NME Radar: Breakout

Dora Jar: musical serotonin from Billie Eilish-endorsed pop prospect

By mixing experimental pop with lyrics that unpack mythology, this LA artist is forging a joyous, oddball sound of her own

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

Pinning down Dora Jar’s sound is no easy feat, and she’s keen on keeping it that way. Emerging over the past 12 months with an eclectic set of songs that range from choppy hip-hop (‘Wizard’) to trippy, psych-rock (‘Multiply’, ‘Polly’) it’s safe to say the 24-year-old enjoys working without boundaries. In May 2021, she released ‘Digital Meadow’, a dreamy EP which saw her receive co-signs from a host of artists: Grimes, Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, and Billie Eilish are all part of her rapidly growing fanbase.

Billie loved ‘Digital Meadow’ so much that she snuck into Dora’s show at London’s Waiting Room back in September with her brother, Finneas. In a clip posted to Instagram of Dora performing ‘Garden’, she wrote: “my angel, you make me cry every time”. Billie then invited the LA-based artist to open on the first leg of her ‘Happier Than Ever’ world tour at the start of February this year. With a week’s notice, Dora rounded up her band and set to work rehearsing for four huge arena shows. On the day of the very first gig, disaster struck, when Dora tested positive for COVID. But mere days later, fellow tour support WILLOW pulled out of her dates, and a recovered Dora found herself drafted back in.

When NME catches up with Dora, she’s in her New York City apartment, a stone’s throw from the iconic Madison Square Garden where she’ll perform alongside Billie for 40,000 fans across two nights. “Billie has the best fans in the whole world, which makes sense because she is the best in the whole world”, she says over Zoom.

And she’s clearly making an impression on them: “I’ve never heard of Dora Jar, but after 10 minutes of her opening for Billie Eilish, it seems like she’ll be a household name at some point”, wrote one fan on Twitter. “I fell head over heels for Dora Jar last night”, posted another. It’s a happy ending to a fairly chaotic month that brings Dora, who was born in New York and lived there for four years, back to the city where she first found a love for music.

Dora is gearing up to release ‘Comfortably In Pain’, a five-track EP (due March 3) that delves into feelings of grief and heartbreak through a patchwork of warm, upbeat arrangements. It takes its title from Dora’s latest single ‘Lagoon’, a sticky, melancholic track inspired “as much by Gwen Stefani as it was The Beatles”. The EP offers a deeper dive down the rabbit hole of Dora’s idiosyncratic sound than ever before, revealing a wide-eyed talent with a bright future in her sights. Ahead of its release, Dora gave NME the lowdown on her musical beginnings, working in London, and the importance of her relationship with her late sister, Lueza.

What have you learned from touring with Billie? 

“I’ve been obsessed with her since ‘Ocean Eyes’ [dropped]. She sent me a bunch of DMs saying that she loved ‘Digital Meadow’, which was fucking insane. I’m five years older than her, which is crazy because I feel like she raised me in some ways. When I heard ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’, I was like, ‘This is the realest deal.’ I feel like she demonstrates that you don’t have to be fake positive, and you can connect through vulnerability.

“The way she does her shows, she makes an arena feel cosy, because she’s acknowledging not just the people in the front. Everyone who’s waited for five hours in the freezing cold, she’s making them feel warm.”

Your mum is a theatre performer who’s worked on Broadway. Did you have many formative experiences from musical theatre?

“I have a vivid memory of when there was a thunderstorm, and we were playing the soundtrack to Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. There’s this song where the witch screams this blood-curdling scream. When it happened, there was this flash of lightning that outlined the skyline. It was this feeling of, ‘Oh my god, this is scary, but I like it!’ The music was so aligned with the moment that I was like, ‘Woah, that’s something.’”

You also grew up with an older sister, Lueza, who died in 2011. How does her memory remain with you today?

