A couple of weeks ago I was up on a stage. This is not particularly wild news - I'm on stages pretty often. This stage in particular was long and slim, bathed in light, situated on the Lower East Side in New York, and was surrounded by my first American audience.
I played that night to a few hundred people and I gave them everything I had. I had fun - lots of it. People said afterwards that it was good. I was speaking to a journalist from The New Yorker recently and he told me he'd overheard something in the VIP section of that first show.
A silver-haired record company guy had pointed at me, up there onstage, and said slowly to his friend, "Lots of zeroes." I laughed at this. The journalist said, kind of rueful: "Nothing but a spreadsheet with hair." Quite a lot has happened to me, if we take things back pre hirsute, statistical brilliance.
You probably know all about that - most interviews tell the story of my intermediate school talent show performance being filmed and sent to Universal Music, and the subsequent development deal, and the EP written in my school holidays with Kids of 88 contributor Joel Little. You can find out where I live, and go to school, and which famous people have talked about me on Twitter. That's the how and the what of it, I guess -the sped-up version of my involvement in music.
So here I am. Or maybe I'm not here. At the time of you reading this I'll be in another country, on another stage, or in a car with my head out the window, or laughing in the aisle seat of a plane. You could say it's all a bit of a whirlwind, but I hate those stupid clichés so I'll just tell you a bit about what I do, and what it's like, and if you want to use the word whirlwind, or rollercoaster, that's up to you.
I wasn't expecting the Love Club EP to do what it's doing. Not by a long shot. To see it in the top 10 on iTunes in the United States is one of those ludicrous things I'll never get used to. I remember getting 10,000 plays on SoundCloud in the first few days of it being up, and tweeting Joel about it. I used the word booya. Look at us now. I think what's crazy about the success of that EP is the selfishness of it all. Songwriting is selfish - I make music for myself, using it as an outlet, something to fulfill my creative desires - yet the rewards of deciding to write something can keep an artist going for a lifetime, can whip me across datelines, throw me under lights.
I constantly ponder the absurdly cool nature of this. It's personal, and private, writing songs, until you release them. Then they stop being this internalised thing, as people start to live inside them and give them different meanings. There's a changing of hands. They aren't just my secret thoughts any more. That too, is crazy to me - that I can write about moments of complete pain, or fear, or joy, and feel overwhelmed by the starkness of what I'm saying, even when I'm the only one hearing it.
Yet letting the world have it, and understand it, and like it? Or love it? It's a sort of magic, really. A weird magic. One of the things I find most challenging, after making art, is trying to keep that art as pure as possible. Sometimes it can be hard not to let record company dudes turn things to crap. Or bad stylists, or music video directors who don't get it, or whatever. Everyday I turn down countless requests from TV shows and brands and films that want to use my music to sell their product, because I don't feel that they're right.
If I'd granted every sandwich chain and skincare brand and coming-of-age blockbuster use of my songs, I'd probably be a millionaire. But I'm extremely fussy. A while ago I watched a clip of Patti Smith (eternal queen of cool in my eyes) relay this thing William S Burroughs had said to her. He said, "Build a good name for yourself, because eventually that will become your currency."
That has always stuck with me, and every step that I've taken since I signed my development deal has been to ensure I am exactly who I want to be, perceived how I'd like to be perceived. Like I said, this isn't the easiest thing in the world. I'm a teenager, and I'm a girl, and those are factors that can stand in the way of maintaining control. I've had more people than I can count talk to my manager in meetings instead of me, like it doesn't matter what I think. This usually lasts all of 10 minutes, until I insert the kind of dry sentence that makes most adults splutter and blush and reach for their water, and after this they start taking me seriously.
It's a two-sided coin because they don't realise that before they walked into the room I was busy spinning around on my chair as fast as it could go. I'm a kid when I want to be, I guess. Lots of people ask me if being a female in the music industry is difficult. I think in some ways it is. Nicki Minaj spoke in this brilliant video that you should all watch, taken while she applied her eyeliner, about sexism in the industry. Nicki complained about the poor quality of a photo-shoot, and received this wave of aggression and insult.
"If I am assertive, I'm a bitch. If a man is assertive, he's a boss. No negative connotation behind bossed up!" Truth is, if Nicki doesn't complain about a bad photo-shoot, people working with her assume those low standards are acceptable, but if she does complain it's very hard for her not to be pegged as a diva, which I think is one of those music industry double standards that has hung around far too long.
I identified with her so strongly when I saw that video - I know what it's like to walk on set and demand something of quality, and feel people thinking, 'Oh, we've got a piece of work here.' That's just me trying to protect my image and my name. I sometimes think if I were a male musician, the reaction to such a basic request would be different.
There're parts of this industry that are shitty, for sure. I've missed more birthdays this year and let more friends down than I can count; I've grown accustomed to 4am wake-up calls and sleeping on command; sometimes my boyfriend and I get photographed in the street when we just want to have time that doesn't belong to other people.
Sometimes I feel so lonely I don't want to do it any more. But truth is, I love what I do so much. I've never been so happy, or worked so hard. Adults like to ask me how I'm coping with things, because adults are always nervous there's a looming breakdown on the horizon, I guess. But what I say is for all the moments I dislike, there are these moments where everything feels slow motion, full colour, sweet. Playing at [Byron Bay, Australia, music festival] Splendour in the Grass was one of those. It was in that kind of hazy, crisp period of the newest night, that cool air just touching me.
I sang, and I loved it so much. I felt like all those people in their bright colours were flowers I could walk through, or this great lapping ocean I could leap from the stage into and swim, it stretching out as far as I could see. I felt five metres tall. Things like that, for me, make everything worth it.
I haven't talked yet about the thing you probably all want to read about, the only thing that really matters, which is the record. Pure Heroine. I started writing again as soon as I put out the EP, around November or December, and it was finished midway through July. Joel and I wrote every song together, made every beat. It's all ours, which is kind of cool to me - it lends this cohesion to it, I think. We wrote, as we always have, at Golden Age, Joel's studio in Morningside.
I'll always remember this so vividly -walking to the same few places to get lunch or dinner every day; moments outside the studio when we hurried back, or let our feet drag, either terrified or elated at the prospect of that room; listening back at the end of a day, the fairy lights winking, and both feeling this weary but budding excitement.
Each day I'd take the train. The night-time rides were my chance to breathe, relax for a few minutes. Then I'd pull out my laptop and hit play on whatever we'd worked on that day. For a few seconds with a new song there's always this thudding amnesia, like it's not your work,and you get to listen with fresh ears to this thing that's still newly born. For months and months I took that night train and listened to my voice and the beats over and over, silvery, suspended.
I'd grin like a creep from Kingsland to Grafton, face all moony under the white light. It's the best thing I've ever made. At the end of the lyric booklet inside Pure Heroine, there's a portrait of me. I'm wearing a grey sweater, a silver chain. I'm not smiling. There's a heavy, funereal black border. I showed this to my 11-year-old brother. He looked, and smiled at me, said, "About the author." I really like that. The record can be read as well as listened to, digested as well as danced to. I'm a singer,a performer, a popstar and a writer.
My little brother's reaction to that one photo of me is why I do what I do, why I cultivate a little mystery - why photographers call me difficult and web designers call me a diva. In that one second before he smiled and went to play, I knew it would never be about zeroes. I'm not a spreadsheet with hair; will never be. I am an artist, an author, with a hunger for showing people what I can do and a talent for making people turn my name into a call while they're waiting front row. It's me. I'm here.
- Sunday Magazine