London-based singer-songwriter Maharani released her EP AnBae late last year, and I’ve had it in rotation ever since. Influenced by R&B artists like Tinashe, Tank, and Jhené Aiko, her sound is transportive, a musical cauldron blending Hindi, Dutch, Tamil, and English, often layered over a simple synth beat. Her latest release, “Tere Bina” (“Without You” in English) simultaneously puts me at ease and makes me want to be in love. Produced by fellow Londoner Itsyaboikay, the two are charting their own lane in R&B, and I am buckling in for the ride. —Virginia Lowman
By Danielle Chelosky
A couple years ago, a burgeoning underground pop star worked as a receptionist at a hair salon in St. Louis, Missouri. “I wasn’t the best employee,” the 24-year-old Slayyyter, who more formally goes by Catherine Slater, tells MTV over the phone in early April. “My music started to blow up and I was so preoccupied with that. I would just sit at my desk and be on my phone like all day.” She’d read what publications like The Fader or Paper magazine posted about her; she was helping people with their appointments by day and “having this little underground pop thing going on at night.”
That was her last minimum-wage job. It afforded her the ability to buy beats from producers and visuals from artists while living with her mom and her sister. That was all she needed to make her chaotic club anthems about sexuality and internet culture that subsequently exploded on Soundcloud and Twitter. “Mine” was one of her first hits — a song with a traditional structure that involves a lot of infectious repetition and memorable lyrics. She gained momentum primarily through Stan Twitter; she knew how to get posters’ attention because she was one. And now she’s a full-time singer, unveiling her debut album Troubled Paradise on June 11 via Fader Label.
She also dropped out of college for this. Briefly attending the University of Missouri for a year, Slater studied marketing while trying to learn about the music industry whenever she could. She skipped classes to watch Max Martin’s songwriting workshops on YouTube, gradually absorbing how the magic of a successful pop song unfolded into a simple formula. Gradually, she realized that one of the keys to pop stardom was her persona — allowing her physical self to dissolve and materialize into what she describes as a “blonde bimbo Barbie,” something that intrigued people, making them wonder if she was even real. “I got really into Y2K culture,” she says about this character she took on. “[Nostalgic celeb social account] Pop Culture Died in 2009 was a big influence on me — with Lindsay Lohan and all. I wanted to create my own identity of being a pop star from that era.”
Those marketing notes came in handy when cultivating a devoted following online. Her fans were suddenly doing all the work for her, recommending her music to Charli XCX and seeing Charli put one of her songs on a public playlist when Slater had only a few singles out. It was clear that she fit in with this current era of pop stars — like the innovative Kim Petras or eccentric Caroline Polachek — especially during the experimental era of hyperpop. Her hit “Daddy AF” encapsulates the internet’s obsession with hedonism (“I been fuckin’ models / I been poppin’ bottles all night”) and its need for succinct, catchy, memeable mantras: “Daddy as fuck / I feel daddy as fuck” (she says that phrase 42 times in under three minutes).
Making Troubled Paradise was a challenge. Not only because of the pandemic, but because putting together a full, cohesive collection of songs wasn’t something Slater was used to. Though she already has a self-titled project from 2019, it’s technically considered a mixtape. “[The music industry] isn’t like it used to be, where people spent years and years crafting these perfect albums and then they put it out and it’s a smash success,” she says. “You have to be so fast with everything now because of TikTok trends and just trends in music. It’s been commodified like fast-food consumption in a way.” People enjoy her songs — and any pop or hyperpop songs — because they’re a quick spurt on a playlist, probably best enjoyed at a club or a party. They’re more vibes than they are individual pieces of music.
However, this new record forced her to experiment with her process, testing out new techniques she’s picked up since her earliest days of making music at night after her salon gig. Tracks like the single “Cowboys” or the Gone Girl-esque anthem “Serial Killer” have storylines and arcs. She even let her genuine darker feelings spill into some songs, like on “Clouds”: “I wish they knew what goes on in my head / Sometimes feels like I’d be better off dead.” There’s also the more persona-filled cuts like “Throatzillaaa,” which she points out, laughing, is “literally a disgusting song about sucking dick.” Even though she built a career off of using the typical formula she studied to churn out superficial, clubby pop songs, she allowed depth to seep into Troubled Paradise.
