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December 2019 / January 2020
Feature

The Poppy Horror Picture Show

Bored of the same old same old? Need something new to rip up the big rock rule book? Looking for someone who really stands out from the crowd? Here's Poppy.
Published: 10:30 am, November 18, 2019Words: Ali Shutler. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
The Poppy Horror Picture Show

"Is she a girl? Is she a machine? Is she humanity's redemption, or its damnation?" asks the back cover of 'Genesis 1', a book exploring Poppy's origin. The only answer offered is, "I'm Poppy".

For two pop-tastic albums, the same questions have wrapped themselves around the music, as Poppy - a child of the Internet come to real life - has played the role of cyborg onlooker. The musical equivalent of Disneyland, requiring a touch of belief but still feeling like genuine magic, her world is one of mystery, different perspectives and exact detail. Her interviews preprogrammed, her persona absolute; if you wanted to get under her skin, you had to read between the lines of code.

But with the 'I Disagree' era, everything's changed. "I think everyone plays a character. I'm not, not myself," she reasons, taking off the metaphorical mask. Nowadays, "We are all children of the internet," after all.

A few weeks ago at Reading Festival, we met the Poppy that's demanded devotion, intrigue and millions of YouTube views. A performance artist and pop star, she's distant but deliberate and functional as she sorta answers questions.

Today, we say hello to Poppy 2.0. Switching up the act, she's fun. She shows emotion, she's warm, inviting, welcoming and has bags of personality. She even tells jokes. We'll be honest, Dear Reader, we expected this interview to go a lot differently. Poppy laughs at our surprise.

"I wouldn't say I was dropping the persona, I would just say it's evolving," she explains in a photo studio in North London. "It's important to always be stepping into new territory that's unchartered. If you stay the same, it gets boring." And that's one thing Poppy has never stood for.

The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
"All good music has meaning, whether that's pop, metal, R&B or polka"
Poppy

Her new album 'I Disagree' is coming early next year and sounds like a musical revolution. Somewhere along the line, she became the most interesting voice in heavy music, and we're very much here for it.

The first two tasters of the record, 'I Disagree' and 'Concrete' follow on from the rage-addled crunch that drove her 'Choke' EP, but it's a million miles from the bubblegum shine of debut album 'Poppy.Computer'. "That was more of an idea, and a sound bed to our YouTube videos," she explains, that saw her in full Artificial Intelligence swing interviewing a plant or eating cotton candy. The follow-up, 'Am I A Girl?' sounded like Kanye West meets Madonna and was more emotionally driven and "teetered on straight-up pop", but lyrically was anything but as she explored very real feelings of alienation, rebellion and doom. "Towards the end of the recording process for 'Am I A Girl?', we got closer to where we wanted to be."

'X' was the true black sheep of that album; it starts like a child unwrapping a box of toys before it thrashes about a land of wailing guitars, guttural screams and angelic pop serenity. It's a lot to take in, but that song was the turning point for Poppy's world.

"That was the last song we wrote for the album. We turned everything in, the album was done, but some stuff happened, and we weren't able to release one of the songs. So we went back to the studio. In five days, 'X' was written, completed and a music video shot."

"Frustration inspired it," Poppy explains. "Working on pop music and working with certain people that are trying to compartmentalise you and your creativity is very painful. I think 'X' is the first time my collaborative partners and I went into the studio and said, 'let's just make something that feels good and let's just do whatever we want'." From that moment, Poppy chased that freedom.

Eight months later she dropped her 'Choke' EP. "Titanic [Sinclair, her producer, co-writer and partner in crime] and I wrote that EP to get out of a record deal. That's what it is. I'm proud of the songs, and I like them a lot, but that was my goodbye Mad Decent forever EP." Still, it's not a throwaway batch of songs. "Everything that I've ever chosen to release means something. It's all part of the story and is relevant. All good music has meaning, whether that's pop, metal, R&B or polka. Then again, The Beatles said 'Yellow Submarine' doesn't mean anything at all, and that's a good song, so who's to say?"

