Poppy Breaks Down New Album 'Am I A Girl?' And Says She Was 'Bullied' By Grimes
Fans and critics love to speculate about the world behind Poppy's curtain. The singer-songwriter, actress and internet personality became famous via a series of irreverent and unsettling YouTube videos she makes with director Titanic Sinclair. Often set to a soundtrack of brooding organs or synthesizers, the videos range from five-second clip of her asking “Is Santa racist?” to a 10-minute recording of her simply saying “I’m Poppy” over and over again. Her vacant stare and girlish demeanor conjure both a sense of childlike innocence and existential dread, yet she’s garnered more than 385 million views since 2011 as well as the attention of Diplo’s Mad Decent label, to which she’s signed.
Poppy’s lofty second album, Am I A Girl?, released on Halloween, inspires more questions than answers about the Poppy project and what it represents. The records’ 14 tracks range from slick synth-pop to crunchy nu-metal, while its lyrics range from the inane to the philosophical. Poppy says her interest in exploring the depth's of cultural shallows (and vice versa) comes from society’s own obsession with what’s on the surface.
“[I'm inspired by] Hollywood and vanity and the way people are so quick to judge when you first meet them, in the first few seconds,” Poppy, 23, says on the phone. A slight and occasional Southern twang offers the only hint of the human behind the character. Poppy was born Moriah Rose Pereira in Boston and spent her teenage years in Nashville before moving to Los Angeles, though she typically speaks in the third person and says she’s from the internet. “I think it's fascinating,” she continues. “I study it in a way. Living in Hollywood, it's everywhere, so it's cool to analyze -- well, not cool. It's interesting to analyze. I think people should do that. I think they should talk less and listen more.”
Am I A Girl?, the follow-up to last year’s Poppy.Computer, is a byproduct of her California life. Poppy originally wrote and recorded material in Japan, but after arriving back in L.A., she hit the studio with a wide range of producers, from rising EDM stars like Vaughn Oliver, Wax Motif and Aryay to pop heavyweights like Diplo and Ferdinand Garibay. “We just experimented with sounds,” she says of the latter, best known for his work with Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue. “He asked me who I was listening to and who I would like to triangulate. A lot of the music that I was listening to was very '80s synth-driven but also industrial. We played a lot with industrial-sounding drums, fusing them together and creating this poppy, future-esque, fashion, dance and nu-metal album.”
She also worked with Grimes on “Play Destroy,” which she says is one of her favorite songs on the record despite a behind-the-scenes process she “could have gone without.”
“I was kind of bullied into submission by [Grimes] and her team of self-proclaimed feminists,” she says. “We planned the song coming out months ago, and she was preventing it. I got to watch her bully songwriters into signing NDA[s] and not taking credit for songs that they were a part of. She doesn't practice what she preaches. It's really upsetting to work with a female that is very outward about a topic, but behind closed doors, it's the complete opposite. It's actually very disheartening to people that are actually feminists and supporters of other females.” (Billboard reached out to Grimes’ representatives for comment; in a since-deleted Instagram post from Dec. 1, Grimes wrote: “Poppy, you dragged me into a disgusting situation and won’t stop punishing me for not wanting to be a part of it. I don’t want to work with you, you leaked the song anyway. U got what you want. Let it go.”)
The album’s lyrical content is even more ambitious than her list of collaborators: Am I A Girl? touches on identity, climate change, classism, fame, the commodification of sex and the need for approval. The album's title track addresses gender fluidity (“Sometimes I'm feminine/ Sometimes I'm masculine/ Don't evaluate me as woman or man,” she sings) while “In a Minute,” pokes fun at gender stereotypes and performative “woke”-ness (“I’ll make up my face in a minute/I’ll reform this state in a minute”). That may all sound like your Twitter feed condensed into an album, but Poppy isn’t interested in being timely or topical -- if anything, she wants to offer a break from the endless scroll.
