Artist Spotlight: PVA

    PVA is the South London trio composed of Josh Baxter and Ella Harris, who share vocals and handle multiple instruments including synths, guitars, and production, as well as drummer and percussionist Louis Satchell. Having built a strong following as a live act in the Windmill scene thanks to their dynamic performances, the band released their first single, ‘Divine Intervention’, on Speedy Wunderground in 2019. They went on to work with label head Dan Carey on their debut EP, Toner, which landed a year later via Ninja Tune and earned a Grammy nomination for Mura Masa’s remix of ‘Talks’. They took their time to hone their craft during lockdown as they were assembling their debut LP, expanding their sound in ways that are playful, curious, and at times surprisingly introspective. Released last Friday, BLUSH is an exhilarating dance-punk record that infuses elements of acid, industrial, and lush electropop into the band’s blend of post-punk and techno. It throbs with anxiety and dances in euphoria as much as it takes the time to settle in a kind of in-between space, leading to moments of warmth and intimacy that resonate with a whole different kind of intensity.

    We caught up with PVA’s Josh Baxter for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the journey to the band’s debut album, their collaborative process, and more.

    You started out by pulling from a range of different styles under the dance music and post-punk umbrella. Going into your debut album, how much of a gradual process was it to try and refine your sound into a unified aesthetic?

    In the past, we’ve been quite aware how wide-reaching some of the music can be in terms of genre and style. It was something that was definitely in our minds, but I wouldn’t be able to say how we acted upon it necessarily. It was just something that we kind of positioned ourselves toward, we wanted to make this album to feel like a singular world and try to bring all of these opposing ideas together in a way that feels like it makes sense. But the whole process took such a long time. Some of the songs that we’ve been writing, we’ve had for almost three or four years. The majority of the songs were written maybe two or a year and a half ago and then were slowly developed. And I think because they were all slowly developed together, maybe if you listen to the original demos they would feel a lot more disparate. But as each iteration has taken place, they start to fall into this more singular sound world.

    Did the idea of an album also develop as you built out those early demos?

    Yeah, I think the album was kind of discovered as we were going through it. We had a few songs, like ‘Bunker’, for example, that’s the song that we’ve been playing for years, also ‘The Individual’. But most of the rest of them, as we went through the process they started to reveal themselves, and we would lean on certain things that had started to reveal themselves as ideas and motifs. Also, naturally in Ella’s lyricism, she has all these different motifs that she talks about quite unconsciously as well. Like, there’s a lot of lyrics about hands and feet and the body and that kind of thing. I feel like that’s something that also subconsciously has placed itself throughout the record.

    Were you conscious about how Ella’s writing fit with your own and the sound of the album in general? What was the dynamic there?

    The two songs that I perform, they’d been written already. ‘Bunker’ was one of the songs that I’d rewrite the lyrics every year or six months or something, and each time I wrote it’d be about something slightly different, so I think where it is at the moment is a combination of all of these different ideas. But there’s a lot of themes around masculinity and identity, and I think definitely for ‘Bunker’ leaning into that a bit more, especially the idea of how you view yourself, and viewing yourself as potentially a bad person as well, playing that character out in your head.

    With the music, I think most of the time they were very connected and we tried to write them simultaneously, where maybe I’d come up with a bass line or something and Ella would write a poem or adapt a piece of writing that she’d done to the song. Or vice versa, Ella would have these lyrics in her head and she’d kind of conduct me and Louie, like, “It needs to sound like this, it needs to feel like this.” And then me and Louie would figure out the best way to present that musically. That was cool, and that was something new that we hadn’t really tried before, Ella kind of conducting us and us following, because we wanted to have more of this intersection between the lyrics and the music.

    The thing about recorded music is that you kind of have to settle on a single iteration or statement, especially when it’s your debut album. Why did you decide to concentrate more of your energy on that side of your music, and was that a shift you ended up enjoying more than you anticipated?

    I think we’ve always had somewhat of an interest in recording music, but being from the scene where we’re from, the Windmill, it’s a very live-focused community. So I think by proxy, we were also very focused on playing live. But we’re also excited to explore where the recorded format could take us and how it might allow us to explore more. For example, ‘Transit’ and ‘Seven’, they were kind of written in the studio. ‘Transit’ a little bit in the rehearsal room live, but largely it was developed using the studio as a tool and using the studio as this canvas that you have something there and you’re like, “What does it need? What can we add, what can we take away?” And that was a kind of new way of working for us because we’ve always made stuff live. It was exciting, and it definitely yielded different results. I think especially with ‘Transit’ and ‘Seven’ and ‘Soap’, I think all three of those songs definitely surprised us after we’d made them. We didn’t necessarily think that these were sounds and ideas musically that we would necessarily make, but it also makes sense within the world of the music that we do make. It does feel like a natural progression, but not a progression that we expected.

