In this PS Featured, Sydney singer/songwriter/producer Lupa J chats the journey detailed on her debut record, 'Swallow Me Whole'.
"The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy."
The definition gives virtual reality as a means for escapism, but Sydney's LUPA J uses music as hers.
The Sydney artist has a long history with music, debuting at the tender age of fifteen and since then, she's spent her time with each release honing in on a 'sound' that is inherently hers. Listening through from her early works to now, it's not only her sound that's undergone a myriad of changes, but Lupa J herself has too.
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Though her works have tended to focus on external factors, detailing well-painted pictures marked by concepts and experience, her debut album, Swallow Me Whole, transcends anything we've heard from her.
"I feel like it’s a totally different thing now. I’m totally different, and so I’m approaching it differently," she said to me a few weeks back. We've talked once before in the context of her music, but that was a few years back now. I reflected on that interview while we chatted, thinking back to the teenaged version of Lupa J and how that conversation in the context of this more recent one felt like a lifetime ago.
Swallow Me Whole sees Lupa J unapologetically and sometimes very painfully traverse through the pains of her early-20's. The record marks more than just a showing of emotion, but an entire journey from start to finish that sees her ultimately come to terms with her newfound queer attractions. The record makes you feel from start to finish, offering up moments of relief side by side with moments of immense pain and sadness. There's a longing captured throughout that reflects both her longing for the chance to live her new truth and a longing for the relationship she was in to work. The record opens with a need for distance and a desire to be anywhere but here, and ends with a finite resolution of self-respect and understanding; one that leave us, the listener, in complete solace.
"I had quite an intense, significant thing or set of feelings that I wanted to try and write about because it was new, so it kind of came quite easily to sit down and start writing," she said of her process.
"I do remember, I think it was when I wrote ‘The Crash' in like January of last year. I wrote that and the lyrics for that and I was like, I know what this album is. It made it really clear for me, getting that song finished and seeing it there on the page, I was like these lyrics reflect what I want the whole album to be."
We're invited into the chorus of 'The Crash' with the words "It's not enough to feel," and what follows is a cascade of fantasies ending in destruction. There's a longing in the lyrics that reflects a desire to be seen and simultaneously, a desire to disappear. The tension between her two modes of thinking is captured fervently in the instrumental, a crushing tirade of industrial crunchiness paired jarringly alongside a jovial, arpeggiated synth, reflecting that tension caught in the story.
But it wasn't easy for her to build herself up to a point where she felt comfortable with laying herself bare.
"I remember the first time I performed any of the songs from my album at a show, it was in like April last year," she reminisced.
"I’d been writing about a situation for months and months, trying to process my feelings in the same situation, and then playing it to a crowd made me realise it was real. Instead of just thinking about it all of the time, I had to act on what I was writing about."
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Swallow Me Whole feels so real because of its attunement to her experiences. Vulnerability may not necessarily be a theme of the record, but recognising that Lupa J allowed herself to be vulnerable in her process is in itself incredibly bold.
"All of my previous EP’s were me kind of looking at friends more and relationships with other people, rather than an internal kind of thing. That was actually really therapeutic. I’ve talked about this a lot, but it really felt like I had to write about this stuff to see clearly how I was feeling and what I needed to do.
"Like I was saying before, it all culminated in me playing that show for the first time and suddenly it made all of this stuff feel really real."
Potentially the largest theme of the record that ties each track together is the realisation that she is queer, but being in a long-term straight relationship, she didn't know how to navigate those feelings.
"I was not at a point where I could emotionally figure out how to leave, so I was writing about it and talking to my partner about it as I was writing about it for months. The solution to it was never that I needed to leave, it was that I had this really intense new urge to experience this and I was just talking about it, but never actually thinking that maybe I just needed to leave my relationship so I could do it."
"Also because my ex was in my band, it was a really weird thing for us to play those songs to a crowd. It made me realise that this was real. It’s kind of weird for me to be singing about this and these feelings whilst they’re here with me and I’m not acting on it and it’s something that I’ve desired for a long time, why don’t I just do it? I really need to. We actually broke up like the next day."
She cites the album as a means for catharsis, saying that it "really helped me get my thoughts together."
