Electronic singer-songwriter and video artist Planningtorock comes face-to-face with herself, as her revelatory second album opens up.
For some artists, the impulse to leave their homeland is necessary to flourish. Stifled from their full potential, surrounded by familiarity, they seek refuge in the unknown. Because in the unknown there is the potential. For Janine Rostron moving from her hometown of Bolton to be with the Teutons in Berlin 10 years ago not just unlocked her potential but also its accidentalism opened up a narrative that has been about questioning ideas of self and received wisdom. Her vehicle for this is Planningtorock: a triumvirate project of music, videos and performance. Like one big induction loop, she attempts to explore the friction – and maybe the impossibility – that exists between the representation of aural narratives visually; and then back again the other way. Yet it is the music that is the starting point for all of this, because it is that which informs the others, allowing them to inform that in the live performances.
‘Have It All’, her 2006 debut album, was a good introduction to her sound. Described as “chamber-pop” and “baroque,” to me it was harder to define so neatly: it took elements of electronic music, like IDM and classical instrumentation, and combined it with a liberated vocal range. It had gnarliness but with playful melodrama. Her follow-up, ‘W’ (‘Double You’ – geddit?), goes further in playing with the boundaries of melodrama, especially through its vocalisation. She warps her vocals making them seem ambiguous at times, and alien at others. And combines this with the obsessive qualities of instruments like saxophone and staccato strings – she tests the limits of their sound and debunks orthodoxy of when and how they should be used. The effect of this is an engagement in her music, maybe primarily through narrative, in order for the music to beget itself. An achievement that Janine relishes, this is not malign narcissism: she is obsessive with her output, in that way her music can make her (and the listener) feel frustrated, elated, exasperated and euphoric. All at once.
Much comment has been made of the visual interpretation of both ‘Have It All’ and ‘W’. The former took a more theatrical tack, especially in the live performances at her own shows and the many support slots for Peaches, LCD Soundsystem and The Knife. Elizabethan costume was combined with what appeared cybernetics – robotic masks that were not to disguise, but to aggrandise, adding more and more to herself and seeking more and more from her audience. In the alien form that Janine presents in ‘W’, some have alluded to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. But that would be to misunderstand what, from talking to her, I believe she is trying to convey. And also the wrong Jean Cocteau reference, in my opinion. If anything ‘W’ has more in common Cocteau’s earliest work, La Voix Humaine, a one-act opera in which a middle-aged women despairs over the course of a telephone conversation with her lover leading to her mental breakdown. Cocteau wasn’t just using the telephone as metonymy for lapsed communication – in its xylophone ring he, like Janine with the saxophone, illustrated its abrasive sound and the emotional response that encumbers. ‘W’ is also a monologue, with Janine talking to a passive audience, us, and seeking a reaction, any reaction. And like La Voix Humaine it’s a monologue with more emotional resonance than the grandest of works. They both seek presence.
Janine understands that by opening yourself you can invite parody, and this is particularly true of femininity – artists like Björk, Diamanda Galás, Kate Bush, and even men like Arthur Russell, are cases in point. As with them, she knows that the world isn’t so black and white, so dyadic; it is about understanding what lies inbetween. Or to put it more bluntly as Janine does, it is about exploring your “inner-trannie”.
Yet none of this is to labour the point, or to detract from the comedy inherent in all of this: everyday life is a strange mix of the mundane, the farcical, and the unknown. Understanding that goes some way to properly “get” Planningtorock. Welcome home.
It has been nearly five years since you released your debut, ‘Have It All’ – that’s going towards a Kate Bushian chronology! Why has it taken so long to complete the follow-up?
Planningtorock: I mean, firstly, when ‘Have It All’ came out I toured a lot with that record, and then there were these invitations to tour with friends which I just couldn’t pass on – with Peaches, LCD Soundsystem, Olof and Karin [from the Knife] At the end of 2007, start of 2008 I started to write for the new record. I do a lot of it my own so it takes a long time. I wrote a lot of material, but I am very slow.