And she deserves that ability to let her character go for a song or two. She works hard — so hard that she started developing her next record immediately after finishing this one. Burnout is a familiar sensation for her, and she doesn’t mind. “I feel like overall it keeps me on my toes, keeps me working fast on different things,” she says. The pandemic didn’t impede on the process of actually making Troubled Paradise; a bunch of tracks still needed to be done when quarantine started, and she was stuck in a studio apartment Airbnb in Glendale, California with time on her hands. Still, she was extremely familiar with making music with producers remotely, thanks to her early days on Soundcloud — it was like a return to form.
It was inevitable that this record would contain more than Slater’s signature sound. As someone who creates excessively, she never wants to do the same thing over and over. “I definitely had some Avril Lavigne influence,” she says, and points to “Villain,” a synthy sass anthem, which reckons with the way the music industry treats women: “I’m no villain / But they want me to be one.” She thinks her fans will like her expansion into different genres, which includes a lot of fuzzy pop-punk and some intriguing synthwave, though it’s hard to tell with stans — they’re pretty unpredictable.
“On one hand, I feel like I love [stan culture] so much because I feel like the memes and the jokes are what put my music on the map,” she says. “But there’s also a side where you’re put under certain criticisms and it’s a bit more ruthless than other fanbases.” She’s tried to keep her real name private, withholding it from the media in an attempt to keep fans and press away from her family. But as her star has grown, so has her presence: She has her own Wikipedia page and fan forums dedicated to her. “I used to always say that my last name was Slater, and that my name is Catherine Slater. I still might legally change my name to that one day. Who knows,” she says. “But I think at this point privacy has gone out the window a little bit.”
Still, once an artist has climbed to a high enough rung on the ladder of internet fame, they’re often afforded more breathing room. Slater is using hers to open herself up to the world with this new era. She knows it’s time for her to step out of the digital realm as the character she is and stand before everyone as a three-dimensional real person whose songs are only getting better from here. “I feel like there’s always room to be emotional and to be funny and have different facets of my personality shine through,” she says. Now fans will get to know more about who’s behind the character.
By Carson Mlnarik
To understand the impact of Paris Hilton’s debut pop single “Stars Are Blind” — a top-20 hit that recently soundtracked Promising Young Woman’s beloved rom-com montage — you have to rewind to the summer of 2006. A charcoal-haired crooner named Taylor Hicks just won American Idol, the clubs were sweating to a Soft Cell sample in Rihanna’s “SOS,” and no one knew how to use this chirpy new social-media site called Twitter. So when Hilton, then known primarily as a socialite and reality-TV star, dropped her first song, it was the reggae-pop shot heard ’round the world.
The track, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this month, still holds a special place in Hilton’s heart. “It has been such a huge part of my life, and I am so proud [of] how timeless it is,” she told MTV News in an email. “When people come up to me and say what an iconic song it is, it makes me incredibly happy.” Her musical foray couldn’t have arrived at a more pivotal point in her career; after releasing her first book Confessions of an Heiress, starring in slasher flick House of Wax, and ushering in a new era of star-powered reality TV with The Simple Life, she had already built the blueprint for what would become her fempire.
Still, as producer Fernando Garibay, who co-wrote and produced “Stars Are Blind,” told MTV News, there was a lot that the world didn’t understand about Hilton in the early aughts. “This is a woman who was very misunderstood by the public at that time, a time when there wasn’t as much transparency into an artist’s life as there is now,” he said, adding that “people only saw what they saw on TV.” Therefore, the mission operative for Hilton’s first record was to create a body of music that resonated “with who she really is.”
The pressure was on to choose Hilton’s debut single with a number of tracks up in the air, including fought-after album cut “Screwed,” which leaked in 2004, but they had yet to find anything explosive. That’s how Garibay, who was working with artists like Enrique Iglesias and Pussycat Dolls at the time, got in contact with Paris’s label. He had originally been working on a rough, reggae-inspired track with Gwen Stefani in mind until she shelved her project to focus on her pregnancy. Although the demo wasn’t fully fleshed out, Garibay recalled playing the song for Hilton’s “super Hollywood” A&R exec at the end of a pitch meeting. “He was like, ‘This is perfect, if you finish this,’ he tells me, ‘This is her first single,’” Garibay said. “I’m like, ‘Those are big words.’”
Hilton recalled “immediately” falling in love with the song the first time she heard it. “I knew right away it would be a huge hit,” she said. The race began to finish the single, and Paris showed up every day to work on the track, a process Garibay said took “three months to get right.” Hordes of paparazzi followed her to a humble studio in Hollywood behind a McDonald’s where he worked at the time. Dealing with the paps was second nature for Hilton, whom the producer remembered as being so “talented and inquisitive and intelligent” in the booth. While crafting the melody and lyrics, she’d chime in with “I like that,” “That’s not really me,” and yes, her signature catchphrase, “That’s hot.”
