California-born Penelope Scott may not technically be as new as some of the other artists featured in The Future Five; she’s self-released a couple of records already and built up a solid cult fanbase that temporarily went overground when 2020 single ‘The Rät’ scored a viral TikTok moment (it’s currently been streamed more than 243 million times on Spotify). But with the release of late-2023 double EP ‘Mysteries For Rats’/ ‘Girls Night’, there’s been a surge of interest, particularly on UK shores, that suggests the 24-year-old could be heading into her biggest year yet.
Split into two halves that she describes as going “from acoustic to buck-wild”, Scott’s music contains several sub-genres within the same artist. Sometimes, it’s ramshackle, Moldy Peaches-like indie-folk. Sometimes, it’s laptop-based and hyperpop-adjacent. Throughout, the singer’s densely-packed, witty lyrical style gives the impression of a busy mind popping the cork and letting all of their thoughts and feelings free – warts and all.
It’s a combination that’s like little else around right now, so we nabbed the singer for a chat in which she proved to be just as articulate and amusing as we’d hoped.
Did you grow up around a lot of music? What was playing in the house when you were young?
I don’t want to imply that my parents have better music taste than other people’s parents, but often I’m shocked to find that not everybody has parents with cool music taste! Of course I’m biassed, but I do in hindsight feel like growing up with parents who had a lot of feelings and opinions about music, and were playing things in the car that I thought were good was a big deal. For them to say, ‘This song rocks’ and turn it up, and for the song to actually rock – all of that definitely had a major effect. My mum had a real Gwen Stefani phase. Both my parents were really into Garbage.
Were your listening tastes more in that alternative, guitar world when you were younger, then?
I think so, yeah. But also a genre that I don’t know how to describe other than ‘shithead California music’ – and I don’t mean to be insulting to the artists – but just stuff that’s always on the radio in California. Constant Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cake, Weezer, all the California stuff. That kind of almost ironic, cool, mellow, laidback guitar music.
Yet your music seems very honest and confessional – it’s funny but not necessarily in an ironic way. Where do you see it sitting in that spectrum?
I honestly feel like music right now, we’ve had really straightforward music, and we’ve also had ironic, ‘I don’t even care’ sassy music, and now – especially in hyperpop – we have the truth within the irony in music. People are saying ‘I don’t care’ and ‘I’m just being fun’ and then if you listen, there’s something there where you’re saying you’re joking but it isn’t a joke. I think that is really powerful in an artistic way.
Is it a certain headspace that you write most prolifically in?
There can be lots of moods. So for [recent EP] ‘Girls Night’, on ‘Runaway’ I started to get the idea on a really long road trip from the Pacific North West area, south. I had an idea for a melody and I wasn’t really frothing with hate, I was just in the car! But ‘Gross’, I wrote after a series of ridiculous, dramatic happenings. ‘Gross’ and ‘Cabaret’, I wrote really intentionally – these were ones where I was still feeling feisty about something and I needed to process it.
‘Cabaret’ seems to be about not being understood artistically, about being underestimated…
It was definitely based originally on a very specific petty event, and part of the joke of the song is that I’m obviously blowing it out of proportion. But when I think about where that rage comes from, I think what it’s really a song about is a sense of real ownership and pride over your artistic worth and the fact that you want to have the right to take your work and your thoughts really seriously. I think there is something feminine about it, there is some level of gendered scorn here where you’re talking to someone who you want all sorts of things from – this is a friend, a man you want companionship and validation from – and in order to get those things, sometimes in casual conversation you’re going to be asked to not take your art seriously. I just thought it was really fun to try on this persona of someone who is genuinely willing to have a fight about that.
Your music doesn’t shy away from the emotions that often, especially as women, we’re told not to show – jealousy, bitterness, resentment. How does the Penelope on record relate to IRL Penelope in that way?
The content and imagery of the songs is very down to artistic meddling, but I don’t lie about having had a certain feeling. When I’m talking about a feeling in a song, I’m being very honest in that way. And I think there’s a real freedom and catharsis in being able to take a feeling based on what might be a very feminine experience and just blow it up to be huge. To short answer the question: the feelings are very real.
There’s a lot of humour to your writing too, are you influenced by comedians and people outside of music?
Definitely comedians, for sure. I have seen A LOT of stand up comedy. I’ve never really been in a band and most of my musical experience of performing live came from piano recitals, talent shows and choir; very formal, institution-led, team sport music. So when I started to go on tour and play shows live, alone, in a band-like setting, I really had no experience at all hosting and performing a show by myself and the only model I had for how to do a one-person show was stand-up comedy.
People have called some of your music hyperpop – does that sit right?
I think that’s not quite the right label because I’m not making music that pushes the limits of production and pop as its primary thing. I’m using computers to make music I would be making if I was in a band, and then maybe I’ll add in elements of hyperpop. Going forward though I would like to draw more on hyperpop performance tips and tricks because I’ve not yet figured out what to do when the song is playing and I’m not singing. I’ve done ridiculous stunts to try and fill that time – there was the bottle-flip era where, during a long instrumental, I’d try and flip a water bottle by the end of the break. Like, what am I doing…
If that’s not entertainment, we don’t know what is.
Me holding a bottle that’s half empty, flipping it in front of a crowd screaming, ‘ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!!’
Take our money! What one thing are you most excited for in 2024?
I’m most excited to pivot into a new kind of promotional content – I’m trying to revamp how I do it. I got off TikTok and have been AWOL for a couple of years but now I’m talking to my team about making short films or creating a set to talk through making the songs, and now I’m talking to more visually creative people about that, I think it could be really cool.
Get to know more of this year’s Future Five