EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH TOVE LO

Tove-Lo-1Tove Lo has quickly become Sweden’s most exciting musical import since Robyn.

Her brilliant debut EP, Truth Serum (iTunes), was released last month to rave reviews. A gut-wrenching record that chronicles the singer coping with the deterioration of a painful relationship, the EP calls to mind Jagged Little Pill – but with a sophisticated and contemporary electro pop makeover.

Currently hitting the road on her first ever American tour, Tove chatted with me about her upcoming full length album, her refreshingly unfiltered lyrics, her thoughts on drugs and tattoos, and more.

ALEX: Where does the name Tove Lo come from?

TOVE: Tove Lo has been my nickname since I was, like, three. Lo means “lynx” in Swedish, and there was a lynx that was named Tove at the animal park that I kind of fell in love with when I was a kid, so this has been my nickname since forever. It felt natural to keep it.

Last month at SXSW, you played your first ever U.S. show. How did that experience compare to playing in your homeland of Sweden?

I love playing in Sweden. The audiences there are very attentive and you can tell they’re really listening to what you’re doing. But here, the response was just amazing. The audience had so much energy, and the way that people are cheering you on kind of feels like they’re interacting a bit more. They don’t hold back from anything. And if I’m like, “It’s so good to be here,” they’re like, “Yeah, it’s so good to have you!” And I’m like, “Oh, thanks!” So that was a really big difference. Just the energy in general and that kind of openness – it’s awesome.

This week, you’ll also be playing your first ever New York show. What are you looking forward to most about performing in the Big Apple?

I’ve been to New York so many times and I love the city. I’m just so excited to finally play there and I hope there are going to be tons of people. I’m playing at The Westway, which is an old strip club, so I’m kind of hoping some people will take the initiative to get up and do a full dance. I know the poles are still there, so whatever they’re doing, I’m going to be super excited! It’s going to be really fun.

That sounds like such a fun time! The Truth Serum EP is so brutally raw and honest, and it really does an amazing job of detailing the various hardships and stages of grieving that people go through after a tumultuous breakup. Are all the songs written about the same person? And did you find that expressing yourself through your music gave you closure on this relationship?

Yeah, it’s all about the same person. It’s about the relationship from beginning to end. I didn’t plan to write it that way, but when I looked at the songs that I had when I was picking ones for the EP, I was like, “Oh my god, here it is.” I didn’t really figure out that it was going to be the full story right there until I looked and listened, and I was like, “Wow, here it is! Just the way it is!”

When I figured that out, I was very happy because I was so proud of it. But then I kind of got to this empty moment. It was like, “Oh, this is it. It’s done now. I’ve now worked through these emotions, and I’ve released all the songs.” So even though the EP is done, the story is done, and the chapter is closed, I kind of relive everything a bit when I’m on stage sometimes. I have some gigs that just really get to me and it’s like I’m getting thrown back into those moments that the songs are about. But yeah, I feel like it’s been kind of a closure. It’s been an interesting experience putting my emotions out there for everyone.

I bet. Do you prefer writing songs about despair or writing happy songs, and why?

I think despair. Outwards, I’m generally a really happy person — although I do have my moments. But I usually shut the door on everyone when I’m in those moments. So I think for me to get that out is good. I like writing about things that make you feel a bit of tearing in the heart. That’s what I love to listen to as well – something that kind of tears you from the inside because that emotion is just more honest to me. I feel better after writing a song that gets me through something that’s darker.

Later this year, you’ll be releasing your first full length album via Island Def Jam. Both thematically and musically, how do you think this record will differ from your EP?

Well it’s all going to be about my life, and keep that same kind of truthful, raw honesty. But it’s going to be more of a mix of the life that I’ve been living the last few years. Just everything that’s been happening and that sudden feeling of having all eyes on me. You know, that kind of feeling where you’re like, “Whoa, everybody’s suddenly very curious about who I am,” and you kind of realize, “Was it worth it to give it all away?”

To be so honest is the only way I can write my own stuff. So it’s going to be a lot of love and frustration and kind of what it feels like to be under the radar. I’ve experienced a little more and have gotten into a bit of trouble, so that’s going to be on there as well.

