So, it’s night. We’re into British summer time but it’s raining, as it invariably is in the UK city of Birmingham. Slap in the middle between erudite London and the indie warring hordes of the hipster north, and forever cast by the gonzo metal of its loudest sons, Ozzy and Sabbath, to those for whom music is a thinking man’s game, Birmingham is, by way of American parlance, the flyover city. A place everybody likes looking down on.
Yet here we are. Holed up in a cramped rehearsal room about a mile-shy of the city’s center, tucked back off the main drag in a small two-room studio unit you’d need a Sat Nav to nail. I’ve just sat down with four young women who, I will freely admit, helped renew my faith that, yes, pop still matters — and already there’s kismet afoot.
Kismet: because it turns out Poppy & the Jezebels rent the exact same room Duran Duran wrote and arranged their Rio album in three decades back. Where Stephen Duffy and the Lilac Times come to bloom. And previous to the girls, Broadcast, those synth psychedelicists (who should have been bigger), schemed and plotted. Kismet: because the world clearly has more to hear from this room.
In case you haven’t already, I’d like you to meet Poppy & the Jezebels — Dom, Mollie, Poppy and Amber; keys, vocals, drums and guitar respectively — whose first single release in two years, the Richard X produced “Sign In, Dream On, Drop Out”, is online and in stores this week. And as ballsy, pop bounce and chants go, it’s a belter. Three minutes and eight seconds from top to fade; packed with free smiles and, unless I’m very much mistaken, it’s the about-time sound of Generation LOL gone to war with Simon ‘Scowly’ Cowell and the TV’s Got Midwich Cuckoos brigade.
Missing, presumed lost since 2009 — “People in the music industry call it Development, but in reality, we’ve been sat in this room, rehearsing and writing for two years,” laughs Amber, the band’s guitarist — Poppy & the Jezebels flummoxed a whole lot of people when they first broke cover in 2006. Unavoidably so, given how the band was releasing records, and out and about playing London shows — all despite the four having an average age of 13 years old. Double-takes were quickly replaced with praise and support, once critics and the curious plugged into the girls’ infectious, accidental brand of pop confection. I say ‘accidental’ not to be patronizing — old soul that I am — but because in our celebrity age, when the majority of hit pop comes lab-hatched by proxy, bearing that suss new-sheen smell, Poppy & the Jezebels’ humble jumble of myriad indie quirks is far from just another product. It’s more the outcome of four smart girls simply following their noses.
And now they’re back: legally old enough to buy alcohol, undeniably clued up and, on the strength of “Sign In, Dream On, Drop Out”, ready to spread some good cheer and sunshine across a nation that could seriously do with some, bogged down as it is right now in recession and doom and gloom. Not that working with X (whose CV includes time spent with M.I.A, Sam Sparro and the Sugarbabes) means the quartet have, in media terms, ‘made it’ quite yet, because the quartet are still short of a major deal. Their new single is out via their own label, Gumball Machine. However, they’ve signed to Mute for publishing and Mute boss Daniel Miller rates them enough to play extra synths on the “Richard X Meets Larry Least” remix of the single.
If you don’t already know Daniel Miller, then back to school with you. Miller is something of a legend, not just for owning Mute (home to Depeche Mode, Goldfrapp, Moby and S.C.U.M), but also for his early synth work as the Normal. Operating back when analogue was analogue, and digital was but a twinkle in Hal 9000’s ominous single eye, Miller’s “Warm Leatherette” was and remains a classic, despite most folks probably only knowing the Grace Jones cover version.
“We didn’t realize how iconic Daniel was until we played the Mute festival at the Roundhouse, last year,” Poppy laughs. “Nine thousand Germans descended on him; all these die-hard electronic fans just following him around, taking photographs.” So when Miller, who hasn’t performed as the Normal for a mighty long time, turned up at the girls’ studio session with his old synth, straight out of storage and still taped up in bubble-wrap, it was smiles all round.
Yet, if the idea of a band just out of their teens working with a name producer like Richard X, let alone hanging out with Daniel Miller, suggests they’re selling out, then, on the evidence of my first ten minutes amongst these four self-confident young women, I’d say “not likely”. “Honestly, Richard hasn’t pushed anything on us,” states Mollie, the band’s vocalist. “He just gives us even more ability to do exactly what we want on a track — because he has the tools. He’s magnified us, if you like.”
Yeah, you might say, right. But, no; “The irony is,” the eponymous Poppy starts in, leaning forwards across her drum-kit, energized by talk of X’s involvement, “A lot of the producers we met with, who you’d reckon had more lo-fi, indie or left-field profiles than Richard, were the exact same ones who were going to fucking rip out our melodies, and tell us what to write about. I won’t mention any names, but they all wanted a hand in the songwriting and to — pretty much — own us. And that was not what we wanted.”
Edge of Thirteen: Dom, Mollie, Amber
and Poppy, as they were.
Poppy & the Jezebels first came together over a shared purpose; on nodding terms around school, the four pooled their then limited abilities simply because, as Amber the band’s guitarist reckons “We were all keen to work out how to make a band.” Talking of endless nights in various bedrooms around keyboard player Dom’s parents’ house, “making noise” as they rotated through “every possible option of what we could all do”, the guitarist smiles at a memory, pointing out how, “at one stage, we had Dom on bass, and Poppy was a singing drummer, just trying to make it all work.”
