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A Quietus Interview

Tell Them How You Feel: An Interview With Jockstrap
Zara Hedderman , September 6th, 2022 08:08

As they prepare to release one of the year’s most sonically ambitious albums in the form of their debut I Love You Jennifer B, Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye of Jockstrap discuss emotional catharsis, ambitious homemade visuals, sexuality, classical music and Kanye West

Photos by Eddie Whelan

Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye sit side-by-side on an outdoor stairway. Tethered together by a pair of white earphones connected to Georgia’s iPhone, they’re “making the most” of the warm weather as they take a break from rehearsing to talk about I Love You Jennifer B, their eagerly awaited debut album as Jockstrap. They’re finessing their live set before embarking on an extensive tour in September to support the LP, which includes their first time playing to crowds across North America.

The anticipation for I Love You Jennifer B’s is palpable not only among fans and critics, but also the band, especially as they’re keen to navigate their trajectory on their own terms. “We’re lucky that, in a way, everything happens at the same time. The music comes out and that’s when we hear it again for the first time, and when we play the songs for the first time live we share its newness with the audience,” says Ellery, looking at Skye who nods. “Bands are so often caught in cycles where they’ve been playing their new album live for a year and then it comes out and they’re already on to the next stuff. So, for us, our album coming out is like entering a new phase because we get to think about playing it live. It’s actually really exciting.”

The image of the band contained within the Zoom window on my laptop is an apt representation of how the duo operate; separate entities united through sound. From the beginning, Ellery has written Jockstrap’s lyrics while Skye works independently building multifaceted arrangements. Their separate approaches to the material has culminated in a singular musical style that thrives on the juxtaposition between the two. With each release, from their critically acclaimed 2018 debut EP Love Is The Key To The City, followed by two further short-players Wicked City and Beavercore, they have further recontextualised what pop music can be. They initially signed to Warp before settling into Rough Trade’s roster in late 2021. It’s no surprise Jockstrap caught the attention of both of these labels despite the profound disparities in their respective catalogues; the duo’s idiosyncrasies are such that they are constantly moving across the spectrum of mainstream and obscure.

The band’s combination of lush orchestration, glitchy electronic production and shapeshifting arrangements provide vibrant settings for Ellery’s jazz-inflected cadence as she sings frankly about sexuality and intimacy. This has been a recurring theme in her lyricism from the offset. I Love You Jennifer B continues to retrace her personal experiences explicitly and eloquently. On their debut album Madonna’s 1992 LP Erotica feels like a blueprint, particularly on the intoxicating track ‘Greatest Hits’. (Coincidentally, both the pop legend - and the biblical figure - are namechecked in the song: “Imagine I’m Madonna / Imagine I’m Thee Madonna / Dressed in blue / No - dressed in pink.”) Within the space of a few songs, she skirts between tender moments (“For the first time / I like when he’s inside me,”) to lustful desire (“Anything to fuck you”) and slips in masturbation references with no reluctance. It’s astonishing that, in 2022, such a natural subject has the potential to produce tremors within a music industry that has so often relished in “shock factor.” However, when a woman sings “I touch myself,” with a casual confidence as Ellery does, that sense of self-assuredness can be disconcerting to anyone who expects artists - especially women - to act in an ‘acceptable’ manner. Fortunately, astute songwriters such as Ellery and Self Esteem’s Rebecca Lucy Taylor are actively eradicating archaic taboos surrounding a woman’s enjoyment in embracing, exploring and experimenting their sexuality.

This is as integral to Jockstrap’s music as the dynamic soundscapes. “For me, [sexuality] is something to be celebrated,” Ellery tells me. “I feel like I don’t know how to put it into words, but when I write about it and put it into a song or a poem and people can hear it, I embrace what I feel all the time. It’s liberating. It’s definitely therapeutic; it’s a form of expression. A lot of [the songs] are about repression and so the music becomes a way of expressing it and letting people know how you feel. If you can’t talk about something with someone, you know when it’s quite private, when it’s then made into a record and it’s there for everyone to listen to, that’s cathartic for me. And, hopefully relatable to some people.”

Combing through Ellery’s lyrics, aside from her frank sexuality and intense focus on the specifics of a scene (a “mustard mist”, the names of people and places) is a great deal of self-confidence. Throughout her life, music has been a constant medium of expression in one form or another. She began learning to play the violin aged five and has been part of several groups including Black Country, New Road. (In between the first Jockstrap EP and I Love You Jennifer B she’s recorded and released two LPs with the group - “It’s always tricky juggling things but it’s good to be busy,” she says.) Reading the lyrics to Jockstrap’s new album her words are as descriptive as a diary as she documents a crucial period of personal growth.

When Ellery was a teenager, her mother trained as a music therapist. “It became another prism to talk about music and see how it can help people through different and difficult situations. It was impactful, for sure. Music was part of our household before that as well; mostly through practicing [our instruments] and orchestral things. I didn’t have that view on music helping people and being really therapeutic from the beginning, though. That was a later thing which was really cool. There were some really interesting stories that she brought home.”

Tonally, there are several worlds contained within each of Jockstrap’s compositions. You never know where you’ll be taken by a song, or what inhabits the space. I Love You Jennifer B, opens with a sombre acoustic guitar interrupted by eruptions of electronic textures and beats. Scattered throughout the ten tracks is everything from Orbital-like production, dubstep motifs, PC Music references, straightforward pop choruses and a ferocious canine barking within ‘Concrete Over Water’. An elegant symphony swells on ‘What’s It All About?’ while ‘Angst’ is filled with subtle intricacies. In the closing suite, ‘Lancaster Court’ pays homage to The Walker Brothers’ ‘In My Room’: “A Scott Walker-esque big orchestral sparseness,” as Ellery reveals.

