PNAU and AR/CO interviewed, gift guide and more
It looks like I'm really committing to sending these out weekly. What a world.
Greetings to you.
I’m fine thanks for asking. In this week’s newsletter:
I interview Nick Littlemore from PNAU about various things (the band’s new single, Troye Sivan, Elton John, Elvis, Lizzo, crocodiles etc).
There’s also a quick chat with new duo AR/CO, who are entertaining.
The winner of the 2022 Popjustice Twenty Quid Music Prize is finally announced.
This week’s New Music Friday releases are rounded up.
A reader submits a playlist!
Elton John gets three separate mentions, which is quite interesting isn’t it? Like, it’s interesting that his presence in the pop world is so strong that he just naturally appears three times? In contrast Paul McCartney only appears once this week, and that’s only when it’s mentioned that he only appears once (see earlier in this sentence for more details).
And there are some other bits as well. Alright, let’s crack on, there’s a lot to get through and we’re all busy people.
Further to last week’s linked article about the decline of the pop superstar, a piece asking if Taylor Swift is the last remaining real popstar. (i-D)
Elton’s doing the big pointy stage Glastonbury. (BBC)
Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie died this week, aged 79. Writer Tim Jonze’s recollection of meeting her is very touching. (The Guardian)
Girls Aloud, who had some decent music, turned twenty years old this week. (It looks like the limited-but-not-that-limited-edition anniversary 7” edition of Sound Of The Underground is still available for pre-order, if you’re interested.) Writer Alexis Petridis’s ranking of the band’s twenty best songs is wrong, but not by any stretch as wrong as it could be. (The Guardian)
The Christmas Number One contenders have been rounded up by the Official Charts website, although Ladbaby are still to announce quite how they plan to continue their reign of terror. (Official Charts)
New Music Friday:
Armand Van Helden is flying high (again)
When this new Armand Van Helden track popped up this week I found myself thinking it was a bit of a shame because someone had already made a rave-up version of PhD’s I Won’t Let You Down, and that’s just bad manners, but then I remembered that the old rave-up version in question was actually by, er, Armand Van Helden, so I suppose that’s alright. This is a different (but not very different) version of a song that came out six years ago — this time round it features Karen Harding in wailing diva mode and, to be fair, she throws enough magic at the whole thing to justify a reissue.
Tangential thought: we’re now twelve years on from Diva Fever performing Barbra Streisand on The X Factor.
Also this week:
I wanted to include something from the Olly Murs album because, fair play, the album is sort of better than you’d expect it to be, although I’m not sure where your bar is on this, so your mileage may vary. Key collaborators on the album are David Stewart and Jessica Agombar (one of the better pop teams out there right now) and Go Ghost is pretty perky.
Abisha keeps making quite good pop singles; one of them is out today.
I’ve included Gabrielle Aplin and Hugh Laurie mainly because the idea of Gabrielle Aplin and Hugh Laurie is quite funny.
The 2022 Popjustice Twenty Quid Music Prize
A few people have asked who won this year’s Popjustice Twenty Quid Music Prize.
As you may know, I hold this judging ‘ceremony’ each year on the same night as the Mercury Music Prize, and over the course of the evening twelve shortlisted songs are gradually whittled down to one final winner.
As you may also know, this year’s judging event was due to start precisely thirty minutes after news broke that the Queen had died. The Mercurys bottled it but in a spectacular misjudging (or not?) of the Mood of the Nation, the Twenty Quid went ahead anyway and, to be frank, it was all a bit weird, but anyway Harry Styles’ As It Was ended up winning. So that, to answer those who’ve asked, is who won this year’s Popjustice Twenty Quid Music Prize.
The Official 2022 Popjustice gift guide: the year’s best present ideas for friends, loved ones and family members
Just circling back:
Last week’s newsletter included AR/CO in the New Music Friday roundup — I liked their song Supersonic LUV and wanted to know more, so I got Leo and Mali-Koa from the band on a Zoom this week.
The start of the conversation was mainly me banging on about how I’d started this newsletter with the idea that it would be quite a nice pressure-free way to start writing about music again, but then people kept signing up for it, and…
…now I sort of need to make a bit of effort, which wasn’t the plan at all.
Leo: That's how we started this project. We were like, ‘Yeah, we can do what we want because, you know, it's brand new…’
And then the next thing you know, you’ve got Elton John bigging you up on his Apple Music show.
Mali-Koa: Yes. Then it’s like: ‘Okay, this needs to be good.’
And you have risen to that challenge, because your new single is, actually, really good.
Mali-Koa: Thank you. We're having so much fun doing it, which is the best part for us. We look at each other sometimes and think, ‘Wow, how amazing that we get to make music that we really love and enjoy and that other people are feeling the same’.
