Poppy: State Of Flux
On March 14 this year, at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the woman born Moriah Rose Pereira truly announced her arrival to the world.
Clad in curling shoulder pads resembling a costume from a Tim Burton film, on a runway stage framed by lights and flanked by plumes of pyro, the artist better known as Poppy led her band through EAT – an electro-tinged slab of righteous anger – screaming, stamping and strutting her way to world domination in the process.
It was the premiere ceremony for the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards, where on the same bill as the Afro-Peruvian Jazz orchestra’s tribute to late Motown legend Marvin Gaye and the chamber pop stylings of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, Poppy was even more of an odd-one-out than usual. Yet in the space of a few spectacular minutes, she completed her journey from an internet curio who now admits her first two albums – 2017’s Poppy Computer and 2018’s Am I A Girl? – merely served to soundtrack her early YouTube videos, into an artist with bona fide badass credentials. And in doing so, she left the snooty naysayers eating their words with regards to her ability to rock.
Because let’s not forget that Poppy’s performance was marking her inclusion in the Best Metal Performance category – the first solo woman to be so. She was stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Code Orange, In This Moment, Power Trip and eventual winners Body Count, and nominated for a song called BLOODMONEY, which features the lyric, ‘I know what it’s like to have my soul sucked from my body.’ In the belly of the beast at one of the music industry’s most prestigious nights, she was there in support of a song that squarely takes aim at that very beast, which seems rather, well…
“Ironic?” Poppy jumps in, speaking to K! today via Zoom. We’d say she does so playfully, but it’s hard to tell from the 26-year-old’s tone, which is measured even when discussing what it’s like to perform at a world-famous event which she used to stay up to watch as a kid. She’s so restrained, in fact – or wants to give the impression of being such – that when her manager told her the news of the nomination, she simply raised her eyebrows.
Presumably she was a little more excited than that?
“I was jumping out of my skin with excitement,” Poppy adds, but with such calm that it’s a little, well, ironic. “It was such a wild thing to be able to do. It was unexpected and not something in your life and your career you should try to get because you’ll end up chasing it into the abyss. But if it happens, it’s awesome.”
So, too, was the show she turned in that night, which had social media ablaze and was the subject of all manner of ‘reaction’ videos from musicians, commentators and influencers, admitting they’d underestimated our heroine. In stark contrast to those passionate appraisals of what she did that night, Poppy’s own reflections are characteristically understated. “I’m really bored with a lot of what I see with things that lean towards pop music. I like to entertain myself. And I was entertained.”
Instead, Poppy starts to recall another performance that suggests global recognition isn’t necessarily how she measures success. You see, for all the plaudits her GRAMMYs appearance received, there was a more low-key moment that changed her life just as profoundly and illustrated her influence with equal power. In February of last year, at the tail end of her tour in support of third album I Disagree, she played a show at The Pressman venue in Phoenix, Arizona. At one point, looking out from the stage Poppy was greeted by a heartening sight. At the barrier stood what appeared to be a young mother with a daughter of six or seven years old, mouthing every word to every song together.
“It gave me chills,” she recalls. “And it made me emotional, though I didn’t draw attention to what they were doing, as that would have spoiled the beauty of it and interrupted the connection I felt to them and that moment. Music is supposed to be that way. I looked at them and they reminded me of going to shows with my older sister. What those artists did for me as a fan, I wanted to be that for someone else. At that moment I realised that I was.”
It was that same older sister who first introduced Poppy to Clear Hearts Grey Flowers, the second album from Florida alt-rockers Jack Off Jill, released in 2000. “I always gravitated towards their music, but in the last year I’ve found myself listening again and getting back into all the things I’ve always loved,” Poppy says. The track Fear Of Dying was a particular favourite of the siblings, who’d blast it in the car and sing along raucously. There was a certain poetry, then, to Poppy releasing a highly respectable cover of the same song earlier this year, once she’d completed work on her fourth album, the impending Flux, released next month.