That’s quite interesting, as I was just talking to Gang Gang Dance last week [read the piece here ] and we spoke about how they start recording quite early on intensely but actually end up discarding a lot of the earlier stuff. And that it is almost essential for them to make an album…
Planningtorock: When I finished this record I had 27 tracks. I had so much material and then I had to bring it down and home into which tracks were actually going to become album material. But I think on this record I wanted to get really into developing more my sound.
But I feel ‘Have It All’ has a distinctness to it as well, though you can see the classical elements to ‘W‘… But what do you do with all the tracks you’ve recorded that aren’t included on the album?
Planningtorock: I think, for me, the material that will never be made public, in a way it will naturally discard itself somehow by the fact that I will just never make it resurface. When I am writing music there are a lot of tracks that I need time with them. Like there are a couple of tracks on the album that I wrote in the middle of 2007 and then I left them and worked on them in 2010. It took me that long until I kind of almost got a massive distance from them and then liked them enough to work on them again. Or, in a way, it felt that I got inspiration to add vocals and other parts to it.
This album is quite grounded in the way you play with your vocal, though in the press release it mentions that you are not really precious about your voice?
Planningtorock: Actually it took me a long time to realise I could sing because when I first started making music I was making instrumentals and never really knew that I could sing. When I started singing it was really kind of shy, weirdly enough. It was only until I actually performed that I really found my voice, like on stage where everything came out and I really realised how the voice is a good communicator. How it can move you; how you can somehow communicate even without words with the voice, and that’s something that I was really interested in on this record – like really overproducing the some of the vocals.
It’s almost like you are creating different voices, I guess; and that was the whole point of it. It’s kind of schizophrenic in that way, or even different facets of one persona.
Planningtorock: Yeah. Say for example, the track The One I started, and just wasn’t happy with the vocals for a long time. I then started to warp the vocal and suddenly this other emotion came through – over-emotion in a way – because that’s like the first love song I’ve ever written. I found it really hard to communicate a sincerity which sounds weird…
I think that’s absolutely true. Lots of music believes it can convey emotion or emotiveness, but it generally and utterly fails – it’s a sort of protracted orthodoxy. You have to let go and the paradox is in doing that you open yourself up to parody.
Planningtorock: Definitely! With stretching the voice it just got really beyond melodrama, and that’s actually what I want to communicate. That song is really intense, it means a lot to me, so it just did what I was trying to do. I found it really interesting that by your production you achieve that emotion sonically. It’s also a lot to do with singing in the studio, it’s very different to being on the stage where you’re loaded – you are emotional on stage, and you’re sharing that with the audience. But in the coldness of the studio you have to find ways of pulling that emotion out.
When I was reading your biog I had this thought in my head that probably related more to my experience of moving to London from Glasgow, but I’ve always felt that people with an “accent” have this displaced sense of discovering their own voice – that when I moved here I was shocked to discover I had one, why people found that different and difficult, and from all that it really put the voice to forefront? Did you find that with moving from Bolton to Berlin?
Planningtorock: I think the isolation of not being in England, in a place where actually your dialect and everything that’s attached to that mean nothing.
But do you not find it means more, because you didn’t even realise the difference to begin with?
Planningtorock: Totally … Yeah, that’s an interesting thing, actually. I really like that about being and working in Berlin, and away from what I consider familiar, because it is such a challenge. You’re defined then by what you do and not what you’ve done or where you’re from, or anything like this. The references, in a way, become clearer to me – it becomes like an unfussed process. Though I have to say it is very hard working so much on my own – when it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s hard, it’s really hard.
Plus the thing I find about Berlin is that it becomes such a lonely city during the week, and it is – as much as this has become a cliché – a city where lots of people don’t do much. So in a way there is this added struggle against that, you have to really push yourself.
