The Real ARTPOP: 5 Female Artists Expanding the Definition of Pop

Inside the art pop -- not ARTPOP -- of Julianna Barwick, Zola Jesus, Chelsea Wolfe, Anna Calvi and Glasser

By Shannon Carlin

Thanks to Lady Gaga, art pop is now one word. A word that will forever be used to describe music that is theatrical, dramatic, emotional, highfalutin and, more often than not, a little silly. But while Gaga is trying to make her ARTPOP a brand by hobnobbing with contemporary artists like Jeff Koons, Marina Abramović and the ghost of Andy Warhol, other musicians — like Julianna Barwick, Zola Jesus, Chelsea Wolfe, Anna Calvi and Glasser — are doing what comes naturally to them. These five women make their own unique kind of pop music that spans multiple sub-genres (black metal, New Age, industrial, post-punk) and a whole grip of influences that include film, fashion, literature, architecture and nature.

They work on a higher plane to create music that uses all of the senses, ranging from the physically moving, wordless pop of Julianna Barwick to the visually striking performances of Anna Calvi. But these women want to do more than pique your interest with their artistic fervor, they want to make you a fan. As Cameron Mesirow, the woman behind Glasser, smartly put it, “I don’t want to be so self-indulgent that it cuts me off from the world.”

As Gaga continues her quest for world domination, these five women will continue pushing the boundaries of true art pop — two words, not one. And while the music itself might not currently be on your radar, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get your attention, or, as it were, applause.

Julianna Barwick

(Photo by Shawn Brackbill)

(Photo by Shawn Brackbill)

To make her second album, Nepenthe, Julianna Barwick traded the comforts of her Brooklyn apartment where she had previously done all of her recording for the breathtaking landscapes of Iceland. There she holed up with producer Alex Somers — best known for his work with Sigur Rós‘ singer Jónsi — in Sundlaugin Studios, a recording space built in an abandoned swimming pool.

“Whoever is recording, goes into where the pool used to be,” Barwick explained to Radio.com. “And the producer is up above everyone. It’s a very cool setup.”

Barwick never comes into the studio with any ideas of what she will record, it’s all prepared on the spot. Her music is mostly lyric-less, composed using only her voice and other instruments, which she usually plays herself. The exception to the rule being the song “One Half,” which she had been toying with for a few years and features four lines repeated over and over: “I guess I was asleep that night/ Was waiting far,” then, “I was waiting here/ Come around me.”

“Those are the words I always sing. I totally made them up on the spot like a million years ago and I decided to keep it how they were. Obviously, I was just making stuff up because it makes no sense,” she laughs. “But I decided to keep them anyway.”

She doesn’t find inspiration in the films she watches or the books she reads, instead coming straight from own experiences. “It’s all like whatever’s happening with me and my environment and emotions and stuff,” she explained. “I’m not meditating on anything or trying to draw inspiration from anything.”

Barwick says her music is almost subliminal, which might be why it sounds so pure of heart.

Her voice on “The Harbinger” — Barwick’s personal favorite on the album — seems to beam down from a far holier place. Listening to her coo and hum along to the whispered piano melody, it almost feels like a godly experience. The music has the ability to overwhelm you with its beauty, to take over your entire body like its got you under some sort of spell. Barwick admits she occasionally gets choked up listening to it herself.

Both her solo albums have received overwhelmingly positive reviews, which Barwick knows is rare, especially when it comes to the kind of music she makes.

“I’m not trying to make wordless emotional music,” Barwick said. “It’s kind of like that is what is key for me to make. It’s what comes naturally to me. I just don’t think about attaching lyrics to it or making it sound a certain way. I just want time with it.”

Barwick doesn’t know if she’ll go back to working alone or recruit an outside producer for her next album, but she is interested in collaborating with one particular Canadian rapper.

Drake has a lot of beautiful singing on his album. If he hit me up for singing on a song, I would absolutely want one hundred percent to do it,” Barwick said. She even came up with a way to get his attention: “Maybe I’ll start tweeting at him like Amanda Bynes did.”

Zola Jesus

(Photo by Angel Ceballos)

(Photo by Angel Ceballos)

Zola Jesus’ most recent album, Versions, might sound familiar. Mainly because it’s comprised of orchestral reinterpretations of songs that already appeared on one of her previous three albums, all released within the last four years.

With help from composer J.G. Thirlwell, Zola — real name, Nika Roza Danilova — wanted to turn her songs inside out. “Some of them, I felt I didn’t nail on the first try,” the 24-year-old told Radio.com. “Some could benefit from a new instrumentation and some I had this sense of posterity, to just hear them again.”

