Jane Penny Makes a New Dream For Herself

We caught up with the TOPS bandleader about making music in Berlin, finding cultural headway without industry support, turning her new era into a one-woman show, and her debut solo release, Surfacing.

Music Features Jane Penny
Jane Penny Makes a New Dream For Herself

In the four years since TOPS put out their last LP, I Feel Alive, the members of the Montreal quartet—Jane Penny, David Carriere, Marta Cikojevic and Riley Fleck—have stayed busy. Keyboardist Cikojevic—who performs as Marci—collaborated with Carriere (who also makes music as Born at Midnite with Amery Sandford) to step out, present herself as a frontwoman and release her self-titled LP back in 2022, and it remains my favorite debut of the decade thus far. Cut to 2023, and Marci’s one-off single “KITY” landed on our year-end best songs list. Jane Penny, the face and voice at the center of TOPS, agrees fully: “I was her top 0.01% fan,” she says, laughing. “I showed her and she was like, ‘Okay, Jane, whatever…,’ but it’s true—I’m a huge Marci fan.” It doesn’t hurt that Penny provided vocal harmonies on Marci, but it’s clear that TOPS is its own pop music dynasty—even if the industrial complex of modern music has yet to fully embrace the sheer multi-dimensional identity of one of Canada’s most important bands of the last 10 years.

“To have two women that are strong enough and powerful enough to have those roles and also work together, I feel like—with the way that the industry structures promotion—there’s just very little space made for something even as simple as that, which I find a little depressing,” Penny continues. “But I also understand the world that we’re in. I understand what we’re doing and I think TOPS fans are excited to have more of everything. We’re just really lucky with our audience. They’ve supported everything that we’ve done and helped us feel like we can do whatever we actually want.”

And TOPS fans have been able to rejoice this year already, as Penny has gone out on her own and dropped Surfacing, her debut EP done in collaboration with Patrick Holland and Adam Byczkowski. At seven songs and 21 minutes, it’s basically a full-length album—and, in the age of streaming, those lines are already massively blurred anyways. Penny composed Surfacing during the genesis of COVID-19. TOPS had just put out I Feel Alive and were forced to cancel the rest of their shows in promotion of it. To put out a record in a pandemic, it’s not an ideal circumstance that any band wants to find itself in. It’s a fate that’s hurt a lot of good, hardworking bands. But given who TOPS are, what their sound is and who shows up to support them and how committed they are to do so, I Feel Alive became somewhat of a companion album for listeners who were searching for ways to cope with that grief and confusion.

“At the end of the day, I think [the album cycle] went pretty well—other than, obviously, all of the fucking terrible shit that everyone was dealing with,” Penny says. “What I think is really special about the band is that we’ve neve really had very much industry approval. We’ve never really had a single release where we’ve had any real significant investment by any label that we’ve been on. Everything that we’ve done, there’s always been a show of ‘Well, this band’s great but, for whatever reason, this isn’t the next big thing.’ We’ve never been able to rely on the industry in any way, I don’t think.”

Since cutting their teeth in the Edmonton and Montreal scenes 13 years ago, TOPS have remained steadfast with four full-length LPs and a monthly listeners stable of over 700,000 on Spotify. Their core-four has remained the same since 2017, when Cikojevic joined the band, and they’ve toured relentlessly. But, while TOPS is one of the most-beloved groups of their niche, what’s made them successful (and what made them able to endure having an entire album release upended by a global atrocity) over the last decade is an internal source of optimism. “The fact that everybody who is in that band—and is as talented as they are—has consistently chosen to be a part of TOPS and wanted to actually have that be a part of their life, I feel really grateful for that, that everybody still wants to show up and do it,” Penny says. “I think we’re all the type of person who came to music very much with an attitude of ‘I’m doing this to express myself; I’m doing this because it’s something I want to do, because it’s something I enjoy doing.’ So, to consistently choose that, I think it’s a pretty special group of people.”

