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Megan Walder tracks the rise and rise again of Pixey’s effervescent pop evolution.
PIXEY’s thoughts are currently circling back to the once sample-happy newbie who fell feet first into a BBC-backed whirlwind of support and success. “What have I got myself into?” she laughs, recalling her first impression of launching a career in music four years ago. There’s a clear a cautionary tone, one which breaks with the usual fervour that arrives with the first signs of progress and recognition. In this case, the ascent happened so quickly a feeling of vertigo soon followed.
Drowning in fear and ill-prepared for the reaction of her ever-growing fanbase, to say the beginnings were overwhelming would be an understatement. A lot quickly unfurled from what she once regarded as a “haphazard production” in her bedroom studio.
After a short break from music, the 2017 version of Pixey we first met is indistinguishable through today’s Zoom connection. The figure on the other end of the call is bright and intriguing. There’s no lingering shadow of nerves or self-doubt. As she puts it herself: “I’m not just a newbie anymore… not just starting out for the first time.” The sense of determination is palpable. It’s an energy that has weaved its way through her musical career and pushed her out of the cocoon where she once sat so comfortably.
You have to look back five years to locate the central source of this drive. In 2016 Pixey came face to face with her mortality. A sharp shock to the system in the form of a health scare reset her perspective, seeing her finally make the steps she needed to begin her journey and pursue a career in music. While dreams of becoming the next Ed Sheeran had faded, the equipment she had gathered on this failed quest remained. Blowing off the dust and downloading her trusted Ableton she set up a bedroom studio – before it was mandatory.
Battling with illness and social anxiety, her innovative thinking saw her use her talent and determination to not only heal herself, but to lay the foundation for future her (the one we meet today) to be able to survive and thrive, regardless of the circumstances. And although she did not foresee a global pandemic, her home recording abilities definitely made the adjustment to the new normal easier.
Before the significant social shifts 12 months ago, Pixey had already shown people what she was about. With her early release, Young, quickly gaining attention, people had high hopes for the new star. With her marketable pop sensibilities, combined with an experimental approach by way of a lack of classical training, Pixey offered a new voice to young women. Not offering up regurgitated tales of tortured relationships and imperfect love. She captured what it is to be young and free in the face of difficulty. BBC Introducing soon cottoned on.
But often success can lead to a feeling of inadequacy, leaving one to doubt their ability and fear that any consequent project will not live up to the standard that has been set. We see this internalised battle constantly within creative fields and, for Pixey, it was one that paralysed her.
After a recent break, she is back with a renewed motivation and a backlog of people she feels need to be proved wrong. The fire under her is regularly fuelled by the memory of being told “you’ll never be as good as me” by men she once associated with. To them, this revitalised Pixey simply says “piss off” and carries on. Their words have pushed her to better herself and become more than they ever could be.
Apart from the flute, which was an unprecedented disaster, Pixey has taken to every instrument she has picked up. Her recent lockdown project saw her become the neighbour from hell, refusing to rest and instead deciding it was “a good time to be learning stuff”. Stuff, to the horror of her neighbours, meaning drums. “I practised three hours a day,” she laughs. But practise makes perfect and her once favoured choice of programming drums is no more. Her lockdown release, Just Move, premiered these talents.
The trend continues with The Mersey Line, as good a love letter to Liverpool as we’ve ever heard, or more specifically to Liverpool’s docks. Pixey’s slice of serenity is by the water, a place that allows her to “reset and take the next step”.
“If my head’s feeling cloudy or I’m feeling upset or I feel confused,” she continues, “I’ll go down there for a walk.” But the dual meaning of the track also follows her on her journey along the train line when visiting her parents. The coupling of these two tales left Pixey fearing that her love letter could come across as “cheesy” and not the “lo-fi 90s jingle” she was aiming for. In truth, it is actually a fitting label for the track. Taking me back to first moving to Liverpool and discovering the powerful, grounding power of the docks, the track is undeniably a standout of the EP.
The singles she released in 2020 offered a taster of what was to come on her brand new EP, Free To Live In Colour. Just Move, the lovechild of the Prodigy, Nile Rodgers and 60s garage definitely scratched the itch while we waited to see where her music was heading. “I wanted it to be huge. But now I’m thinking, how am I going to recreate that live?” Pixey ponders. It’s a new sound for her, but with more confidence in her ability, the shoe fits. Although she does admit to needing “some sort of live budget” to get all the elements of the track covered.
Her formative track, Young, has been overshadowed by that which has followed. And while she refuses to completely abandon utilising samples and programming her drums, it is clear that Pixey has found a more personable sound through her mastery of an ever-growing skill set. It is the armour that she speaks of on Free To Live In Colour, her ability to be self-sufficient. “I know it’s not a phase,” she clarifies, adding weight to the authenticity she has found since following her ambitions and goals within the music industry.
And yet, with all of the internal work she has done to develop her trust in herself, she still faces the internalised bias of those who do not believe that her work is all her own doing. She is constantly interrogated about who produces her music and who writes her lyrics. She herself acknowledges that these questions are “not meant in a patronising way”, instead they are a manifestation of the sexism that goes unchallenged within society, of believing women aren’t capable of being multi-faceted.