Leo: We're just sitting on loads of great songs that we've been writing the past year and a half or so.
Mali-Koa: It's exciting, we’re going to take over the world.
It’s good to hear that’s the plan. Some artists don't like to say that's the plan, but secretly it is the plan.
Leo: It’s definitely the plan.
Is it worth coming to see you live? Are you really good yet or shall I give it a while?
Leo: You know what, we did our first ever gig in October, which was wild because we'd never played together before — we started as a pandemic thing and it was very much studio based. And there was so much industry hype around the show, we felt like we’d kind of sold everyone a dream, but this was pretty close to being exactly what we wanted to do. The crowd was insane. These were mostly brand new songs but people were singing along. I did not expect that.
So you're saying come and see you.
Mali-Koa: Come and see us, we are the best band in the world. Please spread the news. I feel like I'm out here just throwing one liners. You know, I'm a hype woman here.
What are your reference points for the imagery around your music?
Mali-Koa: Well, our first point of reference was the idea of Burning Man. The whole escapism of stripping back, where there is no currency and you have to kind of give acts of service to pay your way. And we thought, why can't there be a place where people can come together and feel that kind of festival feeling, not only at Burning Man? Then there was Gorillaz, which is obviously a fully CGI band, but we wanted to try and bring the CGI elements and blend it with this kind of psychedelic world. A pure slice of escapism.
I kind of think with the Burning Man currency thing, it sounds quite good for 24 hours, max. But then on day two I know I’d wandering around trying to pay people £1 for a Twix.
Mali-Koa: 100%. I do have friends who have gone for literally seven days. I'm like, ‘But did you run out of water?’ And they go, ‘You just trade a jam sandwich for a bottle of water.’
There’s an Empire Of The Sun vibe in your music. If you could ask Nick Littlemore anything, what would it be?
Mali-Koa: I'd probably ask a bit more about their visual identity, because they're so off the wall. And like, you know, they've got the crowns. And when they're on the stage, they're in the full getup. So I’d ask whether they feel like they transform into these characters, and if it's something completely different, because with us and AR/CO it’s all still very much based off ourselves, but like an exaggerated version.
Is the current single your best song or is the next one better?
Leo: Oh, we have some bangers waiting to be honest.
Mali-Koa: We have, I think, two songs that come to mind that we originally took to labels, and they were the ones that everybody fell in love with. We're waiting for the perfect moment.
21st Century Popjustice: Leila Sales edition
This week’s reader playlist is from Leila Sales, an author and editor responsible for eight novels including This Song Will Save Your Life, which is about a 16-year-old girl who becomes a DJ.
“I've been reading Popjustice since 2004 and will continue to do so as long as there is a Popjustice to read,” she writes. “I like songs with catchy melodies, crescendoes, key changes, and strings or horns sections. If they can accomplish all that in under four minutes, that’s ideal.” She then says something about Matchbox Twenty being one of her favourite bands (???) but pulls it all back by noting that she dressed up as Taylor Swift for Halloween this year: “An endeavour that required roughly 200 rhinestones plus one leotard.” She’s on Twitter and Instagram as @LeilaSalesBooks, and at leilasales.com.
PNAU’s Nick Littlemore
PNAU return this week with a Troye Sivan collaboration ahead of a full new album. An ideal opportunity, then, to ask Nick from the band about stuff including but not limited to the new music, Elton John, Lizzo and Empire Of The Sun. When our Zoom connected, Nick was eating a Fruit Pastille. And then these things were said…
How did you decide to lead with the Troye single — what made it the right song to launch this album?
I mean, it felt right because he is a countryman of ours being from Australia, well, South Africa, but Australia in many ways, and Troye is really on the cutting edge. He was very open and receptive not only to the song but also the music video. We really want to push things in the pop space, but keep an underground aesthetic going. And Troye was really on board with being collaborative. I suppose this is our first foray into the pop sphere and now we're being given an opportunity to work with the very best and brightest in the pop world: melodic writers, producers and singers and stars and all the rest of it. So it felt like Troye was a good blend — we did one of the very first writing sessions with Troye for his musical career and we've remained friendly while watching his meteoric rise from the wings.
How did the song come together?
We originally wrote this song with Reuben James and Kevin Garrett. We had the record for a little while, then Troye came on and he rewrote the bridge and really pulled it all together. It just felt so right once he had come on board. He has a lot to offer — he changed things and all of the changes he made were, from our point of view, the right moves. I think it's an interesting thing about music. You can be in the business for a while, and you can still learn a lot from people who are just three or five years into the business — it’s kind of a beautiful thing that you can keep learning.
What would you say you've learned from Troye?
