When it comes to pop, Tove Styrke has always moved a little to the left of - and yet always somehow slightly ahead of - the curve; she blends, chameleon-like, into the whims of pop before pop even knows what those whims are. And by the time the moment has arrived, Styrke is already chasing the next one.
In her decade-spanning career, she has mastered the art of reinvention. By eternally redefining who, exactly, Tove Styrke is, she has become a star belonging to a dynasty of pop survivors. Styrke’s lineage traces back from Madonna to Gaga, where a thousand births, deaths and reincarnations are the rites behind their longevity.
She has been the 16-year-old, hair scraped back in a ponytail, auditioning for Swedish Idol, and she has been the finalist on the other side, attuned to the sharp angles, high drama and smoky eyeliner of electro-pop with the release of her self-titled debut album. She has also embodied the rejection of that image in pursuit of something real. For her second record, Kiddo, Styrke broke pop’s fine china with delight: she’s the girl in basket shorts and dirty sneakers with a fresh face and outgrown, “black metal hair”, writing songs about dismantling the patriarchy and outsmarting the world around her. Her third album, Sway, was an inversion of an inversion: she chases “perfect, perfect, perfect”, where the hooks and highs reign supreme.
But now, we’re about to enter into the fourth era of Tove Styrke: HARD. As she talks about the record, she can’t sit still at her dressing table, drawing her legs up to her chest in restless excitement. “I feel like this is my big pop star moment,” she tells me, “both as an artist and as a human. I’m pouring everything into this project and doing the fucking best that I can.”
HARD is about learning to loosen her grip, to let go of perfection, and to simply let it be. “It’s messy, but it’s a good mess,” says Styrke. “I think it’s a beautiful mess. And seriously, this is probably the one body of work that I’ve made so far that I’m most proud of. It’s a whole story.”
And that story begins in way back in 2019: the calm before the storm for most, perhaps – but not for Styrke. “I’d just started seeing my now-girlfriend, and I wrote ‘Show Me Love’ for her. That song was super personal…” She’d never worn her heart so boldly on her sleeve or waved the white flag quite so willingly. Styrke takes it way back, following the puppy-eyed repetition in the structure of 60s pop songs pioneered by the likes of The Ronettes. “My Scorpio heart was like, ‘Protect yourself! Never be vulnerable!’”, she laughs, “so that was scary for me, but it opened up a whole new way of writing and thinking about music.”
It was also written from a point of physical and emotional burnout. Her sister had been diagnosed with cancer (who, Styrke can thankfully assure us is now fine), and through the forceful separation not only from her family but from her work – the only work she has ever known – she indulged in wondering if things would ever change, go back to ‘normal’.
This forced introspection means that we catch more than a few stolen glimpses into Styrke’s mind. “Millennial Blues” sees her wade through the sludge of her generation’s emotional disadvantages to better understand her own. “Everybody feels like a failure,” she insists. “We all feel that the world was promised to us. Having a mug that says, ‘Beyoncé has the same number of hours in a day as you do!’ – like, that’s our generation on a fucking cup. The whole ‘girl boss energy’ thing is so toxic, and I feel like it has damaged us.” She’s woven the internet dial-up sound into the track. “If you’re a millennial, and you know what that is, you’re old!”
Because of the turbulence of the last three years that meant life couldn’t be lived the way she wanted to, much of the record isn’t drawn from a particular experience as much as it’s drawn from a collection of thoughts. “A lot of the time, I’m not talking about what’s actually going on right now,” she says. “I feel like I’m processing my way of being in relationships with people and loving people, and how I’m scared to be vulnerable, scared to be all-in. So, for this album, I’m going in. Hardcore. I’m going headfirst into loving someone without any hesitation or safety net. It’s everything that I’ve been through, but it’s also what’s going on now, and my future fears.”
But the past, on HARD, is beyond personal. “Start Walking” is a nostalgic, synth-led ballad dressed in a lilac 70s two-piece - complete with silk collar and cuffs. Styrke’s not-so-secret love affair has always been with music videos. “It’s almost more fun than making the music. I love them,” she tells me. “They feel like my playground because no one expects me to be good at it, so I don’t feel any pressure for them to be perfect.” Whether it be the music video for “Sway”, following two lovers skating around the empty streets of London in the middle of the night, or the visuals for “Mood Swings”, where Styrke toys with eight different personas (some of which took six hours to create in the makeup chair), she has always enjoyed bringing the optics to life.
