Category Archive : Music

While preparing for my interview with Clara La San, I realized I didn’t know where to begin. The largely anonymous British singer’s music has floated around the internet for years, becoming synonymous with an ethereal R&B that has one foot in the early 2000s and the other in a time that doesn’t exist yet. But there’s little information available about her online, and she has rarely shown her face since she started releasing music ten years ago.

Still, Clara La San has managed to amass a sizable fanbase who convene across TikTok, YouTube and SoundCloud to commiserate over her heart-piercing lyricism. Sometimes you need little else than the music to reach the masses.

“I’m definitely really private,” Clara La San tells me over Zoom, her camera turned off, just a week before her debut album, Made Mistakes, was set to be released. “I like to isolate myself. I take time to write music.” Her words read as resolute when written down, but when she speaks, she sounds as breathy and wavering as in her songs. “I don’t write just because I can or for the sake of it. There always has to be a reason.”

For years, the only Clara La San songs that were readily available were “Let you Go” and “In This Darkness.” Both are defined by a spellbinding quality, yearning odes that sound as if they’ve emerged from some digital void. The closest sonic analogies to her work are the earliest tracks by The Weeknd, back when he was the veiled purveyor of sultry cyberized R&B, but Clara La San’s sound is singular. Her voice is effortless, slippery. Her lyrics have the unique quality of being disarmingly direct, moving between the confessional and meditative.

She admits it’s hard to recall just how her music began to spread across the internet, but she remembers “Let You Go” as being the first to gain steam on SoundCloud after she released it in 2014. She was at a university and in her early 20s at the time. “I got really into synths and pads,” she tells me. “I was just like, ‘Well, it sounds nice, so maybe I should just see if anybody else likes it before I stop doing it.’”

They did. “I had no followers when I put the song on [SoundCloud],” she says. “I think I put a hashtag and I asked my sister if she could take a photo [for the art]. Everything transpired from there.”

Quickly, she started receiving interest from the industry, but the prospect of signing to a label seemed strange and unthinkable. “Creating music means so much to me. It’s such an important part of my life,” she says. “It’s how I express and understand myself. That being taken away from me would leave me feeling alienated.” She pauses before doubling down. “I’ve just always wanted to be in control of my music,” she says. “That’s what’s made this possible.”

That early interest from the industry and public continued, but releases have been sparse in the years since. She did put out one mixtape, 2017’s Good Mourning, but took it down herself. “I love that mixtape, but it didn’t feel ready,” she says. “I don’t think I was personally ready either.”

Whether she was ready or not, “In This Darkness” and “Let You Go” continued to accrue her fans on SoundCloud. She was increasingly receiving messages asking for her to make the songs available on streaming so three years ago, she did. TikTok and YouTube skyrocketed both songs to heights few artists can ever dream to reach.

“I’m not an avid poster, but my sister told me ‘I’ve been watching videos and I’m sure this is your music,’” she recalls. Today, there are tens of thousands of videos of people reacting to her music and lyrics, often mimicking tears and offering their own meditation on her yearning poetics. “It’s amazing to see people interpret the lyrics in their way and see their different emotional responses,” she tells me. Similarly, on YouTube, a whole culture has emerged around her music, where sped-up and slowed-down versions, edits that use her music against clips from movies (for some bizarre reason, Avatar is the most common), and even unreleased demos all have hundreds of thousands if not millions of views.

It’s all added up. As of today, “In This Darkness” has over 138 million streams on Spotify and “Let You Go” has north of 41 million.

In lieu of this spiraling success, she went full-time with her music three years ago, and set upon finishing her debut album, Made Mistakes. Clara La San is still doing things her way, though. She’s independent and when it was time to make her first music videos — the perplexing, slow, yet utterly hypnotic videos for album singles “Don’t Worry About It” and “Talking To You” — she partnered with Sega Bodega and Eartheater collaborators Claire and Rick Farin (Actual Objects). “We wanted the videos to have me on my own, not surrounded by other people, because that’s how I write music,” she tells me. “We wanted people to put themselves in the [song’s] situation and not have a story in front of them, to imagine how the lyrics would relate to their life.” That reflective posture, one that constantly points the listener away from herself and towards their own perspective, is rare, but it explains why her music has touched fans so deeply.

“When I’m writing, the feeling that I get from the songs is like, ‘Oh, this is doing something.’ If I feel a certain way, somebody else out there is going to feel the same way,” she says. “I’ve always had a strong self-belief in what I create.”

Many artists who have experienced online success similar to Clara La San would be likely to cave to industry pressure and shift their sound to align with their broadening horizons, but Clara La San had an enduring faith that this all would work out if she kept things going on her own terms.

You can hear such assuredness throughout Made Mistakes, like on “Don’t Worry About It” which moves like a circle over trap drums and layers of washed-out pianos. “I can’t control how I feel/ I get so lonely at times/ Try to look up and not down just to open my mind,” she sings with her signature directness. On “All I Wanna Do,” a dark piece of bass-forward R&B offset by her sweetly loving lyrics, “All I wanna do is settle down with you/ Spending every day/ Just rolling ‘round with you,” she coos.

Though the machinations of public life may be a novelty for the reclusive artist, there’s a pride she has in this body of work, and a gratitude for the fan’s deep connection to her words and work. “I wanted to let everybody know that I do exist,” she says. “I’m not going to stay in the shadows forever. I just wanted time to hone in on the music and have a full body of work.”