Right now, I’m going to keep writing for a while to see what else I can get out of me. Pretty soon I’m going to just start looking at what I have and figure out where I see the story and what I want to tell. It’s important to me that it’s cohesive. I don’t want it to be like one of those projects that’s thrown together with tons of different writers and tons of different producers. It’s going to be with my people that I like to work with and be very clearly, “Oh, this is Tove.” You’ll know that right away.

Do you have a title and/or release date in mind yet?

There is a deadline … but I’m not paying attention to that. So far, the working title is Embryos, but that’s all I have so far. I came up with the title for Truth Serum when I had all the songs and it was done and I was like, “What do I want this to be called?” That’s when I came up with that. So it’s going to be the same for the album. When I have it all done, I’m going to know what I want to call it.

In March, you released the music video for “Habits,” which includes some intense party sequences. Was there a specific scene that was most fun to film for you?

It was actually very hard to film because it was so emotional. But the most fun I think … it’s a combination because we had three nights out during that shoot. During the first one, we were in the good drunk place. We weren’t like, too drunk. We were dancing with all these people and that was really fun. The making out stuff was funny too. It was funny when we did the close ups because you feel so weird. Those are some of my best friends that are in the video, but I’ve never made out with them before. It was really kind of a funny and awkward moment to be like, “So, we’ve known each other for years, time to take this other places,” And we were just like laughing and that was really fun. But everyone was a good sport for making out with me for a week.

Drugs show up in a couple of your songs. On “Habits,” you’re using them to numb the pain of a breakup, while on “Not on Drugs,” you’re comparing them to the euphoric feeling you get when you fall deeply in love with someone. Have you received any backlash for being so open and candid about this topic? And if so, what’s your response to those critics?

I haven’t really looked at any comments or reviews. I’m trying to stay away from that stuff because it scares me. But I’m assuming that of course some people are going to be against it, and say I’m not a good role model and that it’s not good for young people to see this. I mean, someday it’s going to come. Especially with the song growing, people are going to have a lot of opinions about it. I know it’s provocative, but I like to do it that way. I think I’d rather have people react than not feel anything about it. It’s also that I write what I know and this is what I know. You don’t have to listen to it.

So what are your thoughts on the criminalization of marijuana?

Well, I think that if alcohol is allowed, I don’t understand the reasoning for why marijuana isn’t. That’s how I feel. Obviously, I’m not saying that I think alcohol should be illegal.

I totally agree. The “Stay High” remix of “Habits” has been blowing up ever since Ellie Goulding endorsed the song on her Instagram. How did that remix come into fruition and what appealed to you most about how Hippie Sabotage reworked the song?

It’s a very funny story, actually. There was a friend of mine who was like, “Hey, have you heard this awesome remix?” It was in a surf video that someone put up and I was like, “No, that’s amazing!” So I was like, “Who’s it by, who’s it by?” And they were like, “I don’t know, I think something Hippie?”

So then I found them, and was like, “Hey, I heard you guys did an awesome remix of my song, can you send it to me, please?” and they were like, “Oh my god, hi, yeah!” and they emailed it to me and said, “Here it is, what do you think? Do you have any opinions?” And I was like, “Only that it’s awesome and I want it on my EP!”

So we just kind of worked out all the kinks and got it on the EP and it just took off. I was blown away. I just love how they’ve made a proper dance remix of the song, but it still has that darkness to it. It’s just the way that they used all the parts. They did a genius job on it. I haven’t ever even met them, but obviously I think they’re great.

Speaking of collaborating with other musicians, you recently hit the studio with Adam Lambert to help write songs for his upcoming album. What details can you share about what you two cooked up together?

I’m sorry, I actually can’t talk about that at all.

No worries! You’ve worked with such coveted songwriters as Max Martin and Xenomania, and you’ve written music for various other artists – including Cher Lloyd, Lea Michele, and Girls Aloud. As a songwriter, how is your creative process different when writing for yourself versus when you’re writing for other musicians?

