Tove Lo Talks Working With Legendary Producer/Songwriter Max Martin and Keeping Her Music Honest

We talked to Tove Lo about what she's learned from Max Martin and if she thinks she's too honest in her music.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

A few years ago, Tove Lo was just in the crowd, watching her favorite artists hit the stage at the Way Out West Festival—the biggest music event in Gothenburg, Sweden. But on Friday, the singer/songwriter made her debut on that very same platform and performed in front of fans, and friends and family. "I always dreamt about being up there, so it was just really emotional today," she says. 

Tove Lo, born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson, started writing songs in 2011, beginning a career that would include gigs for artists like Hilary Duff and Ellie Goulding. Then she decided to launch her own singing career as a side project, releasing tracks like "Love Ballad" in 2012 and "Habits" in 2013 independently—the latter helped her gain an online following. In 2014, she signed a record deal with Island and Polydor Records, released her debut album, Queen of the Clouds, and was handpicked by legendary producer and songwriter Max Martin, who's worked with everyone from Katy Perry to Britney Spears, to join his production entity Wolf Cousins. Not to mention, since the release of her album, she's had two singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 list ("Habits (Stay High)" peaked at No. 3; "Talking Body" peaked at No. 12). Tove Lo's had quite the year. 

We caught up with the Swedish beauty after her performance at WOW to talk about her journey thus far, how it's been working with Martin and the Wolf Cousins, and if she's ever concerned that she's too honest in her songs. 

How did it feel to be up on that stage?
It always becomes a little more real when you go home. It's been most successful in the States, it took some time to get people over here excited. But it was so cool to see [the crowd] was pretty much as big as my crowds in the States, and it was really amazing just to feel the response. It was so much love, so much excitement. I really enjoyed it. And I had so many people that I knew out there, and that means everything. 

Do you prefer performing at festivals or small venues?
It's one thing, obviously, to play for your fans who are super excited to see you and know every word, but I just love the whole festival vibe. Everything about it: You can watch some of your own favorite bands, you get to be in this situation where it's sunny and beautiful and there's all this great music, and it's also like you meet new fans for the same time, you play for a whole new crowd that might just be curious. I really love festivals. And also because I've always loved going to festivals. 

How has it been working with Max Martin and being part of Wolf Cousins?
The funny thing is, for this album I didn't work with Shellback or Max. But I did write with the Struts. The first song I ever produced with anyone else was with them, the Struts, which was "Love Ballad." It was just so amazing that...obviously Martin came in and was a great mentor, but [the Struts] were so like, "Do your thing." I worked with other guys from Wolf Cousins, but it was [the Struts] who were the main people who produced most of [Queen of the Clouds] and co-wrote a lot of it, and it was just a big feeling for the three of us.

No one believed in me and were like, "Stop doing your artist thing and just be a writer." But I was like, "Well, I kinda want to do this for myself." I released "Habits" on my own, without a label. I was just like, "Let me do this for me and then I can work with other stuff." But in Wolf Cousins everyone was just like, "Do whatever you want to do. It's your life." And it's been a really amazing feeling to have them support me all the way through. I think people were really surprised when it worked 'cause I didn't really...I don't know, I'm not...obviously it's pop, but it's sort of darker and I talk about things that are—at least in the States—not always really OK to be that open about: sex, drugs, and everything. And just me being a normal girl and not this extreme pop star that you can't reach. It's kind of interesting to think that I'm just really myself. It's sort of working, which is great. 

Max Martin has worked with a ton of big artists and made big hits. How has the experience of working with him affected your own songwriting?
It's kind of interesting. We've only had a few sessions, him and me. But I love working with him from those few sessions. I understand why he's so talented; he doesn't lean on his name. He'll question himself and you as much as he can in a session, and he's a true music lover and so fucking musical. I'm like, "How?" It's just really cool to kind of see someone who's been doing this for so long and not be like, "Do this, do that." He's never like that. He's easy to work with, which is why he's amazing, too. He brings out the best in people. 

There's a few like that, which makes them a good person to work with. Daniel Ledinsky is also another guy who brings out the best in me as a writer. I don't know what it is, but they just have that thing. I think it takes a great writer to be able to do that with other people. When I'm sick and tired of being on stage and I'm like, "I'm not gonna tour anymore," I'll definitely go back to just songwriting, and hopefully be that kind of person who people feel like they can become a great writer with. I'm not so sure I do that now, I think I'm too bossy right now. [Laughs.] I'm like, "If I'm gonna say this, I'm gonna say it my way." But that's also why I love working with other artists and writing for them as well. But it is hard for me when the artist is in the room. If they're not easygoing and open and if they're a bit more protective of themselves, then I think I'm probably not the best...'cause I'm like, "Tell me about yourself, tell me personal shit so we can write a song about you," and they're like, "I've never met you. Leave me alone." [Laughs.

Your own lyrics for your own songs are very honest, and I imagine it's harder to write about another person's life. How do you handle writing for other people then?
It depends so much on....if they're in the room.... Adam Lambert, who's an amazing singer who can sing anything so you don't have to worry about that, you can be like, "Well, what do you want to say?" I think about him and listen to his songs, I Google him a bit, I Google away and try to find things he's said in interviews that are personal, and sometimes just things come up. The "Rumors" song I did with him I was just like, he must've had a tough time being gay and it just makes it harder for you in the public eye, people just feel like they have something they can hold against you—it was so wrong, obviously—but it's been a big thing for him. And just being as famous as he is and the things people say, they try to find dirt on you all the time. I haven't really had that all, so I just started thinking about that and brought up the subject to him, and he was like, "Yes, I can totally relate." So I thought there was something there, but write it from his perspective. I try to think out of their point of view. 

It can be tricky, too. I've had sessions with artists where I'm like, "What about this?" and they say, "No, you don't get me at all." And I'm like so off now and have nothing. Especially if they write themselves, you could just be sitting there for the ride. It's a tricky situation. It's sort of like blind dating but you've Googled the person before. [Laughs.]

Do you ever worry that you're sharing too much with your own music?
I am now, actually, a little bit. Before, when I wrote the album I didn't have as much of a following and all eyes weren't on me. I still feel like I don't have that amount of fame that it will hurt me, but I'm starting to think a little bit like, "Is it gonna hurt people around me if someone starts to find out who it's about and what I'm saying about them?" That's the thing, people now start to care, and are like, "Who is she singing about? What does this mean?" And that kind of worries me a little bit. But I just can't think about that when I write. I'm just gonna be in my zone and whatever I need to get out...'cause otherwise it won't give me anything. If I censor myself that's gonna ruin everything for me. I'm gonna keep being this open and it will hopefully give me something good and not something bad. 

And it's that honesty that people love about your music.
Yeah, and if I change that then I feel like you won't get me anymore and there's no point. There will be no filtering. 

Latest in Music