Given her propensity for musical restlessness, presumably Fear Of Dying’s lyric ‘I’m just afraid of being bored’ resonates? “Absolutely!” she laughs. “Although I think ‘I’m not afraid of being sick / I’m more afraid of being well’ does so even more. Why? I don’t interpret ‘sick’ as physical sickness, but there’s a certain hyper-vigilant anxiousness I identify with that means when things are going well, I’m afraid they’re going to fall to shit.”
It’s this fear, and Poppy’s attempts to come to terms with it, that lie at the heart of Flux.
It’s 12:30pm on a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles; the sun is hot, the air quality is low, and the traffic is steady – so just your average day, then. Not quite, according to Poppy. “I don’t think any day is average,” she chirrups, having travelled across town to Beverly Hills for a meeting and looking forward to going out later with her fiancé Eric Whitney, better known to the world as Ghostemane. “I think every day is exciting.”
It’s this sense of gratitude that inspired Flux, written over the course of six months, recorded with her band in the space of a week, and completed in post-production for a further two months. “There’s not a standardised way I work,” she says of her (lack of) process. “I’m inspired by waking up every day. Sometimes inspiration hits me more days than others. One of my favourite directors is David Lynch, who once said something along the lines of: ‘When you have a routine and you show up, it makes it easier to create’.”
Which entry in David Lynch’s oeuvre is Flux most like, then?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Poppy doesn’t take the (relatively) easy route with her selection. She doesn’t opt for, say, 1986’s Blue Velvet, with its exploration of the dark heart beating beneath the kitsch exterior of Americana, or 2001’s Mulholland Drive and its surreal probing of the dreams and nightmares of Hollywood. Instead she chooses Rabbits, a lesser-known and rather unsettling web series featuring humanoid rabbits interacting on an old-fashioned soundstage.
“The wholesomeness of the idea of a rabbit in clothing is very sweet, but the tone of the whole thing is quite off,” she explains. “The set is restricted and the action is quite stationary and stagnant, but there’s something deeper going on. With Flux there are song structures that are seemingly predictable but still offer you something unexpected.”
Flux is certainly an unexpected record, though not for the reasons you might think. Unlike I Disagree, it’s less an exercise in subverting pop conventions by gilding them with molten metal, and more a love letter to grunge, punk rock, dream pop, as if Poppy is holding on to her influences like a sonic comfort blanket. And while it can seem a more moderate affair, it’s only more conventional by her own unpredictable standards. It also showcases an impeccable ear for spacy textures and tones informed by bands like My Bloody Valentine and L.A. cult alt-rockers Failure (particularly on the track Strange As It Seems). These soundtrack moments of surprising depth and darkness because, thematically, If I Disagree was about Poppy burying her past – she at one point refers to it as her “first true album” – Flux is about acknowledging the possibilities of her future, having freed herself from the controlling forces in her life.
“In my experience, records take on a life of their own that you have to follow through because [the record] will tell you what it wants to become. There have been times when I set out to do something and it’s ended up being very far from what I originally intended, but it’s teaching me something. I’d say the theme that [Flux] communicates to me is something along the lines of not being afraid of the unknown.”
Although Poppy suggests fans “take with them what they wish” from Flux in terms of meaning, there’s no getting away from the record’s allusions to Titanic Sinclair, the creative partner she parted company with in late 2019, and subsequently accused of manipulative behaviour. (In a social media statement published on December 28, she wrote: ‘I was trapped in a mess I needed to dig my way out of – and like I always do, I figured out how to handle it.’) And while Titanic Sinclair’s name doesn’t actually come up today, the numerous references to misjudgements feel, at least in part, to be about him. That being said, when discussing questionable characters she does so plural. “So many of the wrong people were around me for such a long time.”
Ask, for example, whose creative opinion she trusts most. “People I respect,” she scoffs. “In the past I put too much weight on the opinions of people I didn’t respect a whole lot, for reasons I discovered later. I’m now only interested in the opinions of people I’m close to – and you only get that from trusting them as people outside the process of music creation – knowing how they operate and conduct themselves. It doesn’t take a lot to be nice, but to have integrity and be a respectable human being is important to me.”
