Tove Styrke on Being Inspired by the ‘Macarena,’ Impressing Elton John and Making ‘Mistakes’
The 2017 version of Tove Styrke is much different than the 2015 version of Tove Styrke—and she'll be the first to admit it.
One of Sweden's most exciting pop exports, the platinum selling artist released her aggressively loud U.S. debut album, Kiddo, two years ago. Brimming with feminist manifestos and politically-charged electro-pop anthems, the record solidified Styrke as an unwavering force in "Purposeful Pop" long before Katy Perry supposedly coined the term. This time around, however, the fierce singer-songwriter is singing a somewhat softer—though no less empowered—tune.
For the first time, Styrke is pouring her infectious energy into love songs. The reinvention began over the summer with "Say My Name," a deliriously bright summer bop featuring a textural, strummy string riff and a follow-the-bouncing-ball beat. On "Mistakes," released in September, the Swedish pop star continued the streak with a wobbly synth-driven ode to the kind of delicious romance that you take risks for.
Embracing love, it seems, is the final frontier for this defiant pop warrior, and she's armed and ready. Below, we catch up with Styrke to chat about getting two thumbs up from Elton John, the importance of making mistakes and why she's through with waiting to release new songs.
What have you been up to since your last release? Have you been mostly in the studio? I know you've been touring a lot, too.
I mean, the last thing I did before I went back into the studio was tour in the U.K. And then after that I went back to the studio and started writing, and that's what I've been doing this past year and a half.
Wow, that's a lot of studio time.
Yeah, it takes a lot of time. It took awhile for me, but I have a lot of new songs now that I really, really like. The first one of those was "Say My Name." It really took awhile before I found this sort of sound, this sort of tone that I was going for.
How did you know that “Say My Name” was the one that you wanted to release first? And how did you know it was the right time to do it?
The right time to do it? To be honest with you, it was as fast as I could get it done! I really feel bad, I don't want to sit on music just because. If I have written it already, I want to release it. If I feel like the timing is right... "Say My Name” was the first song that I really clicked with and the first song that made it, like, interesting for me. That feeling of like, “I'm onto something here!” So we saw it as a good introduction, since it was my entry into this new era as well.
I think it's really smart that when you were finished with it you just put it out there, because I feel like some artists try too hard to strategize the right time. Then after a while passes, the song gets stale and then they're not excited about it anymore.
Yeah, I know, and that's the saddest thing when that happens. I mean, you're so excited about it at one point and then you’re over it. It's so unnecessary and I really don't want that.
I always think it’s best to get it out to the fans, let it build traction. Let it happen naturally. Anyway, that song got some major love… I mean, Elton John!?
I know, that was insane! The Elton John thing... like, even my mom understands that that's [massive]. I lost my s---, I tell you, when you that happened. And then when Miley [Cyrus] shared it and added it to her playlist, I died. I couldn't believe it. Elton John, because he has a radio show in the U.K. on Radio One, he talked to Paul McCartney and said, "I love this song." Like, he said those words. That's so insane to me.
“Say My Name” is such a different kind of song than what you've written before. It's such a pure love song. What kind of changes in your life happened to inspire that, since Kiddo was so much more political in tone?
I feel like with me and my expression and my creativity I often tend want to go the opposite direction and try something new when I've done one thing for awhile. I guess it's a lot of that. My last album was, for me, maximalist and “more is more” and the lyrics and songs were also big. I just crammed as much as I could into there.
This time I felt like it would be such a nice challenge to just try and strip it down and take it back and keep it as simple and direct as possible. That felt interesting to me. On Kiddo, I went through a phase when I was nineteen, twenty, maybe twenty-one years old where it was like I all of a sudden I realized there were other people in the world and that they have feelings, too. My psychiatrist says this a natural thing: That up to a certain point you don’t really have empathy like a grown up person does. That sort of hit me like, “Oh my God... We are a whole world and who am I in it?” So Kiddo was abstract in that sense of reflecting on [the world] around me. This new material is more about internal things and smaller things. It's not necessarily about world problems or like big struggles.
That makes sense and feels like a natural progression. Back when we spoke in 2015, you said something to me about claiming space as a woman and how you were hoping to make a change in the world and how important it is that we become better as a society. I wanted to get your perspective two years down the road. Do you feel like we've moved forward in a positive way? Do you think we've gone backwards at all?
Hmmm, I still feel like we are progressing. I mean, obviously there are things happening politically that makes it feel like we are actually moving backward. But—at least from my perspective and in my life and what I'm doing—I feel like people are getting better and are learning. I don't come across as much sexism in terms of how people perceive me now. That doesn't happen to me at all the same way it used to. During interviews, they are quite different now. I used to feel like the first thing I had to explain was that I write my own music and that I [oversee] the creative process. Everything comes from me, you know? I’m not just a pretty face. I always had to say that but now I don’t think I’ve had to in like, two or three years, maybe.
This is random, but I saw somewhere you mentioned that “Say My Name” was somewhat inspired by the “Macarena” and I thought that was amazing.
[Laughs] The thing about the “Macarena” is like, it’s a hit, it gets stuck on your brain, you remember it. What I can't figure out about this freaking song is that there's no melody, and there's not even words that I understand. It’s basically just instrumental and I always get impressed by simple things that still manage to push its way through. It’s simple but it’s memorable. I think it’s so cute. In that simple sense, I am impressed by that simplicity! But it wasn’t like we started listening to the “Macarena” like, “Yeah, let’s do something like that!” This was like, “There’s something about it that’s good and I don’t know what it is. How can we capture that?”
It's a huge part of music history, honestly. It has a sort of cheesy pop culture rap, but it was a hit and remains a cultural artifact. I thought it was really cool that you unabashedly brought it up. To that effect, “Say My Name” is not a humongous song, and it's not a hugely complicated song, and I think that's why it's so incredibly catchy. The melody is so infectious and yet it's incredibly unpredictable.
Yeah! That’s really something I tried to do. I tried to find a way to communicate something real while making it interesting. That’s the tricky part and that’s always the big thing I need to figure out. Once you have that figured out, like, the core, you can get to finishing it and finding the right vibe and making it a full song.
Your new single is called "Mistakes." When it comes to making mistakes as a human being, are you personally hard on yourself or do you relish the ability to learn from your errors?
I am hard on myself. I don’t dwell on things when something goes wrong, but I always expect myself to be pretty damn perfect. And sometimes I need a break from that. To just let it go and not care how things turn out.
How did the hook come to you? It’s super sticky.
I think it started with a discussion about “feeling like f---ing up” and why you get that from time to time. It seems almost second nature to most people to feel like that at one point or another and I think it’s interesting. So… “wanna make mistakes…” and then “you make me wanna make mistakes…” That’s how it came about.
Love can be messy and leave us vulnerable when we finally open up, but it can also free us from our own reservations. Is this what the song is about, to you?
Oh, you nailed that one! I might steal that for other interviews. [Laughs] Love can be messy and life can be messy and as a person who never wants to feel vulnerable I’m afraid of the mess. But maybe I’m the one that needs it the most.
Meet the Alternative Women of Pop: