“It’s the outsider artists that will change the direction of the industry,” FEMME says over the phone from a tour bus somewhere outside of Richmond, Virginia, reflecting on the pop world’s recent embrace of underground sounds and musicians. She would know, as she’s one of them — and the understudy of Charli XCX, who’s forged a path for alt-pop artists in the mainstream. The budding U.K. star, born Laura Bettinson, shares more than just Charli XCX’s DIY-rooted approach to electro-bubblegum. She also has a similar background to her current tourmate. — both started making music in their teen years. Bettison then attended art school in London, building a web of like-minded collaborators and trickling out gems like the ’60s-leaning “Fever Boy” and the angsty sing-along “Heartbeat.” Along the way, she also fronted Ultraísta, the experimental rock band helmed by longtime Radiohead engineer and Atoms for Peace member Nigel Godrich.
A few shows into the tour, we caught up with Bettinson to talk about surrounding herself by strong, likeminded artists, putting a premium on authenticity and her involvement in the fashion world.
1. Laura met Charli through Twitter.
It was the power of social media. She heard my last single “Fever Boy” and tweeted me to say she was a big fan of the tune and then we started talking about getting into the studio together. I hadn’t met her until the first show of the tour, a few days ago. We’d only spoken online. She was just super pumped to have us on the tour. We have Elliphant here as well and she’s another super strong female producer, writer and character. [Charli's] brilliant and really sweet so we’re having a good time.
2. At age 16, Laura started writing music.
Before that I’d only sung and been in school productions. It wasn’t until I moved to London at 18 that I started messing around with beats and production and making my own music in the studio. [Charli] comes from a similar background. She writes all of her tunes, and she writes for other people. Now, I think it’s about time that her solo music is getting the press it deserves. She’s doing great things for pop music.
3. Listening to her early songs makes her cringe.
They’re absolutely dire to be honest. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to the music I wrote as a kid because it would make me cringe. I started off doing piano and vocal stuff that’s a lot more singer-songwriter-y than what I’m doing now.
4. She’s grateful to have had time to perfect her work.
I think it was really important for me to have those years of experimenting and not having the pressure of being in the spotlight, press and having a fanbase. It’s very rare to find anybody who writes their own music that hasn’t had that period — I would be very shocked to find someone whose first song they wrote was a massive hit. It’s very different for pop stars that don’t write their own tunes because they just come out and sing someone else’s.
5. Her audience is made up of screaming teenagers and their parents.
I’m not writing with an agenda in mind but my music definitely has its own place and fanbase — I think that’s one thing that’s becoming more and more apparent as we do these shows. There’s a fanbase out there for every kind of music, you just have to find it. I think I’ve been really fortunate to be invited on this tour because it seems like Charli’s fans are reacting well to the music I’ve been playing every night. The audience has been full [of] screaming teenagers and their parents.
6. She’s surrounded by a tight-knit community of artists in the U.K.
I’m very fortunate to have been operating in my own world, surrounded by people who work in fashion, photography and music. I went to an art college in London called Goldsmiths, which is renowned for birthing very experimental people in fashion, art, and music. I’ve built a bubble around me of contemporaries that share a specific vision and attitude towards creating. It’s given me a lot of opportunity to think about who I am as an artist and how I want to present myself publicly.
7. An authentic public image is crucial for her.
I think it’s really important now. Because the process of making music for me is very visual, when I’m making the tunes I’ve already got the idea for the video in my head, which leads to artwork and how I’m going to present myself on stage. It’s a very intertwined process. I can’t really give that over to anyone else — at least not in the beginning. It’s important to me to have messed around with making my own press images and artwork because fans aren’t stupid. It has to be authentic. Once they start seeing holes in things, they lose interest.
8. FEMME has soundtracked Stella McCartney’s fashion shows.
I love the fashion world. They’re really fun. They have a good sense of humor. And they know how to throw a good party. I think the record industry is still figuring out how they’re going to make it work in the long-term. It’s the collaborations I did with Stella McCartney and Boohoo in the UK have enabled me to survive in music and I’d like to continue to be able to build relationships with up-and-coming designers and brands I like.
9. “Heartbeat” was inspired by boring, stale relationships.
“He wanted me for free/ But he can’t have me/ He can’t have me.” It’s about a relationship that’s too safe and too easy. Sometimes you need a little bit of danger. Actually, I think I’ve grown to appreciate the steadiness of a good relationship but when I wrote that song I was in a place of, “Why would you want that boring, stale relationship?” It’s the feeling of being trapped in something that’s too good to be true and wanting to purposely rebel against it.