“I’ve always felt like an outsider even among outsiders,” Lauren Kop says in an interview at Cuties, the LGBTQ-friendly coffee shop in East Hollywood. “That might come from a place of constantly feeling invisible as a kid. It’s been a lifelong journey to validate yourself, looking for external validation.”

Kop’s journey to discovering herself — including coming out recently as gay — parallels her evolution from being a shy, withdrawn kid into reinventing herself as the autonomous mastermind behind the local synth-pop project Mini Bear, who perform at Non Plus Ultra on Friday, May 31. “I used to be really hard on myself. I had such a fucked-up childhood,” she says about her difficult family life, which included growing up in the shadow of a brother who suffered from mental illness. “You gravitate toward the things you know, and what I knew was pain and being treated poorly.”

The Echo Park singer-keyboardist was born in Los Angeles and raised in Calabasas. Kop attended college at San Diego State and lived briefly in Chicago before returning to L.A. “There’s a lot of stuff in my childhood that took up a lot of space,” she says. “Growing up, I had a lot of things that weren’t pleasant in my childhood. … I consider myself an introvert. I had always loved music, and I’ve always loved singing. I could find solace in music. I’d put on a Mariah Carey record or The Bodyguard soundtrack and perform it in my bedroom. … I had a Casio as a kid and would kind of plunk away. I had been in choir and musical theater in junior high and high school.”

But Kop didn’t become serious about music until she went to San Diego State, where she studied classical vocal music and formally learned how to play piano. “I became a music major, but I hated being in a box,” she recalls about the rigidity of the classical-music world. “My voice was criticized for not being a pretty, bright voice — that’s just not my voice.” Nonetheless, she kept at it and earned a bachelor’s degree in music. “I took a couple audio-engineering classes when I was at school. I would write songs on a keyboard shortly after I graduated. It was such a pivotal time in my life — three years that taught me what I don’t want from life.”

She quickly found herself in a marriage with a man she didn’t really love and was working in insurance as a claims adjuster in north San Diego, “which is as conservative as you could get,” Kop says. “I was the most miserable I’ve ever been in my life, doing these roles. I was so depressed, I moved to L.A., where I interned at a music PR company.” She soon realized that being a publicist wasn’t a good fit either. “The music-business side of things is not for me. … I’m an artist; my passion is creating.”

While working at her next job selling Apple computers, Kop had a bit of a creative breakthrough when using the music-software program Logic. “That was the beginning of my journey, learning how to use a computer to make music,” she says. “Writing on a keyboard, you can only go so far. Working on a computer, you have all these tools. I started learning more about music production.” Kop eventually taught herself to use Ableton, “a music program that is basically the way that my brain works — it’s not necessarily linear. Through this program, I learned a lot about how to create these sounds. Using the software around that time really empowered me to write these songs.”

In 2012, Kop released her first recording as Mini Bear, a four-song EP titled Prism, which features such ’80s-style, synth-based new-wave songs as “Hush” and “Miles and Miles.” That was also the year she made her live debut as Mini Bear, performing solo at a feminist festival at a warehouse in Frogtown. “It was terrifying, but it felt so liberating,” Kop says. “I’d never played instruments by myself in front of people. It was so empowering to create something by yourself, to be on your own performing. Playing music in front of people is one of the most vulnerable states — you’re all alone. I felt like doing Mini Bear on my own has taught me a lot about self-reliance … and to have more control over my artistry. It gave me a lot of confidence. … I feel shy with people face to face, but onstage I feel the freedom to express myself.”

Kop still performs solo as Mini Bear, although she is sometimes accompanied onstage by drummer Parker Law. A few years ago, she also played keyboards in Panthar, and back in college she was a member of Kite Flying Society, a band she describes as “a cross between The Shins and The Beach Boys.” But Mini Bear remains Kop’s primary musical obsession and creative outlet.

