Berlin based Janine Ronstron aka Planningtorock is the first female artist ever to release a solo LP on DFA records (“W” is out now) and has created quite a hype around herself with her releases “Doorway” and “The Breaks” recently – especially because of the irritating, transgressive visuals that accompanied them. It’s been a while that a pop artist has played so effectively with gender roles and concepts of identity in such a straight, puristic way I think, this is why I was quite happy when the German music magazine Intro asked me to interview her a couple of weeks ago (The issue with the text was published a couple of days ago). This is the transcript of the conversation, in which Janine talks about her approach to “extent herself” as a (feminist) artist on different levels and gives a little insight on the origins of her new nose drag appearance.
Janine, as part of your artistical work you’ve always been wearing masks and playing with concepts of identity. At the samt time this new “character” you’ve created as part of your new record seems to hide yourself less than before. Like you’re being someone else and yourself at the same time. Was this part of the conecpt.
Kind of. It’s an evolution from the masks and the helmets, because for me they were always like extensions and adding. But I didn’t want to do that this time, I didn’t want to repeat myself. I thought it was interesting to push this side more.
But it’s still some sort of an extension.
Yeah, absolutely. There’s this term in English – “augmented”. It means that you maximize something, add something and by that disturb or disjoint reality, but it’s still reality. This is what I wanted to do. Also, I’m not the kind of person that feels a “the real me” kind of thing, there’s no “real me”, and that’s what it is about.
It’s also very interesting from a gender perspective. I wouldn’t have expected that changing the nose and the brow would make such a difference, would make a person seem so androgynous…
Yeah, the brow is very telling and that’s also something I was interested in, to play around with the female gender. There are a lots of levels to it, like how women use their image or are asked to use their image. Or this notion of beautiful and not beautiful. Also I wanted to create a powerful person and asked myself how to do that. But I definitely liked this androgyny a lot, and there’s also a lot of playing around with the gender feeling it on the record.
How did you develop this “character”?
For the press shots just didn’t really know what to do, I just knew I didn’t want the helmets. So we were in this theater make up store and we bought some putty and just thought we’d stick it in my face. The result was really interesting, so we just started doing more and more and experimented with it. It was really taking it of, putting it on and trying to make it look interesting until it felt right for the music and for the record and for what I’m doing in the sonics and stuff.
How does this idea of playing with gender roles translate into the music? You played around with your voice on a lot of the songs, made it deeper for example…
Yeah, some of the songs are sung really deep, like I think on “Number 9”, which doesn’t have any effects on it. On other songs like “Doorway” or “The One” the voice is changed and pitched a bit. This was really to intensify something, to push the emotion that’s already there a little bit further. And to play around with the question “who’s singing it, who is it?”. For me this is really nice because I become strange to myself and then it’s like it sings back to me, which is really fun. And I’m not precious about my voice, I like great voices but ultimately it’s a really great instrument and that’s more what I’m interested in using it as. This “real” or pure voice is not very exciting for me.
So would you say your music is not about personal expression in the end? I mean the lyrics for example seem very personal to me.
It’s both. I mean it’s all kind of personal, but I’m not the kind of lyricist for example who would just write an entire story and sum everything up. And some of the songs are really about things that have happened or are happening that I’m also not sure about. So they have a certain openness for me, too.
You have a set of instruments you used on a lot of songs on the album, there’s the saxophone, there’s the pizzicato violin, there are certain synths that reappear. Seems like you use these sounds as consciously as all the other aspects of your work…
Yeah, the saxophone for example, it has a lot of attitude and is a little bit aggressive in a way, but it’s also kind of embarrassing, comical, and I love the tension of it. And the strings, they just punctuate really nicely, and pizzicato strings have always carried a really strong overemotional vibe for me.
And you recorded it all by yourself?
Yes, the songs are mostly recorded by myself, I did record some of the percussion with my Icelandic friend Hjörleifur Jónsson, he played, I recorded it and I made arrangements out of this. Also I did some recordings with Pat Mahoney from DFA for “Living It Out”. The concept with the percussion was really fun, because I had never recorded someone play an instrument before and gone this whole acoustic route. At the same time I wasn’t really interested in using percussing in a “cultural” sense or anything like that, to use rhythms that remind you of something. I wanted to make something that I didn’t really know.
Did your collaboration with The Knife for the opera project “Tomorrow, in a year” somehow influence your production? The way you pitched your voice sometimes reminds me a bit of how Karin Dreijer Andersson is using her voice.
When we started working on it, I was already working with Hjörleifur on the percussion for the album. I thought this would be great for the opera. So there is link here, but the album was already in the process of being finished. I think with the voice it really just came from experimenting a lot after the first album, playing around with helium for example, or if you’re touring and you’re very ill you have this very different voice and I just played with that live. Then I bought this piece of gear called VoiceLive and it has all these different voices on it and I started to mess around with it. So it wasn’t really connected to what The Knife do.
Why is it so important to reinvent yourself as an artist all the time?
I wouldn’t use the word “reinventing”, it’s more about how to represent the music that I’ve made, about finding a visual way to communicate on top of the music. That’s more the approach I have. Also, I work really slow, because I do so much myself also with the visuals, and it’s all very interwoven and it takes a lot of time. Everything that is now released has been growing for quite a while, so it’s not really a reinvention but more the growth of what I’m doing. It’s my own artistic world, my own little ship and it just grows like this. It’s not like with Madonna or Lady Gaga where it’s a marketing concept, which is something I don’t like at all, this sort of aggressive marketing.
In which ways would you describe what you’re doing with the new album and the visuals as part of a feminist approach?
I think what I try to suggest is a different femininity. It’s not about trying to be a man or a woman, it’s actually trying to be really something else, it’s very subtle and I don’t know it yet, either. That was what made it so exciting when we started to play around with the putty, to create something that we all could relate to, but it’s not either or. But I’m also trying to explore feminist theory through music and sound. I’ve never been interested in writing literal lyrics about stuff like that, I find words impossible, I think my lyrics are okay, but I find it very hard because I very quickly get trapped by them and bored. But I really think about how to make feminist sonics for example, how to make feminist music. I’m really interested in expanding the limits that we have on notions of who we are, how we are defined. Because there’s so much more to it, beyond things like gender. I don’t want to get cheesy, but it’s really exciting for me and it makes me happy, makes my live happy that I feel, okay, I’m kind of learning something here.
“W” by Planningtorock is out now, you can steam it via DFA. The picture on top is taken from a Planningtorock feature in Style and the Family Tunes – photographer: Goodyn Green, concept: Planningtorock. You find the whole shooting on the official Planningtorock tumblr.