The Eyes Have It: An Interview with LP

In the business that is show, there are various archetypes. Songwriters toil away in anonymity, pairing catchy melodies with heartfelt lyrics in hopes of having a hit.

Singers train their focus on their voice as their instrument, putting perfect performances above all else. Artists take a 360-degree approach, combining a skill for writing with a knack for performing. And then there are the rock stars. From Mick Jagger to Joan Jett, David Bowie to Patti Smith, rock stars are a distinct breed. They are all of the other archetypes rolled up into one irresistibly charismatic, implausibly appealing ball. If ever there was a box in which to put LP, that would be it.

Ten years ago, LP released her debut record, Suburban Sprawl & Alcohol. Although it was overflowing with power chords and pop-punk swank, it failed to catch fire. Still, she worked hard and carried on, touring and writing songs. Soon enough, she was tapped to pen tunes for artists like Heidi Montag, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, and Vicci Martinez. That was a pretty good gig for someone who thought of themselves as a songwriter, first and foremost. But, then, someone got it in their head that there was more to LP than that and, sure enough, there was. Her new album, Forever For Now, proves it… as does her live performance which is where this particular rock star really shines.

The first 11 songs on Forever For Now push and pull, tug and taunt the listener along the course with soaring, if not anthemic melodies and relentless, driving beats. Then, all of a sudden, all of that commotion drops you off at the quiet, almost unassuming doorstep of the title track to be greeted by LP’s two signature sounds — a whistle and a ukulele. When her impossibly potent voice joins the fray, it’s game over. The collocation of keeping her audience safe, though slightly off-balance… that’s classic LP. She can’t help it. It’s just who she is, as an artist and a person. It’s in her music as much as it is in her demeanor, and that paradox, that fluidity is what so many people connect with. LP embodies an “otherness” that is intriguing, not intimidating, seductive rather than scary. And that’s just the way she likes it.

Kelly McCartney: “Swagger” is a term that gets applied to you a lot because you’re a rock star, in the truest sense. Like the love child of David Bowie and Patti Smith. Have you always had that or did you cultivate it as a persona?

LP: Nice. Thanks! I’ve had this vibe for a minute. “Swagger,” the word, has been ruined by some people. I would never say, “My swagger” or talk about it like that. It’s like calling yourself an old soul.

Someone has to pin that on you.

Yeah. You can’t be like, “Well, I’m an old soul…” I leave the conversation when I hear someone say something like that. But, I think it’s your armor when you’re on stage. It becomes that kind of thing. And not even some kind of lording it over people. Johnny Cash is one of my favorite performers and he’s just cool. You know it’s going to be alright. You’re never nervous. I don’t think an entertainer should, in any way, make anybody nervous about what’s going to happen… except a comedian.

I’m not really answering your question, but…

You’re answering some question, so it’s okay. Another part of your armor — or your persona — seems to be the sustained eye contact you make with audience members during your performances. It’s so intriguing and unusual. How did that come about and what do you get from it?

It’s funny that you say that. No one’s ever really said it quite like that, or explained what the performance is like. I guess I don’t realize that other people don’t do it. Probably because I’m so short and I’m always late, so I’m always in the back and I can’t see anything, so no performer ever makes eye contact with me.

I really enjoy people. And the reason I do it — it’s a connection for me. There’s nothing I like more than singing to a person or seeing a person who’s really enjoying it. I sometimes try not to look at the people now who are smiling because I’ve noticed that, if I look dead at them when they’re smiling and enjoying the show, sometimes they are cool with it, but sometimes they get freaked out. I guess it kind of takes them out of it, and I don’t mean it to. But, then, other people seem to be kind of looking to you like, “Hey, look over here!” And it’s really cute. I can see people from very far away see me looking at them, which is kind of fun.

I think, when I’m performing, I’m really into it being an experience we’re all having. If you’re digging it, if you’re here to see the show and you like the music, then I want it to be an inclusive process, not a pedestal, idol-worshipping, bullshit kind of thing.

