Musical Genius: Dorian Electra in Conversation
The critically acclaimed popstar tells us about their life in quarantine and the future of pop music.
“I’ve got the mind of a genius, in the body of a man,” Dorian Electra sings on the sixth track of their debut album, Flamboyant - and honestly, they’re not wrong. With just 11 songs and 5 deliciously over-the-top music videos, Flamboyant was one of the best pop albums released last year, exploring new sonic territory while touching on concepts such as gender norms and the absurdities of late-stage capitalism.
I first encountered Electra two years ago, when they were featured on Charli XCX’s ground-breaking mixtape, Pop 2. They’ve been quite busy in the time since, releasing both a standard and deluxe version of their album, playing numerous sold out shows, and collaborating with fellow experimental pop artists such as 100 gecs, Umru, and Ravenna Golden.
Going into lockdown doesn’t seem to have affected their plans much either. In the last few weeks, they’ve DJ’ed at virtual raves such as Club Quarantine and Boiler Room, collaborated with artists such as Sega Bodega, and dropped new music. Their latest single, Sorry Bro (I Love You), was co-produced with 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady, and “the one DJ you don’t want to f*** with,” Count Baldor. The song, featuring the catchy pop hooks and futuristic production Electra is now known for, touches upon notions of masculinity. The video - filmed in quarantine and directed by Weston Allen - reflects these themes, with a tatted-up Electra doing traditionally “masculine” things such as working out and drinking beers with the ‘bros’. Ahead of the new single’s release, they chatted with me over Facetime from their home, where they’re currently quarantining, to discuss what they’ve been up to in the last few months, their new music, and more.
What have you been up to these days?
I've just been trying to do a lot of music video preparation. I'm very lucky that I live with a photographer and my creative partner, who does all my editing and everything and directs music videos with me. So, we're lucky to still have the ability to create stuff. Obviously, my tour got postponed, but I’m still able to be creative. I’m also trying to finish up music and stuff.
I've been to some of your virtual DJ sets, and you’ve been previewing unreleased music. Are you planning to release that soon?
Yeah, definitely! I'm planning to release some new stuff that I'm really excited about.
Quite a few artists are putting out new stuff right now. For example, Charli [XCX] is working on her new album that’s coming out soon, but then I know a lot of people are like, ‘I don't really feel particularly creative at this time, given there's a literal pandemic underway’. Do you feel the need to be productive at this time? If so, what are you doing to stay inspired?
I mean, everybody has a totally different approach to it, and for me, even in regular life, I've never really been somebody that's very good at relaxing. So even in totally normal, non-pandemic circumstances, sometimes relaxing will just bring me more anxiety, if that makes sense. I'd almost rather just keep working, working, working –– I prefer to be stressed out. If I had to pick between being overly stressed from having too much to do versus being bored and depressed from not having enough to do, I think any day I would pick the anxiety from having too much to do. For me, when I'm happiest is when I feel like I'm really getting stuff done. I just feel really fulfilled. It’s almost sometimes like a kind of a compulsion, but then of course, some days I really feel like I can't get that much done. I don't feel motivated to do it. I feel like I'm just waiting around for people to answer my emails, or this and that. And then I'm like, ‘What's wrong with me?’.
You have to tell yourself that it's okay to feel that way. You just have to accept that you’re feeling this way right now, and that's fine. And then just try to change up your routine or do something new –– take a walk, or whatever you can do safely in your area, to take your mind off things and just kind of reset.
You've been dealing pretty well with the transition to this whole virtual world, playing a lot of online shows, which is interesting, because I know that you have very theatrical, intense live shows. How have you found the shift from playing an actual live show to a virtual one? Do you think there's a future of sorts for these online-based shows?
It's interesting, because I actually haven't really done an online show exactly in terms of my own show. I've only really done DJ sets, which is really fun because I love DJing and I really love the challenge of putting together all this new music. It just makes me have to seek out new music and all that too. I feel like I haven't really cracked the code on what my live performance is going to be like yet, because yeah, it is so theatrical, with dancers and all that. I want to make sure that it's something that can live up to that in some way.