Planningtorock: It’s so slow, I mean it’s like a sleepy village – it’s perfect for me. I just beaver away in my studio doing my thing and I have this kind of isolation that I feel allows me to get deeper into my thing. That’s what I really like.
With the Arthur Russell cover on ‘W’, Janine, did that come from an appreciation of him, or the novelty of Janine, the track itself – or both? In Matt Wolf’s film Wild Combination you hear from his boyfriend about him draining water in the fish tank to record its sound, somehow I feel there is that same intensity in your music…
Planningtorock: Yeah, like the slapback delay. My friend sent me that track – I’d never heard it before, and when I listened – this sounds cheesy – but it really felt like the lyrics were written towards me. During the process of making this record it took me so long that at one point I was like “maybe I should try and work with other people,” and I did and that was an alright experience but it just became something else. It wasn’t this really focused Planningtorock project anymore it just sounded something else so I abandoned it. I got that song at the time and the lyrics are like “Janine don’t go with those guys” – so I was like “OK, this is some spiritual message.” I’ve never done a cover before and basically what happened was I had this really funny, almost Silver Apples sound and I was just improvising one night and it all came together.
Plus you convey well that intense fragility that defined Arthur Russell’s vocal – that capacity to make you feel tearful at times.
Planningtorock: It’s super-tender.
You say on this album that you have found a sound that you are most comfortable with? What do you mean by that – isn’t that a non-sequitur in way, don’t you feel your sound is always evolving?
Planningtorock: I used the saxophone and strings on this record and I used a lot of effects on the instruments to create an intensity. I think what it means is that I start to make music that even I don’t know what it means. This is the music I want to make: it starts to inform me. Or the music informs itself.
You feel like you don’t know where it’s going to go?
Planningtorock: I don’t know where it’s going to go. For example, a track like Milky Brau, it’s not the most catchy song on the record but this, for me, is the one musically – the chords are very strange, the sounds are really quite peculiar, the voice together. It creates a song where I am like, “what the hell is that.” This excites me and it makes me come to music where, in a very strange way, it just feels close to me. Maybe it also gets closer to sound or music that I like: Meredith Monk, Arthur Russell or very early Michael Nyman. You know, really intense music that’s emotional – a bit scary!
Is that something you don’t think you achieved on Have It All, then?
Planningtorock: No, I mean there are tracks on the first album like Hiding Where I’ll Find Me or Have It All that I am proud of. They also have an intensity. But I think it is more that I am really homing in on why I really like certain instruments – like the pizzicato strings, to be specific. They have this strange mixture of humour and melodrama. The saxophone as well; it can be an unbearable instrument. It’s very severe and it is a hard one to place, and it is aggressive – it has attitude! These are great sounds for me that I want to work with.
It’s almost like you are challenging people’s perception/annoyance of the saxophone and other instruments.
Planningtorock: Yeah. The beginning of The Breaks is like “waaaah, waaaah” – this dirty, grimy sax which is like god knows where that’s come from – the sewer or something!
The most jarring sounds are always the sounds that leave the most lasting legacy. The instrumental track, Black Thunder, has this real ambience to it – a bit reminiscent of early Alan Parsons Project. It feels like a pause for reflection amongst the intensity towards the end of the album. Living It Out meanwhile is definitely the most euphoric moment on W, especially with those strings, surely a future single.
Planningtorock: Third single. That was the first track I wrote and I love the message of that song. Lyrically, I am really happy with it plus it is the first “dance” track I’ve written.
Do you think that by working on Tomorrow, In a Year with Olof, Karin and Mount Sims in between this album it has somehow informed the latter part of the recording of ‘W’? Especially since it was such a defined narrative relating to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species?
