• No products in the basket.
cart chevron-down close-disc
  • Music
  • Issue 49


Nilsson wears a top and skirt by MELITTA BAUMEISTER, a shirt by MARC JACOBS, boots by MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA, a ring by J. HANNAH AND the stylist’s own earrings.

The radically honest singer-songwriter on the big feelings behind her biggest hits.
Words by Tara Joshi. Photography by Emman Montalvan. Styling by Annie & Hannah. Set Designer by Kelly Fondry. Hair by Preston Wada. Makeup by Nick Lennon.

When Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson was 15 years old, she won a prize for a short story she wrote. In it, two best friends have grown apart because one of them gets a boyfriend; in response, the other friend starts stalking her, and ends up killing her “just to keep her close.” Nilsson—known professionally as pleasure-seeking pop star Tove Lo—is laughing as she recounts this tale. “It was pretty dark,” she concedes, “but there was humor to it. And Sweden being Sweden, they were like, ‘Yay!’ Most of the stories I wrote were about a girl doing twisted things.”

Since Nilsson broke through 10 years ago with the sleeper hit “Habits (Stay High),” songs with undercurrents of deviance and discomfort—about girls doing “twisted” things—have become something of a mainstay in her oeuvre. There’s a reason, after all, that the 35-year-old singer-songwriter has carried the label of the “saddest girl in Sweden” for so long; her music has largely explored the murkiness of hedonism—the joys and exuberance, the escape and the sensuality, but also its more concerning and painful underbelly.

Before “Habits” gained internet virality and propelled her to stardom in her own right, Nilsson’s music career started with writing songs for other artists, something she still does to this day (she has writing credits for Dua Lipa, Charlie XCX, Lorde and more). But there is a distinct personality that comes through in the songs that she writes for herself: propulsive, breathy, druggy, wry, a little depraved. These are lyrics predominantly rooted in some form of reality for the artist; not so much a considered, manufactured party-girl persona, she explains, but an insight into some of her real thoughts and experiences, albeit ones that are sometimes exaggerated and wrought larger than life.

Though she was signed to a major label for her first four albums, Nilsson was careful to retain autonomy over her image and style. “I found it really hard to describe myself when I was starting out,” she says. “The first album, I felt like I had no idea how to say what I was like, but I remember having this feeling that I didn’t want to get pushed in the direction people wanted to put me in visually just to try and keep it commercial, so I pushed a lot more toward the left.”

Nilsson is thoughtful like this throughout our interview, and also pretty ebullient. She’s on tour, so she’s speaking to me on the phone from Orlando (“We’re staying in the Disney World area so it’s very surreal; everything here is like a fantasyland!”). Back on her second and third albums, 2016’s Lady Wood and 2017’s Blue Lips, she says, she was not in a good place: “I guess I was just like, I can’t put on a brave face, I just want to be how I am and live in these feelings.

I just wanted to show where I was at in life.” In the short films that she made to accompany the records, she pushed into the “left” again, establishing her artistic realm as a lusty, seedy world of late nights, parties, friendships and lovers. “I can barely look at those [short films] now,” she reflects. “I’m so proud of them—I think they’re so beautiful—but it’s hard for me to watch and know how dark of a time that was for me.”

Of course, these days, life looks a little different for the artist than it did back in her 20s: She’s now based in LA and married to the creative director Charlie Twaddle. “I’ve been in a really good place now for many years,” she says, matter-of-factly. It’s not that getting older and—to her own surprise—having a spouse, means her lifestyle has completely changed. In her 2022 music video for the club banger “2 Die 4,” she walks around rocky terrain wearing a gold corset and a matching strap-on dildo: Clearly, Nilsson still likes to have fun. Acts like this are also a welcome fuck-you to the male journalists who, for years, she recalls asking questions, like “Don’t you ever worry that no one’s going to want to be with a girl like you forever when you’re such a whore?” (Thankfully, she says, it’s clear in more recent years that many of them have learned that those questions are totally unacceptable.)

“If I’m in a dark place now, I don’t use
partying to cope. I try to stay in the
feelings and work it out.”

Nilsson, her friends and her husband all still party, and she doesn’t see that changing anytime soon, but now, she explains, it feels more intentional and respectful—both when it comes to others and herself. “If I’m in a dark place now, I don’t use partying to cope,” she says. “I try to stay in the feelings and work it out. And so now partying and doing wild things are things I do when I’m feeling good and I want to enhance the feeling and have a good time.” She stands by the necessity of going out to shake it off when things are a bit shitty but is now more conscious of her boundaries. “If you’re constantly running from it and constantly trying to numb your feelings . . .,” she pauses, “I don’t do that anymore. That’s where I feel like it got destructive.” Even looking back at “Habits”—a song that was broadly about partying excessively to try to forget about someone—is no longer a testament to pain. “That song changed my life,” she explains, “so it’s not sad for me anymore. Now it’s nostalgic and euphoric.” 

She wears a dress by MELITTA BAUMEISTER and earrings by PANCONESI.

I put it to her that the “saddest girl in Sweden” label might now feel at odds with where she is these days, both geographically and emotionally. “It was something I wore like a badge of honor,” she says, before hesitating. “But if I could pick one sentence to describe me as an artist, that would not be it anymore. Or ever, to be honest: I was vulnerable through and through, but that doesn’t always mean sadness. I’m happy a lot of the time, I’m sad a lot of the time too. No artist or human is just one thing. We’re all contradictory in the big spectrum of views and feelings.”

