Remi Wolf: “Ripping up pop’s rulebook? I don’t know what I’m doing!”

Her kaleidoscopic take on pop won fans in Nile Rodgers and Beck, and now the Los Angeles artist’s filthy, funky debut album tackles alienation and addiction with candour and wit

Just over a year ago, the foundations of Remi Wolf’s world shifted. Having completed two of the songs for her upcoming debut album – and had an unexpected breakout moment amidst the pandemic – she celebrated the end of a first post-lockdown gig at a wild drive-in show in Los Angeles last June. Those celebrations sounded off with metaphorical sirens; Wolf realised that the previous few months of drinking during lockdown, and years of substance abuse before that, had reached a breaking point and that she needed to do something about it.

The very next day, over lunch with her parents, she realised she had a drinking problem, asked for help and checked herself into rehab. That was just the beginning: she took control of her vices and turned that energy into the blistering record that became ‘Juno’.

“I was pretty fucking manic and confused,” Wolf calmly says as she sips her morning coffee from her home in Los Angeles, California, looking back on the tumultuous stretch during which she wrote her upcoming, transgressive debut record, ‘Juno’. “I’ve always been pretty adventurous in my writing,” she tells NME over Zoom from her living room, “but in the songs I wrote during the pandemic there’s definitely a little more mania. My career was taking off, I had recently gotten sober, I just got a dog and I moved three times during the pandemic,” she says. “It was a lot…”

NME Cover 2021 Remi Wolf
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

‘Juno’, named after her newly adopted French bulldog who sat in on every writing session, is a kaleidoscopic record about depression, alienation and addiction; it sounds like the most euphoric night out all the while keeping an eye on the impending despair heading your way in the morning. It could only be written by someone who has known the immense pressure of being an Olympic athlete as a child; an American Idol contestant as a teen; an overnight online superstar during a period when the world stopped believing they existed anymore. It could, therefore, only be written by someone like Remi Wolf.

The 25-year-old’s rise didn’t come completely out of nowhere, though – it’s the product of hard work and smart collaborations. 2019’s silky six-track debut EP ‘You’re A Dog!’ was followed by the breezy standout single ‘Photo ID’ a year later; its viral moment boosted by a remix with Gen Z sensation Dominic Fike. That song helped establish Remi’s ear-blistering sound where distorted guitars, unpredictable beats and half-rap, half-sung vocals writhe against each other, while laidback ADHD anthem ‘Woo!’ and fuckboy send-up ‘Disco Man’, offer further examples of perfectly packaged pop anthems that ought to pack lyrical warning signs.

“I’m fucking ready for this album to come out,” she tells NME in the middle of the million questions we begin to ask about the million facets of her life. Wolf’s eyes are wide and hungry; it’s hard to imagine a time when she hasn’t been ready for any of this.

NME Cover 2021 Remi Wolf
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Born and raised in Palo Alto, California, Wolf learned about throwing herself into her passions from a young age. She started skiing competitively aged eight, and went on to represent the US in alpine skiing at the Youth Olympic Games for two years in a row, finishing both times in the top 50. “Skiing prepared me for this hustle, and the way I dedicated my life to that is similar to the way I dedicate my life to my art and career,” she says.

She gave the pursuit up after a decade, instead yearning for a more grounded way of living. It didn’t last long: she ended up auditioning for the 2014 series of American Idol on the recommendation of a vocal coach. She made it through to become one of the top 150 performers, where everyone wanted to be – and was convinced they were – the next big thing.

Her brief time in the talent show, as well as a formal education at the USC Thornton School of Music, gave her concrete tools to take control of her career as a performer and a producer. “I’m very, very involved in how the songs are actually built out,” she says.“If you are a writer, if you are an artist in the room helping the creation of the song, you are a producer.”

NME Cover 2021 Remi Wolf
Remi Wolf on the cover of NME

It seems straightforward, but it taps into something bigger that bothers Wolf about the music industry. She’s only been releasing music for the last two years, but could spot the warning signs threatening to undermine her work early on. Of the importance of demanding recognition when it’s due, Wolf points out: “Women have been slighted by the title of producer for so long, because of people not speaking up for themselves and a whole slew of toxic masculinity.”