It’s all about getting in someone else’s head, really. When I’m writing for others, I won’t use my own experiences and my own stories because they’re not lived by that other person. It’s more like you connect to a feeling. Like, “Yeah yeah, I’ve had that feeling, let’s write about that feeling.” I try to just get into their heads and try to imagine what they would want to say and how they would say things. It helps if you’ve met them or if you know them, or if they write themselves, and you can do it together. The biggest thing is seeing from someone else’s perspective.

What are your thoughts on the resurgence over the past few years of Swedish artists being infused into American pop culture (i.e. Robyn, Icona Pop, Lykke Li, Loreen, iamamiwhoami)? Do you think there’s something distinct and inherent about Swedish music at its core that American listeners are attracted to?

Yeah! I’m so excited that there’s so much good stuff coming out of Sweden. I’m really a big fan of a lot of it. I think there’s a sort of darkness to it, and is a little bit melancholy, and I think that part speaks to a lot of people. Maybe there’s a type of directness and a kind of very lyrically clever theme that sometimes is a bit more honest, and not as edited or thought through as it might otherwise be.

This is actually something I’ve been thinking about, but I think it might also be because English is our second language. It’s much easier for me to express myself in English because there is that little distance to overcome. I can say things that are so personal and mean so much to me, but if I were to sing the same things in Swedish, it would feel like, “Whoa. That hit too hard.” Maybe we’re able to say things more honestly in English because there is a little bit of a distance. Does that make sense? But for you, when English is your first language, that goes straight to your heart and I think that maybe a lot of people can feel the connection. So maybe that’s why we dare to sing about it more than if it was in our first language. That’s my little analysis.

That’s so interesting! I hear you’re very big into tattoos. How many do you have and which one would you say is your favorite?

I have three, all in decent places. I have two that are from the painter, Mark Ryden. I love his stuff and it also reminds me of my time in my old band. There’s one on my left upper arm and one on my right lower arm. Then I have a little super ugly scorpion that’s tattooed under my right collarbone, which I don’t know what I’m going to do about. I mean, it’s part of me now, but it’s so ugly! It’s the worst. But I think my favorite is actually the one on my shoulder. That’s actually how a lot of people recognize me. I always figured I had an ordinary face, so when people see that, they’re like, “Oh my god, it’s you!” It’s pretty funny.

Well thank you so much, Tove! This has been great. Is there anything else you’d like to add about your tour, EP, or upcoming album that we didn’t discuss?

I don’t think so! I think we covered the lot of it. Thank you so much!

Tove Lo

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH BONNIE MCKEE

bonnie-mckeeBonnie McKee is no stranger to the top of the Billboard charts.

Over the past three years, McKee has been responsible for penning nine No. 1 pop anthems and has sold more than 28 million records worldwide. She’s worked with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Ke$ha, Adam Lambert, and Kylie Minogue, and her biggest smashes to date include Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me,” Taio Cruz’ “Dynamite,” and a whole slew of Katy Perry’s greatest hits – including “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Part of Me,” and the current #1 single in the country, “Roar.”

But earlier this summer, McKee decided to step out from behind the scenes and revisit her dreams of becoming a performing artist. Thus, with the release of “American Girl,” the debut single (available on iTunes) from her upcoming album, the California-born singer/songwriter made the transition from just being the voice behind the lyrics to actually being the voice singing them.

As she prepares for the release of her as-of-yet-untitled album (slated to be released by Epic Records in 2014), McKee chatted with me about the release of “American Girl,” her creative process, her secret recipe for songwriting success, how she plans to balance her performing and songwriting career, and much more!

Congratulations on the success of “American Girl” so far!

Thank you so much! We’re still in the grind so I won’t be happy until it’s gone all the way.

You’re responsible for writing nine of the biggest pop songs of the past few years. Which one would you say is your favorite and which one would you say is your crowning achievement?

Let’s see. Well, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for “Teenage Dream.” That’s a big one for me. But I think my favorite right now is “Roar,” the new one that I wrote for Katy Perry.

You started out as a performer then switched to exclusively songwriting for a little while. Why did you decide that now was the perfect time for you to re-emerge as a performer again?

