Published Sep 25, 2014"I think there are a lot of people who listen to Yeezus who have no idea what Kanye's saying about race, but they still like it. That's what I mean."
Elizabeth Lowell Boland, aka Lowell, is talking about the power of pop music to influence people, to spread ideas beyond the progressive underground and into the bigger world. The Toronto pop singer's new album, We Loved Her Dearly, out now on indie label Arts & Crafts, is at turns melodic and effervescent, yearning and anthemic. The album features songs about self-love, abuse, gay rights and feminism, all couched in irresistible melodies and synth- and drum-machine-driven instrumentals. The record represents the confident first steps toward Lowell's ultimate ambition of being a pop artist on the level of West, Madonna or David Bowie.
"I could write a feminist anthem," she says, discussing pop music's potential to channel a subtle message using a catchy hook, "and someone who never read that it was a feminist anthem, and who hates women, might still like the song."
If all of this sounds ambitious, that's because it is. But at just 22 years old, Lowell has already seen enough of the industry to know what she needs to do, and she has the skill to do it.
Her first mainstream success, the collaborative If You Can, Solve This Jumble EP with Apparatjik (members of A-Ha, Coldplay and Mew, plus Swedish producer Martin Terefe), was the end result of a process that began around her early teens, when Lowell wrote the song that would become that EP's "The Birds."
Though she hadn't yet settled on being a songwriter at that point — "I wanted to be an Olympic figure skater," she says, "but then I overdid it, injured myself, and had to channel an insane amount of energy into something else, so I started playing more music" — she found she loved making music, and that it came to her easily. Lowell went to the University of Toronto to study music, but found it limiting ("I felt like my teachers were really closed-minded to the music I wanted to do") so she dropped out. She continued to write songs casually, and recorded a few ukulele ditties in order to apply for VIA Rail's "Artists on board" program, which provides free travel to musicians. The demos quickly turned into a career turning point.
"I signed up for this thing and they accepted me, but you can't do any electronic instruments and I play keys, so I learned ukulele. In the meantime, I recorded some demos, like, ridiculous ukulele pop songs."
The demos caught the attention of Ron Sexsmith's manager, Mike Dixon, who sent them to the influential producer Terefe. "Martin got a hold of those in that week. I didn't end up going across the country; I ended up going to London. It was the first gig I ever got — 'Come to London and write with the best writers in the world!'" Back in Canada after the London sessions — during which she co-wrote a song for the Backstreet Boys — Lowell found the music industry had its disenchanting moments, too. As she tried to make her mark in music, Lowell hit a low point when she started stripping under the alias "Sara V."
People in the music industry, she asserts, were "using the fact that I wanted to do music to lure me into environments I wouldn't normally succumb to." Finally, she had an epiphany: "There was definitely a moment where I realized that some of the people in my life were taking advantage of me and making me think that I needed them. I just had this moment where I realized that everyone I was working with in music wanted to work with me because I was really good at music. That was an awesome moment in my life. Ever since then, I've kind of not looked back, and I'm 100 percent more proud of the person I am now."
Lowell wrote a eulogy called "I Killed Sara V." for her stripper persona that became the title track for her EP earlier this year, which Arts & Crafts released after signing the singer. She chose a different lyric from the same song to title her new full-length, one more indicative of her new mindset; where I Killed Sara V. positioned her stripping days as regrettable, We Loved Her Dearly suggests that Lowell's now able to see them as a formative experience.
"Most of the songs I wrote about stripping, I wrote way after. I write them from that point of view of it being empowering. Some of the more ballad-y songs on the record, I wrote those during that time when I was not feeling good about myself. It's all completely honest about how I was feeling. But [first single 'I Love You] Money,' yeah, that's me looking back being like 'Ha!'"
Lowell recently told The New York Times that balancing influences as disparate as Britney Spears and Canadian electro-pop trio Braids on her album "creates something special and bold."
"I've written in pop writing camps. It's intelligent, but it's also a bunch of people sitting in a room, and nobody's trying to say anything. They're trying to get a song cut by somebody famous so they can make a lot of money. 'Okay, what are the three things we can write about? Drugs, sex, rock'n'roll.' And then you just sit around and think of creative ways to say that. It's intelligent, but it's using intelligence to be really dumb.
"On the other side, you have artists like Braids, or I dunno, I've always loved Chad VanGaalen — these intellectual people that make music that are really smart and they are reflective. The problem — and it's not really a problem, I love that music — but what it does is it alienates that group and puts them into one little bubble where everybody can agree [that] race is an issue and gay rights are important and feminism yada yada yada. But that [bubble] is just a bunch of liberal people, progressives, chatting amongst themselves. I feel like those worlds can be more gelled."
As she progresses, she says, "I want to understand pop music more and I want to understand the mainstream more and gel those with the intellectuals. I feel like those worlds can be more gelled. That might be the most crazy dream, but..." Lowell pauses. "I really like the idea of that. That's what makes me happy when I make music, trying to achieve that."