A study by her alma mater found that just 23 per cent of the artists – and less than two per cent of producers – who featured in Billboard’s year-end charts between 2012 and 2019 were women. “I mean, I did produce all these songs whether or not I was touching the computer – which I was!” Wolf continues. “I’m fucking directing the show and I think a lot of other women are too, and it’s really fucking important for us to speak up about it.”

Wolf masterfully balances the righteous anger of her message with the whimsical, woozy sense of fun in her music. She’s a visual artist as much as a musician, working with her LA-based creative collaborator Haley Appell to build delirious worlds inspired by the surrealism of TV shows Wolf watched as a kid. “Pee Wee’s Playhouse, The Doodlebops, The Big Comfy Couch, Bear In The Big Blue House – all these weird shows have these crazy sets,” she says. “There’s something so comforting and inspiring to me in how playful it is.”

“Women have been slighted by the title of producer for so long. I’m directing the show a lot of other women are too”

In fact, when Wolf recorded a ‘Home Session’ for NME’s YouTube channel – whereby we invite an artist to record a performance within their own four walls – last year, she sat cross-legged in a fleshy pink womb-like set for her warm and weird show. Is there an element of wanting to create something specifically for her fans to feel invited into? “That’s a very nice thought,” Wolf says, politely accepting the leap but clarifying that her reasoning is much simpler than that. “I love creating a world because it’s natural; it’s an extension of me. But it’s a bonus if people feel invited and understood – all you could ever ask for is to actively help people and make them feel safe.”

It’s a rare skill to create this sensation of safety and comfort from such corrosive, outrageous lyrics. “Ain’t got no time for the frenemies eating my ass like the human centipede,” Wolf sings on The Neptunes-nodding ‘Quiet On Set’, a song she calls “fucking insanity”. Indeed, quips about the infamous porn video 2 Girls One Cup (don’t Google it) sit alongside a jab about an “orgy at Five Guys with five guys / That’s 10 guys and holy christ / I’ve never seen more nuts in my life. It’s one of the year’s most lurid – and brilliant – songs.

Elsewhere, a bittersweet love letter to her family – her Sicilian mother, Russian-Persian father, three younger siblings and two dogs – is wrapped up in an ode to the Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman on ‘Anthony Kiedis’. Pop culture references abound across the rest of the album as well: UFC fighter Conor McGregor and cartoon baddie Cruella de Vil on ‘Front Tooth’, and HBO’s hit show Euphoria on the flirty ‘Sexy Villain’. She frequently positions herself as a playful character and an unreliable (and unstoppable) narrator – as with her visual art, it’s just in her DNA: “It’s very me, but I embellish for fun,” she says.

NME Cover 2021 Remi Wolf
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

‘Liquor Store’ is the album’s finest moment, a scratchy pop belter that brazenly addresses Wolf’s summer of 2020, during which she checked herself into rehab. She sings that her “marbles on the brink” and that on a trip to buy booze, “my mind will be walking a tightrope” atop a playful funk-rock backing. She nods to one of the friskier lyrics as a case in point of her ballsy songwriting: “I do not have a tattoo of two fish kissing on my clit,” she laughs, “but those lyrics are rooted in the feeling for me. I bend and play the truth. I like to abstract things and make them otherworldly.”

‘Juno’ offers plenty of vulnerable and plainly melancholic material as well. “I’m a feral cat and I’m licking up the milk at your door,” she mournfully sings on the tender ‘Street You Live On’, which she calls “as close as I get to a sad song”. ‘Buzz Me In’ doesn’t see her shy away from the debilitating impact of heartbreak either, as she admits, amid an impossibly danceable melody: “I don’t know me anymore / I don’t feel it anymore.”

Those confessional lyrics cover new ground for Wolf, seeing her mine deeper to produce fearless new songs. “Sometimes I’ll write songs out of a need to expel whatever the fuck is going on inside,” she says. “But the most therapeutic part for me is performance – there’s the biggest energy exchange when I go out and play shows because it’s just impossible on the internet.” She waves her phone around reluctantly and rolls her eyes. “I can see the numbers but there’s obviously this barrier, it’s a brick of fucking metal!”

“Beck’s remix of ‘Sauce’ was ​​one of the happiest moments of my career. I was sobbing”

Still, that brick of metal is home to so many Wolf’s ride-or-die fans, the sea of young music lovers desperate for a new saviour to rip-up pop’s rulebook: is she that force? “I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m always striving for everything to be a hook but was never consciously like ‘I am going to rewrite the rules’.”