From its island-infused instrumentation to its mythic lyrics, “Stars Are Blind” is inexplicably an escapist anthem. The songwriters wanted to capture the “epic and extraordinary” feelings of romance, so they looked to the sky. “When you look at Greek mythology … Zeus and the deciders of the world would create the heavens and their version of it,” Garibay explained, comparing it to “the story we tell ourselves when we fall in love. Everything else stops and you’re in the center of it.” Though its themes were universal, its verses were also fine-tuned to reflect Hilton’s “essence,” as well as the disconnect between how the media portrayed her and who she really was. “We wrote it to her and as an ode to distill a bit of the misinterpreted vapidness that might’ve been seen by the public,” he said.
What struck the producer most during the recording process was Hilton’s dedicated work ethic. Part of the reason for the arduous production was their refusal to use the studio tool du jour, Auto-Tune. “I had her [sing] it over and over and over, and she graciously humored me and did that,” he said with a laugh. “That’s how we got it to sound so natural and so genuine.” In between takes, the producer recalled the sound of clicks from Paris’s BlackBerry – so 2006 – and frequent wardrobe changes as she prepared for the day’s appearances. “It was like watching a real-time documentary,” Garibay said; it was “a quintessential example” of what an entrepreneur in the entertainment sphere looked like.
Though she’s now solidified her status as a businesswoman and has since taken control of her story with recent documentary This Is Paris, Hilton’s music career was one of the heiress’s first opportunities to write her own narrative outside of the tabloids. She’s recently spoken about playing a “character” on The Simple Life and pointed out that an oft-memed pic of her in a “Stop Being Poor” top was photoshopped. (It actually read “Stop Being Desperate.”) “Stars Are Blind” allowed her the space to share more vulnerable parts of herself, including a plea for something authentic on the chorus: “If you show me real love, baby, I’ll show you mine.” In 2018, Netflix’s The American Meme recognized her as the world’s first social influencer. But Garibay said that in 2006, Hilton’s celebrity status found her “paying [the] price” for “doing something new,” and her brand of being famous for being famous was largely misconstrued at the time. “There’s this aspect of society which doesn’t quite understand and then diminishes a bit of that success due to lack of understanding of what it is to have a business like that [and a] brand like that,” he said.
For the music video, Hilton teamed up with director Chris Applebaum who helmed her legendary 2005 Carl’s Jr. commercial — the one where she hosed down a car in a one-piece while chomping down on a massive burger. The visual recounts a romantic rendezvous with her photographer (played by model-turned-actor-turned-district attorney Lucas Babin) that ends with Paris speeding away in his car. “We had so much fun shooting on the beach in Malibu,” Hilton said. “It was such a beautiful day. The only stressful part was there were swarms of paparazzi everywhere taking photos and I wanted the video to be a surprise.”
The track was inescapable on the radio throughout the summer of 2006, peaking at No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and appearing on Hilton’s debut record Paris, which dropped that August. “Back when I did my first album, I was so excited because I have always loved singing since I was a little,” Hilton recalled. “It was so much fun to work on it with such an eclectic group of producers. It was the perfect pop album.” She’s since released a handful of tracks like 2013’s “Good Time” featuring Lil Wayne, but has largely focused her attention on her DJing career, playing festivals like Tomorrowland and Summerfest and reportedly becoming one of the highest-paid women in the game.
Its sticky and smart chorus is likely not hard to recall for anyone who lived through the summer of “Stars Are Blind,” and even though Garibay “knew [the song] was special,” he admitted he had no idea that he’d be talking about it 15 years later. It even experienced a cultural resurgence after its placement in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, which took home Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards.
“Stars” underscores the moment Cassie (Carey Mulligan) begins to fall for Ryan (Bo Burnham) during a spontaneous drugstore singalong, representing an unexpectedly joyous tonal break in the otherwise intense thriller’s pace. Fennell told Entertainment Weekly that she wrote the track into the script before getting Paris’s permission because, aside from being one of her favorites, it was the type of song that “if a boy that you liked knew every word to, you’d be incredibly impressed, and you’d know he had good taste.” Hilton gave the filmmaker her blessing and said she was “so proud” of Fennell and the film’s “really important message.” “So many people called me after watching it and everyone loved seeing the song featured in it,” she said.
