Lowell examining some tasty trash at SXSW and the cover of her new EP. (Photo via Lowell’s Instagram)
SXSW has changed a great deal in its 27 years. For most of two decades, the country’s largest urban music festival had a reputation for leaving the big name stars to other circuits, and centered itself around showcasing up-and-coming artists who were looking to be signed while they were in town. These days SXSW is the big name, and this year the lineup was crammed with acts like Jay-Z, Coldplay, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga, interspersed with the up-and-comers. Changed as it seems, now, though, the element of discovery is far from gone. Of the more than 2,200 bands that play here over the course of 5 days every year, most are small or unknown, and many will play their biggest and most prestigious venues to date while in Austin.
My aim each year is to dive into anything new and exciting I can get my ears on. This year I was especially excited about Lowell, a Toronto-based garage pop singer who is releasing her first full-length album this summer. I gushed about Lowell to NPR before the festival got underway, and got to make good on my adoration when I sat down to talk to the musician who has been dominating my playlist for months.
I suspected Lowell was my people when I first heard her unstoppable anthem “Cloud 69,” but I knew it for sure when her PR folks gave me this advice on spotting her in the bar where we arranged to meet: look out for somebody in a cheetah-print sweatsuit. The fantastic, attention-grabbing outfit was fitting for a singer whose music and stage presence are self-serving in all the best ways. Lowell is in it for herself; her own empowerment, her own betterment, and her own revolution. “Cloud 69” is a raucous piece of dirty pop, but it’s also revealing, and speaks to much of the restorative, challenging work Lowell has set out to do with her music.
Lowell has been in music in some form since early childhood, studying and playing classical music until the end of high school, and then majoring in Vocal Performance at the University of Toronto briefly before leaving school. Soon after dropping out, she says she started stripping under coercion from local pimps. Three years ago, she cut ties with everyone in the scene she says she “didn’t choose” and started working as a stripper on her own terms. “Until that point, I didn’t know how cool I was,” she says. “People were ready to pounce on me, and I realized I was smarter than every one of them. Now I don’t take shit. Ever.”
Lowell’s debut EP I Killed Sara V. is rife with the rowdy sex-positive attitude she culled as a result of stripping independently, alongside her frustrations with cultural shaming of sex workers. “It’s an autobiographical story,” she says of the record. “It’s about that situation and other situations where I’ve been victimized by men, and it’s about after the fact, when I started working for myself and felt like I could take on anybody.”
The title of the EP speaks to her dual messages of fury and unflappable confidence: Sara V. was Lowell’s name when she worked as a stripper. Her performance, too, combines blatant sexuality with, as Lowell describes it, “not being afraid to be hideous.” She’s an irresistible performer, and her self-assured message of entitlement to oneself and one’s desires is a balm to my weary, pop-exhausted soul.
Related Reading: My 17 Favorite Female-Fronted Bands from SXSW.
Katie Presley writes about books and music, tweets about everything else, and lives in Austin, Texas.