In a world where it feels like all an artist now needs to get tagged as "the next big thing" in music is a savvy social media team, it's refreshing when someone comes along who actually has the talent and the tracks to justify the claim.
Canadian singer-songwriter Lowell, 22, has been compared to everyone from Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O. to Grimes, but on her debut album, "We Loved Her Dearly," out September 16, it's her brutally honest lyrics about everything from her past life as a stripper to being bisexual that have us flashing back to seminal works by artists like Liz Phair and Fiona Apple. And with sonic inspirations like Britney and The Backstreet Boys, listening to Lowell means you never have to choose between taking your musical vitamins or binging on pop sugar.
The Huffington Post recently caught up with Lowell to chat about her debut, her sexuality, killing her stripper persona, trying to work Pro Tools while high and more.
The Huffington Post: People have compared you to a slew of female artists -- how do you feel about those comparisons? Are they apt? Is it lazy? Does it annoy you?
Lowell: I think it used to annoy me. Now I just try to take it with grace. In general, they are all amazing people. Sometimes I get annoyed with society in that we’re only able to compare people based on what they look like or a generalization.
And it seems to happen so much more with female artists than male artists.
Oh yeah. I literally just have to be slightly left-of-center for someone to compare me to one of the female left-of-center artists. I think it happens with race a lot, too. With black artists, if you’re slightly left-of-center and you’re not an r&b artist -- I have a friend who gets compared to Bloc Party and he doesn’t sound like Bloc Party. He complains about it all the time. People are just so visually stimulated and they see a blonde chick with bangs and suddenly, “You’re Grimes!”
Does that change your strategy for how you perform or present yourself? Or do you just tell yourself you can’t think about that and you just have to do what you do?
A little bit of both. I think it makes things a lot easier in some ways. I could literally copy a male artist and no one would even notice. Not that I’m saying I do that but you know what? Sometimes I do, just because I get a kick out of it -- just to see if anyone will notice. I’ve copied male artists’ melody lines but more as a social experiment. But people can’t make that connection. Especially if it’s a male rap artist, it’s super hard for people to see the connection.
Sometimes when I talk to queer artists, they tell me that their sexuality has nothing to do with their work. Other times, artists tell me that if they weren’t queer, they aren’t sure if they’d be making music. What are your feelings on how your bisexuality does or doesn’t impact your work?
I think that it definitely does it in a large way and a little way. It impacts my lyrics -- I naturally write both towards women and towards men. I’m not trying to do that, it’s just what comes into my head. On a larger scale, I have -- definitely not the ability to 100 percent emphasize with the gay community because I do have that freedom, being bisexual, to live as a straight person and have life be easier for me -- but I’ve been through some of the stuff on a really small, minuscule scale... like some of the bullying that people go through, so I have the ability to emphasize with the queer community.
Do you feel any kind of responsibility to the community? You have a song called “LGBT” --
I do. I do. When I was in grade nine I was open about being bisexual and I was like, “I feel something for girls” and there were a few things that happened including people immediately being like “you’re a slut” -- because people get that mixed up. They think if you’re bisexual, it means you’re just slutty and that’s not necessarily true. Not that I care -- sure, I’m slutty -- whatever. It’s like, no, you’re slutty! Fuck you! [Laughs] But a lot of my best friends that were girls didn’t want to be around me for a while because they were afraid I was going to fall in love with them. I was like, “You guys are way too into yourselves. You think just because I like girls, I like you? Don’t flatter yourselves” [laughs]. That reaction made me turn off [my bisexuality] for a while, so I can’t even imagine what it must be like if you can’t do that. I just dated guys -- I still thought about girls. But now I’m more comfortable with myself and I don’t follow what society says because society is stupid. That emotionally impacted me and made me feel I have a responsibility as somebody who understands and just the fact that it matters to me, I think it’s important to stay true to that. And I can write really catchy shit, so sometimes I feel like you have the ability to get into people’s heads. It’s like a mind game.
Right. The songs can be like trojan horses. You put a message in a pop song and people don’t know exactly what’s going on at first.
Exactly. It’s fun to mess with people in that way.
Your music in general is kind of like that. I read reviews describing you as a “pop princess” but when you listen to the lyrics, you realize there’s something deeper and darker going on there.
I think it has a lot to do with my fascination with the world and life and changes that I wish I could see in some way. I was always really into politics and I loved music and I had this realization that they could go together and the younger generation is more likely to listen to music anyway. So it’s a way to get out what I’m feeling politically in a musical way. But I also just love pop. I grew up on Britney and Backstreet Boys. Especially Britney.
A lot of the pieces written about you also use terms like “gender politics” and “feminism,” which can be scary for mainstream audiences who maybe aren’t interested in having their pop spiked with heavy, challenging concepts. Is that ever something you worried about? Do you want to be seen as a feminist?
