It's always a little nerve-racking to look for the artist you're about to interview in a crowded public place. But it couldn't be easier when I go to meet Pennybirdrabbit at Swingers, one of Los Angeles' few remaining kitschy mid-century coffee shops, where the singer worked up until last year when she left to pursue music full-time. I find Penny slouched in a red vinyl booth, rubbing her stomach (she's pregnant) and wearing a spotted black maxi dress and red cardigan she keeps pulling over her shoulders. Today her hair is blue. "The trouble with my press photos is that I change my hair so fast," she says, scrolling through a photo gallery on her phone that shows her past shades of pink, green, and platinum.
As her name leads on, Pennybirdrabbit isn't the typical indie artist. Her big break came when her mentor Skrillex tapped her to sing on "All I Ask of You," from his career-spawning Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP, but Penny's musical tastes lean towards cabaret and Lady Gaga. As for her output, Penny makes theatrical, experimental doo-wop that muses on relationships. Her recently-released For Love EP came out on Skrillex's label OWSLA and Atlantic's dance imprint Big Beat, which places her in an unique space somewhere in between EDM and indie pop. Here, Penny shares on breaking out of EDM, being Skrillex's protégé, and her dream of working with Disney.
What's your favorite era of music?
I grew up in a pretty musically eclectic home and I was raised on musical theater. But I don't have one [favorite era] because I still listen to that genre as well as pop punk, James Taylor, the Eagles, Sticks, Journey, and Tracey Chapman. This morning when I was getting ready for my day, I put on Mozart.
Who are your music influences?
I remember the first time someone compared me to Björk, I died. I was writing with Linda Perry -- she's the coolest lady -- and recorded the song I wrote with her in one take and she listened to it and said it was "Bjork-meets-Judy Garland." I almost fell off my chair because those are the two influences. At the same time, I'm totally influenced by pop music.
Your EP is so sweet and bright. It's the polar opposite of EDM. Was your intention to move away from that world after your feature with Skrillex?
I don't think I had an intention. When I moved to L.A., I met Sonny [Moore a.k.a. Skrillex] and we got really close. I was there when Joel [Thomas Zimmerman] -- Deadmau5 -- asked him to do the Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP on Mau5trap and he was like, "Do you want to be on it?" I was like "yeah, absolutely," but I didn't even know what EDM was then. It was nothing like what it is now. Electronic music to me was like Aqua.
It's awesome that Aqua was your point of reference for electronic music.
Man, Aqua would be so cool if someone slowed down the BPM. Maybe one day I'll do it. But that was all I really knew. My sister knew who Deadmau5 was before I did. I remember the first dirty rave I ever went to -- there were kids sitting on the ground on drugs. We got into the big room and I saw the Deadmau5 head for the first time and was like, "This is so dark." I was terrified. I just sat behind his feet in the DJ booth and luckily there were technical issues so he just got paid and I left, which cracks me up because I know Joel and he's so nice.
I liked dance music but didn't understand what working with Sonny was going to mean to my life. He left for tour for a few weeks and by the time he had come back "All I Ask of You" had started rising. Then one day we were sitting and he was like, "Some of my DJ friends asked if you would do a feature and I told them 'no' because you were going to work on your record. My friend Zedd wants to do a song with you. Tell me if you're into it but you should work on your own stuff now."
So Skrillex was pushing you to start your solo career?
Yeah. We talked about it in length. I decided that I really wanted to establish my name as Penny and not "featuring Penny." Sonny bought me a laptop for Christmas in 2010 and put Ableton on it. I watched him produce so I knew basic things and I watched some YouTube videos and then I got better and learned to sketch out my songs.
Where would you like to see your career head long term?
I want to write more stories and write zines. I've written a few things but I'm too scared to show people, which is stupid because that's how I felt about my music for so long until finally I showed my brother at the end of 2009 and he was like, "You need to do something with this." He was in a band called Saosin on Capitol Records. They're not a band anymore but at the time they were doing well and when I sent it to him that's how I got connected out here. I also want to work with Disney.
It's funny you say that. When I first heard your name, I thought it sounded like the protagonist of a children's story. What kind of collaboration with Disney do you have in mind?
You're really nailing it. In my head, the full-length record I'm writing is for Disney. One day, I would love to be the voice of some Disney weirdo but I'd also love to write the songs. What really killed me was Mandy Moore in Tangled. She's the voice of the character and does the singing. It was actually Sonny who was like, "You have to watch this movie. I watched it on a flight and I was crying." So I got it on Redbox and was balling watching it all by myself in the dark. I would die to be a part of the creative for that.
I take it that you like kids.
I'm making one. I'm more than half-way along. It's definitely the scariest thing that's happened to me in a cool way. I was really scared to tell my manager and the label because I thought they would drop me and I didn't tell them for awhile but I would have these nightmares that my manager was like, "I'm done working with you." He called me and was like, "I have the plan for the next year. We're going to release the EP and put you on tour." I was like, "Hey, you should know I'm pregnant." And he goes, "Congratulations you've always wanted kids." It makes me really excited because I'm just going to be a kid for even longer.
Have you thought about how touring will work?
I'm living the single mama life but I have support. I have family and people who would watch her if I had to go away or I could bring someone with me.
Beyoncé does it.
Yeah. It's so possible. I'm not a partier anyway. She's the classiest lady ever, Beyoncé. You see all of these young new artists getting into trouble and talking crap about each other and there's all this weird ego and then there's Beyoncé who doesn't get into it. That's how I want to be.
This story was published on March 19, 2014 12:00 PM