Push for an explanation of Lessen The Damage, Flux’s pacy punk rock second track, specifically the words ‘Leave her / Don’t touch her / Let me be the one to destruct here’ and the response is startling. “I want to be the only one to destroy myself and nobody can do it for me. That’s my decision to make.” She’s similarly direct on the topic of Bloom’s lyric ‘Took what I gave to you / I took it back from you’. “I was too willing to give people too much power that they didn’t work for and didn’t deserve. It’s reclaiming what’s mine and reinstating myself into the world.”
If these tracks are about transcending the elements that held Poppy back, she reaches a summit on Flux’s final track, Never Find My Place. A woozy epic recalling ’90s electronic favourites Sneaker Pimps and featuring backing vocals from Deafheaven’s George Clarke, it’s so beautiful you don’t initially notice Poppy uttering ‘You broke into my life’ until she’s repeating it in a bloodcurdling scream. It confirms she still isn’t entirely sure where she belongs, but that’s just fine, as long as what she’s doing is on her own terms. “You don’t have to know all the answers and keep seeking your place in the world. You need to look around and accept uncertainty and that brings an inner peace. I remember listening back to that song and being in tears because I felt for once I was able to say what I wanted.”
This Kerrang! writer has spoken to Poppy once before, one afternoon in the throes of lockdown, regarding I Disagree (More), a re-released and expanded version of I Disagree. It was slightly tense to say the least, largely because of its brevity and the challenges that brought to a process that involves saying ‘hello’, exchanging pleasantries and segueing into personal chat within a matter of minutes – and all with a perfect stranger. And while she’s a markedly different interviewee today – warm, wry, courteous and surprisingly open – that’s not necessarily because she’s thawed to the process.
“I find it uncomfortable, typically, and I’ve had bad experiences in the past,” she says of facing off against journalists whose questions often highlight the ways she’s misperceived, while sometimes lacking the same level of preparation as the artists they’re scrutinising have put into their own work. “If journalism is your art, you should probably work to craft and refine what you’re doing. There is such a thing as a dumb question.”
While what Poppy constitutes a dumb question isn’t clear, you can see why people queue up to interview her. She is fascinating and her enigmatic, often cryptic answers necessitate coming up with entirely new lines of inquiry on the fly as you try to dig for clarity. At various points today, for instance, she makes reference to “the project”, which she uses interchangeably with “me” or “I”, further blurring the line between the person and the artist. “I have multiple mediums for releasing art and music is just a part of what I do, so ‘project’ is the all-encompassing word,” she says. “I also direct, write graphic novels, and design accessories.”
She has some interesting little rules, too. Later, she goes out of her way to mention having a list of dream collaborators, naturally prompting a request for some of the names on that list, which is refused. “I always find it a bit weird when people do that. If it happens naturally then it happens, but I’m not putting anything out there. I wouldn’t mind if someone said publicly that they wanted to collaborate with me, though.”
Then, of course, there’s the important question – less dumb than it is rather pat – as to whether Flux is Poppy’s most personal record. She’s clearly given it some thought, though, as confirmation arrives almost instantly. “It’s more in line with what I’ve always wanted to get across and get out there – the part of me I’ve wanted to introduce to people and get across. I’ve had these songs [from Flux] for a while now, and I’m always making music, so to me it was a snapshot of a chapter and because I’m going on living, one day there’ll be another snapshot of a chapter.”
Poppy admits she’s already making new music, so we may not have to wait too long for that next snapshot, considering she’s released four albums in the past five years. Whenever it ends up appearing and whatever it ends up sounding like, though, you can be sure it’ll be governed by one fundamental need and look to please one person and one person only. “I need to push myself to be honest constantly,” explains that very person. “When I’m looking to do with whatever is in front of me, that hour or that day, is to entertain myself and in turn that could resonate with somebody else. But I think when people start thinking solely about what fans want to hear, that’s when you self-destruct.”
She takes a second, harking back to the time when being able to do and say what she wanted wasn’t quite so straightforward, before offering a final insight that could just as easily be applicable to any one of us in our lives and relationships. “You have to do you and offer your voice… and if you do that, the right people will come.”
Flux is released on September 24 via Sumerian Records.
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