I definitely didn’t start out labeling myself as a feminist -- that sort of happened and I was like, “Cool. Great.” I think there are great things about feminism and I think there are flaws and I think the flaws are in the fact that there are so many labels and you can just be put in this box and be called a hippie that doesn’t shave her armpits and hates men. I don’t feel that way -- and no disrespect to those who do feel that way -- but you can’t put anybody in a box and understand what they’re trying to say. Everyone is an individual and the problem with something like feminism is that you do put people in a box and you’re no longer able to empathize with other feminists because you’re putting it all in one box and everybody has their own story. Gender issues are really fascinating. I don’t pretend to know what it all means, I’m just fascinated by the differences between the sexes and what makes men and women different. What of it is actually genetic and what is actually based on environment and role models? That’s a huge passion for me.
Tell me about the song "I Killed Sara V." and that persona and why she became a part of the album.
It’s so long and complicated. I’m 22 and I’m constantly growing and learning new things and then getting to stages in my life where I think I know everything! And then something happens and I’m like, Aw, shit! I thought I knew everything and I said this thing in an interview and I was totally wrong about that. And then a year later I’m like, OK, now I know everything! [Laughs]
I think that’s called being a human being.
[Laughs] I think this is important because I think people are intimidated by thought and by thinking about things, any sort of concepts in life, because they’re afraid of being wrong. I’m wrong all the time. I’m wrong right now. Probably half of the things I’ve said make no sense. So an example of that is six months ago I decide to make the EP called “I killed Sara V.” and it was named after a time in my life when I was stripping and my name was Sara Victoria.
That was your stage name?
Yes. So, when I quit, I managed to get out of that life, which is a really long story that I won’t get into, but I empowered myself and I was like “I’m on to the next part of my life.” So when it got to be time to do the EP, I therapeutically got through [what I’d been through] by writing these songs. The title “I Killed Sara V.” came to mind because I killed that part of my life -- I’m no longer that slutty girl that was on stage stripping. When I had to name the album [“We Loved Her Dearly," a line from "I Killed Sara V."] later on, I was like, “You know what? Sara V. was kinda cool actually. Why did I kill her? And why was I shaming myself for that?” So I made this whole album thinking I need to redeem myself from this shitty thing that I did when the truth is I was just being a human and I got lost in this world and there were times that I liked it and it was empowering at times and I shouldn’t be ashamed of that. The whole thing is autobiographical and the amazing thing is that even to the bitter end -- it’s a curve of a woman trying to understand her sexuality and fit in to society and make a statement but also be silly about it and then overcome that.
I love that, though, because by giving it the title “We Loved Her Dearly,” you’re resurrecting and reclaiming her.
The Sara V. time in my life, there was sexual abuse as a part of that. Part of the reason I was brought into that world was because of some really shitty situations. Not everyone can relate to that exact scenario but if you put it to a parallel of something like -- and people might hate me for saying this -- rape or sexual abuse, I don’t think that’s an uncommon reaction for a woman -- or a man -- to have anytime they’ve been the victim of something, to be ashamed of that person and want to get them out of your life. So I think me killing Sara V. was me trying to get rid of that “person” and I literally created an alter ego. I think that’s a disorder? Where you create another character to justify things?
Does the reclaiming or reexamining of that life act as an overarching theme for the entire album? Does the idea of “We Loved Her Dearly” bleed into and color all the songs on the album?
Yes, meanings of songs can change. One of the best parts about having the EP and then the album -- you have the songs from the EP come together with more songs and it creates a completely new perspective that reflects the time that I was going through and the time that I’m going through now. Some of the songs on the album completely tie it all together.
You’re not afraid of a drug reference. What kind of a role do they play in your life? Do you ever use them creatively?
Not really. I’m so dysfunctional when I’m on drugs. I’ve wanted to dabble in music and drugs and be like “What will happen?” But it’s ridiculous. I have to spend an hour just setting up my Pro Tools and putting all the plug-ins ahead of time and then I get high and I just stare at the computer and I write a shitty song and I go back, it’s like “Wow. That was a waste of my day.” [Laughs] There aren’t enough hours in life to spend doing that. There was definitely time when I was doing less mind-oriented activities when drugs could have taken up the day, so [the lyrics] are more of a reflection of that, I think.
Tell me about your synesthesia. How does it manifest itself?
It’s so weird and I’ve been trying to figure out how much of it is genetic and how much is environmental and what mine means. I also have perfect pitch -- it’s actually based on memory. You have really great pitch memory. For me, in anything I do, audio retention is super easy for me. I remember sounds insanely and what I’ve decided, which is not scientific at all [laughs], possibly at a younger age maybe I had better pitch memory while I was playing a xylophone and I saw different colors. That’s the less fascinating version of synesthesia. It’s ruining the whole special thing about it. But what it is for me now, despite that spoiler, is that basically any note that I hear generally has a color and a warmth to it. For me, G is always a blue and always has been. It is incorporated in videos, too. As soon as I’m writing a song I see a color -- an all around shade to any song -- whole songs look a certain way.
Does that change the way you write songs?
It changes what key I'm in and how aggressive I’ll sing a song. One of my songs, “Cloud 69,” is just red -- all red. Red, for me, sits in the A or A-flat area and where I went with that in the chorus probably has to do with that and so it became aggressive. If it were blue I would have been like, “Aw, this is warm and fuzzy, maybe I’ll go into something more melodic.” But it’s more scream and synthy.