Blonde Ambition: Is Lowell Ready for Her Close-up?

By: Scott Alic

Lowell is having a 2014 that any aspiring musical artist would kill for, and it was an act of murder that got her there. That unpleasantry out of the way, her eyes are set on the prize: fame as a female pop singer — but on her own terms.

In between the February release of her debut solo EP and her debut full-length We Loved Her Dearly on September 16 (both on Arts & Crafts), the Toronto-based 23-year-old, born Elizabeth Lowell Boland, has been interviewed by the New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone, and appeared in Nylon, MTV, NPR and Spin; she’s opening for Icona Pop on a tour of American universities later this month. Having faced age- and sexism in the record industry as a teenager and briefly being coerced into stripping, Lowell put herself back in control of her music and her life, killing off her stripper persona and writing hooky pop songs addressing sexual politics. No wonder she’s got the press confused and excited:

Rolling Stone, on album track “(I Love You) Money”: “Is it an anti-consumerist anthem or a pro-capitalist smash? Hey! Woo! Who cares!”[1]

Bitch Media’s Katie Presley on NPR: “There’s this Canadian misandrist cheerleader that I’m the most excited about. Her name is Lowell… does she want to make out with me or beat me up? I don’t care, whatever she wants from me I want to give it.”

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“That cloud looks like the overthrow of the male hegemony…”

Lowell’s bio already boasts improbable highs and lows, both personal and professional in nature, and no small amount of luck. Dropping out of the University of Toronto classical music program after a few months, Lowell, then 18, “went off the deep end with drugs”; she claims that people in the music industry manipulated her, “[luring me] into environments I wouldn’t normally succumb to.” Lowell turned briefly to stripping (under the stage name Sara Victoria)[2], an experience which, while brief, exposed Lowell to a universe of abused, addicted and subjugated women.

Lowell continued to write and record music, and it proved to be both her escape and salvation: pop demos that she had written on ukulele for VIA Rail’s “Artists on Board” program found their way into the hands of Ron Sexsmith’s manager, who passed them on to Swedish producer / songwriter Martin Terefe (Jason Mraz, KT Tunstall, and the ear-garbage that was Train’s massive hit “Hey Soul Sister”), who invited her to London to help her work on the second album by Apparatjik, the group composed of Terefe, Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman and members of A-ha and Mew. At 19, Lowell found herself writing alongside industry hitters like Sacha Skarbek (“Wrecking Ball”, James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful”). Feeling the pressure, Lowell claims to have delivered “the best songs they had heard in 10 years”, (although she has also written off her output from that time as “crappy pop shit.” The pinnacle of her London experience was landing a co-write on a bonus track on the last Backstreet Boys album[3]. Lowell ended up recording the If You Can, Solve This Jumble EP with Apparatjik (as Apparatjik & Lowell) in 2012; it’s a listenable collection of songs worth streaming. EP single “Shake Him Off”, which wouldn’t sound out of place on her debut album, described her struggles as a female singer in a male-dominated industry: “It had to do with meeting radio DJs that were always telling me to suck their dick for fame or whatever and I didn’t want to be a part of it.”

Lowell played one of her very first live performances to an audience of tens of thousands at that year’s Roskilde festival.

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Lowell plays the first birthday for Toronto radio station Indie 88, September 13, 2014.

Lowell returned to Toronto with her increasingly impressive CV, and in August 2013 she signed to local label Arts & Crafts. Her song “I Killed Sara V.”, written as a eulogy to the persona she had crafted as a stripper, became the title track of her five track EP, which was released in February. The album cover, featuring an illustration of a kitten jumping out from between a disembodied pair of women’s legs, was brazen if zero subtle. Leadoff track “Cloud 69”, features big production evoking a mash of Sleigh Bells, M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” and Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”, with a multitude of multitracked Lowells teasing “you bad bad boys” for your porn fantasies. “88” sounds like Karen O fronting Animal Collective synths at their sunniest, with a winningly catchy chorus hook. “The Bells” brings the mania down a little, adding elements one by one and letting them interweave until they’re firmly lodged in your brain. “Palm Trees” is Lowell at her most Lana del Rey: sun-dappled melancholy, retro reverbed organ and guitar. Finale “I Killed Sara V.” opens with a somber Emily Haines-esque piano riff, again building slowly over its six minutes as it paints a portrait of a desperation life in the underclass (though not without bathos).