    For me, that’s the most exciting part of working with Ella and Louis, is that we will make something and maybe it’ll be kind of cool or there’ll be something interesting about it. But over the course of like six months or whatever, we’ll just keep coming back to it and keep working on it, and it’ll go in these iterations and then just let the song take on a life of its own. And in doing that, you end up usually coming across things that you wouldn’t have expected to do or thought about making at the beginning of the process. It makes me really excited to make more music and think about album two.

    It feels like you really took advantage of the space of the longer format. Rather than just focusing on tension and release, there seems to be an emphasis on “the space in between,” as you sing in ‘Transit’.

    It’s interesting, because before the album, I feel like we had a tendency to make really long songs, like ‘Exhaust’ and ‘Sleek Form’, they’re all five, six, seven-minute long songs. So when we started writing stuff, we were like, maybe let’s try and think about not just always writing these five, six, seven-minute long things that just progress and build and build, and find these moments like ‘Hero Man’ or ‘Bad Dad’, for example, where they feel more like traditional song structures. But then we have this other side of it where, I guess ‘Bunker’ is an example, where it kind of sounds like a single but it’s five and a half minutes long, so it’s definitely not single-length. But ‘Transit’ was one of the ones that came together just before the very end. We had that end section, that massive, overbearing riff, but then we couldn’t quite figure out the beginning half. We had all these different versions of it, these different lyrics, and something just wasn’t quite hitting about it.

    When we started, Ella was talking about this idea of the space between and liminal space, these moments of being in between one state of being and another state of being, whether you’re going through some emotional journey or physical journey, and trying to think about that in-between point where you cross over. We really wanted to try and highlight that idea of there being two halves and this journey through it. We went home a few days before we were gonna record, and I just played these chords on my computer and brought them in the next day. I think that definitely there was an excitement and confidence in like, Whoa, I don’t think any of us expected to make something like this. I think it’s also my favourite song on the record as well. I had the most fun making it.

    You explore these themes that are kind of common in the genre, like masculinity, escape, and euphoria, but you’re more deliberate in weaving a narrative out of them. Did you make a conscious effort to tie them together throughout the album?

    Yeah, definitely in the process of making the tracklisting, for example, and the mixing and the production elements, we were definitely thinking about how these songs couple up and fit together. It’s interesting, Ella’s lyricism is so colourful and has all of this imagery in it, you can kind of weave any kind of narrative you want from it. You can really take what you want from it. There wasn’t a distinct narrative at the beginning that this is what we want to say, but a lot of the songs are about and you can definitely get that sense that you’re constantly in between this moment of feeling like you’re free and feel this joyousness or that you’ve overcome something, and then these other moments of being pulled or feeling like you’re being overborne by whatever troubling.

    For me, ‘Transit’ is definitely a tipping point on the record. I always have this imagery when it goes to the second part of Ella wading through this thick sludge of a swamp or something, this sense of madness setting in, and by the end of it’s like you’ve accepted wherever has happened. And then you get ‘Seven’, which is almost like the relief of accepting what has happened, so you get this kind of love story at the end.

    The sort of euphoria the album starts off with is different from the one you embrace at the end with ‘Soap’, which is a more grounded sense of joy. Do you feel like that journey reflects the growth you’ve experienced in your own lives?

    Definitely over the last few years have found more of a grounded euphoria, but then also, I think like everything, it’s a constant journey. For me, it definitely comes in waves. You have moments where you feel more grounded, but there’s other moments where you really don’t. You know, life has a way of throwing various different things at you and making things difficult. I think you’re right, though, with the album, that was definitely somewhat of a conscious thing to try and have this more positive finish to the record. We were talking about the different ways that we could finish it, and ‘Transit’ was definitely a song that we spoke about could end and could also start the record. But I think in the end, we wanted the last thing that you feel after listening to it is potentially this more grounded joy, kind of like everything has come together and is in its place. The first three-quarters of the record, there’s this very kind of manic explosion of joy or fear or anger, and I think with the last three songs, there’s this acceptance of all of these tumultuous feelings and energies kicking around all the time – accepting that that is a part of who you are and a part of life, and then having this settling back down to being hopefully more centred. But it’s also maybe somewhat wishful thinking, more of a goal.

    Can you share one thing that inspires you about the rest of the group?

    Yeah, it’s kinda hard to put into words. With Louis, his knowledge of music is vast and he’s so talented and he’s always trying to bring like different ideas into how we make music. Especially with songwriting, we’ll make something and he’ll have such a good eye to shape it and form it into something that feels like an actual song instead of just these crazy sounds. Ella’s super inspiring for so many reasons. Her lyricism is so special, and also what’s exciting on this record is that she was starting to really push her voice in different ways and trying to explore different melodic vocal ideas, really exploring what her voice is capable of. But she’s also just a really inspiring person because she works so hard to work on her craft and herself. It’s really inspiring to see someone take that much time and effort to really work on who they are, and it’s definitely inspired me to take more time and care and introspection and try to work on myself, so that I can be a better person for the people I work with and for my friends and my family. It’s really inspiring to have someone like that as a friend and colleague.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    PVA’s BLUSH is out now via Ninja Tune.

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