'Scary Mask', the lead single from 'Choke', was co-written with Fever 333's Stephen Harrison and "came together in a very unexpected way," Poppy reveals. Sharing a mutual friend in Zakk Cervini, they were introduced and quickly hit it off. "Stephen came in and laid down the main guitar riff, and then Jason Aalon Butler got involved, and that's where 'Scary Mask' came from."

The original inspiration came straight after the 2018 American Music Awards. "I did the red carpet wearing a mask, and then went to the studio straight after. I wanted to write the song because everyone was taking lots of photos of me as if I was the first person to ever wear a mask on a red carpet. They were shocked, which was fun."

The latex mask was worn because "they" didn't want Poppy to talk about politics, but she won't elaborate. "Just them," she smiles. "I don't like talking about politics because I'm an entertainer. That's my job. I'm not a politician, and I would never want to be. But there are other topics that I look forward to exploring." Like what? "Whatever I feel at the time."

When she started out, Poppy was able to comment on music, fashion and pop culture as an outsider. Now she's actively involved in all three, but she still doesn't feel part of that world. "Because I don't feel like I'm accepted, I'm attracting people that have similar ideologies and ways of creating. With the new album, people are trying to define it whereas I'm not trying to define it. And I'm not trying to define my existence; I'm just trying to be. I don't know how I got to this point, but I'm here."

The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
"I'm not trying to define my existence; I'm just trying to be"
Poppy

Back in the day, Poppy didn't like doing interviews because it always felt like they were trying to get to the bottom of something, while she'd rather they stay near the surface. "For the most part I still feel the same way," she starts. "But I think this is going well," she adds with a laugh. "It's interesting to talk about the new album now because I can talk about it. I've been tiptoeing around everything in all my other interviews. I'll be asked 'tell me about the new music', and I just say nothing at all - but I want to say everything.

"The new album is a sonic journey. It's about burning down the music industry and everyone that has stood in my way. I can't summarise it in one word, because it's everything."

The vision for it going in was "ultimate freedom," she says. "I wanted to explore everything. I was having a conversation with a friend about the music, and they said 'it sounds like you created your own favourite band', which Titanic and I agreed with. That's the ultimate compliment. Everything that we love, we put into the music. It was life-changing being able to hide and make music as opposed to telling people, 'hello, I'm going to make music now. Please wait for me'. We just did it. And the songs are fun to perform, and they're fun to sing and scream and other people like them, so that makes me happy."

A blend of pop and metal, the likes of 'Concrete' ("wanting to be buried six feet underground inspired the song; we're all going to turn to dust one day"), 'Scary Mask' and 'I Disagree' feel like spiritual successors to nu-metal. "That seems to be the reoccurring word or the terminology people are using. I haven't decided what I want to call it, but it's music," she explains with a smirk.

"I am really into Limp Bizkit, Rob Zombie and Nine Inch Nails, though I don't think they're really nu-metal. Those three bands were very inspiring throughout making the album. I think nu-metal is a funny term because when people are classifying music, the genre they use can be a turnoff to some people. Nu-metal does have a mixed perception, but I think current alternative music is also very confusing to me. I don't think anything that is classified currently in 2019 as alternative is actually alternative. Alternative is counter-culture, not pop. It is against pop, but it feels like pop is just alternative and alternative is just pop."

Do you want to be the alternative to the alternative? "I want to be The New Alternative, because we need to have our own classification."

"'I Disagree' is about setting everything on fire and saying no," explains Poppy. The target for her destruction? "The Music industry," she smiles as she looks over at Titanic. "You said it, not me," he laughs.

"With 'I Disagree', I explore more in-depth my experience with the dark side of the industry because there's a lot of things that I skated past in my time. This is my third album and third record deal, and I got to witness a lot of people come up really fast and fall really hard. I got to be on my path but watch everything shine and burn really quick. That was never what I really wanted for myself, and with this album, I got to put some of that into words."

Recently she's felt like a warrior more and more. The threads of rebellion and change that carried itself through 'Am I A Girl?' are still there on 'I Disagree'. "It's like the wildfires in California, it's more fertile after everything's been destroyed and you're ready to see beautiful things."

Poppy avoided shining and burning by protecting herself. "I couldn't give everything away. I couldn't give all of myself away. The shiny object sometimes is very appealing when it's within your reach, but it takes a strong will to recognise within yourself what you think you were destined to be. It's harder, but it feels better. I can sleep at night."

