Tove Styrke Refuses to 'Censor' Herself on New Album HARD After Coming Out as Queer

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Tove Styrke publicity
Tove Styrke publicity

Ninja Hanna Tove Styrke

What does Swedish pop star Tove Styrke have in common with stars like One Direction and Fifth Harmony? They all finished in third place on reality singing competition shows — and have had far longer careers than the winners of their respective seasons.

Since competing on Swedish Idol in 2009, Styrke has released four critically acclaimed studio albums, including HARD, which dropped June 3. While appearing on the series exposed her to millions of viewers each week, the 29-year-old singer-songwriter says, not winning freed her of the contractual obligations that come with the coveted title. "You get the best of both worlds," she tells PEOPLE.

"I wasn't automatically committed to do these shopping mall tours and all that you have to do if you win," she explains. "I really took my time and worked on the music that I wanted to put out. My first album [2010's Tove Styrke] that I put out the year after was a really good pop album."

Tove Styrke publicity
Tove Styrke publicity

Ninja Hanna Tove Styrke

Making quality pop music is in Styrke's blood, as she hails from the home of pop pioneers including ABBA, Max Martin, and Robyn. "There [are] countless brilliant, brilliant pop artists who've had big success throughout the years from [Sweden], and I think that really inspires people to aim high and try to make it globally," she explains.

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Styrke inches further toward mainstream success with each release. Her third album, 2018's Sway, spawned the bonafide banger "Say My Name," which Rolling Stone named "Song of the Summer." The same year, she performed all over the world as an opening act for both Lorde and Katy Perry and embarked on her own North American headlining tour.

"Putting out Sway was seriously — not to be dramatic — life-changing to me," Styrke says. "It gave me a lot more confidence to really trust my gut, my instinct, and the fact that I am a good songwriter. I am a good singer. I'm good at making music."

Along with increased confidence has come the freedom for Styrke to be unapologetically herself. In early 2020, she unintentionally came out as queer after walking the red carpet of an H&M fashion event with her girlfriend, guitarist Sanna Sikborn Erixon.

"I didn't even think about it… I just thought it would be fun to bring her," she recalls. "People were like, 'Oh, she came out.' I was like, 'Was I ever inside?'"

"I always just considered myself queer and label-less," Styrke explains. "But it is really nice having that thing clarified, because I feel like it's made my connection to my fans a lot stronger — especially in my queer fan base."

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After years of writing mainly gender neutral lyrics, Styrke's experience in her current relationship led her to write "Show Me Love," a romantic ballad that sparked the creative process for HARD.

"Show me love / Show me what it really is / Tell me with your fingertips / Show me love," she croons on the '60s-inspired, guitar-led track. "Sweet, sweet love / Whisper me your fetishes / Kill me with your tenderness / Show me love."

"The lyrics [are] basically a love letter for my girlfriend, but very early on in our relationship," she details. "I was focusing a lot on how to exist in a sometimes very confusing world, looking for love and looking for something real."

Aptly released during LGBTQ+ Pride Month, HARD is easily Styrke's most sexually-charged work to date. Tracks like "Hardcore" and "Free" encompass intense feelings of desire and passion, and visuals for the project see the musician donning a strap-on harness and her body covered head-to-toe (and everywhere in between) in red lipstick kiss marks.

"One big thing for me this time around was to not censor myself at all. I wanted to really put my whole self out there," she says. "You can't really write about the human experience and not write about sex, because it's such a big part of being human."

Getting more personal than ever before with HARD seems to be paying off. Styrke recently wrapped another opening stint for Marina (formerly Marina and the Diamonds) in North America and Europe and received an unexpected level of love from audiences.

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"The place would be full when I performed. I felt like a headliner during every single one of those shows, because her fans are that dedicated," she explains, noting the experience taught her exactly how deep an artist-fan relationship can be. "If Marina told them, 'This is somebody I like,' they would be there, and they would show their full support. That's amazing."

Tove Styrke publicity
Tove Styrke publicity

Ninja Hanna Tove Styrke

Success comes in all different forms, however, and despite telling Clash in 2018 that her five-year plan was "worldwide domination," Styrke views fame quite differently nowadays than she may have on the Swedish Idol stage. "Low key, I'm always going to be that girl. But also, I'm very happy where I'm at," she says assuredly.

"I am just so happy that I get to do what I love, and I don't care, quite frankly, how famous I am," she declares. "As long as there's somebody there who f—ing cares, I will keep showing up. I will have a good time, and I will love what I do."