Her life is still quiet, largely shifting between Los Angeles and London. She still writes her songs solo, though on Made Mistakes, she partnered with producer Yves Rothman to finalize the arrangements. With shows on the way and an album that, if history is an indicator, is set to expand her world considerably, the once-veiled Clara La San is inching toward the limelight. Thankfully, though, she’s still in control of her spotlight. She’s adjusting the brightness.

Photography: Claire Farin

“Our biggest weapon is our family trees/ We didn’t choose to live this life overseas/ I hear the sound of bombs in my dreams,” Saint Levant (Marwan Abdelhamid) raps on album opener, “On This Land,” his low voice calling out in pain and defiance.

Born in Jerusalem and raised in Gaza before his family was forced to flee to Jordan during the 2007 Battle of Gaza, Saint Levant’s story is emblematic of the Palestinian people’s enduring struggle for dignity, self-determination and life itself. The son of a French-Algerian mother and Serbian-Palestinian father, his music moves fluidly between English, French and Arabic. That global perspective has allowed him to reach millions of fans around the world and made him a beacon of light for a generation of young people who have never known a free Palestine.

That light is infused throughout his debut album, DEIRA, which explores both love and loss and conjures scenes from the seaside Gaza City hotel his father designed and operated. On DEIRA, Abdelhamid offers the hotel as a symbol of return and safety, bringing the whole world to the everyday Gaza he knew so well, the Gaza where he went to school, played soccer with friends and spent evenings beside the sea. That long-beloved structure was destroyed by IDF bombs alongside “more than half of [Gaza’s] healthcare, education, and water facilities,” according to Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. While much media depicts this destruction and slaughter in grossly dehumanizing, impersonal terms, Abdelhamid’s music serves as a perennial reminder of the Gazan people’s enduring humanity and grace.

Abdelhamid dug through his childhood photos and family archives to give us a glimpse into his family’s history. While it’s hard to take in the sheer scale of destruction and bloodshed, these small windows into everyday life from his childhood in Gaza are a powerful lens to view the magnitude of what has been lost throughout this brutal period of violence, where more than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF. Abdelhamid’s memories serve as yet another reminder of the urgent need for an enduring ceasefire in Gaza and a liberated, free Palestine.

Journey through Saint Levant’s memories of Gaza, below.

This photo was taken at the Deira Hotel, where we used to eat. The restaurants there overlooked the beach and this is where we spent most of our time.

Pictured here are my mother, my sido and myself. Sido and I share the same name, Marwan Abdelhamid. I was named after him. We were all at the Deira Hotel, having a great time.

This is me with a childhood friend on the beaches of Gaza. We would do this every morning. We would run along the beach, swim and sometimes we would try to catch fish with our bare hands.

This is me at AISG (The American International School of Gaza), the school I attended in Gaza that was inevitably destroyed by Israeli bombs. I was celebrating my fourth birthday there.

This is a memory of the first game I ever played at a football club in Gaza with all the boys. I eventually went on to play football semi-professionally in Jordan.

This is me in Gaza, in a site that is all too familiar, amidst rubble and destruction.

Photography: Pedro Damasceno / courtesy of Saint Levant

Line dancing, mechanical horseback riding, an open bar, plenty of pink and… Kesha!

Lyft, in collaboration with Stud Country, threw a banger of a party on Wednesday, June 5 to kick off Pride Month. Equal parts 2010s revival and western indie sleaze celebration, the event saw partygoers two-steppin’ on the dance floor in cowboy hats to a special live performance from the “TikTok” pop star.

To quote Kesha, everyone was going “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-hard” at Brooklyn Bowl. Style star Clara Perlmutter pulled up looking like a western angel, and pop artist Maude Latour also stopped by. In keeping with the night’s mid-aughts nostalgia, The Cobrasnake could be spotted hanging outside with it-girl Cory Kennedy. Yves Mathieu, was pumping his moves, per usual.

There was no shortage of smiles and everyone left feeling happy, blessed by Kesha herself. See photos, below.

Photography: Matt Weinberger

The backstage area of a music festival will forever be a sometimes chic, always chaotic wonderland meets fever dream. In some ways, it’s the great equalizer, the place where headliners and hitmakers rub shoulders with wide-eyed entertainment journalists who are also in line to grab a glizzy before the next set. Governors Ball is no exception.

Feeling FOMO? Lucky for you, we spent the time in between writing articles on cabana-like seating to take out our Skullcandy earbuds, pick up our PAPER microphone and slip into trailers, side-stage and press tents to talk to some of the weekend’s biggest stars.

Below, check out exclusive photos of Peso Pluma, Reneé Rapp, G Flip, P1harmony, Flo, Doechii, Yung Gravy, Stephen Sanchez, Mimi Webb, Qveen Herby and Rauw Alejandro by Vincenzo Dimino, along with highlights from backstage chats with PAPER.

P1harmony on their album Killin’ It:

Killin’ It is the title of our full length album we released in February and also the main leading single off that album. It’s a song that’s really fun and energetic. It’s a song that really wants you to get up and dance with us. It’s all about… you know, killin’ it, cause you’re the best.

G Flip on what songs fans are having the most fun with live:

I put out a song called “The Worst Person Alive” and people seem to like that song. I also have a song called “Gay For Me” and that’s pretty fitting for pride and that’s pretty fitting for me, cause I’m gay as fuck.

Doechii on which artist she’d want to jet-set with:

Sexyy Red, because I know it’s going to be really fun. Probably Miami. We’d probably be twerking everywhere. Restaurants, yachts, crab boils. Eating good.

Reneé Rapp on what she’s most excited for next:

I’m most excited, fuck… I don’t know. For my next album!

