Moving to LA and holing up in a house for a year wasn’t the usual recipe for making a TOPS record. “We really labored over it a lot,” singer and multi-instrumentalist Jane Penny tells Apple Music of 2017’s melancholic Sugar at the Gate. But things changed quite a bit for I Feel Alive, the indie-pop band's fourth LP. Back in their hometown of Montreal, with keyboardist Marta Cikojevic added to the lineup, and with their California-based drummer Riley Fleck traveling in to record, “we really had to be very focused and do a lot in a short period of time,” says Penny. “It kept everything feeling a little more vital throughout the whole process, because there was just enough pressure to make things happen quickly—or to not overthink it.” The other big change was that between albums, the group's principal songwriters, Penny and guitarist David Carriere, ended their relationship, which they’d been in since their early twenties. But that doesn’t mean I Feel Alive is a breakup record. “It's more that after a certain amount of time has passed from something like that, you actually have time to reflect on those situations and your feelings,” says Penny. The explorations of post-breakup emotions, womanhood, intimacy, and the thrill of new relationships that make up I Feel Alive are nicely complemented by the silky, ’70s AM Gold sound that TOPS has been honing over the last decade. Here Penny goes deeper into the album’s themes as she deconstructs each of its songs.
Direct Sunlight "I originally wrote it about somebody that's cheating on someone else, but then I thought it was too negative. There's a certain sourness in some types of songs that, when you write them, especially when you change the way you feel in a lot of situations, it makes you want to change the sentiment of the song. But this idea of 'You play shadow games/I play with the light,’ it's that people can be kind of dark, or that there's some kind of darkness—and playing music is a way of recuperating all of the negativity in your life. I think that's why, like at the bridge, it goes into this flute solo. To me, playing flute has always been the thing that brought me the most joy."
I Feel Alive "'I Feel Alive' is really about being in love, but it's also about feeling alienated after falling in love with somebody that maybe doesn't make sense in terms of what your current social circle expects from you, or what people think you should be doing. I wrote it about being really in love with my partner, but then it was also after coming back to Montreal. It's a city with a pretty tight-knit community, and I feel like that can be a really big positive, and it can also be a fishbowl that you want to escape. But definitely, the idea of 'I Feel Alive'—it's supposed to be about when emotion overtakes you."
Pirouette "David wrote this. He has a lot of really pop songwriting sensibilities, and he’s very hook-oriented. He’s the one of us that comes up with 'Silhouette, pirouette...I'm going to make a song out of these cool-sounding words.' The idea is it’s a stranger speaking to you. To me, it brought me back to being thrown into social situations and feeling alienated by them. It's just such an uncomfortable time in one's life, when you're still not over the person that you were with, but you still need something new, and you're seeking out anything. It has a little bit of attitude, like, ‘Bitch, please'—I never say stuff like that. 'The enemy at war' is the whole idea that you felt trapped in this situation before, and now you're trying to find freedom, but freedom comes with a certain amount of alienation and strangeness."
Ballads & Sad Movies “When David showed this to me, it had an Elton John-y quality to it, a schmaltzy power-ballad kind of thing that I really love. We spent a long time getting the voicing of the chords right, and making it as sparse as possible. I feel like the meaning of that song—it's really all out there. There's nothing hidden. But I think that what it does say is really beautiful—that you feel bad because the relationship's over, but then you're also really glad to have met that person. I feel like the emotional nugget of that song is ‘If I didn't know you back then, I'd be different, but I don't know you now, and I don't know when I will again.’"
Colder & Closer "David had the 'colder and closer' hook, which I loved and was like, ‘This is such a sick idea for a song.’ It just had the idea of intimacy or closeness, emotional prescience, as being a cold, brittle thing—that gave me a lot to think about. All the stanzas are about different things. That's something I often like to do is to expand on a certain core meaning, but still have a multiplicity of different things that are expressed within one song. Then it coalesces in this idea that regardless of how you try to fill a void, or how you try to understand your behavior, everything that you do, 'all the lovers that you left behind,' everyone that you ever touch—they live with you and you live with them as these different ghosts. It's rethinking intimacy and alienation as being two sides of the same coin."
