There was no howling at the moon or bingeing episodes of Being Human, no Team Jacob or Team Warren (Zevon - kids, ask your grandparents), but when Imogen Jones - singer, songwriter, producer, director and editor – chose the name Lupa J for the electronic/dance music being made at home, it wasn’t done lightly.
If anything, it might have been accidentally prophetic. Or self-fulfilling for someone who uploaded a debut track almost immediately, two EPs by 17 and now, at 22, two albums.
Jones, then 15, chose Lupa as it means she-wolf/female wolf in Latin, and “when I was a kid I was very obsessed with the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke about this girl raised by wolves”.
There is an attraction in fiction to wolves and the mythology around them: creatures who are smart and powerful but driven by sometimes overwhelming urges. That balance of control and out-of-control has made them compelling for artists.
“Part of the appeal of that character when I was a kid was how wild she was. So yeah, fierceness and wildness,” Jones says. “I was really obsessed with a character till I was about 11 and then when I got into high school it became uncool to be a really obsessive person like I was, about fictional things like that, and I tried to change myself a lot at school to fit in.
“When I started making music when I was 15, 16, it was letting go of those self-imposed restraints on my personality and my character. Yeah, the wolf and wildness fits in with that.”
That pattern of fitting in and then working your way out of conformity – to let you be you - is a constant through lyrics and music as much as life for Jones. On To Breathe Underwater, the second Lupa J album, out this week, the variety of styles is striking but even more so is the way it confirms Lupa J no longer wants to fit in with the way others declare this is how the singer and songwriter must look, talk, feel or represent themselves.
How close is Jones to being free of those demands?
“I feel like that’s something I kind of work out more and more as I grow up. Sometimes I feel like I am the most myself I can be, and then a few times now I have felt like I realised that part of me is still repressing an aspect of myself, or trying hard to change myself or whatever,” says Jones. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more of that process to come. But I do feel more free than I did four years ago.”
To be fair to Jones, it would have been amazing if their answer now was something along the lines of “I’ve got everything sorted”. Any of us a little bit older who can say that are probably lying anyway. And there’s nothing wrong with that, though the downside of it is, as I tell Jones, is you’re probably going to be dealing with this shit for the next 20-30 years like the rest of us.
They laugh. “I’m sure I will.”
Even so, to borrow a line from a Lupa J song, do they feel that they have “A body I can sleep in/Skin I call my own”? There’s a bit of a pause before the answer.
“I would say it’s a process. I’m still figuring out how and why I feel comfortable or not comfortable things. I’m getting there, but yeah, there’s still aspects of myself and the world that makes me not feel comfortable.”
The 2019 debut album, Swallow Me Whole, from which that line is taken, was about more than wanting a single life to change; it was about demanding and maybe driving change around yourself. “It’s not enough for me anymore” they sang in Woman. Have things changed? Or at least begun to change? Does this new album reflect seeing that change?
“It’s all so recent. I suppose I’d say no because I wrote the bulk of it in that weird limbo period of being mostly in lockdown, in April and May. I moved to Melbourne at the end of last year to get my life going there and I feel like my life is on hold a little bit. I think a lot of the album came out feeling like that. I feel like that line is still very relevant to how I feel.”
Of all the times and all the places to move to a city to develop new a social and professional world, Melbourne in the first part of 2020 was, well, interesting timing.
“Yeah,” they laugh. “It could have been better.”
The flipside of course is that it did mean been able to totally focus on yourself and your art. How was writing and recording in those circumstances?
“It was a good opportunity in some ways,” Jones says. “With my last album, I wrote most of that in very early 2018, which is ages ago, and I didn’t release it for a little bit, so I had a whole lot of energy in me to write new music. It was very easy to write in lockdown. I know it’s not been easy for a lot of people, but I think it was because I hadn’t had a block of time to write for ages, so it came out of me really quickly. I think that’s what got me through the bulk of this year.”
There is an interesting battle, or maybe more appropriately balancing act happening within the new album between some clear-eyed realism about things and what feels like genuinely positive energy. To Become, a pulsing, dark club number, is hardly a positive track, and the aggression in the hard-edge techno of the quite thrilling Call Them Up. However, there is an opportunity to open up, to release, which is an act of optimism that wasn’t so obvious on the first album.
“It’s funny you say it feels positive because a lot of it, what I was writing about, didn’t necessarily feel positive. But opening up about it, and exploring that stuff, is a positive thing,” Jones says. “Even when Call Them Up is a really heavy, aggressive sounding track, it’s about imminent change, which is a positive thing.”
The other opening up is stylistically, with Jones willing to go anywhere the song might take them. That includes going somewhere as gentle and straight out pop as the extremely attractive Supermarket Riots, which might surprise fans, and in all cases, not hedging their bets but committing to the style and the sound.
“On my previous albums and stuff I felt like I was taking influences from different styles and trying to fit a lot of them into each track. I guess my approach with this new album was I’m into techno and club music now, and even though I’m more known for being a pop writer, I saw these as exercises for myself to show I could do that. I also had to let go of stuff,” explains Jones.
“When I started writing music I wasn’t a huge fan of pop music and I was pulled to make things that are weird or more experimental. Now with this album I sort of have allowed myself to indulge in pop more than I ever have.”
The final part of this Lupa J puzzle is the visual element. While the latest clip, for This Suburb, was made by Kat Silverosa – though edited by Jones - they have used film clips and photos as not just a way to market the song but as part of the overall concept from the start. In some ways it’s like how Natasha Khan approaches her Bat For Lashes projects or Grimes creates her packages: the visuals are part of the creative process, not the bit you add at the end.
“I’ve always been interested in visual stuff as much is music, from a young age. The very first song of mine I put online I made a clip all myself and it’s always been something that I do simultaneously. Grimes has always been a huge influence on that sort of thing.”
It’s worth noting, if it’s not already clear, that since the first album, Jones has confirmed an identity as non-binary, with they/their pronouns. How much of this clarity in all aspects of their life, is connected to the clear eyed direction of this album?
“I only [recently] publicly came out as non-binary - and I’m not fussed about non-binary or gender queer or whatever: there are a whole lot of words you can use for that - but I thought about it for quite a while, and came to different conclusions about it,” says Jones. “I’ve been going by those pronouns in my close circle of friends for a while, but, I don’t know, for a while I had this feeling that as a female artist, and one who was really feminist about being a producer, that I had an obligation to exist still, and not choose my pronouns, as a female.
“I think that prevented me from wanting to do anything for a while, but I came to a point where I was like, actually, if I do feel comfortable in this and, publicly, that’s going to help a whole other range of people.”
It’s a balancing of control and no control. Conformity and freedom.
“It’s not the main thing with the album at all but it is present in the album’s overall themes of feeling like I’ve in the past not recognised myself completely because I’m trying to be accepted by other people.”
As Lupa J sang only two years ago, “it’s not enough for me anymore”.
To Breathe Underwater is out on November 13.