Lynn Gunn is on the edge.
The edge of what, exactly, has shifted over the past few years, but right now, rest assured, it’s mostly just the precipice of her band’s sophomore album, a potential breakout release for the Massachusetts-bred goth-rock trio PVRIS. The vocalist-guitarist has seen her life seesaw between euphoria and complete numbness, and though 2014’s White Noise took her on a trip — tours with Muse and Fall Out Boy, U.S. album sales nearing 90,000 copies — it wasn’t until several weeks ago that a well-earned cry for help finally brought her clarity.
But to tell that story, we must travel back further, to the first time PVRIS — and its frontperson — truly left their comfort zone.
I really enjoyed the letter you wrote for Billboard‘s Pride Month, about how your first came out to your parents by leaving a letter under their pillow before you left on your first tour. What made you want to do it that way?
Lynn Gunn: I had just started dating my first girlfriend. I was so wrapped up in that and so in love. It genuinely made me so happy and I felt so free from it. All of my friends knew and my family didn’t know at the time, and everybody had just been so supportive and so loving that I was like, “Ah, f— it — I need to be fully free, and my parents need to know.” I was just so happy to be with this person and really just wanted to share that with everybody and have my family on board, but I just didn’t know how to verbalize it in person. I would always try to bring it up and I would just completely choke. My girlfriend at the time had told me one of her friends had written her parents a letter, and that was the way they went about it. Looking back now, I really wish I had told them in person, but yeah, I literally wrote a letter and left for my first tour ever, so it was like two of the most liberating and freeing things to be happening at the same time — leaving for the first time and also dropping this huge bomb on them. It was the ultimate freedom and liberation when I did that.
What was it like waiting and waiting for your parents’ response?
It was nerve-wracking. I remember driving off, and I’d kissed my mom goodbye and I was like, “Hey, I left you something under your pillow and I would really like for you to read it,” and she was all excited. She probably thought it was a present or something… I just remember sitting in the back of the van, putting my headphones in, and I feeling like I was going to be sick. My brother knew at this point because I had confided in him a while back about it… He was home because it was around the holidays, and I was texting him like, “Did mom read it yet? What’s going on?” and he was like, “No, she hasn’t.” Eventually when she did read it, he was like, “I’m not going to lie. She’s really upset right now.” But her reasons for being upset were totally unrelated to the actual situation. She was more concerned about not what our immediate family would think, but what our grandmother would think and the fact that I left my mom to tell my dad… But she’s been super supportive ever since… Through all of my family, it’s been amazing, so it was just that initial jump off that was a little scary and a little rocky at first.
And you we’re like, 18 or 19 then?
Yeah, I was 18, only 18. My parents were already stressed because at this point I had told them that I didn’t want to go to school and this was my first year off from school and not getting an education, and I was just working full-time and really pursuing things with the band, and nothing was really lined up for us at that point and nothing looked very promising… So I think they were worrying about that in general, like, “Now our daughter is gay, awesome!” [Laughs]
So you had come out to your friends more gradually,,or just more naturally before you had talked to your parents?
Yeah. I actually don’t even fully remember how I had come out to my friends… By that time I had a girlfriend and I was like, “Hey, I’m gay, guys,” and everybody already kind of knew and was super supportive about it. I don’t even remember how it happened. I would just tell them about girls I was interested in and if I thought a girl was cute.
And this was your first girlfriend that you came out to your parents around?
Was that a long relationship? When you went on tour, how did that work out?
That was the longest relationship I have been in. It was about two years, which isn’t long in retrospective, but for me at this point in time, it was definitely long. We definitely went through a lot together, going from not being on the road all the time and not being long distance to me just touring constantly and it just wasn’t working out anymore. We’re both on really good terms with each other and are civil, so there’s no bad blood.
For the record, how exactly do you identify?
