‘You can’t cancel me, I’ve got bills to pay!’: music stars on pop’s strange 2021

Laura Mvula, Kasabian’s Serge Pizzorno, Snail Mail, BackRoad Gee, Sigrid and Eris Drew mull over the year’s big stories, from Britney’s freedom to battles over plagiarism and streaming


How did you feel coming into 2021, after the unprecedented bleakness of 2020?

Lindsey Jordan, AKA Snail Mail I finally finished a record – it had been three years. It’s funny, as a teenage star, that I came back as an adult. We haven’t played a show in two years, and that time means a lot to me, because I’m pretty young. I feel like I’m swimming upstream against imposter issues; I forget what it feels like to play a show.

Sigrid Definitely. I was doing Reading festival this summer and I was thinking: “Do I know how to artist?” And also the same feeling of being scared of getting too excited about something.

Eris Drew For me, it was pretty bleak. I was working on an album and I was still in the middle of engineering it. But I hadn’t seen friends, I’d been distant from family, for a long time. I felt pretty bad, and it wasn’t just about lockdown. It was also the sense that there were actually some opportunities really lost during 2020: we had this tremendous explosive social movement in the States, and then you feel the sense of people moving on and it felt bad.

Laura Mvula I still feel like I’m adjusting to the new landscape. Everything is constantly changing; plans that appear to be concrete can vanish. I’ve had so many gigs cancelled.

Serge Pizzorno, Kasabian We had 17 shows booked in October, so I had a real focus. But it’s wild doing them, because we’re in a bubble: we’re playing to 2,000, 3,000 people, but after the gig, we go straight to the hotel, where we’re not allowed to see anyone except room service. You’re not allowed to see your kids or your wife, even, because you don’t want to catch Covid on tour. You get the connection of everyone at the shows going absolutely wild, all this energy thrown at you, then you’re just sat in a bubble afterwards, five of you. It’s a mad thing.


Britain leaves the EU and with it comes a lot of red tape for touring artists. Has touring become harder? Does this government care enough about music?

Mvula It hasn’t felt like touring or the arts is a priority for our government, especially with all the cuts to organisations, school supplies, arts funding, which I rely heavily upon. It’s scary: how do I continue to grow my touring business with these restrictions?

Pizzorno I went to see a band in Leicester, Beak. They were talking about playing a show in Brussels and being held at the border for 14 hours. If you’ve got a gig in Paris and a gig in Rome, you’re not going to be able to make it; it’s going to take two or three days. You’ll get to a point financially where you won’t be able to do it, and that’s the worst, not being able to play live. It needs sorting out, quick.

Enter the metaverse ... Ariana Grande.
Enter the metaverse ... Ariana Grande. Photograph: Epic Games


Kings of Leon become the first band to hop on the NFT craze. Later in the year, Ariana Grande embraced the metaverse with her avatar performance on Fortnite. Are these innovations feasible ways to make money, or are they baffling and distracting?

BackRoad Gee I don’t really understand it, man. I get a little bit of it. I would really like to do some more research on the metaverse.

Drew I don’t either. Part of me is like “good for you for figuring out a way to make some money”, but it seems like something that’s going to be so inaccessible to your average artist.

Sigrid If you were to change everything to be digital, there’s a lot of people in the chain of creating shows who would get lost. It’s really important to protect the live industry and you can’t replace that, not properly.


Artists including Paul McCartney and Kate Bush call for a change in streaming rules, to improve royalty rates. Are musicians still struggling to make ends meet? What needs to change?

Pizzorno Major labels are making more money than they ever have. The streaming royalty rates need to change now, it’s completely unfair. Why’s the person that made the music getting paid last and paid the least?

Jordan It’s annoying to see yourself have a successful career but see exactly where the money is missing. It’s like: wait, someone doing this exact thing in the 90s would have been a millionaire.

Mvula I can hear my mum saying: “Don’t tell people your business now”, but let’s be real. My girl Lindsey is right: if we were in the 90s now, I’d be balling! A good starting point would be the parliamentary vote on 3 December to introduce equitable renumeration for artists. If this is passed, it would mean income for all musicians who perform on a track, including session musicians, and it would apply from the first stream. So let’s get this moving.

BackRoad Gee For me it’s kind of different, because I’m still independent, so streaming actually works if you’re pulling in some good numbers. Obviously, I understand why it would be frustrating for some people when you’re signed, because that’s one part of the money that you’re not going to be collecting.


Tion Wayne and Russ Millions score the first UK drill No 1 with the remix of Body. Has drill finally broken through?

BackRoad Gee Yes and no. It’s only really Russ and Tion that’s done it on that level. But they have broken the doors open for someone to come up and do that as well. So, right now, I feel if there is any chance of it happening, they played a big part in that. We appreciate them for that, 100%.


