I put it to her that the “saddest girl in Sweden” label might now feel at odds with where she is these days, both geographically and emotionally. “It was something I wore like a badge of honor,” she says, before hesitating. “But if I could pick one sentence to describe me as an artist, that would not be it anymore. Or ever, to be honest: I was vulnerable through and through, but that doesn’t always mean sadness. I’m happy a lot of the time, I’m sad a lot of the time too. No artist or human is just one thing. We’re all contradictory in the big spectrum of views and feelings.”
Certainly, the breadth of the spectrum is explored on her latest album, 2022’s Dirt Femme, a gleaming dance record which finds Nilsson disarmingly raw in new ways: on the track “Suburbia,” for example, where she offers lines like “So if we had a baby / You’d love that more than me?” and on “Grapefruit,” a seemingly euphoric bop that’s actually about her teenage bulimia. Still, the theme that runs the gamut of her work remains true: her stark honesty. “I think maybe the way I express myself, for some people, is like, Oh, why would you admit to that feeling? That’s not something you talk about out loud!” she laughs.
A year on from the release of Dirt Femme, she remains immensely proud of the record: It’s her first launch on Pretty Swede Records, her own label. “Going independent is obviously a lot more work, but so far I’ve loved it,” she says. She admits, however, that tracks like “Grapefruit” are not always easy to revisit. She was concerned about “laying out all the cards” when recording it, given how triggering and emotional it had the potential to be. She was also worried that an illness she had already worked through could become what defined her from that point. But she says she felt a calling to “keep following your instinct and not edit yourself; write what you need to write.”
Even so, repeatedly having to return to the song when she performs it live is complicated, she says. “It varies so much night by night,” she explains. “I get really bad PMS, like, every two months, and I get this really bad feeling. I know it’s not how I feel, but I cannot shake the feeling. I feel really insecure: I start to dissect my face and my body, my voice, how I move, spending four or five days in this little cocoon of hate for myself. And I keep this mantra: This will pass, this will pass. But if I perform that song during those days, it’s not cathartic—it’s just really hard.” On those days when she wishes she didn’t have to revisit the sentiments of the song onstage, she looks to the audience for strength. “I find the people in the crowd who I can tell the song means a lot to and I just look at them and think, I’m doing this for this person,” she says and starts laughing. “And that helps me to not just start crying onstage.”
“I was vulnerable through and
through, but that doesn’t always
Perhaps that interplay between battling with her brain and finding contentment is why the candor in her lyrics—be it those more difficult tracks about her insecurities and pain, or the frank and delicious lines about her nipples being hard or giddily guiding her partner to give her oral sex—all feels very raw and real. It’s something that she attributes to her upbringing in the Skåne region of southern Sweden. “It’s funny, because I feel this contradiction in my childhood,” she says. Her mother is a therapist and her father cofounded a successful fintech company, and she recalls that the area they lived in, which was quite affluent, could feel judgmental—like no one was showing their flaws. “Everyone kept their face on all the time.” At home, however, her family talked about everything: “We would express how we felt a lot. Me and my dad would fight when I was a teenager, but he was always good at apologizing. He has a lot of authority, but he’s a very emotional guy, sensitive and loving.”
She also recognizes how the same openness was manifest in her mother, not least the way she spoke about human behavior. “Hearing her talk about our patterns—how similar we are but with these little differences, and how we communicate can cause so much pain and suffering, but also joy—” she muses, “I’m always very fascinated by humans, and how love can completely change a human being. How something that is completely irrational to you when you’re not in love becomes so rational when you are, because love does something to you.”
In her most recent releases, Nilsson grapples with the spirals of emotion caused by exposing yourself to the vulnerabilities of love. It’s palpable in the catastrophizing that runs through the tracks on Dirt Femme, and on the 2023 single “Borderline,” where the point of view is from someone inventing all kinds of internal drama with a partner out of insecurity. “With jealousy and insecurity, the only person you’re hurting is you,” she says. “But for me, it helps to get it out of my head—to say it to a friend, or to my husband, or to put it in a song.” She recounts how a friend had interpreted the nightmarish jealousy scenario Nilsson invented for the song “Mistaken” (from her 2019 album Sunshine Kitty) to be true. “I played it at a show, and the friend turned to [my husband] and was like, What did you do to her?! It’s just me feeling vulnerable and insecure in my head and writing a song about it, but it sounds like it’s his fault,” she giggles. “It’s the power of the mind!”
“Maybe the way I express myself, for
some people, is like, Oh, why would you
admit to that feeling?“
Still, despite being a tool for catharsis, writing is not always something that comes easily. “I’ve always preferred listening to music that described the feeling, not how I should be feeling—aspirational songs telling me what I should aim for,” she says. “I just wanted to sit in my feelings and relate to someone, so maybe that’s why I write in that way.” And yet, despite having been doing it for the best part of two decades, there are still times when Nilsson doubts her ability: “It’s going from that place of, This is shit, I am shit, why does everyone think I can do this? to This is great, this is amazing, I can’t believe I get to do this!” As with all things, the way she gets herself through is by reminding herself that “this will pass.”
Nilsson does not know what the future holds, but she knows she always wants to be writing songs she relates to. In doing so, and in baring parts of herself so readily, she works to eradicate ingrained feelings of shame, exercising the power of her mind, all while imploring listeners to feel pleasure and tap into their own dark and twisted fantasies, reclaiming desire and autonomy in a way that is fulfilling rather than destructive.
Or, as she puts it, far more succinctly: “You can be deep and still be a slut.”