It all kind of goes together — the swagger, the eye contact, the androgyny, even. Your Nashville audience, at least — and it is Nashville — seemed to be primarily white heterosexuals who were very, very into the show. So is it all just part of getting people to focus on the music and check any potential phobias or inhibitions at the door?

Yeah. Or it’s that I’m very attractive to white, heterosexual people. I have a white, hetero girlfriend, so…

Well, there you go.

Never mind. Sorry! That’s way too intimate. I’m making verbal eye contact with you right now.

Yeah. That’s true. We don’t get the physical cues over the phone.

Ha!

Which song on Forever For Now would you say is most representative of LP, the artist, and why?

I think there are a few that are and some of them that are more me, the songwriter, because sometimes I go a lot of directions and write songs for a very mixed group of people. The most like me would have to be between “Tokyo Sunrise,” “Into the Wild,” and “Forever for Now.” I think “Forever for Now,” the title track, seems to be my essence, in a way, for me — the moodiness of it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRtWInxI1pg

That’s interesting since it’s its own little island on the record, this quiet little gem sitting there at the end of these 11 upbeat tunes.

Yeah, that’s what I mean. I think it would be what day you asked me because, that’s true.

So on a European jet-lag…

(laughs) Yeah, exactly. You got it. I didn’t say how I was going to be weird. I just said I was going to be weird. But I think it’s my nature to be all over the place. You catch me at a certain time, I’m the most up person you’ll ever meet. I’m like a rocket. Then, other times, I’m just a moody, edgy… I don’t know. I can’t describe it.

It’s like the difference between your whistle and your howl.

Yeah, that’s how I roll. There are a lot of things going on in there. And, depending on the day, I don’t know what kind of songs I’m going to write from day to day. And I don’t like to give the same thing every single time.

Your signature vocal lick is somewhere between a howl and a yodel. How would you describe it? And how did you find it?

You mean the operatic part in “Forever for Now”?

Not just in that song. You do it in others, too.

Oh, you mean the (sings) “wha-a-aaaaa” stuff? That shit?

Yeah.

I think it came from being in rock bands and trying to cut through the mess. Even just in the early days of battling it out in clubs where there are seven bands on the bill and it’s noisy and nobody gives a fuck and they’re not paying attention. When I did something like that, people were like, “Jesus! What the hell is happening over there?” Then, suddenly, they’d pay attention. So maybe that was part of it. But also, it just feels really good.

How frustrating was it for you during the waning years between albums, when labels just weren’t paying attention and you were sort of sidelined as a performer? Was writing hits for other people enough?

You know, I have to say yeah, it really was. I was touring a bunch in that time, in the early time, and I got signed to a major label. I was stoked about that and I was stoked, especially, because there was some structure in my life. You know? You’re an indie artist and you’re doing it by yourself and there’s not a lot of direction. Then, when I was signed, there’s no comparison to how I’m being treated now at Warner Bros. compared to where I was with other labels, but, at the time, the structure… people telling me to go write with this person or do this. I’m a songwriter at heart and that’s what I was truly interested in.

So, getting signed to a major label was just helpful in that it gave me more opportunities to write with different people and get cuts with different people. I was very busy during this time. Like you said, I’ve been writing songs for other people and it kind of was enough. Yeah. When I wasn’t touring from 2006 to 2011, I have to say — surprisingly, even to me — I didn’t really miss it. It wasn’t something I was pining away for, consciously. I was just enjoying what was happening. I’m kind of in the moment like that, so… But it was nice to get back to it. When I started doing these little shows, just singing a cover or two with my friends, I enjoyed it a lot. Again, I never saw it coming — I didn’t see the whole new artist thing coming, but it’s been really nice. I haven’t worked a normal job in all that time, so I can’t complain.

Forever For Now is so very different from Suburban Sprawl and Alcohol. When and why did you take a left turn away from straight-ahead rock and roll?