“I hope to help people,” she says. “I hope that I can be the escape that they need when things seem impossible or too tough. I think that there should be more artists that want to be the escape for people, for the fans, for the public. I don't like when people talk about the news. I think it's boring. I think people should just make art and let the art speak for itself.”
She makes an exception, however, for one of her favorite newsy subjects: the valley between artificial intelligence and humanity -- and the way technology is shrinking that gap. It’s at the center of songs like “Hard Feelings” and lead single “Time Is Up,” which Poppy calls a “dance song in disguise” told from the perspective of a sentient robot who pities humanity for its ignorance and mortality.
“It's important for me to tell it from that perspective because it is an issue, and it is a scary thing,” Poppy says. “We've known that it's been coming for a very long time, but nobody really does anything about it. They just know 'Wow, there's more robots in the world. Oh, we have Google and Alexa in our house, and it's really convenient for us,' but they're actually taking in all this information. It's not just going nowhere. It's all going somewhere up into the cloud, but it's all very valuable information.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for Poppy, what starts off resembling a critique of the disintegration of privacy soon turns into a surreal prediction about a robot-driven apocalypse: “I don't have all the answers but I do think that they're taking all of it and using it to program the A.I. robots, and I think they are going to take over,” she says. “But you have to, I believe, surrender to them and embrace it, because when they get too powerful they're just going to try to kill those people that tried to go against them … I don't think that humans can get it back, but they can embrace the change and enjoy the time on this planet while they're here, because none of this really makes sense. We're all living on a planet. I think about that a lot.”
The end of Am I A Girl?, a string of three heavy nu-metal tracks, hints at both Poppy’s next sonic chapter -- she says she has tons of songs in that style already written for her third album -- and that dark future she teases in conversation. The video for “X,” is total horror: One moment, Poppy resembles a ‘60s flower child frolicking in fields, espousing world peace; the next, she’s covered in blood, Carrie-style, backed by a masked, ominous metal band. The players joined her for her album release party in Los Angeles. She enjoyed sharing the stage with them so much that she’s invited them on the road for her Am I A Girl? Tour, which kicks off in early 2019.
Until then, fans can tide themselves over by joining Poppy’s “cult,” Poppy.Church, a twisted take on a fan club that sounds like a cross between a Ryan Murphy creation and a tribute to early Internet forums: Cult members can chat with other users and maintain personalized home pages; to sign up, you just have to pledge your allegiance and “sign your name in blood,” which is just red ink. According to Poppy, the site has amassed more than 25,000 members since its launch this past summer. “I wanted to gather my fans in a place that wasn't Instagram or Twitter, something that I made myself” she says. “Poppy.Church Is the best place for that.”
One day, Poppy hopes the Church can become a real physical place in L.A. If it happens, it’ll be the perfect compliment to her songs and videos -- just another way she’s blurring the lines between our tangible selves and our digital selves, the real and the fake.
Poppy Am I A Girl? North American Tour
Thursday January 31 – 9:30 Club (Washington DC)
Friday February 1 – Theatre of Living Arts (Philadelphia)
Saturday February 2 – Irving Plaza (New York City)
Monday February 4 – House of Blues (Boston)
Wednesday February 6 – Danforth Music Hall (Toronto)
Thursday February 7 – St. Andrew’s Hall (Detroit)
Friday February 8 – House Of Blues (Chicago)
Saturday February 9 – Stage AE (Pittsburgh)
Monday February 11 – Cannery Ballroom (Nashville)
Tuesday February 12 – Buckhead Theater (Atlanta)
Wednesday February 13 – The Orpheum (Tampa Bay)
Friday February 15 – House Of Blues (Dallas)
Saturday February 16 – Emo’s (Austin)
Monday February 18 – Belly Up (Aspen)
Tuesday February 19 – Gothic Theater (Englewood)
Thursday February 21 – The Showbox (Seattle)
Friday February 22 – Wonder Ballroom (Portland)
Saturday February 23 – Senator Theatre (Chico)
Sunday February 24 – Regency Ballroom (San Francisco)
Wednesday February 27 – House Of Blues (San Diego)