Interview with a Feminist Popstar
This fall I spoke with pop singer-songwriter Lowell. Her debut album, We Loved Her Dearly, was released by Arts & Crafts in September. Originally from Calgary, Lowell lived all over Canada and the States before settling in Toronto, where we met up. In a music industry dominated by heteronormative assumptions and the male gaze, Lowell’s music offers a refreshing alternative. She identifies as bisexual and likes to sing about sex.
Though she is only twenty-two years old, Lowell’s lyrics have a haunting honesty, inspired by her complicated personal history. Catchy dance tracks and choruses you can’t help but sing along to seduce us as much as Lowell’s strong feminist ethos, which also rings clearly in her music. She’s not what you’d expect from today’s pop princesses; she writes openly about sexual abuse, queer love, and women’s rights. In the interview that follows, we talk about music, feminism, stripping, money, sexuality, and Britney Spears.
Meghan Borthwick: Let’s talk about your music from your EP, I Killed Sara V. Can you tell me about your approach to writing music and the creative process? Is there a certain intention there?
Lowell: I don’t always sit down and go, “I want to write a song about feminism because people need to hear songs about feminism.” I think that when you’re really specific about things, people feel like you’re preaching to them. It just doesn’t feel natural to me. I’d rather open up discussions for people so that they can figure out their own shit. When I write, I’m usually just writing about myself.
How does it feel to put yourself out there and make intimate moments of your life public?
It actually feels awesome. I’ve sort of created my own refreshing environment. As a kid you grow up and you’re taught that all of these things are taboo and you shouldn’t talk about them, like what it means to be raped. It’s the same with homosexuality. You go into sex-ed and it’s not like the teacher’s telling you how a man and a man can be together or how a woman and a woman can be together. It becomes this taboo thing in the back of your mind that you don’t really understand and don’t really want to talk to anybody about. When you’re part of those things it’s sort of destructive to not talk about them and the more you keep them to yourself the more unhappy you become.
I went through a phase where I didn’t tell anybody about a lot of things that I’d been through. I wasn’t happy; I was confused about life and feeling alone. Now I’m like, “Fuck it, I shouldn’t be ashamed about any of these things and no one should.” I guess I sort of freed myself in a way. And I hope that in doing that other people can follow the same mould and it can actually prevent bad things from happening.
Do you see yourself as a counsellor or role model for women facing similar issues and with shared experiences?
I feel like I have a responsibility to be self-aware as a female and as a musician. I’m not making myself a role model—if people want to look up to me then that’s great. I try to portray myself as powerfully as I can so that other young girls can look up to me and say, “Wow, I can be like that. I don’t have to be so submissive like society wants me to be.” Also, I don’t have to be that way all the time, you know? It’s good to just be yourself.
I absolutely think that there needs to be more people like you in the world helping make people feel more comfortable with who they are.
It’s funny because I’m more comfortable sitting in interviews and talking about these things than I am with my own family.
Do you consider yourself an advocate for women’s rights and gender equality? Are there certain expectations and responsibilities that accompany that role? I mean, when you sing about certain experiences, do you feel like you have to represent other women or all women who have similar backgrounds?
I try, but in the end I’m just making art. I’m just representing myself. I put more responsibility on being successful and being a dominant person, you know? What I say, that’s just what I’m thinking at the time, and like I said, I’m not perfect.
You represent yourself and if other people can find counsel in what you’re doing, then that’s great.
Yeah, I mean I definitely think that there are things you can say that you don’t realize are affecting people negatively. I feel the responsibility not to call out other women when I feel like maybe they’re not representing what I view feminism to be. Sometimes somebody might say, “I’m a feminist,” but it’s a different type of feminism from your feminism, and you want to respond, “I’m not like that type of feminist, I’m this feminist.” It’s like you’re under water and you’re trying so hard to just get air and just level yourself with everyone else. We’re all just jumping on each other’s shoulders, and we’re pushing one person down to get a little bit taller, but that’s just not going to work. That’s just going to make people respect us less.
I like how you said “level yourself.” I think that’s a good way of putting it.
I guess the cheesy thing to say is let’s just lift each other up.
Let’s be like, “I see what you’re trying to say there with feminism and what you’re trying to do. That obviously makes you feel like a stronger female so you go do that, and I feel stronger when I cover my body.” When I say “I,” I don’t mean me, I mean another person. I personally feel more comfortable when I’m less clothed, that makes me feel awesome. As Die Antwoord, says “Fuck whatever, man.”
I know that in some interviews you’ve talked about your past as a stripper. That world is so foreign to me. I’m wondering if as a stripper, did you feel objectified? Or did you feel liberated and empowered by putting yourself out there on stage and being like, “this is me”? How has your experience working as a stripper affected the person you are now, as well as your understanding of other women who have worked in this profession?