I don’t know. I’m fascinated by pop and always have been. There are some elements of that — like “Wasted” was an attempt at a pop song, I guess. But I also think you just change — you’re a moving and constantly evolving human being. From the time I wrote Suburban Sprawl and Alcohol to the time I’ve written this one, there are probably 600 or 700 songs in there. Maybe more. So, you change and you evolve and you like different things.

Assuming you write primarily on the ukulele…

I do. I’ll write also on guitar or sometimes to beats and keyboards. The way in which I write is always different and I kind of enjoy it that way. You wouldn’t believe it, but I’ll write to crazy, crazy urban dance tracks at times, as well. It keeps me fresh and on my toes.

When you were crafting a song on the ukulele, how could you imagine what epic productions Rob Cavallo would make out of your songs?

To be honest with you, with “Into the Wild” — PJ Bianco and I wrote it — I feel like we kind of set that ball in motion as far as the epic-ness of it all. And if I hadn’t done a recording of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” — which was a few months before I was signed… Billy Steinberg, one of my writing partners who has a couple of songs on the record with me, has always wanted to do a Roy Orbison record with me. But, then, he got tired of waiting and was just like, “I want to do one song. I’m going to pay for it all and we’ll do one song.” So we did “It’s Over” and he got some of the best players. The lineup is very similar to what my record sounds like right now. It was inspiring. I was also signed to a big producer right before I signed to Warner Bros. I was signed to RedOne, the producer, and he kind of got the ball rolling with me as an artist again, too. I wanted to get in close as a writer because all that Lady Gaga stuff and, as a writer, I thought it would be good to get in with this guy. He wanted to write a record with me, for me as an artist, and it attracted people to my project.

But I wasn’t taking it seriously as an artist thing with him. And then I got my new management and they said, “We think you’ve got good stuff. We think you can do this as an artist.” Right around the same moment, Billy wanted me to record this Roy Orbison song and then a lightbulb went off. I was like, “That’s the kind of big, epic sound I want with strings and big, sweeping melodies.” So that’s where it all began was the Roy Orbison tip.

That’s interesting because “One Last Mistake” is very reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, while “Free to Love” has a distinct U2 sound…

Yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff. Older U2 was in my head, too. Big time. I felt like “Into the Wild” kicked that off, you know?

Digging deeper into the writing a bit, the Billy Steinberg cuts are fairly different from the Isabella Summers ones, but they still feel like you, though.

I know. Yeah. You know, Rob Cavallo said to me, when I thought I was almost done writing this record, he was like, “Can you write more songs like you write for other people… for you?” And I was like, “Oh, you mean pop commercial songs?” I didn’t really say that, but I knew what he meant. You know, you’re making a record with the chairman of a major label, of course they want those kind of songs. And I love those kind of songs.

But, yeah, the Billy Steinberg stuff… we go a little different, but it’s nice to have different kinds of songs on the record. To me. With Billy, I’m always hoping we’ll hit on — and maybe we will at some point — an “I Drove All Night” kind of song. Or “Alone” or something like that.

There’s a line in “Free to Love” which is “I don’t wanna be part of mediocrity.” Is that just a lyric or is it also a credo?

It’s a credo, for sure. And, at the same time, sometimes I feel bad while I’m singing it. It’s funny you say that because I feel bad about singing it because I hate trying to look down your nose and be like, “I’m fabulous and different. And you’re mediocre.” But I think it’s less about what we put on ourselves than what we put on other people. I mean, everybody’s always putting labels on other people all over the place.

Well, we always have to strive to bring our best, right?

Exactly! And to not get swept in with all the people who are telling you to be a certain way. Even the people who are writing terrible things on YouTube about anything that’s different or something they don’t like, as if to say, “You should do this because you’re a dick and this isn’t good.” It’s like, “Good for you!”

You have your own sound, but what singers and songwriters do you study or admire in terms of vocal phrasing and melodic approach?

I’m a huge Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin fan. I’m a Joni Mitchell fan. Jeff Buckley, Rollings Stones… I like classic shit the most. As far as what I like to emulate, it’s older shit, like Roy Orbison. I’m just impressed with singers who can evoke a mood and cut through. There’s an emotion in it that I get attached to.