The range exhibited by Lowell over the five (steadily-cooling) tracks of the EP points to a promising young talent, and the high-profile press that Lowell garnered since ratcheted up the anticipation for the full-length. Inevitable comparisons to Lorde and Grimes were raised, and these are apt: like Lowell, both Ella Yelich-O’Connor and Claire Boucher are outspoken advocates of feminism in a pop world where women are generally hypersexualized, and whose distinctive styles have met with success that have caught the record industry by surprise.

Lowell:  We Loved Her Dearly LP (Arts & Crafts)

Lowell: We Loved Her Dearly LP (Arts & Crafts)

Lowell’s new full-length, We Loved Her Dearly (the title of which comes from a lyric in “I Killed Sara V.”) pads the five EP tracks with another seven new songs which fall along the same range[4], from catchy radio-friendly singles to moodier, more sonically experimental numbers to offset these. Lowell has called the album “completely autobiographical”; while some of the new tracks refer to the singer’s stripper past, she now views this period as empowering: first single “I Love You Money” celebrates separating strip club patrons of their cash, and again bears a hyper-catchy sing-along chorus. Similarly “LGBT”, whose lyrics are Lowell’s most political and overt, has the potential to be a sleeper hit; it was inspired by Lowell’s guilt at not intervening over a bullying episode she witnessed in London. (Lowell has gone on the record as being bisexual.) “Summertime” is a ballad whose vocal melismatics bear too much resemblance to Grimes’ “Oblivion” to overlook.

Despite her grandiose ambitions, Lowell is most likely to succeed in indie pop for now, in that these ambitions are tempered by earnest but occasionally failed attempts at vocal virtuosity, and at following through on building a pop persona by coupling with striking visuals. Lowell’s lo-fi videos for the EP tracks are probably best avoided, while it’s difficult to watch the single-take video for “The Bells”, with the singer in photo-negative Goth bobby-soxer mode, incongruously wielding a baseball bat on a night-lit football field, in a choreographed routine with roller derby girls, cheerleaders, and a dancing gang of dudes in corpse paint[5], without being reminded of how much it invokes an inferior version of Emily Kai Bock’s video for “Oblivion.” Though Lowell rolls around on the pitch, pole-dances against the uprights, and works the camera to the best of her ability, she lacks the riveting presence that allows for a 3-minute video consisting of little more than gazes at the camera, or the guilelessness that made the clip for “Oblivion“ so watchable. In the latter, Claire Boucher is filmed singing her heart-swelling synth-pop song, which was informed by a past experience of rape, in the middle of various testosterone-driven environments (monster truck shows, football bleachers, locker-rooms, moshpits), never cowed by how incongruous it may seem to the crowds around her, and even managing to get the boys to join along.

In recent interviews, Lowell describes how she “could write a feminist anthem” that misogynists might still like. Given the strength of these early efforts, Lowell may develop into the subversive pop star she wants to be yet.

—————-

[1] Lowell has an answer for you there, RS: “It’s about being the queen of the room, enjoying taking men’s money.”

[2] And make what you might of this quote: “But then I got brought into this horrible world of pimping and all this stuff…”

[3] Er, the “Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Mexico and Target special edition” version of said album, that is.  She’s also written for Malaysian pop star Yuna, and the winner of the first season of Norway’s version of The Voice.

[4] The most negative review of the new album sees this as a sign that Lowell has already said all that she has to say as an artist. Note that Lorde initially released a 5-song EP (The Love Club) for free online (and with little artist information to accompany it, a strategy she adopted from The Weeknd), although only one of those tracks made it onto the Pure Heroine LP (It was called “Royals”).

[5] …that look as though they were cut from THE WARRIORS but are probably called the Skeletors.

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