Last year, I wrote about the rapidly rising Solleron, Sweden-born, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and pop artist Winona Oak. Oak, who was born Johanna Ekmark has a rather unique backstory: Growing up on the small, Swedish island known to Swedes as the Island of the Sun, the Solleron-born, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and pop artist spent much of her childhood encountering more animals than people. As the story goes, she grew up as a trained horse acrobat and because she grew up in a musical home, she was encouraged to pursue creative endeavors as much as possible: Ekmark began playing violin when she was 5, piano when she was 9, and she wrote poetry and songs at an extremely young age.
Ekmark eventually moved to Stockholm to pursue a career in music, but a leap of faith that had her attend a Neon Gold Records writing retreat in the Nicaraguan jungle led to her meet Australian-born and based hit making producer and pop artist What So Not. And from this serendipitous meeting, she went on to co-write ““Better” and “Stuck In Orbit,” before stepping out into the spotlight as both the writer and featured artist on the Aussie producer and pop artist’s “Beautiful.”
Adding to a busy 2018, Ekmark covered HAIM‘s “Don’t Save Me” for Neon Gold Records’ 10th anniversary compilation, NGX: Ten Years of Neon Gold before closing out that year with a co-write and vocal contribution to The Chainsmokers viral hit “Hope,” a track that has amassed over 250 million streams across all digital platforms globally — including over 100 million streams on Spotify. As a result of such incredibly early success, the Swedish-born, Los Angeles-based pop artist signed to Warner-Chappell Music Publishing and to Neon Gold/Atlantic Records.
Now, as you may recall, last year, I wrote about the Swedish-born, Los Angeles-based pop artist’s long-awaited debut single, the slickly produced, hook-driven and sultry “He Don’t Love Me,” and the slow-burning and anthemic ballad “Break My Broken Heart.” Both singles managed to further cement Oak/Ekmark’s growing reputation for crating incredibly earnest pop with enormous hooks. Oak ended last year with the release of an alternate version of her last single of 2019 “Let Me Know.” The “Let Me Know (Johan Lenox Stings Mix) ” reimagines the propulsive, dance floor friendly original by pairing Oak’s vocals with a string arrangement from Johan Lenox, who has worked with Kanye West, Travis Scott and Vic Mensa.
Building upon that momentum, Oak released her debut EP CLOSURE through Neon Gold/Atlantic Records last week. The EP’s latest single “Control” continues a run of slickly produced synth pop centered around layers of arpeggiated synths, tweeter and woofer rocking beats, an enormous hook and Oak’s achingly plaintive vocals. And while sonically the song recalls Kylie Minogue and others, the song evokes the swooning and fluttering pangs of new love and the uncertainty, insecurity and obsession it can sometimes bring. “‘Control’ is about meeting someone that makes you weak in your knees and never knowing how they actually feel about you,” Winona Oak explains in press notes. “You make risky decisions, act irrationally and tolerate things you normally wouldn’t. You’re feeling nervous, insecure and are constantly afraid that they are gonna leave you. Oh and this is when you learn – the difference between love and obsession.”
Shot and co-directed by longtime visual collaborator Andreas Öhman and Julian Gillström, the recently released video for “Control” stars Winona Oak as a desperate and hopelessly obsessed woman who stalks the object of her affection, before trying to build a Ken doll-version of him. “For the video, we wanted to target this hopeless feeling with a twisted sense of humor,” Oak explains in press notes.
Last year, I wrote a bit about the Bangladeshi-born, New York-based electro pop producer, songwriter and artist Sajeeb Saha. Best known for his solo recording project Jai Wolf, Saha’s work is inspired by a diverse and eclectic array of music, including indie rock, punk rock, hip-hop, classic music and Bollywood while thematically, much of his work draws from his experiences growing up as an third culture child.
Saha’s Jai Wolf full-length debut The Cure to Loneliness was released last April through Mom + Pop Music, and as Saha said in press notes at the time, “In my heart, this album is me,” professes. From the sounds to the lyrics, it’s everything that I’ve always wanted to do.” I wrote about two of the album’s singles the M83-like “Your Way,” a collaboration with Day Wave that was a bitter lament from a lonely and disconnected narrator — and the swooning and cinematic instrumental “This Song Reminds Me Of You.”
The Bangladeshi-born New York-based electro pop producer, songwriter and artist starts off the new year with “Moon Rider,” the follow up to his full-length debut. Featuring a guest spot from Wrabel, who contributes his achingly plaintive vocals, “Moon Rider” is a shimmering and cinematic bit of synth pop that sonically recalls Geographer, the aforementioned M83 — and perhaps more than ever, 80s movie soundtracks, as the song posses a cinematic sweep.
