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Rose Gray on her tax return, a plea for several billion dollars, etc
Enter subtitle... would be a good Enter Shikari vs Fred again... mashup covers band for the hard of hearing
Hello to you.
In this week’s newsletter I speak with Rose Gray, the first recording artist since CeeLo Green who I’d consider decorating my bathroom with if they were a paint.
I saw Rose live a few months ago at the top of a building somewhere in Hackney and it was very good but made me a bit sad because I knew it was precisely the sort of thing I would once have written about on Popjustice, except I’d sort of stopped doing Popjustice writing, and I suppose that was one of various things that ended up combining and eventually making me decide to start these newsletters.
So you have Rose to thank for this weekly-except-when-it’s-not drivel.
The newsletter also includes a new ABSOLUTE BANGER from Zara Larsson, a thing inspired by Zara’s video, a terrible/amazing gift for the pops74r in your life, and a proposition that could make all our lives a lot more pleasant (and a lot less likely to include the music of Queen) for just a few billion dollars, so if you know anyone with more money than sense please forward them this email or I’m going to have to go on Dragons’ Den.
New Music Friday: Zara Larsson returns
Zara Larsson’s comeback single Can’t Tame Her is a full-on Pointer Sisters-meets-Hall & Oates thunderer and it’s very good to have her back. The song is about someone who goes out a lot and has fun in assorted situations. You cannot, as the title suggests, tame her. Sounds like an exciting person, although perhaps not someone you’d want to be stuck with in a lift. Ironic then that in the video Zara meets herself in a lift (this is done with computers) then goes to a party where people are dancing, getting off with each other etc etc, and then the two Zaras have a dance-off, and there’s all sorts of stuff about ‘is tameable Zara actually the same person as untameable Zara’, so I suppose it’s a bit like Fight Club or something, except with popstars. All in all, a satisfying popcultural artefact.
Also this week:
Ava Max’s new album is out, pretty much every song is a variation on one or two themes, and it’s amazing.
P!nk’s made a good new electropop song! It’s co-written and produced by Fred Again??
Yes I’m sticking with my decision to write Fred Again’s name without any lowercase/ellipsis business, and I’m really pleased about this. Such a weight off my shoulders. Although seeing it with two question marks after it just now… I don’t know, I think that kind of works? Maybe an interrobang would be even better‽
The first release from K-pop girlgroup MAVE: (the colon is part of their name and is even more annoying than Fred Again’s ellipsis) is brilliant.
The LOWES single, Game Of Love, is a cracker. Have you heard their other stuff? The band is really good and that’s all there is to it.
The new Jack Garratt single does not sound at all like you’d expect a Jack Garratt single to sound.
An incomplete list of videos where the popstar is in it but also so is the popstar as a different person, wearing a wig or something
The Zara Larsson video made me think of this trope, which lots of really famous people have involved themselves in, so it feels a bit like a rite of passage.
Destiny’s Child, Lose My Breath
Destiny’s Child meet Destiny’s Child in a back alley and have a dance-off. 10/10.
Avril Lavigne, Girlfriend
Rock Avril and Nerdy Avril compete for the attentions of an improbably handsome man, at a mini golf centre.
Britney Spears, Hold It Against Me
She beats herself up in this.
Dua Lipa, IDGAF
Christina Aguilera, Candyman
Christina appeared in this video as, basically, three members of a girlband. This was such a strange single, wasn’t it?
A-Teens, I Promised Myself
The release was notable not just because during their career A-Teens had gone from being an ABBA covers band to a Nick Kamen covers band (??) but also because for this farewell single they appeared in their old videos as their current selves, which is quite a nice idea and all artists should be made to do this in their farewell videos.
Kylie Minogue, Come Into My World
I was just watching this for the first time in a while and my main thought was: it looks like a lot of work. Looks like a lot of learning things, eg having to be in a particular spot at a particular time. Looks like you’d need to do it a few times before you got it all right. And so my main thought is, if I were a popstar and this video idea arrived in my inbox, I would probably go: ‘Looks good, how about you give the treatment to someone else and I’ll just do something a bit less complicated like dance around a bit?’ It’s just a lot of hassle isn’t it?
Mariah Carey, Heartbreaker
Probably the best example of a popstar duffing themselves up in a video. I wonder where Lady On Toilet is now? Possibly dead. (Evil Mariah, aka Bianca, reappeared 17 years later.)
Taylor Swift, Ready For It? / Look What You Made Me Do
In Ready For It?, Real Taylor meets a cyborg Taylor, and then the cyborg Taylor escapes from her cell and smashes loads of glass and stuff into real Taylor’s face, except it turns out Real Taylor isn’t real at all because the glass takes her face off and reveals robot stuff underneath. Makes you think! Then in Look What You Made Me Do, she rounds off the video by appearing as various former versions of herself, who argue a lot.
Watch Ready For It?
Has Robbie Williams done one of these?
He must have done.