The spread of COVID-19—and the subsequent worldwide lockdowns—allowed Penny and Cikojevic the space to explore other projects while TOPS was on a momentary back-burner (though they never really slowed down, having embarked on a tour once social gathering restrictions were lifted and put out an EP called Empty Seats in 2022). Penny and her partner both got sick with COVID early on, but the lingering effects have disabled the latter. So, while in Berlin and isolated and taking care of her partner, Penny found inspiration in their relationship and the city they were holed up in (“I will regret every single word I ever said if I ever lose you” is a particularly heartbreaking instance on “Beautiful Ordinary”), before finding herself full engrossed in the exploratory, tool-sharpening stage of the process. “As with any creative endeavor, it started out that way but, now, I feel like it woodshed the production aspect of making music on your own,” she says. “Now, I have this other form of expression.”

As TOPS are currently hard at work on finishing their fifth album, Penny has already been able to see just how much the new music has been informed by her newfound desire to tackle different sides of herself and her musical ambitions. On Surfacing, there’s a heavy emphasis on production and atmospheric synths—elements that have been canon in the TOPS discography, too, and greatly responsible for the band’s resistance to any kind of traditional mock-up. But as is the case with any frontperson of a group making music under their own name for the first time, Penny isn’t going into this EP’s release without worry. “I hope it’s not confusing for people, but at the end of the day, you just make what you make and you have to hope that, if people love what you do, they’ll understand,” she concludes.

Living in a household transformed by long-COVID and, thus, turning to her solo work, Penny was taking advantage of having a crucial opportunity to explore her own curiosities while also considering what music she could make versus what direction TOPS was meant to take next. To make the songs that would wind up on Surfacing, Penny got Logic, a MIDI controller and some VST plug-ins and worked exclusively with computer-operated synthesizers (save for a single-use wind chime and a flute)—as opposed to the largely man-made sounds that have defined the dimensions of every TOPS album so far. “There was this desire to create synthetic worlds,” Penny says. “I’ve been so inspired and in love with a lot of ambient music and Fourth World [Vol. 1: Possible Musics] and atmospheric, synth-based music like Suzanne Ciani or Jon Hassell and Ryuichi Sakamoto. That’s a world that I want to spend time in. I was like, ‘What if I was able to take everything that I’ve thought about and loved about synths and bring that within the framework of what I’m doing?’”

Penny would then record hundreds of projects that were her just attempting to make sounds akin to what was playing in her head. Those landscapes would become the basis of her songwriting on Surfacing—a stark contrast from the communal, words-melodies-chords, singer-songwriter-style skeletons of pop songs that she and TOPS would work through and fill-out together. But that didn’t stop her from first gauging her bandmates’ concerns or affirmations about what she’d drafted up on her own. “I actually brought a lot of these songs to the band at some point, because there’s always that pressure of ‘more music now, finish it right now,’” Penny continues. “I was like, ‘Well I have this stuff.’ But then, they listened to it and they were like ‘Jane, this already sounds really good. You put so much work into it—why would we try to remake it? That’s obviously the end result of a journey that you’ve been on on your own.’ That’s when I realized that they’ll make space for me, even if it’s outside of the band. They didn’t want to just take that away. Having their support is really important to me, [knowing] that this stuff does exist in a context on its own and should be treated that way.”

Since making Surfacing, the line between what is a Jane Penny song and what is a TOPS song has been brought more into focus. When Penny is making something on the computer, she knows that it’s probably a track meant for her own name rather than the band’s. Inversely, if a song has been less workshopped on the computer, it has more growing to do—the kind that, usually, only really gets to flourish in a band setting. “As a songwriter, I really challenged myself to write songs on the piano—just playing and singing—because I feel like, if you can write a song like that, then it can exist in whatever outfit you want on it. If it’s a hot song, it’s gonna look good,” she says. Generally, Penny hasn’t had to feel very possessive of any of her creativity, and it has allowed the songs to find their homes organically. “It’s cool how songs evolve over time,” she continues. “Being in a band, if you’re possessive about the music that you’re making then it’s just not going to work. The solo world, I think, is more about exploring a lot of these more artificial production elements. It’s quite sad and experimental, not necessarily something that would be better with live drums or better in a rock show. I also think that your audience always reflects you as an artist.”