I think to be bold; to do things that feel genuine to the audience. And I want to learn a lot more about how he does socials because obviously he's quite phenomenal and we've never been great at that. With the social thing it came, I guess, a little after we got into the business and it’s a different way of presenting. But we're hoping to get better at that.
As I'm sure are your label…
(Laughing) NO COMMENT.
What’s the sonic blueprint for the new album?
It's interesting because we're entering into the pop world, and we're really trying a lot of different things. PNAU, I guess, for us, has always been about unlocking that ecstasy feeling. We've always driven by the dancefloor. But overall, you're gonna see quite a wide ranging sound, I would say. We're leaning a little bit on some of our favourite records — some of the Daft Punk sounds, as well as going back to Cerrone and the original disco; Chic, Rock With You by Michael Jackson, some of the other Rod Temperton records… We really wanted to do a classic disco record. After dark, drink in hand, shimmy on the dancefloor.
The You Know What I Need video is quite something. I know you mentioned ‘the ecstasy feeling’ but…
Well, you know what it is — for us it's more about creating the dream states that you might have if you’d eaten a tonne of blue cheese. We've always been active dreamers and we've always been interested in pushing the envelope in that way. It's interesting to me how with artificial intelligence you can collaborate effectively with an algorithm and create something that feels, whilst very strange, also very human. These dream states are something that we have collectively experienced since humans have been alive, and maybe even before we were humans, when we were crocodiles or, you know, monkeys or whatever we were beforehand. I feel that we were always dreaming.
It’s more likely to have been monkeys, isn't it?
Yeah, I mean, the first life on planet earth was giant mushrooms. So I guess we're part of everything that's here. That’s the way I see it.
I don’t know if I misread an interview with you last year, but is there really an entire album’s worth of new PNAU and Elton John songs?
We did over an album’s worth of productions, combining three to five songs in each one. And Cold Heart was almost an afterthought. We delivered that whole swag, they didn't feel that sound was right for them at the time, we were obviously disheartened, but then Cold Heart kind of came together: I’d started cutting up Sacrifice, and then sent it to Pete [Mayes, out of PNAU] and then he just went to town and made pure magic out of it. There was something heavenly about that record. And honestly, it often takes us many attempts to get something that feels that way. It's never easy. I don't care who the artist is, it's never easy to get something that feels effortless and magical. But a record like this, we're playing around with real alchemy, working with some of the biggest records of all time. You could take just a small element of one Elton's hits and people are gonna know it. Even if they don't recognise it, something inside of them recognises it. You know, Cold Heart was the most Shazammed song last year and I’m assuming that’s because young people don't know his voice as well...
Although, I mean this in the in the nicest possible way, he hasn't really let people forget who he is, has he? Thinking about his presence in popular culture, he sort of tops it up every few years with some different project or collaboration. But what always comes through is his passion for new music, which I don't think other artists of his generation really have.
No, I've never met another artist who is so interested in new music and new artists. Even for myself, most of the music I listen to now is from my era, or older music from the 70s and 80s. But Elton is always interested in the newest ideas and has no problem reaching out to people. And it's such a gift that he does that for young people. It gives them so much confidence in what they're doing. I know in my own life, in the early days of working with Elton, I was quite depressed and battling all that and he was always there, always on the end of the phone, bigging me up and telling me to just hang in there. Just one of the most generous and kind individuals and I feel so incredibly blessed to have worked with him. The Good Morning To The Night record was something we loved making but Cold Heart was really the ‘thank you’ I think he deserved for taking us under his wing all those years ago. And finally we've given him one of the biggest records of his career
I wanted to ask you about the recent Lizzo remix. Which, and again I mean this in the best possible way because it's one of my favourite remixes of the year, but: is that really what they wanted when they asked you to do it?
You know, I sat down with Brandon, Lizzo’s A&R, and he was really pushing me to make it as out there and as crazy as possible. And that's not really what we did.
But it was interesting to work with a song that was co-written with Max Martin, who obviously everyone holds in such high regard — again, similar to Elton, but in a different way, you're carrying this stuff, and you don't want to fuck it up. We turned down a lot of things, as you can imagine, after the Cold Heart record came out, but Lizzo was very high on our mind, and we'd love to make an original record with her. And that remix, it just felt right. We just wanted to make the right record at the right time. To be fair, Sam [Littlemore, out of PNAU] did did the heavy lifting on that one. And I think he did a bang up job.
What qualities make someone the right kind of artist to be a vocalist on your new album?
We've always gone for characterful voices — ones that you could recognise instantly. Now it's twofold because we're working with huge stars. So part of that is the dance you do drawing them in if they're interested, but then with big artists it has to also work with their schedules. And this is something we’d never experienced before, because we would just make records and put them out. And now we're in a very different world. We also want people who are enthusiastic about doing something different. So for the most part, it's artists who have had, maybe, at least five big records, who are ready to explore something else. We don't want to just do middle of the road, pop dance records. There's a tonne of them at the moment anyway.
