Pop has changed.
Where once the genre, the tag was, somewhat sadly, something to be avoided – call it R&B, call it electro, call it anything but pop – it now seems to be something to be embraced. MS MR are certainly pop, and they certainly embrace the name with all its positive aspects.
“It's not quite the dirty word it once was,” explains Lizzy Plapinger. “I think there's an authenticity to it. I think maybe in the 90s it felt constructed, like it was directly packaged out of these A&R rooms and the artists weren't artists they were the face of a greater machine. And not I think artists like HAIM and Lorde and Gotye are really re-defining what a pop landscape looks like. People are more hungry to find artists who have a real sense of authorship and identity and there's a form of sincerity and authenticity to the project.”
There's certainly an enormous degree of authenticity in the work of MS MR. Debut album 'Secondhand Rupture' was a sleeper hit, defined by pop pedigree and a seething intelligence which matched a magpie-like devotion to glistening sound against an emotional open-ness. In short, it made singing into your hairbrush in front of the mirror look like a valid lifestyle choice.
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Ending a two year tour, though, MS MR struggled to get back into creative mode. Heading to upstate New York, initial sessions in a professional studio were a disaster. “There were too many options,” states the singer. “It became about fiddling with sounds and instruments, as opposed to thinking about the songwriting. So very quickly we decided that's not how we wanted to approach this record and it was going to be easier to go back to our roots. and we just rented a very small space in Bushwick, a window-less room and we set up as per the first record, with Max's keyboard and computer and a mic with your duvet cover thumb-tacked to the wall.”
Max Hershonow, though, is rather more sanguine about the aborted sessions. “It was a good first foray into trying it out again. And, importantly, trying out like a big studio and realising that's not really the way we like to work. We didn't like the pressure of spending as much money and having engineers in the room.”
Retreating to Bushwick, the duo re-captured the energy which flowed through their first record. Unshackled from expectation, MS MR were able to make their own timetable and quickly found that freeflowing creativity suited them best. “I think that was so much better,” Liz asserts. “There was a familiarity and freedom to working in a space like that. And being able to just focus within those constraints just purely on the songwriting. And we pretty much did that for a few months on end and just wrote a song a day. Just to see what would come. You don't expect every song each day to make it but it became about having fun and enjoying the process and getting all of these ideas out and seeing where the music was going to take us.”
Lost amid the technological options of a professional studio, MS MR seem to require some kind of constraint to force them to focus on the rigours of songwriting. “I firmly believe in working within constraints,” Max says. “I don't think it's helpful to have that many options. We brought in a couple of synths, those were the two instruments that we had that really helped us. It really, really fleshed out the sound of the album.”
“Working within constraints is really, really important, I think,” adds Liz. “It allows you to explore the richness of whatever you're working within because it's so easy to get distracted by plug-ins. I'm super not technical, I hate cables, I hate plugging things in and I hate troubleshooting! I'm really bad at it. When something goes wrong I get horribly flustered and embarrassed. So I want to keep it as stripped back and simple as possible – that's the way we work best.”
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I firmly believe in working within constraints...
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The resulting record is one of the most varied and colourful pop statements you'll hear this year. 'How Does It Feel' doesn't always work, but its imbued with a carefree attitude that perfectly matches the personalities of the two people at the steering wheel. Lively, contagious and – above all – funny, it's the product of sessions which saw MS MR push themselves further than ever before.
“I'd say we're incredibly disciplined,” the singer muses. “To our own fault, sometimes. That's just an extension of our personalities and the way we've been brought up. We're both ambitious people and we like seeing ourselves achieve and complete tasks and songs. It's satisfying to start a day with nothing and to have tangibly have a song at the end of that. To see what's come from that is so satisfying.”
Ultimately, 'How Does It Feel' finds the duo taking stock after a period of enormous upheaval. Continually refining what it is they do, MS MR reject far more than they release – maintaining a supremely right output, the pair are extremely tough on themselves.
“Sometimes it's hard when there's a song that you love and it doesn't make the record,” Liz explains. “But I also think that's part of the process. Part of being an artist is having that filter and allowing yourself to focus on that audience and your creation in that way. It would be sloppy to release everything you've ever worked on, that's not part of what being an artist it, I believe. It's about curation to some degree.”
As for the songwriting process itself, MS MR play it simple: if it works, it works. “It's completely instinctual. I don't even know how to begin to describe it,” Max says. “But it feels so right when it's right. I mean, we know when it's right. The sonic world that we've started sketching has a lot more room to colour in and sketch out. I think we can keep doing it for a long time.”
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'How Does It Feel' is out now.