Each year we convene pop stars to mull over the year’s big musical moments, and for 2020 this was – like almost every social or professional interaction – convened over a video call. It was a strangely appropriate format for an industry that learned how to livestream as it weathered a total collapse in gigs and festivals, but despite the horrors, there was still plenty of brilliant and indeed cathartic music released. Pondering it all are Danielle Haim, singer with Haim, who are nominated for album of the year at the Grammys; Phoebe Bridgers, also heading to the Grammys with four nominations; British soul-jazz singer Lianne La Havas; emotive songwriter Moses Sumney; glam-pop star Declan McKenna; and British-Japanese pop sensation Rina Sawayama.
Justin Bieber makes a play for TikTok ubiquity with the meme-friendly chorus of Yummy, and Jason Derulo & Jawsh 685’s Savage Love later becomes a global No 1 via the platform. Is TikTok changing the way pop music sounds? Do artists feel under pressure to be on it?
Rina Sawayama: Well, I try. It’s really clear if you see my TikTok profile that I have no idea what I’m doing. But I know that people go into [writing] sessions and they’re like: “Yeah, what’s the 15 seconds?” You need a little drop, a little funny moment. I can’t write like that, but other people do. I hate it.
Declan McKenna: Every conversation with my label the past year has been: “What are you going to do on TikTok?” My housemate Josh is in a band – he says it’s a ridiculous amount of work, looking for that perfect 15 seconds, and if he’s choosing between that or actually writing … It rewards repetition, and that consistency isn’t viable if you’re trying to put your creative energy into stuff that you actually like and care about.
Phoebe Bridgers: It’s a full-time job. I’ve spent three hours trying to edit something until I was like: “Nope, I’m just not going to do it!” I respect people who are good at it. One of my favourite accounts is this guy who does every single thing that I do, in a wig. He exists so that I don’t have to do TikTok.
Moses Sumney: I think TikTok is just a new iteration of what has always existed, a platform that has a value for commercialism. It’s just a modern version of radio, for which people have been tailoring songs since the 50s or 60s. I won’t say it’s infringing on people’s artistic licence or ability. If you’re the type of person who’s going to make a song wholly for TikTok then that’s who you are, that’s your choice, great. If you’re not, then you’re not going to. You always have the option to say no.
Feburary and March
The live industry shuts down as a result of coronavirus. How has that affected you as artists? You all had albums out this year, you were presumably all expecting to tour …
Danielle Haim: We made our album in a room, playing together, more than we’ve done on any other album we’ve put out. We had all these ideas about how we were going to tour it, we booked a whole tour and festivals – we were going to do a whole deli tour and the night Tom Hanks came out with the news that he had coronavirus, we were in DC in a small deli performing a stripped-down set. It was wild. So just releasing something and not having that dialectical experience with a crowd about this music we’ve been working on for a year, that was a bummer.
Sumney: I would say that in order to fully understand my records you have to see them live – part of me wonders how people would have understood and received the record if they’d had the chance to see it live. Financially, I wasn’t terribly affected by it – it costs a lot of money to tour.
Lianne La Havas: There was a weird relief that I wouldn’t have to have a huge upheaval and loads of stress from going on tour, and spending loads of money and time on rehearsals. That was something that was giving me anxieties. But I do tour a lot so that was very strange having to think: “Oh gosh, I’ve got to think of a way to earn money that isn’t touring.”
McKenna: Just being at home doing the promo and stuff felt way less rewarding than it normally would if you were somewhere new, somewhere exciting.
Bridgers: Although, there is something about being mildly insulted by journalists from the comfort of your own home! Instead of going to Germany and spending an afternoon sitting across from somebody who’s making you feel bad about yourself.
Sumney: When the pandemic hit, I was in Berlin at the beginning of my press tour. I had to do the rest of it in my living room and it was just like: “Oh cool, I don’t have to put on pants!” That was life-changing.
Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s Rain on Me becomes the first big song to strike a chord with the pandemic mood – what was the song that got you through 2020?
Haim: I was super into Ray of Light. I’m a huge Madonna fan and there’s a lot of fast parts where it breaks down – it was good for getting me out of bed and just dancing it out. I felt that I needed to sweat every couple of days.
La Havas: I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but it was Moses’s song, Man on the Moon. The recording has this quality, it’s like you did it at midnight or three in the morning somewhere and it just sounds like fairies or something. The atmosphere is magical. I’m so sorry, I love you!
Sumney: KeiyaA’s song Rectifiya really got me through. The quality of her recordings is this lo-fi thing that I really found really inspiring. It’s really beautiful.
Bridgers: On tour, I was only a podcast bitch for years, so I feel like I’ve really rediscovered music. I got into a lot more ambient music. I’ve really been into Mary Lattimore, a harpist. She has this song On the Day You Saw the Dead Whale – the whole album [Hundreds of Days] is amazing, but that song is incredible.
