Tove Lo is officially pop music’s reigning resident bad girl.
Like her 2014 debut Queen of the Clouds, the Swedish star’s triumphant second album — Lady Wood — is fueled by sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And she had an A-list guest to join in the debauchery, enlisting Wiz Khalifa to provide a verse on her new track “Influence” after meeting the rapper at the Billboard Music Awards in May.
“He came to the studio, we smoked, and he recorded,” (née Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson), 29, tells PEOPLE of collaborating with Khalifa. “I remember sitting there like, ‘This is really good weed, and f—, how can he sing that fast?!'”
The singer documented their high times in the studio, sharing a video on Instagram in which she and the cannabis manufacturer indulge in a homemade apple bong.
Lo came to fame in 2014 with her breakout single “Habits (Stay High),” the electropop anthem for millennial hot messes in which she brags about hitting up sex clubs, bingeing on Hostess snacks and throwing up in one verse, then laying bare intimacy issues (“need someone to numb the pain”) in the next.
Aside from her buoyant club beats, it’s Love’s acute self-awareness — compounded by a rare ability to open up about such raw, uncomfortable insecurities in relatable lyrics — that make her stand out from the typically mindless, manufactured pop that often tops the charts today.
Despite her mainstream success with follow-up hits “Talking Body,” “Moments” and “Timebomb,” the star, who teamed up with pal Nick Jonas on his summer hit “Close,” has maintained that edgy lifestyle…for the most part.
“I’m more aware of what I put into my body because I realized: If I want to keep doing this, I need to be a little more careful, not as reckless,” Lo says.
One wake-up moment: Learning — when she was about to begin a stint opening for Katy Perry on her Prismatic World Tour— that she needed to undergo vocal surgery. But Lo ended up performing at her slated winter 2014 dates.
“I thought, ‘I can’t miss this opportunity,'” she recalls. “It was so inspiring: She sings for two and a half hours nonstop, and they’re challenging songs. With my voice troubles at the time, I was like, ‘If I want to do that sometime, I need to take care of myself.'”
Once the gig with Perry ended, though, Lo had to cancel her own tour to get surgery.
“I was terrified, like, ‘What if my voice disappears?'” she says of her mindset heading into the procedure. “After my surgery, I was going out of my mind: You can’t make noise for a week. But then when I started singing, I was suddenly hitting notes I hadn’t hit in years.”
With her voice restored, the rising star found herself reinvigorated and began writing songs for her second album, the first being “Influence.”
“The only thing I quit doing after my surgery is smoking: no smoke of any kind can go through this,” Lo says, gesturing at her throat, before adding with a laugh: “I mean, I’ll make exceptions for Wiz Khalifa and stuff! But otherwise, I’m more of a baker now.”
But rest assured, the singer known for lyrics like “Pick up daddies at the playground / How I spend my day time” has not gone soft on us.
“Whether it’s love or drugs or getting onstage, I tend to try to always do thing in a way that makes me feel the most alive. I always want to feel, as much as I can,” Lo ponders. “And that comes with downs, too. The higher you get, the more extreme the low is going to be.”
It’s safe to say the singer can attribute that self-awareness, in part, to professional counseling.
“Every therapist I’ve ever seen is like, ‘You have one side that is very in charge and gets things done and has a moral compass, and then you have this other side that just wants to let everything go and get into as much bulls— as possible, things that will harm you but make you feel alive,'” says Lo, who has had similar conversations with her mother, also a therapist. “Even if there are a lot of downs, society has decided that that’s something that’s bad. But why should get rid of this side if it’s when I’m at my happiest?”
And it’s that sentiment — Lo’s constant pursuit of rushes and the sometimes devastating comedowns that follow — that fuels Lady Wood, one of the best pop albums of the year.
“I’m a normal, sort of f—ed-up person, like everybody else,” she says. “But I have this need to get this all out. And if I ever would start to polish and adapt that to make sure I don’t upset people, I would lose the whole purpose of what I do.”
That said, some of her work has upset people. On Monday, Lo released Fairy Dust, a short film set to the first half of Lady Wood. Shortly after the clip went live online, YouTube took it down for a short time, deeming it in violation of their policy on sex and nudity. (In the video, a clothed Lo kisses women and, as the end credits roll, touches her…”lady wood.”)
“It’s very dark, it’s very sexual; it’s gonna be very uncomfortable for people to watch. People who know me well can’t really see it — they’re just crawling out of their chair,” the “Cool Girl” singer admits. “I don’t know why I choose to air all my dirty laundry for everyone, but it’s just how I cope and deal with everything. I know it’s going to bother people around me. But it helps me to move on.”
Not only that, Lo hopes owning her sexuality empowers other women to do the same.
“It’s about equality. It’s like, ‘Oh, do you really want to take that political [stance]? Would you say that you’re something sort of…maybe…but not like a feminist, but…?'” she says, recalling how journalists have tip-toed around the topic in the past. “Yeah, I’m a feminist!”
Lo says she’s surprised how taboo sex still is, particularly in pop music.
“I think it’s because I’m from a place where it’s not taboo at all,” she says. “From when I was 15, which is the legal age to have sex in Sweden, whoever I was dating would stay over at my house, and my parents would just be like, ‘Are you protecting yourself? All right. Cool.'”
But Lo is happy to be quote-unquote provocative if it continues to open minds.
“Girls say to me, ‘I’m so happy you’re open and speak so freely about sex and being a sexual person,'” she says. “I’m sad it angers people because I’m a woman. If I were a man, you wouldn’t blink. I didn’t think it was gonna be that big of a deal, that I’m a girl, a woman, who’s open about it — but it apparently is, and I’m very happy to take on that hat.”