Internet church leader and experimental polymath Poppy has created one of the most exciting releases of the year thus far in Choke. It’s a genuinely alternative, thought-provoking work of art, replete with fuzzed-up Moog and Roland synths, head-banging drum machine beats, nu metal, and mysterious spoken word. It’s a high-end sonic achievement and a bridge between the Beach Boys meets nu metal glory of her genre splicing standalone single 'X' and her forthcoming album, which Poppy tells Gigwise will be heavy.
Speaking on the phone with Poppy, the artist – a title she actively identifies with over the more binary 'she' – answers at 9am Californian time and on the cusp of the EP's release. Poppy is rightfully proud, without a hint of tiredness and typically full of thoughtful, deep answers. Here’s the EP as interpreted by Gigwise through conversation with Poppy.
Three of the EP's five tracks were written in Joshua Tree and the sound of the title track initially appears to offset the idyllic desert space: the repetition of the word “Choke” in one section and a detached, hypnotic, near robotic vocal ringing out alongside Nine Inch Nails-esque sustain chords and filthy bass. Ever the multi-dimensional thinker, Poppy lays a sense of optimism and esoteric thinking into it that makes it an interesting, layered piece:
“It’s along the lines of explaining that life can be suffocating, but tuning into higher frequencies can help to come to an understanding of that suffocation. There are angels and demons inside all of us and the song is an attempt at understanding that,” says Poppy.
As a great synth-led track it's a complete turnaround from the cleaner, Diplo-featuring sounds she became best known. Presumably this means a change in studio gear?
“Yes. We’ve added a few instruments. The Moog of course, we use that, and Roland is very nice to us as well and we use their System 8 synthesiser.
Released at the beginning of 2019, shortly after the release of Poppy’s first foray into nu metal - ‘X’ - the artist says this vocal-heavy synth and drum machine number was originally slated to be a standalone single before they naturally made enough music to do an EP.
‘Voicemail’ was chosen to be the bridge from ‘X’ because “we saw that visual [the black and white music video] so strongly that I think it needed to tell the story next.”
Indeed, it's the visual and lyrical tie in as opposed to the sonic tie in that make it a great segue. For instance, Poppy speak-sings, “There’s blood on my neckless / and blood on my clothes,” conjuring the scene in the ‘X’ video where Poppy is covered in blood. The video is monochrome, Poppy sporting black eyes, reflecting her love of industrial metal such as Nine Inch Nails.
So musically, it’s nothing like ‘X’, it’s a huge left turn and true to Poppy's fundamentals of wanting to experiment and push boundaries. The core idea is that Poppy and longtime collaborator Titanic Sinclair wanted to make a song with no chords at all, and so they decamped to their Los Angeles studio to do so, incorporating some impressively bleak, anxious sounds reflective of the communication overload of the digital era.
This being Poppy’s first release using heavy synthesisers as the main instrument, we were curious about what was happening when she was making music this way:
“Titanic and I did ‘Voicemail’ by ourselves in a couple of hours and it was a song created with random electricity. I think it’s interesting because the techniques used have never been used in that way. You can randomise things on analog synthesizers and we did a few layers in that. You can get them to generate random tones and it was created with random electricity."
And do the lyrics relate to the Tweet that Poppy once put out inviting fans to call in and leave her a message:
“Leave me a VOICEMAIL (831)-777-6779”
Absolutely, says Poppy.
“There were a couple of very interesting messages which were left that did inspire some of the lyrics. I hope to make some sort of sonic collage with those messages at some point. My fans give me great inspiration and I do pay attention to what they say – when necessary. They played a part as the inspiration for that song.”
"'Scary Mask’ - that’s my new favourite song that’s been released so far." Poppy.
Our conversation with Poppy reveals 'Scary Mask' and 'X' were written a week apart and you can certainly hear the sonic kinship. And considering 'X' is on the Am I A Girl? album, it's some time ago and definitely the earliest track on the new EP. It follows a similar pattern to 'X's back and forth splicing of dreamy verses and nightmarish screamed metal choruses courtesy of powerhouse US band Fever 333, adding Tame Impala-esque bass lines and dream pop flourishes.
Poppy describes working with Fever 333, bringing her core team and theirs together, as a true joy: "Those groups of people, they are my greatest allies. And I love working with them." We start speaking about our admiration for their left-y Chomsky-ish political ideals and she answers:
"And I would say that is something that attracted me to them. Their ability to stand firm in their statement and beliefs and come up to bat for it. I think that is a true alternative. Say something, please, to somebody. They are. I’m so glad they are."
The conversation with Poppy continues with the shift into heavy music more generally:
"This new direction was borne out of my core creative team – that is Zack, Titanic and myself.– and our frustration with trying to understand and work on pop music all the time. I think we’ve created a very beautiful work of art borne out of the frustration born out of the frustration of that realm and I'm really proud of it.”
