On the songs that shape her life
TOPS’ latest and third album, Sugar at the Gate, is a subtle nod to achieving satisfaction and pleasure, but also encountering a barrier to what’s desired. If you know records numbers one and two, you’ll recognise the dreamy TOPS-y pop that made your heart swell and hips sway when you first heard it. But you’ll also feel more pronounced tremors of strange psychedelia and live show exuberance, and a lyrical confidence of self-expression that’s come into its own. We rang Jane Penny, TOPS’s vocalist, at her home back in Montreal after having spent a full year in LA. Spacey electronic music gently bleep-beep-bops in the background as Penny occasionally giggles in between answers about where their Californian adventure has taken them musically.
Photos by Vinna Laudico, shot in Montreal, Canada
Styling by Kaitlyn Woodhouse
Whose decision was it to move Los Angeles?
Riley is from California. He was having issues with staying in Canada at the time, we decided it made sense for us to spend some time together elsewhere. We’d all lived in Montreal for basically the entire time that we’ve been adults. Moving to LA seemed like a good opportunity to leave the Montreal scene, which can have a deterministic effect on your worldview and day-to-day. It was nice to take the music out of Montreal and into a new context.
You came back to Montreal a few months ago. Do you miss LA?
I admire LA more than I miss LA. It’s a beautiful place to be, I love the beach and everything else about it, but I’m not yearning to go back, you know? The cool thing about being in a band is that you never really have to leave any place, you always get to come back. There’s something that feels a little dreamlike about going to California from Canada, it fascinates me to no end. In Canada, it’s easy to have your little life set up, when you travel in California you’re hit with many more complex experiences. But no matter how much time I spend there, I think I’ll always feel like a visitor in America.
I was committed to them as an expression of myself and what I thought was valid, I was not in pursuit of perfection
Tell me about the new album, Sugar at the Gate.
I think it’s an interesting record because we made it in a bit of a time capsule of putting ourselves in a position of being in a new city and a new house. In many ways it’s a classic TOPS record, just more pushed to the edges. Our second record was quite poppy, whereas with this album we managed to incorporate influences from pop, but also a range of more psychedelic, heavier and stranger undercurrents that we’ve always had, but get characterised by less. Overall, it’s still quite smooth and has some classic TOPS elements to it, but mood and lyrics-wise there’s more variation and diversity in them. It’s nice to have something to share again with our fans. I’m really happy that there’s songs like ‘Dayglow Bimbo’ on this record.
You sing and write the lyrics. What’s worth noting in these particular areas?
I’m just more confident with allowing myself to believe that I can say something and because it has meaning for me, it has value in the context of a TOPS song. In general, it’s allowed us to go into a lot more interesting and unique kind of songwriting. Up until this record, a lot of my lyric and songwriting has been more exploratory than confessional. In the past, a large part of the pursuit was learning how to write a song, as well as expressing one’s emotional response to life. Whereas now, I’ve gained confidence in my ability to create a song that is successful, and I was able to use my intuitive personal perspective when writing the songs with David and Riley, and the lyrics came more spontaneously. Once I wrote them, I was committed to them as an expression of myself and what I thought was valid, I wasn’t in pursuit of perfection. I really love the lyrics on ‘Hours Between’ that I wrote with David, it goes into things that really resonated with us all, and David’s contribution there was intended to make the record represent something that we could all stand behind. After playing so many shows, it emerged to me as an artist that that’s something very important, more so than attempting to create the perfect pop song.
After playing so many shows, it emerged to me as an artist that that’s something very important, more so than attempting to create the perfect pop song
Did you surround yourselves with any particular sounds in your record-making capsule in Glendale?
Sade is one of those artists who I always go back to. I listened to Virna Lindt’s song ‘Underwater Boy’, which is quite a TOPS-y song. David and I listened to a lot of ’90s R&B instrumentals from Faith Evans, Janet Jackson and Aaliyah. With their compelling vocals laid on top, it’s hard to focus on just their pop production. Without vocals though, it’s laid bare what’s going on, and I feel like we eventually were able to reference some of that on our own record by recreating it sonically.
Tops plays Nest Ghent, 25 Nov. The show is free for members and their +1. Join here.