Well, after I released my first album, I got dropped from my label, and I kind of had to start writing out of necessity. It was always my secret plan to be an artist again, so I just knew that I had to come back ripe with ammunition. I needed to have a story and I needed to catch people’s attention. I was good at songwriting and I hoped that through that, I could get back to being my own artist again.

How indicative is “American Girl” of the sound of your upcoming album?

Very. It’s all very colorful and full of pop anthems. I’m pulling a lot from my influences like Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson. It’s definitely going to be really big and fun!

Do you have a title and/or release date planned yet?

Not yet. I’m still writing. Most of it’s done, but I like to write up until the last minute. You never know, it could be that last song you write that’s a spark of genius and could be the title of the album. So I’m going to wait until I decide what I’m going to call it.

Why did you choose “American Girl” as your re-introduction to the pop world?

Well I felt like “American Girl” was the quintessential Bonnie McKee song. I’m known for my lyrics and big melodies, so I felt like it was very me. I pulled from my own real life experiences and it just seemed like the most obvious choice.

The video for “American Girl” is filled with so many familiar faces. How did you get all of these celebrities to participate?

Most of them are friends of mine. I just sent out a mass text and e-mail. I wasn’t expecting that many people to participate! It was really moving actually. When I got the Tommy Lee video back of him in drag as me flying upside down in the air and playing the drums, I literally was bawling. I was crying. I filmed a reaction video and sent it to him and was like, “look what you’ve done to me, Tommy!” It was just so overwhelming because that song had been on my hard drive forever and no one had really heard it. So for the first people to be hearing it to be these people, and then for them to get so creative with it, was really over the top and overwhelming.

How is your creative process different when writing for yourself versus writing for other artists?

When I’m writing with other artists, most of the time, I have that artist in the room. It’s like a therapy session in a way because I’m picking their brains about what they’re going through and what they want to say. So they share their feelings and I take that and I turn it into a pop song. When it comes to myself, I have to dig a little deeper. I’ve written so many songs in my life that I really have to push myself. There really are so many things to write about in a pop song, so I like to get really creative with my lyrics and try to say something kinda quirky that I don’t think a lot of artists would want to say. So yeah, I’d say I get a little quirkier with my own lyrics.

For the fans that have been following you from the start of your career, will the songs you had featured on your MySpace in between your first album and now ever be available to download or buy?

Yes! There was one song called “Thunder” that got remixed by Rusko – he’s a really awesome DJ. I sent him the acapella and he did this whole thing to breathe new life into it, so that one got kind of a life again. “Stars In Your Heart” may actually make the album. I’m actually planning on making a video for that one either way, even if it’s just for online release. And then I think “Love Spell” will have a new life too. That’s a song that a lot of big names have recorded. A lot of people have wanted that song and I’ve heard so many great, famous voices on it. But I don’t want to give it up! It’s a song that I wrote for myself and is very personal to me, so I’m excited to sing it.

You’ve also written a lot with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who are pop songwriting legends in their own rights. What’s the best piece of advice they’ve ever given you?

Literally every time I write with them, I learn something new. I always try and let the professionals do their thing and I try to pick up as much as I can. But I think the most important thing I’ve learned is simplicity. It’s easy to try to get overly clever, but I think it’s important to instead just pick and choose the moments where you want to be clever and let the record just be accessible. So yeah, I’d say simplicity is definitely the most important thing I’ve learned from Max Martin and Dr. Luke.

So is keeping it simple your secret formula for writing so many #1 hits?

I guess so. It also helps working with all of these amazing artists and songwriters, so it’s always a collaborative effort. But yes, I think that’s the key – writing a song that people can relate to, even if they don’t speak English. As long as you can sing along to it and still feel something, that’s what works. So phonetics are also really important.

I know you yourself weren’t present at the VMA’s this year, but what were your thoughts on the mob of redheads who were all chanting your name on camera?

I thought it was amazing! It was so cute. I didn’t even know that was coming, so when I saw it, I was like, “Oh my god!” It was quite a surprise. It was really cool. It’s awesome to know that you can have a Bonnie McKee costume – and the fact that it’s recognizable is really awesome. It really warmed my heart.