TOPS has existed for so long as a touring unit (though Penny quickly points out that they didn’t get to hire their own sound guy until a few years ago), and done shows in such a bare-bones way, without any bells and whistles, that they’ve never faked anything on-stage. Every note of music is made live. “I really love working within those parameters, but there is something that happens over time where you form a symbiotic relationship with what you are as you exist out in the world,” Penny says. “And now, with my solo stuff, there is an ability to make a brand new dream for myself. And then that process will start again, now that it’s already out in the world. It will evolve.”

Penny made Surfacing in both Berlin and Montreal, the former of which makes sense—given the city’s history with the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, and Germany’s consistent nurturing of synth-pop and electronica via bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Penny wasn’t parading through the local techno clubs while she was holed up in Berlin, but she still soaked up the city’s influence regardless. “The appreciation for synth-based music is just different in Europe,” she says. “Synth-pop in North America is a trend that will go in and out, but in Europe—since ABBA—it’s been a very present genre. It’s on from AM radio to your biggest live acts. Actually, the rarity is rock ‘n’ roll, which is funny.”

During the making of Surfacing, Penny was, in her own words, “existing between Berlin and Montreal.” It allowed her to see, first-hand, the difference in musical perspectives between North American and Europe—and the latter’s assumption that synths are a serious basis of enduring creation gave her unparalleled levels of confidence. She was constantly in the company of solo artists and bedroom producers—save for some hardcore punk bands here and there—and it made Surfacing’s existence feel validated and valuable. “I remember when I was on tour in Europe with TOPS,” she recalls. “One of the first times I looked at the clouds, as we were driving down the road in France, I was like ‘Oh, the clouds look like an old painting.’ Those European masterworks—paintings of the skies that you see—the reason why they look like that is because the sky looks like that there. Places seep into you, and your perception of reality is totally affected by it.” And that is precisely why Penny left Berlin and returned home to Montreal before the EP was finished. “It felt like I could never pull back the curtain and reconcile all of the things that I was experiencing,” she adds. “It made me feel a little bit lost at some point, which is why I came back to Montreal. I learned how important it really is to have one base, one energetic home that you emanate from as a person.”

In New York City right now, there’s an ongoing resurgence of club music that isn’t such innately-crafted, Top-40-centric club music. It’s work that feels like true offspring of Grace Jones and Chic. You’d like to think there’s a similarly close-knit type of energy everywhere, especially in Penny’s backyard in Montreal, but she has never made music bound to any sort of over-arching musical identity in her hometown—even though her immediate circle of friends and peers is nothing but welcoming and supportive. The pedigree of her sound isn’t contingent on existing in a community and, when TOPS started more than a decade ago, the Canadian music scene was heavily marked by a diverse landscape of acts like Grimes, Majical Cloudz and Mac DeMarco—all artists who existed then (and now) in orbits distant from that of Penny and her band. When TOPS released Tender Opposites in 2012, they never had an analog understanding of there being any peers with a similar sound—which wound up being a net-gain for them, and likely everyone else. “I think that’s a healthy sign for a scene, when everybody’s making different music,” Penny says.

Surfacing wears its influences on its sleeves—with the seven songs making rich swipes of homage to bands like Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys. “Wear You Out” is a sensual, sublime and unpredictable testament to devotion (“You’re what I really want, what I really need / We got together”), while “Artificial Genuine” takes Penny’s chromatic hush and pushes it beneath the depths of hazy, gauzy, wincing tear-drop electronica in one of the my favorite romantic verses of the year thus far. “I hope we never lose the plot that we come up with countless ways,” she sings. “We may not keep our story straight, fit in and out of every phase.” Even the instrumental, one-minute centerpiece “Stream” beckons enjoyable perfection through Sakamoto influences, while opener “Darkness Can Wait For a Night” is the kind of lullaby siren song drafted to properly sustain Penny’s reputation as a linchpin of sophisti-pop torch-bearing.

