From robotic internet kid to her new grunge-inflected sound, Poppy‘s story is utterly unique – and she’s finally ready to tell it.
Words: El Hunt. Photos: Frank W Ockenfels III
It has always been hard to tell where the persona of Poppy stops, and the thoughts of her creator, Moriah Rose Pereira, begin. In her earliest appearances, Poppy was undoubtedly an artistic creation – her soft, high-pitched voice sounded like a soothing and slightly unsettling ASMR video distilled into a vial of sleeping potion, and her music both celebrated and satirised pop music. When interviewers asked personal questions, Poppy skillfully dodged them – whenever she was asked where she grew up, she would reply: “the internet”. Looking back, the whole thing felt like a pointed comment on both privacy, and the parts of us we choose not to share.
This act has gradually softened over the years, but still, following Poppy’s every move, you’ll find swathes of listeners speculating about whether the musician is still in character. When she answers the phone today with a hint of Tennessee twang, she certainly doesn’t seem to be – there’s no hint of the hypnotic voice present in the star’s early YouTube videos, which showed her holding court with a basil plant and satirising predictable interviewers in saccharine monotone. “The hint of my accent hasn’t subsided entirely,” she quips, describing her memories of growing up in Nashville. We speak about Poppy’s family, her childhood passion for dance and roller-skating, and the video games she’s been playing with her fiance Eric – who makes music as Ghostemane – during lockdown. Her openness catches me off guard. Has the real Poppy finally come to the phone?
“I never really think of it as a persona,” Poppy shrugs, reflecting on her past iterations. “People are wearing a mask no matter what.”
Persona or not, we’re certainly in a very different era of Poppy these days – last month saw the release of a grunge-flecked new single. While previous releases toyed playfully with rock influences and set them against crisp, glimmering pop melodies, ‘Her’ goes full pelt, and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hole record. Produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen – known for his work with Paramore, Wolf Alice and Nine Inch Nails, among others – the spiky comeback moment is accompanied by a dystopian stop-motion video in which robotic singers are cranked out of a production line and forced to perform. It’s the first glimpse of a forthcoming new album which takes influence from the heavier end of the sonic spectrum, and explores the idea of “accepting uncertainty in your life and not being afraid of the unknown.” Though there are no featured collaborations “there are people who have lent their skills to making some of the album,” Poppy hints cryptically.
For her next record, Poppy has also recruited a live band – who she’ll also be taking out on tour – and in comparison to her robotic beginnings, it’s set to be an album centred around “real humans playing human music”.
“It was Justin’s idea to have the band all record together in a room,” she says. “I was driving in my car with my cat around LA, and he called me and was like: ‘What do you think about this idea?’. It had this warmth and togetherness and live element,” she enthuses. “It was a pretty wonderful feeling to be by the mixing board with Justin and Mike, the engineer, and hear it happening. I was getting chills, this is exciting.”
Hang on – driving…around…with your cat? “Yeah,” Poppy confirms. “Pi is his name – he’s very well socialised, and looking for world domination. He started opening doors a couple of months ago and enters rooms on his own. He’s also trained to use the restroom and he’s very communicative about his needs. When we were recording in the studio, he was there and made everything so much happier. He was just walking around trying to jump inside the kick drum.”
A decade before the arrival of YouTube, Poppy was born in Boston in the mid-nineties before moving to Nashville when she was young. As a kid, she’d play junior roller-derby, but stopped after an injury: “it scared me a little bit because I knew I wanted to do music,” she explains. She and her sister often went record shopping together, and on one trip, Poppy stumbled across the Chicago indie band Veruca Salt. “I was maybe eight or nine years old, and bought ‘American Thighs’ purely because of the album art,” she recalls. “I was attracted to it for that reason. It has a dress and hearts on the cover, and when I bought it, I was like: wow, what is this? That’s always been a significant album for me.”
Arguably, Poppy has always done a similar thing with her music – drawing listeners in with swathes of pastel candy floss, before gripping them with strange, blooping pop music. “Get up, put my makeup on, I know it’s time to go,” she sings on ‘Make A Video’ from her 2017 debut album ‘Poppy.Computer’, “sing along to a dumb pop song that they play on the radio”. The following year, ‘Am I A Girl?’ explored similar themes with a more menacing bite – while 2020’s ‘I Disagree’ pulled from heavier metal and alternative rock. On that record’s opener ‘Concrete’ Poppy appears to kill off her previous era atop overwrought, squalling guitar solos and flowery, orchestral interludes: “bury me six-foot deep,” she deadpans, “cover me in concrete”. Though Poppy insists that this tension between lightness and darkness is instinctive – ”I don’t set out to be like ‘I’m going to do this’ she says – she admits that she’s drawn in these directions on a “subconscious” level. “I’m very aware of how I perceive or consume or digest things from other people, and I think subconsciously people that are attracted to my works view it similarly as well,” she says.