After the success of “Stars Are Blind,” Garibay went on to produce tracks for artists like Nicki Minaj, Shakira, and Tiffany Young, as well as Lady Gaga’s massive Born This Way album. Mother Monster herself is even a noted fan of the song, and Paris recalled she “will never forget when Lady Gaga said it was one of the best records ever.” Though Garibay helped shape a number of hits, his work with Hilton still stands out among the rest. “There’s always drama with making great records. It’s part of the process,” he said. “But with her, it was just a good time.” While he wasn’t able to commit to more tracks on Hilton’s debut LP due to timing, the duo may soon make up for lost time. “We were actually planning to go back into the studio soon and I cannot wait to make more music with him,” Hilton revealed. “He is a musical genius.”
“Stars Are Blind” will always represent a timeless moment for Hilton, Garibay, and fans: when life was simpler, summer was inescapable, and love was of legendary proportions. To this day, Hilton still ends her DJ sets with a performance of the track. “The song has been such a huge part of my life and career,” she said. “I love seeing how the song touches people all over the world and all of the years later, so many new generations find it and fall in love with it.”
Get ready: The 2021 VMAs are coming.
MTV announced today (June 8) that this year’s show will return to New York City for another epic night of live performances and appearances from your faves, blasting off live from Barclays Center on Sunday, September 12. The 2020 show was initially scheduled to air from the Brooklyn arena but had to be moved due to the pandemic. Thanks to increased safety measures, the 2021 show is looking to center live entertainment once again, just as concerts return throughout the rest of the United States.
“MTV and Barclays Center are working closely with state and local officials to implement best practices and execute a screen-breaking spectacle that brings together music fans from around the globe with the health and safety of our artists, fans, staff and partners remaining the No. 1 priority,” according to a press release.
The date of the show falls one day after the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and ahead of the show, MTV will team up with the 9/11 Day nonprofit on events designed to “promote awareness and action” in honor of the National Day of Service and Remembrance.
The 2021 VMAs will air live on MTV on Sunday, September 12. Stay tuned for additional details, to be announced closer to the show.
Last month, Katy Perry sat down to meditate with a special companion — Pikachu. The video for her booming latest single, “Electric,” took the pop star and her Pokémon pal to the top of the Diamond Head Lighthouse in Honolulu to sing about finding the light within and following your dreams. The meaning is clear — the clip ends with the structure’s massive beam glowing brightly as Perry sings, “You’ve got the power now” — and as Perry told MTV News recently, it reflects the best of her anthemic sound.
“They came to the right person if they want that empowerment moment,” Perry said. “Some people write only heartache songs or sexy songs or a combination. And my lane seems to be the ‘you can do it, ignite your light’ empowerment. It’s all within, you know? That’s a message I love standing by.”
“Electric” is part of the upcoming Pokémon 25-year anniversary album, which will also feature contributions from Post Malone and J Balvin. As such, Pikachu is an appropriate CGI co-star for the visual. It begins on top of that storied lighthouse on Oahu’s southeastern tip, where the pair find a spot to quiet their minds. That allowed for Perry to revisit her younger self, played by emerging singer and actress Meili Aspen Caputo, as she starts out busking her way into a musical career.
The belt-ready bop needed a locale as large as its sound. That’s why production, led by director Carlos López Estrada, headed to Hawaii, seen in a new behind-the-scenes video released today (June 7). They filmed around Oahu, including Kualoa Ranch, where portions of Jurassic Park were shot. The team secured permission from the United States Coast Guard to shoot at the Diamond Head Lighthouse, as well as other spots around Oahu to tell the story of a younger Perry finding her inner spark.
“I think the lighthouse has been for hundreds of years so symbolic of safety and guidance,” Perry said. “I think guidance is the keyword for this video because it’s basically me guiding my younger self to stay the course and not give up because it’s going to happen, you know? The story of the music video, where she sings at the farmers’ market and she sings at talent shows, and she buys this leopard coat to feel good — all of that is my story.”
The farmers’ market where she plays an early gig is loaded with Easter eggs found on the awnings of the local tents, including her daughter’s name (Daisy), the name of her partner Orlando Bloom’s son (Flynn), and other family members. It’s a way to honor her loved ones both now and in the future: “Just sweet little moments so then they can look back in 10 years and go, ‘Oh, I was thought of! I mattered!'”
