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Remi Wolf's rule-breaking pop pushes her closer to superstar status

"My music is where I'm able to release feelings and have fun with it," Wolf tells NPR. "I love for my shows to be a big party. So when I'm performing, if it's my release, I want it to be a release for other people."
Alma Rosaz
Courtesy of the artist
"My music is where I'm able to release feelings and have fun with it," Wolf tells NPR. "I love for my shows to be a big party. So when I'm performing, if it's my release, I want it to be a release for other people."

She used to be a junior Olympic ski racer. She was an American Idol contestant. And now she's a viral pop singer who has, on the strength of two EPs filled with a magnetic hybrid of elated funk and soulful pop, won over a score of fans (affectionately referred to as "Remjobs"), including diverse guitar-slinger elders like John Mayer, Nile Rodgers and Beck.

Remi Wolf lives life by throwing herself into various outlets of creative expression, and her music is no exception. In the past three years, she's pioneered a kaleidoscope sound by producing pop music haphazardly filled to the margins with distorted guitars, sharp, vulgar barbs that could double as Cardi B outtakes, and whimsical, chaotic beats. There's no wasted space in Wolf's music as she spills her guts about her feelings, translating hard emotions into absurd sounds. Until this point in her career, she's relied on instincts to dance between the boundaries of pop music, and every move, equal parts authentic and innovative, pushes Wolf closer to superstar status.

In 2020, Wolf hit the lottery with a viral TikTok hit, "Photo ID," the success of which was boosted with a remix featuring close friend and fellow Gen Z star Dominic Fike. Despite her overnight fame, the 25-year-old (Aquarius sun with the Leo rising and Cancer moon for those wondering) has long been putting in work. When she was 14, Wolf formed her first band with a friend, and describes its sound as a Simon and Garfunkel spin off consisting of guitar and harmonies. Initially named Remi and Chloe, the band grew to include drums and bass and rebranded as Remi, Chloe & The Extracts. Said expansion brought on Jared Solomon, who now produces under the name of solomonophonic; Wolf and Solomon have continued to collaborate over the past decade.

After graduating from USC Thornton School of Music in 2018, Wolf dropped her debut EP, 2019's You're A Dog!. The release of Wolf's sophomore EP, I'm Allergic To Dogs!, bolstered the Californian artist's beguiling persona — think outrageously earnest librarian meets seasoned but humble Broadway actress — and honed her ability to produce music in the sweet spot between reference and innovation. There's a compelling quality to her work that feels indescribable, one that you can spend hours trying to define and never will.

Remi Wolf, singer behind the viral Tik Tok hit, "Photo ID," and fan of outrageous hats.
Alma Rosaz / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Remi Wolf, singer behind the viral Tik Tok hit, "Photo ID," and fan of outrageous hats.

Wolf continues the momentum with Juno, her debut studio album out October 15. The album, named after the French bulldog she's allergic to but still adopted during the pandemic, celebrates the intimacy of self-acknowledgment and the love found within. Juno's lead single, a thrilling bolt of lightning titled "Liquor Store," finds Wolf confronting her post-rehab struggle with sobriety. Over a mid-tempo drum line, Wolf spits vague, avoidant lines, trying out different descriptors of self before shouting out a cathartic refrain: "'Cause I always want more walking into the liquor store." It's one in a collection of somber grooves that'll either get you loose on your feet or get stuck in your head. Or both at once, if you're lucky.

Wolf excels at the open-ended answer. Dialing in while walking the streets of New York before playing a show — a habit she practices regularly to recharge along with watching Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in hotel rooms — Wolf reflects with a considerate thoughtfulness. She's aloof yet captivating: Each response yields more threads of interest to follow until you've paused and realize you're lost in an unfamiliar, but vibrant, rabbit hole of an answer.

In our conversation, Wolf shares thoughts on the act of creation to release feelings, whether there's any rules left to break in pop music and Juno, a direct, liberating album full of her most self-aware music to date.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

LaTesha Harris: With Juno, you've added another installment in the dog universe. It comes on the heels of You're a Dog — an EP about the fanciful ideas of love — and I'm Allergic to Dogs — an EP where you realize love is a bit more complicated than expected. This album feels like a purposeful re-centering of self. Any thoughts on how this collection of music has helped you process the last couple of years?

Remi Wolf: Juno is maybe the most self-aware music I've written so far. It is a little bit more autonomous and introverted and thoughtful. During the pandemic, obviously, everybody had a lot of alone time, but on top of that I also ended up getting sober. With that level of forced clarity, I was forced to look at myself through a very sober lens. Nothing to distract except for my music. So it ended up being purely me at my most vulnerable. I was pretty raw nerves throughout the entire pandemic, so I was able to preserve my mental state in the music.

Obviously, your songs are fun, but pretty sad. What is it like to process those heavier parts of yourself — struggling with sobriety, anxiety, defense mechanisms — and turn them into danceable music?

It's the thing that gets me through it. In real life, there's times where I'm bouncing off the walls and s***, but I'm actually a pretty intense and serious person. My music is where I'm able to release these feelings and have fun with it. I love for my shows to be a big party. So when I'm performing, if it's my release, I want it to be a release for other people. And I think that's making them upbeat. Trying to sound really colorful and happy is the way that I know how to do that.

