PVRIS: “Sometimes you’ve got to have the power – and the courage – to walk away”

She's long been the creative engine behind her synth-pop band, but now Lynn Gunn has stepped out to the front. She tells Dannii Leivers how she found the confidence to leave her old self behind

to her legions of fans, Lynn ‘Gunn’ Gunnulfsen made the jump from star to icon years ago.

As the vocalist of dark pop-rock purveyors PVRIS, she spent the band’s first two albums, 2014’s ‘White Noise’ and 2017’s ‘All We Know of Heaven, All We Need Of Hell’, speaking frankly about her own battles with depression, turning reflections of self-doubt and the complexities of relationships into arena-sized slices of electronic fizz. She’s campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights and become a figurehead for countless devotees who have adopted her songs as anthems of bravery and resilience.

The only person who doesn’t seem to have grasped the pull of her star power is Gunn herself – although that’s changing with the release of PVRIS’ fearless new record, ‘Use Me’.

Advertisement

When she announced the album back in March, Gunn revealed that, from day one, she’s consistently downplayed her true role as PVRIS’ sole creative force. She’s been responsible for everything from the band’s sound to songwriting, visuals and driving production, but has preferred to share the spotlight with her bandmates, bassist Brian Macdonald and lead guitarist and keyboardist Alex Babinski. With ‘Use Me’, though, she says she’s finally allowing herself “to take credit” for PVRIS’ ever-growing list of achievements.

“It feels so good,” she says on the phone line from her home in LA, referring to her unmasking as a “lifting of the veil”. She adds: “This had to happen for me to continue wanting to do this. With all the work I was putting into this next record, it felt really weird and uncomfortable to be giving equal credit to everyone. Brian and Alex have always been incredibly supportive of my vision over the years, but I never felt comfortable opening up and owning that role. It made me feel apathetic towards the project.”

You need only look at the promotional photos for ‘Use Me’, in which Gunn stands defiantly alone, without her bandmates, to see that newfound confidence in action, but she baulks at the suggestion that this is her going solo. “It’s quite similar to Tame impala and Florence + The Machine; we’re still very much a band,” she says. “Everything’s operating the same as it always has, it’s just being presented differently.” Her sense of empowerment is plastered all over ‘Use Me’.

“Wide awake. Just cut the head off of a snake,” she sings on the opening line of euphoric, disco-influenced first track, ‘Gimme a Minute’, a lyric that finds her looking forward to the future, having let go of the anxieties that plagued her career until now. The new music is also a break with the past, leaning more heavily on the PVRIS’ lustrous pop inclinations than its predecessors. The band’s trademark brooding darkness still bubbles underfoot, but this time it’s buried beneath slick, vivid production and playful, clubby electronica.

‘Use Me’ was originally slated to arrive back in May, but as Covid-19 tightened its grip across the world, the band’s label, Reprise/Warner Records, pushed the release to July. After the death of George Floyd in police custody in May, and the subsequent outpouring of shock and revolt and global renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement, Gunn decided that releasing new music would be a distraction from the bigger issues at hand.

In a statement posted to the band’s Twitter account in July, she announced that the album would be further delayed: “Self-promotion can wait for now and I want to make room and hold space for the conversation and message of the Black Lives Matter movement to continue.”

Advertisement

She tells NME today: “This moment in time is a paradigm shift and awakening for a lot of people. But there’s so much work to do. It has to be lifelong commitment in order to see change.”

Gunn recognises that healing the divisions of a splintered America will be a mountainous challenge, but she’s inspired by the passion she’s seen “fighting for change” online and out on the streets. In this, she’s inspired by the tireless efforts of Gen-Z. “We want a better future and are down and willing to be part of that shift,” she says. “It’s so palpable and intense and real. I think the best thing you can do right now, instead of being apathetic and pretending that you don’t care, is do care. You’ve got to give a shit, you know?”

Gunn is now 26, and was only 19 when she wrote the Massachusetts band’s debut. When that album was released in 2014, the impact was instant, racking up millions of streams on Spotify and YouTube thanks to gloomy, yet jubilant synth-pop bangers such as ‘St. Patrick’ and ‘You And I’. The record catapulted the band across the globe on a punishing tour schedule, which included high-profile US arena dates with Fall Out Boy, Bring Me The Horizon and Muse. Within three years, they had been booted from clubs onto festival main stages.

The full band, comprise of Gunn, bassist Brian Macdonald and lead guitarist and keyboardist Alex Babinski. Credit: Lindsey Byrnes

Yet success took its toll. By the time Gunn finally sat down to write 2017’s ‘All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell’, she was knackered and in a dark place, suffering with depression, which she’s described as a “downward spiral”.

Years of constant gigging had damaged her voice, almost leading the band to cancel the tour of their second album while she worked with a vocal coach to retrain herself to sing. In the end, the band ploughed on with the promotion, but Gunn’s confidence had nosedived and onstage she seemed a reluctant frontwoman, hiding behind a guitar. In later interviews she admitted that she felt exposed and vulnerable.

