Poppy unleashes crushingly heavy cover of Spit by Kittie
Watch the video for Poppy’s wonderfully raging cover of Kittie classic Spit.
In recent years, enigmatic alt. superstar Poppy has been peeling back the layers to show more sides of herself. Now, on raging new EP Stagger, she lays bare her experiences for all listeners to learn from…
Poppy is a shapeshifter. She flits from project to project in a state of constant metamorphosis, leaving no clue as to what sort of sounds she might explore next. 2017 debut Poppy Computer was a techy smorgasbord of glittery proto-hyperpop, while 2018’s Am I A Girl? veered between sugary electropop sheen and much harsher territory.
As she dove deeper into that more aggressive sound for 2020’s I Disagree, the alt. world sat bolt upright, fascinated by the biting industrial soundscapes set against vocals that lurched from childlike to chilling. Just under two years later, she threw another curveball in the form of Flux, a more eclectic, organic offering blurring the lines between grunge, shoegaze and dream pop.
Is there anything constant, then, from one Poppy album to the next? The artist’s answer is simple. “My curiosity.”
“I just have a lot of interests, and things that I find fascinating,” she says, speaking to Kerrang! at an airport in LA as she waits to catch a flight to Texas to join Smashing Pumpkins on tour. “It’s deep-rooted. It’s not a passive enjoyment, it’s a very all-encompassing pleasure. [With my music], I go with what I’m interested in, and what I would like to be singing, and when I get bored of it, I’ll change it. I think that’s what part of this life is about: exploring what you’re fascinated in, digging deeper into it, and then when you get bored of it, do something else. It’s really boring to make the same music or album over and over again. I think I would be very sad all the time if I was trying to do that.”
The way she describes it, it seems that in Poppy’s world, intrigue is intuition. It goes beyond just her music – even in her everyday life, she lets any passing interest guide her towards holiday destinations, museums, things she might want to paint. She even reckons it’s why she’s drawn to cats, who famously share her sense of ceaseless curiosity. (Incidentally, her beloved cat Pi is also with her in the airport.) Indeed, she goes as far to label the need to constantly explore as a “responsibility”.
Weirdly, this sense of embracing limitless possibilities has allowed Poppy to set boundaries. It steers her towards the things that are likely to genuinely enrich her life, and away from the things she doesn’t need in her bubble.
“I feel like what I’ve created around me as a person in my everyday is what I want to be surrounded by. I don’t want to know what’s on the news, I don’t want to know what has come out from pop culture. I want people that I love around me to bring what they know that I will enjoy, in terms of what they think I should be exposed to.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Poppy isn’t a subscriber to the zeitgeist, given her music’s complete disregard for conformity, choosing to zigzag around convention and swerve any fad or fashion. It’s easy to see the logic – pop culture is prescriptive at the best of times, a ravenous hivemind constantly digesting trend after trend, devoid of human connection.
“I’d rather be in conversation with somebody that tells me, ‘Hey, you should check out this film,’ as opposed to me just having advertisements projected onto me every time I look at the screen. It’s quite upsetting, actually.” Poppy says this plainly, in the same soft tone with which she sings, without a hint of pretension but rather the self-awareness of a sensitive soul who understands on a fundamentally deep level what makes her tick.
Even in the earliest days of Poppy's career, where she says she didn't have a great deal of freedom, she could still loosen the shackles by taking her music in any direction she wanted.
“There’s parts of my life where I felt like I couldn’t speak,” she recounts. “There were certain scenarios, there were people around me who were very restricting, people that didn’t encourage growth and development of my creations.
“Now that they’re gone, I’m more fluid.”
Where she could end up musically is anyone’s guess, and even Poppy isn’t sure.
