I followed Alexis Penney's Twitter long before I got into their music. I was still living in London at the time, and Penney's no-holds-barred observations, which I discovered through a friend, fed my curiosity about the rawness of New York's creative realm. In 2013, they contextualized these outpourings with an album and accompanying memoir, both titled Window, that picked through the emotional entrails of grief, lust, and hard-earned healing to a soundtrack of synth-pop, house music, and a touch of rock. On a visit to N.Y.C. that year, I finally met Penney for an interview that only deepened my respect for their artistic process.
Three years on, and now based in Los Angeles, Penney will release a new album titled Sapphire this December 25 that picks up the conversation they started with Window and leans in deeper to rock-influenced territory. Today The FADER is sharing the first single from the album, "Tunnels," in the form of a potent video set partly in New York's subway. Produced by Michael Beharie, the rousing song is inspired by the homeless people who take up semi-residence on the trains in the winter; they seek warmth and comfort, yet are routinely greeted with disgust and disdain by fellow passengers. Below, Penney dives into the stories behind Sapphire, and the lessons they'll be taking in 2017.
What's the story behind "Tunnels"?
"Tunnels" was written over the course of many winter months in 2014. A lot of the lyrics are scenes that I observed or overheard while riding the trains late at night, back home from work. There is this beautiful and very intense, constantly shifting community of poor, underserved, and homeless people that ride the trains, especially the longer lines (like the AC that I lived off of for years) and basically live in the tunnels in the winter time, many of whom are neurodivergent and dealing with substance abuse issues. New York is really where I developed an oracular or divinatory relationship to public transportation. I would be thinking of one particular social issue or personal thing and a neurodivergent person would walk right up to me and start talking to me about it, often in more mytho-poetic than "logical" terms. They'd usually disappear, just as quick, into the flurry of people, leaving me to craft whatever message I could from their transmission.
Over four years I started to feel myself a spiritual agent of the City Herself, with the subway network being some sort of parallel nervous or intestinal system, where people from many backgrounds mingle and exchange information. Even if it's just a snide rich person covering their face with a scarf from the smell of a homeless person, that's a powerful energetic and sensory exchange. I started to really develop a different way of engaging — I felt I had to stand closest to those that everyone moved away from; I had to breathe deepest in the cars that everyone would cover their faces in. I felt I had to bear witness to the experiences of those that most were trying their hardest to forget. So the song really came from what I felt was a disembodied voice of a lot of these people on the subway; not as if I was speaking for them, but just that the feelings that got left on those trains were speaking through me in a way.
The narrator in the chorus came from one particular instance actually where a neurodivergent man was going on loudly about his views on women in ways that definitely offended me, but also compelled me. I felt he was also broadcasting the disembodied voice of so much of the beleaguered and confused pain of masculinity in our society, and forcing everyone on that train to bear witness to it. [The song] predates Trump etc., but seems kind of prophetic to me now. [It deals with] many things we would rather have pretended didn't exist that have been bubbling up to the surface — that's kind of what this song is about to me, bearing witness to the beauty and the violently ugly in spaces where they intersect really clearly and can't be escaped.
You mention feeling like a "spiritual agent of the City Herself" when you were writing "Tunnels" in 2014. How has your relationship with New York evolved since then?
I feel like New York and I got to this really beautiful and almost seamless point where I felt more at home and aligned in my purpose there as a person, spirit worker, and artist than I ever have anywhere before. And for that reason she recently ejected me out of her womb in kind of a violent way. Haha. I think I wasn't able to see how comfortable I had gotten because it had come through so much struggle. And it's not like New York isn't intense. She really asked a lot of me all of the time. I was teaching full-time, working 60 hours on average a week, and going out a fair amount. We were hosting events at our space and I was also working on this record for a solid three years, but I was so desensitized to how intense it all was.
Leaving New York in July was so hard. I've never quite felt like that because everywhere else I've left, it has always been a "good riddance, get me the fuck out of here" feeling and it's only now about six months later that I can actually look back and see, ok, I had gotten a little complacent there. I wasn't challenging myself the way I have been challenged since leaving and ending up in L.A. after six or so moves in six months. I think that on a broader level the country and continent have their own consciousnesses, so I feel like I'm still an agent of something bigger or deeper or whatever — it's just gonna take me some time to figure out what that looks like. Right before I left New York I had sex on the street while at 11:11. Just like literally on a street in the Lower East Side on a Friday night, tons of people walking by. And I was like, wow, ok, I am realllllly comfortable here lol. Of course that had to change.
“The way we treat neurodivergent people in this culture and force so many of them into the streets to literally starve in public is just abhorrent. And it’s so normalized.”
It's been three years since the release of your debut album, Window. What can readers expect from its follow-up, Sapphire?
People may be surprised by the sonic departure that Sapphire seems to be on the surface, but deep down [it] really does build on what I started to play with on Window. I had gotten into the idea of moving out of making just a dance or club record, and wanting to make a really fleshed-out pop record. Window was our interpretation of that based on the resources we had. [With] Sapphire I was able to expand into a more band or rock-style palette because of working with Michael Beharie, who is such a talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He knew exactly what I meant when I first started talking about making my ideas for Sapphire and exactly who to get involved to make it happen — and, honestly, for having basically no budget I am so impressed with what we were able to do.
But I would say these two records are actually pretty related; Sapphire just kind of deepens the exploration of love and loss that I had started with Window and also gives it a little more context. I wanted to dig into not just the emotional experience of my childhood but the musical backdrop of it — a lot of the classic rock and radio grunge informed the sound palette and the weird stuff that I have connected to as I've grown up. One of our early meetings I mentioned the song "Chinese Cafe" by Joni Mitchell, which is a pretty deep '80s cut and Michael knew it right away which impressed me. So grateful for him.
How did the sociopolitical themes you deal with on the album inform the music?
Well, dealing with the suffering and deaths of two loved ones during the writing and recording process really brought this renewed need alive for me to sort through the roots of my suffering, their suffering, and really all suffering as much as I could. I thought a lot about America as a concept and an entity, and western culture as a whole and how that was expressed (or denied or reacted to etc.) in a lot of music that influenced this record, and what I really wanted to say and contribute toward that canon and conversation. "The Book," which is the last track, is basically a big fuck you to the Biblical patriarchs. It felt very visceral and raw to me because I trace a lot of modern suffering back to those traditions, and also to my experience growing up queer in a Midwestern church.
I think this record opened up a wound for me that won't heal, to be honest. I am so angry and I have so much to say. It feels in some ways like an indictment of rock music, like, hey, look at all the shit y'all tried to leave out of this culture — well, guess what, queer people, femme people, gender non-conforming people, we are all using the media of rock and roll to describe culture, too. "Tunnels," too, is very raw in that way. The way we treat neurodivergent people in this culture and force so many of them into the streets to literally starve in public is just abhorrent. And it's so normalized. That song wrenched itself out of me, hard, and it also kept me alive when I wanted to give up and die. I kept listening to it in the hardest moments and being like, wow, you brought forth something that feels really important. Don't give up!
And finally, what lessons from 2016 will you be taking with you into the new year?
That nothing is ever as it seems and definitely is not as it's packaged and delivered to us via institutionalized truth regimes of the government, global corporate oligarchy, and corporate media. Pundits will make predictions and smug white people will scoff at emotional eruptions and people will continue to cling to established notions of reality even as everything is completely turned on its head. What we've seen is that nothing is too surreal to come to fruition. History is fractaling in on itself in the craziest ways and this is really just the beginning. The terrible thing is that literally anything could happen. And the amazing thing is literally anything could happen!