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Jockstrap Eddie Whelan
JockstrapPhotography by Eddie Whelan

Jockstrap: The Advent of an Avant-Pop Powerhouse

As their long-awaited debut album I Love You Jennifer B is released, London’s most exciting and experimental musical duo discuss the catharsis of songwriting, the influence of emotional dance music, and the genius of Sylvia Plath

Lead ImageJockstrapPhotography by Eddie Whelan

Jockstrap are one of the UK’s most distinctive new bands, though it’s not necessarily easy to describe how they sound. It’s tempting to just list the different genres and styles they incorporate into their work (you can hear everything from Southern California folk music to hi-tech electronic production drawing from SOPHIE to Skrillex), but this would be a disservice to the breadth of ideas on display, and the way their composition, writing, production, and performance all comes together into something unmistakably theirs. Nor does it convey the contradictions in their music: beautiful but bizarre, heartfelt but humorous. Granted, it’s not hard to find young artists today who take a ‘post-genre’ approach to their music, but while the effect there is usually flattening (taking bits and pieces of global pop music and sandpapering them down into something unchallenging), Jockstrap only heighten the incongruities and idiosyncrasies.

The avant-pop duo’s Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye first met at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Ellery (who also plays in the Mercury-nominated band Black Country, New Road) is originally from Cornwall, and was at the university studying jazz; Skye, who grew up in Market Harborough, was there for an electronic composition degree. They bonded over their mutual interest in electronic music, leftfield composers like Mica Levi, and folk singers from Bob Dylan to Joni Mitchell. Crucially, they also shared a similarly wry sense of humour. Since then they’ve released two main EPs (2018’s Love Is the Key to the City and 2020’s Warp Records-released Wicked City), alongside remixed versions of those releases, which work in everything from a 21-piece string orchestra to experimental rap from the late Stepa J Groggs of Injury Reserve into their music.

On their long-awaited debut album I Love You Jennifer B, Ellery and Skye present a more refined version of the Jockstrap we heard on those previous EPs. Their working method hasn’t changed enormously since they first started out – Ellery writes the lyrics and much of the songwriting, Skye works on production and arrangements – though their roles have become slightly more amorphous over the years. Ideas that would have once been used and discarded now feel more fully resolved, and Ellery’s surreal lyricism is more prominent than ever. It’s ambitious stuff, with smart and sophisticated songwriting, unusual sonic ideas (they’ve said that Abba-meets-Yeezus was one early vision for the record, though it obviously deviated from that during the production process), and some of the most genuinely gorgeous songs you’ll hear this year.

We caught up with the duo over video chat, with Ellery speaking from Lower Clapton and Skye from Finsbury Park.

Selim Bulut: When you first started writing the album, did you have any discussions about its direction, or did it arise naturally out of the way you’d already been working?

Georgia Ellery: We tried to [talk about it], but it didn’t always work. We don’t know what we’re going to make until we make it.

Taylor Skye: It was made over a longer period of time [than we had worked in the past], so we had more time to reflect on the songs and think about them and make changes. We’d make songs in collections, and then there’d be quite a big gap between these groups of songs.

SB: Is it good or bad to have more time? You hear about hip-hop producers who can write eight or nine beats in one session, and that frenzied way of working keeps them from obsessing over the small details.

GE: I like having a long time. It takes me a long time to write a song. I don’t work well with deadlines – but you always need them.

TS: Some of the songs were made really quickly. 50/50 didn’t take very long to make. Sometimes you have to think for a long time about making something, and then when you do make it, you make it in a day – but you have to count the months and months leading up to that. And you know, those producers have spent 15 years only making hip-hop beats, which allows them to make a beat in an hour or so. It all adds up.

SB: Over the past few months leading up to the album release, you’ve been putting on these shows at The Glove That Fits, this tiny venue in Hackney. Did doing those shows influence parts of the record?

TS: We’d broadly made the album by the time we started doing them. For me, the reason to do them was that I grew up wishing that I could have gone to nights like that. We couldn’t go to Plastic People or those DMZ nights. I used to go to these 1-800 Dinosaur nights [hosted by James Blake’s crew] when I first moved to London and there was exciting music played there, a lot of it unreleased. That’s what we wanted to do. It’s really fun. [Making music] can be quite heavy-going, so it’s a nice release to do these nights. We want to keep doing them.

SB: Can you pick a song on the album and tell me the process behind making it?

TS: Neon had quite a big process behind it.

GE: I wrote the demo; it was the first I’d written on the guitar. We were working in the Warp Records studio at the time. I’d demoed the guitar and vocals. It was this moody acoustic guitar the whole way through. It didn’t have the big outro idea yet.

TS: I don’t think the end of the song was there yet. I wanted to do something quite cliché, in terms of it being minimal and then going into a drop.

