Jane Penny Of TOPS On Their New Album & L.A. Living

“I learned about astrology and these less institutional forms of knowing things”

by Noah Jackson

With their first two records, Montreal-based indie poppers TOPS established themselves as one of Canada’s most consistent musical exports, marrying evocative lyrics with infectious guitar lines and tender synths. On their third album, Sugar at the Gate (out Friday), the four-piece don’t deviate too far from their soft rock stylings, but they’ve definitely shaken up the template. The opener, “Cloudy Skies,” builds slowly over a skeletal backbone of plucked guitar and drums, while the second single, “Dayglow Bimbo,” sees lead singer Jane Penny croon over a shoegaze-like wall of fuzz, the hardest sound this velvety group has ever produced. It’s no wonder the album has a unique genesis; TOPS ended up living in a former brothel in suburban Los Angeles while they wrote and recorded it. We sat down with Penny to discuss the record’s atypical recording process, adapting to L.A. living, and what it’s like being a Capricorn in a band.

How did you end up at the ex-brothel?

We heard from some people in the neighborhood that there used to be a massage business running out of there, which is kinda strange because it’s also just a house. We knew we wanted to spend some time in L.A. to record the record, so Riley, our drummer, went out and just found the house. It was very satin wall paper-y, and there were these Grecian tableaux on the borders and weird silver and gold paint everywhere. It’s kind of strange to be in that context with your band writing an album.

Do you feel the space impacted how you guys wrote songs?

I think that the main effect of living in the house was just that we were constantly together, so we ended up working on it a lot over the course of the year. It’s also pretty cool to explore a new city and be already living with a lot of your closest friends.

What were your favorite discoveries in L.A.?

I really like a lot of the women that I met there. It can be very challenging in a place like Los Angeles where it’s so commercialized and commodified. But then what you get is these really interesting, more emotional, philosophical approaches to life from a lot of women that I met. There’s a whole different consciousness about health there. I feel like the women that I met there made the strongest impression on me because of the perspectives that they developed and their interests. I learned about astrology and these less institutional forms of knowing things. 

What’s your sign?

I’m a Capricorn, Gemini moon. I’m definitely a little bit authoritarian sometimes. I can definitely fall into that, but I don’t think I’m a classic Capricorn just because I have so much Gemini, so I’m like high-strung and weird. I don't think I have it as together as most Capricorns would.

Did that authoritarian streak manifest during recording?

In a weird way, I guess the band really trusts me now. I feel like more than ever, they just allow me to do what I want. We’ve always been consensus-based, but I think they see the value in me expressing myself, versus just like any guy. 

You and [guitarist] David Carriere share songwriting duties. What makes a Jane song different from a David song?

My songs tend to me a little bit more personal, and I know I draw from my life a lot. I think there’s something about having perspective when you're a woman. I think that comes across on “Cutlass Cruiser” and “Dayglow Bimbo.” I don’t think either of those songs is a song that a guy would write. But then David also is very sensitive to things, and he has some interesting philosophical perspectives that I think come out. There’s a song “Hour Between” that he wrote, and it has one of my favorite lyrics in it: “No one lays beside you in the hours between, the pictures start rolling on the picture screen.” And then it’s like, “The feminine side of every tomboy tries to hide when the man inside you starts to cry.” I just think those are really good. 

On this album, the TOPS sound is arguably at its most varied and diverse. What inspired you to play around with the tried-and-true formula of your previous records?

In 2015, we played 100 shows, so I think that had a big impact on my singing and understanding of how to communicate things. I also feel like playing live so much taught us what we can do as a band together, which I feel like comes across on songs like “Dayglow.” It also showed us that we don’t want to be just a middle-of-the-road band and just record ourselves playing whatever comes to mind. David and I are really interested in being producers, so there are songs like “Topless” or “Cloudy Skies,” where I feel like we were really influenced by all of the music that we like, which isn't necessarily even band-originated. We were listening to a lot of ’90s R&B instrumentals and stuff, to try and get that space and minimalism that TOPS is known for, but outside of a genre that people would expect. 

You recently put out a video for “Petals,” which featured numerous celebrity impersonators. How did you pick the celebrities?

I feel like Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Dolly Parton are just so iconic and kind of like my heroes too, so we just did that. There aren’t any new impersonators, which I think is interesting. I wanted to explore the idea of these cultural icons and this nostalgic relationship that we have with pop culture from years and years ago, like before the '90s. Shania Twain was a fun call because she’s Canadian. David loves her. I feel like I don’t usually try to make things that are fun, but the song is fun, and it really came from playing live shows and wanting to do something that people would enjoy, so it kind of ended up being just me creating my own weird fantasy world. 

If you were going to impersonate any artist or musician, who would you impersonate?

Cher from the disco era would be really fun, just because of all the clothes and makeup and stuff. That would be crazy. But I don’t know. Siouxsie Sioux or someone like that would be super fun because I feel like the way she performs is so strange and kind of physical. Maybe if I were to do a cover band, it would be Siouxsie Sioux. But if I was just gonna get all the clothes, Cher. Definitely.