Rauw Alejandro on what fans can expect next:

New music, all the time. I love being in the studio that’s my favorite part about being an artist, the creative process of all my songs. It’s where I disconnect from the world and it’s just me and a mic and a computer.

Qveen Herby on her debut Gov Ball performance:

It’s incredible to be back in New York. This is my first time at Gov Ball. It went flawlessly, pure magic. And I got to see lots of my favorite babes in the audience.

Flo on which of their songs is the song of the summer:

“Summertime.” No, that was last summer. “Caught Up!” The guitar is bringing all the summer vibes. It’s giving Spanish, Español, Señorita, it’s a sexy summer.

Stephen Sanchez on new music:

“We just put out [“Angel Face (Club Deluxe)”] with five new songs just a month or so ago, so go check that out. I’ve been working with new folks and making some new music, but for now, hanging out, and we’ve got a new tour, so hopefully, you guys can come out.

Mimi Webb on fan reaction to her song “Mistake”:

It was really exciting to put it out and tease the sound of my next album. Even though we have so many new and different songs coming, that song felt like the perfect one to launch off of. It was so fun to sing something different and write something that was a little more out of my comfort zone.

Alex Chapman on his favorite after party DJ experience:

My favorite after party memory was DJing Mark Ronson’s Grammy after party — it was really lit, and there was a crazy storm, the ceiling was leaking at the Bar Marmont in West Hollywood, it was super iconic.

Photography: Vincenzo Dimino

I’m standing nervously in the rain while a group of both middle-aged men and 20-somethings swarm around Sophie Ellis-Bextor‘s trailer outside Webster Hall in the East Village. A security guard asks me to get in line down the block, and as I flash my press credentials, I catch a few of the assembled girls and gays whisper amongst themselves. The guard nods as I huddle closer to the wall, my sundress and platform heels feeling like the worst mistake I could have made on a previously beautiful summer afternoon. Nearby, a couple who’d been gossiping loudly gasps as Ellis-Bextor emerges from the RV. I begin to feel the linen clinging to my skin, the downpour intensifying with the mood outside.

Throwing a knowing wave at her tour manager, I fall a few paces back while she autographs paraphernalia and takes selfies. That same couple’s eyes are wide, and they tell her they’ve waited over twenty years for the pop songstress to perform stateside. Ellis-Bextor’s smile is warm, and she cracks on about her rained on appearance, and how excited she is to see everyone. Another group has traveled from the Midwest, and a man comes running down the street exclaiming he was worried he’d missed her. As her tour manager calls it and ushers us both inside, I catch the couple from before whispering that they’d checked her Instagram stories to track her location, desperate to get one glimpse of her. My grin doesn’t fade until we’re seated in the dressing room, safe from the rain that has completely ruined my outfit.

The recent success of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” surprised just about everyone, Ellis-Bextor included. In countless interviews since the release of the film Saltburn gave the track new life, the British pop fixture has answered just about every variation of the question: Did she ever think a 2001 single would be the most buzzed-about song of 2023? No, of course not. But, as she tells me later in her dressing room, “I hope it gives a little bit of comfort to other artists and bands and people out there that there’s no real set pattern of what’s going to happen, you know?” It’s a perspective that can only come with thirty years in the business since she debuted with British rock band Theaudience in 1996. “You literally don’t know where the map will lead you. So you might as well just have a lot of fun and experience what’s in front of you.”

On the topic of Theaudience, Ellis-Bextor’s first band broke up in 1999, after Mercury dropped them while working on their second album. “Because my band split up, I really thought I was high and dry. But then I got asked if I wanted to collaborate with this Italian DJ, and I had no idea that that song would be something that would do so well commercially.” That song, Spiller’s 2000 single “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love),” entered the UK’s Singles Chart at No. 1, and led to a solo career for Ellis-Bextor that has persisted to this day. “I think that taught me a little bit about magic, really, and being open to stuff, because you can’t really plan that much. You’re so encouraged to think you can plan.”

It was through “Groovejet” that I first became aware of Sophie Ellis-Bextor, on the pop culture board ATRL in 2005. Then called Absolute TRL, British fans evangelized about her debut solo album, Read My Lips, and down the hole I went, a hole I happily lived in. I evangelized myself for the following 15 years, late night, when gay people would assemble to watch music videos at the afters or at karaoke, where puzzled friends would sway along to “Heartbreak (Make Me a Dancer)”. Even underneath the DJ booth, begging them to take “Murder on the Dancefloor” for a much-needed spin. Back at Webster Hall, I mention the newly bridged distance between her fans across the Atlantic and here in the States, curious why she doesn’t think it hit the same in the early 2000s. “When I was releasing my first album, it wasn’t what was happening here in the States. This is before EDM had really done its thing, and the sound of my music was very European.”

I mention that other longtime Euro-staples like Kylie Minogue have experienced a similar renaissance with overseas listeners, and she brushes off the comparison. “To my perception, Kylie had already been known about in America!” But I insist, positing that maybe we’ve defeated the sexist adage that pop music has an expiration date, or that the genre is inherently for the young. “It’s like, none of that was true. It was, in fact, probably all made up by blokes in a boardroom. It was definitely not coming from women.” She continues: “I should have known better, because it wasn’t how I thought about music, or any of it. There was a head honcho at that label, who was very keen on telling me what people my age were buying, and I was thinking, ‘Why doesn’t he just ask me?’” She laughs, and brushes aside the memory. “I guess, ultimately, none of it really mattered.”