Winston Marshall leaves Mumford & Sons after championing a far-right writer and being called out for it online. Is “cancel culture” something you all worry about?

Mvula As a young, Black female artist I’ve always lived in fear of being cancelled, because I don’t want to get stereotyped as the “angry mad Black woman”. That’s a real thing in this industry. I noticed people over time saying things like: “Oh, you’re really well media-trained” and I realised what they meant by that was I was good at filtering quite a lot of what I say; I would find ways to say it that wouldn’t cause offence, or would be somehow less impactful. I guess because I’m getting older, I’ve experienced true liberation through saying what I really mean, even if it risks being unaccepted. I come from a very outspoken tradition – in my family, within church – so it’s hard to dilute that because I don’t want to be inauthentic.

Drew This is a really complex issue. The idea that people need to be a little bit more considered before they spew their mouth, I like that. I like people being held accountable for their racism, their sexism, their ignorance. But I do think cancel culture chills speech sometimes; I don’t want to pretend that it’s all rose-tinted glasses. Personally, I’m kind of more worried when I speak out against the dance music industry. I’m pretty critical of a lot of dance music today, although I love the scene; I’m like a hard-loving mother!

BackRoad Gee I’m really in my own world, man. I’m not really fazed by what anyone can say to me. You can’t cancel me, man; I’ve got bills to pay! You know what I’m saying? I just speak my mind and I make sure that it’s not a disrespectful thing.

Jordan The thing that freaks me out is when people use [cancel culture] as a weapon against each other. It trivialises it so that, the more it happens, the more people make fun of it, it takes away from the good that it can do: protecting each other from people who are dangerous, and shitheads and fascists. It can be an extremely important tool. The issue I think, is more people making it not matter.

Olivia Rodrigo.
Olivia Rodrigo. Photograph: PR

Olivia Rodrigo is accused of plagiarism by Courtney Love and Pom Pom Squad and later settles with Paramore over a similarity between her song Good 4 U and their Misery Business. Is it harder than ever to come up with a truly original melody?

Sigrid I’m in pop [writing] sessions all the time and I’ve kind of been known for being the one calling out whenever we do copy. I feel like it happens often, when everyone’s like: “Oh shit, no no no, this is like …”

Mvula I mostly plagiarise myself. “Oh! I already wrote that song!”

Pizzorno I think a lot of these cases seem like stretches, like lawyers going: “We might be able to do something with this” and I think it’s unfair. Sometimes you can hear that people have sat in the studio listening to music and thinking: “We need to make a song like this – similar rhythm, similar tempo.” That’s cool, surely? It’s a vibe; you can’t own a vibe, can you?

Drew Even though I love dance music, I actually studied early rock’n’roll and they’re all taking each other’s riffs, messing with them a little bit, speeding them up or whatever. Musicians have always reacted to each other, and that’s kind of part of it. Oftentimes what we hear about are kind of extreme cases and, as a sampling artist, I don’t want to be an extreme case – I would never take someone else’s song and just put a bass line on it. I just try to be really creative and put things in different contexts; I write a ton of original music that I put in these collages. It’s interesting, though, how someone would feel whose work I’ve taken a small sample from. That’s not up to me. I just try to be conscientious.


Environmentally sound ... Coldplay.
Environmentally sound ... Coldplay. Photograph: James Marcus Haney

Coldplay unveil their plans for environmentally sound touring. How are you tackling this issue yourself?

Jordan I don’t know how I’m tackling it other than, you know, trying to drink out of reusable water bottles.

Pizzorno I suppose next year, we’ll probably play fewer shows, travel less. I was thinking if you played in a full moon and just used huge mirrors so that you didn’t have to use lights … but that might have been the mushrooms talking.

Drew I’ve talked about doing a CO2 offset at the end of the year, because, goddamn, I’ve used a lot of jet fuel and I’m very much a Mother Earth kind of goddess DJ, and it just seems profoundly inconsistent to me. As an artist, I do think I have responsibility. The only way the world’s going to get better is if every single person feels they have responsibility.

Sigrid In Norway, we have a festival called Øya and with a lot of other Norwegian artists we signed this green rider [pledge]. We’re cutting plastic backstage, doing more organic and vegetarian food, if there’s transport we ask for it be environmentally friendly, try to do all the good stuff. I try to show up at climate events; I did play for some people in Norway cleaning beaches, which was really nice. I also just try to encourage people to use their right to vote.


Ten people are killed at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival. How much is crowd safety the responsibility of the artist and did the incident make you think any differently about performing live?

Sigrid When that news came through, it was just horrendous. Of course I feel a responsibility when I walk onstage. When people buy a ticket to my show, I want them to know they’re in a safe space, you shouldn’t be worried about something happening. When we play big shows, we always take our own security and part of their job is to make sure that crowd safety is paramount. They’ve got a line on me onstage so that if anything goes down we can always cut the gig.

