No Mistakes Here
Everybody makes mistakes; big ones, small ones, insignificant ones, fleeting moments that single-handedly trigger momentous changes or the biggest catastrophe that ends up have zero repercussions.
In many circumstances mistakes are subjective, depending on what you define as a mistake and on what you make of the outcome. Pop music oftens calls for a certain level of perfection – as a medium it doesn’t take too kindly to mistakes – but the quest for perfection in the balance of simplicity and complexity is sometimes hard to strike.
On one side you have the imagined detractors of pop’s machine-like mechanics, who believe that music with maintream commercial ambition and lacking classic guitars to be vapid, devoid of meaning and inferior. Then there are the fans of pop. Music’s biggest success stories cultivate fanbases far and wide, but it’s young female fanbases that throughout history have been drivers of hype, fervour and anticipation. As with any warring factions, there’s also a middle ground: a happy medium of indifference or champions of specificity.
Existing on the fringes of the mainstream is Swedish export and self-described “pop princess” Tove Styrke. Hailing from a country rich with the musical heritage of ABBA and super-producer Max Martin, her homeland may be a creative melting pot of ambition and melodic prowess, but it’s Styrke’s self that is the driving force behind her latest projects.
Having released her first internationally available full-length in 2015 to much-lauded critical fanfare, Kiddo saw Styrke go big taking queues from its namesake, Kill Bill lead, Beatrix Kiddo. Fuelling her worldly anger through massive fuck-you anthems such as “Even If I’m Loud Doesn’t Mean I’m Talking To You” and obliterating the patriarchy on “Borderline”, the album remains an eclectic mix of mission statements that can be taken face value or explored deeper to expose the inner workings of Styrke's mind.
This time around, it’s all about minimalism rather than maximalism. “Say My Name”, the first release from Styrke’s next opus, is for all intents and purposes a straightforward pop song, complete with an actual choruses, a couple of verses and a delightful middle eight building up to a final chorus. Age-old, formulaic, but far from simple. A lot goes into making a song sound so seamless, so effortless. Saying Tove’s name is actually feat which not many English speakers can do right on their first attempt and even resulted in Tove recording a jingle for Radio 1 in which she sings “say my name / wear it out / don’t be shy / it’s Tove Styrke [too-ver strike] / you don’t need to be precise, when you / say my name”, going for the easier strike, rather than the more difficult [steer-kuh].
It’s been two years since you released Kiddo, so what have you been up to?
I’ve been writing all the time! I started writing immediately after [Kiddo's release], when I came back from the Years & Years tour. Is that two years ago? I can’t remember, maybe one and half. It took a while for me to hit that point where it clicked, and find something that really felt interesting to me. That happened around last summer. Since then I’ve been working more intensely on these new songs.
How did you feel after the Years & Years tour ended and Kiddo was over?
It’s such a strange thing, it’s kind of fuzzy! Because it’s still out and I’m not going to take it back, there’s not a definitive end to an album cycle. I remember I had to tell myself “can we decide now that this is where we finish this and move on and do new things?” For me, it was important to say that and define that breaking point, which was around Christmas, because I needed to get back in the studio and do more things. It’s such a weird thing, so I’m just supposed to put the lid on that.
In terms of composing and writing lyrics, do you find yourself working project by project or is it just as inspiration comes?
Up until now I’ve done it very much in phases and periods, but that’s one of the thing I want to get better at: writing simultaneously as I do other things. It takes so much time when you have to stop. First you write for like two years and you put something out and you do that for two years, then you have to review what you’ve gone through creatively and who you are now in your songwriting, because you’ve moved past that. It takes a lot of time to catch up with yourself and what I want to try and do is keep it going all the time, so that you never need to take that step back. I want to keep being in it, all the time, keep it going, that’s like my big challenge.
It must be hard, as you’ll write the songs so far back and it then takes an extended amount of time for the tracks to be produced, mixed, engineered and you’ll be releasing a “new” song that a year or so old.
For me it’s not really that long, I mean we started “Say My Name” last summer, but we didn’t finish it until Christmas, so we wrote on it for ages, we produced it for ages. It hasn’t been sitting in a box finished and waiting to be released, I’ve actually released it almost as fast as I could.
The reception has been really good.
