Jockstrap's Pop Chaos: 'If It Doesn't Make Sense, That's Nice'
At a vegan Chinese restaurant in North London, the fate of Jockstrap’s debut album, I Love You Jennifer B, was at the whims of an act of mayhem. Someone had just snatched producer Taylor Skye’s backpack. In it was his laptop, which held the only copy of the album that he and singer-songwriter Georgia Skye had spent several years working on. The music wasn’t backed up anywhere.
Luckily, Slowthai was there.
“Ty chased the guy down and got the laptop back,” Skye says, explaining why the celebrated British rapper got a special shout-out in I Love You Jennifer B‘s liner notes.
Chaos, coincidence, bizarre twists of fate, the sensation that something sudden is awaiting just around the corner — it’s all part of Jockstrap and their music. The avant-pop duo’s songwriting has a classic core, built on pristine melodies, but Ellery’s characters and scenes have a strange way of flitting between autobiography and fiction, hyper-real verging on surreal. And then there’s Skye’s production, filled with disparate elements fixed into mesmerizing abstractions that cohere in their familiarity and mystery. On I Love You Jennifer B — out Sept. 9 via Rough Trade — there is clearly so much care and attention to detail, and yet many of the album’s best moments came about by pure accident.
The best one occurs on “Concrete Over Water,” the six-minute centerpiece. As the production drifts from tender ambience to orchestral splendor to dancefloor ecstasy punctuated with barks Skye recorded himself, Ellery balances the totality of a romance on a city bridge late one night. “Light and dark, at once,” she sings halfway through, just her voice and piano, and next she’s supposed to sing, “Never lonely in holy matrimony,” but instead it comes out, “metronome-y.”
It’s not a clever pun from two graduates of London’s esteemed Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It’s also not a deep-cut, purposely mispronounced nod to the British electronic group Metronomy. It’s just a mistake. “But we used the first take because it worked,” Ellery says. “So, you know, whatever.”
“Concrete Over Water” was the first song Jockstrap wrote for I Love You Jennifer B, coming just a few weeks after the arrival of their second EP, Wicked City, in June 2020. The duo has been on a steady, but impressive tear since emerging in late 2017 with their first single, “I Want Another Affair,” which later appeared on their 2018 debut EP, Love Is the Key to the City. Over those two EPs — and their corresponding, exceptionally out-there remix projects — Jockstrap have honed an adventurous, irreverent approach to music that doesn’t sacrifice songcraft or feeling.
Much of that early music emerged from Jockstrap’s efficient and effective workflow. Ellery would write the songs and lyrics — which often began as poems — then send them to Skye, who would build out the production however he saw fit. Despite the depth and detail of Ellery’s lyrics, and the fact that she conceptualizes a fully-realized visual world and color palette for every song she writes, Skye would simply follow what he heard as the contours of the song.
“I don’t really talk to Georgia about what the songs are about, or try to figure out, lyrically, what’s going on,” he says. “I’ll just go with my instinct. We both like listening to lots of music as we make music, so I have ideas that I want to try. And usually, if Georgia’s song is good, and my idea is good, regardless of how you might think they work, or don’t work together, we usually make it work. It’s quite nice having two interesting things going on at the same time.”
Far from being overly precious or protective of her songs, Ellery relishes the consequences of ceding control. “That’s what I want to hear — the surprise. That sells it for me. It’s a first-time-listener reaction, and that’s what you’re gonna get, times 1000, when people listen to it.”
This process suited Jockstrap for practical reasons as they began to make I Love You Jennifer B while separated during the pandemic. They didn’t stay dogmatic about it, though, as they were able to come together in the studio and figure out songs together. The usual process was even flipped entirely on “50/50,” the delirious rave-ready closer, which began with a Skye beat and ended with Ellery’s lyrics.
Jockstrap were tightly aligned on influences for the album, drawing on everything from Bristol-style trip-hop and Eighties dance music to the open-chord expanses of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Laura Marling. On some songs, they go all-in on a particular sound or style (the pure disco glamor of “Greatest Hits,” the baroque dark-fairytale folk of “Lancaster Court”); on others, like “Glasgow” — inspired by a trip to the Scottish city and a memorable night at the legendary Sub Club, where the bass literally shakes the floor — it all comes together.
“It’s kind of reminiscent of all the things we liked about dance music,” Georgia says of the song, “but it’s also acoustic birds tweeting.”
