Sweden’s Tove Lo is one of the best things to happen in the pop music scene in years. A boldly confessional songwriter with irresistible hooks and keen melodic sensibilities, Lo brings a rare authenticity and messy emotional complexity to the increasingly timid pop world, mostly devoid of rule breakers.
Lo sings about drugs, broken relationships, and casual sex without apologies, and her primal, subversive spirit is far more rock ’n’ roll than most bands wielding guitars and stacking Marshall amps these days. In the liner notes of her second album, “Lady Wood,” she tells her fans, “Stay raw.” It’s a mantra she lives by.
The 29-year-old has had a meteoric rise after 2014’s “Queen of the Clouds” ushered in a new, vital dance pop voice. Her darkly seductive breakout hit, “Habits (Stay High),” found her bingeing on Twinkies, hooking up, and getting as high as a satellite to salve the pain over a breakup. It was a memorable introduction to a songwriter unafraid to dig deep while exorcising demons through her music.
“Everything I write is from my personal life,” Lo, who plays a sold-out show at the House of Blues on Sunday, says via phone. “I’m writing about the things we try to deflect or refuse to talk about sometimes. There are things we’re not supposed to admit, but I need to write about them. It’s about accepting your flaws and making sense of them.”
Lo, born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson, isn’t trying to be a dance-floor Ann Sexton, though. “Queen of the Clouds” proved to be an often exuberant, intricately conceived three-section song suite, rejoicing in love and sex while also coping with despair from relationships gone sideways. The best tracks, “Talking Body,” “Timebomb,” and “Like Em Young,” co-written and co-produced by her frequent collaborators, Jakob Jerlström and Ludvig Söderberg, a.k.a. the Struts, were adrenaline shots, capturing the euphoric rush of sexual desire.
She followed it up late last year with the better realized “Lady Wood” (the title a cheeky reference to female sexual arousal). While not as immediately ingratiating as her debut, the disc is far more coherent and rewarding. Sounding unleashed, Lo’s clearly in a better emotional place. With a brighter and more spacious musical approach, she’s firmly in control, often with lyrics libidinous enough to set Mike Pence’s hair on fire.
The vocalist admits that following up the hugely successful “Queen” initially seemed daunting.
“At first, it was strange because my main worry was starting new. Unlike before, when I had my whole life leading up to the first record, now it was, ‘OK, what’s happening in my life?’ Everything I write for my records is about my experiences, and I was wondering if I had lived enough. I had to look at what I was dealing with and express that in an artistic way. I knew I wanted to do some things different musically. I’d talked to other artists and was told not to just re-create something I’d done. That I knew I wouldn’t do, but I definitely wanted to take everything to the next level.”
In conversation, Lo is exceedingly gracious and refreshingly free of young pop-star pretensions. She says one of her main priorities is remaining true to herself, and that some of her wild-child tendencies were developed in reaction to the staid, economically comfortable environment of her youth. “Where I grew up, it seemed very judgmental. There was a way you were supposed to act and things you were supposed to feel.
“You were supposed to be happy all the time and I wasn’t. I felt out of place. There were times I was there with people, but I was not present. I laughed, but I didn’t feel like laughing.”
She channeled her restlessness and vulnerability into songwriting and ended up getting a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music. Before recording “Queen of the Clouds” and its predecessor, the independently released EP “Truth Serum,” Lo had already established herself as a songwriter, writing for her friends and fellow Swedes, Icona Pop, and Girls Aloud.
Since her solo breakthrough, she’s co-written songs for Ellie Goulding (the Grammy nominated “Love Me Like You Do”), Adam Lambert, and Hilary Duff, among others.
Her deeply personal style seemingly wouldn’t translate as well to other artists, but she taps into a different mind-set when collaborating. “I try to think out of their perspective. It’s still personal, just more subtle and personal to them.”
She adds that her own voice was developed while writing songs for hire. “It was writing for others that made me realize I need to have something out there that’s mine and exactly the way I’d say it. Over time, I noticed the songs that made me feel the most were ones [in which] I’d write what I’m honestly feeling. And the more I did it, the more free I felt.”
Like her peers Lykke Li and Robyn, Lo follows the long line of pop exports from Sweden with a trunk full of memorable songs. She dismisses the idea that Sweden’s rich pop history had much influence on her, though.
“I guess my music goes along with the simplicity of melodies and directness. Swedish is more of a blunt language. You just kind of say it. When I was younger, I didn’t listen to much Swedish pop, actually. I was really into grunge. Silverchair and Hole — Courtney Love is a badass. That’s what I connect with.”
Ken Capobianco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.