Yeah it’s crazy, Lorde put it on her playlist! When I put Swedish words into sentences by mistake then that means I’m excited – I can’t language, I can’t words. Somebody tweeted me that she put it in there and I didn’t want to look in case it wasn’t there and then it was! She’s got the best music taste and she’s very good with words. I adore her and she really is one of the best lyricists that I know, incredible. I really like the new songs, I was kinda sceptical at first. Like why are they changing everything in the bridge, what’s going on. If you compare “Green Light” to Pure Heroine, it’s a completely different thing, but now I love it, the visual, everything.
What do you think it is about Lorde’s writing that speaks to you?
She’s one of those people that writes lyrics that stand alone. Often you need to the music to get the feeling, but her words are... it’s like you’re there, you see the room she’s talking about, the street she’s singing about, you can feel whatever it is, you know that there’s dust in the room, but she didn’t say that. I have the same thing, I’ve loved Bob Dylan for ages, he’s one of my first musical heroes. My first musical heroes were Björk and Bob Dylan, for completely different reasons, he’s the same for me, I just listen and I’m there, even though I’ve never gone through a divorce or whatever he’s singing about, I feel the feelings, because of the lyrics. Björk's expression is just so beyond. I listened to her before I even understood. I was 10 or something, some of the songs I couldn’t tell if it was English or Icelandic. Her voice, the production just blow my mind always.
Who are your favourite songwriters right now?
I really respect Julia Michaels, I think she writes cool things and there’s thought in the lyrics as well as the melodies, I think she’s really good, but there are so many talented people.
Britney Spears seems to be a part of things – there’s your lyric in “Number One”, and then you did the cover of “Hit Me Baby One More Time”.
I just love Britney! There’s something about her, I just feel so much for her, because she was big when I was young. I grew up with her and her breakdown and her comeback and everything. There’s just something about that woman, to comeback from that. If she can make it through 2007 then I can make it through this day! I have two quotes, that one, and the fact that I have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé. Those two are how I get to work.
Going back to “Say My Name” – when it was released you said it’s your best song ever, do you still think that’s true? Do you think you can better it?
I think I have already, but that is still the same thing. You have to love the things you create, or at least for me I feel like I have to be madly, deeply in love with my own material otherwise I don’t know how, what’s the point.
What’s the better song?
I think both the songs I played [at my headline show] yesterday, “Mistakes” and “On The Low”. I love both of them. They’re so different from each other that it’s hard to compare them. It’s something about that melody and the simplicity of that song that I really like, and the melodies are interesting, without feeling too overworked – they feel kind of natural. That song in particular, it’s one of those songs that when you play it live it plays itself! Even if we suck it’s going to carry itself, and that’s the same thing with the production on the new songs. They don’t need to have these very heavily produced tracks, because the focus is on the songs. If we’ve succeeded in what we wanted to do with the songs, they shouldn’t need it.
Let’s talk about “Mistakes”, another catchy one. I was singing along to the chorus almost straight away!
That was awesome! I saw people in the audience had got that lyric straight away. I like that sentence, “you make me wanna make mistakes.” You’re putting the blame on somebody else! It’s a little bit tricky to talk about because I’m not sure exactly what the production will be like, and the production is a huge part of it, but I know I’m going to keep is the vocoder in the chorus where everything disappears except from the voice with the vocoder and then after half of it, the drums come in. I love that. You put yourself in a vacuum-like space and everything’s quiet then just breaks loose. We’ve had a lot of fun with the recording process – there’s a lyric about something being “buzzin’” and if you listen carefully you can hear a fly buzzing, and then for “you know I’m gonna wanna get out of my Levi’s” there’s the sound of a zipper. There’s a lot of those things which I think are really funny.
How are you approaching the new project?
The new project is song by song, and just trying to make the best possible video to go with the song but still have it all tie together, visually and sonically, that they kind of fit and then we’ll see. It’s really good, right now as we speak, where I’ve done most of my part and I’m kind of trying to make other people do things, terrorising people with texts, trying to make other people move along faster. When it’s creative things, things always take a long time, but you have to have fun. It’s always those ideas that feel like they’re almost too stupid that very often turning out to be the gold.
What ties the tracks from the new project together?
I think of them as romantic, even if they’re not about romance per say. “Say My Name” is basically, we don’t need romance and this thing doesn’t need to be a thing, but we can still have a thing. I mean that’s a thing I might put in my notes, sometimes you say things and you’re like could I do a song just called “Thing” or does it sound like a horror movie and then you start thinking. They’re about the bubbly feelings, the fuzzy feelings, the feelings, all the feelings. I like feelings and I feel a lot of feelings.
You make pop music, you’ve said you’re a pop princess, but what does “pop” mean to you?