Last year, I wrote quite a bit about the Asheville, NC-based goth/post-punk act Secret Shame over the past year. The act, which is currently comprised of Lena (vocals), Nathan (drums), Matthew (bass) and Billie (guitar), formed in 2016, and can trace its origins to the desperate need that its members felt to create. “If I couldn’t sing or play music, I would tear my skin off.” the band’s front person Lena explains in press notes. Shortly after their formation, the band released their self-titled debut EP, which quickly established the band’s dark and atmospheric sound paired with lyrics that thematically touch upon issues of domestic abuse, mental health, political and social dissatisfaction and frustration.
The band’s full-length debut Dark Synthetics was released last year to critical acclaim, while further establishing their sound an enormous, reverb heavy sound seemingly influenced by Siouxsie and the Banshees and 4AD Records. Building upon the growing momentum the band has received since the release of their full-length debut, the members of the band went on a short tour to support the album, which included an apt Friday the 13th stop at The Broadway and a Halloween set that featured Joy Division covers. Along with that, the rapidly rising post punk act recently announced a series of remixes of Dark Synthetics material they’ll be releasing while they return to the studio to record new music slated for release later this year.
Now, as you may recall I wrote about two of the singles in the growing remix series: XOR‘s icy, industrial take on the guitar-led “Calm,” which retained the song’s intensity, vulnerability and ache, along with Lena’s powerhouse vocals — and Skinquarter‘s early Depeche Mode-like remix of the Siouxsie and the Banshees-like “Haunter.” The latest remix of the series finds None of Your Concern turning the aforementioned “Haunter” into a propulsive club-banger centered around layers of arpeggiated synths, tweeter and woofer rocking beats while retaining Lena’s vocals. Sonically, the remix — to my ears at least — reminds me a of a slickly produced synthesis of Kraftwerk, From Here to Eternity and From Here to Eternity . . . And Back-era Giorgio Moroder and of course, the aforementioned Siouxsie and the Banshees.
The members of Secret Shame will be hitting the road to support the vinyl release of Dark Synthetics. After a handful of North Carolina dates in February, Secret Shame will embark on an East Coast and Midwest run throughout March and April that will include an April 2, 2020 stop at Saint Vitus Bar. Check out the tour dates below.
Born on a remote Canadian island, June Moon is a poet, provocateur and pop artist, known as Forever. Moon started the Forever project around 2013. “I was going through a very dark time because my father had passed away, and I actually quit making music, quit performing, quit writing — I quit everything. Then I met Michael Brock [Mind Bath], and he asked me to open for him at one of his shows. I’ll never forget that moment — he was texting me about it, and I was at a library and an angel whispered in my ear and told me to say say, and that my new name was ‘Forever.’ Two weeks later, I played my first Forever show. ”
So after spending a nomadic decade of traveling, Moon relocated to Montreal to pursue a music career and shape her recording persona of Forever. With the help of Brock and her friend Patrick Holland (Project Pablo), she wrote and released her 2016 self-titled debut, an effort that was a mix of pop and downtempo influences paired with her effortless and ethereal vocals.
Reeling from the breakup of a lengthy and complicated relationship, Moon went to work, hoping to find healing from songwriting. Working with her frequent collaborators Brock and Holland, she also turned to fellow Montreal artists Ouri,Cecile Believe, formerly known as Mozart’s Sister and TOPS’ David Carriere on the material that would eventually comprise her forthcoming EP Close to the Flame.“Ouri was so influential in her ability to facilitate the development of my sound on this EP,” Moon says in press notes. “Patrick helped me alchemize my heartache by turning my sad songs into dance tracks. David was a special collaboration for me because I really look up to him and Jane [from TOPS] as songwriters.”
Slated for a February 14, 2020 release through Cascine Records, the six song EP reportedly captures the beauty and ugliness of love and loss, centered around a dysfunctional and troubled relationship. “I was in a relationship that was killing me, and I had to plan an escape to save my life,” Moon explains in press notes. “The record is haunted by a ghost. I sing about her murder on the first track ‘Blur,’ but then she turns into a angel on the last song ‘Adonis.’ I channeled her one night when I was writing because I was so scared to talk about what happened to me; I didn’t know how to tell my story. She came to me and told me to use her story as a channel for my own pain. This release is dedicated to her.”