“We moved to California because she had cerebral palsy and it was hard for my parents to have a kid in a wheelchair in New York. We moved for her to be able to go to a special needs school started by Neil Young’s wife, Pegi. There was an annual concert to raise money for the school, and it would include a line-up of legends. I was four when we first went, and I was standing behind Lueza’s wheelchair, peeking out, and I saw Dave Grohl – and fell in love! That was pretty much when I knew I had to do music.

“I love talking about her because she’s always with me. We had – and we still do – a very psychic relationship. I believe that I talk to her all the time. If I could boil it down to one thing she taught me, it’s that words are two percent of communication. We communicated with our facial expressions; I knew what she wanted, and she knew what I was thinking. She had this incredible way of observing everything and seeing through bullshit. I now try to see life the way she did.”

Dora Jar
Credit: Press

You describe ‘Lagoon’ as being about “a lonely mermaid who craves intimacy”. What part does mythology play in your songwriting?

“Mythology, archetypes, fantasy [all] help with songwriting. I’m often writing lyrics in front of a lot of guys. I had this line, “I want to be medically examined by you” and I was kind of embarrassed to say it, because it’s kind of meant in a sexual way. Very kinky! I prefaced it like, ‘This song is written from a mermaid’s perspective.’ It liberated me to come out of myself. Myths and fantasy are so powerful because they’re true in essence, but then they tap into the imagination and the fourth dimension.”

As you grow as a songwriter, do you think you’ll move away from using characters in your work? 

“It took a while for me to come into being the captain of my own ship. My whole life I’ve been writing, but I didn’t know any producers. When I met producers, they were overpowering me. I realised I have to be a boss, I need to know their language to communicate what I want. Now people realise I don’t have a specific sound, I am the sound, so it’s been easier to experiment. I don’t want to land anywhere. I just want to keep evolving.”

You worked in London for a year before COVID struck. How did it compare to LA?

“It’s always challenging being in a new city and meeting people, but there was something very warm and welcoming about it. Meeting people was easy, which I’m sure is not the case for everyone. LA can be overwhelming because there’s so many people. The culture of the speed-dating sessions, hit-writing, being in the room with other writers… it wasn’t really what I imagined for myself. I don’t really like LA.”

dora jar
Credit: Press

Which artists do you enjoy working with?

“I’m obsessed with Remi Wolf. The first time I heard ‘Woo!’, I cried. I had a session with Jared Solomon, who has produced most of her music. Afterwards, I got a DM from Remi like, ‘I just heard the song you did with Jared, can I meet you?’ I was like, ‘Shut up!’. We met at this café in Silver Lake and talked for three hours. She’s so fun and magical.”

What does ‘Comfortably In Pain’ represent to you?

“It’s a two sides of the same coin concept. On one side, so many things about my life are fortunate. I have amazing friends and a beautiful family. And then I have a lot of pain, which, since going to therapy has become a lot more bearable, but [it’s about] remembering I’m not alone. When I accept my pain, I find comfort in it, and use it to make art or to connect to people.

“In all of the songs I reference those feelings. ‘Hill’ is about being away from Felix, my boyfriend. In the pandemic I was in America, and he was in London. ‘It’s Random’ is just like, ‘Oh my god, what a chaotic world we live in’, and accepting the feeling of being so disconnected from the hustle and bustle of life.”

What else do you have planned for 2022?

“I want to do an album. Maybe 30 per cent is already written, I just have to piece it together. I want to make some vinyl with ‘Digital Meadow’ on the front and ‘Comfortably In Pain’ on the back. I want to make a lyric book and make it interactive somehow. I just want to keep connecting with people and explore the depths of my darkness and light.

“Lately, I’ve been thinking about what a blessing it is to get to do things that I’m scared of doing. Like, every night before the show, I shit my pants almost. But then I’m like, ‘Wait, this is wonderful, that I get to feel this fear and do it anyway.’ I don’t want to get used to [performing in front of] 20,000 people. To be present through it all is my goal, and to keep making music that I like.”