Going into the technicals of production, what feels essential to you in your music? What do you want to hear?

Harmonies are an absolute crucial part of my sound, which you can hear on every single song on this record: stacks and stacks and stacks of harmonies. Drums, bass, guitar, vocals, harmonies and my good songwriting [laughs]. In terms of actually building a song, you need a big hook. The way I approach songwriting is I want it to be hard for you to differentiate what the chorus is because every single part of the song is equally as catchy. That's very intentional on my part, and, luckily, I don't have issues creating catchy melodies. I don't know, I was just kind of blessed with that talent or something. I'm always trying to beat myself and beat my melodies and make sure I'm giving you the meatiest, most dynamic melody you can get.

I ask because it feels like you're at the forefront of turning pop music on its head and being like, "Hey, it doesn't have to be just this. It can be this huge, expansive thing." I'm wondering, what are the rules of pop as you understand them and how do you break them to create your music?

I've gotten this question a lot. I think it's interesting because I don't know. I'm literally just writing songs how I want to and what sounds good to me. I don't know the classic rules of pop. I'm just doing me and people have identified it as "breaking the rules of pop music," so I'm like, okay, cool! My lyrics are more out there and more expressive and I f*** with different song structures, I guess. On a technical level, maybe that's what is being broken? None of my songs follow the basic pop structure like verse, pre-chorus, chorus, repeat that, bridge, chorus, chorus at the end. But I don't go into my sessions intentionally trying to say, "Yo, I'm going to break the rules of pop today." I just go in and write a song [laughs]. And it so happened that people have thought that is breaking some type of mold which I'm grateful for. That's so sick, but I don't know [laughs].

Yeah, that makes sense. Your breakdowns are so intense, especially on "Buttermilk." It makes me wonder what your sonic points of references are.

I'm heavily influenced by a lot of different things. Going into this record we were listening to a lot of Beck. Carlos Santana. Nirvana. Limp Bizkit, weirdly, kind of as a joke [laugh]. I'm always kind of listening to Erykah Badu and Toro y Moi, which are unlikely references for me, but they're pretty huge. Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, all the classics. There's this band Cibo Matto that I listened to a lot. I think little bits of each sound or artist makes their way into my music in abstract ways.

I'm very instinctual. I follow my gut, like, with everything. If I like the sound, we'll use it, you know? I don't know why I'll like it, or whatever, but I'm really inspired by people's ideologies, how they go about making music, [more] than their actual sound. People who kind of follow a similar process to me, making s*** up as they go and being improvisational with it, I resonate with that type of music the most.

You have all these random sounds — glass breaking, dogs barking — in your music, and I feel like in addition to the rhythm section, and your vocals, another instrument you can distort and manipulate, you produce such vibrant and intense soundscapes in your songs. In the past, you described "Woo!" as an ADHD anthem, and I think that actually extends to a lot of your other tracks. It makes me wonder about the sonic map of your brain.

I do have ADD, and I definitely have a chaotic way of existing [laugh]. When I'm making songs, I'm all over the place. I try to get all of my ideas out as quickly as possible because I tend to lose them if I don't say them out loud or put them down immediately. Sometimes, I'll be like, "Jared, we need to do this right now!" and he'll be like, "Okay, slow down, like, f***," and then I'll be like, "F***, I'm sorry." And then I'll lose the ideas and be pissed. Honestly, it gets kind of intense and chaotic and sporadic. I don't think that a lot of people would want to be in the room [laughs].

In terms of the soundscape, especially with all those auxiliary noises like the dog barking and all that, that's a vocabulary that Jared and I have developed over the past three years. We use it as accents to the words I'm saying, almost like a call and response type of situation. We're just having fun and being playful.

I imagine that working with Jared for so long, you're very comfortable with the collaboration process and bouncing ideas off each other.

Yeah, very. I feel very spoiled sometimes because we have known each other for so long. And we have such a unique flow which allows us to work very quickly. We know what each other likes and it makes the process a lot more easy and fun. But also on the flip side, we've known each other for 10 years, so we're like a married couple and we like to bicker a lot [laughs].

As more young people enter the industry, especially with TikTok as a discovery goldmine, I feel like there's less space for bulls***. Gen Z has been raised with this self-assured nihilistic mindset that is drastically at odds with the industry's controlling mindset. Do you have any thoughts about the space you're carving out for autonomous musicians, especially as a young, female producer?

I mean, I am kind of doing whatever the f*** whenever I want. To my label, I've been like, "Okay, you guys are kind of gonna do what I want to do. Or else this isn't gonna fly." I was like that with them from the beginning. All the kids coming up now, they know that people resonate when they're being authentic. Hopefully I'm inspiring some of that a little bit because I am pretty myself all the time [laughs]. I hope that young girls are inspired to like go out there and, like, be a badass and be powerful and make good s***. Whatever they're doing, whether it be art or anything else, just like go out there and really tackle it. And just like, go off, b**** [laughs].

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LaTesha Harris is NPR Music's editorial assistant. A relentless jack-of-all-trades, she takes turns writing, editing and producing music coverage. Invested in the culture behind pop, hip-hop and R&B, her work highlights the intersection between identity and history. Once in a blue moon, Harris moonlights as a talking head with no filter.