When I saw Lowell perform in a small bar/sandwich shop in Portland last week, I left feeling both sweaty and lucky. The small venue had been packed with people dancing to Lowell’s catchy beats—the Toronto-based performer filled the place with such energy and power that I’ll bet a lifetime supply of sandwiches the next time she comes through town, it will be on a sold-out international tour. Lowell is an energetic and astoundingly sincere musical force whose songs match contagious electronic pop melodies with haunting, punchy lyrics. After time spent ghostwriting for other acts, Lowell wrote, co-produced, sang, and played many of the instruments on her first full-length album, We Loved Her Dearly, which debuted last week on Canadian label Arts & Crafts.
Unlike many rising pop stars who feel pressure to carefully craft simplistic public personas, Lowell is outspoken about her complicated identity as an openly bisexual 22-year-old feminist who worked as a stripper before finding her way in the music industry. While music critics are quick to brand her a “rebel,” Lowell says the truth is much more interesting: she’s a human who loves herself and happens to be an incredibly determined musician.
Here’s the video for her single “The Bells” and our interview.
SARAH MIRK: So told me downstairs that when you were a kid and playing Truth or Dare, you would always choose truth.
LOWELL: Yeah, I would pick truth. Because it is more difficult. Dares are just a physical thing. You just do it and then it’s done. Truth you have to look within yourself and see things you don’t want to see and then say them out loud to other people. That is challenging and I love a challenge, so I pick truth.
Your new album came out last week and it seems like the “story” that headlines have been telling about it centers on your past as a stripper. How do you feel about that reception? Did you know that would happen when you focused some of your songs around stripping?
I was aware that that would be a possibility. I actually didn’t bring it up right away. It’s funny because it’s a small part of a really large, broad story, but I’m not gonna pretend that I expected people to ignore the story and not write about it. Some journalists have done a great job of only writing it as only 20 percent of the story, which is more fair. I didn’t do it to get attention, but because it was important to get it out there. I think that it’s important that I have confidence in myself and my personality and in who I am as a woman. I wanted to put this dark thing out there because I wanted people to evaluate me properly and see that someone who has made mistakes or not even mistakes—that someone who has been a victim of things can also be intelligent and respectable.
You’ve said in other interviews that you were initially manipulated into becoming a dancer and you have only rather recently started to talk about that part of your life. When people are like, “So you worked as a dancer,” what’s the story you tell?
Well, I don’t tell it often because people never really ask. I feel they are just like “Oh you did that? Cool. I’m cool with that,” and then change the subject. I’ve had people sort of ask me questions here and there, but I never really get around to telling the full story. I’m happy to tell it to anyone. It’s something that you can sort of glorify because there are people that have come out and have been like, “I was dancing.” Like Kathleen Hanna, for example, who is someone I look up to a lot. I’m really grateful for her because she’s paved a path so I can say, “I was a stripper,” and people won’t be as judgmental with me as they probably would have been when she came out. So I’m really appreciative of that, but it also sort of allows people to generalize the situation and be like, “Okay, so it’s like Kathleen Hanna,” which it’s not. I was manipulated into it, like you said. Some people came along and got me into it. They approached me as someone who was young and vulnerable and took advantage of me in that way. I was really ashamed of that after the fact. Now I’m not, because I’m aware of the vulnerability that all people have. For some reason, at the time I felt that I was so stupid for getting myself into the situation. Now I look back and I’m like, “Wow, I was going through a really rough time and someone did something really shitty to me and they brought me into a shitty world.” Fortunately, I was able to come out of that and I’m proud of that and I continued dancing and did it in the fun way. I was stripping for music and made lots of money and sort of empowered myself that way.
We have an image in our society for what “stripper” means and what “stripper” looks like, so people will assume that’s your story, too. I’m not sure whose job it is to tell people the truth.
Sometimes I feel the responsibility to do that because I’m really passionate about the idea that we’re all humans and we need to stop making generalizations. But when I think about it harder, it’s not really my job, it’s everyone’s job to sit and think a little bit harder about the way that they approach people. It’s everyone’s job to reevaluate what their guidelines are for what makes a good person. What I’m trying to do is be like, I was roofied once and I’ve been raped and I was a stripper, not in a magical fantastical way like you think I might have been, and I am also a really loving person and am really smart and am probably a musical genius and you should probably think about that. I’m awesome and you should just deal with that and move on with your life and think about other things, like what you’re doing and how to be the best person you can be.
That’s great. I think it takes a lot of people a lot of time to get to that point.
To not apologize?
Yeah, to not apologize for what you’re good at. To feel like you can have multiple identities and think that you’re great, despite parts of you’re maybe not proud of.
It’s ridiculously hard for me. I don’t want it to be hard, but it is. People as a whole are too judgmental sometimes.
If it’s too hard to tell us the full story about that part of your life, how does it start?