I feel like there's also an oversaturation of all this live stuff going on, and I want to do something that's really unique and special. I have to spend some time and eventually figure out what that's going to look like.
Speaking of the oversaturation of live performances on the internet, I think that it’s interesting to look at that in the context of hyperpop, which is very much a product of the internet and is so focused on having a uniquely virtual presence. Now that all sorts of musicians and genres have adopted a similar reliance on the internet, has that affected the way you view hyperpop as a genre? Do you still view yourself as a uniquely internet-era musician, and is this still kind of like a niche community? This is an incredibly vague question that I’m coming up with on the spot, so apologies if it doesn’t make complete sense.
Well it's interesting, because also I feel like people really started using that word (‘hyperpop’) not even that long ago - kind of after that Spotify playlist started, which is really, really interesting to think about. It's pretty cool that they just picked a name, and now it's sticking. I just describe what I do as experimental pop music, you know, because I don't like the idea of genre as something that is defined by a particular sound, but rather kind of like an ethos. For me, experimental pop means something that's always constantly changing, but the pop part of it is grounded in a commitment to accessible music that is ideally catchy and fun, with strong melodies and stuff like that, as opposed to like ambient music or whatever. And then there’s the experimental part of it. I feel like all of my music will always be experimental pop, but also it will always be changing.
Um, one second actually – I’m having some groceries delivered, so I just got the thing – in case it comes while I’m talking to you.
For sure, no problem.
Sorry. We’re good!
But yeah, it is cool to see all the different people within the genre. Sometimes there's stuff on that [Spotify] playlist that really surprises me, stuff I've never heard of, and I'm like, ‘Oh, that's cool!’. So, I like that. A lot of my friends are on that playlist, which is really cool too. It's interesting - it makes me be like, ‘Oh wow. I'm in a scene of people making music right now. Like, that's cool!’
As opposed to just if you look back at things and you're like, ‘Oh yeah, you know, these people that were making music and stuff.’
You know, it's kind of cool. We're all doing such different stuff. But I definitely do feel like I’m a part of this scene, because they're my friends too, and we're collaborating.
You're very much at the forefront of this whole movement that's currently underway within pop music, I'd say.
Do you really see it like that? I'm curious to know your –– I know you're interviewing me –– but I actually am curious to know your opinion. It’s sometimes hard. Even if I read articles and stuff, it's hard for me to perceive that sometimes. So, I'm curious to hear your perception of that.
Well, definitely, the way I see it. I completely agree with what you were saying about putting a definitive label on it all - I think it's totally a post-genre type of sound, and that's the only way I could describe it really. And when I think of artists who are at the forefront of that, obviously I do think of Charli, 100 gecs, and you, among other artists, if that was what you were asking.
That’s cool to know! It's always interesting, also because I feel like I missed out. I've never been a SoundCloud person, and I feel like where all that kind of stuff was happening was on SoundCloud, and I never was a part of that community. I feel like sometimes I just see things, like emo trap for example, and I’m like, “Oh, this is a thing”. But I wasn't there watching it develop, you know what I mean?
For a lot of people, I think, like the average listener who's just been exposed to it, I'd say it happened with [Charli XCX’s] highly collaborative mixtape, Pop 2. That’s how I was initially exposed to a lot of artists such as you, Tommy Cash, Umru, et cetera, and so I'd say that's how a lot of people got into it.
Yeah. It’s crazy. I felt like even at the time, I was like, “This is such a legendary project. I can't believe I get to be involved in this”. Obviously, I'm so grateful, because that is one of my favorite projects of all time. And then like, it is crazy because you're right. I feel like it did so much for like Pabllo Vittar even, who was obviously huge, but it brought her into a whole other scene. It did a lot for Kim [Petras], who was already building things up and already doing her thing, and it obviously did a lot for me. It brought Tommy Cash into it, who was from a whole different world of music. So I mean, I totally agree. That's interesting, to link it back to Pop 2.