Poppy’s home state of Tennessee has the highest number of megachurches per capita in the entire US – these mammoth places of worship often have thousands in their congregations, and often broadcast their sermons on TV in a practice known as Televangelism. Growing up in a city woven with religious threads eventually led Poppy to found her own Poppy Church – a virtual world for fans.
“It’s always been a topic that has been multi-layered for me,” she says. “It’s never something that can be black and white, and it’s always something that I struggled finding my interpretation and meaning with. I always found it kind of ironic that some of the people who hurt me the most in my life were people that were extremely religious. It has always been a frustration – there’s something perverse about someone who portrays themselves as being pure, and the contradiction, the juxtaposition and the thought that there’s always something darker underneath something that looks so concise and pristine… that’s what I think about often.”
Though Poppy Church bolted its doors shut a couple of years ago, the artist hopes to bring back a similar space where her fans can connect with each other in the future. Though she guards the finer details closely, the project involves a new app “to bring people together”. Is she so sick of social media at this point that she’s decided to create her own friendlier alternative? “That’s why I’m making my own application – so I can go on it!” she says. “Worlds that are happy and cute, that’s always been consistent – I like to perpetuate that.”
Poppy’s new album is also her first since parting ways with her former collaborator Titanic Sinclair – in a statement on social media, the artist claimed she was subjected to “manipulative patterns” of behaviour. Though she doesn’t refer to him by name during our conversation, she pointedly mentions the idea of breaking free from “people that have been like a ball and chain or a negative force,” and seems liberated by the freedom of this new chapter.
The visuals for new single ‘Her’ certainly seem to allude to these past events; a devilish figure sits on a throne and claps as a series of identikit puppets roll off a musical conveyor belt. “Give her a face, give her a name, that isn’t hers, then make her yours,” she snarls on the song. “It’s based on people’s perspective of how things were,” she says of the song. “Did I feel like I was controlled? Or did people perceive me as being controlled?”
For Poppy, it’s the latter – in the past, fans would speculate about the degree of influence Sinclair held over Poppy, but the suggestion that he was controlling her every move, she says, proved frustrating. “When it comes to writing these songs, it’s very much me, and it always has been,” she says. Though she always felt in creative control, she wishes she had set the record straight sooner. “It was always frustrating but I went with it, and that’s where the fault is – you should never go along with something, you should correct it and call it out and address what it is. That’s something that I learned and nobody else can really teach you. That’s part of growing up and learning, and taking back your power and taking control of the situation.”
Growing up, Poppy’s parents were music fans – her mum introduced her to David Bowie – but they didn’t always understand Poppy’s ambitions. Though it’s commonly reported that Poppy signed her first record deal aged twenty, she was actually seventeen. “They were always kind of kept at bay and pushed aside when I was at the very early stages of doing this because it was just too difficult to explain,” Poppy says of her parents, “and I still don’t do a very good job of explaining it. I wouldn’t say they were the most supportive, initially.”
“There’s such an ideal for people at record labels to sign people that are very young, ‘cos they don’t have a ton of confidence, and they’re very easy to prey upon, to mould, and to shape,” Poppy says. “My parents were very uninvolved in anything that I had relating to music, and it actually worked in my favour to some degree [because] I didn’t have somebody pushing me to sign. That’s the unfortunate thing about the music industry,” she says, “it’s made up of a bunch of predatory men.”
The current conversation around Britney Spears’ conservatorship has prompted a number of artists to post about the record deals they signed early in their careers: last month, the musician Raye posted candidly about the pain of signing to a major label since 2014, and being unable to release a debut album. Having signed to a major at a young age, the conversation resonates with Poppy too. “ When I think back to that time, I think of it as being very dark, very sad, very depressing,” she says. “I was very stuck. Nobody helped me. Somehow, I was able to get out, but I signed a very bad deal with very bad people. It’s really sad how predatory the industry is, and I’m glad the Britney story is shedding a light on some things. It’s terrible she has to even go through that.”
Now signed to the Washington D.C based indie label Sumerian Records, Poppy got the last laugh by scoring a Grammy nomination for ‘BLOODMONEY’ this year – a track from ‘I Disagree’ which calls out greedy, controlling figures at the helm of the music industry. And wiping the slate clean for her forthcoming album, you sense that Poppy has arrived in a space where she’s able to move forward, entirely on her own terms. “I believe that music is very healing whether you listen to it or create it,” she says, “and that’s always been a thread throughout my life. If you’re honest the right people will be magnetised towards it.
“I’ve been able to dive deeper into myself and fall in love with the things I’ve always loved again,” she concludes. “I’m finding my way back to who I’ve always been.”
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