The EP’s first single is the propulsive, 90s house-inspired “Make It Happen.” Centered around shimmering and arpeggiated synths, a sinuous bass line, stuttering beats, Moon’s plaintive and ethereal vocals and a guest verse from Just John, the song’s narrator expresses relief and joy over the end of a relationship that has held her back personally and emotionally. The song’s narrator releases that it’s time to move forward and better herself — and a result, it’s triumphant but subtly bittersweet. After all, life’s a series of transitions from one situation, one circumstance to another, until the end.
Directed and edited by Moon, the recently released video is set in a small cafe. Although there’s a brief cameo by Just John, the video primarily focuses on its protagonist and coworkers as they get their cafe ready for a small gathering of friends for coffee and cake before ending with a passionate reunion.
Fleur Offwood is an emerging French singer/songwriter, electronic music producer and electronic music artist, who quietly released two albums through Bandcamp last year. Zigzag, the emerging French artist’s forthcoming effort will reportedly further cement her genre-defying sound and approach.
Interestingly, the effort’s first single is the propulsive, club-banging “Owl.” Centered around layers of shimmering and arpeggiated analog synths, tweeter and woofer rocking beats and a looped heavily vocoder’ed vocal sample, the track — to my ears — reminds me of From Here to Eternity and From Here to Eternity . . . And Back-era Giorgio Moroder, Daft Punk and others.
The recently released video for “Owl” is comprised of looped found footage of owls — both held in captive and in the wild, which adds a creepy vibe to the overall proceedings. As Offwood explained to me in an email, the video was “inspired by the experimental video artist Chris Marker.”
Over the past couple of years of this site’s almost ten year history, I’ve spilled quite a bit of virtual ink covering Los Angeles, CA-based singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Justin Taylor Phillips, best known for his acclaimed solo recording project Crywolf.
Philips’ last Crywolf album widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. II] which further cemented his reputation for pushing boundaries in every aspect of his creative work was released to critical praise from the likes of The FADER, Alternative Press and idobi Radio. The JOVM mainstay starts off the new year with “beauty is a not a need. she is an ecstasy [respirate].” Lamenting on the same break up that inspired “your joy is your sorrow unmasked,” the song finds Phillips making a sonic left turn from the electronic-leaning approach he’s been known for, and going towards a mostly acoustic approach in which lilting male-female harmonies are paired with shimmering acoustic guitar, soaring strings with the gentle addition of arpeggiated synths and glitchy beats towards the song’s coda. The song manages to viscerally evoke the bitter swoon and lingering ache, the unfulfilled longing of heartbreak.
Interview: A Q&A with Rising Swedish Pop Duo Vargas & Lagola
Choosing the band name Vargas & Lagola because they thought the names sounded like characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie, the Swedish songwriting, production and pop artist act comprised of Swedish Grammy-winning duo Salem Al Fakir and Vincent Pontare features two of their homeland’s most accomplished contemporary songwriters and producers: the pair have had successful solo careers before teaming up to write hits for a who’s who list of electro pop and pop that includes Madonna, Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, David Guetta, Axwell /\ Ingrosso, Katy Perry, Ghost, and Sia.
Founded back in 2017, the duo’s collaboration is a decided change in sonic direction from their previous output as the project finds the Swedish songwriters and producers experimenting with their own unique take on melodic alt-pop, which meshes elements of 70s Americana and Nordic melancholia. Coincidentally, as they started their own attention-grabbing project, the duo received accolades for co-writing Avicii’s “Without You” and “Waiting for Love,” which led to a Swedish Grammy Award win for Composer of the Year. Adding to a growing profile across the international electro pop scene, Al Fakir and Pontare performed their co-written hit “More Than You Know” with Axwell /\ Ingrosso at Coachella — and they played a key role in finishing Avicci’s posthumously released album TIM, contributing on three of the album’s songs.
Last year, I wrote about “Forgot To Be Your Lover,” a carefully crafted pop song that balanced easygoing AM rock, yacht rock breeziness and achingly melancholic nostalgia while sonically the track was centered around atmospheric synths, lush layers of shimmering and twangy, country-styled guitar lines. In some way, the song – to my ears at least – reminded me of Danish JOVM mainstays Palace Winter, but with an ambitious, arena rock feel.