Gay, I guess, lesbian. I feel weird saying the word “lesbian.” It sounds like a weird island somewhere. [Laughs] Yeah, I just identify as gay, basically… I love women so much and I have yet to feel that way towards a man, basically, so that’s where I’m at.
Playing with PVRIS, you’ve seen proposals and coming-outs, right?
Yeah, it’s been nuts. We’ve seen a few proposals in line for our meet-and-greets, and also just people coming out. For example, there was one girl standing in line with her mom… We were about to do a photo for a meet-and-greet and this girl had a paper that she had folded up and kept hidden. She pulled me aside and she opened it up, and I think it read like, “Mom, I’m gay,” or something like that… She showed me and I was like, “Are you sure this is going to be cool? Like, this is how you’re doing it?” She was like, “Yeah, my mom knows. It’s totally fine,” and I was like very confused at the situation, and so we took the picture and her mom was, like, standing by our photographer and was watching us take the photo and right when they flashed it, she took the paper out and her mom was just like, “This is how you’re going to tell me?” It was the sweetest thing. Her mom was just so supportive. She gave her a big hug and was like, “I love you so much.” It was the most heartwarming thing to ever see, just that situation… It happens quite a bunch.
What about proposals? Are there any of those that stick out in memory?
There was one — this was also during a meet-and-greet — this girl kind of pulled us aside and was like, “I’m about to propose to my girlfriend.” At this point, she couldn’t turn back and we couldn’t say no, so we were like, “We hope to god she says yes.” And right when they took the picture, the girl kneeled down and proposed to her girlfriend and she said yes and it was all happy and merry.
A lot of couples have also met at our shows and have come to our meet-and-greets and told us, “Hey, we met through you guys and we met at your show last time,” and that’s also really cool to see, and also just bringing couples together and bringing friends together. I’ve noticed so much camaraderie in our fan base, just in general, which has also been really awesome to see.
What does it take for a band to make sure its shows are a safe space?
I like to think the people that you attract are what you’re giving off. We genuinely want people to feel comfortable and welcome, and I just hope that radiates. We’ve been working with this company called the Ally Coalition, which works integrating LGBTQ equality into music and art… We have certain organizations setting up, like, merch tables at our shows and even giving kids the resources and people to talk to is another way to create that safe space and let people know that you can be heard and you are welcome.
In your experience of playing festivals, doing press, and being around the world as PVRIS, do you find that gay and queer musicians are underrepresented?
To a degree. I mean compared to the mass majority, it’s such a small fraction, but there have been a lot of great LGBTQ artists coming out recently, or not just coming out, but their careers are taking off — like Troye Sivan and Halsey, this band MUNA… there’s a lot more, Perfume Genius.
So this actually ties in with MUNA — they purposely don’t use gendered pronouns in their lyrics, and, thinking about your lyrics, it seems like you don’t, either. Is that an intentional thing?
Completely unintentional. I’ve never deliberately written a lyric and made sure it didn’t apply to either gender. It’s always just been, I think, a very natural thing. I actually thought about this recently because somebody else pointed it out; I’ve never deliberately made it gender neutral, I’ve always just been talking directly to whatever person or whatever person it’s about or saying “you” rather than saying “he” or “she.” But it’s interesting hearing different artists’ perspectives and how some will deliberately do that and make sure it’s neutral, which I think is really cool.
I wanted to talk about your new music video for “What’s Wrong.” Going through reactions on Tumblr, this girl was saying how she liked the video because she thought, with the dancers, it had lesbian themes to it, but it wasn’t sexualized. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, totally. I think… yeah, it wasn’t sexual and it wasn’t meant to be sexualized. I haven’t thought about that too much. We’ve never gone out of our way to deliberately make something gay or lesbian… It was just like when we were coming up with the video treatment, we were like, “We’re going to have two female dancers and that’s going to be what it is.” I think that’s a good representation of, like, just girl on girl; I don’t know how to fully explain it. When you don’t make it a big deal and just show it for what it is, it’s a lot more powerful than deliberately making something focused on the gay aspect of it, I guess.
