Is it possible for a 16-year-old to navigate planet pop like a pro? Perhaps we should ask Au/Ra. Without a slight sniff of ego, the teenager has managed to infiltrate the industry and create magic, alternative chart tunes while most of her peers are still ploughing their way through high school.
Her age doesn’t define her, though. In fact, it’s the most boring thing people quiz her about. “‘It’s so great you’re doing this – even though you’re 16!’,” she says, eye-rolling a little and imitating the cynical tone of many old dudes who’ve told her that she’s great ‘for her age’. “I know I’m 16,” she says, brushing off the condescending comments with humour. “[Age] shouldn’t matter, so long as you have the right mindset and know what you want to say.”
They’re two of the most obvious traits that Au/Ra – real name Jamie Lou Stenzel – possesses. Bleary-eyed, we meet on a scorching summer morning in Los Angeles, the night after a knockout show at the city’s Belasco Theatre. For the past few weeks, she’s been bussing around America, supporting Swedish pop star Tove Styrke. Every night, she appears on stage: a mane of mermaid green hair with a powerful set of pipes, and waxes lyrical to a crowd of relative strangers about the things in life that matter to her. No stuffy love songs, just brutally (and, on occasion, comically) truthful tracks about what it’s like to be a young woman in 2018.
It’s the beginning of a day of back-to-back shoots and she’s glued to the makeup chair, wishing me good morning and balancing two under-eye masks on her face. Moments like this are swiftly becoming the norm for someone who, just six years ago, didn’t think a music career would be possible. Her mother and father – a songwriter and producer respectively – knew how unforgiving the industry could be and were understandably pretty protective.
Despite her slight American twang (“I got this accent from watching Disney Channel!” she jokes) Au/Ra’s parents are both German. Her musical awakening came early, having been born and raised on the party isle of Ibiza before moving to Antigua a few years later. “I first approached my dad about wanting to sing professionally when I was 10 years old, and he was like ‘No, music is super tough, go be a lawyer – you’re good at arguing!’” she remembers with the smirk of someone who eventually got her way. “And clearly I was, because I convinced him to let me do this!”
Thank god he did. Until you hear it, it’s quite hard to pick another artist on the come-up who’s approaching the same subject matters as Au/Ra with quite as much as imagination as she does. Her hookish latest single ‘Emoji’ – about the safety net of talking to someone over text instead of meeting them IRL – might be the weirdest song about online relationships since MSN died. It was part inspired by catfishing and reading too deeply into somebody’s taste in smileys (“Boy I think you must be cool/ ‘Cause you use the alien face” she coos). While everybody around her seems is striving to write timeless tunes, Au/Ra seems satisfied tapping into the here and now.
“[Age] shouldn’t matter, so long as you have the right mindset and know what you want to say
“I know what you mean!” she admits. “I talk about Google Maps in ‘Emoji’, and I guess a lot of my songs discuss really current things.” Last night, she managed to get a stoic LA crowd to sing along to a song about Drake declining her Playstation friend request on Fortnite. It was “originally planned as a parody”, she admits, but this woman knows not to take herself too seriously. “Sometimes, I think about how they’ll sound in future, but I guess it’ll always be a representation of a different time,” she shrugs. “I try to not worry too much about it.”
She might not be too cautious of being the super serious popstar that many may have wanted her to be, but Au/Ra always was knew that her first body of work had to be great. ‘X Games’, her debut EP, is the project she’s been toiling over for a couple of years now. “I’m very excited about [it],” she gushes. The creative stance she took is a pretty profound one if you look at the general state of subject matters in pop these days. “They’re not all about relationships, which I’m pretty proud of,” she says. “Of course, that’s a huge part of people’s lives, but there are so many other things that are important to talk about: mental illness, for example, and bullying. I think it’s important to bring attention to those things.”
She tackled the former in a song that accidentally became the quintessential club hit of summer 2017. “Yeah, that was very random,” she laughs, “but very cool too!” In nightlife spots across Ibiza, a place where she spent so much of her childhood, twilight ravers were losing their shit to a remix of ‘Panic Room’, a song Au/Ra wrote about finding refuge from the woes of Gen Z anxiety.
On the original version, her lyrics swoop between glistening sonic dreamscapes and grinding, brick-hard synths, luring us into the mindset of a teenager facing their fears. But the version that became massive was a remix courtesy of Camelphat; so huge, in fact, that it’s still in the UK Dance Chart Top 10, seven months after it first dropped. In a time where melancholia imbues so much of the music we dance to (Robyn’s miraculous ‘Honey’ is a testament to that), maybe the idea of singing along to a song like this in a nightclub setting isn’t so strange after all.
As personal as that track is, Au/Ra’s also keen to make it clear that she’s not always an autobiographical writer; her skills extend beyond that. “They’re not my experiences,” she clarifies. “They’re mixed in with movies and TV shows and stuff.” ‘Ultraviolet’, for example, was written about a toxic relationship from the perspective of a Bond Girl. Stellar anime is also something she’s inspired by. I mention how fondly she’s spoken of Studio Ghibli, the famed Japanese animation studio, and as soon as those words have left my mouth, she’s clutching a Totoro pendant in her hand like it’s a lucky charm.
Her inspirations are never as literal as this, but I did wonder: if she could tell the story of any of Ghibli’s characters through song, who would it be? “It would probably by San from Princess Mononoke,” she says. The 1997 ecological fable, widely considered a cult classic, is seen as one of Ghibli’s best, and would provide plenty of talking points for a teenage girl raised in an era of conflict around the perils of global warming. “In the movie, she’s a girl who’s been raised by wolves; one who’s trying to make peace between nature and mankind. She’s watching destruction happen around her: the destruction of nature, and trying to fix it.”
That’s a weighty subject matter for any songwriter to tap into, but so early in her career, Au/Ra has already proved herself to be the kind of future pop juggernaut to go crazy places while keeping her head screwed on. Meaningless pop facsimiles? Not this girl’s MO.
As the last spritz of setting spray rests on her face, Au/Ra cricks her neck a couple of degrees clockwise to face me, and smiles: “I just want to keep talking about the things that feel important,” she stresses. With a boisterous bag of future bangers, she’s ready to take on the world. And that simple sentiment? The rest of today’s pop crop would be wise to follow it too.
Photographer: Jack Alexander
Stylist: Thomas George Wulbern
Hair and Make-Up: Amanda Bourne