"The music speaks for itself now," she adds. "Previously, with the other two albums, I feel like the visual component was stronger. They are kind of synchronised at this point."

Heavy music is notorious for craving authenticity, but Poppy has nothing to prove. "If I just make music that I like and people like it, cool. But if they don't, I'm still gonna make it anyway. That's where I am."

There's no grand plan for saving the genre or making it more exciting and colourful, despite how it feels. "I just stay in my bubble. Everything outside the bubble is scary, and I don't want to know what anyone else is doing. It's a distraction, and it can make you second guess yourself. I'd rather run away and do what I think needs to be done."

Instead, she's happy to just see what happens, even if that means travelling in the opposite direction to the norm of heavy bands going pop. "It's all part of the plan. I can't say how far ahead it's mapped out, but it's all there."

The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
The Poppy Horror Picture Show
"It's about burning down the music industry and everyone that has stood in my way"
Poppy

People have always scoured Poppy's art for meaning. Something that complex must have a purpose, right? Her book 'Genesis 1' suggests it could mean anything from rebellion, revolution to mind-control. "What is the point of your art," someone asks as their world around them burns. "Oh, it's fun!" Poppy replies. In real life, she explains: "Whatever they want, whatever they want to dissect and get from it. It's there for them."

From wearing the mask to being controlled, there are essays about Poppy highlighting the lack of value in women's voices in music, but it's not something Poppy feels. "I don't like to view myself as a victim; at every opportunity, I rise to the occasion, and I am not intimidated by people or opinions or words or men. I think everyone's equal. I would never view myself in such a way where I'm permissive to be weak or weaker than anyone else. I feel pretty strong.

"I think with a lot of great artists, people could learn a thing or two from observing what's withheld as opposed to what's in front of them." Despite the pristine nature of the project, it's never been overthought or over analysed. Every decision comes from a place of excitement. "Titanic and I are at the core of it. Everything is about what we like and want to put out. Nobody's ever said to us, 'hey, you can't do that' and even if they did, sorry, but we're doing it anyway. We are the decision-makers at the centre of everything.

"Storytelling plays into my world because I have a lot of ideas, and they need to be strung together. I wrote a book, and there's going to be more of them. I just like telling stories," she reasons. "Storytelling is fun. I'd like to be known as someone that encourages critical thinking. With Titanic and I, we've always encouraged that in the project. You can't just blindly listen to everything everyone says. You can be critical of what I do as well, I welcome that, but I think it's important to ask questions. Otherwise, you're just kind of like an ant," she explains. "I'm laughing at myself here."

Poppy demands devotion. As with any artist that require such investment in their world, her fans are ride or die. From the outside, they can seem like A Lot, but Poppy is never critical of her seeds.

Does she think people take her too seriously? "No. I like how excited people are about Poppy and what we make." Does she worry about people feeling ownership over her? "I don't feel that, no. When I release things, I just push 'em forward and turn around and make something else. I try not to pay that much attention to that." How does she feel about her fans criticising her life choices, like posting a photo where she's smoking? "You can't make everyone happy. I think the photo's cool, that's all."

The Church of Poppy started because "I don't like any religion, so I created my own," she explains. "If people need someone to look up to, they can look up to me. I think I'm a good person to look up to. I think I'm nice and I wear cool clothes," she says through a grin. "Hopefully my music means something to someone and it can help them in their lives."

Her mantra of making the world happy, cute and loving everyone is still how she approaches everything, despite the aggression behind her new music. "I try my best, but that's one of the challenges of life. It's very hard to love people through things sometimes, but if you can, more power to you. I don't think it's hard to exist in this world. You've just got to be a nice person."

Evolved and ready to face the world, Poppy's bold, jarring pop-metal is a breath of fresh air. Fully realised and with nothing to hide, we still don't know if she's humanity's redemption or its damnation, but she's a lot of fun. All we know is that we love Poppy.

"I feel like my bubble has gotten bigger, and I can't see anybody in my way now. My bubble is so big, I can't see outside of that, and that's the way I like it," she declares, laughing. 

Taken from the November issue of Upset. Poppy's album 'I Disagree' is out 10th January.

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