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How Tove Lo learned to embrace her femininity with new album ‘Dirt Femme’

Tove Lo embraced her feminine side — on her own terms — to rediscover her music and heal past pain

By Emma Wilkes

A publicity photograph of Tove Lo
Tove Lo (Picture: Kenny Laubbacher)

Tove Lo didn’t always embrace her femininity. When she was first trying to break into the music industry, it was something she thought she had to bury to get ahead. “I felt like if I expressed more of my masculine traits, it would be easier for me to get a foot in the door and get ahead and be part of the men’s club that [the music industry] was at the beginning of my career,” Lo says, lounging on the bed in a hotel room in Estonia, where she’s about to start filming the music video for recent single ‘2 Die 4’. “I started to view my feminine traits as weaknesses instead of strengths.”

It’s been close to a decade since the Swedish singer-songwriter made her breakthrough, with early single ‘Habits (Stay High)’ becoming a sleeper hit after a remix, simply titled ‘Stay High’, which blew up online. Although it has some way to go, Lo observes that there’s been a sea change since then, particularly after the #MeToo movement, which began in 2017. “I’ve been seeing a lot more celebration of feminine traits, and it’s made me like those parts of myself a bit more again.”

Making a record revolving around femininity wasn’t a conscious decision — it just happened to be the theme that unified the songs that Lo had chosen to make the final cut of the album. “A lot of it’s very emotional and very vulnerable,” she says, qualities which Lo herself considers to be more feminine. “I’m going through all the thoughts and feelings and fears and emotions I’ve been feeling the past two years with all this change, and I had a moment to think about my life and look at the journey I’ve done as an artist.” The album’s working title was the more simple Feminine, before it was altered to Dirt Femme to more adequately describe how Lo sees her femininity in relation to herself. “This is me embracing my feminine traits, but I’m a bit rough around the edges,” she adds.

The groundwork for what would become her fifth album began in January 2020, when Lo wrote lead single ‘No One Dies From Love’ hoping to release it in the summer to offer something new to play out when festival season rolled around. However, the Covid pandemic meant that wasn’t to be. The stillness and monotony of that year brought a drought in terms of her creativity. Lo only began writing again when things started to look a little brighter in 2021, in particular after shooting the film The Emigrants in Sweden when her creative itch came back.

“I never wanted that normal life. But I’ve found a person that I want to be with, and I loved getting married. It was so romantic“

— Tove Lo

“There’s something different about this record that makes me think of my first album,” Lo reflects. The pandemic brought her back to a time akin to the days before her career had taken off, particularly as she was writing in her bedroom again, as if she was journalling, and was without a record deal having finished her contract with Universal (Dirt Femme is her first album on her own label). “You have your whole life to write your first album, but only a few months or a year tops to write your second and third,” she says. “There’s a pattern that starts to happen and when you’re writing those albums, you’re out on the road, you’re doing interviews, you’re still being a performer, being an artist. I didn’t feel like an artist during this time at all. I felt like a bit like me before this whole surreal, magic thing happened to me and my dreams came true.”

Dirt Femme is an album where Lo is “asking a lot of questions, but I don’t really have any answers”. In this time, she was thinking particularly about her relationship to tradition, and by extension traditional femininity, after she got married. Marriage hadn’t really been something she’d envisioned for herself, but deciding to tie the knot was an unusually traditional event — particularly since she, as a queer person, was entering a straight-passing marriage — in her generally non-traditional life. She chews this over in one of Dirt Femme’s earliest highlights, “Suburbia: ‘I don’t want suburbiaI can’t be no Stepford wife”. 

A publicity photograph of Tove Lo
Tove Lo (Picture: Moni Haworth)

“I had a lot of friends from my past who live a bit more traditionally, who were so excited that I got married, and it was almost like, ‘You’re normal like us!’” she remembers. “I never wanted that normal life. But I’ve found a person that I want to be with, and I loved getting married. It was so romantic. But I thought, ‘Am I turning into a person now that I didn’t want to become?’”

The time she had with her own thoughts also brought her to reflect upon the past, particularly when she had bulimia. Shooting The Emigrants required her to lose weight in a short space of time to play a starving prostitute, and it was the first time she had been on a diet since her recovery. It brought back memories of counting calories and the anxiety flooding her brain that she once experienced when she had to eat in front of someone. “It made me need to write about it. That’s how it happens for me, I’ll go through something and then I have to write about it.” 

“There are songs to give you comfort, to make you dance and feel sexy, to make you cry. You can go through your life with this album”

— Tove Lo

The resulting song is ‘Grapefruit’, the first song that Tove Lo has ever been able to write about her bulimia, something she’s been trying to create for a decade or so. “I’d never really been ready. I’ve been healthy for a very long time now, and I feel like it’s been long enough now that I feel distant from it. I’m very proud of myself for being able to go on that diet, stop and then go back to my normal weight and not be too heavily affected by it.” 

Overall, however, Tove Lo hopes Dirt Femme is an album for any mood or occasion. “There are songs to give you comfort, to make you dance and feel sexy, to make you cry,” she says. “You can go through your life with this album.”

Tove Lo’s new album Dirt Femme is out 14 October.

Taken from the October/November 2022 issue of Rolling Stone UK. Buy it online now.