PVRIS: How Lynn Gunn found the confidence to go it alone
Aged 10, growing up in the Massachusetts city of Lowell, Lyndsey Gerd Gunnulfsen would creep into her brother’s bedroom when he wasn’t around. It’s a familiar story to anyone with an older sibling with a record collection enticing enough to risk covert missions to listen to. But that’s not what was on Lyndsey’s mind as she snuck around.
She already knew the music she liked – movie soundtracks made up of “butt rock” songs she’s too embarrassed to recall now – instead wanting to make music of her own, on her own, to replicate the sounds in her head rather than the ones coming from the stereo.
“It’s always been like that,” she muses today. “I’ve only ever really been trying to write the music I want to hear.”
There was just one problem back then: she needed to learn to play an instrument first. That was okay, though. Long before the Gunnulfsen siblings played together in marching band, they viewed each other as “strange, uncool aliens”, so her older brother was out a lot. So much, in fact, his younger sister found time to learn to play all of the instruments filling his bedroom.
Fifteen years later, it seems nothing has changed, despite the fact everything has. Lyndsey, now going by the name Lynn Gunn, is preparing for the release of Use Me, PVRIS’ third album and a record she made in its entirety, something we now know she’s done all throughout the band’s lifespan. She did it on 2014 debut White Noise. She did it on 2017 follow-up All We Know Of Heaven, All We Need Of Hell. She did it on 2019 EP Hallucinations, its creation proving crucial to Lynn’s eventual admission that despite the presence of (now departed) guitarist Alex Babinski and bassist Brian MacDonald in PVRIS, she’d been the sole painter of their sonic vision since day one. In other words, PVRIS hadn’t ever really been a band, but a vehicle for the singer/multi-instrumentalist’s artistic id, which carried a weight of responsibility she’s finally harnessed with this, her true emergence as rock’s most original icon in 2020.
The past two years have been a somewhat complicated ride for Lynn, of visions musical and psychic, of physical illness and emotional release, self-doubt and self-empowerment, all chronicled with candour on Use Me.
She’s enthusiastic about unpicking the album’s contradictions and complexities when she invites K! into her Los Angeles apartment. Her only uncertainty, in fact, stems from whether or not we should relocate our chat to avoid the noise from the gardeners enthusiastically revving their leaf blowers outside. There’s little that could interrupt the deep conversation that roams freely in a way Lynn had begun to think she couldn’t in the past couple of years.
“I felt really apathetic and really stuck before I basically ‘came out’,” she says of the build-up before the weight was lifted. “As soon as [the band] sat down and talked about it and got the green light from everybody, it felt great. It’s really beneficial for all of us as a unit. Everybody has their own things they’re trying to do off the road, so it allows for more freedom on everybody’s end. And it’s a lot more inspiring for me to be able to just go for it.”
While Lynn suggests there’s been the odd bit of kickback from fans since the truth emerged, on the whole, reactions have been supportive. “Those who don’t understand it, or are trying to create some made-up drama that doesn’t really exist, have a bigger issue they need to address that’s not related to PVRIS,” she says sternly, while remaining conscious that there was a certain level of deception on her part. “It definitely felt like I was being dishonest [to fans]. I had always said we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.”
That bridge began appearing on the horizon around the time Lynn, Alex and Brian were promoting Hallucinations, when a particularly persistent interviewer probed for insights into its creation, resulting in some nervous, stilted responses from a trio struggling to maintain the status quo.
“Brian pulled me aside,” recalls Lynn. “He said, ‘I really think you need to take credit for what you’re doing, because I’m really not comfortable with you giving us credit for what you’re doing.’ Even that conversation made me uncomfortable, because I wasn’t sure if that was something they were cool with. I’ve always been very sensitive to how [Brian and Alex] feel about it, but it felt liberating to hear that from Brian.
“I can actually talk about the process openly now,” she says of one of the most immediate changes this development brings, one sure to feature more heavily in interviews in the years to come. “I never did in the past because I was trying to fit into this narrative about how things were operating.”
While that’s a development you imagine benefits Lynn, someone evidently yearning to lift the veil on the hows and whys of PVRIS’ music, another key one is definitely for the benefit of others.
“I didn’t have anybody sharing this kind of story and kind of dynamic when I was a kid making music,” she explains. “I really wish I did, because it would have saved a lot of trouble and deep emotional stuff to work through. I think it’s really important – for young women especially – to know that you can fully lead your teammates, particularly in a day and age when there’s this constant conversation about what it’s like to be a woman in the [music] industry.