When it came to brainstorming ideas for “Start Walking”, she drew inspiration from the unlikeliest place: dansband. This “weird genre” which, at first, Styrke struggles to articulate before leaving it at “a goofy, very Swedish thing with ridiculous costumes” was at the peak of its powers in the 70s (see: ABBA) – and it was just the right thing. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe nobody’s done anything with this!’” So, I thought, ‘What if we had a dansband in the 70s touring Sweden? With supernatural powers? Of course, they shoot lasers out of their eyes!’”
Shot entirely on film, everything was painstakingly chosen to border on historical re-enactment. Styrke explains, “The tour bus was designed to look exactly as it would in the 70s, the dressing room was a replica of the 70s, and we filmed in one of those old buildings where they actually did [dansband] shows. We put an ad in the local paper for people who had vintage cars from that era, expecting only one person to come, but so many people came – there was like, 20 cars – and these old guys were so happy. We went to all these small places around Sweden, and it was just a really fun process.”
When I ask Styrke what the secret is behind her career’s endurance, the answer is doing always exactly what she pleased, and she has been unafraid to take her time. “I think the interesting thing about pop music is that it’s the core of pop culture,” she shares. “It’s about what people are craving, and that’s why it doesn’t get stagnant. It’s always going to change. If you’re constantly trying to chase the trends, you’re always going to be one step behind. And sooner or later, you’re not going to be the most interesting person anymore, you know? The trick, for me, has been to really take my time, plan my projects and sell it well to the people I work with, so that everyone believes in it as much as I do. We’re not just putting out music for the sake of putting out music.” She asks her manager if she recalls when she pitched the record to them – how could she forget? “I wrote an entire compendium about what HARD was gonna be, with mood boards and everything.”
I wonder if pop music continues to challenge Styrke, especially when she can reel off pop structures and formulae with such ease, as if she were reeling off the alphabet or reciting her times tables. “I think the fun thing is it’s way harder to anticipate what is going to become a hit,” she says. “There are really, really weird songs that get big today on TikTok. It could be the weirdest fucking thing that doesn’t follow any structure. Everything’s loosened up more, so what you have to rely on is, ‘What do I think is cool? What do I want to do? What do I think is fun?’ When you trust your gut, that’s when the most interesting music is made.”
She is the first to admit, though, that she is one of the lucky ones. The vast majority of pop artists are forced into a major label straitjacket – particularly those who found fame through the talent show star system, like Styrke. “I know countless people who have gone through those kinds of shows who end up miserable with their careers because someone forced them into something. You just get dazzled by the magic and have to spend years fighting to get out of a contract. It’s not cute,” she says. “I came third, so there was no pressure on me to put out an album in two weeks, or whatever it is. I could take my time. Everyone knew from the start that I wrote stuff myself, so I was put in sessions with good producers and made music with them. I’ve always been in control of the music I make.”
Throughout her career, however, the demands on a pop star have changed beyond recognition. When it comes to TikTok, and performing online, she’s torn. It doesn’t feel so long ago that she moved to Stockholm to start her career, only a flip phone in hand. “It’s crazy, because to be interesting, you need mystique – but now, people demand no mystique, everything needs to be completely transparent. It’s a tricky balancing act, and it’s a full-time job. I’ve been thinking to myself, for periods of time, that maybe I shouldn’t do this at all… because imagine if I took all that time and spent it on writing? I could release three times as much. But then, on the other hand, I’ve seen people who don’t use social media disappear.”
On the other side of four albums, Styrke embodies a kind of serenity, which no doubt comes from learning, at last, exactly the right number of fucks to give. “I have a friend who’s been working for, like, 100 years in music. And I was like, ‘You never get stressed!’ And he said, ‘Throughout all these years that I’ve been doing this, it’s never gone completely to shit. Not one single time, somehow. It always turns out fine’. And I can testify that, yeah, that’s been my experience too, and I’ve been doing this for 12 years now.”
When I ask Tove Styrke what defines a great pop song, she doesn’t realise she’s holding a mirror up to herself: “I think to make a truly great pop song, it has to make you feel something. It has to come from a real place. To make great pop music, you have to take pop music seriously. It has to come from a place of passion.”