That must have been a really big moment for you!

Yeah! It was a big moment for me. It was one of those moments that I was like, “oh my god, this is really real,” so it was pretty cool.

Speaking of the VMAs, what was your favorite performance of the night?

There were some really good ones! It was a really exciting year this year. I feel like the past couple years have been pretty dull. I really enjoyed Lady Gaga’s performance because she always brings 110%. And of course, Katy. She’s always great. It’s always exciting to hear the songs that I wrote being performed. Every time I’ve seen someone perform a song live that we wrote together, I cry. Every single time. I’m a big cry-baby. So that’s always exciting. And of course, Bruno Mars.

It must be really interesting to see all the visual narratives and choreography and production value added to the performances of these songs that you wrote and seeing how all those things play out on stage together.

Yeah, it’s really cool! I’m always excited to see the music videos too because I feel like every time I write a song, I have a video for it in my head. I’m always imagining what the video for the song would look like. That’s kind of how I write, so it’s always fun to see how they turn out.

As a co-writer of “Roar,” what is your response to the allegations that the song sounds too similar to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”?

Yeah, I heard about that. It’s funny because people forget that we wrote this song months ago. We wrote the song before “Brave” came out and I had never actually heard it. Then when I listened to it, I was like, “oh yeah, I guess that is kind of reminiscent,” but it’s a total coincidence. I had never heard the song before and I think it’s a great song, by the way. I love Sara. I think she’s so talented. And it happens all the time. I hear stuff on the radio that I’m like, “what?! I just wrote something like that!” but there’s no way that anyone could have copied that because nobody in the world’s ever heard it. But it’s just kind of something that happens and I think it happens all the time.

Will we be hearing more of your songs on Katy and/or Britney’s upcoming albums?

Yeah, I wrote 4 songs on the new Katy album, Prism. I’m really excited about those. We really had a lot of fun writing them together. They’re really different and fun. She likes to get experimental so they’re kind of a departure from her last album that I worked on with her. As far as Britney, I don’t know. If they call me, I’ll definitely do it. It’s always so exciting to hear an iconic voice like Britney’s singing the words that I’ve written.

That actually leads in nicely to my next question –  Do you ever get nervous or star-struck when collaborating with artists of that caliber? For instance, I heard you wrote a song on Cher’s upcoming album. That must have been quite an experience!

I know that Cher recorded a song that I wrote and that was really exciting, but I don’t know if it made the final cut of her album or not. That happens a lot – where the artist will record like 45 songs and they’ll pick the best from those, so I have no idea if she’ll be using it or not. But either way, it’s an honor to have her voice singing my song. She’s just an idol of mine. But yes, absolutely, I get nervous. Britney Spears is someone I grew up listening to and idolizing and watching and studying, so to see her in the flesh and to hear her voice was just really surreal. I’ve gotten to meet all kinds of people – like Steven Tyler was a big one for me. I got to sing for him and he got to sing for me, just me and him and a piano, so I’ve had tons of amazing experiences. It’s been very rewarding being behind the scenes.

What’s one song from the past year that you didn’t write but wish you had?

Hmm … “Call Me Maybe” is maybe 2-years-old now, but I wish I wrote that one. From top to bottom, it’s just a perfect pop song. There are no holes, no questions about it. It’s just a perfect pop song. And Carly Rae [Jepsen] is a total sweetheart.

After your album is released, how do you plan on balancing your career as a songwriter and your career as a popstar?

Well I’m fortunate in that I’m able to pick and choose who I want to write for and what I want to do. But I think for now, I’m an artist. It was always my #1 goal to be on stage and to be able to move people with my own voice and have that experience of sharing my music with people. There’s just nothing like that. So I think I’m going to focus more on my own artist project. As far as songwriting stuff – I’ll do things that I can’t say no to. If Katy calls, I’m not going to say no. If Britney calls, I’m not going to say no. If Cher calls, I’m definitely not going to say no.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your album or any of your upcoming plans that we didn’t talk about?

