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When I speak to TOPS frontwoman Jane Penny, she's just returned to Montreal after visiting her family in Edmonton (where she grew up), and is gearing up for an activity-filled autumn that involves a US tour and a show at hometown festival POP Montreal.
These dates follow the release of TOPS' new album, 'Picture You Staring'. Released by Arbutus Records (the Montreal label that has put out music by major players of the city's alternative scene, like Grimes, Blue Hawaii, Doldrums, Sean Nicholas Savage, Magical Cloudz, Lydia Ainsworth, and Braids) earlier this week, 'Picture You Staring' is the follow-up to 2012's 'Tender Opposites', and both albums are about non-showy, unfettered, off-the-cuff pop music. TOPS are embedded deep in the DNA of Arbutus Records: Jane Penny and guitarist David Carriere used to play in an early Arbutus band, Silly Kissers, alongside Sean Nicholas Savage.
Speaking over Skype, our wide-ranging, nearly 40-minute long discussion took in everything from how Penny interprets being a frontwoman, to her interest in 1970s feminist art, to how Montreal's underground scene has changed since her time there.
Can you talk about how the process on 'Picture You Staring' was different to the first album?
Jane Penny: "We tried to make it a lot more pop: tight pop songs, focused a lot on the production. I think we’re getting better at recording ourselves. It was really done kind of in a 'classic' way: we used a lot of old technology, recording through a big mixing desk, and recording drums and stuff, but there are also a lot of songs where we brought more computer-type recording and production. I feel like it's a bit more modern."
And did you record it at Arbutus?
Jane Penny: "Mmhmm. We still didn’t have any money to do anything, but we had a lot of time, and Arbutus had started renting this studio. They had a closed room off to the side, and Sebastian [Cowan, Arbutus founder] had all of this recording equipment, so we just set it all up and practiced a lot, played a lot, and recorded everything. We spent a lot of time just doing, like, vocal harmonies. I feel like there’s lots of little small details in it."
I feel like one thing that makes your band’s music really distinctive is the way you sing and your voice, because it’s immediately recognizable as TOPS. Have you been singing your whole life?
Jane Penny: "No. [laughs] Definitely not. When I was in elementary school, I remember running away from choir. We had to do choir in elementary school at lunch, and they would send the really good, well-behaved girls to find me on the playground because I'd be hiding.
"I liked music growing up. I was a real classical music nerd at a certain point. And I’ve always really been into, I guess, 'indie' music. I don’t know if indie’s the right word, but growing up I always really liked Radiohead and Aphex Twin and The Unicorns, and stuff like that. The whole musical theatre thing didn’t register with me at all, so I never really thought that I would sing. When I started singing, girls would come to the shows, friends of mine, and they’d be like, 'I can’t believe that’s you up there. You’re so shy. I can’t believe you’re doing this kind of thing.' I’d be like, 'Yeah, well, it’s fun!' I like really distinct singers. When people comment on that, I definitely see it as a compliment."
"When I started singing, girls would come to the shows, friends of mine, and they’d be like, 'I can’t believe that’s you up there. You’re so shy. I can’t believe you’re doing this kind of thing.'" – Jane Penny, TOPS
What are your influences in terms of that really lush pop sound? What else do you guys draw from?
Jane Penny: "For this record, I know Riley was trying to do Sade-meets-Michael Jackson drum production. And I really like playing with vintage synthesizers – I got really into manipulating the parameters and making my own sounds and stuff.
"It's hard to list it all, because there’s a lot of obscure, random things – stuff like Prefab Sprout; I think we all really like that Sophisti-pop stuff. It’s hard not to give influences that aren’t older – like, classic – even though I feel like we all listen to a lot of new music and are inspired by new music. I also really like Japanese music a lot, like Sakamoto and Akiko Yano and stuff. Like, playful. People that play instruments, but aren’t at all tied down by that, and that work a lot in experimental pop production.