That project represents exactly what I love about this whole movement that's underway right now: how collaborative it is, and how everyone's uplifting each other. You know, everyone's working with each other - the ideas are flowing between all of you, and everyone's connected somehow to everyone. I think I saw someone try to create, like, a big mind map of how everyone’s connected, and it was just truly insane.
One other thing that was interesting about the Charli thing is that she brought in so many artists she had worked with previously, like Cupcakke from the previous mixtape, and Brooke Candy, and Mø. But she also brought in so many new artists that she'd never worked with before, and then that became this iconic grouping. So it's interesting. I'm thinking now about the collaborations I want to do, and it's interesting to think about how you want to do a balance of things that people expect and want from you, and you also want to challenge that and bring in totally new people into the mix and establish that, and set forth that new collaboration stuff.
Totally! Speaking of collaborations that people want and expect, I have to bring up your 100 gecs collab. How did that come about? What was the experience like for you?
I met Dylan Brady through Umru, in 2018. We worked together for the first time in early fall 2018, and then he came to Las Vegas in early 2019 and worked on my album. We became friends from that and were working on music together, and then I met Laura [Les] in the spring of 2019. We did a show together for Umru's party in New York. When the 100 gecs record came out, I was just so mind blown by it. I was sharing it all the time, texting it literally to everybody that I knew to be like, ‘You need to listen to this music. Like, this is like game changing music.’
And then they asked me in September or something if I wanted to do a remix for that song [gec 2 Ü]. I was on tour and I really wanted to, but it was hard because I was on tour and didn't have access to recording stuff. I ended up having to record the vocals on my laptop mic, into GarageBand. I was in Salt Lake City, sitting cross-legged on a bed in an Airbnb, writing it and recording the vocals. And then they asked me to do a video once quarantine started. It was the second week of quarantine, and my partner Weston edited it and directed us remotely. It was super fun! I love working with them, and they're some of my good friends.
You also did the Square Garden Minecraft Festival with them, right?
Yeah! That was amazing. Everybody's sets were so incredible. It was so amazing to have all those people brought together to raise money for a good cause, and it was just so fun and wholesome, and it felt really great. That's what I love about all that energy –– I love stuff that's fun and inclusive and positive and uplifting, but also crazy and fucking nuts and hardcore. It was so much fun.
Speaking of stuff that’s both fun and hardcore, I find that that's indicative of your music itself. You manage to take all these complex ideas about gender, capitalism, and relationships and condense them into very catchy pop songs. Why choose pop, which is traditionally known for having simple lyrics and ideas, to convey these themes?
For me, when I think of pop music, I think of music that is immediately accessible and enjoyable on many levels. Somebody can just hear it and be like, ‘Oh, that's a bop’. There are a lot of songs I like where I actually don't like the lyrics –– they make me feel weird, gross, or like stupid or whatever. But still, you love the song and sing along to it. And I just feel like, for me, I love that kind of immediately accessible stuff so much. And when you can take something like that and then challenge people with it, when you take something that they can already approach and then you inject it with other challenging things, whether it be challenging aesthetics or challenging things musically within that, or challenging concepts within lyrics and stuff, I think that that's what makes it so fun as opposed to doing purely experimental music. I want stuff that people can dance to and enjoy on a really immediate level, you know?
Your music is definitely mired in traditional pop sounds, but then also there’s this whole experimental aspect to it. Where do you draw inspiration from, both sonically and visually?
I feel like one of the things I've always loved since I was a lot younger is historical fashion, especially historical men's fashion. I just really love medieval armor, and that whole aesthetic. I love Baroque-era stuff, even Victorian era stuff, especially stuff where men's dress used to be so much more flamboyant and over the top. I love the idea of masculinity being presented in a very flamboyant or feminine way by today's standards. Nowadays, what we think of as masculine is very like stripped down, not a lot of detail. Most guys want to look like they didn't try too hard when they got up, and that’s what is kind of commonly perceived as attractive. But I love it when people look like they tried hard and have some crazy elaborate stuff on! Fashion wise, that really influences me. I also really love all that same stuff musically –– the harpsichord, medieval flute, and all that kind of stuff too.