In a male-dominated industry, where according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative only 2.6 per cent of music producers and three per cent engineers/mixers in the industry are women, it’s unsurprising that Pixey is one of the victims of such narrow-minded thinking. But she is not a one dimensional being and it’s clear as she sits in her room, pointing out instrument after instrument around her, that she could never be restricted by these limitations. Instead, she is simply Pixey, an ever-evolving creation. She recites her favourite quote – “don’t assume, it makes an ass out of u and me” – and I have to laugh. It perfectly sums up how meaningless these judgements are.
Following the success of Young, she explains that she was left with the exhausting task of proving she was “consistent and can constantly reinvent and create”.
“It felt like I was running an uphill battle,” she elaborates, “to prove that I could do something after that.” Now, thankfully, this weight seems to have eased. “I can put a middle finger up to those people who made me feel like I was only a one-trick pony,” she states. “I want to do this for a long time.”
It is this refusal to be limited and a constant determination to succeed that has allowed Pixey’s sound to evolve. Blending baggy 90s sounds with the ever-renewing list of instrumentation, her style is a personification of graft and autonomy, of drive and creative control.
“It’s so liberating,” she explains of her self-sufficient reality, “to be able to play the main, core instruments on your own songs and also have the choice to programme them too if you want.” With this drive to rely on no one has come the challenge of being comfortable with others wishing to collaborate and critique, to learn from those around her in order to better her craft.
She admits being able to loosen her grip on the “personal thing” she creates is a “struggle”, with it taking time to accept that she wasn’t undermining herself by reaching out and ask for help. Instead, it has allowed her to grow as a producer, refining her skills and ear for what she wants in her tracks.
Her bedroom production roots are yet to loosen their grip on her overall product. The events of the last year have done little to usher her out. “Now a lot of people produce in their bedrooms, which is fantastic,” Pixey observes, “a lot of women as well, which is really cool.” This is something that visibly brings joy to her. “Maybe people are more vocal about it now,” she says, “but it’s really cool, it made me feel much better about the way I was working.” With her previous illness and anxiety-driven decision to set up in her bedroom becoming a necessity for others, it’s clear to see how she went from feeling like an individual to being surrounded by a community of fellow bedroom producers.
In what has been a difficult 12 months for so many in the industry, Pixey is humble in noting how it’s been a good year for the rising star. “I feel privileged to be able to say that,” she elaborates, crediting her new-found momentum for this unexpected positivity amid a worldwide pandemic. And it was a singular decision to ignore those who told her she “wasn’t going to go anywhere and was wasting [her] time” that led to her taking up her music career once more and send demos off to Chess Club Records.
Boasting the likes of Alfie Templeman and responsible for early releases by Wolf Alice, Chess Club are a force to be reckoned with, and 2020 saw Pixey added to that ever-impressive roster. A singular “vulnerable moment” of sending off those unheard pieces led to one of the biggest opportunities in her career so far. “It felt like a dream come true,” she says, recalling sitting down with Will and Peter of the label and signing on the dotted line.
The rose-tinted glasses of that experience feel slightly tainted, she admits, by the music industry’s decline at the hands of the Conservative government. Joy quickly turns to anger when we progress into the future our community faces. “The amount of idiocy,” she screams, “I’ve not given nearly fucking seven years of my life to retrain.” And just like that, I see what music truly means to her. While the rest of the conversation showed love for her craft, it was in this moment that it clicked. The girl in the pixelated image on my screen is not comfortable simply succeeding as an individual, but fights for those around her, too. Having shed the skin of the nervous newcomer we once met, this is someone who owes everything to music, who fully grasps the power it holds. And as her anger rises, the jigsaw pieces itself together and the image of who Pixey truly is feels complete.
Said image is repeated in the single Free To Live In Colour, written prior to her recent signing. She explains it as a “fever dream of confusion”, combined with “telling everyone to fuck off” because the system, well, sucks. The song mirrors Pixey’s own fight for freedom to live as she sees fit. It channels former and current battles, like keeping “a job as well as writing and having no money”, being a “conformative non-conformative person” and being “free to live however and love whoever you want, regardless of boundaries”. All of this emotion, combined with a boundary pushing production, left Pixey impatient to release the track after having sat on it for so long.
This impatience is mirrored in how she perceives the world at the moment. Angry at the way creatives have been undervalued and dismissed by the powers that be. “It’s not just a piece of entertainment, people make their living off of this and, for some, it’s a form of therapy,” she expresses. She speaks from experience. Music was her way out of a dark time. Her crutch. And following statements from Rishi Sunak about creatives needing to “adapt and adjust to the new reality”, her anger is more than justified. And as she laughs, recalling her short-lived and poorly executed time as a waitress, it’s clear that retraining just isn’t on the cards for Pixey.
But as venues all around us are being forced to close, relocate and rethink their business plans, this fear for the creative community is unavoidable. For Pixey, the way the pandemic is “just chipping away at all the important little venues” is taken personally. That was where she started. And without places like “Zanzibar and Sound”, she wouldn’t have had the chance to be the nervous, sample happy newbie. Maybe she would never have had the opportunity to annoy her neighbours while learning the drums, too. But as she says: “If your music is worth it, it will have its time.” Her time is now.
Free To Live In Colour is available now via Chess Club Records.