Way back in 2016, Kanye West announced that he was going to call his upcoming album Swish. In the end, the reliably unreliable Kanye didn’t follow up on that (that record was eventually released under the title The Life Of Pablo), but I was always kind of annoyed that the title Swish ended up on the scrapheap. Swish is just a fantastically musical word, one that carries a motion and rhythm all on its own. Sway is another of those flowing, musical words, and Tove Styrke has actually followed through with the promise of it and taken it for her album title. Sway is Styrke’s third record, after 2010’s Tove Styrke and 2015’s Kiddo, and its title matches it perfectly, because Sway is an album packed full of gracefully rhythmic pop music. Styrke has managed to pull off the trick of making an album that’s obviously commercial, but also has artistic value and its own unique identity, pop music that doesn’t just jack from the musical ecosystem around it, but instead establishes its own space to breath. Styrke has been on the apprenticeship circuit for a while now: the last few years have seen her tour as a support act to Years & Years, Bleachers and Lorde, with a tour with Katy Perry planned for this summer. Sway might just be the album that establishes her in that higher stratosphere in her own right. We met her a couple of days before the album’s release to talk about it.
So to start off, Kiddo came out in 2015 and you toured quite heavily after it, at what point did you start working on Sway?
After Kiddo I basically just went straight back to the studio. But it took some digging on my side to really find what I wanted to do next. And it wasn’t until almost two years ago now, August 2016 I think, I started on Say My Name and did that song. And with that one everything just fell into place, and I started working on this album.
I wanted to roll back again to Kiddo for a second. Kiddo was the first album, not including the EP, after the Idol and post-Idol years [Styrke initially came up through the talent show] and the long break that followed [she took a hiatus from the music industry after the release of her self-titled debut]. Was Kiddo therefore an important record for you to establish your identity again, and kind of re-enter the musical world?
It was definitely an important album for me to make personally. My first album, the self-titled, was very much a learning experience for me. With that one I was doing everything for the first time, I had never written a song before, the first song I ever wrote is on that album. Whereas with Kiddo, it was easier for me to step into it with a plan, and I really had a goal for what I wanted to do with that album, that I set out to do. To prove to myself that I could make a whole thing, that I could make an album, and have it come out the way I wanted to. And that really gave me a lot of confidence moving on to do other things.
It felt like that was an album that very much established your personality, because it was a very self-confident record, a very feminist record, a lot of self-expression on that album.
I think it was a lot about growing up. Kiddo was very ‘outrospect’, a lot about growing up, and like looking at the world and realising, ‘oh my god, who am I, in this mess, in this chaos’. It was very a very broad strokes, bold colours, more is more kind of thing. Whereas this time around I wanted to do something different, I wanted to explore other things, strip it down and get more personal.
Because you felt that you had proven to yourself that you could make an album like Kiddo, and that gives you a platform to move on and something different?
Yeah, I think with every project I think you want to keep challenging yourself and explore new territory.
Let’s move on to the new album then. Kiddo was very much about self-confidence, and kind of a ‘fuck you world I can do this’ attitude. Whereas Sway is very different thematically. On Sway a lot of the songs are kind of about the nervous, early stages of a relationship, that kind of ‘should we, shouldn’t we’, on the verge of a decision kind of moment. Why was that something you wanted to cover on this record?
What I wanted to do was that I wanted to explore people. I was very interested in people, and I still am, I’m still writing songs around these themes. I’ve been very interested and inspired by people, and how people connect, and when they don’t connect, why, why is that? I just find it so fascinating. And I made this album almost like a little collection of love stories, where some of them are super romantic, and some of them are not romantic at all, they’re almost like anti-romantic because at times love and the feelings that are close to that are not always sweet. It’s been an interesting journey making this album, because I set out to write about other people. But midway through the project I realised that it’s kind of getting to know myself. Because other people are like mirrors, they reflect you and you see yourself in them. If you like yourself when you’re with a person, you’re going to like that person, but if you get a warped image you tend to not like them as much, and it’s very frustrating [laughs]. I’ve changed a lot while making this album and I’ve learned a lot.
What I found really interesting about the way you write love songs on this album is that the way you write about them is a lot about the initial stages. You talk about finding that connection with people, and I think that’s a really interesting way to write about it, to focus on those nervous early moments. Like, the first line of Mistakes is ‘I should probably leave, right?’. So it’s a very kind of, finding your feet in the beginning of something feeling. So why does that attract you as a thing to write about?
I think it’s interesting when you don’t know what a thing is. I like that freedom. I also feel there’s just so much to get from that, the anxiety and the not-knowing what something is. And a lot of the time you don’t really want to figure it out, you just want to talk about it and put words around it and words to the situation. Like ‘this is this, this is this, this is weird’, and it doesn’t necessarily have to come to a conclusion, like ‘okay, I’m not going to be with you’, or ‘okay, you’re super great, let’s stick together’. I just think the way people interact and how you feel around different people is really interesting.
And it’s more interesting to leave it open, and more exciting to leave it open in those songs?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve been working on some songs recently that are more, later stages of getting to know a person, and it is quite different. But also very interesting. Like, people are weird! You can always write about them.
I wanted to ask: how much time did you put into the lyrics on this record? It feels like a very lyrical record, and there are some really nice turns of phrases on there, like the sweater line [“Say my name, wear it out like a sweater that you love”] on Say My Name, like when I first heard that I thought, ‘damn, that is a really fucking good description’.
A lot of time. Sometimes you meet people and they just come up with line after line after line, and they’re just really fast. I’m not fast at all. I can sit for a whole day and not come up with anything. I just really have to fight with it. On most of these songs I’ve been working with a producer, Elof Loelv, we made Say My Name, Mistakes, On The Low, Changed My Mind, and for most of them we’ve been sitting together really figuring each song out, fighting through it, to get it perfect. Both of us have really high standards and need to get it exactly right, but when you do it’s worth it.