Only one song on the album is new, and even that one had been around for a few years. Back in 2010, Zola wrote a song called “Fall Back” for The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which didn’t end up on the soundtrack. “I had never seen the movies so I just worked off my own ideas,” she explained. “I didn’t know what to do with it so I wrote about my own journey for love, which seemed like the perfect thing.”

Over strings that sound more like tea kettles that are about to blow, Zola pours her heart out on the floor, singing, “I would do anything to be the one with you.” Sung by Zola in her throaty controlled howl, this sentiment is far too powerful to describe even Edward and Bella’s love.

Zola, who studied opera as a kid growing up in Wisconsin, says movies, specifically sci-fi ones, have always inspired her music. Like architecture (which she also lists as an influence) the genre is about creating a space that reflects a society’s culture and function. But with science fiction, a person is able to create a different future, a more ideal one.

“It’s undeniably inspiring to have that control over your environment,” she said. “It’s something music could do in a way, control the future environment.”

Though film plays a role in her creative process, her music is anything but theatrical. “Theatrical to me means play acting and putting on a mask, and I don’t think my music is too emotional and too personal to wear a mask,” she explained.

On her previous albums Zola’s had to compete with layers of electronic drums and synths, but on Versions her voice gets center stage. On the new version of “Hikikomori” she belts out her loneliness, while on “Sea Talk” she sweetly asks her lover to stay, “I don’t got the money/Do you want a rain-check?” The string arrangements on the record are used only to augment whatever it is she’s feeling and she’s feeling a whole lot.

Zola doesn’t deny that her music is dramatic — something she had trouble admitting before — but it’s always based in reality.

“What’s the point of making music if you’re not reaching a universal truth?” she asked. “That’s really what’s important to me as a songwriter, saying things that help someone and make someone question something about their own life. Some people just want to make a sweet little tune, but I can’t play that music and I definitely couldn’t make it.”

Chelsea Wolfe

(Photo by Anna Dobos)

(Photo by Anna Dobos)

With her new album Pain is Beauty, Chelsea Wolfe self-imposed the weighty task of rewriting the ending to the George Orwell’s classic 1984. Though many would beg to differ, Wolfe believed the book could stand to end on a more positive note.

“I reread 1984 and I was unhappy with it,” Wolfe told Radio.com. “I wrote a more idealistic ending to the book because I have a more idealistic outlook on life.”

Due to her darker sound, which can best be described as beautiful black metal, Wolfe has been pegged as a rather gloomy singer. But she says people, mainly critics, have gotten her all wrong. “There’s two sides to me: I’m very much reality based and also really idealistic,” she explained. “I like to think that there’s a fight out there and we have to fight for the one that we love.”

On her fourth record in three years, Wolfe tried to put more of herself into her writing, and for the first time she used lines that came from her own life. On the rather depressing folk ballad “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone” Wolfe talks of “blackened seeds,” a nod to a poem she wrote at the age of 8.

“It’s about feeling like an alien for a lot of years and being a loner and the feeling of not always being understood,” Wolfe said of the poem. “But I guess it’s a cathartic song. Not completely personal, but it’s like a sad song about dying and death and maybe getting a new lease on life.”

Wolfe has taken steps to feel more a part of the crowd, starting by revealing her face to her fans. Due to crippling stage fright, Wolfe, until very recently, used to wear a veil while performing. The Pain is Beauty album cover is actually the first of hers to display her face fully. “I was trying to be a little more brave,” she explained.

The look of this album — the vintage red dress, the pin curl waves — is also a first for Wolfe, who changes her appearance for every record. On this album, she wanted to explore the intensity of nature, namely the effect natural disasters have on everything around them, including humans. The dress is emblematic of lava, while the song “The Waves Have Come” was inspired by a documentary which featured first hand testimonials from those who survived the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan. 

“There were subtitles to know what they’re saying, but looking at their faces and seeing the loss, it struck me,” she said. “Imagining what it was like to see someone that you love get taken away. To lose your home and livelihood in that way, it’s such an intense way for it to go.”

When talking about the album though she used the example of a forest fire. She explained that on one hand it is a harsh and terrible thing that damages everything in its path, but on the other it acts as a cleansing process that helps disperse seeds and bring new life to the forest. The album’s lead track, “Feral Love,” filled with harpsichord and a machine gun round of drums, touches on this sentiment of finding something good in a world full of devastation.