Around the same time, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, while in November 2019 it was confirmed that she was also battling an autoimmune disease, ankylosing spondylitis. The diagnoses, she says, came as a strange kind of relief after four years of pain and discomfort.

“It has to be lifelong commitment in order to see [social] change”

“I didn’t know what was wrong,” she says. “I was having a really difficult time getting out and into my bunk every morning and night and waking up with stomach pains. With autoimmune disease, there’s a general fatigue and brain fog that comes with chronic inflammation, so a lot of the time I’d be really unfocused or really tired. I was hard on myself about it.”

Over time, Gunn has found her confidence again. “I’ve been really on top of my mental and physical health for the last few years,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been in a really good head space for quite a while, which I’m really grateful for.”

Working with a small team of medical practitioners, including a herbalist, an acupuncture doctor and a woman’s specialist, who together have slowly but surely helped her to heal and rebalance, she now follows a what she dubs a “crazy protocol”.

“I have up to 20 supplements I need to take, and different droplets, flower essences and plant stem cells,” she says. “I think there’s 16 – and you have to take all of them at different points throughout the day.” The result has been transformative: “I’m determined to experience no symptoms in the next five years. I’m ready to whoop its ass.”

After a few turbulent personal years, ‘Use Me’ represents a fresh start in many ways. While writing the album she upped sticks to Los Angeles, a move initially borne out of necessity. With an increased focus on protecting her physical and mental health following her Crohn’s diagnosis, it was clear that her usual approach – shuttling back and forth between her home in New York and LA studio sessions – had become unworkable. But no-one was more surprised than Gunn to find that her new home city was a genuine source of solace.

“I’ve always had a love-hate [relationship] with LA,” she reveals. “I’ve had really good things happen here and difficult emotional situations happen here, so for a long time [the city] felt really dark. When I moved here, I was going through a pretty rough time, but I instantly loved it. All my best friends are out here, and I guess it feels like home.”

By the time she made the move, she had already written three songs for the album – the anthemic ‘Death Of Me’, the glossyOld Wounds’ and the vibrant ‘Hallucinations’, which were all released as part of the ‘Hallucinations EP’ released in October 2019. The latter was penned during writing sessions with hotshot songwriter Amy Allen (who’s worked with the likes of Halsey and Harry Styles) and Nashville-based ‘Use Me’ producer, JT Daly. The remaining songs were finished in Daly’s Nashville studio.

If 2017’s ‘All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell’ was a cleansing experience that found Gunn crawling towards the end of the tunnel, its successor captures the moment that she finally emerged from the other end and into the light.

“Inner peace is hard to find” she sings on the opening line of euphoric, disco-influenced first track, ‘Gimme a Minute’, which refers to her overcoming recent emotional and physical upheaval. Over the glassy synths of ‘Deadweight’, she discusses walking away from negative mindsets and toxic relationships, sighing, “I can’t take it over and over / Deadweight hanging off of my shoulders.”

“[Those songs] capture the chaos of the last two years,” she says. “There’s so much that I’ll never be probably able to share. You’ve got to keep changing and growing. If someone or something is attacking you negatively, sometimes you’ve just got to have the power and the courage to walk away from it.”

Is this a reference to long-time drummer Justin Nace, who left the band back in January? At the time the split seemed amicable, but was the shift a result of PVRIS new way of working, with Gunn stepping into the spotlight as band linchpin?

“[Our new songs] capture the chaos of the last two years”

“Sort of, but it was a natural thing that needed to happen,” says Gunn hesitantly, seeming reluctant to be drawn on the details. “A lot of personal stuff [happened] that I’m not going to mention here. He’s never been an official member [of PVRIS] so I don’t think it’s that big a thing to touch on. We love him very much and wish him the best, but now is the time for change and growth for both parties.”

The album closes with a reworked version of its titular track, which was put together during lockdown, featuring rising rapper and Kanye West protégée 070 Shake. “It was such a last-minute blessing from the heavens. I swear,” says Gunn. “We’ve never had a featured artist on an album [before]. There’s never been anyone I was particularly excited about or felt compelled to collab with. I think she’s real deal and a really special artist. Her album [070’s excellent 2020 record ‘Modus Vivendi’] is very experimental, abstract, cool and weird and it takes risks.

“That’s something I always want to do with PVRIS so it’s very aligned creatively. I think she’s out in Colorado and as soon as she confirmed it was happening, she ended up having to drive an hour to a studio to track it, sent it over and it was perfect right away. It’s a collaboration our fans didn’t know they wanted, but hopefully they do now.”

PVRIS live in London in February, Credit: India Fleming

Back in February, NME watched the band celebrate their live return to the UK, after two years away, at an intimate London show. As Gunn perched behind a keyboard during ‘Heaven’ and danced across the stage watched by thousands of adoring eyes, there was no sign of the vocal issues and subsequent nerves that had plagued her in the past. Covid might have stolen that momentum, but Gunn is no longer content to remain trapped inside her inside her chrysalis.

“I just want to be real and transparent,” she insists. “Growing up, I never really had a good example of the artist I am, and the role I take in the band. I just want to show this is an option for anyone who might be a similar position and inspire other people to do the same.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement