Have you ever been browsing the help page of a website when a text box pops up inviting you to a live chat with a customer service operative? You click and enter your query, only for it to quickly become apparent that you’re talking to a chatbot. It’s a bit like a normal conversation, except the voice on the other end picks from a selection of vacuous, tangential phrases and keeps asking you if you’re happy, as if you’re speaking to a Love Island contestant who’s coming up on ecstasy.
That experience is pretty much what I’d geared myself up for when it came to interviewing Poppy for her first NME Big Read. For those not already familiar, Poppy is many things: a pop star, an actor, a director, a composer of ambient music, a religious leader (at her own Church Of Poppy), a DJ, a comic-book character, a smash hit YouTuber, a provocateur, a performance artist and a master of multiple media. One thing she is not, she has previously insisted, is human.
We meet at a torture dungeon in Walthamstow, North-East London. And no, I don’t remember stumbling upon one of those in the Yellow Pages either. It’s best thought of as a gymnasium designed by Pinhead from Hellraiser, dark and leathery and full of metal hooks, and all the apparatus is disconcertingly greasy to the touch. Hanging around there for a few hours while Poppy’s NME photoshoot takes place, you find yourself idly leaning on some piece of kit or other only to realise it’s a sex gurney with stirrups and bondage rings.
Poppy, it must be said, is perfectly at home here: she’s arrived accompanied by her collaborator and creative partner, Titanic Sinclair (real name Corey Mixter), a selection of PVC outfits and a massively oversized, sculptural leather overcoat that her friend Marilyn Manson might wear. That’s right, her friend Marilyn Manson, whose 50th birthday she attended this year. What do you get the goth rock icon who has everything? “My presence,” she replies.
That friendship – and NME’s, er, sexhorror photoshoot – make sense if you’ve been following Poppy’s career lately. Last year – on Halloween – the American singer put out ‘Am I A Girl?’, an album of candy-flavoured robo-pop that, sonically, put her in league with the PC Musics of the world. Stylistically it presented her as the real-life Ashley O – months before Black Mirror and Miley Cyrus got there.
Poppy claims to have not seen that particular episode of the dystopian Netflix drama, despite the fact that the story – about a transhuman pop star who covers Nine Inch Nails tracks – seems directly influenced by her own career. “I’ve heard about it a lot,” she says. Curiosity hasn’t got the better of you? “I don’t really like shows that lots of people like,” she says. “If someone suggests a certain thing then I’ll intentionally not watch it. It’s just me being stubborn.”
‘Am I A Girl?’ – and the preceding ‘Poppy.Computer’, from 2017 – were seemingly targeted at people who fetishise Japanese kawaii culture and futurism equally. Her forthcoming album, ‘I Disagree’, due on January 10 next year, promises to be a different beast: specifically, one with devil horns. It finds Poppy embracing the tinnitus-inducing thrash of heavy metal alongside those cute, catchy choruses.
It’s a stylistic shift that follows testing times, including a lawsuit, a high profile beef, and a second bad record deal – more of which later. This, then, is heavy metal as catharsis. “I try to channel all of my anger steam into my art and maintain some form of composure, even when I feel I want to end everything,” she says, troublingly. End herself or end the world? “The world.”
So you were feeling quite angry about some things? “Yeah, but I would say it feels natural too. When we were making ‘Am I A Girl?’ we were driving to the studio and listening to a lot of heavier music. I would go in and write a rainbows and butterflies song and I was like, ‘OK, there’s a disconnect here’…”
Poppy’s reinvention is the kind of gear-change that might cost an artist a portion of their audience, but fans on YouTube seem to be getting the right idea. I run Poppy through some of their comments on her recent track ‘Concrete’, which is probably the best example of Poppy’s new direction, as it’s both sweet and heavy with deeply, deeply disturbing lyrics fetishising the idea of being buried alive in concrete. Poppy says she would kill time with “a lot of thumb twiddling” if that happened in real life.