"I feel like I don’t sing, like, '80s. In some ways you could say, 'Oh, it has that classic pop production, it reminds people of '80s music with girl singers,' but I feel like the vocals just don’t have that kind of aggressive, trained, in-your-face thing. Also, David's guitar playing is definitely influenced by classic stuff, but he also really likes My Bloody Valentine. We thought a lot about Smashing Pumpkins and stuff. We’re definitely not tied to any specific decade."
I get the drum thing, especially with the song Outside, the ballad. The drums just reminded me of Take My Breath Away. It totally puts you in that place.
Jane Penny: "Yeah, yeah. I love good songs where it has an identity for itself and really stands out. There’s definitely something about Outside that echoes those other songs, and at first we had this really chorus-y bass part, and I was like, 'Oh, I don’t know if we can put this in there.' But David was like, 'It’s not the same notes!' I listened to it, and I was like, 'You’re right, we didn’t rip off the notes.' [laughs] And then I thought, 'Well, it is its own song.'
"I think you can find threads that connect them, because in the end, music is developing on itself. There’s certain things that work and evoke something. I don’t really have a problem with that, as long as it’s just meant to be distinct on its own. I feel like the song Driverless Passenger from the record doesn’t have any reference points. There’s other music on the album that’s, I think, very contemporary, so I feel like I can argue against that.
"I always expect that certain people will just boil us down to this throwback thing. Obviously you don’t want to be defined that way, because you want to have a reason to be doing what you’re doing now. But I think that we assert that on the record."
Can you talk about the title of the record? I know it’s a lyric from Way To Be Loved, and then also the cover has many people staring in a certain direction. So why did you guys decide that for the title?
Jane Penny: "The line in the song is about a lonely girl character, broadly. We knew from the beginning of starting to conceptualize the album that we wanted to work with this painter, Jessica Dean Harrison. She does these group scenes that we really like. She has this ability to really capture this weird resemblance to somebody that you might know. I was looking at her paintings and I was like, 'I feel like I’ve met some of these people.'
"So we saw this painting, and we wanted to have her do a big group scene. There’s a poster that’s in the record that folds out. It’s a painting; it’s people watching our band. We were thinking about the idea of 'picture you staring' as a lyric. I guess I don’t see myself as embodying the frontwoman idea of someone that’s super confident. I guess I’m really conscious – I always watch people when I’m playing, and notice people in the audience. Even though I’m always at the front playing, I feel like I identify more with the people watching. That’s a really long-winded explanation. It’s supposed to evoke all of those different things."
Where do you want people to listen to this album? Like, in the car?
Jane Penny: "I think the car's good. I feel like the first half is pretty upbeat and definitely would be good car music, or during the day music. And then on the second half, there’s quite a few kind of slow, sad songs. I feel like that’s something that always happens with TOPS records. I’ve had people tell me that have the record already that they’ll listen to Destination and Driverless Passenger when they’re going to sleep after they come home from a party, or in the morning when they’re coming down or whatever from going out. I feel like it has a certain level of warmth that can be good for that."
"I don’t see myself as embodying the frontwoman idea of someone that’s super confident. I’m really conscious – I always watch people when I’m playing, and notice people in the audience. Even though I’m always at the front playing, I feel like I identify more with the people watching." – Jane Penny, TOPS
I feel like it’s really interestingly sequenced, like you were saying. The first half’s pretty upbeat, and there’s kind of this mid-section with Outside, and then the end is kind of…
Jane Penny: "Yeah, it kind of brings it down, I guess. Every time I make a record I try to make it a big record, even if it just ends up being in my mind. The beginning of 'Picture You Staring' I wanted to be like, 'Hit! Hit! Hit!' [laughs] I feel like the songs that probably will be the favorites, and that people respond to the most, are the slower ones."
So you guys toured America earlier this year right? How was that? Was that like the great American road trip?