“I’ve been listening to things all over the map, actually,” she offers instead when asked if there are any specific styles in mind she wants to explore in the future, and mentions listening to the likes of OutKast and Duran Duran on the way to the airport. She’s got an expansive palette – throughout our conversation, she also professes to listening to a lot of Metronomy, espousing the underratedness of Veruca Salt and being a Turnstile fan long before they put out GLOW ON. It seems, then, there are seemingly infinite rabbit holes for her to venture down.
But first comes the era of Stagger.
To stagger is to walk or move unsteadily, as if about to fall. Poppy quotes the definition (as far as she can remember it) as she explains the EP’s title, named after the delicately percussive guitar-pop closing track which is arguably the record’s biggest musical outlier.
“I love the way the word ‘stagger’ looks and I love the definition of it,” she explains. “I say we stagger on through life backwards, you’re making unsteady steps in the reverse direction as a sort of regression, and I felt that about the opposing person and the scenario described in the song. You let people make their own mistakes. You’re not responsible for anyone’s growth. It was a reminder to myself that I saved my own life.”
Stagger was written and recorded in what Poppy describes as a “very confined period of time”, a three-week window in December 2021, just after she’d moved back to Los Angeles. The first person she texted after touching down on the West Coast was Ted Gowans, the guitarist and keyboardist who she had made Flux with. ‘We have to write a song,’ she told him. They flew out to Nashville to join the rest of the band in the studio with producer Mike Elizondo, known for his work with Turnstile, The Regrettes and twenty one pilots.
For Poppy, this was urgent. There was a lot that she needed to express, all off the back of a personal situation that she needed to write her way out of.
“It was the dissolve of a very traumatic relationship,” she recalls. “It was a very quick dissolve.” Unlike the writing processes for her previous albums, most of the lyrics were already written when she went into a session, many of its words and phrases directly lifted from entries in her journal. In the studio, she pieced them together like a jigsaw. Setting her thoughts to music afforded her an opportunity to lay them out clearly. “Music, for me, has always been like an exhale,” she continues. “I feel sometimes when I get too cloudy in the head, I have to write things down and it helps me make sense of the things that I deal with on a personal level.”
If Stagger is a snapshot of where Poppy was in her life during the short window in which it was made, it captures various shades of anger. On the discordant electro-grunge of Pocket, the anger is partly aimed internally, for minimising herself for someone else (‘I make exceptions to the rules for you / I forget who I am for you / I ruined every plan for you / I forgot how to stand, ‘cause I stood for you,’ she laments) and partly at the person who caused such emotional anguish. Later, the darkly catchy pop-rock jam Shapes is both a sassy refusal to stomach the bullshit she’s been fed and a pointed middle finger to conformity, specifically the notion that she should fit into boxes others wanted her to contort herself into. Even when it’s furious, it’s eloquent and wry, but above all, for Poppy herself, it’s a vital exercise in detaching from her past.
“You don’t want to hold onto anger,” she says. “It makes you ugly. But you can recognise what it made you feel and accept what is and let it go.”
The notion of growing from your experiences has been one of the most profound lessons learned throughout the ordeal that birthed Stagger.
“I had a couple of people along the way give me advice, but sometimes when people give you advice or say certain one-liners or phrases that you remember, they almost aren’t activated until you have a certain experience under your belt," she says. "I’d been given advice, thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t know what it meant until I came out the other side. Then I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember. You told me to be aware of this. And now I’m staring it in the face, and I have to run the other way as fast as I can.’”
The anger of Stagger reaches what is arguably its boiling point on F.Y.B., a determined, fast-paced riot grrrl “revenge song”. When asked what brought her into a vengeful mindset, her answer is short and sharp: “Betrayal.” Most interestingly, it’s a revenge song with a difference – within it, Poppy is taking revenge not by the clichéd method of slashing tyres or burning belongings, but coolly sitting back and letting karma step in and enact justice. “I think it’s better that way.”
This sense of calm trust in the universe to let someone suffer the consequences of their misdeeds, rather than holding onto anger as the weapon to punish them with, is the common thread between the two otherwise disparate songs bookending the EP. There’s nothing petty about the fury on display here – it’s felt, released, and gently put down.
