From its haunting opening tones, "Borderline" packs a punch -- taking influence from mid-90s pop, 80s ska and noughties electronica. Not many musicians wear their influences so proudly, or move so fluidly between sounds, or want to write songs that fictionalise complex metaphors, but this is where 22-year-old Tove Styrke stands alone. "I think that one of the great things you can do with pop music is describe things that are important in a simple way. I love taking complex ideas that are reflective of society as a whole, rather than problems that are specific to me, and working them out in a naive way."
But this is not Styrke's first ride on the pop star ferris wheel. Having been initially discovered on Swedish Idol -- she got a record deal with Sony and released her first album, "Tove Styrke" in Sweden with them in 2010, at the age of 18. Co-writing most of the material on the album, her ambition was to simply write good pop songs -- something she clearly achieved. The album went platinum in her native Sweden, with her second single from it, "White Light Moment," reaching number five. There was even a Swedish Grammy nomination. After the initial whirlwind had died down, she decided to move back home to her parent's house in Umeå, northern Sweden, for a year to figure out what was next.
Rather than mooching around the house in a dressing gown, watching telly and clearing her parents' fridge like most 19-year olds would, Styrke again upped sticks and moved to Stockholm to sign a deal with RCA UK and start work on her second album. "Although it's my second album, it really feels like my debut. I've been thinking very differently about it and I feel like I know what I'm doing a lot more. With the first one I felt like I was on a train, but this time round I have an idea and a vision and I know who I am singing to and what I am singing, so it feels like a different story." Tove put out her track "Even If I'm Loud, It Doesn't Mean I'm Talking To You" earlier this year and it received rave reviews across a number of American and British blogs. She said: "Even If I'm Loud ... ' is a shocking pink fuck you to all the people who think their penis bands are automatically more talented than one twenty-something girl on stage. Those who think it itches a little uncomfortable with mainstream pop and must speak about it."
The "Borderline" EP and her debut album (to be released 2015) mashes sounds up, moving from "Love.Angel.Music.Baby"-era Gwen Stefani to Lykke Li, to the clunky piano sounds of Squeeze. Songs contrast each other -- it's hard to find a bracket that fits them all, a refreshing struggle to have at a time when most people in pop continually churn out the same old shit. Styrke knows how important it is to keep her options open, "If I think a song needs a steel guitar, I want to be able to put one in."
Working with producer Christian Walz, Styrke even brought a hint of RnB to the EP, writing "Brag" with him. Although it's not a sound she finds herself naturally heading towards, the eventual song talks about the anxiety that modern living -- via Twitter and Facebook, brings "I've got it all, got nothing to prove," sings the main protagonist, while the chorus questions it with, "I don't brag about my great life." It's a dichotomy that she knows how to answer. "I don't Google myself or read the comments on the internet. People don't care about reality when they comment online, they don't think about the consequences, that they might be hurting a real person, they are just sending their angry words into the dark void."
Although she tackles big ideas -- such as the dark void of angry internet users, she also employs metaphors to put across her ideas. Some of them cover real things, others talk about an imagined movie scene that she's put music to, for example giant robots in the desert being crushed.
Giant robots aside, where she stands out in the miasma of female led alternative electronic pop, is the energy in her delivery. Influenced by Riot Grrrl pack-leader Kathleen Hanna, punk poet Patti Smith and patented weirdo Bjork, Styrke has a wealth of strong, independent and iconoclastic women to reference. A few years ago, it might not have been so possible for a pop star to happily talk about her affection for musicians so thoroughly out of the standard pop bandwidth.
But Styrke's ballsy attitude let's her get away with what she wants, putting intense snare drum rolls next to reverbed trumpets, right before she drops the bass. With Scandinavia fast becoming the 21st century pop factory, Styrke is very much part of the community of visible and brilliant women making music. "When I did the last record I felt very alone, even though I knew there were other musicians out there. Now everyone helps each other, everyone is there for one another," she muses. Having worked on the EP with writers and producers Annika Norlin, Linnea Henriksson, Janne Kask, Johan T Karlsson, Calle Ask and Christian Walz, her journey from idea to final song often starts with two ideas merging into one -- "Borderline," for example, is her take on the patriarchy described as the Matrix. Themes and ideas are collected that she thinks are interesting, and when she has a good collection of lyrics, the final song comes, puzzled together. Loops are made on the synth, scuzzy guitars are sampled. There's no extraneous bits, no pandering for the audience. Every sound is there because it needs to be, just like Tove herself.