“I just thought of the reflection of that in our own life,” Wolfe explained. “Inevitably life is really beautiful and it’s really hard and that process is like the fire because it allows us to start over if we fight. We can become stronger and have a more beautiful perspective on life.”

Anna Calvi

(Photo by Roger Dekker)

(Photo by Roger Dekker)

Anna Calvi‘s 2011 self-titled debut received an overwhelmingly high amount of praise, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to the English singer herself. She chose to tune out other people’s opinions, bad and good, and says it helped relieve some of the stress involved in recording its follow-up.

“I didn’t worry about any pressure because even with my first record some people didn’t like it and that doesn’t really matter, you know?” Calvi told Radio.com. “I think the album should be about me finding things in myself and pushing myself to be something else from the first record.”

On Calvi’s recently released second album, One Breath, she tries her hand at a few different things including composing a choral arrangement using only her own voice  for the record’s final track “The Bridge.” The reason for doing so, she admits, was at once very simple — “We didn’t have access to a choir” — and also very meaningful, explaining, “It is a personal, internal journey so the idea is that only my voice does the talking.”

Calvi also wants her style choices to help move the conversation forward. Her distinct look — a bold red lip, dark raccoon eyes, slick back hair, female interpretation of a matador’s outfit — is meant to bring out the strong emotions that fuel her music. One example being “Eliza,” where Calvi beautifully moans the name of the woman she wishes she could be over a murderous cha-cha beat. She sounds calm, but calculated, in a serial killer sort of way. Almost as if she’s ready to single white female poor Eliza.

But she doesn’t think of it as a character, it’s more of a personification of the music itself.

“It’s just a more distinct version of me,” she said in regards to her style. “You should be able to find the meaning in wild outlets for the feelings that you feel or what was the point? You have everyday language, but action, that can say more than words.”

Calvi feels like this new record is much more confident than her last. Even her guitar playing, which was so prominent on her debut, takes a backseat to her voice, which goes from a fragile whisper on the string-laden “One Breath” to a banshee’s cry on the droning “Love of my Life.” Often though the switch happens in just a matter of bars like on the album’s title track.

“I think that it’s just me being multidimensional,” Calvi said about expanding her vocal range. “It’s a skill and it’s a growth. I think it’s really important to allow yourself the ability to grow and not be afraid to do it. That in itself is a strength these days.”

Glasser

(Photo by Jonathan Turner)

(Photo by Jonathan Turner)

After reading Rem Koolhaas’ 1978 book, Delirious New York, which uses the city’s culture, architecture and social history as a metaphor for human behavior, Cameron Mesirow began thinking about space. Specifically how much she has and how much she takes up.

“I was always fascinated about how certain people take up more space then others,” Mesirow, who performs under the  Glasser moniker, told Radio.com. “And what people do to assert themselves in certain situations, whether it’s a physical position or a social position.”

Architecture is the overarching theme of Mesirow’s second album, Interiors, but the music is really focused on the idea of self-discovery and this theme of identity is seen in the album’s accompanying artwork, all designed by Jonathan Turner, a member of performance art group Yemenwed.

Glasser’s album cover, videos and press photos features a futuristic silver material that is both amorphous and reflective. “It’s almost like a stand-in for a person,” Mesirow said. Using this liquid, the video for the sleek and synthy track, “Design,” focuses on the moment of joy that exists in the anticipation of ecstasy.

As Mesirow’s squeals the opening lines, “Sweet fruit/ Ripening in my arms,” she fondles herself in the reflection of the silvery orb, moving as if she’s being possessed by the devil.

“There’s so many ways of expressing something as fundamental as desire, that was my way of doing it,” Mesirow said of the video, which she calls both fun and funny.

Like Bjork and Cyndi Lauper before her, she wants her music to be a complete sensory package. “I’m aiming to make a musical experience that is as much like a movie as I can,” she said. “Great songs aren’t enough for me somehow. If I’m really into a band or a record, I feel like it’s a great tragedy if the album art is not awesome.”

With its futuristic blips and bleeps, Mesirow’s music can be hard to describe with just words alone. Her honey-tinged vocals, which coo “Where’s the way out?” on “Forge” and punch up the sax-filled “New Year,” are often the only thing bringing it back down to earth. But Mesirow’s ultimate goal is to strike a balance with Glasser, creating music that is both creative and accessible.

“I am not into the idea of being an artist who is forever lost in their own mind,” she explained. “One of the things I do care about is that there’s an audience with an emotional response to what you do. If I make good music that I have an emotional response to, I can only hope and guess that there’s someone else in the world who would have a similar response. But I don’t expect it to be everyone either.”

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