The Cover Story

Poppy: “Every day I wake up, I want to push myself to do something that I haven’t done the day before”

Not simply unafraid of polarising art, but actually very much in favour of it, Poppy has always done things her own uniquely fascinating way. And on fifth album Zig, she’s succeeded in doing things “different in a way that I’ve never done before” – from incorporating her dance background for the first time, to reaching new levels of vulnerability in her lyrics…

Poppy: “Every day I wake up, I want to push myself to do something that I haven’t done the day before”
Emma Wilkes
Angelo Kritikos

Poppy changes direction sharp and fast. Every album is a hairpin turn, leaving the sounds of her past self, for the most part, quaking in the dust. There’s little, for example, that ties together the discordant, industrial haze of her landmark 2020 album I Disagree and the scuzzy, dreamy grunge-pop of 2021’s Flux, bar the delicate vocals belonging to their creator. At all times, she’s curious. Indeed, when she's moving forwards and changing direction at the same time, perhaps the best way to imagine Poppy's evolution is as a zigzag.

That word came up the last time Kerrang! spoke to Poppy, in October 2022, just as she released the jagged, riff-driven EP Stagger. It was used to describe her deliberate, nimble avoidance of trends and convention, moving not with the tide but progressing on her own terms. When K! mentions this to the singer, she laughs, remembering the interview, and the amusing coincidence. At that point, she knew Zig was going to be the title of her next album, and it had been with her for some time.

Poppy was attracted to the angular pattern simply because she liked the sound of it. “‘Zig’ has the element of the vague to me. It’s a word with a spike in it,” she muses, speaking from Cleveland, Ohio, her voice a little husky from singing night after night on The Godless/Goddess co-headlining tour with PVRIS. “It’s short and snappy.” She does appreciate, however, the aptness for how it describes her ongoing transformation. “I love the swing. I love polarising art.”

Poppy considers Zig to be “different in a way that I’ve never done before – it’s high-fidelity, everything is very crisp and clean, and Stagger and Flux were a bit more rough around the edges, and warmer sounding, in ways.” Beyond that, it’s a record of glossy production, serrated synths and unabashedly pop-oriented hooks, but it is by no means simple, nor does it paint in broad strokes. Poppy plays guitar and bass across its 11 songs to a greater extent than she has in the past, giving it an organic feeling despite its slickness, but there’s an intricacy, too. Hard, for example, pairs skittering percussion with the rumble of guitars in one of the record’s distantly rockier cuts, while there’s also a shimmering, delicate take on drum’n’bass and a quietly theatrical, cello-laden ballad in the form of The Attic and What It Becomes respectively.

Poppy had been listening to a lot of dance music while making Zig, but while the sounds of four-on-the-floor beats and buzzing synths naturally bled into her output, it was also shaped by an unexpectedly fitting collaborator. She was introduced to Swedish producer Ali Payami by a mutual friend, whose CV includes albums by Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Tove Lo, and whose first Number One just so happens to be The Weeknd’s uber-mega-hit Can’t Feel My Face.

“I sent him a playlist of some of the music I was listening to, and some of it was a bit more underground. To my surprise, he was really familiar with it," gushes Poppy. "He comes from an electronic music background and his taste was very refined, and I really respect some of his pop sensibilities as well. He’s one of the most unique people I have met.”

But this stylistic shift also had another purpose: for Poppy to reacquaint herself with an aspect of her artistry she’d been ignoring for some time. “I wanted to make an album I could make dance music videos for,” she says. “It’s been a big part of me since the genesis of Poppy, and I dreamt of when those worlds [of music and dance] could merge together.”

She started dancing when she was three years old and kept it up for the next 11 years until she began singing, but now she’s making music that lends itself more naturally to choreography. It began with the visuals from the title-track for Stagger, where she and a male partner translated the story of a toxic relationship into contemporary dance, while just a few months later, Poppy could be seen contorting herself into bridges and scuttling like an insect on her hands and knees in the video for Zig’s dark pop-inspired lead single, Church Outfit.

“When you’re dancing, you have to be present for it, and you have to be in your body – you can’t be anywhere else,” Poppy says when asked what makes dance so important to her. “There’s something magic about that. It’s sexy, it’s confident, it’s bold. I think it’s meditation as well. There isn’t anything wrong – there’s different forms, different types, and it all goes back to you and your expression. We are given this vessel, this body, in this lifetime, so we might as well use it.”

Before Zig, the last music we heard from Poppy was a postcard from a time of anger and anguish. It was pain that was screaming for attention, following a very quick end to a traumatic relationship, and it demanded to be handled urgently. So she did, by getting into the studio and pouring out everything she was feeling.

By contrast, the longer-term healing involved a lot of “reading, self-forgiveness and personal development”. In times like these, Poppy’s own introspectiveness, which comes over with striking clarity in conversation, evidently serves her well. She’s willing to admit when she makes a mistake, one of those being her involvement in a relationship with someone with a “severe addiction”. Having never experienced anything like this before, she didn't have much of a guidemap for the situation.

“Sometimes you want somebody to get better more than they do. And at certain points, when things get tough, you have to decide to walk away because you start to lose more of yourself than the situation’s worth," she says. "I learned a lot about my own resilience and love and how to love myself through something like that, and recognise where I can help somebody, and where I can’t. Once that situation was over, I was able to stand on my own again, and stronger than before.”