The video is also a reminder of Perry trying to figure out who she wanted to be as a teenage artist performing under her given name, Katheryn Hudson. “When I was coming up, when I was about 13, 14, 15, I didn’t really see anyone that was like me. I felt like I had a different perspective,” she said. “I was really into Alanis Morissette. I was really into Garbage and Shirley Manson. I was really into these strong females that had messages. I mean, Jagged Little Pill was my soundtrack for years and I really related to it.”
What she gained from that time, reflected in the song, was power and strength. Perry said Hawaii provided the perfect “lush” and “naturalistic” surroundings for how she saw the song’s vision to match. It was also a nice foil to her steamy 2019 video for “Harleys in Hawaii,” an idea that originated with her and Bloom quite literally riding motorcycles through the Aloha State. “‘Harleys in Hawaii’ was a vibe. I was trying to capture that vibe of just like, sweaty skin and a little sexy and falling in love.” “Electric,” by contrast, finds Perry in touch with herself and her past — a little nostalgic, but even more empowered to charge into the future.
To make Caputo more fully embody Perry’s past self, the production team worked to create as close to a young doppelgänger as they could get. “She had black hair and she dyed it blonde, and we put contacts in, and she put her hair in pigtails and she looks identical to this one from that video I have of me playing,” Perry said. “The funny thing is, there are all these people on Zoom that are following along when we’re shooting because that’s just the mode of operation now. One person goes, ‘Oh my god, Katy looks so young these days!’ And so we thought, wow! We did a really good job.”
Nostalgia was the perfect lens, too, for a video co-starring Pikachu, one of the most famous animated mice of the past quarter-century — and one whom Perry said has roots dating back to her own teenage years. “Junior high was all about Pogs and Pokémon cards,” she said. “Pokémon and Pikachu are inspiring and have been with people for a long time. Even if you’re a grown adult and you’re still a Pokémon fan, or you’re a Pokémon fan, you remember as a kid being guided by these fun characters. I think that’s what good storytelling does: It helps lead us and remind us what is important and helps install some values and character.”
So, file “Electric” next to fellow empowerment pop staples “Firework” and “Roar.” Just remember Pokémon’s place in this one: “I mean, Pikachu has what looks like a thunderbolt tail, so how about that?”
Rostam Batmanglij is working on some Lucinda Williams covers. In April, he shared a teaser of his progress so far, including with pal and in-demand horn blower Henry Solomon laying down a baritone saxophone part over a shuffling beat. His fandom of the country-music legend is well documented — “hey siri, google why is Lucinda Williams’ music queer even though she is not,” he tweeted in March — but on a recent Zoom call from Los Angeles, he can’t say what these latest tracks will amount to, not yet.
“I have an idea that’s a little bit of a secret,” he says, standing before a bright wall of windows. “I have this idea to do something that in the last few months has become the standard way that pop albums are released, which is…,” he trails off. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but it’s this thing that the biggest people in pop are doing across the board, and I thought it would be fun to try to model my release after this new standard, to use a term, of art.”
Looking casual in a black tank top, he ties it all together, kind of: “The Lucinda Williams covers may be involved — may or may not be.”
What might be taken as blowing smoke from a more trollish, less credentialed artist comes across as Rostam doing the work in real time and being careful not to share until the job is done. In fact, he’s always working. On the dozen-plus albums the frequent collaborator has worked on as a performer or a studio mind (or both), he’s played piano, organ, bell piano, harpsichord, acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, synthesizer, bass, mandolin, light percussion, and whatever other strings or keys he can find. He doesn’t play the saxophone, hence the help. But he knows enough to trust his own ears.
“I have really strong opinions about sax in songs,” he tells MTV News. His latest album as a solo artist, Changephobia (out today), is dripping with brassy sax solos, courtesy of Solomon. This won’t shock anyone who’s followed Rostam’s decade-long career from Vampire Weekend linchpin to in-demand pop producer for Carly Rae Jepsen and Frank Ocean, but Changephobia opts out of arena maximalism in favor of a lithe, airy mood. It’s a reflection of his own taste. “There are some songs where I think the sax is amazing, and there are other times when I think it is corny and terrible. And you know what? I feel the same way about strings.”