Sawayama: It’s not one song but because it’s a song that transitions into another, I think it counts: Chromatica II into 911 by Lady Gaga. It was meme-ified everywhere, it’s bloody perfect and the memes made me laugh.
McKenna: In the first lockdown I was listening to ESG. My Love For You was a tune I was banging out every day. I just needed to dance, needed some good energy every day.
Black Lives Matter protests spawn #BlackoutTuesday and – ostensibly – a music industry reckoning with its lack of diversity and the debt it owes black artists. Has anything changed?
La Havas: I personally haven’t seen anything change. The label I work with [Warner], the people around me, nobody is black. I don’t know what changes they think they’re making. I guess there’s a little more awareness when they’re speaking with me, but I think it’s going to take a while to actually see something effective and meaningful.
Sumney: I would agree with that. It was like people were becoming more aware, or aware for the first time, which I find alarming. I’ve been talking about this shit for so long, how it pertains to genre and categorisations and lack of opportunity in the industry. And I also think that it became: “Oh, we have to perform awareness. We don’t want to seem like the only ones who aren’t doing or saying anything.” As long as there aren’t more black people in the music industry who aren’t just the performers but are actually part of companies, I don’t know how much can change.
Bridgers: The system isn’t broken, it’s working exactly how it was planned to work for ever, since the beginning of time. I’ve seen more performative activism or virtue signalling, but that translating into real actual work … people can kind of hide behind the scenes who they’re actually hiring.
Sawayama: I spoke to the head of my label [Dirty Hit]: “You’re going to have to stop hiring your mates and their mates because that’s literally how it happens.” The barrier to entry is so enormous and completely invisible, it’s like a fog: how do black people get into the music industry, not as an artist, but as an A&R or product manager? It takes people in our generation to make sure that the next person that gets hired is black and then that person might know someone … It just won’t happen overnight. As an artist, if you don’t have a set makeup-and-hair glam team, then there’s this database of black and POC stylists, who are amazing. Send that to your manager, because people can’t be arsed to go on to Instagram and find black creatives, full stop.
La Havas: I’ve remembered a story from the day of the blackout. I texted someone in the industry, like: “Hey, I really need help with something, can you please help me?” And he said: “I’m taking the day out to educate myself about the Black Lives Matter movement, so if you don’t mind I’d like to respect the blackout!” I was like: ‘Wow, you really don’t get it.’ It’s funny how confusing it seems to be to a lot of people how to help – first of all, help me by answering my text!
Bridgers: I also think white artists have way more power than they are pretending they do, but they don’t want to have that uncomfortable conversation. I just think it’s our responsibility to make someone uncomfy for two fucking seconds.
Taylor Swift surprise-releases Folklore – other lockdown albums include Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, Paul McCartney’s III and Ariana Grande’s Positions. How has lockdown affected creativity for you as artists – and how do you want to process the events of 2020 in your music?
McKenna: There have been moments where I’ve felt really inspired for a short period, been really zoned in, but when I get like that, I get too excited and completely burn myself out for a couple of days and go back to not really doing anything.
Sawayama: Performance is what validates the song for me – it sounds weird, but it feels a bit pointless if I don’t know there’s a definite date that I can perform it and connect with the audience. I find it amazing that people like Charli were like: “Right, this is horrendous and I’m going to make art now.” The way she did those collaborative videos completely virtually was genius. I found myself comparing myself to her: why haven’t I written an album during quarantine?
La Havas: But you’re different artists, your lives are different.
Sawayama: Exactly, you respond to things differently. It’s just when you’re at home, you’ve got your phone in front of you, and you’re trying not to compare yourself with other artists that you feel have blossomed during quarantine.
Haim: I rallied, I tried to write music the last couple of months, but it’s so difficult for me to do it, I don’t know what’s going on. For my sisters and I it is just about showing up and willing that something happens, but it’s been hard. I feel privileged not having children – I’m trying to imagine what it would have been like if I had kids.
Bridgers: Carmen Maria Machado, my favourite author, said that you have to feel like you’re having an affair with your art. On tour I feel like I’m sneaking around, I suddenly think of a melody and I go to the backstage and shut the door and play guitar, and now at home I’m just like: “I can fuck you whenever I want!”
Sumney: All my songs are about loneliness anyway, so that idea of writing a quarantine album seemed quite redundant. I made an active decision not to write songs. I went seven or eight months without writing a song and that felt real good. Probably because I had just put out a huge double album, I felt like I needed to live a little bit – like I needed to live with the interiority of my current conditions and not force it. I started taking photos and started to shoot film, directed more, doing writing of other types. It felt good: yo, I don’t have to feel like a piece of shit because I’m not writing songs. And I watched so much television. So much.
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP … what did the outraged reaction to the song reveal? Is it good that pop can still shock in that way in 2020? Was it simply good for business?