'Meat' is one of the brand new, never before released recordings and like 'Choke' and the later 'Holy Mountain', was written up in the desolate Joshua Tree. It is full of dark imagery with spine-tingling references to the discourse of armageddon, sung by Poppy as a duet with mysterious spoken word from male voices which send shivers of fear down your spine. Poppy describes the males as mystery men. Often bringing in light where there is darkness, the rabble-rousing bass hook loops around and makes for a great balance.
Offering to explain the track in some detail, Poppy says; "It was done with Titanic and a good friend of mine called Simon. It’s a vision of what the future might look like. It’s about consumption."
No meat eating for you then?
"Yeah. I am vegan. The EP was originally supposed to be called Meat and I have artwork for it as well, but we decided to call it Choke.
"Meat' isn't about my consumption, though, it's about the world’s consumption and how dangerous the path the world as a whole is on, not respecting the earth and not asking enough questions. Because I don’t believe we're the only species here. I think there are higher powers and aliens and I do think they are walking among us. "
Does being somewhere as mesmerizing as Joshua Tree help with thinking about these things?
"Yes. There’s some sort of higher energy there. The place we were recording at, you had to drive on an unpaved road. It was just sand. The car could have got stuck a couple of times and you’re really in the middle of nowhere. And when you’re left to be inside of your head because there is nothing around, you start to think about that. I was having a vision of what the future might look like with that song ‘Meat’. If the aliens were to descend upon us. If that’s actually where they’re from. Or if they were to just move in if they are on earth already. What would they do to us?"
Does Poppy subscribe to this idea that the human race is on a finite path?
"Yeah, I do think there should be more thought behind our moves on earth. We only have one earth. I think there are a lot of careless mistakes that have been happening recently. If we could be a bit more mindful then maybe we can have the earth for a little bit longer."
'Holy Mountain' is Poppy's great bookend-er. A fantastic minor chord piano-led track with a soaring melody to bring the intensity down, just a notch. A continuation of the theme of armageddon with a spiritual twist.
“It’s a message to people who have been ignoring signals and hopefully it inspires people to pay attention to the higher consciousness. You’re given one life and one chance.”
Does the artist mean people being in thrall to late capitalism, people driven by rational egoism, the idea of ‘I’ve only got one life and I’m going to enjoy myself?
“Yeah. I’d say. That’s a very good way of putting it.
“I think what I mean is you must read the signs and be open to exploring the possibilities that you’re not the only species on earth. And you need to be open to the idea that something in outer space could just kill us at any moment and you need to take every opportunity with an open mind.”
…And that's five tracks….
And a whole new trajectory for Poppy as an artist set to continue to inspire millions continues.
With such a boundary breaking EP full of a great narrative, sonic explorations and mixtures, Poppy has termed this new direction “post genre”. We ask: is that liberating and a great thing about making music in 2019?
“Yeah. It’s very freeing. I think a recent song that has come out that is really fascinating to me is 'Old Town Road' because it does blend country and hip-hop but there was also a sample from the Nine Inch Nails song in there as well which I think was Trent Reznor’s first number pne song, which is also very fascinating. But there’s nothing that is off limits. And I think artists should push the envelope more. I think he’s doing that so I applaud him. Who would have thought?
We go on to say Poppy’s pretty fearless to go from pop music where she was still treading her own path to nu metal.
Poppy bristles upon hearing the word pop music.
“I feel that with pop music I never fit into that space as well. There wasn’t exactly something that classifies me as pop other than me saying, 'this is pop music'. It wasn’t something I sat down and tried to formulaically explore and figure out what a successful pop song is and I will copy that. I was going off of instinct for the first two albums, telling my story of pop the way I wanted it to be told. But I always felt with pop music if there’s a room for the outsiders then I would be sitting in the hallway outside of that room. And I don’t think it was something, the current state of the genre, that I could surmise trying to entertain much longer."
Last time Poppy and Gigwise spoke Bowie's influence was mentioned. Poppy seems driven by reinvention and creativity, and we tell the artist we see Poppy as a unique artist. And with the more "pop" times, there's a wry dig at the pop world in the material. A sacrastic dig towards the machine – would Poppy agree with that observation?
"Yeah, in a way.
"I would say that pop music is a very interesting thing to analyse and I think the current terms of something that classifies something as pop and what classifies something as alternative. I think that maybe 80 percent of what is on alternative is pop and it’s just somebody at a major record label saying, 'oh this is alternative because we like artists to be cool', but there’s nothing alternative or pushing boundaries or experimental. And I remember maybe a few years ago, things that were on the charts were maybe the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio. You’d get Nine Inch Nails, Cage The Elephant. I would consider those acts to be alternative. By today’s definition of alternative there is no real clarity. It’s just more pop music [...] I look at Spotify charts I’m just thinking this is pop music; alternative to what? I think we need to create a new genre called new alternative because everyone has taken over alternative.
Amen to that.
Poppy is in no danger of being anything but a unique artist and continue to put out some of the most compelling music being released at the moment. The singer’s bludgeoning of the commodification of the alternative is a strong sign of someone who’s inspired by her direction and will continue to grow and challenge norms.
The Choke EP is 28 June 00:01 ET