Drew It’s a tremendous amount of delegated responsibility any time you’re playing a show, even if it’s a small club show. But I can’t be in front making sure trans people like me are getting treated well; that all the people that have various vulnerabilities coming to my events are safe. I don’t think that any artist is going to be completely responsible for anything that happens at their event, that’s not realistic, but for years now I have tried to make the spaces I play generally safer; we have a written safety protocol for our own parties. I have thought about my shows differently after Astroworld – every time I’m onstage now, I think: “Am I actually assessing this situation properly?” I’ve played several big events, thousands of people in front of me, and I’m like: “How would I necessarily know if this was getting rough for people at the front, because it looks really way too intense already?” The lights are dizzying, the whole experience is meant to be disorienting, so it’s hard to make that judgment.

Jordan I honestly don’t know enough about the situation at Astroworld, but I have thought, for my fan base specifically, there’s a lot of young gay girls and they’re usually mixed in with some frenetic scary old dudes that are like “I want to drink your blood” on Twitter. I’m the one bringing them all together in a room. I definitely don’t feel personally all that safe – ever! I think anywhere there’s fanaticism, usually there’s people doing unhinged stuff. I don’t know how you protect yourself and others.

FreeBritney supporters.
FreeBritney supporters. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Britney Spears’s conservatorship finally ends. How have you felt following what has arguably been the biggest pop music story of the year?

Sigrid First of all, it’s about time. I’m happy to see her as a free woman. If there’s one thing I hope the media has learned from it, it’s how to treat people with respect.

Jordan A lot of kids in the entertainment industry have parents that steal from them and that control what they’re doing. A kid can never really consent if they’re going to become a really big star or not; you ask any kid if they want to be on the Disney Channel, they’re going to say: “Yeah, of course!” The adults in charge, that’s always been an issue, it doesn’t seem like anything particularly new. It’s just that we all know and love Britney so I guess this is a more personal example of what we all know to be going on.

Mvula I think the scary thing for me is the mental health issue: that it can not be known that they’re really fucking struggling, especially when they’re so adept at being the show-woman, being so skilled at playing a role. Then it takes the worst to happen for people to go: “Oh, somebody should help them.” It’s made me think a lot about how we can monitor one another more closely.

Pizzorno I think there’s definitely more awareness than there was, but it still does feel more like: “When’s the next album out?” and: “Oh, you’ll be OK.” There’s awareness for sure, but there’s plenty of room for it to get better, you know?

Finally, what’s your favourite album or albums of the year and what are your hopes for 2022?

Pizzorno I’m going to chose Nine by Sault and the Tyler, the Creator album, Call Me If You Get Lost. And Amyl and the Sniffers, if I can sneak one more in there, please. And for next year, I want to make music for massive gatherings. I want to see everyone back in fields having a great time. That’s it.

Jordan I’m going to say To Hell With It by PinkPantheress. And hopes … I’ve got to get my fucking vocal cords operated on, I have to spend a month in silence, so I’m excited to see if my stoic self picks up more information. I’m excited to become extremely wise! And hopefully, I can just get back out on the road.

Sigrid My favourite record was Flyte, This Is Really Going to Hurt – melodies, production, everything really. It’s quite retro but fresh at the same time, quite Beatle-esque. And next year, I’m hoping to let myself get carried away again, feel hopeful and positive about the future, have that “let’s fucking go!” mentality.

Drew I want to mention two EPs, because in dance music it’s the EP that often shows an innovative new talent. One is a UK artist, Ehua, the EP’s called Aquamarine. If you love breaks and club music, this person has made something truly mystical that can slice you open and heal you at the same time. Also, Bored Lord, from LA, made an incredible EP, The Last Illusion. And Matthew Herbert’s album is a true return to form. And next year I would like to see more people being able to engage in the subjective experience of loving music together. It’s a beautiful experience when it’s right, and it hurts me to know people have been shut off from it for so long.

Mvula The soundtrack for The Harder They Fall, a Black western on Netflix. Fatoumata Diawara’s on it, Lauryn Hill, Jay Z, Kid Cudi, the Roots play a lot of the rhythm section, quite a few African artists – I’m like: “How did I not know about this person?” – are on it and I’m chuffed to be on it, too. Theo Croker’s BLK2life/A Future Past: he really is pushing the boundaries, it’s really beautiful, fragile playing, and he was singing on this record, I’ve never heard his voice before and it’s beautiful. And hopes? I just need to work! Can I work my album please? Can I do a show or two? And I want to travel. I feel like I’m going a bit crazy with my need to travel.

BackRoad Gee There’s my own album, Reporting Live (From the Back of the Roads) and I’ve been listening a lot of Wizkid’s Made in Lagos, it’s been on replay. And, boy, 2022: we’ll come in greatness, do a lot of work. We’re here, foot on the neck, you know?


As told to Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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