Later, at Alphabet Bar across the street, her label reps at Republic tell me that various labels have focused on back catalogs as yesteryear’s music has surged to the fore. Young people have always looked backward after a fashion. That said, the reality of new music releases has altered dramatically, in part because of how TikTok has fundamentally changed the concept of music discovery, and how that music is passed around the culture. In fact, I recently spoke with Nelly Furtado under similar pretenses, and even Heidi Montag earlier this year. There are more contemporary examples. Chappell Roan’s Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess made its Billboard 200 chart debut earlier this year a full six months after its release, with a recent peak of No. 23, a surge in sales buoyed by TikTok’s reception of “Good Luck, Babe!” and a string of buzzy festival performances.

A question bubbles up toward the end of our conversation, and I ask Ellis-Bextor if there’s another song she’d want a “Murder on the Dancefloor” moment for. Her answer floors me with its clarity. “I don’t think it works like that. When you put music out into the world, it’s never a static moment. You put a song out because you want to start a dialogue. It’s like a conversation.” To Ellis-Bextor, what happened to “Murder” is something special, a chapter she doesn’t want to recreate, but expand on. “You put out a song and then people reflect it back to you, and then it always evolves. For me to start flinging out other songs would almost be like me not understanding how special that is. I don’t really need to dilute it.”

The poignancy of the answer comes back to me, perched on the balcony overlooking the crowd. “Get Over You” transitions into a megamix of “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” and “Groovejet” and ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”. She follows it up with “Not Giving Up On Love” and a cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” bounding and spinning across stage, weaving the sorts of spells that caused me to scream on more than one occasion. “Heartbreak (Make Me a Dancer)” bleeds into her final act, as a massive disco ball lowers from the ceiling. A series of multicolored spotlights spray a million stars across the crowd.

A few catch in the tears that cloud my vision as she closes the set with “Murder on the Dancefloor”, and I hastily wipe them away despite my mascara, wanting the moment to stretch out forever.

One by one those stars twinkle out, and the crowd erupts, chanting, screaming, begging her back. No surprise that she springs back onstage for an encore of “New York City Lights” and “Bittersweet,” but it’s the next bit that crowded out all others on the drive home, down the Jersey Turnpike past midnight. Upstairs, I hear a commotion to my left, and realize I am standing not one pace from Ellis-Bextor, who’s been hurried to the balcony. A spotlight on her hushes the crowd to total silence, and out across the sea of rapturous faces, Ellis-Bextor sends us off into the sticky New York night with a stripped-back, mic-less rendition of Theaudience’s “A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed.” It’s off the album that preceded the band’s breakup, the same album that led to so many unexpected twists of fate for Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

It goes something like: “Hey sunshine! I’ll never shake your pride/ You’re what I need/ You’ve been anointed/ This is the highlight of your miserable life/ A pessimist is never disappointed.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, because she did, already and more in the last six months, and earlier in the dressing room. “The songs I brought with me on tour, they still evolve, because all the memories I make, seeing people sing them back to me, or having that energy in the room. It all evolves, it all layers.”

What a highlight of this sometimes miserable, oftentimes unexpected life.

Photography: Andrew Angel

Last month, Tei Shi stomped on stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. It was a monumental moment for the Canadian-Colombian pop artist, who got her start in New York City.

For over a decade now, the chill-pop chanteuse has been releasing music that is simultaneously hard to categorize yet distinctly her own. Having collaborated with the likes of Blood Orange and Empress Of, her musical output has been constant and cool — but fraught with shaky label deals and music industry powerplay that took away from the music.

Now, Tei Shi has freed herself from the chains of record labels with the release of her first independent LP, Valerie. It’s an eponymous record for Tei Shi, whose real name is Valerie Teicher Barbosa, and taps into the free spirit of her Latine roots, growing up in Colombia, and rebirth. The album itself spans genre in a way Tei Shi has never done before, incorporating bachata, R&B, pop, tropicalia, and shoegaze.

“I’m on the road again,” Tei Shi tells PAPER in an intro to her exclusive diary entry. “NYC is like a shock of blood through my system! I love this city and I feel it love me back. Tei Shi was born and raised here after all. I performed my new album Valerie at Music Hall, drenched in LUAR bebé. The best days on tour feel like playing – like literal child’s play and today was very much that. I had a playdate with the city, with LUAR, with my audience, and here’s a glimpse. Can I just stay here and replay this night over and over and over and over and over and over and over?”

In celebration of this newfound freedom, Tei Shi brought us along with her before and after her show in Brooklyn, where she was dressed in full Luar. Check it out below.

Excuse me, I’m new here… I just touched down from 1892. do you know the way to the Music Hall of Williamsburg?

Grabbing my Korg Kaoss pad and my LUAR, and headed to soundcheck. Kaoss, meet glam.

Post-soundcheck stroll, gathering energy from the streets, absorbing excellence and maybe a little THC.

Merch time! I made these beautiful CDs of my new album Valerie, old school with a fold-out insert featuring lyrics, credits and photography by Vogue Giambri, and a gorgeous poster.

Backstage pre-show. The energy is frantic yet serene. There’s nothing like those pre-stage nerves, but I’m dripping and embraced by this piece of art.

I hit the stage and I’m soaring.

Singing sometimes feels like what I imagine flying must feel like. My body is here adorned by LUAR, but my spirit is in my voice and it’s traveling through melodic space and time.

The cuffs were my special guests.

On my knees for you New York, no other way.

Photography: Andy Martinez
Production: Fish Fiorucci

If you’ve been to Paragon, you understand the appeal. When you walk onto the dancefloor, it’s like walking into a luxurious compound off the M train, with a staircase that divides on each side leading up to the illustrious upper level. At the helm is the DJ booth, which serves as the all-powerful frontier. For ravers and curious revelers alike, Paragon is an oasis.