Witching Hour "The witching hour—it's a time of day, but to me, I took it as more of a reckoning, and it made me meditate a lot on my experience of womanhood and my career. When we started making music, I came up against so many assumptions that it was either impossible for women to be taken seriously in music, or that it was impossible for women to have any kind of longevity in their career, and basically being in so many situations when the only women around me that I ever even interacted with were girlfriends or on the sidelines of things. I feel like it's changed a lot. I was reflecting on this time, and how certain experiences of being sexualized, or feeling like you should be sexualized, can be so insidious and dig into your unconscious. I got into this idea of actual dreams, writing words in a way that they would feel the way that nightmares twist the meaning of each word into another thing. 'String along/Pearls around her neck/Serpent they've become/Choking every breath.' It's trying to conjure this magical nightmarish thing that happens in our psyches. The line about 'I bite my tongue' is also how I feel like I have often silenced myself, or I felt this pressure to not be overly righteous as you navigate certain worlds. Also, 'Boy's pride/Vanishing under the spotlight/Many sides, surface and ignite’—that was a reference to seeing and being surrounded by all these men whose power had been so unquestioned in music, and all these musicians and stuff that were now running scared in the midst of the conversations that were happening. Often not even necessarily guilty of anything, but just feeling actually like they have to defend themselves, or like they were questioning themselves for the very first time, and being like, ‘Oh my god.’"
Take Down "It's about the idea of not when you've broken up with somebody, but when you realize that you're in a better place—that you get a certain kind of clarity, and the whole situation that led to things falling apart comes into focus. You realize that it could've been very obvious that it was happening at the time, but you were too emotionally invested. The record wasn't made in the midst of a breakup, but I think there are a lot of reflections on that that maybe neither of us were capable of having right in the moment, and needed some time to come out. Also, I think songs like 'Colder & Closer' and ‘Pirouette' are definitely about the experience of when you get out of a really intense relationship, and you're entering into this world of casual intimacy, and searching more for somebody—that ‘after’ period."
Drowning in Paradise "I feel like we wrote that song basically for fun. We wrote this beginning intro part—there's this weird time signature—and it was this classic thing of where you get a bunch of musicians together and then you get stuck on this ‘What if it was alternating bars of four and seven, or four and five?’ Then when we were doing the production, it was one of the last songs to have any words at all, and it got to the point where it just didn't, but I loved the energy of the way it sounded, so we just threw some words together. I love French spoken word. My French is not very good, but it just seemed like a fun thing to do. The French part is a little bit more angsty. It's about not leaving the couch and you only get up to wash occasionally. But it's the idea of being so in love with somebody that you're just taken over and drowning in paradise."
OK Fine Whatever “‘In the right dress, head tilted looking back.' I wanted to describe celebrity photos of someone, or a wedding photograph or something—women all dolled up. ‘Hand is on your shoulder’—it's about having a man in your life, or being in a situation of needing somebody. It’s kind of like an imaginary story in my head, this idea of displaying perfection or status or material things, but it kind of doesn't matter so much. It’s about a certain type of female-male relationship that I've never had—I don't think David's had either—but we were inspired to write a song about it.”
Looking to Remember "It's a song about talking to myself, but also written for other people. Over time, you have these periods of losing faith in yourself and feeling like the circumstances you're in are out of your control. So it's like a reminder that everything you do, you can choose what you want to do. You can choose who you are. When I wrote it, I made it as if I'm talking to a friend. But I think it's something that I need to hear just as much as everyone else. It's kind of like, ‘Take a look in the mirror. It's on you, man. Suck it up. You need to remember that you're in control of your own life.’"
Too Much "I feel like nowadays we live in this age where everybody wants everything to be like spilling-out-your-heart sincere and real. But when you write a lot of songs, it can be really fun also. We just had a lot of fun with this. David came up with this idea of 'too much,' and then doing this 'too much, too much, too much' and having it echo all the time. And just everything is too much 'too much,’ you know? We really tried to write—I guess maybe the way that R&B songs sometimes do this—with just lots of illuminating the same concept over and over again in different dimensions. And then it also has this Janet Jackson 'That's the Way Love Goes’ vibe."