There’s a lot of popstars beating themselves up in these videos isn’t there? And the Look What You Made Me Do video, with the various Taylors criticising each other, struck me at the time as being quite jarring. What does this tell us about how musicians really see themselves, or the versions of themselves they’ve created?
Probably precisely nothing.
Who would buy this?
I won’t bore you with the details of how I ended up finding this car number plate, but it’s for sale and I do think it’s important that it finds the right home.
One option would be for it to be owned by someone with such little self-awareness that they genuinely think it would look absolutely fine in, say, a paparazzi photo of them having been pulled over by the police, and I won’t name who I’m thinking of here but I’m pretty sure I and 90% of the people reading this will be thinking of exactly the same person.
The other ideal candidate is someone with so much self-awareness and such a finely-tuned sense of how to troll people that they could just about get away with it, and of course here I am thinking of Matty Healy.
Anyway if you want it, it’s yours for about thirteen thousand quid.
Has anyone got a spare few billion dollars lying around?
People flogging their songs is back in the news this week, with Justin Bieber the latest to sell the rights to his music in exchange for a big pile of cash, in this case a reported $200m. The company that bought 290 (!) Bieber songs now gets the cash from sales, ad syncs and so on.
It reminded me of this tweet from The Blessed Madonna…
…a week or so ago, which in turn reminded me of something I posted about elsewhere a couple of years back, and is worth revisiting now. My idea is for a new songs fund that goes round buying up specific tracks, and exists with two clear aims:
In line with TBM’s suggestion above, the first aim of this songs fund would be to protect the most very important songs from shit exploitation, basically giving them listed status. There are only about 70-80 truly important songs in existence so all the paperwork could easily be done in less than a couple of months, probably.
The second and most important aim of this songs fund would be to REMOVE TERRIBLE SONGS FROM CIRCULATION COMPLETELY.
This is where the fund would need investors with deep pockets, but it would work like this: you’d go to (just plucking an example from the air here) Queen, and persuade them to part with their songs, with the aim of making sure these songs are blocked from ever being heard again. I imagine the discussions would go like this:
Songs fund: Hi Queen, nobody needs to hear Bohemian Rhapsody ever again, what’s your price?
Queen: Well we’re still using it, when we do our tours etc, and it gets played on radio and TV quite a lot, so you can’t have it.
Songs fund: Name your price.
Queen: This is art. It’s history. It can’t be bought.
Songs fund: How about five billion quid?
Songs fund: Great.
Queen: Chuck in another billion and you can have Don’t Stop Me Now as well.
Songs fund: That was actually going to be our next conversation…
If you know someone with billions of dollars and good taste in music, please send them my way.
Please subscribe to my bloody email if you haven’t already, cheers.
Interview: Rose Gray discusses her tax affairs
How’s your January been?
You see, I like winter, but I think with tax returns coming up that's making everyone sad.
I mean I wasn’t going to go down this route but given what’s in the news it’s worth asking: do you complete your own tax return or do you have somebody do it for you?
This is the first year that someone's done it for me.
Does this mean you’ve made it?
No, I don't think I've made it because now I'm just worried that they’re not going to do the right job, so I'm stressed about it.
What your favourite tax-deductible expense? I suppose being a popstar you can claim all your stage outfits can’t you.
Yes, but I've been told that apparently if I get investigated, they'll go as far as going through your social media and matching up looks and working out if you wear them in your own time versus on stage, which sounds crazy to me.
I guess that brings us to the question: isn’t social media a performance in itself? People do get dressed up for their Instagram posts, for instance.
I'm guilty of that. Definitely.
To be clear: guilty of being a popstar, but not of tax avoidance.
Apart from your tax return, what’s 2023 like so far?
It's been nice. I feel like I'm easing into the year quite smoothly. I was away for the first two weeks and now I'm moving into EP mode. I feel really excited about this year.
In a way you haven't felt excited about a year before?
I have a lot to look forward to especially in terms of live — I feel like this is going to be my summer to play festivals. And I'm going to be releasing my album this year. So that's a moment, isn't it?
What’s the album called?
I don't know. Yeah, it's not finished. I'm in the in between stage where it's basically written, but I'm finishing stuff off. And I'm going to LA in two weeks to finish writing. I signed to Justin Tranter’s publishing company, Facet, so I'm actually going to be working solely with them for two weeks, and we're going to finish everything off together.
How does this work: you turn up with songs that need a bit of Tranter Magic, or Justin comes with songs that need a bit of Rose Gray Magic, or you each turn up with nothing and see how it goes?
I always say this about the way I write: every session is different. Justin and I have written a few things before and I've actually got a single coming out that we both wrote together, which I think will be the lead single on the album.
Does that have a title?
It does actually, it's called Switch. It's from the first session we had together — we wrote it together in three hours and I was like, ‘Oh, I get this now.’ But for these new sessions I’ve got a lot of things that are either amazing verses missing a great chorus or great choruses missing some verse spice, so we'll see. I’ll go in with an open mind.
Where do you stand on middle eights?
When they're done right, they’re my favourite part of a song. I love them. And I love going really ethereal and weird on a middle eight, sometimes to my team's disapproval.
