When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, UK-born, Berlin-based artist Planningtorock – otherwise known as Jam Rostron – was on the remote Estonian island of Hiiumaa, visiting their girlfriend’s parents. Suddenly the island shut down – and there they were stuck for the next three months. Luckily, the talented and energetic musician always travels with their tools of the trade – computer and keyboard – and was able to continue working from the isolated island idyll. Fortunately, they’d already completed the bulk of the work on their latest EP, PlanningtoChanel, released on 22 July.
Rostron debuted musically in 2006 with the album Have It All released on Chicks on Speed Records, and now has four studio albums under their belt, in addition to an array of remixes, film scores, and other collaborations. Their 2014 album All Love’s Legal coincided with their coming out as gender non-binary, and their most recent album, 2018’s Powerhouse, ramped up Rostron’s combination of queer, feminist politics interwoven with powerful personal narratives.
PlanningtoChanel takes a different tack. It was a commissioned work for the eponymous Paris fashion house’s Fall-Winter 2020 show, held in early March. Influenced by 1980s Parisian pop and 1970s surrealist French cinematic scores, its six tracks are infectiously groovy and danceable. Despite only having ten days to produce the material, Rostron found it a pleasant break from their recent albums, which have been deeply personal and political. PlanningtoChanel was more about creating a scene, a sense of feeling and presence, they explained.
Yet Rostron – who is constantly seeking new ways to “queer sound” – saw innovating potential even in an evocative and danceable piece like this. Once the bed of strings was down, they recorded vocals, sung in different ways, and pitched and layered into what they like to call a “queer choir”. “I sang all these different parts, and I recorded and layered myself, and it became like more than one person. So it really felt like I was working with this sort of virtual queer choir that I’d made out of my own voice.”
Rostron is sometimes asked how being queer influences their music, but says it’s actually the opposite way around – it’s music that has helped inform their queer identity. “Music has educated me and given me the chance to understand myself and understand what my identity is, and to really get in contact with my queerness,” they point out.
In their work, Rostron emphasizes “queering sound and vision”. Like other fields, the music industry has its own hierarchies – hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. There are ways of doing things that are valued and legitimized, and others that are not. For Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them. One of the ways they do that is through vocal manipulation. “I really like pitching sound a lot and playing with high frequency, low frequency, high sounds, low sounds. For me, there’s a queerness in that.”
Two years ago, Rostron started taking testosterone, and this impacted their voice in new and innovative ways, further affecting pitch and sound. “It was just part of me exploring my identity and how that affects the voice, and I felt like I discovered my trans voice. For me, sound is also about making something visible. So queering for me is almost like a music production tool. “When I first started playing with my voice, pitching my voice – before I ever took any testosterone – it was doing that that made me visible to myself. I heard the voice in there, and I was like: Finally! That’s my authentic voice.
“I’m grateful for my music projects. I feel like it saved my life, and it’s given me a life because it gave me this space to play with all these things, so that I start to really see myself, hear myself, and be able to communicate myself. The voice is such an important tool, but it’s also many [other] things. And many things can happen in your life that can change your voice, depending on where you are emotionally as well. It’s a very complicated part of you. I get excited about playing with the voice from a musicianship angle. It’s fun, but it’s also really political for me. It’s the way that I make sure that I feel, see, and am definitely heard.”
By experimenting with pitch, Rostron felt they finally found their authentic voice – an experience they describe as “liberating”. But not everyone agreed. Rostron faced resistance from music journalists, producers, and others who felt unnerved by their vocal techniques. “My feeling was: how can you resist something that has nothing to do with you? My authentic voice has to be my authentic voice, and no one can argue it!”
Photo: Jam Rostron / Courtesy of PIAS
Music Beyond Binaries
For Rostron, who identifies as non-binary, there’s a clear link between the discomfort felt toward their unconventional work by primarily white cisgender men in the music industry, and the broader struggle faced by trans and non-binary folk in carving out space in which to exist as their authentic selves. It’s a struggle white cisgender men don’t have to contend with.
“That’s the problem with pushing the gender binary — everyone wants to control their authentic existence. Forcing a gender binary is patriarchal. In patriarchy, we are all brainwashed from the day we are born, to uphold this patriarchal system, and part of that is this gender binary because [patriarchy] really benefits from it. And so to deconstruct that is also to open up a multitude of individual possibilities.