Are you someone who enjoys working with words and with lyrics to get them to pop in the way that you want?
I think it’s fun. It’s a fun process. But it’s very up and down. It’s very frustrated when you’re stuck with a part, and you know what you want to say, and what kind of feeling you want to have there, but it just takes forever to find that perfect way of saying it. That can be frustrating, but the reward once you get right is worth it, it makes it totally worth it. I think lyrics are probably the hardest part of making a song.
To move onto another lyrical artist. Lorde’s been a heavy presence on this album cycle, you went on tour with her, you covered [Melodrama track] Liability, which has even ended up on your album. So what is it about her that inspires and influences you, to the point where you would do a cover of one of her tracks?
I’ve looked up to her for years, I think she’s a very good songwriter, and I think she’s one of those artists, SZA is another I really admire, both of them find ways to express something that a lot of people recognise and can relate to, but they find ways to describe it that feels so personal to them. Like they describe it in a way you haven’t heard before, and that’s when lyrics get interesting. And I especially loved Liability, I think that song is so special. When I heard it, it almost felt weird to me that it wasn’t something that I had written, because it felt so special to me. It’s really cool with that song as well, because so many people feel exactly the same way about it. Her fans say that’s their favourite song of hers. There’s just something about it that touches many people, on a very basic human level, that she managed to do it in a way and express it in a way that’s unique, and I think that’s very cool.
Do you think your music has the same effect? I’m thinking about this, because a few months ago I was coming home on the tunnelbanan, and there was a couple sitting across from me and the girl was playing Mistakes out loud on her phone for her boyfriend.
Yeah, and that’s why I think people kind of identify with your music in the same way.
That’s really cool It’s so weird to think that people are listening to the music, on the tunnelbanan [laughs]. That’s so funny, I love her. That’s sort of what I wanted to do, I wanted to make songs that were about things you think a lot but maybe don’t talk about so much. The back and forth, the being unsure of what something is, the anxiety, being really excited about something. I wanted to make it more intimate and personal like that, and I really hope that people can relate to it.
Let’s get back to Sway. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about Sway, listening to the full album, are the vocal melodies, because they’ve got these rhythmic, slinky qualities. They’re not aggressive pop music, but they really hook themselves in your head, because so much of the song’s rhythm and groove are in the vocal melody. So how did you develop that style for this record?
I think part of it is because I mainly sing my things. I don’t sit down with a guitar and write or with a piano, so I use my voice to write. Or I only use my voice to write, and I record voice memos and things. I also think it’s very interesting, because sometimes people forget how important the vocal is, in the delivery. I listen a lot to Bob Dylan for instance. And you notice, when people cover his songs, it often sounds kind of corny, because people don’t sing like him, they don’t copy his way of singing it, they just sing the melody, or what becomes half of the melody. The don’t glide on the notes like he does, they don’t put emphasise on certain words like he does. And to me that really is it, the performance is a big big part of the songwriting. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you could hear that in my songs, because I really feel that way.
I think that, and I also feel the way this album is written musically, because coming off the back of Kiddo, which was quite a maximalist record, this is quite minimalistic, and a lot of the spotlight is therefore on your vocal, and it really helps to highlight that quality in it.
Yeah, I really wanted to strip everything down on this album, and make it as minimal as I could, but still keep it interesting. But then, as you say, if you only have like On The Low for instance, it’s basically just one sound, then a drum, then the vocal. So a third of what you hear is just the vocal. So it needs to be more.
But it’s notable the way you can keep the audience interested just using the vocal, and I think that’s a really powerful part of this record.
That’s really cool to hear. I can get super nerdy about this because I think it’s so fun. Another thing with these songs, it’s been very important, and with songwriting in general, to find a good balance. So if you’ve got the long notes in one place, you want to mix with shorter notes that are more rhythmic in another place. If you’ve got a very intricate or weird melody in one place, you want to go straight on the next part. I’m very much about that. I feel like putting together a song is like problem solving, like always trying to keep things balances and constantly progressing.
As we’ve said, it’s very minimalistic on the musical side of things. But the production on this record is very light-touch, but it’s really interesting, there are so many touches here and there that make the songs stand out. It can be putting one little vocal refrain through an effect here, or even the little zip sample on Mistakes that goes with the Levis line. It really brings something out of the songs. So did you guys spend a lot of time in the studio on that production?
Yeah, we spent a lot of time on all the production on this album. Because for me, the production is a part of the songwriting. And I really wanted each song to feel special, for each song to have its own ID, so if you hear it once you recognise it by how it sounds. So we spent a lot of time making sure that everything on there deserved to be on there, that it’s the best thing it can be. For instance, just on the claps on Say My Name, I know Elof spent two days on making them perfect. And that’s the way we’ve been going about every single thing on this album. And I think it really pays off. Because I love when you can listen to a song for the tenth, twentieth time and maybe discover something you didn’t hear before.
So, to take it forward, what are the plans for the next few months, you’re touring with Katy Perry this summer right, across Europe?
Yeah, I’m so excited about that. It’s going to be amazing.
And what do you see after that? Will you be going back out to tour Sway, or going back into the studio?
I’m going to try and do both. I’m planning on playing a bunch this year, I just want to go to as many places as I can, and play and see new people. And just play all these new songs. We just came out of rehearsal and it sounds so good, the best my music has ever sounded, I’m so excited. But I also want to keep releasing music, and I already have a couple of songs I’m really eager to put out later this year. So I’m going to try and multitask, so I’m going to have to come up with a good plan to get it all done at once.
Photos: Emma Svensson