Mini Bear's Lauren Kop; Credit: Iris Ray

Mini Bear's Lauren Kop; Credit: Iris Ray

Prism was followed in 2013 by Mini Bear’s first full-length album, Futurism, in which such romantic dance-pop songs as “Flesh N Bone” and “Ghost” are contrasted by technology-themed anthems like the title track and “Decades,” a science-fiction fantasy about cryonics and being trapped in the future. Kop delved deeper into the battle between the heart and the computer mind on such songs as “Technopoly Conversations” and “Prophecy Girl,” from Mini Bear’s 2016 EP, Mind Control, which was released by New Professor Music.

“I became obsessed with how technology influences how we communicate with each other,” she says about “Technopoly Conversations.” “I love the internet; I love how we can connect with each other on social media, but it can make people detached. That particular song encapsulates the anxiety I was feeling about how technology can negatively impact who we are as a society and how we communicate with each other — or don’t communicate with each other. I was really obsessed with the future at that time. Now here we are, and the future is scary.”

Kop’s yearning vocals are at the heart of “Prophecy Girl” even as thick waves of synthesizer wash over her. “I’ve been obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a long time. I was binge-watching it a lot at the time. I decided to write about Buffy and Angel; it’s basically a love song. It’s fan music, like fan fiction, my homage to Buffy.”

The worlds of technology and love collide again on “Cyberlove,” Mini Bear’s poignant and pulsating 2018 single on New Professor. “That song is tongue in cheek; it’s about the frustration of trying to date in this culture of app dating. It’s hard to capture yourself in [an online dating] profile. My personality being like a cat, it takes me a while to warm up to something.” The single was co-produced by Kop with Taylor Dexter. “There weren’t a lot of female producers when I started Mini Bear,” she says. “I didn’t even think of myself as a producer until I started doing my beats and realized, ‘Fuck yeah! I’m a producer.’”

A key inspiration was Nite Jewel’s Ramona Gonzalez. “Around the time I was getting into synthesizers, she inspired me about playing synthesizers and writing my own music. She’s really smart, really amazing — one of the few female producers around that time being master architects of their own sonic worlds. Visibility is so important — it’s important to see someone doing that. That made me want to inspire others. This year, I decided I wanted to start teaching music production for people who might not have the tools to create. How do we level the field and [increase] the visibility of non-cis males as engineers and producers? I started doing it with Girls Rock and with Femme House, a music-education collective for females, non-binary and trans people. I started teaching at IO Music Academy in Hollywood this year. I teach sound design, which is essentially the ability to create any sound you want. I love knowing how things work.”

Last summer, while she was working as an instructor at a Girls Rock camp in Ojai, the teacher learned something important about herself. “I came out last year. I was a late bloomer,” Kop says about realizing she was gay. “A part of me always knew, but Calabasas was hetero-conservative. At camp, a lot of kids end up coming out, being their authentic selves, and that ended up happening to me.”

Kop slowly noticed that she was developing a major crush on another teacher at the camp. “She was essentially a catalyst that turned on a light switch, that all these thoughts and feelings that I was having were valid. Identity can be really complicated — the feelings I had for men were all fear based — I wanted validation. … I feel ashamed that it’s taken me so long to acknowledge this about myself. For years, I had pushed it down. It was a relief to say it out loud. It has also been awkward. I feel like coming out when you’re 35 versus 19, it’s like going through a second puberty. When you’re in your 30s, you feel like you know the world, and then you discover this thing about yourself — it’s awkward. I’m awkward in general. I felt like an ugly duckling. … Once I came out, most of the people in my life didn’t care. I feel grateful that I live here and live in a community where there are a lot of queer artists and musicians.”

Mini Bear appears with Plasmic, NYXE, Polartropica and Celeste XXX at Non Plus Ultra, 654 Gibbons St., L.A.; Fri., May 31, 7 p.m.; $10. restlessnites.com/blisscastle.

LA Weekly