Tove Styrke loves to dress up. When I log on for our zoom interview she’s wearing a red tulle gown embroidered with love hearts, and a feather boa. “I feel like I glow up more on zoom than I do in real life”, she laughs, “zoom and music videos, that’s where I go in.” She’s right about the music videos: her most recent release “Mood Swings” shows her transformed into a motley ensemble of characters, ranging from a “goth demon”, to a girl in a red ball gown smeared with dirt. As we talk about the concept behind the video (each character has its own unspoken backstory: the “goth demon” is a gender-fluid art student called Elliot who can do FX makeup, the girl covered in dirt lives outside LA, and buried her husband), I’m struck by the richness of Styrke’s inner life. She is strikingly self-reflective, open and genuine, and her excitement over her work is infectious. It’s hard to pull away from the conversation, and as she reveals more layers of herself and her creative process, I begin to feel like I’ve known her for years. She is as captivating on a zoom screen as on the stage.
The success of “Mood Swings”, over ten years since she first gained popularity as a contestant on Swedish Idol 2009, is a testament to her captive audience, as well as her willingness to evolve as a performer. After the show, Styrke launched a solo career in electropop, and she’s released three albums since then, toured alongside Katy Perry and Lorde, and sold out arenas.
Here, Styrke opens up about the hardships she’s endured over the past three years since her last album “Sway”, how her shift in priorities has influenced her forthcoming music, and the importance of aiming for authenticity over perfection. I leave feeling inspired, and I suspect that the Swedish pop star has this effect on everyone she meets.
Check out the interview below now…
How are you doing, how has this year been for you so far?
Oh my god, this year… I imagine you talk to so many people about COVID being a fucking mess, but these past years since I last released music, it’s been crazy, it’s been so intense. When COVID happened, I had a life crisis because I didn’t know if I was ever going to have a job again. My passion, my life, what I do, is performing, and from one day to another, the stages, the audiences, it was just gone. That was horrible, and I sound spoiled when I say that, but it was awful, it really truly was. But I really feel like I came out the other side of this year feeling better than I was, because it forced me to look at where I stand, look at my life, and appreciate my life. I realised that I really have a good life, I’m thankful for it, and I have so many people that I love. Your career is just one tiny little piece of your life, I don’t care that much about my career anymore, and it feels so much better. It feels like a better starting point, or a better foundation, to make art. It gets more honest, because I’m not doing it to succeed and I’m happy where I am now. Now it’s just a way for me to have fun and enjoy life.
How has that mental shift affected your creative process?
I don’t worry anymore. I think that’s the biggest thing, I’ve always been obsessed with making everything so perfect. It’s always taken me forever to finish things because I sit and try to polish, polish, polish, and perfect, and make it the absolute best that I can. What I realised is that being perfect and being the best isn’t necessarily the most interesting thing. I feel like it’s more important to be honest and authentic, and brave enough to show people what you’re really thinking without editing it too much. I feel like now I’m not editing anything that I do as much as I used to. That’s a new thing I realised, you don’t have to make everything so polished and perfect, it’s more fun if you just let go and put stuff out, just to show people what your brain looks like. That’s more interesting.
Is the new project that you’re preparing to release, which “Mood Swings” is a part of, a product of this new pandemic-induced perspective?
Yeah, definitely, I made a bunch of songs, and then COVID happened and all of a sudden a lot of them didn’t feel that relevant anymore. I have a few songs that still survived, the big ships. I have one love song that I wrote for my girlfriend for instance that’s still in there, and a couple more that feel timeless, but really I had to start over from scratch because I had to rediscover who I am and what I want in life. Everything just changed.
What about “Mood Swings”, was that a survivor from earlier times or was it a product of COVID?
A product of COVID. It was a product of lots and lots of zoom sessions, like making music with people over zoom, I think I’m the only person who likes zoom. I just love that way of making music, it’s more personal, because you sit with people in their bedroom, you’re not in a fancy studio somewhere. It’s more intimate, and I really liked that way of writing. I discovered that during this year. It’s a zoom song and that was really the song that made it clear to me what it was that I wanted to do this time around.
I wanted to talk to you about the music video – it shows you transformed into all these different characters. What was the concept behind that?
So for the video, I thought that it would be interesting to have one person portray all these, visually, very different characters. I really look at them as different people, they’re not different versions of me, they are themselves and they all have names and backstories. I’ve spent a lot of time making them, writing them, creating them. But the whole point, the idea for the video, is that the viewers don’t know. They don’t know their backstories, they don’t know what they’ve been through, they don’t know who they are, they don’t know what they’re feeling. Maybe they are feeling the same thing, maybe they’re feeling completely the opposite of what you might expect, like there’s one girl covered in dirt, you just don’t know…
What’s her backstory?
I might make a music video of her backstory… she’s the most dangerous one. She killed her boyfriend, and buried him.
Yeah, she was going to be covered in blood but YouTube wouldn’t allow it.
What about the goth demon?
Their pronoun is “they”, their name is Elliott, and that’s the person that has the most integrity. They went to art school, they’re pretty good at FX makeup and stuff like that, maybe they work professionally in it. I think you can find some really old, at least five, six years old, videos on YouTube where they explain how to do prosthetic effects.
But you made them all up, right? They’re not inspired by real people?
I mean all the people you make up are inspired by real people I guess. But yeah, I spent a lot of time thinking about them and making them up.
Which one do you identify with the most?
I really love the red vest girl, the killer. I really love her. I feel like she’s the happiest as well, she’s found her way to freedom. And I really love Jane, the one with the bandaid on her eye.