Now, that energy can be felt right from home as the venue has just launched Live at Paragon, a new YouTube series that documents the DJs who play within the hallowed space. “This is our attempt to archive the explosive energy, sounds, people, and fashion of 2024 NYC,” says Paragon owner John Barclay. “This is one of the most frenetic intersections within one of the most volatile cities during a critical moment in history. NYC dance culture is once again flourishing and evolving, and it seems worth documenting.”

So far, the video series has aired sets from DJs including Mike Servito, Madness Of, and Boy Harsher. Upcoming sets include PAPER favorite LSDXOXO, as well as Paragon resident DJs Tygapaw and Byrell the Great. With the series, the venue hopes to cement their own special identity apart from other live set streamers like Boiler Room, Hor, and The Lot Radio, which are more of a film shoot and less of a candid, in-the-moment capturing of the night.

“Initially, we started recording sets with a little security camera pointed above the DJ,” says Paragon operator Stephen Casciano. “We then realized we could do something different than everyone else: document a real New York City club/rave experience week in, week out that shows our eclectic, and kind of freaky, crowd and interior.”

Look out for upcoming Live at Paragon streams in the next few months.

Photography: Courtesy of Paragon

Orville Peck has always been known for his masks. Back in 2018, when the South African-born, Canada-raised country singer first popped onto our radars with the sultry, aching croon of his debut single “Big Sky,” the facial accessories were an immediate calling card. With a leather upper that covered everything save for his piercing blue eyes and draping fringe that shrouded his mouth, chin and neck, the masks were playfully mysterious and seductively fetishistic. In a culture increasingly obsessed with “accessibility” and starved for “relatability” from its biggest stars, there was something undeniably intriguing about this perceived sense of anonymity — and about Peck’s theater kid commitment to the bit.

But in the half-decade since then, as Peck’s star has continued to rise, as he’s gone from an upstart on buzzy imprint Sub Pop to the “first openly gay country artist to get signed to a major label,” as he’s graduated from seedy dive bars to the stages of Coachella and Stagecoach (in the same year, at that), the artist has started to peel off some of these trademark layers, slowly but surely showing us more and more of the man behind the mask. While the visuals for his breakout Juno-nominated project Pony and its darker, more brooding followup Bronco were defined by the allure of his hidden face, Peck’s most recent videos have found him abandoning the fringe entirely, relying on little more than a simple Zorro-like covering up top, his angular features and perfectly coiffed beard now in full, unobstructed view.

It’s a gradual shift that Peck’s close friend Gottmik has noticed — and on a bright and early Zoom call, the RuPaul’s Drag Race finalist points it out, wondering if the switch-up was a practical decision or something else. “I really like evolution with artists,” Peck answers, going on to explain that, although the mask has always mattered to him as an artistic statement, he has lately felt an urge to change the aesthetic up, fearing any stagnancy in his progression as an artist.

“I’m sort of revealing a little more and more each time,” he adds later. “Not to get too deep about it, but it’s sort of a parallel with my songwriting and with just who I want to be as an artist and a person, which is to always be more vulnerable and reveal a bit more of myself through my music and everything. So it’s kind of just an evolution.”

Besides, the artist has been in a space of transformation for a while now. Just last summer, Peck found himself in a dark spell, becoming disillusioned with music and, eventually, canceling a full tour to address issues with his “mental and physical health.” But then, country legend Willie Nelson reached out about collaborating on a cover of the controversial gay cowboy anthem “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” — kickstarting what would become an entire duets project — and Peck found his passion for music-making returning.

Stampede: Vol. 1, the first part of that two-part project, featuring an eclectic list of collaborators — from good friends like Noah Cyrus to industry legends like Elton John (there’s even a bilingual offering with Alfonso Cuarón’s daughter, Bu Cuaron) — was released in May. But already, Peck is whetting our appetites for Vol. 2. The day before our interview, the troubadour dropped the first tease of what’s to come: a “dark disco country” number he whipped up with the help of Diplo and none other than Kylie Minogue. It’s all, as he puts it, quite “crazy.” No wonder Gottmik calls him out for “living every gay’s literal dream.”

Below, read PAPER’s full conversation between Orville Peck and Gottmik.

Orville Peck: So, how are things going?

Gottmik: I’m supposed to be asking you things! [laughs] But things are going great. It’s Pride Month, so it’s really crazy. I’m sure it’s the same for you. I’m seeing you everywhere! I can’t believe how much stuff we’re both doing, so when I got this opportunity to call you, I was like, “There’s no one else in the world I’d rather wake up and fit something else into my Pride schedule for!”

Orville: I know! When they asked who I wanted, I was like, “Well, we’re both so busy, so the best chance I’ll have to get to hang out with Kade will be if we have to schedule an interview.”

Gottmik: Definitely. The only way we can hang out is for your PAPER cover. But how are you? What are you doing? Where are you?

Orville: I’m good. I’m on tour. I’m in Cincinnati. I’ve been on tour for two weeks. It’s the first time I’ve been touring in, like, over a year. So it’s been really, really amazing. I’ve put out half of my new duets album, which is really fun. And I just put out the first song of the remainder of the album. It’s all happening.

Gottmik: I love touring. Touring is my favorite thing in the world, but not until after the fact. Literally. During the fact, I’m like, “Wow, this is really hard and crazy.” But then, after, I’ll be like, “That was so fun, and I never want to stop touring in my life!”

