The best pop music is, paradoxically, about tactile transcendence – the stimulation of senses in order to take you beyond their limits. That’s the abstract sort of conclusion you make, anyway, after listening to the music of Cayenne – a 23-year-old Singaporean who calls herself Celine Autumn and has just begun to release gleefully post-internet pop music that’s still anchored in humanity and heartbreak.
Take Cayenne’s second ever single ‘Sugar Rush’, which is exactly as sweet and manic as its title promises. Filled with burbling synths, punctuated by digital distortion and defined by a zany synth line and monstrous drop, it’s a marvel of polished, PC Music-indebted pop. And for all its sonic antics and classically carefree catchphrases (“I wish this would last all summer”, “Throw it up, don’t take it slow”), ‘Sugar Rush’ still hints at a wounded human heart at its core: “But maybe I don’t know just how to keep my mouth shut / Take the fall, lose it all, it’s all I really got.”
Perhaps this is what Celine Autumn means when she describes Cayenne as a more “exaggerated version of me”, but still a “relatable” figure. “I don’t feel like I’m writing for a persona,” she tells NME, days ahead of the June release of her self-titled EP. “I’m writing for myself. You know how pop is so full of ‘swag’, so cool? You have to have the vibe… I don’t have that, and that’s Cayenne, you know? That’s me, that’s awkward.”
Though a longtime lover of pop music, Autumn has only recently had to personally grapple with decisions around pop presentation and persona. Those questions aren’t as important when Celine performs as the vocalist of the Singaporean indie trio Sobs, who’ve built a profile around Asia with their effortlessly catchy dream pop, playing joyous, freewheeling shows while warming stages for the likes of Japanese Breakfast and Snail Mail.
It’s with her Sobs bandmate Jared Lim that Autumn has concocted the pop magic of Cayenne. Together, the duo wrote the first Cayenne song – ‘Centrefold’, the closing track of the EP, on which Lim is credited as co-producer – after releasing Sobs’ debut album, 2018’s ‘Telltale Signs’. The follow-up to their 2017 EP ‘Catflap’, it was not an easy record to make, Autumn says.
“We were very burned out after that album,” she recalls. “It was a very aggravating process: recording, writing, everything. Back then, we didn’t know how things worked yet, so we were figuring it out as we went. Even things like dynamics within the band: communication, all that.” It got so stressful that she couldn’t even listen to guitar music for a while, Autumn reveals with an embarrassed laugh. Instead, she listened to music by Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and SOPHIE.
“Doing DJ sets as Sobs over the years really solidified our overlapping tastes in pop music, and probably informed the way we write for both Cayenne and Sobs,” says Lim, who recalls a New Year’s Eve party where they played a set that was “pretty much exclusively PC Music and other adjacent mid-2010s SoundCloud pop with a Charli XCX track slotted in between every few songs”. Most of the time the duo work remotely, bouncing files back and forth – many of their in-person writing sessions have been derailed, Lim says, by “going down YouTube rabbit holes of 2000s pop music”.
“You don’t even fully know who you are sometimes, and that’s part of the process of finding out your sound”
Autumn and Lim have been creative collaborators since 2017, when they met over the long-running Singaporean music forum Soft and formed the band that would become Sobs (now rounded out by guitarist Raphael Ong, who also runs their label Middle Class Cigars). A total greenhorn at the time, Autumn learned how to write songs, slowly but surely, working with Lim in Sobs. She considers him a personal inspiration.
“For some reason, Jared and I just have the best musical chemistry. I don’t think I’ll have this with anyone else,” Autumn enthuses. “Even when I meet someone who’s my dream producer to work with, it’s never going to be this magical. I know it.” There’ve been times the two, while writing songs for Sobs, hum different melodies – but hit the same notes at the same time.
At first, when writing the songs that would later become material for Cayenne, Autumn approached them as if she were a jobbing songwriter penning songs for another pop artist. That explains some of the more generic lyrics, she says – she probably wouldn’t write the lines “We’re two kids just trying to have fun / Bottles of champagne and whiskey on our tongues”, from ‘Centrefold’, today.
“When I first wrote those songs, I didn’t know who Cayenne was,” she says. “I didn’t know what was going to come after… I was just playing around and experimenting.” The songs ‘Sugar Rush’, ‘Centrefold’ and ‘Fav Treat’ sat on her computer for a long time – until she began toying with Ableton last year while Singapore was under lockdown. “I kept making loops and stuff, then I wrote ‘Drivin’ Away’”, which later became the debut Cayenne single. “That’s when it clicked in my head: I get the Cayenne sound now!”
She then revisited her older songs, which she first thought she’d moved on from. “But the more I listened to them, I was like, no – these are also Cayenne. You don’t even fully know who you are sometimes, and that’s part of the process of finding out your sound. So that is Cayenne, but a different phase.”
“The whole idea of genre-defying, genre-free songs. I think that’s where the future of pop is”
This phase of Cayenne is undeniably influenced by the chrome and clang of PC Music, the London record label-turned-musical and aesthetic movement defined chiefly by A.G. Cook and the late, beloved SOPHIE. You can also hear in Cayenne songs – especially the unreleased ones, which NME has heard – the influence of mad hyperpop scientists 100 gecs, especially their blithely indiscriminate approach to genre and love of chaotic song dynamics.
And Autumn’s lyricism – playful but preoccupied with matters of the heart – calls to mind Cayenne’s greatest forebear, Charli XCX. On her projects ‘Pop 2’ and ‘How I’m Feeling Now’, the British artist marries cutting-edge pop songcraft with deeply felt emotion, all while rejecting the idea that the pop star must be an untouchable goddess. If Cayenne has a role model, it’s Charli. “She can make pop that isn’t super mainstream. It’s quite unconventional, but she has both the mainstream crowd and the underground scene,” Autumn explains. “That’s what I want to hit: both sides.”
Having released her oldest songs as Cayenne, Autumn is planning new singles of fresher material and her next artistic move. She’s trying to go back to her indie rock roots, but combine them with electronic production. She’s currently fascinated with the music of Harry Teardrop, James Ivy and Wave Racer, and talks excitedly about this wave of SoundCloud-incubated artists who’ve managed to merge the sound of an indie rock band and elements of a solo electronic producer.
This isn’t a simple transformation that can be summarised as “rock goes pop”. “Even the structure of the production is different,” Autumn explains. “In dance music, they loop and loop – while in bands, they write chord structures. When someone goes ‘electronic to band’, you can still hear the loops… But I think at some point, it gets mixed together, you can’t figure out what’s what anymore.
“The whole idea of genre-defying, genre-free songs. I think that’s where the future of pop is, right?” she adds. “Where pop is heading to. Genres don’t matter anymore.”
‘Cayenne’ is out now