Classical elements have long been fertile ground for the former music student. Early Vampire Weekend songs like “M79” and “Taxi Cab” sprang to three-dimensional life thanks to his string arrangements, and 2016’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine with crooner Hamilton Leithauser found its strength in swooning chamber-pop moments. But as his sensibilities evolved, Rostam likewise expanded his sonic toolkit. His moody yet bright sound has earned him Grammy recognition for Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III, which he co-produced, and acclaim for Immunity, the debut from emerging vocalist Clairo that merged her lo-fi roots with Rostam’s own synth-pop experiments.
As a solo artist, he’s melded the classical influences that marked his early career with folk music and dreamy pop. That potent combination yielded a warm debut in 2017’s Half-Light, and when he set out to make follow-up Changephobia, he sought a looser, jazzier sound. Cue the saxophone.
While referencing classical music has offered him “some secret language that you could speak with” over a 15-year career so far, Rostam is now picking up brassier lingo. “I guess the reason that I wanted to make this record where the sax was like a character in the ensemble is because I do have strong opinions about the way I want sax to sound on records and what kinds of things I want sax to reference.”
Therefore, Solomon’s saxophone feels like a second voice throughout Changephobia, a duetter who reappears to guide Rostam’s sedate rhythms, as on lead single “Unfold You,” or adding an ethereal gauze to moony closer “Starlight.” Solomon also lit up Haim’s “Summer Girl” with its mellow homage to Lou Reed in 2019. That song’s atmosphere — California breezy even in the face of adversity — characterizes much of Changephobia. As Rostam sings about climate change, miscommunication, and escape, he seeks out organic sounds, a strategic move aimed at making them easier to translate in a live setting without losing any of their polish. “It’s this kind of insane thing of trying to make a live performance that is as big as the recording,” Rostam says. “I want [the songs] to be completely freewheeling, to have no computers involved, everything loose and just untamed, I guess, and unchained.”
Still, some of Changephobia’s essential moments are devoid of wind entirely. Euphoric single “4Runner” rushes with forward propulsion, spinning a yarn of fizzy love in its amber guitar lines. “I was more interested in what I wanted to say lyrically than how I wanted the melody to flow,” Rostam says. “From the Back of a Cab” similarly feels like a sunset personified, thanks to a stylish video with gentle cameos from Charli XCX, Haim, Wallows, and more. On “To Communicate,” one of its most cathartic tracks, Rostam sings a mouthful for a pop song — “You said a discrepancy at the start may account for a conflict between us” — that came to him fully formed while sitting at the piano.
“I find a lot of times the deepest songs that I write are when I turn my brain off and just allow it to drive, or allow this little character in the back of my brain to be behind the wheel,” he says. “I’ve grown a lot in the last five years. I feel like I’ve become wiser, and it was somewhat hard-fought. It wasn’t easy.”
This wisdom allows Changephobia to exist both as a vibe and as a statement ready for a close read. On a more casual listen, you’ll pick up subtle tempo changes and fun experiments, like the “drum-and-bass song that turns into a grunge song” called “Kinney” and the cool evening beat of “Bio18,” which makes it one of the prettiest songs he’s ever penned. With headphones in, meanwhile, Rostam’s words can knock the breath out of you. “I didn’t want to stumble on a question / That might upset the structure of the world in which we lived in,” he confesses on the searching title track. To punctuate “Next Thing,” he keeps it simple: “Some pain is OK.”
“I think I’m the kind of songwriter who’s sort of afraid of writing a song that’s just about one thing,” he says. It’s the kind of thought you’d expect from a true collaborator, one whose latest project shines in part because of a friend’s shining saxophone. He’s given Solomon his due by including his solos in the musical transcription that comes inside the album’s vinyl booklet. “I studied music in college, and even before that, I learned how to notate music when I was a really little kid. So to me, I think it’s just cool. It’s part of the art,” he says. “You can read the lyrics, you can follow along to the lyrics, you can read the sax solos, and follow along to the sax solos.”
You can also learn how to play his big-throated folk song “In a River,” courtesy of a YouTube tutorial made by Rostam himself. It’s a three-minute mandolin strumming lesson that even dips into suspended chords without getting bogged down in clunky theory explanations. The entire clip breezes by, suggesting Rostam’s abilities lie in both demystifying the creation process and making people feel a bit more connected to it. “Some people might be like, ‘Oh, that’s so stupid, and dorky, and it’s high-minded,’ or something,” he says. “But I don’t feel that.” How could he? He’s just doing the work.