That idea of having hits under your belt before you try something else… There's a real confidence you see in artists who have the security of a few hits then go off and explore, isn’t there?
Yeah, exactly. I always felt that fortune favours the brave. I find often the artists are more keen on that than management or labels, who are a little bit more cautious. But I feel like if we get to a place where we can be brave, we're going to push everything forward. And generally that comes at least a few years into a career: you have to get out everything you've come to the business with, and then you can start challenging yourself.
You spoke about characterful voices and I’m wondering what you learned about superstar voices from working on the recent Elvis soundtrack.
A few years ago we did a remix for The Doors — there were outtakes they gave us of Jim [Morrison, out of The Doors] walking around the studio, drinking something and coughing and yelling and everything else. And then we had the pleasure of working with Elton's masters and stems, and then we've had Elvis, and the one thing I guess that combines all those things is that you're hearing the breath in between. You're hearing every little detail. And the Elvis recordings are quite phenomenal because even in the 50s they sounded far and away better than most of the records coming out at that time. There's a lot to be said, especially in the early days of recording, for the ones that did get true clarity on their recordings. Elvis clearly had a very loud voice when he was playing around with his band — he’s booming over the top — but it felt balanced.
And finally, a question here from a new band called AR/CO, who want to know about Empire Of The Sun and whether you feel you really transform into the characters you present, or whether it feels like dressing up.
You know, I think we do become the characters. Something magical happens in the studio — Luke and I have been in the studio recently, and we've got a swag of new records coming together. It's been a long time coming and we're super, super excited about it. And I feel it was on the playback of those songs that we realised that for want of a better term, the spirit of Empire was in the room. When you hear a song that feels like an Empire song, it's undeniable. And onstage, I'm sure this is true for most performers, you become a completely different human. My wife and all her friends recently saw us for the first time, and they were kind of shocked by the characters we become once we walk on stage. I think it's very exciting and very important to become a different entity; a different energy. And I think a lot of it has to do with the echo loop you get from the audience and how much energy they're giving you, then you kind of give it back to them. It's almost like perpetual motion that just keeps rising, higher and higher.
How long should pop songs be?
Joe Bennett, a professor at Berklee College of Music, gave a great quote on this in an FT article this week: “Giraffes are no taller than the trees they feed from and pop songs are no shorter than they need to be.”
What should I put on my tree this year?
Will Young is selling some decorations with ‘EVERGREEN’ written on them. This is very clever because that is what Christmas trees are, but it’s also the name of a Will Young song. There are All Time Love ones as well which are either less clever or far too clever for me to understand. (A bauble screaming “it FEEEEELS like nativity” would have been a better second option.)
What’s the funniest Spotify Wrapped tweet?
What’s the absolute definition of pop justice?
I maintain an ongoing list of moments where the right things happen at the right time to the right people. So for instance Little Boots ending up in the ABBA Voyage band — that was pop justice. Kylie’s eventual Glastonbury performance: also pop justice. This week the Sugababes — currently doing the rounds as the original lineup — announced their biggest headline show ever, at London’s O2, and that felt a bit like pop justice too. Tickets are on sale now from your friends and mine at Ticketmaster.
What should happen at this show?
Two options. Option 1 is that the support act is Heidi, Jade and Amelle, performing exactly the same setlist as the headliners. (Option 1B is that all six members then go on tour together, and each night ten minutes before showtime the show’s three performers are selected at random, meaning fans won’t know which lineup they’ll get until the band is actually on stage.) Option 2 for the O2 show is that the setlist is performed in chronological order and those other members appear during the show, with each of the original members suddenly disappearing through trapdoors and being replaced by singers who arrive in increasingly ludicrous ways: parachute, zipwire, being shot out of a canon etc.
Surely this is an opportunity for Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan to take a victory lap on their own terms?
Well yes there is that.
Do you have any other ideas for a Sugababes stage show?
Actually I do, it’s a jukebox musical based on the hits of the Sugababes, telling the band’s story through a psychoanalytic lens and following what happens when the id (Mutya) and ego (Keisha) are left to their own devices following the departure of the super-ego (Siobhan).
This has been lengthy. Some might argue too long. Do I get anything for reading this far?
Yes, I would like to send you a Christmas card. Reply to this with your actual physical address and I’ll send as many as I can until, frankly, the cash runs out.
Have you thought of a way to sign off your newsletters? Possibly something that is sort of the same but slightly different each week — like, you’ll have a format for the signoff, but each time there’s a slight variation?
I’m working on it.
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