Almost two years removed from this experience, Poppy can reflect on it as “a very small crumb in the scope of things”. While Stagger was about the shards of a broken relationship, she explains that, “Zig is entirely detached from that experience… I was navigating other life circumstances during this process, and there’s a lot of processing of what it’s like to be a human that’s capable of love, almost looking at it from an alien sort of position.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that on an album where she’s asking such a profound, emotional question, Poppy is perhaps the most vulnerable she’s ever been. After all, isn’t that necessary to be loved – to be exposed, and to be seen for everything you are, no matter how messy? There’s often a palpable sense of trepidation in her words as she contemplates the possibilities of opening herself up to love – ‘Is my name safe in your mouth?’ she asks on 1s + 0s, while Flicker finds her caught between ‘fear and a vision of forever’. Elsewhere, on The Attic, she spins through a cycle of doubt – ‘Would it be okay to take it slow? Just tell me if you don’t want me here.’

The anxiety captured on record springs from Poppy’s own discomfort with notions of romantic love. Always curious, and always conscious of herself, she spent a while trying to understand why that was, and realised that she perhaps had never experienced a truly loving relationship.

“You can only give love if you know how to receive it,” she surmises. “That’s what I took away from it. If you’ve only had shitty experiences of what love is, then you’re probably not going to be the best at giving love. I think that’s a lifelong journey, though. It’s not really this grand epiphany that you come to, where you read a book, apply it and you’re like, ‘I’m cured!’”

Was that because you haven’t had enough examples of love in your life to know how to give it?

“Yeah, but I don’t think that’s an uncommon thing. These days, I think we’re living in a world where people want to be better, and learn, and be the best version of themselves – at least, in the pockets of the internet where I find myself,” she says.

“I think we’re all broken, but it’s about who wants to get better.”

Poppy has been in the public eye for almost half her life. Daunting, sure, but she’s not paying any mind to who is looking, or why, or what they want from her. It may as well be white noise. Even as her break-up was being pulled apart and analysed online, she didn’t care – she’d slammed that book shut and was already onto the next thing.

“I was living in a remote, isolated location when all of those things happened,” she recalls. “I – not only mentally, but physically, geographically – needed to get closer to my loved ones and people that I care about. It was a total isolation state.”

In some ways, it’s possible to imagine Poppy existing in a bubble. Public perception doesn’t seem to permeate it – and why should it? – apart from, in adequately-sized doses, the love of her fans.

“I don’t think about the public, honestly, I think it can be harmful to you,” she agrees. “I think if you’re walking your own line and being honest with yourself to the best of your ability, then you shouldn’t worry. I’m not worried about or concerned with being liked. It’s nice to feel loved; playing shows, hearing about how my music’s affected people. That affects me, and that brings me a sense of warmth and joy. I think the public should be out of your process entirely, and should be the last [thing] to be considered.”

Perhaps, then, despite how long she’s been around, and how young she was when she first broke through, the idea of growing up in public doesn’t apply to Poppy so much. Just as she’s evolved musically on her own terms, she’s flown through her 20s with her persona morphing and hardening in a way that seems relatively unaffected by thousands, if not millions, of people knowing her name.

But how, then, would she say she has changed since her earliest days in music?

“My bullshit meter is more refined,” she reasons. “There’s a very short list of things I’m able to tolerate nowadays. I’d rather be a difficult person than one who’s agreeable. I think my ability to disagree is a strength – I’m not someone that disagrees for the sake of being in opposition, but I’m okay with my stance and I speak with conviction. You can get better with it in time, if you want to. You can never please everyone all the time, but it’s not about everybody – it’s about the self.”

Queue up Poppy’s visuals, watch them in chronological order, and it's possible to see her mature in real time. For a while, there was something kitschy and curiously childlike about the way she came across, from the eerie, ambient shorts of her early career, even as recently as her voyage through a pastel-coloured fantasy world in the video for Flux. In 2023, however, she’s more assured – and even subtly sexual – than ever.

In the opening seconds of the music video for Poppy’s new single Motorbike, she’s seen zipping up the fastening on a black pleather bodysuit, gliding a lipstick over her mouth, and climbing aboard the titular vehicle. She knows she looks good. She knows she’ll be seen, she’s in control of how she’s seen, and she owns it in a way we’ve never quite seen from her before. It’s a quiet kind of confidence she displays, and it carries over in conversation as well. “You can stare at me,” she says, “but I stare at me, too.”

When asked how she wanted to make that as-yet-unseen side of herself a part of her artistry, Poppy laughs. “I’m a woman!” she says, as if it’s obvious. “[Motorbike] is a song about power and being in control, but it’s also about being sexual and fun and okay with femininity. Whenever I see a girl on a motorcycle, I always stare at her a little bit longer than I do a guy. If I see a guy on a motorcycle, I think, ‘Oh, what bike is that?’ If I see a girl, I’m like, ‘Wow, she’s beautiful!’”

But there’s more to it. She’s not just owning her femininity, but doing so in a way she wished she could see growing up. “I never identified with the overtly sexual girl in all-black with her boobs pushed out. I’m softer than that. I’m like more of a Twiggy or Audrey Hepburn take on heavy music. I’m okay with my feminine side. You can be confident, you don’t have to be over-the-top sexualised, but you can recognise you can be confident and femme and it’s okay.”

Ultimately, though, as she carries on rocketing forwards, in the state of flux she’s always been in, and in which she thrives, it begs the question: what does Poppy want in 2023?

“Every day I wake up, I just want to push myself to do something that I haven't done the day before, small or big. I’m leading by interest. It's hard to verbalise what that is to someone, because I also don't like speaking things out before I do them. I like to talk about it after it's done because I don't have somebody narrating what I'm doing.”

She smiles, wryly. “I know what I’m after. But you’ll know later.”

Poppy's new album Zig is released October 27 via Sumerian

Read this next:

Check out more:

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?