Orville: It’s the craziest thing. I mean, now I do chiller tours. I’m on the road for like three weeks on, three weeks off kind of thing. But I used to tour 250 days out of the year.

Gottmik: No! How is that even possible?

Orville: It’s impossible. That’s the problem. That’s why I have mental illness.

Gottmik: I just, like, didn’t even know there were that many days in a year. You’re just a little workaholic.

Orville: Yeah…so no more doing that.

Gottmik: You’re touring solely the first part of Stampede?

Orville: Yeah. The first part of Stampede is out. “Volume One.” And then, the remaining part of the album is coming soon. I just put out the first single of the second volume. It’s with Kylie Minogue and Diplo. It’s a little disco banger.

Gottmik: Just a casual little drop. What is going on with your brain that you have a song with Kylie Minogue? During Pride?!

Orville: It’s crazy. I don’t know how to process it. There are just so many amazing people I got to work with. On Volume One, I have songs with Willie Nelson, Elton John, just the craziest people. And then now, for Volume Two, I’m getting to reveal these other crazy people.

I’ve been working on this album for like two years, and after Willie asked me to do our song together, which started the whole idea, the first person I reached out to trying to see if I could get a duet song together was Kylie. Her and I used to DM, just in like a cute “heart each other’s stories” kind of way. But I was always sort of like, “I don’t know if this is just some gay guy running her account that’s like her publicist…” Because you never really know! And you don’t really want to put yourself out there, just in case.

But I was just kind of like, “Fuck it. I’m gonna shoot my shot.” So I was like, “Hey. I’m thinking of doing this duets album. I have one song so far. It’s with Willie Nelson. And I would love for you to be a part of it. I think we could make something really cool.” The idea from the beginning was that we could do this kind of dark disco country song. And she was like, “Absolutely.” No questions asked. Basically, we’ve been sitting on some of these songs for almost two years now.

Doing an album like this has made music feel fun again for me.

Gottmik: I saw you performed it with her at Pride and I wanted to be there so bad. I don’t think I’ve ever had FOMO more in my life. And the outfit you wore! Not to make it about the fashion for a second, but it was just so good — that black-and-crystal barbed wire. I was like, Okay, not only do I want to wear that, but I’m jealous I’m not there.

Orville: It’s Levi’s that’s doing all those denim outfits for me. There’s this amazing designer at Levi’s who does all the custom stuff, and they’ve just been killing it with these crazy denim looks.

Gottmik: Yeah, Levi’s has been turning it with you for a while. You’ve gotten to work with major designers. And people! Your Elton John moment? That’s wild. And your Willie Nelson song. I texted you the second I heard it. I was like, “This is so good.” I literally have it on my shower playlist.

Orville: Thank you. I’m pretty excited about it. Some of them are, I guess, “departures” from my usual songwriting and style. But that was kind of the point of this album. I really wanted to do something that felt like each song was a collaboration with the other person, like 50/50 me and them.

It’s been interesting because, as you know, I took a big break from touring and all that stuff over the last year. I had become really jaded and sort of disenfranchised with music and the industry and all that stuff. But I think doing an album like this has made music feel fun again for me. I feel like I’m being more creative than I’ve ever been by doing this album because it’s taken me so much out of my comfort zone. Now, I’m so excited to get back to my regular solo project, but this has just been such a fun adventure to do this album. I mean, doing a disco song with Kylie Minogue? I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined that.

Gottmik: You’re living every gay’s literal dream, whether they sing or not. Also, I’ve gotten to hang out with you and Noah [Cyrus] when you guys are talking about your new music and playing each other your voice notes, and just the way she trusts you and respects you, it was so cute to watch. So it’s so cool that you have a song with her and have gotten to perform with her for so long. I feel like any artist collabing with other artists that you respect and they respect you… You could be the most uninspired in the world, and it just brings you to a place of, like, artist joy again. So I can imagine being able to collab with not only people you know and love so closely, like Noah, but also with [icons like] Kylie Minogue and Elton John, is just crazy. I just can’t imagine how many different artistic points in your brain you got to reach with that.

Orville: It’s crazy. I feel like I’ve scratched every possible itch.

Gottmik: Also, Diplo on the album? At Pride? I’m like, “Is there a sex tape coming along with it…?” I’m confused. Because I’d watch the tape. I need that as the music video.

Orville: Well, he’s my good-for-nothing on-and-off-again boyfriend, as we like to call each other.

Gottmik: I see it and I believe it and I want it. And I’d subscribe! So you also just announced your 6th Annual Rodeo?

Orville: Yeah. That’s happening in Nashville, and we have some pretty great people this year. We have Tanya Tucker, who’s one of my absolute favorite country icons. Mickey Guyton, Reyna Roberts, Medium Build, Fancy Hagood. I’ve got tons of special guests and surprises.

Gottmik: I’m sure you do!

Orville: There’s drag brunches.

Gottmik: No…

Orville: Yes! One of the nights is hosted by one of my favorite Nashville queens, Alexia Noelle Paris, who’s been on tour with me before. And the whole event is hosted by John Waters.

Gottmik: No!

Orville: Yeah, you’ve gotta come! It’s August 23, 24 and 25. It’s three days.

Gottmik: My birthday is on the 19th. I’m coming and, somehow, I’m making this about me.

Orville: It’ll be so fun.

If I started putting all my focus into whether I’m wearing the fringe or not, then it’s like… I’m kind of not doing my job as an artist, you know?

Gottmik: So, I’ve noticed your — umm — face mask has been getting smaller and smaller. I love it.