Learning how to operate a demo recorder donated by Dom’s dad — a musician himself — the quartet’s first effort was an exploratory cover of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”. After which, seemingly out of nowhere, marched “Nazi Girls” — “The first song we ever wrote,” Mollie points out. Coming on like the Slits covering Supergrass, “Nazi Girls” remains a sharp and sarcastic, highly amusing glimpse into what it must be like to be a girl hitting puberty these days: all peer pressure and bitchiness, and observations of insecurities about what’s cool or not, pitched from the perspective of someone who knows just enough to realize they don’t want to play that game.
Dom seems keener we talk about the band’s current material, reckoning their earliest endeavors seem “so long ago now, and we’ve learned since then.” However, she does concede that for the four of them, learning to write songs is an ongoing process. Not that, as Poppy reckons, “Nazi Girls” took them that long, “There wasn’t really any sticking point on it. We just wrote the lyrics, someone strummed a bit; it was a kind of unthinking thing.” At which, the drummer catches herself. “I know that probably sounds a bit cocky,” she laughs, “But, to be honest, I don’t think any of us ever thought it would get us this far. It was never on our minds.” It was simply, Mollie picks up, what came out. “We’ve never written a song where we’ve said we want to be like Blondie, or whatever.” Which, coming from a singer who — regardless of age or experience — reminds me of Nico and Kirsty MacColl and a hundred broken hearts all at the same time, is all part of the thrill.
From whence, “Nazi Girls” did the business: becoming both the girls’ debut single and, alongside the likes “The Lips of Cleopatra” and “Electro Bitch” went towards making up the six-track Follow Me Down EP, released on independent label Reveal in 2007. In a real-life twist on the marketing myth that cast Lilly Allen as the first social media superstar, “Really was about someone just messaging us via MySpace, completely out of the blue, with an offer,” says Poppy. The finer details of which, required very little further discussion, given how “there were no throwaways on Follow Me Down,” laughs Mollie, “Because those were the only songs we had.”
With positive reviews in NME and The Guardian came offers of support slots for gigs, which saw the quartet, in one unconscious move, overcome the eternal — all too often band breaking — dilemma, of how an act from the provinces breaks into London. Even still, Poppy admits they were fortunate, seemingly blessed with “a massive amount of luck. And people who were prepared to help us, because there was a chain of people who knew people that opened up.” Thus, with the girls still only 13, they traveled up and down motorways to perform shows in the capital, while still having to get up for school the next morning. That commitment saw Poppy & the Jezebels open for the Wedding Present and then, later in 2008, when ace single “UFO” sent singer Tim Burgess into a spin, the Charlatans, who personally invited the girls to play the Isle of Wight festival.
After which, everything went quiet and, as Poppy readily admits, “We basically dropped off the face of the planet.” However, all four of them, kept afloat by part-time jobs and in conjunction with exams and life and teenage travails, have — on the strength of the three new as-yet-unrecorded tracks I heard in rehearsal — worked beyond their proto-X Ray Spex and rudimentary Velvet Underground early profile. And in grappling to do so, have found a style that sounds like all, yet none, of the above; more a shimmering blend of, well, pop loveliness. The songwriting is sharper, there are clicks and sequencers involved — and their joy infused, Spice-like hooks have, if anything, become more refined. Likewise, the four of them remain refreshingly free from conceit; seemingly devoid of any self-conscious desire to appear hipper-than-thou. A subject we touch on as we’re all packing up to leave and step back out into the night’s rain.
“That’s really one of my pet-hates,” Poppy pipes up, powering down her sequencer, “When people say, ‘Oh I love this, but I can’t stand pop.’ Well, what the hell do you mean by that? There’s some great pop tunes; pop being ‘something which speaks to the largest number of people’. Yet some people have a real negative thing against music produced in a certain way. To me, music — you either feel it or you don’t.” Across the room, Mollie happily points out she was once mad for Britney Spears — and isn’t afraid to admit it. Likewise, Dom concedes to rating Joni Mitchell, adding “This lot always take the mick out of me, but I tend to listen to a lot of melancholy music. Stuff like Antony & the Johnsons, where there’s that real heartache thing.” At which, the other three crack up laughing, before Amber — who, out of four individuals clearly crap-free at the best of times, is possibly the sharpest shooter — concludes their music is solely about what works. “I don’t think we’ve ever been embarrassed about bringing any ideas. Anyway, the bottom line is: if something’s shit — well, it’s shit.”
So there you have it. In 2012, in Birmingham, and out into the pouring rain; when UK success still has to equal either urban or wrought chanteuse; where, for too many young women, making it requires stripping to bait Humberts, while flashing your religion for front-covers, Poppy & the Jezebels are only going to do it their way. And believe me, from what I’ve heard tonight, it’s all good. Although, I suspect there’s Nitrous Oxide afoot — because, as I wave goodbye to the girls and walk away, for some reason, I can’t stop bloody grinning.