To me, it’s a really tricky question. I find that it means different things to different people, and to people who live in different places. When I’m in the US they’re like, “don’t say that you’re pop because that’s this very niche thing.” For me it’s more about the songs in a way and to me it’s just music that’s approachable and simple, and if we’re talking about good pop, somehow smart. In a good pop song you don’t really need a lot of stuff, the song carries itself. You can hear any interpretation of “Halo” and it’s still a good song.
What do you think makes a pop princess?
That’s one part of me. I feel like I’m 70 different people, but aren’t we all? One of those people is a pop diva and I like having her around.
When is your pop diva persona the most useful?
I like her in meetings sometimes, especially with label people, because that makes my role so much easier. “I want this, give it to me!” That’s how it’s supposed to work and it makes it easier, but she can stay away when I’m on tour – there’s no room for her then!
What do you think makes a perfect pop song?
I think it’s so important with both the lyrics and the melody, but not always. One of my favourite pop songs is “Teenage Dream” [by Katy Perry] and that lyric is not brilliant, but the melody in that song is so good – and the progression, so it doesn’t matter. It’s hard to say. For me it’s about straightforward, simple communication and making something that has an impact without it sounding like you’ve put to much thought into it. The trick to me is to make it sound simple.
But it’s actually not simple?
No, not at all. For instance, with writing, when I started out [I thought that] that the first idea that popped into my head must be the best idea, because that’s the first thing, the natural thing, and if you keep working then you’ll overthink it and ruin it and that first feeling that you had gets destroyed. What I like doing now is keeping on working past that. What you end up with is an improved version of what you had at the beginning. You have to go the whole way around and think your way through until it sounds effortless again, but better.
What’s your favourite pop song?
“Teenage Dream”, that’s one of them. There are many. I’m a huge Rihanna fan, I’m really in love with Anti, that album is so great, but maybe that’s in a different way.
How do you start writing a song?
It’s good to have a theme, or a small idea to start with – something that you think is really smart. With “Say My Name” we had the chorus, it could be something you’ve been thinking about a long time or something you’ve come up with in a session, it’s different. You have an idea, this smart thing, just a sentence or something, then I like to play around and find a good chord progression that feels like it fits the song. Then you maybe do a very simple beat and you build from that and balance it. For instance, if you have the chorus and it’s a certain way, I often feel like I want to do something that’s kind of the opposite for the verse, or maybe something that has a little bit of the same mood, but a different rhythm to it. You try and find something that sounds interesting after the chorus, then you go in and do the pre-chorus. It sounds boring and mathematical or technical, but that’s what I find fun. That’s what I live for to find all the different pieces and make it fit, make it work.
I always like watching people, whenever I go to a restaurant or a café, I try and sit where I can see as many people as possible. It could be someone’s behaviour that I don’t understand and then I try figure it out in my head, it could be something that I say or something else somebody says, that’s good I’ll make a note of it. Everything is on my phone, I don’t wanna lose that, my life is in there, I have some things in my Twitter drafts, I’m starting to write a tweet and I’m like that’s smart, it's kind of like a song, I’ll save that for later.
Do you find thinking about it technically/mathematically comes naturally?
I started doing it more and more. I’ve not always written this way and I’ve not cracked the code – nobody can crack the code! You sometimes think “THIS IS HOW I WRITE SONGS, THIS IS HOW I DO THIS,” and then you’ll be like no, you don’t know anything about anything, start from the beginning. When you’ve been working for a while you see different patterns. It’s a case of finding methods that as time goes by you proving to yourself that sometimes they work out. A lot of the best things are coincidences, for example, the ukulele riff in “Say My Name” was a happy accident.
The new music is more carefree and less political than Kiddo, but this is still kind of political in the way it offers an escape. Where do you see pop music’s place as a form of activism and protest during times like these?
It’s sort of heavy to think about it, but to me music and pop music and all kinds of art are a part of life. You do what you have to do and you listen to what you listen to, and you need to write about the things you’re angry about. Sometimes you need to listen to that and rage your way through it, or sometimes you need sad songs or love songs, you need all of it. I think the amazing thing is I can make something for me – I only make music for myself – but when somebody else can find something in that, that’s such a beautiful thing and with all creative things.
As a songwriter, what do you hope people take away from your lyrics?
