Pop music — the words have become so tainted over the past couple of decades due to a carefully coordinated over-saturation by the major-label players who stumbled onto a lucrative formula for commercial success. There was a time when there were no artistic stigmas attached to pop, and Fiona Grey would like to see those attitudes return. The theatrical, authentic, unashamedly pop singer-songwriter plays the Moroccan Lounge this week, so we asked her all about it...
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you start singing and writing, and when did you realize it could be a career?
FIONA GREY: People ask me when I made the conscious decision to make it a career, and it actually never was a conscious decision. I’ve always written songs. My dad was a songwriter, so while some kids played with Barbie dolls, I took around a little cassette player and wrote songs all day. I transitioned into the musical theater world, and I found that being my own artist was writing my own songs and putting on my own musical theater–type shows. I kinda never stopped doing it.
Describe your own sound. The phrase "dirty pop" has been used...
Dirty pop started because I wanted to confuse people enough to actually check out the music. If you say pop music, they write it off. If you say alternative, you just sound pretentious. So dirty pop, for me, my music and my style is all about taking classic elements but putting grime and grit and dirt to them. I felt like dirty pop embodied the sound. It’s pop songwriting, organic instrumentation, but we’re not afraid of a one-minute outro. Running away from that conformity of pop.
Sexuality, rock & roll, being vulnerable — they’re all things that people traditionally describe as being dirty. I think the dirtiest things tend to be the best. I don’t look at my music as being overly sexualized in any way, but it’s more about being honest with your own sexuality. That’s the exciting thing. I feel like when I go onstage and am performing these songs, that’s when they’re at their most vulnerable and at their truest state, because I’m not hoping people like it. I’m not wondering or thinking or overthinking anything. I’m just being in that moment right there, and I think that’s the beauty of dirty pop.
When did you relocate from Chicago to L.A.?
I have to split custody between Chicago and L.A. I moved here when I was 7, but I go back to Chicago for three or four months each year, on and off, so I’m kind of — I feel like I live both places. It’s funny — when I’m in L.A., I’m a Chicago girl but when I’m in Chicago, I’m the L.A. girl. It’s like, who am I? I’m more full-time in L.A. lately, but we drive across the country to Chicago next week. I still go back quite frequently.
What are the major differences between the music scenes?
I feel like Chicago musicians aren’t jaded by the concept of it yet. They’re still excited. They work on their craft and less on their brand, which I think is beautiful and it’s why I have to go to Chicago and write, because I’m able to just sit and write songs about what I’m feeling. Not having different voices being like, "We need you to write Top 40 songs." Just writing songs about what’s going on compared to thinking about how they’re going to be branded, I think, is the beauty of the Chicago scene. But I think that the L.A. scene gets a lot of — people think there’s negativity within the L.A. scene, but I find the L.A. scene to be one of the most supportive, loving communities. This core group of musicians in L.A. truly support each other, and I think that’s something beautiful. So they both have pluses and negatives. But I think as a whole, they’re two beautiful music scenes and I feel lucky that I get to be a part of those.
The Cult Classic EP dropped last year — what other recorded output have you released?
I only have EPs right now. Until someone gives me a bunch of money. I put in $20,000 for this last EP, and raised money on Kickstarter as well. I had a really great team of supporters who helped me do this. I didn’t want to cut corners with quality. I didn’t want to be the kind of person who was sitting around in my living room writing great songs waiting for somebody to give me money to make them produce the way I want to hear them. I just hustled a trillion and one jobs to make sure I could afford my music being the quality I wanted it to be. A record hopefully soon. I’m so old-school when it comes to records that it kills me I don’t have a full-length one out yet. I still craft my EPs in a way that traditional records were. It’s not an EP of singles. There’s definitely a throughline story. I don’t know if that makes up for it.
What do you think of the state of pop music today?
I feel like we could do better. There are so many great pop songwriters out there, and I feel like there’s so much great production and songwriting, but I feel like I want pop music to continue to go back to that emotional center, which I think some of my favorite classic pop records had. Which is just what I was talking about — when you go to Chicago, you’re able to write a song about what you’re experiencing, not writing a song within the formula of what a song should be. I feel like we’ve cracked the code of what’s going to make it a radio hit, and I think the most exciting thing about songwriting is breaking rules. I hope to see the pop world going back to a place that is rule-breaking, compared to mathematical. Why is it, when I say I’m a pop artist, people look down at pop? Pop music is music you want to sing along to. It’s also music that is hooky and smart. It used to have this beautiful gloss and gleam and glamour to it. Now, it’s like cheapened.
What can we expect from the set at the Moroccan Lounge?
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I’m a musical theater girl, so I don’t know how to do anything that isn’t larger than life. The common thing that I’ve had people come up to me and say is, "We saw a stadium show in a club." I think in total, I have like 14 people playing in my band. Like, it’s stupid. No manager, no booking agent — I’m a one-woman show. But I’m pulling this together because I think that nowadays, people especially in L.A., it’s such a job to go out and see live music sometimes because there’s so much of it. I want to make it the best experience possible. I’m not going to stand there with my guitar and sing songs exactly like you heard them on the record. I’m just up there telling stories, in glittery wild outfits and with dancers. We have saxophone and too many background singers.
When the show is done, what else do you have planned for this year?
I have a monthlong tour. Five weeks in total, all over North America.
Fiona Grey plays with Orchid Quartet, Timothy Heller and Disco Shrine (DJ set) at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 28, at the Moroccan Lounge.