With a new label and a fresh outlook, PVRIS are back with a third album – and this time, Lynn Gunn is taking the lead more than ever before.
Words: Ali Shutler.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
“Sometimes… I feel like our career is a big cosmic joke amongst the gods or something,” tweeted Lynn Gunn as the news broke that PVRIS’ third album ‘Use Me’ was being pushed back due to the “unforeseen circumstances” of a global pandemic.
And it’s easy to see why she thinks someone is having a laugh.
PVRIS’ debut album, the lush, brooding and atmospheric ‘White Noise’ was an all-out fairytale success story. From a standing start, the band were suddenly touring the world, playing support shows in arenas and being championed as the next big thing in rock. They played Reading & Leeds for the first time in 2015, a mid-afternoon slot in The Pit, and we weren’t the only ones to believe we were looking at future Main Stage headliners. “We couldn’t have written a more ideal story,” offered guitarist Alex Babinski at the time.
But things quickly took a turn. In amongst all the touring and the hype, Lynn readily admitted there was a lot of pressure and expectation: “It feels like our bones are growing faster than our skin.” And that didn’t go away as the band set to work with album two. At first glance, ‘All We Know Of Heaven, All We Need Of Hell’ sees PVRIS try to expand the world they’d created with ‘White Noise’, but they were trying to focus on this larger than life picture, while obsessing over the minute details. “I dug myself into a ditch. I became self-critical and put so pressure on myself.” Anytime anything went off-script during writing or recording, it would throw Lynn into a little black hole. “I just really, really became my own worst enemy.”
Onstage as well, Lynn was forcing herself into uncomfortable situations. “Coming up in a heavier scene, and touring with a lot of bands where the frontman is screaming at the crowd and being in everyone’s face, I had this preconceived pressure that I had to do the same to be a frontwoman as equal and as powerful as them. That’s really not me. I’m a lot more calm and softly spoken.”
And while there was hope to their second album, it also saw Lynn get really vulnerable. There was less poetry and more harsh truths, but due to the speedy nature of the business, it didn’t leave her enough time to process it. As singles were released, Lynn starting feeling scared. “There are things I’m still dealing with that I’m not ready to share or discuss yet,” she told us just before the release of album two. “There’s something in me that feels that once the record is out, it’ll be a really big part of being able to process everything and heal.”
But those prankster deities had other cruel ideas. As soon as ‘All We Need Of Heaven’ was released, Lynn started to struggle with her voice. With an album to promote, PVRIS continued to tour, but Lynn’s health just got worse. They were playing to bigger rooms, performing these very personal songs, but she couldn’t connect. There was talk of cancelling their biggest ever headline run, including a show at London’s Brixton Academy, but they soldiered on as dreams became waking nightmares. “I had to find a new way to feel comfortable onstage. It’s not like the end of the world dramatic, but not having a working voice for an entire touring cycle really will teach you a lot.”
As the tour approached its end and with PVRIS unsure about what happens next, Lynn found herself trying to be as present as possible and soaking in each moment. Going to get coffee in a foreign city, waking up in Milan, writing in a journal in Paris or just being on the road, “I felt like it was all going to go away if my voice didn’t come back.”
After a gruelling year that saw Lynn relearn how to sing while touring heavily, the band headed home at the end of summer 2018 with Lynn feeling “disappointed in myself.” She’d always envisioned grand plans, and now, she wasn’t where she wanted to be.
In between then and now, Lynn has been diagnosed with autoimmune disease ankylosing spondylitis (which causes inflammation anywhere in the body) and Crohn’s disease, which explains why touring felt like such a struggle. There’s no cure, and while the symptoms can be managed, it’s an ongoing concern. They also changed labels, producers and a big chunk of their team. It’s enough to make anyone question their career choices going forward, but PVRIS aren’t giving in. That’s what ‘Use Me’ is here to say.
“Everything went the way it had to,” starts Lynn. Their ‘All We Need Of Heaven’ era “was a time for growth,” she stresses. “A time to reevaluate and a chance to get reality checked by the universe. It definitely had me revaluate what we get to do. It made me extra, extra, extra grateful for what we get to do.” It’s why Lynn hasn’t stopped working.