Do you feel like trying to avoid a male gaze aspect to it is a part of that?
I think in a way. I think it happens very naturally, though. I think because my gaze is a female gaze and I’m involved with everything, the whole process. So I think it just naturally comes off that way.
There just seems to be a lot of torment in the lyrics from the first two songs you shared off the new album — your “heaven” being taken away and feeling miserable — what sort of inspiration in your life were you pulling from?
Really just the past three years and the kind of ironic and juxtaposed positioning. Like, everything was going so well for us and we had crazy success in what we were doing and, in theory, you should be happy and, in theory, you should be on top of the world, feel amazing. For me, it was the complete opposite. I totally became my own worst enemy, and I felt so small and insignificant and I would just constantly beat myself up over everything and really was just in the worst place mentally and emotionally and even physically, so for me it was my own personal health and I was just kind of trapped in it and was never really vulnerable about it or never opened up about it. So this record was really the chance to do that and kind of take ownership of everything and just really reflect on it and come to terms with it and just get it out there.
Do you think all of that bad stuff came from being out on the road so much, becoming kind of famous, and all that comes with that?
There are so many factors that I think led to that. I think one of the biggest things, though, is just I’m a complete perfectionist and control freak and you have to let go of control at some point or to some extent in this career and in this industry. It’s just like you need to let go and give up your power a little bit, and so the biggest thing from me was stress from that and then also just pressure to do well and pressure to, like, stay true and be a good person and perform well. You always have to have your game face on, so at some point, I just started suppressing every emotion and bottled it up and swept it under the carpet and never went back to it, and it just created this ongoing snowball of just feeling empty and numb and not really absorbing emotions or experiences for what they were — being in situations, but not being there. This record is just mostly about that and learning to let go and be vulnerable again — be in your emotions and actually feel them without suppressing them or avoiding them.
What do you think it was that finally got things to swing towards the positive? Was there just a big moment where everything came out?
Everything kind of came full force once we got off tour and started the record. We literally only had two weeks off in between our last tour date and stepping into the studio, so it was just going from 100 miles an hour to zero and that in itself was kind of an emotional whiplash… figuring out how to be human again. That was the first break we had in the past three years and the first break we had to sit and process everything.
That’s when the numbness and the emptiness became very apparent. Going into the studio and working on this record was all I was really looking forward to. This was the light at the end of the tunnel, and I had finally gotten there and I felt nothing from it, and in that moment when I realized that and realized how heartbreaking that was to not even want to be at the one thing we were looking forward to, to feel nothing from it and to be completely empty and naked of ideas. That moment I was like, “Okay, I need to talk to somebody and start to rewire my brain and get help.” It is definitely an ongoing process, and I’m still trying to rework it and figure it out, but I’m definitely in a much better place now than when we started the record and when we were on tour last year.
Do you feel comfortable talking about who you opened up to and what that was like?
Yeah, I mean to be completely candid, I started going to therapy and just getting help in that form and it really, really did help, but it took a lot of pushing for me to get there. I was on a lot of calls with management and my family just being like, “I don’t know what to do.”
At this point there was pressure to get the record done and be in the right headspace for it, but I couldn’t get out of it, and so there was a lot of pushing and pulling that eventually got me in there, and I started to figure everything out… Like I mentioned, I think the most important thing I learned through that was not to bottle up emotions and be vulnerable and be present when you do feel something and take ownership of what you’re feeling and not feel guilty for feeling negative emotions and just kind of honoring everything that you’re feeling, rather than just the positive and the happy.
Yeah, totally. Therapy helps with that.
Yeah, I had never been before and I was always very against it and didn’t want to admit that I needed to go to it… Like I mentioned, I’m just very in control of everything else in my life and my career, so it was hard to let go in that sense and accept help from an outside source.
PVRIS’ sophomore album, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, is due Aug. 4 on Rise Records