The factors that mean one song gets through to people, while another fails to stick, are largely unconscious, but “Lost on You” by LP – aka Laura Pergolizzi – certainly gives you value for money. There is a standard sort of verse – minor key, a bit “Southern gothic”. Then there’s a pre-chorus, the preserve of the sophisticated pop song. The pre-chorus winds a wispy, descending trail along the path of its own lyric (“So smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em, ’cause it’s going down”) and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the climax. But there’s a real chorus too – big and anthemic, the kind you get in a stadium. “Lost on You” is a song of three peaks, all in a nonchalant, swaggering disguise. In 2016, it became the fourth most Shazamed song in the world – in other words, when people heard it in public, they stopped what they were doing and asked: what the hell is this? When LP had played it to the new head of Warner Music a couple of years earlier, he’d dropped her from the label. It was the fourth contract she’d lost. She’s now on her seventh record deal.
She used to keep her shades on in interviews, out of shyness and out of rock star-ness, but today it’s yellow-tinted aviator sunglasses, a faded T-shirt, jeans and snakeskin winkle-pickers. She has the pipe-cleaner legs of a punk or a Beatle, the scruffiness of a Ramone and the hair of – well, the hair of LP, now 37, a tangle of black, with a mischievous chin poking out. She has a tendency to deliver different voices – imperious Englishman, dumb jock – alongside her own, fast-talking New Yorker.
Asked to describe her most famous track recently, LP – whose music has been recorded by Rihanna, Cher and the Backstreet Boys – called it her “Sinatra” song, summing it up like this: “Baby you broke my fucking heart, but hey, I’m gonna wear a nice suit and be cool still… and you’re gonna miss me baby. Long drag on a cigarette… fade to black.” It could have been recorded by a famous artist but its rejection by Warner kept it in her possession, until the head of A&R at a Greek indie label licensed it, and it went to No 1 in 13 countries. There are thousands of “Lost on Yous” stuck on laptops around the world, LP says, when we meet in a quiet corner of the ancient Les Trois Rois hotel in Basel, Switzerland. It’s just about whether or not anyone finds them.
“I don’t know why I hung in there,” she says. “Really, I laugh. Sometimes people come up to me and they sit down and they say” – she pulls herself upright, hunches forward in a busybody stance and prods at an imaginary knee:“‘Wow, you really hung in there! Hey Jim – you really hung in there. You’re a partner now. You had ups and downs. Everybody hated you. They fired you, they hired you, they fired you.’ People feel free to talk to me like this! I would never sidle up to someone and break down their fucking work life to them!”
She makes a throwaway comment about a graph showing “the inverse relationship of her music to her look”. This has hurt her a lot, she says. It is true that a major element of the concept of LP is surprise: she sounds like Cyndi Lauper, but she’s so androgynous that a Guardian writer was led in 2017 to say she “identifies as female”. She is a gay woman. She is performing on a Caribbean cruise next year for Olivia – “the travel company for lesbians”.
“I feel so ordinary in this feast of diversity we’re having,” she says. “The look is everything and the look is nothing. I know people that are completely – quote unquote – ‘normal-looking’ that are out of their fucking minds. And I’ve met people that look wild, and it’s like talking to a hairbrush.
“On the one hand we’ve got these super-racist viewpoints going on – and then we have this whole extra bunch of colours that’s opened up. The diversity meter has just exploded. And there’s this myopic fucking elite trying to hold on to old beliefs. It’s survival at its wildest, you know? People are scratching, crawling on top of each other to survive, to get to the air. Because they can’t deal with living in a world where their son might come home with a person that has a beard and is wearing a dress.”
LP was drawn to a life in music “because it was the thing that scared me most”. Credit: Msergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty
She grew up in Huntington Station, Long Island, the birthplace of Walt Whitman, where she attended the Walt Whitman High School and was “a preppie”: smart, all honours, “and I did sports, you know, soccer. It was really normal service”. It is hard to imagine a preppy LP. From the top of her T-shirt poke five sails of the ten-inch antique clipper she had tattooed on her chest in New York, four years ago, her symbol of – she rolls her eyes – the “journey”, which, as we know, was a long one.
The tattoo features the words “Forever for Now”, also the title of the song she wrote for her mother, who died when she was 16. Had the young LP been able to view a photo of the current LP, she says, she would have asked, “How do I fucking get there now? But I like that this was lurking in there and I didn’t know it.” And it does take time.