We’ve reached the point in the year where art begins to imitate life and songs about beaches, islands, and sunshine start to make their way onto our playlists. Though B.I’s “Illa Illa” does just that — it is definitely not your classic Song of the Summer. Accompanied by a more poetic, arthouse-esque visual, “Illa Illa” balances melancholy, emotional lyrics with an upbeat melody bound to get stuck in your head. B.I’s comeback shows a clear distinction between old and new, displaying a sort of rebirth both sonically and visually. On this new track, B.I lets the tears fall like waves but also finds strength and hope for brighter days, singing, “Though I know it will crumble, I’ll probably build a sandcastle again.” —Sarina Bhutani
The track is a low-key empowerment anthem in the vein of TLC’s “No Scrubs” or Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” in which Eilish tells off a would-be partner who “ain’t nothing but a lost cause,” as the refrain asserts. “I know you think you’re such an outlaw / But you got no job,” she repeats in her signature whisper-like vocals over a slow-moving, jazz-tinged beat.
“Lost Cause” dropped with a corresponding music video, where Eilish is joined in a Los Angeles mansion by a group of beige or blue sleepwear-clad backup dancers. The crew twerks on nightstands, eats Lay’s potato chips, and straddles a game of Twister, all while mouthing the lyrics to the song, which was co-written by Eilish and her brother Finneas. The self-directed visual reads like a gossipy pajama party — no bum boys allowed.
The fourth single off Eilish’s forthcoming album Happier Than Ever, which is out July 30 via Darkroom/Interscope Records, “Lost Cause” grapples with similar themes as other recent releases. On this track as on the dreamy “My Future,” the quippy tell-off “Therefore I Am,” and the vulnerable “Your Power,” Eilish is asserting her independence outside relationships and institutions.
And she’s happier than ever doing so. “THIS IS ONE OF MY FAVORITES,” she wrote on Instagram of “Lost Cause” the day ahead of its release. “AHHHHHHHH I CANT WAIT FOR YOU TO SEEE.” Happier Than Ever will be her sophomore album, following her Grammy-winning debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
By Max Freedman
Michelle Zauner is a low-key professional. When I reach her via video call on an April morning, she’s sporting a black tee emblazoned with Chester Cheetah (yes, the Cheetos mascot), but her Brooklyn apartment’s Zoom setup resembles a DJ booth at a well-funded radio station. She apologizes for the blanket jumbled across the plush-looking couch behind her, but the lemon-yellow walls and neatly arranged framed prints above it (both are visible in her Daily Show appearance) showcase a love of, if not a need for, order. It makes sense: Zauner must crave some sort of balance to live her double life as a musician and New York Times best-selling author.
In late April, Zauner released Crying in H Mart, a heart-wrenching memoir about learning to cook Korean food staples as she lost her mom to cancer, and how that reshaped her. Just six weeks later arrives Jubilee, Zauner’s third and most vivid, high-fidelity album as Japanese Breakfast. (Oh, and somewhere along the way, she coached Angourie Rice and other actors on how to play a band for the HBO series Mare of Easttown.)
Crying in H Mart and Jubilee are back-to-back feats in which she’s revisited her most meaningful experiences and emotions to help others through theirs. They also weren’t supposed to be released so close to one another. Zauner wrote Crying casually from 2016 through 2018, and only after she submitted its first draft in the latter half of 2019 did she begin working on Jubilee. By the end of that year, the album was ready to go, but then the pandemic hit, and suddenly, it looked like the album would join Crying as a 2021 release.
Zauner thinks this shift, though completely unexpected, is for the best. “I’m very glad,” she says about postponing Jubilee. Paired with Crying, “it almost feels like a double album.” In vignette-like essays, Zauner reexamines the deepest recesses of her grief, but toward the book’s end, she begins rediscovering life’s light; on Jubilee, she leaps emphatically toward that luster while knowing she won’t always reach it.
Jubilee marks an unmissable thematic shift from Zauner’s previous two albums — 2016’s lo-fi Psychopomp and 2017’s clearer Soft Sounds from Another Planet — which both existed in the shadow of her mother’s loss. “I think I always wanted to move away from grief,” Zauner says of those two albums, “but grief wasn’t ready” to move on from her. After she drafted Crying, though, she felt powered by a new feeling: jubilation.
More often than not, Jubilee’s instrumental arrangements are so joyous — largely unlike Zauner’s solemn, shoegaze-indebted previous work — that they’re easy to confuse for another artist’s creations. But Zauner’s voice, a delicate instrument that sounds more like it’s coming from the back of her throat than her diaphragm, is unmistakable. The newfound lucidity in her vocals at the outset of opener “Paprika” is striking, and the classically beautiful horns of the chorus are a complete and welcome shock. They perfectly emphasize the thrill that Zauner feels when performing as she sings, “Oh, it’s a rush!”