The acclaimed and commercially successful Swedish pop duo’s highly anticipated full-length debut is slated for release at the end of the month. Building upon the growing buzz surrounding them, the duo’s latest single “Someone That Understands Me” continues a run of ambitious, arena rock-like pop. Centered around shimmering acoustic guitar, achingly plaintive vocals, enormous hooks, thunderous drumming and a scorching, Purple Rain-era Prince-like guitar solo from Ludwig Goransson, the song is the contented sigh of a world-weary person, who has stumbled upon one of life’s rare gifts – finding someone like-minded, who truly understands and accepts you for you.
I recently spoke to the duo via email about the new single, which officially drops today, their soon-to-be released album and more. Check out new single and the Q&A below.
WRH: How did you get into music?
Vincent Pontare: My father is a singer, so I got my first guitar from him when I was seven years- old.
Salem Al Fakir: I started to play violin and piano when I was three.
WRH: Who are your influences?
VP and SAF: We love all types of music! We have our roots in hip-hop/reggae/70s/60s but get most of the inspiration for VARGAS & LAGOLA from 70s Americana.
WRH: How would you describe your sound to someone completely unfamiliar with you and your work?
WRH: Who are you currently listening to?
WRH: Can you name a couple of Swedish acts that should be getting love outside of Sweden but haven’t yet? And why should we know about them?
VP and SAF: VARGAS & LAGOLA. We feel that our type music is unrepresented out in the world at the moment.
WRH: The band is comprised of two, highly accomplished and incredibly successful solo songwriters and producers. What brought the two of you together to collaborate? And how has working together changed your creative process?
VP and SAF: We had met before through mutual friends and had the same booking agency and later on we shared the same studio for a month and then one day we said: we should try to write a song together!?
And the rest is history. . .
It’s a blessing to be two and in the same boat! When the other one is out of ideas or need a break the other one jumps in
WRH: Both of you have managed to write material for an impressive list of globally known pop artists. Has that work influenced or changed your creative process?
VP and SAF: I think success affects [sic] your compass for what works or not in a good way, you trust your gut feel[ing] and that’s the most important tool we have.
WRH: Your latest single “Somebody That Understands Me” features a guest spot from Ludwig Goransson. How did that come about?
VP and SAF: You might think we already knew him cause we all are Swedes, but we didn’t’! We just fanboyed him up on Instagram and said, “Would you be up for trying a guitar solo on our upcoming single?” And he said “Yes.”
WRH: Speaking of “Somebody That Understands Me,” the track is one of those big, arena rock-friendly sentimental pop tunes with the sort of hook that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. In some way, the song kind of reminds me of Purple Rain and 1999-era Prince. So who and what influenced the song? Is it influenced by personal experience?
VP and SAF: We both have a soft spot for 90s arena rock, so we wanted to please ourselves for a second. Who doesn’t love a 12-string guitar riff!???
The song is about the beauty in finding like-minded people and a homage to thinking outside of the box in life in general. All types of music or genres we’ve been obsessed of comes from an underdog or rebellious perspective. So we wanted to get a little bit of that feeling into the lyrics and the production
WRH: Your highly anticipated full-length debut is slated for release at the end of the month. What should we expect from the album?
VP and SAF: We want to give our fans a more nuanced palette of our musical landscape, so The Butterfly Effect is a piece in that puzzle.
WRH: What’s next for you?
VP and SAF: Promotion, touring and writing more music.
Throughout the course of this site’s almost 10 year history — yes, almost 10! — I’ve spilled quite a bit of virtual ink covering the New York-based electronic music duo and JOVM mainstays Beacon. Now, as you may recall, the duo, which is comprised of Thomas Mullarney III (vocals) and Jacob Gussett (production, keys, synths) have developed a reputation for a minimalist approach and sound that draws from R&B, house and electro pop paired with Mullarney’s achingly tender falsetto.
Beacon’s third album, 2018’s Gravity Pairs found the duo writing material that went off in a completely different direction from their previously released work. They embarked on open-ended writing sessions in which they adopted a more liner style of songwriting instead of thee loop and texture-driven method they had long used. And the initial demos they wrote were essentially built around piano chords and guitar phrases with vocal melodies, which they then edited into a number of iterations, which found them looking through each individual version from a multitude of angles and directions.
Naturally, the duo expanded some songs and pared others back. Much like the bending of light through a prism, the abstract, deeply patient, almost painterly creative process eventually turned the material they wrote into a space in which seemingly different colors, tones and textures — minimalist ballads, elaborate pop spirituals and driving dance tunes — can coexist simultaneously and at different speeds, spreading out like a sort of spectrum. And with each iteration, the duo discovered they could easily expand upon how they presented the material within a live setting: they could play the same material in a straightforward fashion — or they could play the same material in a different fashion that added or subtracted color and shading, depending on the circumstances, their moods and their desires. And while pushing the duo’s songwriting and sound in new adventurous, new directions their work has remained imbued with a vulnerable and aching yearning.
