Yesterday morning, not fully realising what I was letting myself in for, I set up an online booking system so that anyone who had a new single out this week could reserve a slot then Zoom me and tell me all about their music. There were twelve slots, so I ended up speaking to twelve different artists — from platinum sellers to popstars with only a few hundred monthly listeners to their name.
It wasn't the plan to create any #content but unexpectedly this strange popstar speed dating debacle ended up being one of most enjoyable Popjustice things I've done in ages, and all the people I spoke with were happy for their stories to be written up, so here we are. It was brilliant chatting to all these creative people around the world, each making the best of lockdown. I found the whole thing quite emotional actually. Mind you everything's emotional at the moment isn't it? Jesus Christ.
Anyway let's crack on.
Ronnie Watts is making heartbreak pop
Ronnie, who Zoomed from Upstate New York, was "super excited" about the release of Break Your Heart. "Basically all the songs I write are about the people in my life," she said. "And last year I got my heart broken for the first time, so the good part of that is that there are lots of songs to write."
She's been handling the breakup well: "I wrote from this song from the perspective of, 'If I were a psychopath, what would I be doing right now with this feeling, because I feel like I'm going insane'."
There's an EP called Sad Summer coming later this year. Ronnie calls her music "heartbreak pop", and wants people "to be able to dance and cry to it at the same time".
Lockdown's been okay for Ronnie so far — the single release has been keeping her busy, but she's still getting her head around "a whole new way to lead your life". "Cool stuff has come out of it because you need to be creative in new ways," she added. "I shot a music video a couple of nights ago using an iPhone and a tripod. Cool stuff can come out of not having many resources."
- Twitter is just one of the social platforms in which Ronnie is involved
Richard from Colds is a one man band (with a bit of help)
The Netherlands: that's where Richard was Zooming from. He lives in "a small, remote area where in terms of Coronavirus it's very quiet". There's a lockdown, but he can still go out.
I had a really nice chat with Richard. He describes Colds as a one man act, but his best friend Wouter helps him with some bits and bobs.
As you may deduce for yourself when you listen to his sparky new song Not Giving You Up, Richard's a fan of "unapologetically pop" artists like Troye Sivan, LANY and Taylor Swift. "The message of the song is quite simple," he added. "It's about the point in a relationship when you're still trying to fight for it."
- Richard tweets, but not very often
Kiesza has been shouted at by a lady
Kiesza (and her cat) popped up, which was nice. We'd met before, around the time her song Hideaway appeared out of nowhere and ended up being a massive platinum-selling Number One single.
Her new song, Storm, was written in isolation and it's out this week accompanied by an unexpectedly moving video featuring empty streets around the world, shot by dozens of drones. Kiesza's helping raise money to supply rest units for frontline workers (which you can read more about here). "What's beautiful is how people can come together in such a time," she said. "There were literally a hundred drone pilots submitting footage to this from all over the world. I wanted to show we're really in this together. It's very rare in history when the entire planet's on the same wavelength at the same time."
Kiesza told me that isolation hit her pretty hard at the start. "I'm not used to people being afraid of one another," she said. "I didn't realise how much we interact with each other, even when we're not interacting." I mentioned how hard it is not to be offended when people cross the road to avoid you, and she told a story about being shouted at by a lady who refused to walk around her on the pavement: "I'd stopped because my dog was taking a poo, and this lady was yelling at me."
We talked a little about the music Kiesza's been putting out this year, which has been extremely good. "I'm a first-timer at running my own label but I have a really amazing team behind it," she said. "I didn't have time to plan with Hideaway — it just went from zero to a thousand overnight. I've had a chance to think: what's my longterm vision this time? I'm looking for organic growth, making a steady fanbase."
She added that her forthcoming album will be an upbeat affair: "It's a put-you-in-a-good-mood album.
- Kiesza has a Twitter account and she's not afraid to use it
SoundBoy is getting to know his new flatmates
SoundBoy's actual name is Kevin, but he thought Kevin was a crap name for a popstar and arrived on SoundBoy partly because Groove Armada's Soundboy Rock album contained Song 4 Mutya — "one of the greatest pop singles of all time".
He's currently in Battersea, south London. "I moved down just before the outbreak and I've been quarantining ever since," he said. "I moved in with two girls and we're really getting to know each other. I try not to think about the bad stuff." He's near Battersea Park, so he goes for a run there each day.
Kevin did a music degree at university and some gigging around Liverpool, later getting a spot with Universal Music writing with different producers on writing camps. "I was still young at that stage and wasn't comfortable," he told me. "Songwriting and making music is my passion, and I started releasing music properly in 2018." He sees his first two albums as "little demos" and he's got a new album out this year. The first song is Hole In My Stomach, which is out now.
SoundBoy makes all his music using GarageBand on his iPhone (!) but his music degree means he knows how to make things sound "at least semi-professional — well, I think I do, anyway".