I don’t think so! I guess just buy the “American Girl” single on iTunes!

bonnie-mckee1Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: KATY PERRY’S “PART OF ME”


Last weekend at the 54th annual Grammy Awards, 27-year-old diva Katy Perry debuted her new single, “Part of Me.”

Continuing her Diet Lady Gaga wardrobe choices, Perry squeezed herself into a gold and silver spandex suit she received courtesy of a pile of rejected Power Rangers costume designs that her assistant had to sell his soul to acquire. And in case we forgot that she played a principal role in the cinematic train wreck that was The Smurfs, Perry kindly wore the blue wig that was distributed at the film’s wrap party as a reminder. And, thus, the world was introduced to “Part of Me.”

Although a demo version of the track has been floating around the blogosphere for over a year, the official release of “Part of Me” is timed to the upcoming re-release of Perry’s 2010 record-breaking album, Teenage Dream. And in a stroke of marketing genius, the release of this defiant breakup anthem is also timed perfectly to the very public divorce Perry is currently going through with British comedian Russell Brand. Think Nick Lachey’s “What’s Left of Me” but with bigger boobs and more cotton candy.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not Perry’s biggest fan. I find her music to be everything from incredibly irritating to unoriginal to perpetuating terrible stereotypes to horrendously insensitive. Let us not forget that this is a woman who while married to a recovering alcoholic, put out a single about how much fun it is to black out on weekends. And then continued to show her support by releasing a remix of the same song to try and make even more money off of this concept.

Admittedly, I longed for “Part of Me” to be a disaster. I wanted it to be so bad that people would stop buying Perry’s records and she would just vanish from the charts and go back to Candyland to retire already. So imagine my disappointment upon first hearing the song and realizing that it’s the best one Perry has ever released.

On “Part of Me,” Perry trades in her signature mindless and sugarcoated fluff in favor of attitude and grit. Simply put, it’s the best Ashlee Simpson song that Ashlee Simpson never recorded. Listening to it, one might even be tricked into believing that Perry actually has a personality.

What makes “Part of Me” such an automatic smash for Perry is in large part due to the fact that much of the team behind it are people responsible for some of Britney Spears’ biggest hits. Produced by Dr. Luke (who not so subtly borrowed his own beats from Britney’s “Till The World Ends”), the song is co-written by Max Martin (Britney’s “Baby One More Time”) and Bonnie McKee (Britney’s “Hold It Against Me”), in addition to Katy herself. With a roster like that, it’s hard to imagine the track would be anything but guaranteed dynamite. And that’s precisely what it is.

“Part of Me” is also everything a successful contemporary breakup song should be. It’s layered with an unapologetic I’m-so-much-happier-without-you theme, an upbeat Kelly Clarkson-esque power pop/rock hook, and most importantly, self-empowerment.

“Now look at me I’m sparkling, a firework, a dancing flame. You won’t ever put me out again, I’m glowing. So you can keep the diamond ring, it don’t mean nothing anyway. In fact you can keep everything except for me,” Perry triumphantly declares in the song’s bridge before re-entering the fist-pumping chorus. “This is the part of me that you’re never gonna ever take away from me, no. Throw your sticks and stones, throw your bombs and your blows but you’re not going to break my soul.” Sounds like someone’s recently gotten their claws sharpened.

FUN FACT: The lyrics to the bridge originally read, “You can keep the dog, I never liked him anyway,” but were changed to “You can keep the diamond ring, it don’t mean nothing anyway” because …. well, you know. Sorry, Russell.

While “Part of Me” is by no means groundbreaking, it’s the perfect spice to add some much-needed substance and flavor to Perry’s repertoire. It’s almost hard to believe that a song as well constructed as this one comes to us from the same “artist” who gave the world “I Kissed A Girl,” “California Gurls” and “Peacock.”

A friend recently said to me, “it’s good to betray your principles from time to time. Doing that reminds you that you have them.” With that sentiment in mind, I put Katy Perry’s new single straight to the top of my cardio playlist – and immediately hated myself for having fueled the beast. But nothing burns more calories than self-loathing set to the beat of an excellent pop song.

Originally published on PopBytes