NEW YORK — On one side of the large room, a dark-furred dog follows an adorable toddler as she waddles around like an astronaut walking on the moon. The dog’s trying to lick her face. A few office employees mull around the space laughing quietly.
On the other side of the room, in a corner, sits a trove of rare indie music objects: a Parquet Courts foosball table, an arcade-sized Kaytranada Pacman game, a bicycle with Ratatat painted on the frame.
There’s a lot to be distracted by in this moment, on a chilly January evening (that feels like years ago, before the coronavirus crisis) inside the spacious New York headquarters of the Beggars Group record label company.
But the eyes of Holly Lapsley Fletcher — known as the English electronic musician Låpsley — are shooting laser beams of focus at a large screen that’s unfurled in the middle of the room. She’s wearing a gray hoodie that accents her platinum-dyed blonde hair, her elbows bent over a chair, waiting.
The screen shows the cover of her then soon-to-be-released second album, “Through Water” — Holly is submerged under water, bubbles trailing her, but she’s pictured in the second before she’s about to climb her way back up.
The employees eventually take seats in various places around the room, either at the kitchen island in one half, in chairs on the other half, or on the wooden bleacher rows directly across from the projector screen. Holly says a few nervous words of introduction about the album, then it’s played in full, for the first time for anyone other than insiders close to her and her label, XL Recordings.
The record is instantly deeper and more mature than her first — there are lines about specific relationships and maturing as a woman. “I’ve been working on myself while I’ve been away,” she sings on “First,” an early track.
Sonically, it’s full of rich keyboard chords, shiny synthesizer runs and thick electronic beats. There’s a sweet tension between the fun she’s having while singing and the emotionally blue tinge of the lyrics.
She doesn’t love the many comparisons she gets to the belting pop star Adele and the electronic pioneer James Blake, but they’re more apt than she’d like to hear. Nevertheless, Holly has found a standout style in the vast forest that is minimalist electronic pop in 2020.
Throughout the playback, Holly barely moves a muscle, except for an occasional subtle grimace.
Afterwards, in a private office adjacent to the mini-amphitheater, released from the pressure and back to her true state — bubbly, talkative and thoughtful — she explains.
“I could not deal with that sound system!” she says in a thick Liverpool accent. “It was like, quite big in the mid? But missing all the high end, and I couldn’t hear all of the beautiful keyboard top lines and shit, just couldn’t hear them! And for me… but it’s fine, as long as the gist of it got through.”
Holly, now 23, has come a long way to get to this point — confident enough to critique the speakers at Beggars Group, whose labels boast dozens of the planet’s most influential artists. Her beginnings in the industry were swift and unexpected — songs that she uploaded to SoundCloud just so that she could easily send them to relatives in Chicago racked up hundreds of thousands of views, and prestigious record labels came knocking. She was only 17.
She scrapped her plans to pursue a university degree in geography and signed with XL, home to marquee acts like Radiohead and The xx. Her first album, “Long Way Home,” out in 2016 when she was still 19, established her as an influential indie pop force whose sound has been emulated by legions of followers. Even Billie Eilish has said she recorded her early hit “Ocean Eyes” with Låpsley’s song “Station” in mind.
But after the success — millions of Spotify streams, dozens of interviews, international touring — came a mental breakdown of sorts, and a simmering conviction that she wasn’t in the right career.
“It takes a lot to break such a strong person like me,” Holly told me. “You wouldn’t want to put a teenager through the shit that I did. On reflection, I’m like, that’s fucked.”
She wouldn’t share the details of what exactly happened, but she described a gradual descent into mental darkness, partially fueled by alcohol, body image insecurity and the stresses of being an acclaimed artist before hitting 20. At the same time, she struggled to deal with the emotional weight that came with her first serious relationships.
“I guess many people, when they’re 18, they go to uni, and they make mistakes and they see the wrong people and drink,” she said, “but I was surrounded by adults, going on tour — it’s like everything was just feeling scrutinized? [It was] nothing that anyone specifically did, but just like that kind of lifestyle at that age, whilst you’re trying to find out who you are, mixed in with talking about yourself all the time, it’s a bit bizarre for anyone. And I felt like I’d fallen slightly out of love with the reason why I made music in the first place.”