It started with a girlfriend that I met that sort of started talking me up to this thing. She was like, “Oh, you’ve got to try dancing.” I think I was working some shitty job and making like $8 an hour. Actually getting sexually harassed at work by my boss, which was annoying in itself. I was probably like 17 and this girl came along and was like, “This is great, you’re going to love it” and I tried it and it was fine. I made a lot of money and it didn’t feel that different from the job I was working, I was just making more money.
What was it like? I think a lot of people sort of talk about stripping in our culture, but you don’t actually get to hear what the reality is.
I mean it was kind of scary at first. I was really super young. Money is an amazing thing. It’s part of our politics and our everyday life, but it is also super scary what it can do to you. The first day, I think I went home and cried, but I also had $800 in my hand for working for four hours. So there was kind of a weird feeling of wondering whether I wanted to go back and I guess the money in my hand overpowered whatever I was feeling—confusion, sadness, feeling slightly degraded in a way. But the money made me feel powerful. I think, especially at that age, I didn’t have a lot of money and everyone that has more money than you has power over you in some sort of way. So having that in my hand made me feel somewhat great. So I went back and slowly just became numb to it and it was okay. There were a lot of weird situations and strange things I saw working there that no one really talks about and that was at first traumatizing. As I got older, I just started observing in a different, more passive way, I started to become more fascinated with it.
At the end of your dancing, you said that you felt better about it, like you were doing it in some sort of empowered way. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, for sure. When I was working for myself, everything changed. I had sort run away to Toronto and started working alone. Suddenly, I was back to that point from the first week I had started dancing—I was pulling all the money I could get every day and it felt amazing because I was the manipulator. I would manipulate these guys and take every last penny that they had. I had all the cards. Those people were there because they needed me and I had the ability to take everything from them. I would walk people to an ATM and watch them take cash that they did not have from their Visa. I enjoyed taking this thing from them and knowing that they would come back the next day and I could do that again. It felt great because I had been on the other side of that for a while. Suddenly, I was the one on top. I’m not saying it was the right thing, but it was good feeling and I think you can see parallels in anytime someone is oppressed for long enough, they are the ones who are going to want to come on top and be the oppressor.
So you worked in that industry for a couple years and in the meantime were making music on the side. Can you tell me about how you started making music and what it felt like having those two things in your life at the same time?
Yeah, I think music was the only thing that kept me together. I mean part of the thing that lured me to it in the first place was music—I wanted to pay for recordings and to travel. So I kept making music while I was there and I would write in the morning and as soon as I got home. I started writing a bit about what I was seeing and my own personal emotions. Music was what kept me feeling legitimate, I think. It was the end that justified the means. So I kept writing and recording and then working to pay for recordings and I sort of felt okay about what I was doing.
Eventually your music wound up in the hands of someone who was pretty influential in the music industry and they brought you to London to try out songwriting. Can you tell me what it’s like to show up suddenly in England and try out being a songwriter?
It was amazing and then also really scary because of where I had been. When I got to London, I was so afraid of going back to where I was that I just told myself I couldn’t fail. I worked extremely hard. I put an insane amount of pressure on myself whenever I met somebody and wrote with them. It was extremely important to me to be the absolutely best writer they had ever written with in their life.
What was the situation there like? Were you brought in by a music company for a testing period or something like that?
It’s not really a testing period, you just are set up with various writers that are super successful and you write with them for a day. You wouldn’t call it a testing period, but if they liked writing with you, they would be like, “Let’s write again!” And if they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t ask you back. I basically had two options. Get invited back or don’t. So I made sure I was invited back.
Can you walk me through how this process actually worked? Did you show up in the morning at some fancy loft with coffee and not be able to leave for ten hours?
Yeah, that sounds about right. We were in this amazing writing camp that has this perfect courtyard and is super quant and British and creative. There are bands all around you and you go up to the kitchen and make yourself a coffee. There’s even a cook that makes you breakfast. I was pretty much homeless at the time, so I was sleeping at the studio. So I would just get out of bed, stretch my arms, and go and get some coffee and have breakfast made for me. It was utopia. I would then walk downstairs to the person I was writing with and we would just get lost in music and making weird noises. We would probably start at 10 and end at 10. We loved doing that, I still love doing that.
At this time, you were not writing songs for yourself, you were writing songs for other people and other bands. How do you sit down at a table with a pile of words and turn it into a song?
I think you try your very best to be selfless and empathize, which is something I think we learned how to do quickly. If you’re writing for someone else, you have to learn how to understand what that person is, who that person is, and why they’re that way and therefore predict where they want to be in a year because that’s when the record comes out. It takes a lot of ability to empathize. I think that is really just the key to life. In that scenario, that was the key to co-writing.
So this past week your first album of your own came out. Tell me about the process of writing that album and how writing a song for yourself is different than writing a song for someone else.