I just want people to feel good. I don’t know if I told you this, but I tried “Say My Name” on a bunch of friends who don’t work in music, and it was the best test. In general playing songs to people is really good, then regardless of what they say, you realise how you feel about it when you play it to someone else. I don’t say anything; just put the headphones on them and watch their reaction. Every single one of them cracked up and started smiling and jamming along to it. If I can do that to a person’s face then I’m happy.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Sometimes when I talk it’s just like, “that little thing sounds catchy!” You hear a little word you can play with or a funny rhyme, or sometimes you hear something in another song and it doesn’t go where you expect, and you’re like, “why didn’t they do that? They had the perfect opportunity to do this thing and now I’m going to do that!” It really could be anything – random phrases, words, things that pop into your mind and then the wheels start moving and you start thinking, “how can I turn this into something?”
I daydream and fantasise a lot. My mind starts spinning and I make up stories in my head. Sometimes I think so much about a situation and I change it in my head, so then reality and me don’t really click. I’m like, “oh right, that didn’t really happen, that was just in my mind”.
You said you’ve started working collaboratively one-on-one. What does it take for someone to be a perfect songwriting match?
It’s difficult! It’s like a friendship: sometimes you’ll just click with someone and have a lot to talk about and it’s really hard to put your finger on what it is. Everyone that I’ve collaborated with is so different from one another and that’s really cool, because different people bring out different sides of me. If the person is a certain way, I sort of adapt and something completely different can come out of that than something I’ve done previously. There has to be some sort of clash, if you’re too much alike it doesn’t really trigger the investigative side of myself. I really like when you can sit down and talk to the person, I want to find out more about what you think about this, so you can bounce things back and forth. It has to be an interesting mix.
You came through Idol, which is basically a popularity contest. How did you get to where you are now as an artist? Was the plan always to write your own material?
No, it didn’t start out that way. I had sessions with writers and they were supposed to write the songs and then I started getting ideas. I was recording them on my phone. I then started sending things to my A&R and he was like, “you can write, why don’t you write?” I wrote on basically every song on my first album, apart from “Million Pieces” – I got that one from Adam from Shout Out Louds. He did it with Lykke [Li] and that felt like a good match from the beginning. Aside from that I think I wrote on everything. Then I just continued. I don’t settle for something when I feel like it could be better. Right now, I find I’m more meticulous and confident
When you start out and you sit with these producers who have produced this for so-and-so and someone’s written this song for that person, it’s easy to feel like you’re an intruder – like you’re a fraud and that someone’s going to bust you! I feel like I’ve started to be more confident in myself and my own skills, but that’s something that takes time. I’ve found it’s very easy for someone like me who always works with other people, to credit the other person, like, “yeah it was a good song, but that’s because of that person.” Now, I’ve done so many great songs with so many great people, but they don’t do the same without me. I’m bringing something to the table, so it gets easier.
How important is it for you to be an artist as well as a songwriter? Do you think the two go together exclusively?
I couldn’t really imagine doing one without the other, I’ve tried writing for others, but it’s so hard because I want to be in full control, like I can’t let go of things and you kind of have to do that when you’re writing for someone else, so I like being like I’m the product- everything goes through me. I’ve done a few songs that I didn’t write myself, but then I’ve almost re-wrote those and re-intepreted them a lot and brought them into my world. It’s the same for me, it’s just about expressing myself. But I really don’t like down on people who don’t write for themselves, like if you think it’s boring or you’re not good at it. I believe that everybody can write songs, if you think it’s fun. But no, do your thing also.
Have there been any low points or high points, specifically?
I’m dangerously confident right now! I feel like it’s only downhill from here, but it’s always these ups and downs. I think that forever I’m going to go through phases where I think I’m never going to have a good idea again, and that’s the worst feeling ever. I’ve always gotten through it. You just have to trust that the ideas will come.
Let’s talk about Sweden. What do you normally tell people when they ask “what’s in the water?”
I definitely think it has something to do with heritage. You’ve seen people succeed and then you believe you can succeed and more people then seriously try, considering how many people are living here and pursuing careers. Also, the technology thing, because every other person I know knows how to record and make a basic demo, because everyone has been playing around with different programs.
When did you start singing?
I’ve been singing always, it feels like. When I was really young I wanted to be like Whitney Houston, she was my fave. I really wanted to be able to sing her songs, so I sang a lot, because they are hard to sing and it’s not that easy for me. For me, it’s taken a lot of practice to get to know my voice, to be able to sing things, so I’ve put a lot of time into it. I used to sit for hours every day and just bang on a piano and try to teach myself different really difficult songs and I can’t believe my parents let me. That’s one thing that I really thank them for today, for letting me make noise.