So here goes with the comments:
“This song makes me comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. I’m confused.”
Poppy: “I’ve become comfortable with being uncomfortable. If things are comfortable, I get anxiety.”
Another: “This is what having bipolar disorder feels like.”
Poppy: “That makes sense.”
“She’s clearly a victim of MK Ultra mind control, guys.”
Poppy: “Clearly. I like conspiracy theories. I’ve seen one or two videos online about (CIA experiment) MKUltra. I know a thing or two.”
Poppy: “I like that one.”
There’s an example of Poppy’s self-confessed stubbornness when she and I are walking from the photoshoot to a nearby pub. Poppy drags a shiny black suitcase with one hand and holds a polystyrene head in the other. On the head is a blonde wig, which Titanic Sinclair has just named ‘Moppy’. Poppy rejects the offer of help in carrying either, which causes problems when a fan spots her – “Poppeeeeeeeee!” comes the shout – and she very quickly picks up the pace, suitcase bouncing behind her.
When we make it into the pub, she heads for a table in the furthest, quietest corner. On the way there, making chit-chat about her interests (she loves ‘fail videos’ and crime documentaries, she says, and rarely sleeps), I had broached the subject: when, exactly, is she going to start pretending to be a robot? “Well,” she says. “We’ll see.”
Previous interviewers – particularly the infamous US ‘shock-jock’ Howard Stern – have made a sport of trying to get Poppy to break character, or even simply to laugh. Even out of the public eye, Poppy carries herself with an air of almost supernatural composure. She sits bolt upright, doesn’t slouch, and speaks carefully and with great consideration in a soft, southern American accent. She’s fiercely intelligent and quietly assured. She drinks black coffee and frequently cracks her knuckles, which snap so loudly you wonder if there’s a metal skeleton in there after all.
An exaggeration of this emotionally guarded person is the one that Poppy’s fans have become obsessed with. In some of her YouTube videos, she asks endless questions of the viewer about their relationship with social media, and whether they validate themselves through followers. In others, she experiences crises about the nature of her own existence. In some, black goo oozes from her mouth. They’re videos that challenge the viewer in a number of ways: not much happens, it happens very slowly, and – though they’re absolutely PG rated – you probably wouldn’t want to be caught watching them at work. They’re much like the trend for ASMR videos, in which people whisper and click and generally make the viewer feel a bit strange in a way they can’t quite put their finger on.
There’s a supporting cast, too: Poppy has an occasional enemy, Charlotte, who’s a mannequin, and a friend, who’s a plant. I remind her of the latter as she tucks into vegetable crudites in the pub. “People keep pet pigs and still eat pork,” comes the response.
That stupid question about the ethics of eating salad when your sole companion is a houseplant and about a zillion others like it are essentially rendered moot when it becomes apparent that Poppy is breaking character today. I find myself feeling the weight of trying to work out the things fans would most like to know – and the things I’ve always wondered about this singular artist.
Poppy likens her stylistic shift – naive pop AI to rock hellion – to David Bowie killing off Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Apollo, reasoning it’s an artist’s prerogative to change. Is this interview set to be Poppy’s big reveal: a kind of Pinocchio moment where she declares herself a real life girl? “I feel the same [as before],” she says. “I just feel more… certain.”
Information about the person behind Poppy isn’t exactly a state secret. Wikipedia has her as Moriah Rose Pereira, born January 1, 1995. When I ask her about her age, it’s one of the few times she’s guarded. “I don’t know, you know. I don’t know. It’s not what my Wikipedia says.”
So what else is wrong on your Wikipedia page?
“I think the dates are weird. Most of the rest, it’s OK.”
You’re not tempted to change it?