Orville: We keep joking that it’s gonna end up as just a little eye patch.

Gottmik: Yeah, you’ll just be wearing contacts in a year! Were you tired of swallowing the tassels while you sing?

Orville: It’s a few things. I really like evolution with artists, and I think the mask has always meant a lot to me artistically, but I think if you hang onto something too long as an artist, I think there’s a… Well, first of all, I start to become bored of it. It loses its quality for me. But I also think it can hold you back a little bit sometimes if you’re sticking with one thing.

I’ve evolved [the mask size] for every album, actually. This is the biggest change, so I think people think it’s the first time that it’s changed. But if people look, it’s actually changed about two or three times already. And I’m sort of revealing a little more and more each time. Not to get too deep about it, but it’s sort of a parallel with my songwriting and with just who I want to be as an artist and a person, which is to always be more vulnerable and reveal a bit more of myself through my music and everything. So it’s kind of just the evolution. I don’t know where it’ll end up and I don’t know how it’ll look in the end. I don’t make any plans about it. But I think that’s important.

I also think it’s good for my fans. A lot of people are sort of jarred by it and miss the fringe. I hear that from people. But I think it’s good for them to evolve and change, too, to grow with me. I know something can be really comforting, and people can really fall in love with something the way it is, but nothing lasts forever, all good things end, and everything has to grow and evolve. I think this pushes people’s perspectives of what I do — that it doesn’t just remain the same forever. Nothing can. If you try to make something remain the same forever, that’s when you start making bad art. If I started putting all my focus into whether I’m wearing the fringe or not, then it’s like…I’m kind of not doing my job as an artist, you know?

Gottmik: 100%. I am the same way with my artistry. I think the second I stopped putting so much pressure on “always painting my face white” or doing something, I was, like, surprisingly showing myself that I was growing as an artist. I feel like the second you stop pushing yourself, that’s when you enter a weird comfort zone and you’re not evolving. And your album? You are evolving. I’m not even ready for what part two has coming. When does it come out?

Orville: Um. We haven’t said yet. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say. It’s sooner than people think.

PAPER: Can you say if it’s this year?

Orville: Yes. This year, for sure. It’s coming this summer.

Gottmik: Perfect. As long as I don’t have to wait that long, then I’m fine. Well, it seems like your year is set, baby! Good luck finding any free time. Now I’m glad I did this call, for sure!

Orville: Seriously! It’s a little crazy. But that’s the nice thing about having done this for a long time now — it’s having that sort of, I guess, like, freedom. Like, I used to have to tour 250 days out of the year because I was trying to get someone to pay attention. But now, I can sort of dictate. I’ve learned how much time off I need. I’ve learned that I need to be able to go back and reset, and see my boyfriend and my dog and, like, sleep in my bed, and do normal person things. I’ve learned that that’s, like, important to a human. [laughs]

Gottmik: 100%. My therapist and everyone were always like, “What are you doing for self-care?” And my brain was always like, “Babe, I don’t have time for bubble baths and facials! What are you talking about?” But sometimes, self-care literally comes as just like going home and going to bed, in your bed with your boyfriend. That’s all it needs to be. You don’t have to be crazy.

Orville: Literally. Just waking up and knowing where you are. Knowing what day of the week it is. That’s also kind of cute.

Gottmik: Yes. Your Delta app not being the only person telling you where you’re going — that’s self-care in itself.

Orville: Exactly.

There’s nothing wrong with being a straight white man making country music. But like, babe, we’ve heard it. We’ve heard about the truck!

Gottmik: I also think you’re such an important person in the community right now, because I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an artist that’s really just blending the queer community with this straight, mainstream community that I’ve never even tapped into. If I’m on an Orville stan page, I’ll be looking around, and I’m like, Wow, I never would talk to these people I’m talking to right now. This is so crazy. The way you just seamlessly blend these communities without trying to. You’re just, like, you — so authentically queer and amazing and fashion and artistry. But then, at the same time, you’re the only country classic diva with Willie Nelson. It’s just so cool that it’s someone who’s so hot and our age and hilarious. You’re such an amazing person and you deserve every single thing that’s happening to you, and that is why everything’s happening to you so fast and so young. I’m just so happy to know you.

PAPER: On that note, Orville, have you felt any shifts in the acceptance of queer people in the country scene? Does it feel different now than it did when you were coming up?

Orville: I’ve felt a lot of shifts, actually. We started at a pretty low bar. It was basically just me, and, you know, a few people that didn’t ever get their flowers from the past. But I was the first openly gay country artist to get signed to a major label, and I definitely felt it, for many years. Especially in Nashville and that scene of mainstream Nashville country, it was a lot of biting my tongue and trying to just find my place at the table in a lot of rooms. It was hard at first.

But now, I think it’s really wonderful. We have several out gay country artists, and we have more and more visibility with Black country artists, with brown country artists. I think country had this stigma for so long — kind of after 9/11 — that it was about being white, heteronormative, Southern, and religious, and patriotic. It just became a politicized genre. So it’s so lovely to see it being represented diversely now, because its roots are all in diversity. I mean, country is a blend of African instruments, Hawaiian instruments, European settlers, Mexican culture — it’s such a blended genre. It’s like the most American genre, so it should be enjoyed by everyone, and it should also be interpreted and performed by anybody who wants to do it. So it’s lovely to not only see more queer representation now, but just more diverse representation in general — because country is all about storytelling, so all I want to do is hear new stories. There’s nothing wrong with being a straight white man making country music. But like, babe, we’ve heard it. We’ve heard about the truck!

