necessarily nostalgically or sonically speaking, but in the spiritual sense.
I love that. It must have to do with what I’ve been listening to, but there’s something in the lyrics and the way that I’m playing with the words on this one. It’s honest and vulnerable but it’s also a bit more feminine. It definitely has an essence of that.
There’s also more of a house feel to this record. Tell me about that.
Yeah, the club bangers. What I listen to trickles in. Working with Jax Jones, it was one of those things… he did a remix of “Talkin Bodies” a few years ago and somehow it fell between the cracks where my team in the UK thought I didn’t like it because I didn’t answer an email, but I couldn’t download the link because I was traveling and then the new link never got sent to me. Basically it drowned in a sea of emails, but he posted it to his Soundcloud and I was listening to it nonstop. I would work out to it, it was my party song. But he had to take it down from Soundcloud when it became not what it was. Then when I heard his song “House Work,” it became our amp-up song for the whole Lady Wood tour. When we finally worked together, I wanted to do something in that vibe. Whenever I work with someone and we want to do a dance track, I have a playlist of house tracks I love called “Laid Up In The Basement. We just have a time listening to that and then start working on something, and it comes out of that a lot of the times. If you’re writing a pop song, you shouldn’t be listening to pop songs in your obsession. Listen to some other genres for flavor. You’re breaking the right rules, in that case.
“Jacques” also taps into the very international feel of this album. It all kicks off with this voicemail… by the way, can you explain that?
It’s really funny. My super fans will probably put this together, but there’s obviously a few different characters. “Bad As The Boys” is based on an actual person, “Mateo” and “Jacques” are people that I had romances with in my teens. I kept all my journals from when I was little and there are these full written stories about how it all panned out with these different people. I’m hoping nobody finds that book! But everything’s so funny and silly to read, and Mateo was an Italian guy (whose name was obviously not Mateo). He was just this typical hot asshole, and he was also really young. Anyway, the phone call at the beginning of the album is Mateo calling his friend who broke up with Uma — my friend who I call in the “Glad He’s Gone” video. “Hey, what’s up man, it’s Mateo. I heard about Uma. It sucks, but you know, you don’t eat the same dish every night. And by dish I mean pussy.” That’s the intro.
You mention that you were more open to experimentation and trusting your instinct on this album. Did that lead to any crazy moments in the studio?
I mean, it was just us getting drunk: me, Ludvig Soderberg, and Jakob Jerlstrom, my OG dudes who have worked with me since “Habits.” They’re on at least half on every album. “Are u gonna tell her,” that trippy song with MC Zaac... how it came together was pretty funny, in that they showed me that track and I was like “this is fucking awesome let’s do this. But if we’re gonna do this, we gotta get hammered.” So we got really drunk and I wrote that verse that’s talkative and weird. We couldn’t figure out the prechorus for the longest time and it was kind of to the point where we were fighting with each other like no i don’t like that idea, we could do something better — just idiots in the room. I left to go pee and came back and Jakob was standing by the mic yelling boom, boom boom, boom and saying random Spanish words in between. I said, this is genius, but you can’t be doing that.
Brazil is a place where I have a lot of fans and I love playing shows there, and Ludvig had been in a hole of listening to all these Brazillian funkers. They’re all MC something, and a lot of them are just dudes living in the favelas so it’s really hard to get ahold of them. We had to track someone down to be an interpeter to get the phone number for MC Zaac and it was just a whole thing. I wish I had it all on film — trying to do this phone call and trying to give feedback when nobody understands what the other person is saying. But we killed it!
We also obviously have to talk about Kylie. How does one get Kylie Minogue on a song?
You just believe! You have to reach out. This was long game, on my end. When I released Lady Wood, I posted a photo of me holding my lyric books, because I still write all my lyrics on pen and paper. She tweeted me back “yes, a pen and paper girl!” and I thought she knows who I am? So I took a screenshot and saved this tweet in my bank of moments. Later, we played the same AmFar charity event in Hong Kong, and I was like, if there’s any way I could meet her, I would just love to. She was like, yeah of course. Super sweet, lovey, kind and beautiful. She said “it’d be so fun to do a song sometime,” and I was like, “I’ll remember this.” This was early 2018, and while I was making this record it was in the back of my mind for when I make the song that would be great for her and her vibe, where her voice would just be perfect. “Really don’t like u” was that song, and I told my manager, can you just send it to her? You’ll never know, just do it. She was like, “I love this, let me do my thing on it.” And she killed it. She’s a hero.
When I hear this album, it almost feels like a scrapbook to me. Now that you have the finished product, when you listen back, what do you take from it?
It feels like a combination of me as a teenager, cut to now. I’m still able to be able to be naive in love, despite a few stupid breakups. I still don’t know what my future’s gonna be, and it’s scary, but I like it that way. It feels sassy, and clever, and sad — just tying it all together. This album is how I live my life: I haven’t thought it through, I just did it. It’s just how I am.
Sunshine Kitty is out now via Island Records.