Singer. Songwriter. Entrepreneur. The delightful voice of electro-pop duo MS MR, Lizzy Plapinger, spoke to me on a cold and rainy night in New York City.
Where abouts are you at the moment?
I’m in New York on a very cold, windy, rainy night.
Ah, I see. I’ve experienced that cold New York weather. Are you based there?
I’m based in New York. It’s nice. We’ve been on the road for so long, I haven’t been home too much. It’s the first time that I’m back for a few days, then I leave tomorrow for SXSW.
Terrific. So not too much downtime then?
Not too much downtime, no (laughs). There never is.
You’re returning to Australia for the Groovin the Moo festival. Had you heard of the festival before you were approached to headline?
Yeah, I’d actually heard a tonne about it from a bunch of friends of ours that have played in the past. The Australian festivals like Groovin the Moo and Laneway have such a huge reputation amongst American bands, because they’re sort of unique experiences – unlike anything you would experience in the States. Because we don’t really have festivals that travel the same way. There’s such cool opportunities to dive deeper into other countries, get to know the other artists on the bill… it sort of becomes like a musical travelling summer camp. Groovin the Moo has a particularly good reputation because it plays these areas in Australia that bands don’t often get to go to, so the fans are supposed to be just that much more enthusiastic and wild. So it has a pretty strong reputation among musicians.
Charli XCX, who is on Neon Gold, the record label that you founded, played Groovin the Moo last year. I imagine you heard good things from her too?
Exactly, yeah. Charli’s a really good friend and she said it was really, really awesome. I wish she was coming with us, that would be so much fun.
On stage I feel like I become this boldest, loudest, most wild version of myself.
There’s actually a lot of American artists on the bill, like Danny Brown and Mutemath and fellow New Yorkers Ratatat. Are there any that you’re particularly looking forward to seeing live or that you’re already friends with?
Mutemath are good friends of ours, we’ve known them for a little while so it will be fun to be out there with them. Ratatat I’ve been a fan of forever. I mean, Seventeen Years was, like, the first electronic song I really fell in love with. They actually went to a school very, very close to where Max and I went to school, and I’ve never seen them live. And I’m such a big fan and I’m so stoked to finally catch them at the festival and hopefully get to know them a bit better. I love their music so much. I’m hoping we come out of it as quite good friends.
MS MR have been to Australia before, including trips for both Laneway Festival 2013 and Splendour in the Grass 2015 – how do our audiences compare to those in other countries?
We’re a bit bias because I think Australia was one of the first places to really support us as a band and we’re always super cognisant of that. So, for us, I remember the first time we went to Australia we were still a baby band everywhere else in the world. Things had really gone gangbusters there. So it was the first time we really felt like pop stars or rock stars. So any time we go back to Australia we have super high expectations because people are so enthuastic and wild and loud and loving and supportive. It’s really genuinely one of the best crowds in the entire world to play and we’ve never had a show in Australia that didn’t completely blow our mind due to the amount of enthuasism everyone had, whether it was a festival or a side show. So you can only imagine how excited we are about going to these places we haven’t performed before.
It’s interesting how Australians latch on to particular international artists, often ahead of every other countries.
I think it’s becoming the kick off point for a lot of artists around the world. I think about artists like Mumford & Sons or Florence or Gotye, Tame Impala. I feel like it all really kicks off in Australia before the rest of the world catches on. It’s a really cool thing to be able to point to.
I’ve heard you say that in the very beginning, when you were first floating the idea of making music with Max, you were quite nervous about collaborating and exposing that side of yourself. Have you grown in confidence as a songwriter and performer?
Definitely, and it’s honestly something that I’m still wrestling with a little bit. Never on stage. On stage I feel like I become this boldest, loudest, most wild version of myself. There’s such freedom to performing that I’ve always felt incredibly comfortable on stage. It’s so much scarier in the studio and it’s because it’s so much more intimate and vulnerable and raw. And it’s a hard place to really be as vocally open and strong as you need to be. There’s something easier about doing it when you’re really performing to a crowd. It’s something I’ve definitely gotten better with and I think we really pushed through it on the second record. My vocal performance is a lot stronger because not only am I a better singer but because I felt more comfortable between Max and me and playing in front of other people for the first time. I hope it will only get better as time goes on.
In the studio, do all the vocal melodies come from you?
Basically I write the lyrics and the melodies and Max does all the production. But really, the truth is, when it’s both of you in a room you have your hands all over everything. That’s what a collaboration is and what makes MS MR so special. I’m not sensitive to Max coming in and being like, “You know, I think you could push yourself there either with a melody change or a lyric change” and he’ll allow me to step into his production and talk about other ideas that I have. And we’re a really good team that way. Neither of us had ever been in a band before, so there’s something purely emotional and visceral about writing together, it’s never very scientific or technological, and it’s more fun because of it. I think both of us are open to experimentation as well.