Pivoting over to the current state of things, have you learned any lessons from this pandemic? Has this whole experience had any effect on the musical direction you might be taking now? For example, with Charli, she was going with a more polished album if I'm not mistaken, and then decided to make one that's more indicative of how she's feeling now.
Well, I’m still moving forward with my plans, but I think it's just reemphasized to me the importance of music videos because that's my favorite part of the process. It's also the thing that brings my music to life, and it's something that I can still do while I'm in quarantine. It's just kind of made me be like, ‘Great, I can, still do more and more music videos, and I can scale them down so they're more DIY. I'm able to do more but spend less budget on each.’
What are you looking forward to most when this whole thing is eventually over?
I would say other than seeing my family and all that kind of stuff, being able to perform for people, being able to be in clubs and DJing, and seeing my friends. That’s what I think about and long for the most –– it's not restaurants, it's not the beach. It's being able to do big music videos with people, and being able to go to some of those clubs and perform.
Speaking of music videos, I noticed there's a running theme throughout them where you smash something on your head, and I have to ask about that. Do you do all your own head-smashing stunts for that?
I do! I do all my own stunts for that, and it is a very fun thing to do. But also, I use safety breakaway glass. I feel like I try to post that, but then some people might not get that. I just want to make sure that kids are not out there actually trying to smash bottles on their head. Like you will end up in the hospital!
You’ve already stated that you plan on releasing new music soon, but more broadly –– what's next for you?
I'm excited for when I can reschedule my tour and come to those cities, and come to new cities too. I’ll have a lot more new stuff out by then too that I'll be getting to perform, so that'll be really fun. But also, I guess just looking for new ways to keep engaging with people online. I really do enjoy doing live streams. I want to do more makeup tutorials and release more funny YouTube content and just give people stuff to entertain them during this crazy time.
For the new music you have coming out, is it going to be similar to what we heard on Flamboyant? I mean, that record is so sonically varied itself.
Some of it has some similar musical themes, but I also go really radically different with it, with my singing style and the musical style and the aesthetics. So I think it will definitely feel very ‘me’, but I always want ‘me’ to always be changing and doing things that are unexpected but welcomed. I don't ever want to get stuck in a place where I'm just putting out stuff that people are like, ‘Oh yeah, that's another Dorian song. We get it’. I always want to be surprising people with stuff as much as I can, and challenging myself.
My last question for you is quite broad. The possibilities for pop music seem endless right now, really, and this whole movement has opened up so much -- it just kind of seems like it's going everywhere right now. Where do you personally see pop music being in the next five years or so?
I mean, I see it being more and more diverse sounding. It used to be more that maybe three sounds at a time would dominate the charts: there'd be the R&B-pop fusion, the rap-pop fusion, and then traditional, big pop. I'm thinking of the 2010s, and a little earlier –– although, even then there was a lot of diversity. I basically just see things getting more and more diverse sounding, and people not being afraid to take more risks, both musically and aesthetically.
I also see the kinds of pop stars that we have becoming more and more interesting. I think that Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X and Lizzo are kind of the Holy Trinity from the past year or so, in my mind, of people that have really broken through to the mainstream in such a massive way and who are so different. You really wouldn't have expected that - the era of the skinny white blonde pop star is no longer the only option for the kind of major, huge pop stars that we have. I think now record labels are looking at way weirder people and being like, ‘Oh my God, I see that you could have mass appeal’. Look at Billie Eilish, with both her music being so folksy in the beginning, and her style being so hip-hop influenced and not ‘girly’. I could see people being like, ‘Well that's never going to really take off in a huge way’. And it's astounding, now seeing the cultural impact of that - all these little girls are looking up to her and you know, I say girls in the sense that some people might, you know, I think feel more gender fluid, even just from her influence. I think she's kind of gender fluid, whether it's explicit or not, simply by the fashion. I think that's really cool. It's political in a way, but it's also just her personal expression. I feel like it’s a really exciting time that we are living in, and I feel like the chance for weirder and crazier and cooler artists to break into the mainstream is higher now than I’ve ever seen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.