A few years ago, Theoretical Girl was touring with Calvin Harris and Robyn and seemed to be on the verge of breaking through as a mainstream pop artist. If you read the lists of new album releases every week, like I do, then she seemed to disappear after that, because she hasn't released a record since 2009.
She hasn't disappeared, though. Otherwise known as Amy Turnnidge of Southend-on-Sea, Theoretical Girl has been steadily gigging and releasing recordings in her Advent Calendar series and has a new EP coming out this year.
Theoretical Girl's 2009 debut album, Divided, is filled with gorgeous pop songs like "The Boy I Left Behind" and "I Should Have Loved You More." It's indiepop, but Turnnidge has a great traditional pop voice and sensibility, so her music is often rich with strings and melodies.
Jason Derulo said that Lady Gaga is one of the hardest-working people in show business, but has he checked in on Theoretical Girl? He should, because Turnnidge must spend a lot of time recording.
Music Weird interviewed Theoretical Girl on June 9, 2014.
Your new EP is coming out this year?
I've been writing on and off since my album came out, way back in 2009. However, none of the songs really seemed to work together—they were all so different in feel and content. I was trying desperately to put an album together, becoming more and more frustrated that they didn't fit, until I decided to free myself, stop worrying about songs working as a group of songs, and just release a series of EPs. I am embracing their differences!
The first EP has a lead track recorded in a lovely analog studio with a fine producer and is a sparse drum-machine-and-synth-led tune. The second track was recorded in a friend of a friend's flat by another fine producer using traditional baroque stringed instruments and is purely strings and vocals. And the third track was recorded by myself at home using whatever I could lay my hands on—an Omnichord, an old Roland CompuRhythm drum machine, and some shakers!—in a much more lo-fi way. None of the tracks are finished as yet, so it could all still change!
A friend once gave me a really valuable piece of advice: never stop writing. Well, I didn't listen. I got caught up in touring and promoting what I had already written, and by the time that had all calmed down, I was sick of writing and wanted a bit of a break. Then, before I knew it, months and months had passed. I started to get into writing again, but it was almost as if I had never written a song before—I had to start all over again.
It's taken a long time to feel that I can do it again; I still find it very difficult to know if what I have written is any good. I'm trying not to worry about that at the moment and just get something out there. Otherwise, I fear I may never do it!
I started the advent calendar in 2008, I think. During the advent period, I take requests for cover versions and I arrange, record, and post online a different track every day for free download. It was a bit of a mad idea, really, as it is extremely time-consuming. However, I love cover versions. I'm a big fan of the song-swapping that went on in the '60s. If you discover a song that you love from that period, you can guarantee that there will be at least another five versions of it floating around somewhere! I enjoy particularly when people request songs I've never heard, as then it's a real challenge to find it, learn it, figure out the chords and melodies, work out how I want to interpret it, then perform and record it all in one day!
This is particularly tricky when working full-time. I'd rush home straight from work, and, some days, only just get the song up before midnight! Mostly they turn out a bit shoddy, but I think people appreciate that I've tried! As a result of the project, I may release an album of cover versions at some point this year.
You play guitar and keyboards/piano. Do you write songs on both?
I write songs on almost anything! I play quite a few things, quite badly. A lot of my earlier stuff was written around bass lines. These days it tends to be piano based, and then I'll switch to different instruments and arrangements once the basic song is written. One of my favorite things to do is to create several different versions of the same song; then I'll pick the arrangement that works the best.
Your music seems to be getting "prettier." Do you think that melodic music gets less respect than "edgy," dissonant music?
I'm glad you've chosen the word pretty! Some people use the word twee, which I'm not so keen on! It implies that there is somehow less substance to the music.
My music has, without a doubt, changed. It was never a conscious decision to write differently, though—I just became more interested in melodies than in sounds. I've found that the kind of people who are most concerned with music's edginess and that horrible word cool tend to write for the mainstream music press. I used to worry about being edgy and trying to do something new, but that can sometimes end up being detrimental to the song, and really, by now, what hasn't already been done? I hope to work towards being a good songwriter.
You seem like an indiepop artist at heart, but you've played with some mainstream pop artists like Robyn and Calvin Harris. What has that been like?
Really fun! Robyn in particular is a really great pop performer. It's interesting to me to see how other people approach things. I've never had a booking agent, so when I get offered these support slots, it's always really exciting. You tend to play to people who've never heard your music, so it's a good test of how well it works!
You have such a great traditional pop voice. People have even described it as "angelic." Does it do everything you want it to do? Do you ever write songs, or want to sing songs, that you feel you can't sing the way you'd like?
I have a very soft voice. It's been difficult battling against drums and guitars at live shows, but mostly it does what I need it to do. It helps that I can write songs within my vocal range. My favorite singers have always been those that don't particularly have power or technique but who have expressive and unique voices. Nick Drake, Neil Young, and Marianne Faithfull for example. As such, I've never really aspired to have a particularly powerful voice. Good thing, really!
What are your plans after the EP comes out? Are you going to tour? Start working on your second album?
I like the idea of regularly releasing EPs rather than taking ages to do an album. So, more EPs, probably, perhaps a covers album, definitely another advent calendar. I may do a couple of live shows. Basically, I am undecided about everything!