Certainly, the breadth of the spectrum is explored on her latest album, 2022’s Dirt Femme, a gleaming dance record which finds Nilsson disarmingly raw in new ways: on the track “Suburbia,” for example, where she offers lines like “So if we had a baby / You’d love that more than me?” and on “Grapefruit,” a seemingly euphoric bop that’s actually about her teenage bulimia. Still, the theme that runs the gamut of her work remains true: her stark honesty. “I think maybe the way I express myself, for some people, is like, Oh, why would you admit to that feeling? That’s not something you talk about out loud!” she laughs.

A year on from the release of Dirt Femme, she remains immensely proud of the record: It’s her first launch on Pretty Swede Records, her own label. “Going independent is obviously a lot more work, but so far I’ve loved it,” she says. She admits, however, that tracks like “Grapefruit” are not always easy to revisit. She was concerned about “laying out all the cards” when recording it, given how triggering and emotional it had the potential to be. She was also worried that an illness she had already worked through could become what defined her from that point. But she says she felt a calling to “keep following your instinct and not edit yourself; write what you need to write.”

Even so, repeatedly having to return to the song when she performs it live is complicated, she says. “It varies so much night by night,” she explains. “I get really bad PMS, like, every two months, and I get this really bad feeling. I know it’s not how I feel, but I cannot shake the feeling. I feel really insecure: I start to dissect my face and my body, my voice, how I move, spending four or five days in this little cocoon of hate for myself. And I keep this mantra: This will pass, this will pass. But if I perform that song during those days, it’s not cathartic—it’s just really hard.” On those days when she wishes she didn’t have to revisit the sentiments of the song onstage, she looks to the audience for strength. “I find the people in the crowd who I can tell the song means a lot to and I just look at them and think, I’m doing this for this person,” she says and starts laughing. “And that helps me to not just start crying onstage.”

“I was vulnerable through and
through, but that doesn’t always
mean sadness.”

Perhaps that interplay between battling with her brain and finding contentment is why the candor in her lyrics—be it those more difficult tracks about her insecurities and pain, or the frank and delicious lines about her nipples being hard or giddily guiding her partner to give her oral sex—all feels very raw and real. It’s something that she attributes to her upbringing in the Skåne region of southern Sweden. “It’s funny, because I feel this contradiction in my childhood,” she says. Her mother is a therapist and her father cofounded a successful fintech company, and she recalls that the area they lived in, which was quite affluent, could feel judgmental—like no one was showing their flaws. “Everyone kept their face on all the time.” At home, however, her family talked about everything: “We would express how we felt a lot. Me and my dad would fight when I was a teenager, but he was always good at apologizing. He has a lot of authority, but he’s a very emotional guy, sensitive and loving.”

She also recognizes how the same openness was manifest in her mother, not least the way she spoke about human behavior. “Hearing her talk about our patterns—how similar we are but with these little differences, and how we communicate can cause so much pain and suffering, but also joy—” she muses, “I’m always very fascinated by humans, and how love can completely change a human being. How something that is completely irrational to you when you’re not in love becomes so rational when you are, because love does something to you.”

In her most recent releases, Nilsson grapples with the spirals of emotion caused by exposing yourself to the vulnerabilities of love. It’s palpable in the catastrophizing that runs through the tracks on Dirt Femme, and on the 2023 single “Borderline,” where the point of view is from someone inventing all kinds of internal drama with a partner out of insecurity. “With jealousy and insecurity, the only person you’re hurting is you,” she says. “But for me, it helps to get it out of my head—to say it to a friend, or to my husband, or to put it in a song.” She recounts how a friend had interpreted the nightmarish jealousy scenario Nilsson invented for the song “Mistaken” (from her 2019 album Sunshine Kitty) to be true. “I played it at a show, and the friend turned to [my husband] and was like, What did you do to her?! It’s just me feeling vulnerable and insecure in my head and writing a song about it, but it sounds like it’s his fault,” she giggles. “It’s the power of the mind!”

“Maybe the way I express myself, for
some people, is like, Oh, why would you
admit to that feeling?

Still, despite being a tool for catharsis, writing is not always something that comes easily.  “I’ve always preferred listening to music that described the feeling, not how I should be feeling—aspirational songs telling me what I should aim for,” she says. “I just wanted to sit in my feelings and relate to someone, so maybe that’s why I write in that way.” And yet, despite having been doing it for the best part of two decades, there are still times when Nilsson doubts her ability: “It’s going from that place of, This is shit, I am shit, why does everyone think I can do this? to This is great, this is amazing, I can’t believe I get to do this!” As with all things, the way she gets herself through is by reminding herself that “this will pass.”

Nilsson does not know what the future holds, but she knows she always wants to be writing songs she relates to. In doing so, and in baring parts of herself so readily, she works to eradicate ingrained feelings of shame, exercising the power of her mind, all while imploring listeners to feel pleasure and tap into their own dark and twisted fantasies, reclaiming desire and autonomy in a way that is fulfilling rather than destructive. 

Or, as she puts it, far more succinctly: “You can be deep and still be a slut.” 

Nilsson wears a jacket, trousers and boots by HERMÈS, a shirt by COPERNI, earrings by ACNE STUDIOS, rings by J. HANNAH and the stylist’s own tie.

Nilsson wears a jacket, trousers and boots by HERMÈS, a shirt by COPERNI, earrings by ACNE STUDIOS, rings by J. HANNAH and the stylist’s own tie.


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty-Nine

Buy Now

Kinfolk.com uses cookies to personalize and deliver appropriate content, analyze website traffic and display advertising. Visit our cookie policy to learn more. By clicking "Accept" you agree to our terms and may continue to use Kinfolk.com.