“No. There’s an element to Wikipedia that I think… you know how they ask you for donations on the homepage? I’m just like, ‘Just let it go’. We don’t need it. I don’t think the general public should be able to change information like that. I had a Google Home for a short time and of course, I had to ask it, ‘Hey Google, who’s Poppy?’ And it would rattle off all this information just from Wikipedia and it was all wrong, and I thought it was really funny.”
So, OK, you switch the Google Home on… how far down your list of questions is that one? Be honest.
“It was after a little while,” she says. “There’s a video that Titanic and I shot where I’m smashing my Google Home afterwards. I thought it would smash a lot easier than it did.”
Do you trust that kind of technology?
But the Poppy we know loves AI and the idea of computer learning, right?
“I’m trying to move backwards. I’m trying to get rid of my technology. In turn it’s going to make it harder to get a hold of me – and my friends mad at me – but it’s OK.”
Are they going to have to fax you?
“I’m thinking carrier pigeon.”
When previous interviewers have asked where Poppy lives, the reply would be “the internet”. Actually, she confirms, she grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and lives, not-quite-alone, in Los Angeles, California. “I have a Sphynx cat. He’s the demon man of my home. His name is Pi and he I think he was sent to ruin my life,” she says.
It’s easy to imagine Poppy being an outsider in Nashville, typically the home of country music and cowboys rather than robots, and a place she describes as having “that small town feeling”. It’s equally easy to see her being on the fringes in Hollywood. She describes her life there as feeling like “I’m in the middle of a lot of things, but with my journal out, just watching.” So you’re an anthropologist? “I guess so,” she says. “I think everybody would say that about me. When I’m in a room, I’m looking everywhere. I think I would be a spy if I wasn’t a singer.”
Though a keen dancer, Poppy spent much of her childhood alone in her bedroom. “I would intentionally isolate myself from a lot of things,” she says. She did half of her education in public school, where she was bullied, and completed her studies early in homeschool. “I didn’t have a positive experience [at public school],” says Poppy. “I barely said any words, so that kind of opened me up, in a way, to be the target of everyone’s teasing.”
For what things?
“Being skinny and quiet.”
Homeschool conjures images of a parent playing the teacher role. Actually, says Poppy, she did her studies alone in her bedroom, where “the internet was my teacher.” When you consider that image – a slight, quiet girl, sat alone in a room with only the internet for company, diligently racing through the curriculum – it’s not too difficult to join the dots to Poppy’s character on YouTube. “Yeah, it does actually make sense when you think about it,” she says, as if this might, improbably, be a fresh thought. “I like that. If I could just have that be my legacy – famous for being alone in a white room – I’d be happy with that.”
The move to LA came when Pereira signed her first record contract, a major label deal under the name ThatPoppy. Having already left the family home, she relocated without telling a soul. “I kept everyone in the dark because I didn’t want anyone to get in the way,” she says.
Poppy met Titanic Sinclair, an artist, musician and director, through a mutual friend within a few months of moving to LA, and instantly hit it off. At the photoshoot, Sinclair had described his first encounter with Poppy as being “like meeting David Bowie”, so shook was he by her creative force.
Meanwhile, Poppy’s frustration with her music career was growing. “I went through the circus at that label, the changing of the representatives or whatever, and I was coming to find out I was actually just in a really bad deal,” she says.
When Poppy and Sinclair began making YouTube videos together, it caused further friction with the label. “I was being discouraged from making the videos, and in turn, Titanic and I were like, ‘We’re not gonna listen,’ so we made twice or triple the amount,” she says. “And that was when [the label] started to react. They were like, ‘Hey, we don’t think we should make these videos. Why are you making these videos?’ I was like, ‘Why are you working at a record label?!’”
Whether or not they had approval, Poppy and Sinclair had hit on something with their channel. There’s an element of Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey about the videos, in their glacial pacing, ambient soundscapes, medical lighting and stark visuals. Though they share DNA with your average YouTuber content, they subvert the conventions: there are no jump cuts, there’s no begging for likes and follows. Where your average YouTuber goes to pains to welcome the viewer into their world, Poppy’s videos make you feel like you’re peering into a world you shouldn’t be seeing. Yet by incrementing the play count by one, or liking, or commenting – the viewer becomes part of the piece.