- SoundBoy recently tweeted about disliking the part in Spice Up Your Life where Mel C says "Lambada"
Matthew Joseph is competing with the top dogs
Matthew Zoomed in from Anglesey in North Wales where he's "been stuck home doing covers and writing music every day because there's nothing else to do".
Matthew's got an EP on the way and his latest song is Fetish. He said it's not always easy making his sort of pop: feedback so far from press and radio has been confusing. "They've all said it's an excellent song with fantastic production, good vocals and a unique look," he noted. "But they've also said it's too pop and too 80s." Which strikes Matthew as odd, at a point when you've got acts like Dua Lipa, Little Mix and The Weeknd releasing very pop, very 80s-sounding songs. "I feel like I'm competing with the top dogs," he added.
Matthew reckons his music is very TikTok friendly and he's been speaking with a TikTok influencer who's offered to promote Fetish to her 1.7m followers. "I'm hoping that will give me a bit of a boost," he said. "I don't think it's going to go viral from that, but it might give me a boost so that the algorithm picks me up for my next releases. Having good music isn't enough sometimes — you need a little bit of luck."
Sam Tompkins is releasing as much music as possible
Hat-wearing Island Records artiste Sam Tompkins joined me from a room made almost entirely of windows. "It's an old Georgian building," he said. "Maybe Georgian people had an obsession with inside windows?" Nice on a sunny day, I offered. "I'm actually in a basement flat," he said.
He'd just watched Black Panther for the first time. "A brilliant film," he decided. "Really good."
Sam's new song is called Google Luv. It's from an EP called Isolation Diaries, which is due next week. One of the other songs on it called, quite spectacularly, Stand Ten Feet Away From Me. "All those songs were written in the first three days of isolation," he said. "I started cutting myself away from everyone a week before you had to. I thought I'd write as much music as I could: in the first week I wrote fifteen songs."
Naturally Sam's festival appearances for the summer are basically down the shitter now but he's keen to do some sort of livestream tour, and he seems excited by All This meaning he can release "a bunch of music I may not have been able to release with the normal release schedule plan that we had in place". "It's going to be a while before music is consumed in the same way [as before]," he said. "So I want to use the moment to release as much as possible. I'll just put out more. That's what I want to do. I don't know if the label will be happy about that, but we'll see."
- Does Sam tweet? Yes he does
Christian from Galantis has changed his release plans
Christian Karlsson — and let's just take a quick moment to remind ourselves that this is one of the people behind bloody TOXIC — joined me from in front of a massive Galantis presentation disc in the guesthouse of his home. He's "starting to feel a little cuckoo", but enjoyed the first three weeks of lockdown: "I'm on tour so much that being at home with my family was… Well, I don't think I'd realised how much I needed it."
He'd started work on Galantis' new single The Lake with Wrabel before lockdown, thinking it might work for another project. "But when lockdown happened I called Wrabel and said: 'Can we please finish this song? It speaks to me a lot right now.'" There was other Galantis music ready for release, "but that music wasn't appropriate. I wanted to release something different. Some people said: 'Everyone wants to be happy.' But I thought: 'I need to feel it. I don't want a big drop right now.'"
Christian worked hard to get The Lake finished: there's a fifteen-piece live orchestra on the song. ("People will ask how I did it and the answer is: in Sweden there's no lockdown.") He added that the lake in the song isn't necessarily a literal lake— it's whatever we're looking forward to doing once All This is over. "The lake is a state of mind."
Christian mentioned that his studio in Sweden is on an island along with just fifteen or sixteen other houses — no roads, no lights. Sometimes at night the only sound is that coming from passing cruise ships as they blast out party music. I asked how the people living on the island are dealing with current events. "I talked to relatives on another small island in Sweden," he said, "and they said the only real change was that there were no live sports on TV."
Alekxandr has been trespassing on golf courses
Amazingly Alekxandr was Zooming from less than a mile away from me in south London. He's been going for daily walks on a local golf course. "On the first day a guy came up to me on a lawnmower and told me I should leave," he said. "I was like: 'Nobody's playing, the whole country's broken down, what does it matter?'"
Alekxandr's ambivalence regarding rules and regulations extended to our chat: his new song isn't out today, and actually came out a few weeks ago. "All rules are out of the window at the moment," was his take on the situation. His new (old) song is called Disney Love, which he describes as being "the sound of heartbreak on antidepressants". "I don't actually know much about Disney at all," he admitted, "but I liked the cliché of, like, two strangers falling for each other and dancing through woods."
I mentioned how great his visuals are — in the best possible way, his photos look quite major label. "I'm lucky to know people who are brilliant artists," he said. "I don't really have a budget but if people are into the music they understand my situation and collaborate with me."
Alekxandr is currently on 394 monthly Spotify listeners. "You work so hard making this stuff and you want it to reach people," he said. "I'd like to get to 100,000 listeners by the end of the year. That would be great. I feel like that's an obtainable thing."
