Lowell's Politically-Aware Pop Deserves Your Attention
After a four-year break, the Toronto-based musician comes out swinging as a real pop music contender with 'Lone Wolf.'
All Photos By Maya Fuhr
In-between sips of a coffee in a sprawling, rustic café in Toronto’s east end, Lowell tells me she is going to the studio after our interview. She texted me late the night before asking to move our meeting time because she could get studio time later in the day and, when that happens, she jumps at the chance. The indie pop singer says she’s a more or less a self-proclaimed studio rat, finding comfort in a space that hasn’t been so comfortable for her over the years; one that has not been especially historically kind or welcoming to female writers or performers. It has been four years since Lowell released any music but that ends this week with her sophomore record Lone Wolf. But if you ask Lowell, though, she has she’s been releasing music all along.
The Toronto-by-way-of-Calgary pop singer emerged on the Canadian music scene as a necessary revelation. Her fuzzy, alternative pop power ballads on the debut We Loved Her Dearly detailed profoundly progressive and feminist views for the time. (“I was actually terrified to come out as a feminist to be honest. I was worried that people would judge me the way they judged feminists at the time,” she admits now.) Her bisexuality, past life as a stripper, and her honesty about the rape and assault she has survived became focal points in her musical narrative, yet these important biographical points didn’t define her. Her songs “Cloud 69” and “LGBT” were both hits and more politically aware pop tracks. Lowell would garner bold proclamations from critics that she’d be Canada’s next big thing.
But then Lowell, who had initially found notoriety from songwriting with other pop acts, including Icona Pop, which would lead to her own solo work, slipped away a little from a more visible view. She was, she says, eager to start her next record after We Loved Her Dearly because she had begun to hate the songs, as one does, she explains, after spending so much time with them. A switch flipped, though, during that time about where her priorities should land, taking the time instead to develop her skills as a songwriter. “I spend about half my time writing for other people or with other people for them and half my time writing for myself,” she says. “I realised the thing I want to do most in life is write. Songwriting really is my thing; it’s my craft, I’m obsessed with it. I want to write every day.”
She continues, telling me that “being able to write for other people allowed me to release new music. Even though I hadn’t had an album in four years, I released about 10 songs this year just on other people’s EPs. Probably wrote hundreds [altogether.]” One of her major writing projects was with the Dutch singer Bülow, who Lowell calls a musical genius.
We talk about Charli XCX, thinking out loud about the duality of pop singers who are great performers but also excel as pop writers. Charli’s pop currency skyrocketed after she wrote songs for Icona Pop and Iggy Azalea – moves that unfortunately dragged and defined her at the beginning of her solo career. But now she’s doing leaps and bounds of innovation with her work, particularly her mixtapes, and even the playful turn-of-gaze in her soon-to-be iconic “Boys” music video. It’s not impossible to occupy both roles but, Lowell says, to be really good at one or the other requires an immense amount of dedication and focus. “It’s really hard to write for other people, and get really good at that and stay in touch, and also make your own record.” It’s not impossible to do both and maybe this is how pop music will pivot in the future. Not to wholly make this a prescriptive and profoundly millennial statement, but multitasking and occupying multiple roles is important in any career nowadays.
Lone Wolf marks a different kind of Lowell – still fundamentally honest, at times prickly in her lyrics, but remarkably refined and polished due to all the time she spent writing for other pop performers, both new and established. It is released this week via Arts & Crafts with almost barely any blip publicity-wise. (An album announcement two days before it is set to drop is a move more in line with the massive pop stars of today – sort of like a Beyoncé move I say with which she sarcastically agrees that she can relate.) Lone Wolf is perhaps the pop album to catapult Lowell into a realm of acclaim that all these critics scrambled to predict over four years ago.
Each track on Lone Wolf sound like it could fill a stadium. The record opens with sizzler “War Face,” which is like a sonic combative eyebrow raise and smirk. The track booms and thumps along to reach a climactic howl after the chorus. (Lowell, in French, means wolf cub, after all.) “Vegas” is Lowell’s most pop-y track, something she says she had written for a prior pop star before, but the track wasn’t taken, so she placed it on this record instead. “Bang Bang” is the rock-inspired tune with taut sounding guitar strings and playful screeches. Aggressiveness and angst are threaded throughout the power anthems on this record. “Bitter Rivals” she says is a more isolated fight song. “I don’t want to explain what that song is about because I like people to interpret in their own way,” she says. “I think part of it was when you are fighting a type of person… you forget why you were fighting in the first place. It was a very subtle comment on certain issues we have in the world.”
As much as Lone Wolf is a pop record that showcases her skills in the genre, it is also a gentle dedication to a younger version of herself. “It was very retrospective, this album,” she says, continuing, “[it was] just me at the piano, sorta taking some of my original, youthful, naive melodies and then honing in on them as the writer I am now. It was a fun exercise for me. I just also had a lot of songs from when I was a kid that I turned my back on when I thought I was too cool or something that I wanted to dig [out] and see the light of day.”
Lowell believes pop songs are meant to be snapshots. And Lone Wolf is just that: angsty, loud, yet fundamentally idealistic in the most earnest and pure way; a defense that could only come from a teenager. Even in the confusion and chaos that Lowell writes about on the record, there is a sliver of optimism. “Wintersleep”... I actually did not touch. It is full-on – the lyrics, the melodies, everything – is from when I was 14. And I just thought it was really cute and I couldn’t change it. ‘Aw, 14-year-old me is so excited about the world,’” she says. She extends this consideration to the newer artists with whom she works, saying that their energy in the industry has given her motivation to tap back into the reasons why she does this gig at all. “I feel inspired and kind of see a version of myself I haven’t seen in a long time. It does get me excited to go back into the studio and try to not overthink writing,” she says.
A few years ago in an interview with The Guardian, while doing press for her debut record, Lowell spoke about how much she loved pop music, remarking “that more people buy Britney Spears than go out to vote, right?” That is the sort of comment to stop a critic in their tracks. It is both obvious, of course, and yet still absolutely bewildering to see and know how much of a grip pop music has over its listeners. Lowell sits before me now, all these years later, and plainly tells me she still feels the exact same way about that statement, saying how she has learned, over her years in this industry, that music has a profound influence in ways that traditional political settings may not.
“Maybe I’m just crazy but I do feel like I get to make and influence people every day – even just writing with other people,” she says. “I try to be self-aware in a very non-self-aware environment.”
Sarah MacDonald is a talented writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey CA.