Earlier this year, the band set out on a run of intimate-by-their-standards headline shows across Europe and the UK. For most bands doing an underplay tour, it’s an excuse to drum up some excitement, but PVRIS had something to prove. After returning to the Main Stage of Reading & Leeds in August (earning redemption for their 2017 appearance that saw the start of Lynn’s health issues and onstage struggles), this was a chance to reconnect to fans and see if they had a future as a touring band. At London’s Electric Brixton, they’ve never looked as strong or in control.
“It felt redeeming and refreshing, especially having a working voice,” Lynn explains. “Being able to go up on stage and not feeling completely terrified felt great. Reading & Leeds 2019 was my first time really being back onstage. I was trying to figure out if it was going to work or not. I was still getting my bearings then but this last tour, I felt fully healthy again. It felt like we were back to where we should be. Just knowing it was working felt great.”
Being herself, rather than trying to emulate the rock moves of other bands, has meant “being onstage feels a lot calmer and a lot less stressful,” for Lynn. “There’s less trying to prove yourself,” which is an energy that flows through ‘Use Me’. “These people are here to enjoy a show and as long as you’re being present and that’s real to how you’re feeling, that vulnerability can transfer to people.”
The band aren’t settling for more of the same on ‘Use Me’. Taking a lead from their ‘Hallucinations’ EP, the record sees the group undertake new adventures while letting go of what’s come before. The opening ‘Gimme A Minute’ is a snarling slice of industrial electro-pop that demands space. “I thought it was over, maybe it isn’t,” sings Lynn finding a neon light in the darkness while the sparkling ‘Good To Be Alive’ has a skip in its step before Lynn launches a lyrical ambush, asking “is this body even mine? Feels good to be alive, but I hate my life.” The heartbeat vulnerability of the title track is the most gorgeous the band have dared to tread before the closing ‘Wish You Well’ oozes sass and beaming smiles as the band bare venomous teeth. Unburdened and celebrating their power, it’s an album of grit, defiance and want.
‘Use Me’ also sees Lynn step into the spotlight and take ownership of her role as the creative force behind PVRIS. “I allowed myself to support a narrative I thought I had to support of PVRIS being a band,” she explained as the album was announced. “Coming from a ‘band culture’, it’s about how the group is always greater than the sum of its parts, and you’re not supposed to take credit, even if you do everything. There’s no template or role model for really owning it as a woman. I wanted to make everyone else happy and uphold an image I thought we had to. Growing up, I learned I don’t have to do that anymore. I’m finally allowing myself to take credit. I’ve got the full support and encouragement of my bandmates. PVRIS is a unit and very much a team, but the heart and soul of the vision and music always has sourced from me. I’m just saying it now. I fulfilled my own vision of what a role model should be.”
“I felt pressured to shrink myself,” she reveals now, “and I didn’t realise how much that messed with me in a lot of other areas in my life or how it affected me in general. It’s still a little crazy for me to be talking about it now,” Lynn tells us. “I need to get more comfortable with it, and I’m aware of that. In PVRIS, I’ve done all the writing, all of the creative directing and a majority of our merch designs but I always felt pressured to not talk about it because I didn’t want to be seen as too much. I didn’t want to be seen as bossy. I didn’t want to be seen as something from the endless list of things that women are called if they’re taking charge or running something.”
It didn’t help that Lynn struggled to find role models taking similar ownership. “I didn’t have anyone to look to when I was starting out in music. I really wish I had had someone to say, ‘It’s ok, you can do this, you can talk about it, and you can have support’.” Because the message is that you can’t. Hayley Williams has spent her whole career reassuring people that Paramore is a band and it falling on deaf ears, while Billie Eilish has been called an industry plant from the moment she released ‘Ocean Eyes’. There are similar stories with Halsey, Taylor Swift and Florence and the Machine. You don’t get the same doubt aimed at Billie Joe Armstrong or Yungblud. In short, people don’t believe women. “I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus or be cryptic about it, but there have been a lot of situations where I think, especially being a woman, your decisions are doubted and not necessarily trusted, especially creatively.” Lynn had had enough.
“I finally noticed a lot of that with particular people that are no longer in our team. I realised, ‘Wow, this is really messed up’. I was definitely upset by it, and it made me very aware of what was happening, but it made me totally want to stick to my guns, trust my gut and not listen to the group of however many men were in the office telling me that it should actually be this way.”