I think with this record, it’s such a deep-rooted story of my brain that I’ve been writing it my whole life. But I guess because of that and because it’s a really personal story, it’s probably harder to write for myself. It’s so important to me that what I come out with is a proper representation of who I am. If you’re picking out an outfit for yourself, you care a lot more about every little tiny wrinkle in that article of clothing. There might be a stain on the back of the collar that only you would notice, but no one else will know. It’s sort of the same when you’re writing your own record. It’s so important to you the way you are perceived by other people. I’m not saying that’s right, but in this case, this record meant so much to me. It meant everything that I am right now. So I guess it needed to be perfect for everyone else, but also just for me so that I could feel that peace. And I really feel that way. I feel like it’s a great record and I’m super proud of it. It also represents me being proud of every single mistake I’ve ever made and how I’ve overcome it. Writing for other people is easier because it’s more like problem solving and it’s more mathematical in it’s own way. Let’s take a line from this song, this song, and this song, and in a week it will be a number one hit. Mine is a diary, it represents vulnerability and achievement within myself.
I really like a lot of the songs on the album. Can you walk me through the process of writing “I Love You Money,” which has been the biggest hit in in the US so far?
I wrote that one really recently. That was the second-to-last song I wrote on the record and I wrote it thinking about the great part of dancing. Also, outside of dancing, just the great part of every now and then feeling bigger than another person. It’s not that I think it’s right to squash people because I don’t feel like that at all. I don’t feel rebellious, I always want to lift people, but it represents the emotion of wanting to do that sometimes, when you feel like you’ve been put down. I woke up one morning feeling really secretly evil. I woke up feeling like, “I’m so badass.” When I write, it spews out really quickly. I had that emotion and then I finished writing the song in five minutes.
You woke up feeling like “I am so evil and badass right now” and then you wrote a song in five minutes?
That actually is pretty badass. What line did you start with?
My “no no no no no no no” which was just my own personal anti-rape campaign in my brain, of it being okay to say “no,” of that being a legitimate thing. Also, that line “I love you money, do you love me too?” because I was feeling really proud of myself for not having a crush on anyone and not wanting anything.
When you sing it now, which you’ll have to do over and over and over again, does it take you back to that feeling? Or do you feel like it’s so silly to be singing about how much you love money?
I don’t feel like it’s silly, it’s supposed to be playful. I always feel awesome when I play that song or when I listen to it. I enjoy the fact that I can write about whatever I want to. I’ve had pressures in the past to be a certain type of artist. I think, especially as a woman, the men who dominate the music industry want to hear songs about them, so it feels great always to sing that song because it’s not about them. It’s about me and making money and them giving me their money. I’m don’t hate men, but I hate that part of music and society where I feel pressures to write songs about love when I’m not even really feeling those feelings or to write songs about being so sexual when I’m not feeling sexual that day. This song just sits on its own in its own little pocket that has nothing to do with any of those things.
We talk a lot about how the music industry is male-dominated, but what are times when you feel that pressure? How does that come down on you as an artist or a writer?
I come across things every single day. It’s so complex and I don’t even know how to sum it up in an answer. It starts with walking into a room with only male songwriters where they’ve immediately decided why they value me being there: that I’m a woman and there aren’t a lot of women ghostwriters. I’ve never worked with a female ghostwriter ever and I’ve probably worked with 35 or 40 ghostwriters, maybe more. So I’m a new thing to them. I come into a room and they immediately are excited that I’m there because a) I’m a female perspective for a song. That isn’t a fair judgment to make because I consider myself kind of unisex. I think I know what a girl wants from a guy just as much as I know what a guy wants from a girl. That’s not what I should be valued for—I’m an extremely good songwriter. Second, they’re excited to have a female voice because they love the sound of a pretty female voice. I’m proud of my voice and I’m capable of making really pretty sounds with my voice, but I’m also capable of making nasty, weird, unpleasant, challenging sounds with my voice. That’s something that’s great about me and I shouldn’t have to limit myself to one thing because of my sex. Nirvana is allowed to scream and people will love it. But if I’m doing that, it feels like people want me to take it back a notch. The other hilarious thing is that if I step outside of the pretty melody thing, I’m labeled a rebel. That’s what I’ve kind of been labeled as: the “pop rebel.” I really don’t think I’m a rebel in any way! I think I’m just a good musician.
I see that as people wanting to sum up your personality in some simple way. They’re looking for a label, a headline, something iconic. It’s a way to simplify who you are into something people feel comfortable with and can understand, rather than just, like, “That’s Lowell. She’s really good at music.”
I think people definitely want to sum you up and I understand that, I’m Lowell, the wolf-pack-leader-rebel-stripper-girl. Sure, cool, if you want to read more about me you can, there’s more than that. But I think it’s not too far-fetched to say that the label of rebel shouldn’t be there for me. I’m not even rebellious. I’m not like throwing trash on the ground and spray-painting things.
Is that what rebels do? Throw trash on the ground?
Yeah! They wear leather! I’m like, everyone is wonderful and I want everyone to be happy and gay rights are awesome because its just love and everyone should love each other. I’m like, I was sexually abused and I’m coming out as that in an honest way because I believe that humanity can be better and if I’m honest about this, maybe someone else can be, too. I’m not being rebellious, I’m just being human.
Related Reading: Music writer Katie Presley profiled Lowell during SXSW last year.
Sarah Mirk is Bitch’s online editor. She dances pretty ridiculously at shows.