Bridgers: I don’t think we need any more excuses to talk about the patriarchy, but [the outrage] is literally just about that.
Sumney: I didn’t find [the outrage] interesting at all. I don’t think it’s new. It’s been happening since the age of Madonna. I think maybe what is new is that outrage, especially in American culture, is an economic vehicle more than ever before and it pertains to the media, a media that is politically binary. I think more than anything maybe that part of it felt new, but I was: “OK, I’ll get over it.”
Bridgers: Also, the censored version – “wet and gushy” – is actually more disgusting to me, as a concept.
SXSW and Afropunk announce that they will return virtually in 2021. Can anyone get excited about virtual festivals?
Sumney: I did Afropunk this year virtually and I had an amazing time, maybe because I’m interested in directing and making film. We went into the mountains and filmed this crazy experimental thing that was really fun to do. It sucks not to have that communal experience with the audience, but festivals are really a shot in the dark. They suck to play a lot of the time, there’s technical issues. So I really enjoyed taking the cheque I would have been paid to play the festival and being like: “All right, now let me make an experience for you.”
Haim: We did a [streamed concert] at Canter’s Deli [in LA] that was really fun. It was right around the time we were releasing the album and the deli actually sounded amazing sonically. That was a real plus, and the engineers who help us in the studio were around, but it was a lot of rallying, a lot of work to get that done.
La Havas: Going to a festival is about Going to a Festival. It isn’t even really about the bands, it’s about meeting strangers and talking to them for six hours, being their best friend, then never seeing them again, and all these other experiences, so I am interested to see how it works out as a medium online.
McKenna: It’s never going to repeat the experience of a festival. And people are kind of bored of sitting at their laptops in a big way – I know I am. I’ve had opportunities to do a couple of really cool things online, but it’s not a festival. A really good online performance, people are honing that as a thing, but no way is it the same.
Sumney: One thing I like about virtual festivals is that people who just never would have gone to the festival will see it. People who are too old, or disabled or who are already immunocompromised, people who just can’t travel the distance to Coachella. There’s something nice about it being available to them by just watching a livestream and not getting Fomo and feeling shitty.
The end of the Trump era. What effect did he have on music?
Haim: I feel I need to take a couple of years and go back and understand what the last four years like was even, in a way. I’m just so fatigued, I feel like there’s so much shit to get my head wrapped around about what has happened and how music was affected. I have to zone out and kind of understand.
McKenna: There’s a couple of records that felt very direct, some of them were really good, you know, This Is America by Childish Gambino feels very of this era.
Bridgers: I’ve been joking lately: “Too bad music’s going to suck now!” That was my least favourite thing when Trump got elected: “Yes, now the most powerful musical minds ever will … [make great protest music]”
Sawayama: I found the fact that he denied climate change quite inspiring. I wrote a song on my album called Fuck This World, about money and power. I think that songs that promoted unity in this time were a form of protest, because the Trump administration was trying to divide.
What was your album of the year? And what’s the one thing you’ll take away from 2020?
McKenna: 925 by Sorry, especially during the first lockdown when I needed some music to bang out every day. And then the lesson, I guess, is simply do more things that make you happy every day.
Sumney: KeiyaA’s Forever, Ya Girl. It’s phenomenal. And my takeaway is just the importance of building interior life. I didn’t have much of a personal life before this year, my whole life revolved around my career, all of my life lessons were attached to my career. This year was the first time I had to imagine myself a person, as just a person. I’m like: “Can you keep the plants alive, bitch?” That changed the whole game for me.
La Havas: Milton Nascimento’s Clube da Esquina. It’s a masterpiece, really inspiring. It comes from the 70s, which I believe is the golden era of recorded music. What I’ll take away is probably how precious our time is and how precious your own time is.
Bridgers: The Bright Eyes album that came out this year, Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was. All of my arguments with Conor Oberst [Bright Eyes frontman and her partner in the duo Better Oblivion Community Center] are like: “Why are you so wrapped up in how shitty everything is all of the time?” But this year, obviously, I was: “Well, he fucking told everybody what was happening!” I know I will romanticise this time in the future, like: “I wish I’d known how good that was.” I just want to remind myself how shitty this was. I think that we have a tendency when we remember stuff to put our knowledge of how it all ended up on the memory. “Everything was fine and I was fine, so why didn’t I enjoy myself?” Because you didn’t fucking know!
Sawayama: You guys are so cultured! I’ve hardly heard any of those albums. I’m going to say Lady Gaga’s Chromatica. I’m such a basic bitch but, you know what? It made me so happy, like I was out with my friends having a great time. The take away from this year is just be fucking grateful. I know people who’ve lost family members; and people in the live industry I know that have really suffered. So just be grateful and just be mindful there’s people that have had a truly awful year.
Haim: My album of the year was Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud. What did I learn? Take it day by day. And it’s OK if you take an extra Xanax at night.