With so many tones and textures, does the creation of a Jockstrap song bring challenges? Skye says the process is less complicated than one would expect. “When I sit down to make music I try not to think. I don’t really think too intellectually about what’s going on. When I’m working on something Georgia’s sent me, I just listen to it and start work on it immediately. I just emotionally paint the song out to try and see it. There’s not much communication between me and Georgia during that process or where I’m going with the music because I’ve not communicated with Georgia when she’s written the song. I need my own time to develop a song myself. Then we come together and figure out where we’re at with it. You know, I’m just enjoying experimenting. It’s quite a fluid way of working, really.” Ellery explains the logistics: “We always make the music in Taylor’s room. That’s the space we come back to every time, even though [he’s] been in loads of different rooms it somehow always feels like the same room,” she laughs.

Some of the influences Ellery and Skye have cited in the past are almost as unexpected as the twists and turns within the tracks themselves. “It can be really inspiring looking back at classical music. Lots of the classical composers that I love broke the rules,” says Skye. “The greats always pushed things forward. It’s nice to look at how they changed things during the time they were in, not necessarily just with the style of music they were making but also just how things, generally, have also changed in the last 200 years,” Skye says. This response is prompted when I ask if he made a concerted effort to rip up the rulebook to forge his own style once he graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he and Ellery met as students. There, Skye studied electronic composition and Ellery focused on jazz. Their division in writing, specifically Skye’s lack of involvement with the lyrical content, is made all the more intriguing when he tells me that his dissertation examined the lyrics of three Leonard Cohen albums; Songs of Leonard Cohen, Ten New Songs and You Want It Darker. Though polite during our conversation, Skye comes across as somewhat shy. He often trails off sentences without resolution and moves into a completely different train of thought. In a way, his conversational style mimics the unpredictable patterns of his arrangements.

Elsewhere, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Stewart Lee, and The Lemon Twigs are amongst some of the influences they’ve cited over their career. More recently, they’ve consumed far more contemporary material with Ellery “[listening] to the radio a lot more these past three years” and Skye turning to one of the most divisive records of recent years. “When Donda came out last year that was very inspiring to me. Kanye West is one of the most inspiring people for me in terms of…” Skye pauses for a moment, searching for the words, “everything, really.” His favourite song from West’s much-maligned tenth album? “Probably ‘Come To Life’,” he says. “That one stood out immediately to me. It has a video as well, it’s the one where he gets back together with Kim Kardashian. It’s such a beautiful song and I think the best thing about him is his sort of childlike emotion which seemed to be really strong in that one. I watched the last [listening party] he did. When he brought out Playboi Carti and it went out of sync, I thought that was amazing. I rewatched it a number of times, actually. It’s so doomy and the fact that lots of things went wrong felt completely fitting of the whole feel of Donda.

Skye’s admiration for West, and the visual representation of his material, brings me to Jockstrap’s own ingenuity when it comes to striking music videos and artwork. To date, the majority of their visuals have been directed by the duo with Ellery editing the footage. “We’re both very visual people and we’re interested in music videos, films and art. Nowadays, when you make music you don’t just make music, you tend to do a lot of the visual stuff alongside it,” she explains. “I think that was also something that excited us about starting a project together in the first place. In the beginning, we made the music videos all by ourselves, with no training and with no budget. It was just a fun thing to do after we made the songs. Taylor tends to remix the songs whilst he’s making them and for me making the music videos gave me a happy release that afforded me another way to be creative and not think too much about it. It’s been really nice to develop our world and use the same characters or the same people in the videos. For I Love You Jennifer B, we’ve again done a lot of the work on the visuals ourselves or the ideas have come from us and we’ve worked with others.” She discusses the ambitious visuals for ‘Concrete Over Water’. “We were able to make that with a bit more money behind it. We’ve wanted to make a big music video like that for a really long time and I felt that that really lent to the imagery in that song, in particular. Whereas, we made ‘Glasgow’ by ourselves, like the videos for the first EP, and it was super easy and super fun and we didn’t have to think about it too much at all.”

While overthinking their music isn’t something Jockstrap subscribe to, when they had to come up with the artwork for their debut album the pair were drawn towards newer – and surprisingly sparser – terrain. The final design for I Love You Jennifer B is a plain grey square which can be decorated with the stickers included in whatever configuration fans desire. It’s a simple gesture from the band in which they extend a hand to their fans, inviting them to become involved in the music. “It would have been a very difficult task to come up with some artwork that successfully encompassed all of the tracks on the album,” Ellery says, this admission is the first (albeit slightly veiled) acknowledgement of their musical dexterity during our conversation. “Even though there’s only ten tracks they vary so much from one another. Where would you even start with that? So, we went where we hadn’t been before which was quite minimal and graphic design oriented. We went with our instinct, which we do with all the visual things, really.”

When Jockstrap spoke to tQ back in 2018 to coincide with the release of their debut EP Love Is The Key To The City, Ellery’s grandmother became an endearing and central figure in that feature. Before they returned to their rehearsal space to continue working, I had to ask what her grandmother thought of their debut album. “She hasn’t heard it!” she laughs. “My mum hasn’t even heard it yet. I’m really bad at sending music, I’ll definitely send it to my gran once it’s out though.”

I Love You Jennifer B is released on September 9 via Rough Trade