They found her before she could go out in person and meet them, and decades prior, she might not have been understood and appreciated in the same way. “Gen Z feel more ownership over the music they get to listen to, because they curate it all themselves,” Wolf says. “There is such a discovery process on the internet which makes people feel really emotionally attached. There’s this environment of ownership and identity, which I think is really awesome – it gives people a feeling of power.”

There’s undeniable power in Wolf’s fandom; Nile Rodgers and Beck are all proud, er, Remjobs, a nickname given to Wolf as a teen, which has been fabulously reappropriated by her fans. The pair submitted remixes for Wolf’s ‘We Love Dogs!’ project released earlier this year, alongside a collection of perfectly curated collaborators such as Tune-Yards, Little Dragon, Sylvan Esso and Hot Chip.

NME Cover 2021 Remi Wolf
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Wolf singles out the collaboration with Beck, calling his remix of ‘Sauce’ “one of the happiest moments of my career”. It’s a total metamorphosis of one of Wolf’s more sultry tracks, amped up with giddy percussion and pitched-up guitars that further emphasise Wolf’s stark vocals. “I don’t even know how or why he agreed, but when I got the remix back, I was sobbing,” she says. “I’ve loved him for so long and really admire his work. I could hear how much he changed it from the original song, I just knew how much love and work he put into it. I was weeping tears of joy.”

You sense that maybe it was second nature to Beck. There appears to be a kinship between the pair with ‘Juno’ feeling like the messy, spiritual lovechild of Beck’s key ’90s records, ‘Odelay’ and ‘Midnite Vultures’. The former is a visionary patchwork of different textures and samples, influencing the pace of Wolf’s spitting lyrics, and the 1999 follow-up further heightens the sex appeal, its fresh and funky approach akin to Wolf’s “no limits” approach.

Might there be any chance of some more Beck team-ups in future? “There’s some writing sessions in the works,” Wolf teases. “I see Beck a lot, out and about in LA – he’s just going to shows and DJ sets, out there hitting the town.” She tends to keep to herself in the city, though, saying she prefers to keep “off to the side” in terms of the wider scene of LA musicians. “I know a lot of musicians and there’s all these tiny pockets I can jump in and out of,” she says.

“I’ll write songs out of a need to expel whatever the fuck is going on inside”

Even without having to compare herself to these homegrown musicians, Wolf rarely stops thinking about her responsibility as a forward-facing product as well as her mental wellbeing. “I’m taking it all on and it’s a very weird, unnatural experience – I need support,” she says. “There’s definitely more care being given, but there’s still a lot more work to do. Artists signed to labels should be given the resources to find therapists [and] have health insurance, or at least find a liaison to help them out with everything. A lot of the time your label is like, ‘Here’s your advance – go off and do whatever,’ which, like… great, but we need a lot more support.”

Wolf isn’t oblivious to the history of traumatised artists before her who are now recognised as suffering with addiction and burnout. “You see what happens to artists from the ’90s: they have depression, they have addiction, and they pass away,” she says. “Even today, that’s still happening with people at a younger age, and there’s a lot of it that’s romanticised. That’s what keeps it stagnant a lot of the time because addiction in art has been prevalent for hundreds of years. There’s a part of everybody that romanticises that culture and that’s really unhealthy.”

NME Cover 2021 Remi Wolf
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Wolf does her best to find mindful moments where she can: daily two-hour walks; a new relationship with her parents where she establishes the boundaries of independence and reliance; plans far removed from LA to find inspiration for new music. “I’m planning a writing trip for my next project after a lot of live shows in 2022,” she says. “I want to go to the forest, surrounded by trees – with maybe just one goat or something.”

One goat, endless weird kids TV shows and a hot pink hat emblazoned with the mantra she lives by: ‘Deep Funk and Divine Intervention’ – these are the random, crucial quirks that define Remi Wolf, a bold, curious and completely beguiling artist with full control over her slippery world looking out towards the future. A final statement for those about to hear ‘Juno’? “People better fucking respect me!” she laughs, semi-acknowledging how threatening that sounds. The delivery may be playful, but the sentiment and her ambition couldn’t be more real.

Remi Wolf’s debut album ‘Juno’ is out October 15

CREDITS

Photographed at Cherry Soda Studios
Photo assist by Anthony Avellano
Styling by Joanie Del Santo
Hair and makeup by Kasha Lassien