“If I’m able to act as a role model for young people, including young women, then that’s definitely a positive thing. It doesn’t need to be this big, scary horror story. We’re just re-establishing the truth. I hope that anybody else starting out can take something from that. I think it’s a cool story for people to know.”
An interesting, and perhaps unexpected, thing about Lynn – a woman who has long lived by a philosophy of self-sufficiency – is the stock she continues to put in the guidance of others. So while she tracked the guitar, bass, drums, some keyboards, and of course the vocals on Use Me – “Imagine there was somebody else doing those!” – Lynn is full of praise for JT Daly, the man who helped her birth this more singular vision. As well as being a musician with Nashville rockers Paper Route, JT is a producer and visual artist Lynn also gives “teammate” status to in her quest to make “the most direct and personal album” possible.
“He’s a great collaborator who captures what you want to be said and translates it,” she says of JT’s contributions. “The ideas, and the emotions attached to them – including a lot of aggression – came out.”
While JT helped Lynn stay on course to fulfil her creative mission, there were non-musical guides being consulted, too – namely the psychics she sees once or twice a year, depending on how her life is going, for validation of whether she’s on the right path or confirmation that she’s taken the wrong one. Lynn has sought guidance in the occult and the metaphysical since she was young, beginning with Tarot cards, and seeking the spiritual counsel of others has proved important enough to her personal and artistic lives to be acknowledged by a lyric in new song Wish You Well (‘Psychic told me something in September’).
“They’re intuitive people,” explains Lynn. “They don’t really like to be called psychics, but we can call them psychics for these purposes. They’re very gifted and they can tap into something else. They’re spot on. I like to be in a really good place before I see one so I can find out the things I can focus on, what needs to be addressed right now, and what’s going to help me grow.”
It was a psychic who, unprompted, identified Lynn’s internal struggle with whether or not to come forward as PVRIS’ lynchpin. “I didn’t bring it up to her, she brought it up to me,” reveals Lynn. “At the end of the day you have a choice to make, based on what they tell you. They’re reading your energy and your situation in that moment, as well as your trajectory overall, and helping to guide you towards that, while identifying anything that might be blocking you. It was already at the back of my mind, but the psychic bringing that situation up without me telling her about it was a big indicator of its importance, so I took note. It was finally time to reference [that relationship with psychics] in my music, too.”
Speaking of references, the title Use Me is certainly an interesting one. It simultaneously suggests Lynn’s depletion at the hands of others, while offering up these hard-earned lessons for the catharsis of listeners – distilling, in just two words, the role Lynn has long performed for fans.
“You nailed it,” she confirms with a laugh. “It’s very much a double-sided statement. It’s about feeling tied down and drained, but also recognising that music is made to help and heal, so telling people to go ahead and use this album for whatever they need, especially if you’re having to shrink yourself down to please others.”
A thought occurs to K!; with that title and Lynn’s multiple mentions of this ‘shrinking down’ idea, is there an underlying Alice In Wonderland connection at play on this record? It’s a no from Lynn, though regretfully so on her part. “I didn’t make that connection,” she says, rolling the idea over in her head. “It definitely makes sense, because in the book Alice finds all those items with things like ‘Eat me’ and ‘Drink me’ on them that can make her smaller and bigger, so I really like that idea. I’m going to have to start saying there is a connection! I’ll cc you in on it (laughs).”
While Use Me has no link to Lewis Carroll’s classic work of fiction, it includes some very real forays into darkness. That’s particularly true of Good To Be Alive, which despite its sunny title features the lyric ‘It feels good to be alive / But I hate my life’. It concerns Lynn’s struggles with the autoimmune conditions Ankylosing Spondylitis and Crohn’s disease, in a music industry that she suggests “doesn’t necessarily have the right prioritising of people’s wellbeing versus staying relevant and continuing to create”.
“[Good To Be Alive] is about being run down but still being expected to show up and be on,” she explains. “I think most people in music understand that pressure to keep going, keep moving and keep putting out as much content as you possibly can, especially in this day and age. People have short attention spans now, so I’ve definitely had the anxiety that we’ve taken too long [to make records] and we’re going to be forgotten. There’s a line from the same song, ‘Learning how to swim but the lands are dry / Feeling like a shark if I stop I’ll die’, about trying to keep going when I have nothing left, while thinking it could all go away if I stop working.”