- Alekxandr is a member of the microblogging website Twitter
CMAT has made the best song ever about chicken
Ciara Thompson started the CMAT project having moved back home to Ireland after two years in Manchester. The band she'd been in since the age of 17 "fell apart in mad ways" and she had to start again from scratch, so she started posting a new song on her YouTube channel every Friday for six months. When she was in the band she'd found her personality squashed by other band members, so for her solo stuff she's making the most of being able to let her voice come out. "Before, I felt like I needed to try to be really smart, throwing in intellectual references," she told me. "And now I'm just like: 'I don't need to impress other people. I want my lashes on, I want my titties out, I want everything to look beautiful.'"
I noted that she was looking very glam for our Zoom — not exactly the classic lockdown look. "I'm about to be the musical guest on a drag show livestream," she explained. (Her best friend promotes drag shows in Dublin and all the shows have been cancelled, so livestreams will have to do for now.)
CMAT said her new song Another Day (kfc) is "the best song ever made about chicken". "I mean," she added, "I couldn't think of another one, so I felt I could give myself that accolade pretty easily."
I asked her about a photograph on her Twitter feed, in which she's posing with a large egg painted to look like U2 funnyman Bono. "I was obsessed with that egg," she noted.
- See the Bono egg and more on CMAT's Twitter
Lilla Vargen didn't consider destroying Led Zeppelin's guitar
I've enjoyed some of Lilla's recent releases so it was great to see her book a Zoom chat. But when she appeared, there was immediately an elephant in the room. "It's not mine," she 'revealed'.
Home for Lilla is County Antrim but she's accidentally found herself locking down in Newcastle. "I'm trying to get used to not going anywhere," she says. "I don't think I'm going to go out again ever." Her release plans have also changed. A song she'd been thinking of releasing has been put back in favour of Love You Twice — a fan favourite from her live shows. "I'm still releasing stuff," she said, "but it's not how I'd planned it."
She mentioned that the guitar used in the song was the same actual guitar Led Zeppelin used in brevity-avoiding celestial escalation banger Stairway To Heaven. I asked Lilla if she'd considered destroying the the guitar so that no other artist could ever harness its power. "I mean I didn't think about it that way," she said. "Maybe I should have done."
Lilla's been using her time well: "I haven't really produced before so I've been using this time to figure the whole thing out." She's been using her new skills to record sessions for radio stations. Is production actually that hard? "It's not easy. I don't find the technicalities easy at all — I've been pulling my hair out watching YouTube tutorials. But it helps if you have ideas."
Lilla's also been doing some livestreams over the last few weeks. I asked what advice she has for other artists thinking of doing livestreams. "Do a test!" she said. Which makes sense: you wouldn't go on stage to 200 people without soundchecking, so why wouldn't you soundcheck before going live for thousands? "I have a separate account I use purely for testing levels," she added. "Test, move stuff, change stuff you usually do live — just go with whatever's available."
Anna Straker really wants to go out clubbing again
Anna joined me from East London. She's signed to 3 Beat and her new song Sweat came out yesterday, so she'd been spending her time replying to tweets and generally doing all the things one does when a new song's out.
She made the song a year and a half ago — it started off as what she describes as "a going-to-the-club-to-forget-your-ex kind of song", before she retooled it as a celebration of "my love for raving and going out every weekend". She's really missing going out. Her boyfriend's a DJ, so his sets at home are the closest she gets during lockdown.
Anna mentioned that her dream is to be the next Lady Gaga. In the shorter term she's sad her Glastonbury tickets won't be used this year. She actually performed at 'Glaston' a couple of years ago, performing right before Mura Masa. "I think they must have thought I was a DJ," she told me, "because they'd booked me into an hour and a half long slot." This was a problem for Anna as her show was only 45 minutes long. She came up with a good solution: "I just went on stage really late."
- Anna is definitely on Twitter
Sallee has lost track of time
Finally we have Sallee (real name: Sally) who was up late in Melbourne — it was 11:15pm when we spoke, and her new single Always Got Us was due out 45 minutes later. "Mind you," she said, "what is time any more?"
Australian readers may recognise Sallee: she made it to the final of The X Factor Australia back in 2010. "In the last ten years I've been finding my own identity," she explained. "It took me a good ten years to figure out what kind of music I really wanted to do and what kind of artist I wanted to be."
Sallee started out calling her new stuff 'dark pop', but now sees it more as alternative pop — a combination of the heavier music she got into during her teens combined with earlier loves like Whitney, Celine and "all the divas", with a bit of electro chucked on top. She mentioned PVRIS, Evanescence, La Roux and The Weeknd as references.
Always Got You is Sallee's third song from a forthcoming five-song EP. (There was a great song called Crystal Skies that came out last year.) The song ends on a fade — Sallee remembers her producer freaking out about it, but Sallee wanted it to stay so that the song felt like it ended with a warm hug. On our Zoom chat she described the song as an "anthem for perseverance", adding: "I wrote it as a reminder to myself that every storm passes."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is that. Thanks to all the artists who booked in! (A few people have already asked if I'm going to do this sort of thing again. The answer is yes, but it won't be weekly because bloody hell.)