On “Slide Tackle,” Zauner rides softly funky guitars and Sade-lite saxes into a subtle but tremendous groove as she commits to happiness. “I want to be pure / I want to navigate this hate in my heart / Somewhere better,” she states before making good on her goals. “Don’t mind me while / I’m tackling this void / Slide tackling my mind.” It’s perhaps the most potent example of what Zauner says is Jubilee’s guiding theme: “Learning to embrace feeling… almost like a teenager, in this almost violent way.”
“Jubilee was this reckoning with permitting myself to feel joy again and to really embrace feeling in this new way,” she adds. The shift is entirely intentional. “My narrative as an artist is very rooted in grief and trauma,” she says, “and I wanted to mess with that expectation and totally surprise people with something on the other end.”
“Paprika” and “Slide Tackle” surprise sonically. So do the string-tinged “Kokomo, IN” and the freaky, creaky “Savage Good Boy,” but they take a different route to get there. On neither song is Zauner the narrator: A teenager stuck in a small rural town is the former’s protagonist, and this character finds only excitement in his partner traveling the world and letting others experience her personality and charm. The latter’s ruling-class narrator finds a sick sort of pride and value in retreating to his bunker during the apocalypse while caring for his family. In putting her Bryn Mawr creative writing degree to work, she found new ways to look at happiness.
“The person rationalizing this hoarding of wealth, in his mind, is doing so because he’s preserving his joy,” Zauner says. And on “Kokomo, IN,” she says, the narrator is “allowing that person to share different types of joy with other people.” She included these made-up tales to explore the “different ways that we interact with joy, whether it’s struggling to feel it, fighting to protect it, or reminding yourself to have it.”
That struggling point feels important, as Jubilee isn’t entirely without its downcast moments. Zauner says that “In Hell,” which she originally recorded for Soft Sounds before adding some new flourishes for Jubilee, is “maybe the saddest song I’ve ever written.” Its tale of Zauner’s last moments with her dog may feel thematically out of place on Jubilee, but Zauner views it as an opportunity: “Look at what you can endure and still experience joy [afterward].” On another melancholy tune, “Posing in Bondage,” Zauner’s fictional, tied-up narrator still hopes that her lover will come home soon, even though she knows his return is deeply unlikely. Even in their darkest times, people can create their own light.
“Posing in Bondage” is special in that it’s one of two Jubilee songs with co-production from Jack Tatum of dream-pop institution Wild Nothing. The two also co-wrote Jubilee’s buoyant lead single “Be Sweet,” which could have been a radio smash in the ‘80s, with bouncy guitar-bass interplay, cresting daylight-white synths, and a chorus so ebullient you’d have to be a literal rock not to sing along. It’s certainly Zauner’s most joyous song to date, and her cries of “I want to belieeeeeeeve” are awash not in desperation but excitement. It’s an appropriate sentiment for a song about finding elation in forgiveness, one with a pre-chorus cry as memorable as the chorus’s wail: “Make it up to me, you know it’s better!”
“Better” describes Zauner’s mindset at large these days. The tremendous emotional burdens she experienced during and after her mother’s cancer battle are now preserved in text, and her work to re-spark her joy is etched in musical amber. With Crying in H Mart and Jubilee, she’s letting the world know not only that she’s been through rough times and come out OK, but that you can, too. “It’s been six years since my mom passed away, and that grief is gonna live with me forever,” she says. “But I still am capable of joy. I still experience it. I still want to fight for it in my life.”
If you came over to my apartment in 2018, I probably made you watch Sigrid’s “Strangers” video because I was full-on obsessed with the Norweigan pop star’s pulsing ode to a pretend love affair. Her new track, “Mirror,” is another emotional anthem, but this time it’s about falling in love with yourself. After Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, and Kylie Minogue’s latest albums, we’ve been told that “disco is back” — but it never left! For some of us, disco is not a trend that comes back around every few years, but a way of life — something Sigrid clearly subscribes to. In her confident new bop, Sigrid sings about falling in love with who she sees in the mirror, all while delivering a solid self-love dance-floor filler. Like in “Strangers,” Sigrid’s “Mirror” video features high-waisted jeans and energetic choreography, including an epic desert dance-off against herself. Sigrid always understands the assignment. —Chris Rudolph