Planningtorock: I think it is the other way around actually! I was half-way through finishing this record and I wanted to record some kind of live percussion. I came across this amazing Icelandic percussionist, Hjörleifur Jónsson, who is not just skilled but innovative so I knew I could work with him. I organised recording sessions with him and then Olof came and told me he’d been offered the opera and if I would like to do it with him. I was like, “well, I totally do but I have to finish this album, I think it’s too much for the both of us to do..” He approached me because I was recording a lot of acoustic and he had no experience of recording acoustic instruments. We then got Matt from Mount Sims involved and then Karin got involved with the vocals. But Olof and I really just focused on the field recordings and the live percussion recordings.
So it was more like you played your part in a process – technical, in a way?
Planningtorock: Yeah, totally, I was really into mics and stuff then. We went to Iceland and recorded Hjörleifur in his hometown in the north. I specifically wanted to not deal with the vocals on the opera because I was dealing with them on ‘W’.
I must admit when I went to see the opera and heard the girl sing I was a bit confused, it didn’t really live up to the album.
Planningtorock: The production we had nothing to do with. It was a shame it was a fine example of a concept that is good on paper but in reality is different. They wanted to work with one opera singer and an actress who couldn’t sing.
Yeah, I think I know who that was! I just found it harder to relate to the performance of the music…I guess I now look at the album Tomorrow, In a Year as more of a concept suite not connected to that performance.
Planningtorock: Actually, after the premiere we had a crash-meeting with the producers asking them to improve it. It is difficult when you are working on a project that is someone else’s concept and they definitely had their own ideas. They wanted us to do the music and then they had the people they wanted to perform it. It was a shame because the actress had to take singing lessons in the end – we had to make her sing. And the opera singer was amazing but the experience with working with classically-trained musicians sometimes is that they find it very hard to approach their vocals.
Did you feel like you then had to detach yourself from it because of that?
Planningtorock: Well that’s why we released it as a record because we wanted the actual version that we all put our love into for people to hear and then the staged version was separate. We needed that to see it ourselves as a body of work. It was a real experience, and I think, in retrospect, we all maybe agree that we might have meddled a little bit more – maybe taken over a little bit more. But it is always difficult with things like that. One nice thing about it is that it is a piece of music like any other opera and this production company will tour it for another year and then other production companies will make their own different versions of it. So it’ll live on in different ways.
Is your friendship and working relationship with Olof, in particular, the result of a small Berlin scene, or something different – how did it come about?
Planningtorock: I got to know Olof and Karin through doing a remix of them in 2004 and then I played in Stockholm, at the time I was doing this really home-grown tour, literally Kevin Blechdom and I in our own car driving around Scandinavia doing wild shows with helmets and meat, as she was doing meat things at the time, and Olof and Karin came to the gig we did. They introduced themselves and we became friends kind of instantly, then I have a studio in Berlin near where I live and when Olof moved to Berlin I helped him get a studio so our studios are literally upstairs-downstairs. Matt [Mount Sims] has my studio now. We’re close but actually when we’re working it’s quite isolated but we do have these times like when my record was finished and I had listening sessions.
I’ve seen you a few times live and you really put a lot into the live show like the Transformers-esque helmet, have you started working on a show for ‘W’?
Planningtorock: I always like to have some form of choreography in the live show which is really fun with the music. But for this tour I have two other musicians with me so it is going to be more live. I enjoyed the last solo tour; it was a little frustrating sometimes to just play with playback but to me it was just a conceptual show – the visuals, I created this world.
So this tour is going to be less conceptual because of the inclusion of the new band members?
Planningtorock: No. It’s going to be conceptual. It is going to be a world. We have been rehearsing two weeks and it is just a great pleasure to make live interpretations of this music with live saxophone and percussion, a lot of effects and e-drums and stuff. But I need that because I am a performer, I love performing, I like to be at the front and I like to have the connection with the audience.
Strange, because in some of the shows I’ve seen I detect a certain shyness.
Planningtorock: Maybe. Sometimes I get coy but I like it.
I remember it being similar, although maybe more alien than, the Fever Ray shows. This disengagement which is used to focus the audience – it was dark, you had this LED helmet on and you couldn’t see your face! There is always something about not seeing someone’s face, their expressions.