Poppy’s character – fascinated by the world, a model of pure innocence – partly came from her interest in the Myers-Briggs test, a personality test that encourages respondents to answer as they would when they were a child, which she has completed multiple times. “I would say that [the Poppy character] is directly linked to how I was when I was untouched by the world, the most innocent way of thinking,” she says.
I put it to Poppy that if any of her clips were exhibited in a gallery, it would be considered differently. But because it’s on YouTube, it’s considered…
“Which is a little bit frustrating because YouTube is just the medium that we chose to put it on, you know? We could have been on Vimeo, or PornHub, or whatever it may be, but YouTube was the one. And this goes into a bigger conversation about how social media is ruining everything.”
Sorry, what? Poppy, the character, is fascinated by social media, isn’t she? Obsessed with it even.
“I think that at the beginning, social media was a good thing, but as of recent times, the angry internet mobs and misinformation and X, Y and Z, I think it’s now… it’s a pendulum, so it started out good, now it’s bad and I think it will fall somewhere in the middle, hopefully. Otherwise we’ll just need to create a new internet, which I hope I can do one day.”
What would the PoppyNet look like?
“There’d be a nominal fee. There’d be a screening process. You know, ‘What are your intentions here?’ And no memes.”
“They just clog the servers.”
Poppy’s own pendulum has swung from good to evil lately. Allowing that to happen meant listening to her gut more. “I wanted to put forward this very composed and refined body of work and I so strongly believed in that that I wasn’t really willing to listen to this other part of me, you know? Like the devil and the angel on [my] shoulders,” she says. “I’m working more on impulse than before.”
The shift is understandable because, in the past year, life has thrown Poppy its fair share of digital lemons. Having struggled on a major, Poppy’s subsequent label home proved an awkward fit, too. ”It wasn’t really a functioning label, which I can say now,” she says. “It was more of a tax write-off. There wasn’t a lot of consistency going on there.” The partnership has now been dissolved, and Poppy is currently signed to prog metal label Sumerian Records.
Meanwhile, the dynamic between Poppy and Sinclair has been under scrutiny. Some – taking the pair’s artistic creations a little too seriously – have been questioning whether there’s an issue of coercion there. Actually, says Poppy, the opposing characters: her as the naif, him as the sinister svengali, are just part of the storyline. “The narrative that we created in order to tell the story of the first album was very much Titanic is the bad guy and he’s the leader, which I think is funny because it’s not true,” says Poppy. “It is very much 50:50, the effort.”
In April 2018, a former creative and romantic partner of Titanic Sinclair, who goes by the name Mars Argo (real name Brittany Sheets), claimed that Poppy’s character was ripped off from her, and that Sinclair had been emotionally and physically abusive to her following their relationship. In May, Poppy issued a statement describing Argo’s actions as a “desperate grab for fame”, and in September the case was settled out of court, with no money exchanging hands and none of the parties acknowledging liability of wrongdoing.
Later that year Poppy had a run-in with the highly respected Canadian artist Grimes over their ‘Am I A Girl?’ collaboration ‘Play Destroy’. Poppy said she’d been “bullied into submission by [Grimes] and her team of self-proclaimed feminists”. Grimes responded publicly, posting a message saying, “Poppy you dragged me into a disgusting situation and won’t stop punishing me for not wanting to be part of it, I don’t want to work with you, you leaked the song anyway.”
Oddly, Grimes’s subsequent single, ‘We Appreciate Power’, sung from the perspective of an ambitious AI, seemed to be a land grab for Poppy’s own turf. Poppy is reluctant to dredge any of it up again today.