GE: You sent a variation of different ideas for the drop. They ranged from this big, thrashy thing – which we eventually went with – to something completely different, and then another completely different thing. We thought it would work best with a heavy guitar line, but we just had an acoustic in the studio, so we re-recorded the guitars but put a distortion thing on Logic [over it] to make it sound like that. It was exciting, but we were unsure about the use of guitars.

SB: Is that how you usually write – you have an idea and then expand it outwards and see where it goes? Or do you sometimes frankenstein a lot of smaller sketches together? Your music always feels so full of ideas.

GE: The song usually dictates it.

TS: In Jewellery, that was a completely different song we just pasted onto it, but most of the time we make something for the song we’re working on. I just have to try stuff out. I can’t talk about a plan. We don’t talk about the songwriting process or production, we just bring things to the table and decide what’s right or wrong. It allows us to be as abstract as we want.

GE: We’ve always got loads of ideas and are always trying to fit them into a song. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t naturally go together, we’ll always try it and see what it sounds like. If we disagree on something we tend to find something new that we both agree on. Usually there’s an intuitive response if it’s right or not.

“I analysed music probably more than it was supposed to be analysed, I wasn’t experiencing it in the way it was supposed to be experienced” – Taylor Skye

SB: Was there anything you’d been listening to while making the album that influenced its direction?

TS: The music we found inspiring was quite dark, distorted, and doomy. We hadn’t really talked to each other about that, or connected about it before.

GE: I think I’d been introduced to doom music about a year before we started [working on the album]. I didn’t realise Taylor was into it as well. We shared some references together: Sunn O))), Show Me the Body, Earth …

TS: Georgia was listening to quite a lot of trip-hop music around that time too, I remember.

GE: Oh yeah, Massive Attack and stuff like that. And that’s very dark too, in a different way.

TS: I think the album got brighter as time went by.

GE: I was listening to the radio a lot during lockdown – to Greatest Hits, which is what the song [Greatest Hits] is named after. A lot of classic disco-y stuff to sing along to. I think that made it into the songwriting.

SB: Georgia, can you tell me about your approach to lyric-writing? Did you write lyrics prior to Jockstrap?

GE: I wasn’t really writing before Jockstrap. I loved poetry growing up – my favourite was Sylvia Plath, which I think is evident in my writing. I love an emphasis on surrealist imagery and highly emotional, autobiographical subjects. I see that link in songwriters like Joni Mitchell too. Usually for lyrics I use bits I’ve written on my Notes app on my phone. I usually write in prose. I think if it looks good on the page, it can translate into a song really well.

SB: If you’d not written before Jockstrap, were you ever nervous about doing it?

GE: Yes – but I found it very cathartic and instantly addictive, and it’s quickly become a very important form of expression for me.

SB: Taylor, you’ve said in an interview that you listen more to the sound of Georgia’s vocals and less the actual content of her lyrics when you’re producing. Has there ever been a situation where you totally misinterpreted a song’s meaning?

TS: We never talk much about what a song means. Georgia doesn’t ask me what my production choices mean to me emotionally either. The way we process our lives is through music. Even if I do understand her lyrics, there’s no objective way that I could then make a decision about how to produce something. Trying to grab hold of [Georgia’s] meaning wouldn’t help because I have my own feelings that I need to get out with my music. It’s my feelings and Georgia’s feelings put on top of each other.

SB: On the flipside to this, there’s a club and rave influence on the record. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to this music growing up? Georgia, did you experience Cornwall’s illegal rave scene firsthand?

GE: One of the first influences that we realised we shared was rave and club music, like post-dubstep and house. Taylor was watching and listening to it online. We were both digesting it in the same way, through compilation CDs, the internet, Boiler Room videos, YouTube channels. It was very much in our headphones, for both of us, but I went to raves too. You’d just break in; there’d be no one checking your age or anything. I fell in love with that experience.

SB: And Taylor, what was it like for you in Market Harborough?

TS: I didn’t grow up around parties or drugs, I was just listening to stuff [on the internet] and then trying to make it [myself]. I followed the trend of emotional dance music; I listened to it very intensely as a pubetic teenager. SoundCloud was more of a thing back then, Zane Lowe was on Radio 1 and he had the Hottest Record in the World, and there was a YouTube channel called Aliasizm that ripped exclusives from Essential Mixes and stuff like that. I got into listening to ripped radio stuff in the car, because my parents were into this as well, so we’d listen while they were driving. It was very insular, none of my friends were into it, so it was quite a solo experience – which I guess is ironic, because it’s made for lots of people in a club.

SB: Do you think growing up outside of major populaces added an outsider-ish sensibility to your work?

TS: We weren’t part of [these scenes]. We were onlookers, so I think we processed the music in quite a skewed way. I analysed music probably more than it was supposed to be analysed, I wasn’t experiencing it in the way it was supposed to be experienced. I suppose that’s what leads to changes in the way you make music.

SB: Before you go – who is Jennifer B?

TS: We just did a letter scramble and came up with the name. It’s completely meaningless.

GE: Sorry!

Jockstrap’s debut album I Love You Jennifer B is out now.