Music rarely moves me to tears but there are two tracks on the new album by Planningtorock that hit like an emotional sledgehammer. Both are candid tracks relating to childhood and family life that push very different buttons.
They contribute towards a unique and stunning piece of work – Powerhouse – that deserves to be recognized as one of the very finest albums of 2018.
Until a few weeks ago, I was unfamiliar with Planningtorock: the band name for British musician Jam Rostron. This is despite the fact they produce exactly the sort of work that pricks my ears: minimal electro-flavoured dance tunes with a queer bent.
Powerhouse is their fourth album after something of a hiatus. Planningtorock’s debut, Have It All came out in 2006 They then signed to the DFA label to release W in 2011, followed by All Love’s Legal in 2014. The latter caught attention with unflinchingly political song titles: Let’s Talk About Gender Baby; Misogyny Drop Dead; and Patriarchy Over & Out.
In an interview via Skype from Berlin (where they have lived since 2000), Rostron tells me they began to identify as qenderqueer around 2010, and as non-binary around the release of All Love’s Legal. Rostron’s identity – and the way the wider world reacts to it – has clearly influenced their work and lyrics.
Powerhouse’s lead track, Transome, released late August, put them on my radar.
The song is a celebration of the non-binary: ‘With my body all femme, and my face all masc … Baby I want you to know, that I feel transome,’ Rostron sings in a low-pitched and manipulated vocal that they have made their own.
Rostom recently revealed on Instagram they had began to take testosterone.
‘I started what I call a non-linear transitioning, as a non-binary, genderqueer person, and yeah, I started to take testosterone. It’s really quite a personal trip, step by step. It’s very … it feels great and it’s also very complex at the same time.’
New single, Much To Touch, ambiguously explores self-expression and pushing at boundaries. ‘Let me know what’s too much for you, and I’ll give you some more,’ they sing over a lo-fi but warm and funky dance beat.
A video, directed by Planningtorock, featuring Finnish dancer Maija Karhunen, was released today.
Vocal style and pitching
Rostron began experimenting with their voice around the release of W. A press release for Powerhouse talks about their style of pitching as, ‘the sonic embodiment of taking T (testosterone)’. On opening song, Wounds, Rostron veers into Cher-vocoder territory, but assures me that it’s a process of discovering a voice that felt like their own.
‘The process of me writing music, making these records, it’s become really clear now, it’s a way of me getting to know and understand myself.
‘I have this technique where I would sing higher than the track would require. Then I would pitch that recording down. So I wouldn’t use gear, I’d just sing higher and bring it down to fit the song.
‘I was basically messing around doing that one night [in the studio], and then what really happened for me, once I heard my voice, at this particular pitch, which I’ve kind of consistently used since, and it was phenomenal for me.
‘I think the first track I really did it on was the track Doorway [on W]. It was like I really heard myself, found myself, found my voice quite literally.’
They continued the vocal technique on All Love’s Legal, but take it even further with Powerhouse.
‘I feel very safe with that voice. I connect with that voice. It wasn’t immediate, but it was a slow kind of understanding of what that actually meant on a deeper, personal level.’
Growing up in Bolton
There’s only one track on the album where Rostron allows their regular talking voice to feature. Beulah Loves Dancing is a joyous, largely spoken monologue in which Rostron talks about their teenage years in the 1980s, and how their sister, Beulah, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, loved dancing to cassette tapes of house music in their small home in Bolton, Northern England.
‘That track is so much about my childhood, it’s so connected to Bolton and where I’m from, and my family, it just felt really wrong not to speak with the dialect that I’m from.
‘Actually, at first it grated with me. In the same way most people feel when they first hear their voice. They think, “Shit, is that the way I sound?”.
‘But now, I’ve heard that song so many times, I have a massive affection for it and I understand clearly why I had to speak it with my northern voice.’
Other songs are even more personal. Dear Brother, the album’s third track, plunges the listener into darker territory.
‘I was five years old, my mum was sick, our dad was away, and my sister couldn’t speak,’ sings Rostron. ‘Dear brother … what did you do to me? Oh, I was five years old, just five years old.’
Rarely has the subject of child sexual abuse, from the victim’s viewpoint, been tackled so head-on in a song. It’s a powerful track, made all the stronger by the use of lyrical repetition. It burns into your brain.
Rostron, understandably, doesn’t wish to be drawn on further details. However, I feel the need to tentatively enquire: Is their brother still alive?
‘He’s not. Let me also say one thing. Writing this track was huge. I felt really vulnerable, but writing this track, it becomes really clear to me it was a way for me to heal from this experience. Also, to somehow push out into the world that this happened and for me to stop having to hide. And that was also within my own private sphere as well.
‘So I’ve also decided I won’t perform this song. It doesn’t need to be performed or even talked about. It’s on the record. It speaks very clearly for itself. But I will answer your question about my brother, because he died a year and a half ago, so that was kind of also part of the instigator of writing the song.
Two weeks ago, Rostron felt moved to release the track early on iTunes, after hearing Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings.
In an Instagram posting, Rostron explained: ‘It has taken me 42 years to be able to finally speak about what happened to me and it was painful, frightening and almost broke me. The fear that no one would believe me, the trauma of relaying the nightmare that I’d hidden and carried inside myself for all these years again almost broke me.
‘Even the people closest to me found it hard to cope with my fear and vulnerability during this time.
‘We must support survivors of sexual abuse.’
Rostron tells me they’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the track.
‘Huge support. And also a lot of people writing me, personally, about their own experiences. Again, it’s amazing to get that support. It’s also very important to share, because the more we share these stories in society, the more it creates a visibility. It helps people not to feel so alone, because abuse of that kind is so lonely.
‘The trauma is so lonely and isolating. It’s so important that we share.’
The other track that doesn’t fail to move is the title track, which brings the album to a close. Powerhouse is another candid offering, but this time it’s an anthemic ode to Rostron’s mother.
‘I watched how music moved you, it was a big part of your life. And knew music was my way out, a place to learn, understand my life … Oh mother, you’re our powerhouse,’ sings Rostron over soaring synths that only the coldest of hearts could fail to be moved by.
‘She’s basically the powerhouse of the record,’ say Rostron of her mom. ‘That’s the last track that I wrote. It was the hardest track to write, to pin down and express my love and adoration for my mum, because there’s so many things that she’s done for me, for the family, for my sister. She’s the powerhouse, for sure.’