“It’s kind of dead news,” she says. “And my new album is good, so…”
It does seem like you probably admire Grimes in some ways. Is it quite sad when that sort of thing happens publicly, her posting about your professional behaviour on the internet?
“I think I’m just used to the way the internet works and the lifespan of the news cycle.”
What was your learning from Mars Argo’s lawsuit last year?
“I just learned more about Hollywood.”
Did it make you like Hollywood more or less?
“It solidified my view of Hollywood.”
Will you elaborate on that?
“Everything is not as it seems. That can be your headline.”
If Poppy’s recent experiences led to the end of her wide-eyed AI innocence, you hope it might lead to her being recognised for the furiously creative force she is. Playing devil’s advocate, I put it to Poppy that it would be easy to look at some of her previous work and think, ‘This is willfully vacuous’. A track on ‘Am I A Girl?’, the Diplo collaboration ‘Time Is Up’, is absolutely on point with the 2019 zeitgeist of climate change activism and, coming from another artist, it may have been hailed as a culturally important moment. Coming from Poppy, it went unnoticed as the musings of a robo-girl.
Poppy agrees that the concept may have clouded the message. “With pop music and my experience with it, it was interesting to… like with the first album, to me it’s pop, but lyrically the subject matter of the songs is not digestible to anyone who’s not understanding of why this album exists, you know,” she says. “I think with the new album, you could come out of nowhere and listen to it for the first time and get what you want from it.”
I ask if her character, demeanour and gender led to her not being taken seriously in dealings with labels and collaborators, the business side of music. “Not to go into gendering it and having it be about being male or female, but typically in a situation like that [people] would look at Titanic for the ideas and the commands,” she says. “But I find it funny, because that’s not actually the case. It’s very collaborative. People would be surprised.”
Three weeks later, on October 31, Poppy returns to the UK to play a special show for NME. She’s on tour in the US, and has come over on an off-day especially for us. Yesterday she was, improbably, performing in the ring at a World Wrestling Entertainment event in Florida; tomorrow she plays a headline show in Texas. Tonight, she’s at the Shacklewell Arms in Dalston playing a headline DJ set at NME’s Ghouls To The Front – the Halloween edition of our Girls To The Front series, which celebrates female and non-binary artists.
Her associate arrives first to scope out the venue. He quickly deems the grungy dressing room “not Poppy’s vibe”, which, considering we last had her in an S&M dungeon, speaks volumes about The Shacklewell Arms, and says she’ll arrive just before stage time instead of hanging around. And sure enough, at 9pm Poppy turns up in a black-and-white PVC catsuit, face painted like the nightmarish clown Pierrot, pitch black lips emphasising a fixed smile.
Making no bones about the lack of live DJing going on, Poppy spends much of the set reading a graphic novel handed to her by a fan, making a sport of very slowly, very purposefully turning the pages as banging techno and quotes from horror films blast out of the speakers. Poppy doesn’t dance or speak, preferring to let a sample – of her saying “I’m Poppy” – do the latter for her.
It’s a performance that divides the crowd into distinct camps: stans at the front, handing her gifts like votive offerings; the majority of people, dancing in the room; and a small contingent at the back who would be demanding their money back were the gig not free to attend. At the mixing booth, I spot the sound engineer searching for Poppy on Google Images and eyeing the figure on stage suspiciously. He doesn’t believe it’s her. Nor, apparently, do many of the crowd – a rumour is going around that it’s an imposter.
Really, it’s the closest thing you could get – in a live setting – to the curious experience of watching those Poppy YouTube videos: you’re watching someone deliberately doing very little, you’re not quite sure why you’re enjoying it, and you’re certain of one thing – you’ve never seen anything quite like this before.
Photography: Jenn Five
Creative Production: Emily Barker
Stylist: Brian Conway
Hair and make-up: Claire Portman
Poppy’s new track, ‘Bloodmoney’, is out now. The album, ‘I Disagree’, is out on January 10, 2020.
Poppy tours the UK in March 2020.