It’s the hottest day of the summer and Taylor Skye has found one of the few public spaces in Penzance that is safe from the midday glare: a graveyard. The electronic producer, one half of Jockstrap, leads us past a man sleeping off last night between the gravestones of St Mary’s church, towards a bench under a giant oak. Georgia Ellery, the group’s songwriter and vocalist, grew up a few streets away and approves of the location: “Good choice! This is where I had my first snog!”
Jockstrap play fast and loose with pop. Their debut album, I Love You Jennifer B, touches on jazz and torch song, disco and AOR, dubstep, grime, neoclassical music and so much more, with tiny shards of each formed into a dazzling mosaic. That isn’t to say what they do is pastiche. Skye and Ellery, 24, have a gift for timeless songwriting that’s clear even beneath the disruptive electronic production that courses through the album.
It’s already been a busy year for Ellery: when we meet, she’s having a short break from her duties as a violinist for acclaimed indie band Black Country, New Road, who are partway through a lengthy world tour. (She also performs in the Happy Beigel Klezmer Orkester and acts, appearing in Mark Jenkin’s acclaimed 2019 film Bait.) Outside Jockstrap, Skye makes music under his own name and has remixed songs for Metronomy and experimental hip-hop group Injury Reserve.
Ellery and Skye met during their first year at the “very insular” Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, when Ellery (jazz) was struck by Skye (electronic composition) “wearing tartan pyjamas on his way to do laundry”. After Ellery wrote a song on Logic in her second year, she asked Skye if he would produce it: “He had snippets of his own music on Facebook that were right up my street.” Skye agreed, replaying all the instruments, adding new beats and putting effects on the vocals. Later, the pair added digital strings: Jockstrap was born.
Skye says Guildhall essentially represented a “student loan” that allowed them to record “bedroom music”. For Ellery, the school helped her understand the architecture of songbook-style pop music: “It’s not just about what it does to your heart – there is mathematics to it. A golden route to songwriting which you can tap into.”
You can hear that mathematical pop songwriting, as well as Skye’s mercurial, often seemingly counterintuitive, skills as a producer, throughout I Love You Jennifer B. On a song such as Debra, for example, there are rhythmic nods to Beyoncé and Lil Wayne, happy hardcore synths, and bhangra strings. The thought of sticking to one genre is alien to Jockstrap. Skye says he hadn’t even considered the idea until he went to this year’s Wireless festival and took in an entire day’s worth of rap: “It made me imagine what it must have been like in the 1960s going to a folk festival and seeing Bob Dylan and everyone approaching their craft in different ways.”
While most musicians of their generation have fairly catholic music taste already thanks to streaming culture, Jockstrap venture far beyond any algorithmically generated sense of variety.In part this is due to their music-focused upbringings. Ellery received her first violin aged five from her midwife mum, a self-taught violinist. By the time she was seven she was part of a local folk band who marked midsummer and midwinter by accompanying the pagan figure of Penglaz – a horse’s skull with snapping jaw bone and bottle-glass eyes carried on a pole – around Penzance with raucous song and dance. Ellery never rebelled against playing classical or folk; instead she developed “a duality”. At 14 she started attending crusty raves in the Cornish countryside: “I was there for the party!”
Skye grew up in east London. His parents were successful performers in musical theatre. His dad was in Starlight Express and “could do backflips while wearing roller skates”. But when he was 11, the family moved to Leicestershire and his parents became teachers. He grew up playing the piano and found it difficult to escape the gravity of his relatively hip parents’ taste in music. “Stevie Wonder was the thing that got me into enjoying music, after my dad gave me his Definitive Collection and we all went to see him in Hyde Park,” he says. The tables were turned in 2010, when he got a laptop and discovered dubstep acts such as Netsky, Nero and Flux Pavilion: “Then I started introducing music to my parents.”
Ellery’s and Skye’s roles in Jockstrap are independent yet becoming more fluid. “It’s successful because we like each other’s work,” says Skye. One of his recent “conceptual realisations” about how to produce their music involved him asking “a secret contact” at a national BBC radio station to play one of their demos anonymously on air late at night so he could record it. The song, now called Greatest Hits, celebrates the powerful experience of hearing dance music on the radio, and the BBC’s radio compression gives it a greater musical and emotional richness.
One of Ellery’s songwriting hallmarks is to isolate a fulcrum moment of change, and lyrically reduce a complex relationship down to its smallest indivisible grain to capture all of its heat and complexity, if none of the context. “You remind me of the night / But also of the day / I think of Italy, champagne / I think of Spain,” she sings in Concrete Over Water, harking back to a moment that she describes as “incredibly emotional”. She tries to write down impressions as quickly as possible: “how I feel, the imagery it triggers – or risk losing this feeling forever.”
The dynamic novelty of Jockstrap’s music is key to their success. “Life can switch from being incredibly light to incredibly dark in an instant, so we allow the music to mirror that,” Skye says. Ellery adds that the band’s constant shapeshifting comes, at least in part, from necessity: “It’s in order to keep our music fresh. What we do can’t be a repetition of what we’ve done, or what anyone else has done.”
Does the combination of different production techniques, artistic quirks, genre hallmarks, lyrical effects and so on see them run the risk of sounding like a hotch-potch? Skye doesn’t believe so. “I think what we do sounds like switching between all of the open tabs on your computer. Which is a familiar feeling for people these days.”
Ellery puts it another way: “If we always sound like Jockstrap, there isn’t really a problem, is there?”