With a lot of those artists, you get the feeling that music wasn’t a choice for them. They had to do it because they needed the outlet. They weren’t trying to be superstars.

There you have it. Every time you open your fucking mouth, these days, you have to validate yourself… and not even validate. Every time you put out a record, it’s like you’re saying, “Oh, I want to be famous.” How about, “I just have to fucking do this?!” How about, “I’d be doing it on a desert island if no one was around?!” That’s what it is. You can take fame and shove it up your ass. If you need me, I’ll be over here doing this shit. You know what I mean? And I don’t need your approval. I don’t give a fuck. It’s what I’m doing. And that’s what everybody was doing. I hope that’s what they were doing. I don’t know Robert Plant. Maybe he just wanted a lot of pussy, which I can’t blame the guy for. So do I. Everybody does. Everybody wants pussy, even those who don’t do pussy.

Speaking of…

Just to clarify, though, I’m only interested in one pussy, but I have to keep her happy. I don’t want to mislead people to think I’m doing it for a lot of different pussies. I just have to keep one of them happy and, if I can do that, then I’m good.

Along those lines, how does it feel to be a rising LGBT icon?

Ha! I think if you ever knew you were that, then it kind of defeats the whole purpose. I find it gross to dwell on that. Next question! (laughs)

I mean, it’s nice if everybody likes you. If I can be of any help to anybody to be who they are, then that just makes my life even better. I think people die every day of things that were caused by them not being who or what they wanted to be. So you should be whatever the fuck you want. And fuck all those douche bags in their basements on their computers telling you that you can’t be whatever you want.

It sometimes seems like the LGBT community probably serves as both a blessing and a curse, in different ways. Lifting icons up, but also heaping expectations on them. What sorts of pressures does that apply, above and beyond the normal stress of the music industry?

Like a responsibility to the gay community?

Yeah. Like with Ruby Rose’s “Break Free” video — she got some criticism from people who want that expression to be representative of everything to everyone, but she was only trying to convey her singular experience. And she suffered some backlash from the LGBT community for it, along with a lot of support, as well.

I didn’t see that. But, yeah, she doesn’t owe anybody anything. I think she’s right. Your duty in your life, beyond LGBT, is to be authentic to YOU. You can’t be all things and be an example for the entire world. There’s not enough time in the day. What are you going to do?

What we’ve done is, with the Internet and everything else, we’ve sped everything up and everybody wants things so fast. You know what? It takes a while to sing like I do. It takes a while to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix did. I’m not comparing myself to Jimi Hendrix. I’m just saying it takes a while to sing like Beyoncé. It takes a while to sing like anybody. And, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe some people are great at it out of the box. I don’t know. But what I do know is that the fucking Internet makes everything seem like it takes two seconds. But it still takes a long time to find yourself. Just because someone saw something on the Internet in two seconds, saw someone’s time-lapse, doesn’t mean it happened that way. It’s fucking hard. And if people can’t understand that… We’re in a fucking awkward period as far as how things have accelerated too quickly in too short a time. And a lot of people can’t handle it. And our psyches can’t handle it.

You know, someone makes something for a long, long time. And then some dick says something on the Internet and criticizes it. Do you know how long it took that person to do that? And they don’t even give a fuck. I’m not telling a sob story, but it’s sad. You can see it in a songwriting session. If you say something about someone’s idea or something they say, if they blurt out a title and you’re like, “Nah,” you can immediately feel this chemical release in the room. You just tore them down, you just said no to someone on a creative dream. Like, BOOM.

And that shuts them down.

Right. And think about all the people… let’s go back to LGBT land for a second… think about a kid who puts up a video of himself that’s maybe a little bit more femme-y than they usual are — a guy, let’s say — not to exclude the girls right now. But let’s say some kid puts up a video and lets a side of himself show that he doesn’t usually show. Then some dick comes along — and it took him the last six years to build up the balls to put this song on there — and some douche comes along and says, “Look at that faggot!” or whatever the fuck they say. And, then, BOOM, the poor kid who put six years of his development and growth toward freeing that part of himself goes, BAM, back inside again. So we’ve accelerated that process and it cuts really deep and it changes someone’s life in five seconds. It’s terrifying.