“If non-binary and queer had existed as terms to talk about myself when I was a teenager, my life would have been so different. It’s been really hard. We need language. I don’t like this feeling of being labeled, but we do need it. Without that language, we are invisible. [Language] is how we create visibility.”
I bring up some of the exciting work being done by writers like Juno Roche or Meg-John Barker and Alex Ianteffi in explicating how trans and non-binary identities are not just resting stages for those transitioning between the binaries of male and female, but are valid and legitimate identities in and of themselves. It’s a position with which Rostron agrees.
“It’s a world. It’s a life. It’s everything! It’s also non-linear. I’m not on a journey as such. I’m open to my queerness and my non-binarism and any sort of trans feeling I have — I’m open to it all. I never try and box it in, because it’s not about being a man or a woman; it’s non-linear.”
Rostron acknowledges that it’s hard to sustain that sort of identity in the face of a society that is still so anchored to patriarchal binaries. The sustained presence of friends and allies online has been an essential source of support. “That’s why it’s really important — and I have to say I’m so grateful for the internet — for queer friends, queer allies online that make their lives so visible. It really helps each other, for sure, that visibility.”
A Playful Response to Fear and Prejudice
How do we overcome all those binaries to make a more inclusive world? Upbeat playfulness is the strategy Rostron uses to meld politics with music. There are ways of confronting the status quo that can be challenging without being aggressive, and it’s this which inspired Rostron, particularly when they recorded All Love’s Legal. They feel there’s an extraordinary power in dance music to help listeners be more open to new and challenging ideas.
“It’s quite a large thing that we’re trying to unlearn here — this training, this conditioning, this idea of identity in terms of gender…[All Is Legal] was the first time I wanted to write about things I was interested in politically. And I wanted to write it within music that was so fun and made you feel so good about yourself that you never felt uncomfortable within those songs, asking those difficult questions. Humour is always a good way to go about it. It’s not belittling or reducing the importance of a situation, but sometimes it can help.”
Growing up, Rostron was a fan of synthpop and electronic bands like Bronski Beat and Erasure – groups that produced music which was definitely queer, but couched its politics within a bed of upbeat, positive music. Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” is one example – a song conveying “a heavy story – and heartbreaking – and yet you want to dance to the track!”
Erasure also produced powerful, emotional, and empowering songs, but “the synths are really catchy, and you get sucked into them straight away.”
“I feel like, with dance music, it brings people together, it makes people feel really good. And in that space of feeling really good about yourself and with yourself, there is this potential of you maybe being open enough to hear another thought, another idea, another political idea. A challenging idea.”
It was while producing the All Love’s Legal album that Rostron found themselves reflecting on how to merge music with politics effectively. “A lot of the time, there were political songs that I liked, and a lot of people would say ‘Oh I find it too confrontational.’ And I thought, what is this being confronted? And how can you do it in a way that doesn’t put people off or make people step back? How do you communicate your politics?
“I think it’s so important that if you are communicating politics, they have to come from your own experiences. For example, I wrote a track called “Patriarchy Over and Out”. I thought to myself: I want to write a song about patriarchy, how can I do it in a really fun way that doesn’t put people off? I was trying to make it accessible because I want people to think about it. I thought: Okay, what do I want about patriarchy? I just want it to get out of the way! It ruins life – get out of the way! So that’s how I approached it in a fun way. There was “Patriarchy Over and Out”, then there was “Misogyny Drop Dead”… I tried to make titles that are slogans, hilarious in a way, but you understand what was being said at the same time.”
Queering the Music Industry
For Rostron, queering sound and vision also mean supporting other queer and trans-identified producers. They formed their own label, Human Level, to support other queer and female-identifying producers. And they’re always on the lookout for new artists to enjoy and promote (flagging Bored Lord and Arca as two of their recent favorites).
