Remi Wolf is casually rewriting the rules of pop music

By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

Published
Image source, Alma Rosaz
Image caption,
Remi Wolf: "Everything is genreless nowadays"

Remi Wolf's music bursts out of your speakers like a party popper.

Playful and exuberant, her songs stretch the elastic boundaries of pop before snapping back for a killer chorus.

The squiggly riffs and infectious hooks echo the music she was raised on - Hall & Oates, David Byrne, Deee-Lite, Prince. And like the Purple genius, she's not afraid to pitch-shift her voice, or sing about the pneumatic realities of sex.

Elsewhere, though, her lyrics reference everyone from Brad and Angelina to UFC fighter Conor McGregor, while joking about Pilates classes, fast food orgies, and "hot potato pain". Whatever that is.

It can be lot to take in, for sure, but the 25-year-old Californian achieves something few artists manage - creating a sound that is distinctly, unmistakably her own.

At the end of last year, her album Juno was named as one of the year's best by everyone from USA Today ("the most exciting debut of the year") to the NME (""(Wolf rewrote the rules of pop music without even thinking about it") - and the singer is overwhelmed by the praise.

"I mean, it's my music and my voice and I know that it's definitely unique to me - but it's crazy that people view it as something special. It makes me feel really good."

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

But whatever you do, don't call it bedroom pop.

"That's a weird term," she says. "I don't really know what it means, other than you didn't make your music in a big expensive studio - and right now, probably 70% of music is made by people in their home studio or an Airbnb or something.

"So I think maybe we're beyond the bedroom pop label at this point. Everything's pretty genreless nowadays."

Born and raised in San Jose, Wolf was originally supposed to be a downhill skier, training in Lake Tahoe from the time she was a toddler.

"I was pretty good!" she recalls. "I ended up going to the Junior Olympics twice, but I don't think I was ever good enough to make the [adult] US Olympic team - so I decided to pursue music more full time."

Initially, that meant forming a high-school band with her friend Chloe Zilliac called (what else?) Remi and Chloe; and auditioning for American Idol at the insistence of her voice coach. She made the show's top 150 in 2014, after singing Let's Get It On to Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr, but flunked out at the Hollywood stage.

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

Soon afterwards, Wolf's music teacher set her up with another one of his pupils, a young multi-instrumentalist named Jared Solomon. Thrown into a classroom, they were told to work on a cover of The Zutons' Valerie, with Solomon on guitar and Wolf on vocals.

"After we played it once, we were both like, 'Okay, you're pretty good'," she recalls.

Solomon ended up joining Remi and Chloe's backing band, offering his parents' basement as a rehearsal space. Today, Wolf still writes all her music with him.

"We really trust each other," she says, "and I think that gives us a freedom musically that it's hard to access sometimes with other people. We can do anything we want to."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The singer's concerts are as colourful as her music

After a break to study music at the University of Southern California, Wolf dropped her debut EP, You're A Dog!, in 2019.

A quantum experiment in pop creativity, it showcased both her musical range and an offbeat sense of humour. On one track, she informs a lover: "I'd literally pee outside for you on Hollywood Boulevard."

"I'm very free associative," she says of her writing process. "I let my brain run and try to imagine how I feel in images, which is why a lot of my lyrics sound a bit abstract. I just trust what my mouth wants to say before I let my critical brain tarnish anything."

Wolf funded and released the You're A Dog EP herself, relying on work as a child-minder to fund her creativity. At least, that was the intention.

"I did a lot of nannying and I wasn't very good. I would cancel all the time to make music - which obviously wasn't a sustainable business model for me."

Luckily, Island Records stepped in and signed her after a brief run of shows in New York. She insisted on retaining her autonomy, aware that a big corporation might try to tame her more eccentric impulses.

"It was a big leap on my part, as well as the label's, to go along with all these ideas," she later reflected, "but it's working".

In 2020, Wolf hit the lottery when the vibey Photo ID went viral on TikTok. The song gained further momentum thanks to a remix featuring her friend and fellow pop alchemist, Dominic Fike.

But behind the scenes, the singer was struggling with alcohol and substance abuse.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The singer says she's been sober since summer 2020

Things came to a head at her first post-lockdown show in June 2020, a drive-in gig where Wolf jumped around a makeshift stage while fans hung out of car windows hollering their approval.

Immediately afterwards, she got blackout drunk, and spent the following day tearfully asking her parents to check her into rehab.

Her recovery forms the backdrop to Juno. "I got headaches on headaches on headaches all day," she sings on the opening track, Liquor Store. "'Cause I always want more, walking into the liquor store."

Written immediately after she got sober, the song (largely) dispenses with the surreal imagery that has become her trademark.

"It's one of the songs I'm most proud of because it really encapsulates the energy and the feeling of what I was going through at that time," she says.

When she finished recording it, she burst into tears.

Media caption,
Making music videos in lockdown

Sobriety and the lockdown went hand-in-hand for Wolf. As a result, Juno is a more reflective record than it first appears, with the musical flourishes often disguising introspective lyrics about family dynamics, co-dependent relationships and an all-pervasive anxiety.

"There was definitely a lot of self-analysis going on," she says. "Relationship analysis and loneliness that all made its way into the album. I really just wrote about what I was feeling every day. Each song was kind of a little encapsulated [memento] of that week, or that day, that I wrote it."

Fans have particularly latched onto the closing refrain of WYD - "I don't need your validation / I got me in medication" - which has become a huge communal moment at the singer's concerts.

"That was such a last minute lyric that I threw in there at the end, but people are really resonating with it," she says.

"I definitely still need validation - but that's something I'm striving for right now, to be free of anybody else's opinions."

Remi Wolf's album, Juno, is out now.

Related Topics