Since the release of Gravity Pairs, the duo have been extremely busy. Last year they went on a successful North American tour with Nick Murphy. They shared a series of stripped-back studio sessions — and they released a remix album featured edits by Elkka, Helios, and CRi.
Interestingly, Beacon introduced covers into the Gravity Pairs writing process as a way of breaking out of melodic patterns while discovering new sonic spaces within others’ songwriting. The JOVM mainstays start off the new year with a run of live dates in Europe, which includes a January 21, 2020 stop at the Paradiso in Amsterdam — and their first ever studio recorded cover, a cover of the Pixies‘ “Wave of Mutilation.” Inspired by the slower tempo and phrasing of the UK Surf B-side, which showcased the original’s mutability, Beacon’s slow-burning piano-led meditation finds the duo amplifying the playfully morbid surreality of Black Francis‘ lyrics, said to be about the phenomenon of Japanese businessmen taking their own lives after their businesses fail in the 1980 while being hauntingly gorgeous.
“We wanted it to feel uncanny and have the recognition of the original unfold slowly for the listener rather than being obvious or immediate,” Beacon explains in press notes.
The JOVM mainstays will be embarking on a European tour through January. Check out the tour dates below.
01.17 Berlin, DE – Musik & Frieden
01.18 Hamburg, DE – Uebel & Gefährlich
01.19 Copenhagen, DK – Vega
01.21 Amsterdam, NL – Paradiso
01.22 Cologne, DE – Helios 37
01.23 Brussels, BE – La Machine
01.25 Warsaw, PL – Hydrozagadka
01.26 Prague, CZ – Cafe V Lese
01.28 London, UK – O2 Academy Islington
01.29 Paris, FR – Supersonic
01.30 Bucharest, RO – Club Control
I’ve spilled quite a bit of virtual ink over the past decade — yes, decade — covering the Perth, Australia-born and-based singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and JOVM mainstay Kevin Parker, the creative mastermind behind the critically acclaimed and commercially successful psych pop/synth pop project Tame Impala. Now. as you may recall Parker’s third album, 2015’s Currents was a critical and commercial breakthrough. Released to overwhelming and wide-ranging critical applause across the blogosphere and elsewhere, the album was Grammy-nominated, RIAA Gold-Certified effort that reflected a decided change in direction for Parker’s songwriting and sound: the material featured some of his most emotionally direct lyrics paired with an nuanced and textured sound that draw from psych rock, psych pop, prog rock, synth pop and R&B.
Slated for a February 14, 2020 release through Interscope Records, The Slow Rush reportedly conjures the feeling of a lifetime in a lightning bolt, of major milestones whizzing by you while you’re looking at your phone. Thematically, the album focuses on the rapid passing of time and the unending cycles of creation and destruction in life. “A lot of the songs carry this idea of time passing, of seeing your life flash before your eyes, being able to see clearly your life from this point onwards. I’m being swept by this notion of time passing. There’s something really intoxicating about it,” Parker told the New York Times last year.
Last year Parker released the first batch of new Tame Impala material in over four years — “Patience,” a decidedly upbeat banger that seamlessly bridged 90s house and 70s funk while being a thoughtful meditation on the cycles and phases of life and “Borderline” a blissed out, shimmering mid-tempo track with house music flourishes and a razor sharp hook. Unofficially, those two tracks were the first two singles off Parker’s long-awaited and highly-anticipated fourth album, The Slow Rush. Parker closed out last year with the release of “It Might Be Time,” a swaggering prog rock meets psych pop banger, centered around layers of shimmering synth arpeggios, thumping beats, an anthemic hook and Parker’s plaintive vocals.
The Slow Rush’s fourth and latest single “Lost in Yesterday” is a woozy and hallucinogenic disco-tinged banger centered around a propulsive and sinuous bass line, shimmering synth arpeggios, tweeter and woofer rocking beats, a cathartic and soaring hook and Parker’s plaintive vocals. While sonically the song seems to continue a run of glistening and decidedly 80s inspired synth bangers, the song thematically finds Parker exploring time’s distorting effect on memories. Given enough time, nostalgia gives even the most embittering times in your life a bit of a rosy tinge, and a sense of purpose and meaning that you didn’t feel while experiencing it. At it s core, the song is a plea to break the urge to look back with rose colored glasses and live in the here and now.