Chasing Highs with Tove Lo

On balance, broken hearts and her own "Burning Man"

Written by Laura Studarus • Photography by Mark Davis, Getty Images • November 2, 2016

No one will deny that Tove Lo is a cool girl. On the strength of radio-friendly pop hits “Habits (Stay High)” and “Talking Body,” two tracks where she proves she’s unafraid of feeling all the feelings while casually tossing musical hooks, Lo has become something of a patron saint for empaths with a lust for life and love alike. Hers is a world of polished pop and messy emotional honesty, the kind of which promises that even if things don’t get better, we’ll find a way to keep dancing through it all.

The singer/songwriter’s sophomore album Lady Wood picks up where her 2014 debut Queen of The Clouds left off. Sure, she’s still chasing the highs (a theme that the Swedish musician confirms is prevalent in both her art and day-to-day life), but she also wrestles with a fair share of lows as she negotiates nothing less than the very nature of love and heartbreak across two thematic album halves titled “Fairy Dust” and “Fire Fade.” Lo’s observations aren’t rosy by any stretch, but the very nature of her honesty they leave plenty of room to cry, dance, and above all—feel.

We caught up with Lo on the eve of her album release. In between obligations leading up to her big release/short film premiere/birthday party, she told us about (safely) chasing the high, staying honest, and if it all ended tomorrow, exactly how she’d like to go out.

Congratulations on Lady Wood. Is it just as exciting to release your second album? I think I’m a little bit better at taking it in this time, because I know what to expect now. The first record I was like “What’s happening? Is this how you do this?” It was so fast; I was in shock mode for a year. I feel like now I’m a little more zen. It wasn’t a hard album to write. It was very emotional and intense and challenging to keep out of my head that tons of people are going to hear this. They’re going to know all these things about me again. I’m so happy that I get to write with the people that I write with and that I can speak my mind and write songs however I want to without having to explain or apologize for it.

I’m impressed. The idea of being so open and honest seems like it could be a bit scary. It’s part of being a creative person. When you create something it’s an outlet for everything, whether it’s good feelings or bad feelings. Everyone has some dark sides in them or stuff that isn’t always positive, inspirational thoughts. “Today was bad but I’m going to do better!” No, everything’s shit. And I have to be allowed to feel that. I don’t know when or why it became so scary to be sad or have bad days, or go through something tough. Being honest about being vulnerable, but it’s almost like vulnerable means weak. I think it’s the other way around, really. In this world where most things are about being successful or being driven, you can’t have a flaw because a flaw isn’t seen as a personality trait, it’s seen as something bad or something you should get rid of. I’d rather have friends with flaws that are coming from a place of love. That’s how I think of the people who relate to my music. That comes from a place of love. They understand me, or for whatever reason they like the song, they get it. That motivates me to not polish it or change it or be less open.

Do you ever hit any walls with this, where you think maybe something shouldn’t go in a song? It’s whatever is on my emotional plate. I don’t call out other people. I write about my emotions in other situations, not about the other person so much. One or two songs touch on the actual person. I’m saying things about you here, rather than just my feelings about you. That’s when I can feel a little “oh no” about it. But I think as long as I keep it about my emotions and my experiences, that’s my truth. No one can say that’s not true. There are different versions on the other side. But from my side this is what it was. As long as I feel like I’m keeping that intact, I’m okay.

Are you the kind of person who does chase that sex, drugs, and rock n roll high? It seems like that’s a common theme in your music. Yeah, Lady Wood is about chasing rushes. And trying to feel the most alive in most situations. I think I really have that side of me, where it’s an escape but it’s also not wanting to live though all the rules that have been put in society. People say “This is what a good life is” and I just don’t really agree. I know if you’re chasing those highs all the time and you’re excited to be in those moments, and feel even though you know it’s going to hurt tomorrow, I’ll do it. I’m not scared of the down times; I know I can handle them. You just have to know if you live a life like that, you can’t get the extreme highs without the extreme lows. You have to decide; you have to have your own limit of what’s too far and what’s too much. I think sometimes you go a little across that line, but as long as your intentions are good, I think you’ll be fine.

That sounds strangely healthy the way you put it. Know your limits. I don’t think a lot of people would agree! [laughs] But I would. I’m in balance and in charge of it. I think that’s the thing. I’m probably balancing on the border of my limits. But I rarely cross it anymore. There was a while where I did, for sure. I could tell from people around me that they were wondering if it was all fun and games. They weren’t laughing anymore. I had to change things a bit, which was good for me. When you’re living this life, the rushes are all around all the time. You need to pick your moments.

You tackled the idea of the “Cool Girl” on this album. I feel like that’s a trope that every woman has to struggle through at some point, the belief we have to change ourselves for someone else. Why do we play these games in a relationship? The less amount of emotion you show, the more you have the upper hand. If a person who is emotionally honest says, “I’m into you,” fuck yeah! You have the power if you don’t want to admit that back, even if you do. Waiting two days to text back or whatever. Guys do it too. But why is it a bad thing to be emotional? It takes way more strength in your life to be honest enough to say, “I like you. This is where I stand.” If they’re not into it as much as you are, why would you stick around? You’re setting yourself up to fail in a way. Why change yourself?

The “cool girl” phrase comes the Gone Girl movie, because I love her monologue about how she changes everything about herself to make her husband like her. I had all the lyrics already but I was like, what do you call this? “Cool Girl.” Why change yourself to match another person and then expect to get something real out of it? It makes you feel like you’re not worth anything, even though you are. It’s really destructive.

I feel like you should be writing an advice column, even though you’d probably have to give up sleeping. [laughs] I could! Send me all your relationship questions! I’ll figure all your own shit out while my shit is still going on.

Okay then, advice time with Tove Lo: What’s the best way to handle a broken heart? Feel it and let it take time. Don’t try to rush yourself into “Oh, I’m so much better now.” Fucking feel the pain for a bit. It will feel like you’re not going to survive it. Losing someone you love, your heart mourns it the same way as if someone dies. It is that painful. But you have to feel it to let it go. It will eat you slowly from inside. You might not be that fully broken down. But you’ll always have that little bit of pain, non-stop. That to me is way worse than fully feeling it and breaking down and then slowly getting back up.

In regards to a different form of relationship, you’ve been privileged to work with some incredible musicians— Wiz Khalifa, Icona Pop, Ellie Goulding, and Nick Jonas among them. How do you know when a partnership will be successful? When there’s a complete honesty in the room. You feel like you both have that respect for each other. You can feel it’s an honest respect. You love each other’s ideas—but the most important thing is the song becomes the best it can be. That can only happen if you’re both very honest and not compromising. That takes a while to find with someone. When someone says, “I don’t like that idea” I don’t take that as “You are bad.” That idea just doesn’t fit this situation. When you feel very comfortable and relaxed with someone criticizing you, and you’re able to criticize them, you’ll come up with great things. We trust each other; we respect each other’s creative space. We don’t have to say that every second sentence, let’s just write. It’s rare.

If today was your last day on earth, how would you spend it? I would want to create my own Burning Man dance rave. But on the beach. Beach and palm trees. It would be all the people that I love. Friends, artists, and musicians that admire. We’d have a big dance party with fireworks. Everyone would wear neon colors and we’d dance the night out fully. And my dog would be there too!