After the “Long Way Home” cycle, Holly pushed forward with writing more music for a follow-up. She took a trip to Iceland, where she walked around with recording equipment, capturing sounds from the island’s natural environment that she planned to make an electronic drum kit out of. She also planned on taking an intensive course on engineering, so that she wouldn’t have to rely on others in the studio — usually men, some of whom she felt assumed that as a woman she was just a “singer,” not a writer and producer. But everything overflowed.
“It’s quite strange looking [back] at it and seeing someone who wanted to make it work,” she said. “It was everything that I loved but I didn’t know how to take it further.”
Shortly after the Iceland trip in 2017, she had what she calls “the breakdown” and moved out of London to Manchester with her boyfriend at the time. She immersed herself in volunteering, what she calls “the opposite of being the center of attention.” She became a mentor for a 10-year-old boy in a low-income area of Manchester, worked in charity shops and trained to become a doula. She assisted with two births, but what she enjoyed the most was working with and teaching the pregnant teenagers things before they gave birth. She also got back to swimming, a sport she enjoyed in high school.
That all proved to be the formula for a mental reset. One day while she was walking around Manchester, she had a sudden “What am I doing?” moment and went directly to a local music shop. She bought a couple of KRK speakers and some keyboards — enough to build a small recording setup in her apartment.
Within a day, she had written the first song that would appear on her next album: “Womxn” — a song about maturing, and giving advice to one’s past self. It’s reminiscent of parts of her first album, but it’s also more confident and sure of itself than a lot of “Long Way Home.” A bouncy synth bass line and flowery lead riff give way to an epic sing-along chorus.
“And there’s a girl in the mirror/ And a woman on my shoulder/ Back in a minute and she’s five years older,” goes the prechorus. “I wonder what to say to her/ I question where I wanna be/ I stop judging her/ I tell her who I wanna be.”
She eventually broke up with her boyfriend and moved back to London. From there, the songs poured out — she wrote so many that it was difficult to curate one record. A couple that didn’t make the album (and a couple that did) made up a stellar 2019 EP, “These Elements.” Some other tracks may appear on later releases.
“What people see is kind of like an iceberg at the top,” she said.
A big part of her journey back was becoming comfortable as a working musician. Raised in an academic household in the seaside Merseyside county of Liverpool, music was always a side project for her, despite the fact that she played piano, oboe, guitar and drums while growing up. She was inspired by her father — a prominent environmental engineer who works on water sustainability projects — and she had been set on following his scientific footsteps.
The first words on the “Through Water” album are from a speech her father gave a few years ago, and they involve climate change, another theme Holly touches on throughout the record. Holly spontaneously recorded herself delivering the speech in a bathroom, next to a running tap, and sampled it on the album’s first track, also called “Through Water.”
Even after her early songs brought her a large audience, Holly “massively” doubted her musical abilities.
These days, though, she talks about music as her vocation and her true calling. But she hasn’t lost her bookish intellectual side, either — for her New York trip, she had brought “Sapiens,” the bestselling history of humanity by Yuval Noah Harari, and Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death,” a dense philosophical treatise on psychology from 1973.
“You can constantly be learning, I’m always reading, I don’t feel like I need to drop this and do a geography degree anymore,” she said with a laugh.
She’s more comfortable talking about her mental health issues, too — for instance, she addresses it on “Sadness is a Shade of Blue,” another album highlight that she calls a “pop song about depression.”
“My inner monologue was awful, the way I talked about myself. Now looking back, I’m like, you need some respect! Look what you’ve achieved! You’re not fat, it doesn’t matter, you’re healthy, you’re alive, you know you’re very privileged,” she said. “It’s just kind of growing up, as well.”
As we step out of the XL office, she greets a couple of friends who have hung around after the album playback. She outstretches her arms and hugs one. The next stop is a Mediterranean restaurant in Williamsburg.
“Middle Eastern food, I’m so into it, it makes me want to cry,” she says with a wide smile.
One of the last things she feels is important enough to tell me is that she’s also joined a non-audition community choir in London, where she’ll be returning in a few days. She’s so enthusiastic about it that she almost trips over her own words.
“I just go, nobody knows what I do, I just sing my bit, I’m in tenors cause they didn’t have enough men in tenors, so I was like, I’ll do it, even though I’m a soprano,” she says. “But I’m not the center of attention, and it’s amazing.”