What’s equally fascinating about F.Y.B., meanwhile, is that it captures a specifically gendered wish for revenge. It’s unmistakably the words of a woman scorned, directed at the man who scorned her – ‘You’re sticking it out / So your dick’s in her mouth… You wanna go out and fuck the girls / But they’ll fuck you back.’
“I feel like a lot of women put up with a lot of things that they don’t need to from men,” Poppy asserts. “I don’t want to make this gender vs. gender [but] women don’t need to put up with bad intentions, the way a partner might make you feel, accepting things that are completely unacceptable. There’s a lot to be said about somebody that gets you to question what you are experiencing. There’s really catchy terminology for that.” She refrains from using the word ‘gaslighting’, before continuing, “Just always be wary of somebody that tries to get you to question who you are and what you’re experiencing first-hand and what you know to be true.”
Believe it or not, Poppy wasn’t always as open as this. There was once a time when, if she was asked where she grew up, her response would be, “The internet,” and nothing more. From the start, she’s been something of an enigma, but as time has passed, she’s gone into greater detail about her life, her personality, and her worldview. Really, we’re fortunate to get to see it.
What is there, then, to learn about Poppy in 2022? She’s a deeply thoughtful individual, speaking slowly, choosing her words with great care, and offering a wealth of observations about the world, other people, and the way she functions.
“I think the human experience is very interesting,” she considers. “It’s an interesting thing to study, what other people are going through and how they deal with their intuitions, because it’s very grounded. Who are you to judge anybody for making certain decisions for love, anger or hatred? As a human being, you’re just trying to figure it out.”
She begins musing upon what she realised during the pandemic about how humans operate when the world runs at its usual ever-accelerating pace. “Everyone’s always moving so fast, like they’re in a rush to go somewhere. People are always trying to get ahead as opposed to living. It takes a lot of work to fight to be in the present because you’re either thinking about the past or thinking about the future. You have to think about what’s right now. I always have to remind myself too that it’s a nicer place to be as opposed to, ‘Once this is done, I’ll be happy.’”
Poppy’s often spoken of her introversion growing up and how she thrived in environments where she was isolated. In school, she was bullied for how quiet she was. While she’s not totally disconnected from the world, sometimes unplugging is what she has to do to keep herself in balance, especially in the ultra-fast modern age where it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by information overload. “I have to shrink into myself more often,” she says. “I feel that I’ve gotten progressively more sensitive to my surroundings as of late. I need to be careful of what I see, because I’m a sensitive being.”
She’s acutely aware of what she needs to do to look after herself, and this is one way in which she does it. Away from the stage or the studio, she tends to herself by lifting weights and practicing yoga, spending time with her cat, and tapping into other forms of creativity that aren’t tied up with her career like painting and creating her own clothes. In the pandemic, she even started nurturing a passion for vegan and natural skincare. Self-care, however, remains a practice she’s gradually bettered over time.
“I want to be nicer to myself,” she explains. “I like to manage my mind and my soul now as opposed to depriving [myself of] the bare minimum you need to survive, like food or affection. I think that was a control thing from the past, where I controlled what I consumed because I felt like my life was out of control.”
Even when she merely scratches its surface, it seems that Poppy’s inner world is as complex and colourful as the sonic one she creates, where sounds and genres clash and blur and her imagination whirs ceaselessly. It’s a world full of fascinating contrasts, and even within individual songs, the landscape can change from heavenly to hellish in the space of a breath. It’s how she shocks people, particularly when she unleashes a banshee scream one couldn’t imagine coming from the mouth of a diminutive woman with such a quiet demeanour. Ultimately, it's just one way in which she ruthlessly defies expectations, and if she’s going to make anything her trademark, that quality would be it.
Truthfully, Poppy may well be the closest thing to a true original the alt. world has got. The future is hers for the taking.
Poppy’s new EP Stagger is released on October 14
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