TOPS is a Montreal-based 80s pop inspired indie rock band consisting of Jane Penny, David Carriere, Riley Fleck, and Marta Cikojevic.
I had the wonderful opportunity of speaking to the lead singer, Jane Penny, a while back about the band’s fourth full length album, I Feel Alive, released Friday, April 3, 2020.
Riana Butler: So, I read a while ago that you never intentionally try to make “indie music.” How would you describe your music? Because I would say TOPS has a pretty distinguishable sound and vibe.
Jane Penny: If people don’t know anything about the band I usually just say that we’re a straight-up pop band. We do it in more of an old school format, like we have a drummer and a guitar player. I think the reason I say that we don’t make indie music on purpose is just that, whenever we get influences and whenever we try to make something, it’s usually inspired by something that was made at a very high level like a big studio—like Steely Dan or Fleetwood Mac or Japanese music. I do like indie music, it just depends. I think it can be a little watered down, or it can be really cool.
RB: How does it feel to be the front woman of a band?
JP: I like it, I feel like when I’m working with TOPS we’re all pretty much on an equal level with each other. It’s very fun to perform and for me, I connect to the audience a lot more.
RB: Do you ever feel like you have a certain pressure that maybe the rest of the band doesn’t face?
JP: Yeah, I think there’s a couple ways of thinking about it. On the one hand, I do all the interviews and this kind of stuff. Naturally I was just put in this position, and I make the most sense out of everyone in the band. But I mean I guess there’s a pressure there for sure. It’s work on one hand, but it’s also like, I get to express myself and my vision, especially with the visual side of things. I think I enjoy that, and I like collaborating with different artists like the photographer that we did the cover for and stuff, so it really doesn’t feel like pressure. I’m lucky that I get to be in this position.
RB: This is kind of a different topic but I know that you and David used to date. After the split, did you fear that one of you might part ways from the band or that the band would end?
JP: I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I was definitely scared because I love being in TOPS and playing music and also writing songs for David. So when we broke up I don’t think it was necessarily clear what was going to happen, but the fact that we can still write music together and be close friends—I see it as the biggest gifts that I’ve had in my life. We were friends for so long before so I think we also had that dynamic that was already established.
RB: Yeah! So about your upcoming album, the title has me wondering, when do YOU feel the most alive?
JP: I mean definitely after writing a song that I really like or just playing music, playing flute with the band…
RB: Yes I actually remember a few years back at one of your shows you covered Lotta Love by Nicolette Larson. And I have to say you killed it on the flute.
RB: Will there be more prominent flute playing in this album or maybe even more covers during your tour?
JP: There’s a couple moments, for sure there’s more. One thing on this record is that I do a solo, which I think is new for our records. Usually I just do some kind of improvisational stuff at shows, but then you use the flute as more of like a production element on the recording. I always try not to overdo it. Just because I like doing it doesn’t mean that it’s always the right decision on the recording.
But as for covers, we gotta find one we like. Also, now that we have four records, it’s kind of hard to even fit it in. But we’ll start touring and then, playing our own music, you get sick of it. So I’m sure something will sneak some in there at some point.
RB: When you decide on a cover, how long do you think it usually takes to nail it?
JP: I mean definitely a few times playing it live, which…too bad! *laughs*
RB: Does the album have any overarching themes throughout?
JP: I think it goes on a bit of an emotional journey. We didn’t make it with any things in mind. It starts in a very euphoric, kind of fresh young love kind of state, and then it goes through a lot of different moods. I think it’s mostly about intimacy and love and being close to people, but also how that can go badly. It’s a relationship record but not in a specific way. But each song has its own kind of life.
RB: Gotcha. By the way, who was the one who thought of using bunnies in the music video?
JP: I had the idea of doing this photo shoot music video kind of thing, I thought that’d be cool. I had the idea of the styling of it—I wanted to do something classic and then I talked to the director and I was like, we really should get some animals. And she’s like, what are you talking about?… I was like, well, we’re not always that comfortable in these situations—making videos or being on camera, so we should get some animals. She was like, “what about bunnies!?” It was really fun to have and they’re really cute but they’re so nervous. There was a handler too so they were treated well. I think bunnies are just a nervous animal, but it was really fun and cute to hold them. Then at some point all of them started peeing at the same time! I was like, I think the bunnies are done.
RB: How do you think TOPS has evolved since Tender Opposites?
JP: Our writing process has become a lot more like coherent and more intentional. I think we’re just a lot faster at making the decisions and understanding why we’re writing the song and what they’re about, while also spending the time in the production days afterwards. Just refining things, we’re just better at it, but I do think a lot of it is also very similar.
*Keep in mind the following question was asked before Covid-19*
RB: And do you have any big goals for your band or even just yourself regarding music, whether it be accomplished next month, or 20 years from now?
JP: Definitely. I would love for this tour to be really, really, really fun and we’re just really excited to play these new songs. I guess in the far future I would just really like to have a studio and be working every day, having my own space that I’m kind of like the boss.
Riana Butler is a Cal Poly Journalism Senior and a KCPR staff member. She conducted the interview. Featured image credit to TOPS.