Her bandmates Alex and Brian “were really sweet and supportive,” she says. “They encouraged me to talk about it and be open about it.” Despite the uncertainty, Lynn couldn’t hide anymore. “I needed to do it so I could move forward towards the future in a healthy, confident manner. Being honest about what you’re doing, it’s not cockiness or boasting. It’s putting credit where credit is due. It’s about being real. Art should be authentic and the way your art is made, that story should be authentic as well. I didn’t feel like that was happening, and that’s incredibly important.”
Lynn’s turbulent five-year journey from wide-eyed dreamer to bruised and bloodied leader can be felt across ‘Use Me’. “I wish I could even begin to explain the amount of crazy stuff that’s happened to us in the last few years,” starts Lynn. The band have had to rebuild and reassess everything. “There’s been a lot of shedding old skin and reflecting on relationships that might not have had our best interests at heart. During the process of making this album, I was fried and dealing with health issues, and I never really felt like my well-being was made a priority. To make it as dramatic as possible, I felt like a product being pushed around,” which is where the title comes from. It’s more a warning than an invitation though.
There’s hard-fought victory and fury that she’s had to endure across ‘Use Me’, but there’s also space for self-reflection and a flickering torch leading the way to self-love. “There’s a lot of self-worth and self-respect, but there’s also the other side of that, the times where I wasn’t honouring that. There is a lot of resentment and exhaustion, but that story is told through a healthier and more hopeful perspective.” It holds itself tall with a proud, feminine energy, righting wrongs with lyrics like ‘Dead Weight’s “Do you even notice how easy you got this, Taking wings off a goddess.” “I hope it makes whoever identifies with that feel powerful, but especially our female fans. There’s definitely a lot of leaning into more feminine qualities. There’s a lot of honouring that busy, intuitive nature and it’s emotive, present and aware. It feels good.”
‘Use Me’ also sees Lynn with the confidence to take PVRIS in the direction she’s always wanted. It started with their ‘Hallucinations’ EP, a course-correcting beast of a record that “was definitely a way to reframe things for us and for our audience.” The likes of ‘Death of Me’ and the title-track show off the band’s desire for bigger and brighter while the bleeding love of ‘Old Wounds’ exposes them stripped to their very core. ‘Use Me’ takes that freedom and runs with it. “Really, that’s always the direction I’ve wanted our music to go. JT [Daly, who produced the EP and the album] really understood what I’ve wanted PVRIS to sound like for a long time and was able to translate that. It was about finding the right way to articulate it and finding the confidence to fully go through with it.”
Both ‘White Noise’ and ‘All We Know Of Heaven’ flirt with pop production and arena gaze but, Lynn explains, “using the word poppy-ness as the most general term, we were afraid to let the poppy-ness shine through. A lot of it got masked with more atmospheric rock production.” On both those albums, “there was a pressure to fit into a more rock, alternative scene.” Now, Lynn’s done with living up to other peoples expectations. Making ‘Use Me’, “felt great and very fulfilling. I wanted to be making this all along.” Embracing it all, “feels right. It’s evolved, obviously but we always want to do that. It’s very much still got the teeth and the heart behind it.”
But this record isn’t just for Lynn. Her decision to ask for the respect she’d earned was 50% for her, 50% so other young creative don’t find themselves in a similar position. “Making this album and saying what I say on this album, it is really important for me as a young woman in music and as someone existing on planet earth right now. I want everyone to be able to connect to it, but I hope that it can connect to other young women. I want it to help.”
‘Use Me’ is Lynn’s story, but she’s not alone in the journey she’s been on. “The biggest thing has been to really trust my gut rather than making fear-based decisions.” The album is there for whatever people need from it, “but I know what I’ve taken from it is a lot of self-love, self-worth and just trying to honour that more. It’s about self-respect and staying strong. Vulnerability, nurturing people and caring for people can be a superpower, but you need to learn to set your boundaries and look out for yourself as well.”
A few minutes after the announcement that ‘Use Me’ was being delayed and Lynn felt like screaming at the sky, she followed it up with the promise that, “We’re underdogs and underdogs don’t quit and we don’t lose hope!!” Whatever happens next, it’ll be PVRIS that have the last laugh.
Taken from the May issue of Upset. PVRIS’ album ‘Use Me’ is out 10th July.