“There are queer people working in the industry, and we work hard to cut that space out for ourselves. And it is very hard. I’ve always tried to stay as independent as possible because the few encounters I’ve had with major labels — or not even major actually, the major independents — the people that are running them are more often than not white cis guys. And they have no idea because they don’t have to engage with any other life than the one they have. And it’s so boring! I can not have any more of those conversations. I’m not interested. It’s like either you go and educate yourself, or get out of the way. I have my own imprint, and I try and cut out those kinds of characters in the chain of actually getting my music to people.”
“You make progress, and then you always hit this wall, because of who’s at the end of the line that gives the permission for whatever you’re trying to push through. People are very smart in finding ways to get around that, and building up alternatives. But it’s hard work.”
Sometimes the arbitrary standards can be amusing as well. Rostron’s previous album included a song called “Transome” that the BBC wanted to use, but it contained the phrase “You make me wet.” The BBC requested a “clean” edit of the song, so Rostron – on the advice of their friend Peaches — substituted a water sample in lieu of the phrase. “The BBC were fine with it!” laughs Rostron. “Unbeknownst to them, they approved an even dirtier version of Transome, without even knowing! You just have to try, you just push and push and push.”
Rostron flags that it’s not just queer musicians facing difficulties from the white cis men in the industry, but that racism also remains a pervasive problem. Ideally, they would re-boot the entire industry, laughs Rostron, but on a more day to day level, Rostron says the struggle comes down to finding and using opportunities to promote other diverse artists and musicians.
“Whenever anybody asks me for a playlist, I make sure that I include all my queer friends. I include predominantly Black producers that I know. I just push and push and push. It’s the only way. Exposure. That way, more people see and hear these other artists.”
“As a white person, I will never experience racism,” Rostron says. “Therefore, the only way that I can apply myself and facilitate anti-racism is that I have to somehow incorporate it in something that I do every day. And that is music.”
Rostron worked out an arrangement with their management, whereby every new release they produce will donate a portion of its earnings to an anti-racist organization. For PlanningtoChanel, proceeds are going to the Marsha P. Johnson Foundation.
“That way, through my work, I keep it on my radar all the time. And it creates conversations. Once we completed the press release for this EP, we had a few PR group meetings, internal ones. There’s always quite a lot of people in these meetings, and there were a lot of people that had never heard of Marsha P. Johnson. A lot of people were asking me why I am doing it. All white people; it’s all white people in these meetings. And there it begins! There’s an opportunity, because I’m fortunate enough that someone’s helping me learn and unlearn, and I’m sharing something. And we had this conversation, a bunch of white people talked about how, as a white person, you can facilitate and help anti-racist organizations. You’ve just got to incorporate it into your life. It’s so important.”
In discussing gender and identity, it’s hard to avoid the subject of fellow Briton JK Rowling, who’s been stirring up headlines in recent months with an array of commentary that’s been widely decried as transphobic. Rowling’s comments are particularly jarring for Rostron, whose work has centered a more diverse and personally authentic conception of gender.
“It’s so upsetting!” Rostron exclaims, in reference to Rowling’s comments. “For a lot of my queer friends and myself, Harry Potter, you know it had its blind spots, but I totally queered it to hell. I watched all of them and queered them all, the way I do with a lot of films, and I think for a lot of queer people the films are quite important. And it’s so shocking and depressing that she has this opportunity, she has accumulated so much wealth from these films, she could do amazing things. And yet this is what she’s doing. It’s really tragic, but it also does superbly highlight a problem with a lot of white straight women — why do they feel that they’re the ones that decide who a woman is? That’s the bit that I don’t get. That’s patriarchal! That is exactly what a lot of straight white women will complain about — how they’re treated, that somebody is deciding things about them.
“It’s like a human rights violation, what she’s doing. It is that serious because she’s endangering a lot of trans women. It’s very frightening, and it’s very irresponsible. I just wish that she was surrounded by people that could help her see the problem with her thinking. And she’s not. She’s surrounded by lots of very conservative, very straight and very privileged people – white people – and that’s the problem. I wish she had better people around her.”
Like other musicians and people around the world, Rostron’s plans were thrown awry by the COVID-19 pandemic. They had a series of shows booked, touring with good friends that were canceled. And although they’re working on a new album (as well as an intriguing collaborative project reinterpreting Beethoven for the occasion of his 250th birthday), the pandemic looms over an uncertain future, especially for an artist who loves performing as much as Rostron.