Planningtorock: That’s true – wearing the masks, for me, was more about maximising something.
It wasn’t about disguise?
Planningtorock: No, not at all. It was like adding! What I liked about it was that it was an accident, it was 2005 and I was playing a festival called Fusion in Berlin, which is just the craziest festival, and the video didn’t work. I had my helmets with me because I had just done a shoot on my own, and I wore them onstage – it was incredible because nobody knew if I was a woman or a man for a start. They didn’t know what I was; this was hugely liberating, also for myself – “I don’t know what I am either” – I thought that was interesting. That’s how it began. Plus I had a lot of resistance from the press to not wear the helmet: “I want to see your real face”. I mean, what is a real face?
On this album you haven’t given much to that same press, what with the prosthetic nose you’re wearing on the cover and in the video. It’s very alien, playing into the many genderless voices on the album – you are never sure if it male or female, in the biological sense, that is.
Planningtorock: That’s what I like though. In a way the video for Doorway was really an attempt to somehow make visual what I was trying to do in the music. The manipulation of the vocals is about playing around with gender alongside communicating what I feel is the emotions within the songs. Because I am really interested in expanding upon the limits that we live in – how we are defined – and it is an experiment.
In the press release it does mention something about you embracing your “inner-trannie” on Doorway.
Planningtorock: I quite like the word “queer,” to be honest…there is something you don’t know. It’s this room where maybe there is even more to discover about how we bodily represent ourselves.
Just to clarify: it isn’t about sexuality or the interchange between “male” and “female”?
Planningtorock: A little bit, a little bit about sexuality. That’s the thing though, just switching between male and female, I don’t find interesting. There has been sometimes when after I’ve performed someone has came up and said, “I didn’t know you were a women, I thought you were a dude in a wig”. So, OK, but what’s beyond that?
What’s beyond dichotomies? Are you interested in the inbetweeness?
Planningtorock: Yes. It is an experiment, with Doorway, when I look at it, first of all, I am like “Who is this person?”
But don’t you think that the ambiguity might lessen the emotional extent of what you are trying to get over with ‘W’? People can find it difficult to relate to a faceless performer?
Planningtorock: But maybe that is my face, though…that’s the question! I must admit I have been pretty impressed with how people have reacted to it – they do get it.
The Fader commented that the video reminded them of Jean Cocteau, posting a youtube link to his Beauty and the Beast. I wasn’t so sure personally it was some sort of pronouncement on love and beauty and the capacity to fall for that which is seen as typically “ugly”. Is it?
Planningtorock: It is playing around with presence, that’s for sure. It is a strange thing: you remove your eyebrows and you make your head a bit bigger.
Yeah, changing one little aspect of your face has the potential to dramatically change your physical appearance. There is a programme on Channel 4 at the moment about a girl whose face was disfigured with acid and her coming to terms with that and also the world around her coming to terms with it. It’s really about questioning your reaction.
Planningtorock: But that’s what I want! That’s also my position. I am questioning it – I literally bought the nose putty and I was just chucking it on my face, “that looks weird…” The minute it feels too much like something I know then I know that’s not what I want. I get to this point where I am like “I don’t know what this is” but it gets very close to what I am trying to do in the music. So I perform with it and that’s how I get to it.
In a way you are trying to get as far away from a distinct form but paradoxically it still has a form. A human form?
Planningtorock: Getting far away from something and closer to others. But I still want it to have a human form.
Are you going to play around with your “human form” for the live show?
Planningtorock: I am not telling you! [laughs] It’s a big secret!
You mentioned that your sense of humour and playfulness comes from your upbringing in Bolton, how does it shape your outlook on your art, music, &c?