Jane Penny: "Yeah, it was really fun. I mean, SXSW feels kind of irrelevant to new artists, except for its ability to identify what’s already happening. The shows that were really exciting and that were fun to be a part of, it seemed like they were the shows by artists that had already emerged. So it was really fun to be there, but it was also just ridiculous. Walking down the streets, it felt like when you see a video and it says, like, 60 million views, and you wonder: 'Who are these people?' It felt like it was physically manifesting that mass in a street."
That sounds like my nightmare.
Jane Penny: "Yeah, it was kind of crazy. It was a little overwhelming. But driving around was fun. We got to connect with a lot people that responded to the last record, so that was nice."
How about Montreal? Are you there right now?
Jane Penny: "Yeah, I just got back. I was visiting my sister and my parents for a couple of weeks, so just back today."
How do you feel that the scene in Montreal has changed in the past few years, if you think it has at all?
Jane Penny: "It’s hard to make overarching statements about where it’s at now, because I feel like there’s still very much a pocket of indie bands, and then there’s punk chick bands, and then there’s electronic artists that range from people that are trying to be pop stars in the wake of Claire [Boucher, aka Grimes]'s stuff to people that are making very, very experimental stuff at the forefront. It’s really impossible to classify because there’s so much music here. When Silly Kissers started playing shows in 2009, we had samplers and would show up to a venue and the sound people would be like, 'I don’t know what this is. I don’t know what you’re doing. This is too crazy for me.' Their heads would be exploding. And now I feel it’s pretty rare to have a band like us set up and just be plugging in instruments."
Right. It’s totally different now.
Jane Penny: "Yeah, it just switched. But that’s more of a general music technology thing in the past few years. I guess Montreal always has that sort of grungy, outsider thing happening. I feel like that was the dominant thing when I started making music here. Then a lot of people emerged from the rise of Grimes and when Arbutus started getting attention to make more pop-oriented stuff. But now, I would say that darker, heavier bands are pushing up against it. It’s actually impossible to sum it up, except to say that there’s a lot of people making music.
"We made a video for Way To Be Loved about a month ago, and we just emptied out the entire office and made it into kind of a set, and had all of our friends come. And a lot of people there are different musicians, from French virtuosic guitar players, to people in no-wavey electronic bands, to indie rock people. I feel like in Montreal, people can co-exist. It’s not a scene-based community where everyone’s doing the same thing, and I think that’s what I like about it. I can have friends that support what we’re doing, and we can continue to do what we want to do and it can be different from everything else."
You studied art history. What was your favourite artistic period or movement?
Jane Penny: "I love modernist painters – just visually, I like the aesthetics and the colours. I think the '70s had the most interesting work that I really relate to and that I draw inspiration from – '70s video art and feminist video artists from that period, and the land artists from then, like Robert Smithson."
In regards to feminist artists, do you mean Carolee Schneemann and artists like that?
Jane Penny: "Yeah. And, like, Yoko Ono – I really like the stuff that she did then, and I like that idea of women being really strong and using their bodies to make work, because I feel like music is so much about that. If I cast myself in that way when I’m working through music video concepts that I have, it makes it a lot easier for me to deal with all of the bullshit that goes along with women presenting themselves and making images of themselves."
"I really like the stuff that [Yoko Ono] did. I like that idea of women being really strong and using their bodies to make work, because I feel like music is so much about that. If I cast myself in that way when I’m working through music video concepts that I have, it makes it a lot easier for me to deal with all of the bullshit that goes along with women presenting themselves and making images of themselves." – Jane Penny, TOPS
Right, of course. So do you come up with the video concepts normally, or is it a group effort?
Jane Penny: "I pretty much come up with it. I’ve been collaborating for two of the videos with Graham Foy; he’s a filmmaker. He’s definitely a creative person, so he brings a lot to it, and he has the technical filmmaker expertise. Everybody’s obviously down with it. David and Riley are both really sensitive to the fact that I need to have control over the way that I’m portrayed and what I’m singing – that, being a woman doing this, it’s very important."
Arbutus Records released 'Picture You Staring' on September 2nd 2014 (buy).