This omnivorous approach is more norm than outlier these days, and Jockstrap feel like part of a vanguard of genre-agnostic pop. Maybe because they’re all duos, it’s easy to think of them alongside U.S. peers like Magdalena Bay and 100 Gecs; not that these three groups sound particularly alike — though 100 Gecs have also used barking in their songs — but there’s a frenetic, internet-hued energy coursing through all of their music. And it’s all pretty funny, too.
Jockstrap’s sense of humor often emanates from Ellery’s lyrics. “Debra” is a day-in-the-life of an Animal Crossing avatar who’s also an irrepressible diva (“Press Y for a party/Disco sticks to run around”). On the quippy bridge of “Greatest Hits” — an ode to London’s golden oldies station of the same name — Ellery coos, “Imagine I’m Madonna/Imagine I’m Thee Madonna/Dressed in blue/No — dressed in pink!” But Jockstrap’s best comedy comes from its proximity to tragedy.
On the remarkable “Angst,” Ellery depicts a full-on breakdown behind a bathroom door. She uses an extended metaphor for birth that draws on the phrase her mother used when she threw anxious fits as a child: “laying an egg.” Beneath raw, lucid lines twinkles a harp that sounds like it’s fluttered in from an old Hollywood love story. The song ends with an a cappella verse, Ellery’s vocals suddenly sped up, so you’re still stuck in the song’s morass, but now her words are coming at you like a mudslide. It’s a perfect final flourish, and of course it was a mistake: “We forgot to put a verse in and we needed to fit one in somewhere,” Skye says with a shrug.
But for all the discomfort it conjures — “Even still, it makes me feel anxious,” Ellery admits — it’s weirdly funny, almost exhilarating music. And for a song grappling with anxiety and stress, it’s pointedly reminiscent of someone speed-reading the disclaimer at the end of a pharmaceutical advertisement.
“If it doesn’t make sense to us, that’s quite nice,” Skye says. “Because if you don’t really get it, you might just listen to it. And that’s quite fun.”
Ellery and Skye both grew up in fairly remote areas of England. Skye was born in London, but when he was 10, his family moved to Market Harborough, a small town in the East Midlands. His parents were actors and singers, and cool enough to tip him off to new James Blake albums and take him to see Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. Ellery, meanwhile, grew up in Cornwall, the rural, southwestern tip of the country. She was a diligent violin student, but only really grew to like the instrument once she started playing in orchestras; when was old enough, she began balancing out all that classical music with raves.
Both were drawn to Guildhall because it was a great place to study music. And though Ellery notes the school could do more to encourage cross-collaboration between the departments, the student body was adventurous and creative enough to seek that out itself. (Jockstrap are a perfect example: Skye was studying electronic music, Ellery jazz violin.) But just as important for both was the chance to live in London.
“There were so many things being held in this place: The opportunity to make something happen, the opportunity to meet other people that are doing what you’re doing, to see things,” Skye says.
“That was the stimulus for a lot of the songwriting — the city, and all these formative experiences,” Ellery says. Later, she adds: “If it’s about love or the city, then it’s within our language.”
When we speak near the end of July, England is in the thick of a tumultuous summer, punctuated by an unprecedented heat wave and the resignation of the prime minister. I Love You Jennifer B — as restless as it is ruminative, hectic as it is heartfelt — feels like an ideal record for this moment, in ways that aren’t dissimilar from 2022 albums from Jockstrap’s London/Guildhall friends, like Black Midi’s Hellfire and Black Country, New Road’s Ants From Up Here (Ellery also plays violin and sings in Black Country, New Road). These groups aren’t really connected by a specific sound, but their music is steeped in emotional and musical extremes, linked more by a strange, avant garde, chaotic energy than anything else.
“It kind of is chaotic,” Ellery acknowledges, “but I don’t know why that is is. Maybe because the tubes have got no air conditioning.”
Still, Ellery and Skye are a bit skeptical of the whole “chaotic music for chaotic times” theory. “Life is always chaotic,” Skye says. “We had a war here 70 years ago — that was probably chaotic… I think life is getting objectively easier as time goes on, and also harder. It’s not like we’ve tackled something particularly overtly that’s going on in the world. Unless Georgia has without telling me.”
Considering the way they work, that seems totally possible — another perfect, happy accident.
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