Why does she have the bandaid? I was curious about that.
She’s just crazy. I don’t know why, nobody knows why, she’s also the one who’s got the “bad bitch” tattoo on the inside of her lip. She’s got a rich inner life, and a secret life, like she has an office job but she doesn’t care for anybody there. She’s got her own thing going on, like she loves karaoke, but she doesn’t care about anything. She’s like anarchy, she’s just insane.
That’s so sick.
Yeah, she doesn’t feel part of any situation that she’s in.
Do you think these characters know each other?
No, I don’t think that would be likely. I know the red dress girl lives outside LA. I think Elliot lives in London.
I can definitely see that. Is there an artist whose music videos have inspired your visuals? Your videos seem so much more multi-layered than most music videos coming out right now.
Gosh, I don’t know, I just like telling stories and portraying humanity in different forms. I think that’s why I make things, I want to connect with people and I want to feel that sameness. That’s the coolest part of doing what I do, I get to meet people who vibe with my music, and have taken it to heart. Them and me – we can live such different lives, in different places, be different ages, different everything – and we can come together in this little story, this little moment. The “Sway” video for instance, so many people contact me about that video, like they feel so much for that and they recognise that feeling and that love. It’s something that I felt so strongly, that was really authentic and real to me and I think it’s so amazing that a lot of people could relate to the same thing. It just feels important to me to tell these stories, where there really is a person behind it, and we feel like this isn’t just an idea that somebody made because it was going to look cool; there’s a human in there, there’s real feelings, real emotions.
For sure. What about “Start Walking”, is that going to be similar?
If I manage to do what I want to do, the “Start Walking” video is going to be a deep dive into my heritage. There’s this very specific culture in Sweden called “dansband”, which translates to “dance band”. It’s very unique to Sweden. It’s definitely not cool in any way, you have to see it and hear it to get it and it’s hard to explain, but it was really huge in the seventies. It was like pop bands going around everywhere playing covers and their own materials, and people would come out and dance. It’s just a huge thing here and a big part of Swedish culture. My dad was in a band like that when he was young. I want to tell a story inspired by that, I think it would be cool.
Is there going to be a video for that as well?
Yeah, I think it would be really cool to make something that feels more documentary style, and as historically accurate as possible. They used to wear these crazy, insane costumes, because the only way that they could get the stage clothing eligible for tax write-offs was if it was labelled as “fantasy clothing”. So I think it’s going to be a fun project to dive into fashion-wise.
Both “Mood Swings” and “Start Walking” are part of a bigger project, could you talk a little about the project as a whole?
Yeah, I don’t know yet if it’s going to be an album or EP or two albums. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, I think it’s going to come out next year to be quite honest, because I have a lot of songs that I want to put out on their own first and have videos for them. I really feel like this whole project is going to be an exciting one because I’m treating each song almost like an album release. Each song really is its own story and the look and concept is going to be completely different for each one, like I have this one song that’s like a sixties pop ballad where I’m singing my heart out and it’s completely different from “Start Walking”. It’s really going to be a rollercoaster, but I think it’s going to be an exciting one to follow.
A sixties vibe seems like a new direction for you. Is this project a sign of you distancing yourself from electropop, are you over it?
No I’m not over it, I have one of those songs on this project, and I still love it. I think it’s just very in my nature to change. It’s so important for me to wake up every day and feel like I can be whoever I want to be and that nobody can put me in a box, that’s something that I’m really passionate about. Once I’ve finished a project I always gravitate towards the complete opposite. It would also be way too scary to try to recreate something that you’re so happy with, like I love the songs on my last album and I don’t think that I can make that sound any better.
Speaking of changing, it’s been three years since you last released music, and you mentioned earlier that you’ve gone through some radical shifts since then. How have you evolved in the past three years, both as a human being and as an artist?
I just feel like these three years since I last put out music, I’ve fallen in love, I sort of lost my job, went through several identity crises with the press, got out of that and I got depressed because my sister got cancer – it was horrible, but she’s well now thankfully. I’ve just gone through so much emotionally and I’ve never been lower, but it also made me, as I said in the beginning, reprioritize to such an extent that I don’t look at what I do in the same way. I’m so much more relaxed and I’m just thankful to have my life and to have the people that I love in it and it’s hard to point at one thing that made that big change but I think all of it combined put me in this place where I’m like, “I love where I am”. I try not to feel scared that it’s going to go away, and just enjoy it, because I’m really happy to be where I am.
What was it that got you through that hard time and brought you back to yourself? Was there anything that helped you?
I think when people go through difficult things, we tend to say things like, “I can’t believe that you got through that, I could never have done that.” And that’s such a wrong sentiment because nobody can. It’s not easy for anybody. But when shit happens, when life gets dark, you don’t have a choice. You just keep living your life, you just keep existing, and one day it’s going to be over, and that’s where I am now. It’s just like, “oh, I can breathe again”. And then it’s so much more fine than it ever was. I never appreciated my life like I do now before. It’s not one thing though, I haven’t done anything to feel good now or to get through depression. I haven’t done anything, I’ve just stayed here, and that’s it. And yeah, I’m really just happy.
That’s wonderful, I’m so happy for you! The future’s looking bright, what’s next for you?
Lots and lots of music and videos and amazing photo shoots. I have so much in store for people to see and I really can’t wait to put more stuff like collaborations out, it’s going to be fun. I don’t have anything planned yet, but I really can’t wait to be back on stage and perform all these new songs and play guitar for the first time in a live set. I just can’t wait.
Stylist: , @mariabarsoum
, Mikas Looks, @Johannanomiey