Here are the phases of an artist’s career, according to my interviewee:
1. The Jim Morrison Phase. “I thought I’d open my mouth in New York and they’d say ‘Get over here, you’re signed.’”
2. The Sorrowful Phase: “Well, if no one wants to hear what I have to say, then I just won’t do it and they’ll be sorry.” She has been there several times.
3. The Work Phase. “Drop your expectations. I wrote 140 songs. I forced myself to be prolific, even though it seemed, from the outside, that not much was going on.”
Eighteen years ago, at the turn of the millennium, LP – so named in her teens by a camp counsellor – had a nice thing going in the clubs of Manhattan: she played the Bowery Ballroom and Arlene’s Grocery and she sold out the Mercury Lounge. Her first record, Heart-Shaped Scar, appeared in 2001. Then there were many years of touring with “a bunch of dudes in a van”.
She signed to Island Def Jam in 2006, the first of her major deals. There were questions over her image. And questions remained when she signed to Warner: “One of the executives, a woman, only seven or eight years ago, said, ‘Well, will she wear dresses?’” she recalls. “I mean, don’t you think if I was going to wear dresses, you might have seen me in a dress? Are you trying to use the power of suggestion? Are you out of your fucking mind?”
No albums emerged from her time with Island but three advances from various labels gave her the impression she was making a lot of money. She suspected, though, that she was going to have to start getting publishing cuts “or it was all a sham”. That is when the Work Phase began. Around 2009, LP became her own side project, writing dozens and dozens of songs with no guarantee that they would be recorded by anyone.
For the past few years, the songwriting camp has haunted discussions of the modern music industry. These mysterious workshops, in which hits are harvested, are held all over New York and London and LA by labels and artists, and are founded on the idea that if you put a dozen highly competitive musicians in a room together, you’re increasing your chances of producing the next banger.
In these pages recently, the rock veteran Steve Perry of Journey bemoaned the practice, comparing it to movie industry cynicism: “There are 20 people writing these songs. They’re trying to maximise the individual components, like when you make a film.” Beyoncé’s 2016 track “Hold Up” was written by 15 people. I once interviewed Sia Furler, who’d attended one of the songwriting camps for Beyoncé’s fifth studio album, which took place in the Hamptons. It did not sound fun: five top-line writers (that is, tune and lyrics) were installed in separate rooms, each competing for tracks while Bey, you got the sense, popped in, saying: “love this, lose that” before moving on next door. The atmosphere was tense – Sia comforted herself by imagining a VH1 reality TV show called Top-Line Bitches. Beyoncé recorded 105 songs from the camp, and only one of Sia’s – “Pretty Hurts” – made it on to her record.
The first thing about songwriting camps, says LP, is not to think about how many people are in the room. “One of my songs had a sample of a song that had four writers – so all of a sudden, there’s four more people getting a cut…” When she started out, she was put together with Billy Steinberg, who’d written “Like A Virgin” for Madonna. Writers in his era, she says, could get a million dollars off an album track simply because of sales. “Today, gosh, you could make three grand if you’re lucky. Because of streams, you know? That’s why I just knew that volume was the key. I look at my BMI statements and I’ll think, I don’t even remember writing five of these songs – and they’re somewhere in the Philippines and just made me five cents.”
The best thing you can do with a songwriting camp, she says, is take it for the exercise it is. The process forces you not to be possessive about your ideas: “You have to cut the fat. If someone pops out of line and says something, and no one responds, they stop saying it! They just move on.”
While it’s easy enough to connect the process to the changing economics of the music industry – 17 people competing for 1 per cent of a royalty, telling themselves it was enough just to spend time in a room with Rihanna – the effects on the sound of music itself are just starting to be felt. A couple of years ago, it was a curiosity that Jack White turned up on Beyoncé’s Lemonade (Father John Misty, likewise) – then his last album used hip hop musicians instead of rock musicians, and no one had much to say about it. Pop and rock writers are constellating around the R&B world, where most of the money, and experimentation, are to be found. Jobbing songwriters with any sense of business have to know how to write in multiple different styles.
Perhaps that’s why, more than ever, pop seems to sound the same these days. But there’s a crop of artists – Britain’s Charli XCX is another one – who seem to be sustaining relatively interesting indie careers having earned their money writing for other people. Pop is “good and well-rounded and it cleans your brain out”, LP once said. But the first record she bought was Led Zeppelin IV. And she co-wrote Rihanna’s “Cheers” on a ukelele. Rihanna put “Rihanna-isms” on it – those “blue, cool notes”, and it went platinum in the US.