And, at the same time, we can work it for good, too. The flip side of that is that, in five seconds, you can make someone on their way to becoming a fucking star. That’s just the way it is.

The fear of “other” is very powerful. Something I’ve talked to both Linda Perry and Amy Ray about is the paradox of how the queer community embraces our otherness while simultaneously seeking equality. In your mind and life, are those ideas mutually exclusive or can they co-exist — can others be equals?

I think there is no way, to be honest. It’s the perseverance of the individual, at this point. I don’t think there’s a guarantee. But to keep being there is the only option. You keep being there and what are they going to do? Look at the women who have come before us, the women back in the day in the ’50s and ’60s when women and men were at gay bars dancing with their girlfriends and boyfriends, then they would get raided by the cops and they’d switch and dance with someone of the opposite sex so they didn’t get nailed. That all had to happen and all the other awful things had to happen.

What do they call they when they “fix” someone by raping them? This blows my fucking mind. But the fathers and brothers will rape the girl in their family if they are gay so they’ll stop her. WHAT?!? Even with that horrendous fucking possibility, you’re not going to stop girls from being gay. You know? Those girls are going to keep being gay until someone deals with it and they eventually get accepted, believe it or not. It just may take a very, very long time.

I’m always hyper-aware that my particular thing, in many countries, would never have reached where it is. This thing that I am in the world — I don’t want to block it into anything — but I know that it would never exist in a lot of countries. And I’m grateful to live in a place where it’s okay. Not even okay. I don’t give a fuck that it’s okay. But I haven’t gotten killed or raped yet, so that’s a plus.

As someone who both causes and bypasses gender discussions, what kinds of labels do people apply to you?

Well, I don’t know. I think I have a thing about me that stops people dead in their tracks as far as what they will and won’t say to me. I seem to have always had a thing like that. Because I don’t accept it. There’s a thing in me that says, “Stay back from that. You see what it is. You’re not fucking stupid. And, if you are stupid, then remain stupid. Be my guest. I have no judgment against you.” It’s fine. I’ve never had anyone go at me about it, to be honest with you, because I won’t have it.

You don’t give any energy to the negative stuff. You don’t seem to carry any shame or self-loathing. So, if someone comes at you with fear or judgment, it’s obviously all theirs.

Yeah, exactly. I feel like I give off an attitude of anything goes, with you, too. When I meet you, “Oh, yeah? You like that? You like to cheat on your wife? You like to have gang bangs? You like to dress up in a dress and fuck animals? Awesome. Great. Bring it. Do it. I want you to be happy.” I’m always like that. I’m not like, “Oh, geez, you fucking straight people.” I think if people would just let people be whatever the fuck they want, it would be a whole different world.

k.d. lang has said, when she’s performing, she wants both men and women to be attracted to her because “art transcends whatever tools you’re carrying” and the fantasy — whatever that might be — should take over. That seems to be your philosophy, too, yeah?

Yeah. I think so. My fan base varies so much. I can’t tell you how many men from 20 to 40 come up to me, genuinely, like fangirls. And I mean that in the nicest possible way! I’m deeply touched and flattered and grateful that these people come up to me. They are so amazing as far as the lack of pretense and they’re just into it. Whatever they’re from — age-wise or gender-wise — I 100 percent agree with her. I want them to feel nothing about my sexuality or my gender when they watch it. I just want them to feel something artistically or musically or emotionally.

Because I could be anything to them, you know? What are the clothes I wear or my hair style or whatever? I could be anything. I could go out right now and get some fucking dude, if I wanted to. I’m choosing this place. It’s like namaste — I honor that place in you that sees me and I see you. That’s all it is. I feel happy for the people who can free themselves of the confines of their ridiculous expectations and/or judgments to just appreciate any artist for what they are. I’m happy for them, to be honest with you.

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