Planningtorock: My connection to Bolton now is my family – my mother and my sister still live there and I go back there to see them. I grew up in a really small village outside of Bolton and my family, the Rostrons, are all from Bolton from like way, way back. I do like the mentality – the approach of thinking – in the north. I don’t have that much experience of the south because I pretty much graduated and went over to Germany, basically. But there is something really accommodating and warm about the North – I do love Peter Kay, I do love frank comedy – I like the idea of making fun of yourself.
And that relates back to what we talked about earlier with emotion – that you have to succumb to a certain level of parody…?
Planningtorock: Totally, it is interesting…but I have to say about notions of where you’re from defining you – I think, for myself, it did define me. Not define me, but it is definitely part of my life, that’s for sure – and I have an affection for that. But what I am personally really proud of is achieving the position where I am defined by my creativity, and that really helps me grow. I find that as a personal achievement, to be honest. Living in Bolton and just the north, in general, I would never have imagined that could have happened. I didn’t think about moving to Berlin, it just happened by accident.
So you could say it Berlin hasn’t made you who you are now?
Planningtorock: Berlin, on the basic work level, was the first place I could build my own sound studio and have the time to just focus on Planningtorock. It was also the first time I made it public and it gave me the arena – I started to perform there. It was like my playground to really grow it and I didn’t have that in England before. But I mean the track from my first album Bolton Wanderer was about that journey. I was making music and then I went to art school and did video art so I was doing these two things I really loved and it took me a long time to bring those two together and through performing that’s how it happened. And also not really fitting in anywhere for a long time used to really bother me, but now I am really fine with it.
Do you mean not fitting in Berlin or back in England?
Planningtorock: Well even when I am in Berlin people always say, “are you part of this scene…are you part of that scene?” and then they say, “why are you not part of that scene?” I am like, “I don’t know – I’m not.” Or one interview the other day was like “OK, you as an artist on DFA really stands out… you’re not like the rest of the artists, how do you feel about that?” I am like “it’s normal.” What label would I fit on?
That probably reflects that by-product of the Eighties when record labels defined genres – the press are always searching for that again!
Planningtorock: I’ve been very lucky like that, things have just nicely evolved…
Did [head of DFA] James Murphy just e-mail you?
Planningtorock: He just e-mailed me and said he loved the Planningtorock stuff – “just sayin’”. That’s all he said. We then just started e-mailing and we became friends – I toured with them. Then they said that they would really like to release my next record, and that’s how it happened, it was very natural.
And DFA never suggested that you work alongside anyone else on ‘W’?
Planningtorock: No, he knows what I am like. He’s amazing like that, he said “it’s your thing and I know you’re the boss of your thing, but we’re here if you need help.” For the next record I probably will use their studio, Plantain – I would like to do more in New York. Although I did record with Pat Mahoney in New York and that was amazing.
Did that give you a taste of how you could work more with others to achieve your own thing – like a jigsaw almost because sometimes it is only by stepping out of yourself you can see something more clearly?
Planningtorock: Yeah, but that’s always very particular to who you are working with because Pat was an amazing drummer and he was like “what do you want me to do because I am here for you?” You have to find people like that as opposed to those who might take over.
From speaking to you, I am sure that it would be difficult to take over. You seem to have a strong sense of what you want.
Planningtorock: It’s all I do: I love it.
You can’t turn off?
Planningtorock: No, it just makes me grow so much, you know?
Planningtorock: If I am a good human, it is because of that – I tell you! It’s so rewarding and educating.
It seems to me that the whole project has been about your growing as a person.
Planningtorock: I think that is apparent on my record, there are some tracks that are about hard times, quite emotional times – it has its heavy moments. To somehow put that in a record I found that it gives you a chance to look back a bit. Like a weird diary somehow you reflect on it later and it makes sense.
And like a diary, you never cringe when you look back upon it all?
Planningtorock: Cringe? No. I’ve got over that a long time ago. My cringing days are over…C’mon, I made a video with putty on my face!
David Mcfarlane interviewed Planningtorock in London on the 26th April, 2011