Her thoughts are gathered in sporadic bunches, each track detailing more than just a feeling, but sharing either dreams or experiences through devastatingly poetic language that paint a vivid picture
'Dream' uses metaphor to provide vivid imagery ("Once again I've put myself at the mercy of a man / Gave up my soul wrapped in a body to be held in your hands"), while 'Woman' stirs us emotionally through fantastical depictions ("I want to love a woman / All the secrets we'll share / I'll hand her the clippers / And she'll shave off all my hair"). There are many visceral moments like this throughout the record, all reflecting Lupa J's years of mastering her craft and carving her niche.
Another aspect of the record that feels markedly different to anything she's released before is the actual music itself. What began as an exploration of Apple's Garageband, has evolved into a curiosity for hardware and more rave-ready forms of electronic music.
The record sees her delve deep into the modular world, exploring a completely foreign side to music. But that doesn't come without its challenges. If you think electronic music is already male-dominated, the modular world is infinitely more male-dominated. In a world where modular forums are riddled with names like Muff Wiffler or companies like SYNTHROTEK get stung for making jokes about rape and sexual assault, it's pretty plain to see why it's tougher for women to even find their feet within the modular world. I asked how she got her start with the analog style of creating and how that sound found its way onto the record.
"I learned how to use it because my ex-partner had some and I taught myself how to use it. After starting to do that, I felt like it made sense to do everything with the same sound and the same process of creating. That’s really changed the way I approach writing."
She went on:
"I guess I never thought that I could do it, it was because my boyfriend was doing it. I do think it’s about being raised as a man; he had the confidence in his abilities and his thinking to be like, I can learn how to use modular, whereas I never would have thought that. I had to watch him and be like, oh it’s not that hard."
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Despite there being more barriers for women in production, Lupa J's overcoming of that initial fear is inspiring to say the least. I asked how she felt knowing that she was breaking that barrier.
"The crappy thing is, I don’t have access to that exact modular anymore because we’re not together anymore, but I started putting together my own one. It’s a really slow process and they’re really expensive.
"I also haven’t really written much new stuff since writing the bulk of my album. I started writing the bulk of my album last year in the first six months, and then after that it was trying to figure out how I was going to release it, talking to management, polishing off the mixes and the final vocals and everything like that, which took forever. I haven’t really tried to write new stuff since then, and I’ve kept thinking that once the album’s out, I’ll build up my own modular synth and I have to fix this other synth that I have and then I’ll start writing again. I’m about to get to that point, which is cool, but I just need to save up."
There are few artists in the world who can say that they've made a pop and techno record. The two rarely intersect, with both worlds regularly opposing each other like magnets put together at the wrong end. Lupa J's altered the Venn diagram of electro-pop possibilities, and simultaneously, stylising a type of music that hasn't before had a place in Australian music.
"The more I’ve been writing, the more I’ve been looking to solidify the sound that I have," she explained.
Especially within one record, having everything in the same sound world. That’s why I wanted to use that modular and another synth. It was the same gear for the whole album. There are records that use a whole variety of instrumentation, but it felt important for this to be like that."
She's now gearing up to share the record via the stage over two nights, taking place in Sydney and Melbourne across August. She's shared some of these tracks live already, but this will be the first time she'll play those songs to an audience who have heard Swallow Me Whole from start to finish.
"I didn’t do many shows last year because I was writing a lot. We’ve really knuckled down all of the main songs from the album and the setup. For my album launch shows, I’m going to actually include some more recent - I’ve done a tiny bit of writing here and there and it’s more techno focused stuff, less lyrical. I’m going to add a few of those tracks to the end of the set to make it turn into a party, rave kind of feeling at the end."
I wrapped things up by asking the question, "Are you happy?"
In her own words, she said "it's been an intense year".
"Definitely happier than I was when I was writing the album. I don’t know if I would say entirely, I feel like it’s a process and it’s a slow one for me, but like I think maybe less than happy. I know myself a lot more now and I’m working out what I need, and that’s in a way happiness, but entirely not all of the time."
It's important to note that Lupa J's personal journey has developed alongside her musical journey, and vice versa.
"It sort of feels like a strange thing. I think some people think it’s kind of weird or risky processing emotions and situations through writing about it and writing about people, and someone knowing that there’s a song about them out there. There’s a lot of that on this album. It’s not about just one person or experience, it’s about multiple people that I know who will listen to it and be like oh shit, that might be about me."
The record may feel hard to swallow at times, but that's the reality of her situation. You're experiencing her feelings just as she was experiencing them at the time of writing and whether you can relate to her experiences or not, you cannot deny the magnitude of her energy.
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Words & photos by CAITLIN MEDCALF