Such a complex thing. I can never get fully into it in an interview. You can’t generalize that subject because there are so many different men coming in and there are many different types of strippers who have different reasons for doing it. Even I went through different phases. When I first started out, it wasn’t really my choice. I was forced into it by men, so that’s sort of the worst thing that could ever happen. Men are able to force girls into that type of profession because of the fact that you can’t go to the police—they don’t respect you or they don’t treat you properly. So I guess when I started out [stripping], it probably didn’t feel amazing. I was taking money from men and giving money to other men—in the end there was no benefit for me. Once I got away from that and started actually keeping the money, it was awesome and felt great.
Did it feel great to keep the money for yourself, or was it more the act of becoming independent from the men who took a cut of your earnings?
I guess when I was working I felt that these people needed to be there because I was there and I could make them do whatever I wanted. There was this sort of sick satisfaction of being like, “Oh just go get a couple more hundreds out of the ATM, that sucks for you. I’m just going to stand here and you can give me two hundred dollars and another two and another two.” At a point it’s like, “You fucking idiot!” It also felt nice to make a lot of money. At one point I needed the money too.
So it felt good to take their money and be like, “Screw you”?
Yeah, but it’s not a mean thing. The thing is that there’s also a lot of mental illness that’s involved in that whole thing, like sex addiction, that’s a thing. Sometimes I felt bad for the customers who were there, and I felt bad for the girls that were working there. I just felt shitty that that world exists. Like girls who were raped and then forced into a profession where their entire life is objectified. While we’re all saying, “Let’s go to the rippers, yeah!” The whole thing is very complicated.
So I understand that Sara V. was your stage moniker when you were working.
I’m curious as to why you felt that you had to kill Sara V. Was it an intentional act you needed to commit in order to move on, or were you grieving a part of yourself?
That’s a good question. No one’s ever asked me that. Like I said, I don’t pretend to be an expert on anything, everything’s autobiographical. It’s something I really love about the record and that I’m proud of—it is 100 percent honest. It’s also a timeline of basically me discovering myself—it’s a diary. I decided to name the EP, I Killed Sara V. before I decided to name the album, We Loved Her Dearly. There was still a part of me then that felt like I needed to kill off a part of myself. At that time I think I was probably feeling ashamed of what I’d done, and now I’m just not. I kind of think it’s cool. It’s actually the perfect commentary on how women are made to feel.
So was it societal pressure that made you want to kill Sara V.?
Yeah, I wanted to justify what I’d done by being like, “Yeah, but that’s not who I am anymore, now I’m a musician.”
Your debut album is called We Loved Her Dearly, which I noticed is the next line in the song “I killed Sara V.” on your EP.
Yeah, I think that was me being like, maybe Sara V. wasn’t so bad. It’s funny, every time I do something that I think is kind of slutty I say, “that was Sara V.” Even when I’m on stage, sometimes I’m like, “this is Sara V.” But then I realized “Wow … I’m literally repressing my own emotions and creating an alter-ego just because I don’t want to admit that I’m a sexual person because society will judge me.” I felt like that was pretty deep.
So maybe my next album will be “I resurrected Sara V.”
Or “I am Sara V.”
[Laughs] Yeah, “I am Sara V.”
I’m curious: are singing and stripping, granted they are typically understood as very different types of performances, similar in some ways? Do they overlap at all?
They’re probably about the same thing, I think. If you’re in power, if you’re the one calling the shots. Like if you sign a good [record] deal where you’re the one who gets to pick the music, you’re doing it all for yourself, you’re making cash, and maybe even one day you decide you want to get naked in your music video. It’s great, as long as you’re in control. Stripping is the same way, you’re just a performer. But when you feel pressure to make a certain amount of money in order to avoid getting hurt, or if you don’t really want to be doing it or maybe you only wanted to take off your top but someone is making you take off everything—that immediately changes it. There’s really no difference in the end. For me it’s all about power and being in control.
Well let me ask you this: how did you move from stripping to singing and performing?
I was always doing music as I was performing. That was why I got into stripping. I wanted to pursue my career. People say that you can do stuff without money but that’s a lie. Eventually I was invited out to a studio. I started working there and I was doing really well. I had a lot of money saved up and eventually I just didn’t need to [strip] anymore. I didn’t want to. I was just like, “Ok, it’s time. I need to work on a record now.”
I’ve read in past interviews that you seem to idolize Britney Spears. Why Britney?
She was my childhood crush. I grew up in the ’90s so I wasn’t really old enough to be into Nirvana. I had Britney and the Spice Girls. They’re definitely not perfect, but I just like them.
What about Britney’s tumultuous life?
I don’t really pay attention to the tabloids so I don’t really know. I guess she shaved her head at some point? But I can’t really be mad at her for that because I really think that she’s just a human being. Maybe there wasn’t anybody around to tell her, “Hey, smarten up.” They were probably all handing her drugs. I think she’s a cutie. I really liked ’90s Britney. She can do handsprings, she’s a great dancer, and she’s super hot.
I miss the ’90s.
Don’t worry, they’re coming back. ♦
“Lowell” is from our Sex Issue (winter 2014/2015)