Likewise, Penny is a musical historian to her very core (a likely already obvious point, on account of her Jon Hassell name-drop), and she even goes as far as professing her in-the-van aux-cord skills while gigging. “I really am that type of person that likes obscure music and finding those hidden gems,” she says. “When we’re on tour with TOPS, I can DJ for six weeks straight and never play the same song. That quality I have—loving music so much—to me, really helps when you’re through a patch of insecurity or self-doubt. To be like, ‘Well, the reason I do this is because I love music, so it definitely doesn’t matter if I’m not good at it or like who I am.’ This is just what I love, and I think I grab on to that because some of the other aspects of me—in relation to music—are just a little bit more difficult to grasp.” Since she was a teenager, Penny has been seeking out music that she connects with that not only inspires her, but paves common ground between her and everyone else in her life. Everything from Brazilian music to French pop to Japanese ambient can be found in the architecture of Surfacing’s vibrant digitizations. Even if she’s not a fan of the heavy stuff, Penny will be the first to admit that she’s not immune to moshing and is drawn to the once-in-a-lifetime power of Ozzy Osbourne’s voice. “At the end of the day, there’s a certain musical world and palette and atmosphere that I’m constantly chasing,” she concludes.

With Surfacing now out in the world, Penny’s focuses have shifted to the impending string of shows she’s going to play to celebrate the EP’s release. When TOPS began, Penny was a keyboard player—until Cikojevic joined in 2017 and solidified the group—and it’s a world she’s eager to return to. “I am definitely excited to play keyboard on stage again, and I want it to be based as much on live music creation as possible,” Penny explains. “But, obviously, when I try to take that to the ultimate extreme, I’m like, ‘I don’t have enough hands to do this.’ I also decided that I really want to do the shows completely alone, initially, because I wanted to have that experience and feel that source energy of what I’m doing and what gives so much contrast to what I’ve done before. I’m terrified. I can’t play flute and keyboard at the same time. I’m just going to try and create an experience that’s interesting to people.”

To help prepare her for a string of gigs she has planned in Montreal, Los Angeles and New York, she’s been watching a lot of solo artists’ sets (both as happenstance and through seeking them out), like Laetitia Sadier of Stereogum, and trying to pull confidence through their own intimate performances. But Penny is level-headed about the whole ordeal, fully aware of how green she is on-stage while playing an entire album with her own hands and without her TOPS bandmates behind her. “I might be falling on my face a little bit with this stuff, because it’s really new,” she says. “The way I started making music and the way TOPS started—I didn’t know how to sing. I taught myself almost everything that I know, except for the flute, which I studied. But, otherwise, it’s been a big process of learning through mistakes. Hopefully it’ll be a fairly mistake-free experience, but I definitely think it’s a pretty special thing for people to see.”

By stripping down her set and doing, essentially, a one-woman show, Penny’s hopes are that she makes something that rebels against the current musical zeitgeist’s expectations of success being defined by the potential for virality. It’ll be a bare-bones set-up with a focus on the seven tracks (and likely the handful that were left on the cutting-room floor and will be, as Penny assures me, put out down the line in some capacity). “People listen to music with their eyes, and there’s so many aspects of the way that success is measured now, to me, which is just not how I evaluate the success of anything—creatively, or in my life. I just wanted to do something that is a bit oppositional to that,” she says. “What if it’s not a big production? What if it’s just about being in a room. What if it’s not about getting everyone out of their seat? What if it’s about actually just having a sonic experience that feels moving? That feels more like what’s important to me, how the comfort that I find in music feels like. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Surfacing will undoubtedly leave you wanting more from Penny—and I don’t mean that in a way that might suggest that the seven songs on the EP are unsatisfying. What I mean is, these songs are so light and infectious that you’ll be having dreams of the songs she left off the final cut. On “Beautiful Ordinary,” Penny conjures timeless, era-worn synth progenies that enlist touchstones of everything from the one-hit wonder pop of yesteryear to the U.S. Girls and Flight Facilities electronica of the modern age. Penny has a knack for the digital work that, for her, began as an isolation-induced exercise four years ago, as the music contrasts greatly with the man-made rock and pop sounds she and TOPS normally excavate. And then there’s “Messages,” the towering lead single that laments the complexities of history repeating itself and a desire for living in a time where we can take things for granted again. It’s a want for happiness without meaning, for a sugar-sweet affection set ablaze by a danceable fury. Surfacing is lit aglow from the jump and never dims, as Jane Penny solidifies herself, once-and-for-all, as one of the best pop minds we’ve got.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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