On stage tonight in Basel the uke and the whistling – for there is real whistling – are two of LP’s strangest tics: the calling cards of the fey folk lady (to which she bears little resemblance) and of Roger Whittaker, wound into something casual and new. The mouth organ fits her Electric-Dylan look. She whittled the blues out of her voice early on because she didn’t want people saying she was trying to sound like Janis Joplin. She still finds rock stars in our age – but they’re not new Patti Smiths or Joan Jetts.
“I think the closest thing we have to the ultimate female rock star is Florence Welch,” she says. “Almost Stevie Nicks 2.0, – but she has brought so much modernity with hints of greatness from the past.” She would not, she says, rather live in any other musical age than ours, though she kind of has to say that. “People always go, ‘God, music sucks right now,’ and then they look back and have a party about it.”
Her singing style, which rises impossibly high on stage, developed while she laid down demos or guide vocals on tracks for other people. Increasingly, she found she was being advised to “turn the LP knob down a bit”: in a strange way, the process of the music factory production line was forcing the birth of an original character. She wrote a song called “Torch” which she assumed would be sung by someone else: she enjoyed singing the guide vocal “heteronormative”, she says, “kind of sexy, singing ‘I’m your darling candy girl’”. Unexpectedly, her own version turned up on the soundtrack to a Bill Murray film. It amused her to think of people’s surprise if they knew how she looked.
“Just because I swagger around like I do, it doesn’t mean there aren’t all kinds of things in me,” she says. “I can feel all those people surging through me – I can feel the feminine and masculine aspects of myself flying around in a fury when I’m singing. And it’s a very free, very non-committal thing.
“Most people are not one thing or the other. It takes a minute to figure out what tick you’re at, where are you going to stop, or go to. And at different points in your life you can go further or less. There is a super-comfort zone, and I think I definitely found it. If there is nothing else about me, it’s just that I am completely comfortable with who I am. I mean, I still worry to death about pretty much anything. But I don’t think worrying has anything to do with confidence.”
She came out in her late teens. Part of her reluctance to do so earlier was the thought that her family would automatically picture her having sex. “I still think that when you come home and you say you’re gay, your brothers, sisters, cousins, whatever, are thinking ‘Wow’. They’re picturing you sexually! What the fuck? I don’t owe you that window!” she says.
“They’re not thinking about that if you bring home a guy. Parents, their daughter brings home a strapping young man and he’s violating her ten ways to Sunday every day and they’re happy. But if a woman comes over they’re thinking, ‘What are they doing?’ At least be appalled either way: ‘Oh, my God, my child is having sex!’”
The suburban life still haunts her. Her father finally accepted her music career when his friend, a “reasonably successful lounge singer”, heard her sing and said she “had something”. He died on the day she wrote “Love Will Keep You Up All Night”, the first song she got recorded by a big name, the Backstreet Boys. As a teenager, med school had beckoned – her brother is a neurosurgeon. Her mother sang opera but retired any musical ambitions when she had a family. When she died of cancer, everything changed. “I just felt very lost as far as this provincial life was concerned,” LP says, “I was drawn to music because it was the thing that scared me most.
“My mother never talked about pining away for music, or missing some massive thing. I think she had a more intellectual mind anyway. She would have liked to have done more school, become something else. But I just thought that life is short and music seemed so… impossible. I had no idea how to do it, so I was like, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
On stage tonight, strange little operatic breaks pepper her music, her voice changing timbre and climbing to soprano heights.
A while back, LP said that the jury was still out for her as far as fame was concerned. She already has her superfans. People have driven in from across Europe for the show tonight. She has been in British Vogue.
Morrissey sought her out to sing on his forthcoming collection of cover versions.
She starts to outline a fantasy of a kind of guidance counsellor on hand to advise young artists trying to break into the industry – but then she changes her mind.
“I’d say that 90 per cent of the people I’ve worked with never went anywhere. I’ve got songs that I’ve taken back from artists who didn’t work out. Sometimes they say they didn’t really want it anyway. But we tell ourselves what we want,” she says.
“Each person has to discover what makes you you. How you’re going to get through, what you’re going to hold on to, what you’re going to strip away and uncover in yourself. Would you rather hit it right away but with a song that you weren’t behind, with an image you didn’t really like? Or would you rather wait a little bit longer and have the song that defines you, have a look that speaks to you?”
You wonder if it isn’t easier for a musician, after years of being pulled around by labels, getting the pep talks and the promises that come to nothing, to take up a firmer psychological position, and give up on fame?
“Well, that,” she says, slamming down her soya latte, “is what separates the men from the boys!”
LP’s new album, “Heart To Mouth”, is released by BMG on 7 December
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special