When I was young I had that classic mentality of not wanting too many people to like the thing that I liked. [Laughs] You know? I was like, “This is mine!” It was something that was special to me, and I felt stressed when it was became meaningful to too many other people as well—which I think is like a classic hipster mentality re: pop. But I’ve definitely settled that, and I can be happy that I love pop music and that everyone else does too.
What are you up to over there, by the way? Are you on holiday now?
Oh, awesome. Are you in that weird stage of not even knowing how to appreciate it? You’re just like, “What is life? I don’t know how to be on holiday”? I have that all the time.
It’s a very real feeling! Now, I have some questions that are just about writing. I really like that your music has become so popular, and I like hearing about your experience of writing music, because it’s an example to me of how being an observer or being introverted can pay off. I don’t know if you feel that way, but—
So, what taught you to look for the moments that you write about? Do those moments have anything in common?
I’ve been trying to figure out what links those moments. They often are such an inconsequential thing, but they happen to kind of pin down a whole concept for me. I don’t know if there’s a common element, though. I wrote this song called “Biting Down” which was on my first EP, and no one really knows what that song’s about and I never really talk about it, but what I meant by “biting down” was small moments of intensity that help you understand something greater, whether that be intense pain or shock or even being super cold or something. Sometimes those things, whether or not they’re pleasant, can really tell you something about yourself or what you’re feeling. So that’s what that song was about for me. But, yeah, I don’t know. Sometimes something will come along and it’s almost like you made it up because it’s that perfect. Those little serendipitous moments.
I think it can also be good to not know what the common element is, because then you’d start to look for it and lose the mystery. The Love Club is so different from Pure Heroine. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about songwriting through all of this? Do you have any rules for yourself?
I think with those two records, I was writing within a very simplistic pop structure, which felt like the purest way I could get across what I was feeling. Lately I’ve been writing a lot of instrumental music and like 10-minute jams where one tiny part of the beat is repeated over and over and over and over and over again—I’ve been having kind of a moment of musical discovery. But, yeah, I try to stick to that same rule.
I’m excited to see whatever you do next, but I think one reason why Pure Heroine is so strong is that…it’s like how some of my favorite writers I like because they know how to dress things up, but then some of them don’t use more words than they need; they say exactly what they need to say and nothing more. I love that album because it’s so concise in that way.
Thank you. Miranda July comes to mind as someone whose short fiction is very simple and straightforward, but still very potent.
For sure. And even Vonnegut, in his “8 Rules for Writing,” one of them is to use no extra words.
Vonnegut’s a master! There are so many good moments in Slaughterhouse-Five like that, just super-simple sentences.
This next question is very nerdy.
A lot of your lyrics use functional shifts, where you use one part of speech as another—a noun becomes an adjective or vice versa. Like in “World Alone,” when you say, “this slow burn wait,” or in “Buzzcut Season,” “It’s so easy in this blue, where everything is good.” And I love this, and Shakespeare did it a lot too, so you’re like Shakespeare.
[Laughs] That’s so nerdy, Tavi. I love it.
It gets nerdier! I took a standardized test last weekend where one of the passages we had to read from explained how these functional shifts trigger things in different parts of your brain.
So, your lyrics stimulate multiple parts of the brain. Do you do this consciously, when you go more for how something feels than how it might typically be described?
I know that’s something that I have always, always done. I didn’t even know it had a name, but it’s not something I’ve ever thought about—“Ella, stop using so many functional shifts!” [Laughs] But when I do those little things that you’re talking about, a phrase will click into place and it will mean something to me. Like, I know that that’s a good mechanism for me. I don’t know the context for using them, but I’m conscious of the fact that it lights up a different part of my head, and sometimes a phrase like that will feel incredibly visual to me—I can see it as I’m writing. That is really important to me, and that’s how I know that I have done something cool.
You also write fiction, or you used to. Do you still?
The thing is, when I write now, it comes out as songs.
Yeah, it’s in that format. Whereas three, four years ago when I would write, I would write a passage and then I would kind of have to fight to wrench it into the form of a song. I had a weird kind of emotional moment where I was like, Aw, it comes natural now! It’s part of me! It was so weird! But I felt the feels. So I haven’t really been writing short fiction, just lots of songs and stuff.