…the first record was very much about wallowing and marinating in a darkness. I wrestle with depression and have my whole life. And I allowed that first record to be a dark blanket of that.
You guys didn’t waste too much time in writing and releasing a second full-length record, How Does It Feel. Did you have clear ideas about how you wanted the album to sound compared to the first?
Definitely. With Secondhand Rapture, we’d never made music before. So, for us, it was about being in a room and scratching the surface of what we were creatively capable of. I think songs were pent up in us that we had to get out. Then it was a really huge challenge to translate those songs to a live setting because it was really wasn’t something we thought about at all while we were writing. So then, having toured that record for about three years, the songs sort of took on a new life while we were touring them and we grew into different people on stage. So when we came back and focused on the next record we really wanted to think about the people we’d become on stage and how we wanted to involve the audience and what show we wanted to put on. That massively affected the writing process. So this record was really written for the stage and especially for festival stages. So it’s been really validating to be performing these songs over the past year and see how well they cross over. Because I think it takes us, as a band, quite a few steps forward in terms of energy and level of pop.
How does that focus on festival audiences manifest in the songwriting?
I think it mostly manifested itself through our attention to percussion and bass lines. It didn’t really affect the nature of the lyrical content because, for me, I’m only learning to express myself in my own voice. But it did mean really paying attention to the drums. And we have such an amazing drummer. Actually Zach [Nicita] came in and co-produced a lot of the second [album] with Max as well. So to have another head in the room, especially someone who is a drummer and as incredibly skilled as he is, it really affected how complicated the drum set up was. It was really, really cool to explore that, and when you see the live show… it’s pretty spectacular to watch Zach play. He’s one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen. He really takes the music and the show up quite a few notches.
Did you approach the writing of the lyrics any differently on the second record?
Yeah, I think for me the first record was very much about wallowing and marinating in a darkness. I wrestle with depression and have my whole life. And I allowed that first record to be a dark blanket of that. And focusing on How Does It Feel, I wanted to really think about what sort of message I was putting out and being a voice to myself. So this record was a little bit more about light at the end of the tunnel and finding a way through forward and pushing ourselves to write songs that weren’t, you know, all fuckin’ rainbows and unicorns and sunshine, but were seeing a way out. So a song like Painted, I think is a really good example of that and was actually the first song we wrote for this record where… it’s sort of about an internal battle within yourself and the first half of that song is about being in your darkest place and then the second half flips on itself and it becomes about pushing yourself forward, and being hopeful and about seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. And that was, I think, just an important thing to think about for the whole record. There is more of a balance between those two opposing forces than on the last [album].
Do you look for a balance in terms of how personal your lyrics are? Do you want people to relate to them and choose to generalise some of the sentiments?
No (laughs). At the end of the day, for me, the artists that I most admire are the ones that make it as personal and intimate as possible, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we’ve had success and the relationship to our fans that we have, is that we’ve let them in behind the veil as much as possible. And I don’t think that anything I wrestle with is different really to what anyone else wrestles with in their life, and I think there’s a real humanism to that. I never shy away from keeping it specific because no matter how specific it feels to me it’s always specific to someone else as well, and that’s what music and art should be I think.
Have you guys continued to write since the release of How Does It Feel?
On the first record to the second record we didn’t really write while we were on the road and we were pretty focused on writing when we sat down to write. But now I think we’re both writing while we’re on the road and doing it in-between [tours] in our down time. So we’re always working on stuff, which is nice. We are both working on some stuff all the time, and that’s fun for Max and me too, to consistently be looking at one another to push each other.
Do you find it hard to juggle time between running your record label, Neon Gold, and your MS MR commitments?
It’s truly a challenge, but I think I’ve always done well in terms of multi-tasking and balancing things. And I’m just honestly lucky that I have Derek [Davies] to run Neon Gold and Max to run the band. It wouldn’t work if I didn’t have partners in both. I’m lucky that they’re both as understanding as they need to be. Because, for me, at the end of the day it’s like balancing the right and left sides of my brain to be both the business side of myself and the creative side of myself. I can’t really imagine at this point doing one without the other.
Part of running a label must be to keep your ear to the ground for new talent. Do you keep your eye on what’s happening in music scenes like Australia?
Yeah, I’m always looking for new music. Which is great. I think you make music and you work in music because you love it, so the pleasure is to be looking and on the hunt for things.
What are MS MR’s plans for the rest of 2016? Mostly touring or are there some other projects you want to get to?
Well we’re going to go to Australia then we’re going to come back and go on tour with Bloc Party, who are one of my all-time favourite bands. I’m pretty excited about that. We have a new video in the works that we’re very, very excited about. Then we’re sort of experimenting with some other projects, potentially scoring a short film and talking about actually working on some theatre projects, so really the door is pretty wide open, but we’ll mostly be on the road.
MS MR play the national Groovin the Moo tour this month, starting with Maitland on Saturday, April 23.