Given the bright, positive tone of Lynn’s explanations, and her occasional injections of humour, does this mean she now looks at these difficulties from the vantage point of someone who’s vanquished them, at least mentally if not physically?
“In a way, yes, but I think it’s important, especially if you’re a creative person, to be vulnerable – even if that’s a little messy and difficult for you and others to deal with. That’s something I’ve worked on. If you’re feeling a certain way, talk about it, because nobody can really hold that against you. It also helps others realise they can do the same by being open. I think vulnerability is a superpower that can and should be used for good.”
Thinking of Lynn in superhero terms, her story is the stuff of comic book lore: a brave figure who leads by example, whose gift for healing others and unrealistic expectations of her own obligations carry a personal cost. And there’s no question that Lynn’s true enemy in this saga is herself. Not only do her health conditions have the potential to make her body feel that it’s no longer her own, as articulated by Good To Be Alive, she’s also in the constant grip of chronic fatigue. Even in its milder form this can result in dizziness and an inability to focus, therefore stopping her from writing and performing as effectively as she’d like. When there’s a more serious flare up, however, chronic fatigue can be highly debilitating and require strict rest, often for long periods, which is a problem if you’re not good at slowing down and revealing your pain to be a responsibility.
“I definitely have a problem setting boundaries and saying no,” admits Lynn. “Not just with other people, but with myself too. I often push myself a little too hard, because if I take a day off I feel guilty. I think I should skip resting and power through, because something amazing might happen. What usually ends up happening, though, is that I’m running on empty again, and I have to ask others to give me a second to catch up.”
How, then, will this dilemma of being a hero to others while remaining good to herself work when it’s time for Lynn to traverse the globe in support of Use Me, particularly with the extra emphasis on her? She may tell K! the only real change in PVRIS’ dynamic is a visual one, but with increased focus comes heightened expectations, surely? Having already bowed to the pressures of making another record in the face of illness, is she concerned?
“I’m… not… sure,” she responds, her hesitation suggesting she’s not thought of this, though that seems implausible. “I guess we’ll find out when the time comes. I really do think being transparent and vulnerable are two of the most important things you can do, and as long as I’m being those two things in any situation or context I’m in, I think I’m going to be okay.”
As earnest as Lynn’s response is, it’s impossible not to worry it’s a naïve assessment given what she’s up against. The alternative front cover design for Use Me was the singer in a picture frayed around the edges. Who, then, does she think will be the first to flag that her health is suffering and she’s in need of a time out – her or someone else?
“I definitely always notice when it’s happening, but I don’t always listen,” she says with a knowing laugh. “I definitely lean on other people to tell me I should rest and not push it, but even when they do I’ll question it and try to tell them otherwise. I need to keep myself in check better, but I don’t really trust that I’ll listen to my body and what’s going on inside me. It’s something I’m conscious of, and would like to focus on more in the future.”
Somehow you don’t believe Lynn; not because her intentions aren’t good – they remain as selfless and admirable as they’ve always been – but because she’s too ingrained in the pursuit of her art, and creatively feeding off the difficulties that commitment can bring, to curb herself now. And while the sins of the music industry loom large on an album she suggests there was a lot of pressure to make, she did it, and for a major label at that.
Lynn is finding ways to pick battles in her new role though, calling for change from inside the belly of the beast on Dead Weight, Use Me’s first single, released earlier this year and accompanied by a video in which she drives a hearse hosting a disco. While Dead Weight’s promo is on the surreal side, its lyrics, ‘Do you even notice / How easy you got this? / Taking wings off a goddess / If I’m being honest’, couldn’t be clearer.
“It’s a big overhanging look at the music industry right now, and how it’s always been,” concludes Lynn. “A lot of women get discredited or think they need to shrink for the comfort of men, or even for women, who might not realise they’re been programmed to think like that. I’m so curious how many women have had to shrink what they’re doing or contributing, and who’s responsible for that. I’d like to find out.”
You believe Lynn when she says this, and in her ability to find out. The slings and arrows she’s suffered at the hands of others have caused her to grow unbeatable and unshrinkable. A star finally at peace with her status and comfortable being recognised for her abilities, she’s ready for her music to be used so that others may achieve the same.
Use Me is released on August 28 via Reprise / Warner Music – pre-order and pre-save your copy now.
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