The middle eight is the bit where you can go weird, right? Because everyone knows it's going to come back to the proper bit.
I think you can tell a lot about an artist by how they play out their middle eights. Personally, for me, it's where my more indie roots can can shine.
Tell me a bit more about your roots.
I think it's more that I started off, and I’d dropped out of college, and I just had this voice and it confused me because I did not know where I wanted to place my voice. And I sort of accidentally fell into soul — showing off notes at family parties singing Jackson 5 and showing off my riffs and stuff.
Was this adorable or annoying?
I think it was annoying. But I remember thinking it was quite cute.
So you got into the soul, big-voice kind of thing, and then…
…and then I couldn't translate that into the way I wanted to write or the places I was going and the friendship groups I was in, or the music that I liked to listen to, so it just didn't really add up. So then I took a look. I was thrown into the music industry quite young — I signed a deal at 16 and never even ended up really releasing music or anything. And then when I was 18 I was thrown out of the music industry, and I thought: ‘This is the end of my career’. I thought I was going to become a poet or something. That’s when I started writing what turned out to be lyrics, and I really explored writing. I think I became a songwriter then. And then somehow, after two or three years of partying a lot and working loads of jobs, and having a lot of fun, I started to actually make quite good music. The first song I wrote that made me think ‘this is quite good’ was Save Your Tears, which we put out in lockdown, and then that got me signed, and on the radio, and in a position where I could see something happening.
You made that sound quite easy: chuck out a song in lockdown, get a deal, get on the radio, job done.
It’s not been easy at all. I mean, I'm a Capricorn and I'm the goat — since dropping out of college I've been writing probably four or five songs a week from the age of 16.
Is that what goats do? Write songs?
No, they're constantly climbing the mountain and then they fall and then they get back up. That has been my career thus far. But for the last eight months it's there's been a lot less falling. Just some nice trotting.
Are you one of those goats that can climb a tree?
I think I can yes.
When did you last climb a tree?
In the summer at a festival in Bulgaria. The stage was in a forest so I used the tree to look down at the DJ decks.
That would be a great entrance at a festival wouldn’t it — falling out of a tree and landing on a DJ.
To be honest that would be quite on brand for me.
Being a popstar, what rules are worth following and what rules are worth breaking?
In terms of following, I think universal storytelling is important. Like, I do sometimes forget when I'm writing that it's not just for me. It's not just my life. So being more universal with my lyricism is important.
Is that true, that stuff can’t be personal?
No, of course it can be personal. But I sometimes think when it's too personal, you lose something. I love a personal verse…
Right so this is the thing isn’t it: the verse is where you talk about yourself, and the chorus is where everyone else goes: ‘That’s me!’
Yes, in the verse you can be really specific about the colour of your wallpaper and the book that's on the shelf, but then the chorus has to be universal. And working with Justin Tranter makes me realise you can't beat a great chorus that everyone can relate to.
Although Justin wrote Cake By The Ocean and that makes me wonder: has everyone eaten cake by the ocean? Have you?
I’ve definitely been on holiday and eaten cake by the sea.
But how close to the sea? ‘By the ocean’ suggests you’re at least in the sand area.
I feel like in Brighton I’ve definitely had a cake on the beach.
So cake by the ocean is, contrary to my initial complaint, actually a universal experience.
How about a pop rule that’s worth breaking?
Sticking to one genre. A lot of the popstars I look up to genrebend and they just do it so well and so seamlessly. So yeah, not staying in a musical box.
Who’s your favourite genrebender?
Well, this is going to sound very basic, but Madonna has — for 40 years — done it very, very well.
An above average popstar.
Personally, it scares me how good a popstar she is. I'm almost intimidated by how clever each album is, and how she’s able to switch it up. That must take so much energy to have those different faces. And I think Kylie, in more realistic way, has done some good genrebends.
Anything else you’d like to say today?
I've got my EP coming out on February 1st, so I don't know if there's anything I can say about that…
Is it any good?
It’s really good. I love it. I mean, I've actually released basically the whole EP, I've just got Ecstasy, a single, still to come out. But I'm really excited about it.
The life of the modern popstar in one tweet
Any news on remixes of Miley’s Flowers?
I said in the last newsletter that Miley Cyrus’ new single needed some proper disco remixes and none have appeared officially — but thank you to reader Robert Sillitoe who pointed me in the direction of a mashup involving Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, which I guess makes sense thematically. It works very well! You can listen to it here.
Anything else good on streaming this week?
Pop Music Activism have got Mel Blatt’s Do Me Wrong on streaming services this week. It’s one of those semi-lost Xenomania songs from the early-2000s that still sounds great. Give it a listen.
That MAVE: song in the New Music Friday playlist is brilliant, will I be able to see them live anytime soon?
I wouldn’t pin your hopes on it — the band doesn’t actually exist, although I suppose I can think of a flatpack venue near Stratford where they might be able to pull off a live show.
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’ve been holding some workshops with different content strategists and hope to present the results to you soon.