Gottmik: That’s so insane that you were the first openly gay country artist on a record label like that. How do you keep fighting for your spot at the table? I feel like that’s so hard to do. That’s probably such an exciting moment in your life, and then you finally get there, and they’re treating you a certain type of a way. I deal with that all the time as well, and sometimes, it just gets hard. You’re like, Okay, girl, I’m over this. I’ve tried, but every day I feel like I’m waking up to fight a fight that is way bigger than I am. How do you stay motivated and keep pushing through that?

Orville: I think you can probably relate. We’ve talked a little bit about this before, you and I, just on our own. But it’s interesting to be in your career, in the scope of your workplace and your contemporaries, and feel like, even within that, people are defining your artistry by who you are — or that they’re separating you from everyone else in a way. That can be a real mindfuck. But I grew up sort of a weirdo and a punk. I was just very rebellious about everything, just hating authority and…

Gottmik: Yes, your punk-rock band era! I love talking about that.

Orville: [laughs] So I’ve kind of had this…sometimes great, sometimes not so helpful petty problem where if someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m like, “Oh, well, now, not only am I going to do it, but I’m going to do it the best and the most.” I live and die for proving someone wrong.

Gottmik: For someone like us, you have to have that mentality. I even talked to RuPaul about that one time. She was like, “The reason I’m here is because I was persistent. People told me no. People told me drag queens can’t be mainstream. But the reason I’m here is because I literally was just like, ‘I don’t care. I’m staying here. I’m going to keep going.’”

Orville: Also, nothing changes if you don’t do that. That’s the thing — would it have been nice and easier if I hadn’t been the first person trying to do all that? Yeah! 1,000%. It would have been wonderful if I had even just one other person that I felt was helping me do that. But would I change anything about it? No. Because it’s all part of my story and who I am and who it built me into.

For me, “being cool” with queer people is not allyship. That’s just fucking common decency.

Gottmik: If I were you, I’d also have to sometimes step back and be like, wow, it’s so important that we also have people like Kylie and Noah and Willie that are taking these moments to recognize how important people like you are. Not only is it so important to the world right now that they see you and raise you up on a platform, but also, you’re so talented and [your work] speaks for itself, so they would definitely be collabing with you whether you were the most amazing trailblazer in the world or not. You have the talent to back it up, so no one can say anything — and I think that’s key as well.

Orville: I think that’s a good point. I feel like you’ve also experienced that with people like Paris [Hilton]. We all hear the term “ally” a lot these days. It gets thrown around a lot. But you know, for me, “being cool” with queer people is not allyship. That’s just fucking common decency. That’s the bare minimum. That doesn’t mean you’re an “ally” to me, just because you’re not hateful.

Gottmik: Like, oh, you’re not gonna beat me up?

Orville: Allyship is, in no uncertain terms, including and standing beside and working with and collaborating with and lifting up queer people. That is an ally. That’s someone who’s actually allied with you. And that’s what’s been so lovely about this album. I mean, I have… [does some counting in his head] I have 18 artists on Stampede, and I think four of them are queer. Everyone else is heterosexual, as far as I know, and never once [did they] think or question whether working with me was going to mean something for their careers. They were just happy to work with me and be an ally. And that’s what we need at the moment. With all of the crazy shit going on, we need people that are gonna stand up for real. Not just someone that’s like, “Oh yeah, I have a gay friend. I’m cool.” It’s like, “Okay, that’s fucking wonderful. But what else?”

Gottmik: That’s a Pride question that I’m sure you get all the time: What is allyship? How can I be a better ally? But that’s literally it. Just be there and listen to the community and what they are saying, and use your artistry and your platform to lift us up and to share our stories and our art with the world at a level [we might not have been able to otherwise]. Let’s say, a lot of Willie Nelson fans maybe wouldn’t have listened to you before. Maybe Kylie Minogue fans wouldn’t have listened to you before. But now, they’re exposed to the artistry and humanity and life of Orville Peck through Kylie. Not that Kylie Minogue has different fans. It’s probably 99% gay fans.

Orville: I was gonna say! [Laughs]

Gottmik: [Laughs] Maybe that was the wrong person to say.

Orville: But I have to just finish by saying how much I love you, Kade, and everything you do. Not only do I love you so much as a friend and as a person, but you’re such an incredible artist. You’re killing it on [RuPaul’s Drag Race] All Stars, and I’m so happy you’re back in the spotlight where you deserve to be.

Gottmik: Thank you so much. I literally could not say… Actually, I can. I can say even more. I’m so proud of you, too, and I love you. Day one, since I met Orville, he was the most supportive, amazing person ever. I was like, “I want to make a song,” and he was like, “Let’s listen to it now. Let’s go.” You’re such a doer, and you’re so excited to be a part of everyone’s art, and to just help and do everything you can. I’m so lucky to know you and so lucky to be here interviewing you. You are such an angel of life. The artist of our lives. We’re so lucky to have you and that we get so much content from you right now. I mean, this is the year of Orville Peck!

Orville: I love it. I’ll take it.

Photography and direction: Brett Loudermilk
Creative and art direction: Zain Curtis
Styling: Catherine Hahn
Hair and makeup: Hatti Rees

Balloon artist: Rob Balchunas
Editing: Zain Curtis
Photo assistant: Sam Ramirez
Digitech: Garrett Alvarado
Styling assistants: Jane Richardson, Talal Alabdali
Production assistants: Ricardo Diaz, Seth Shubin
Extras: Fred Henson, Jerome Simard, Che Arias

Editor-in-chief: Justin Moran
Managing editor: Matt Wille
Editorial producer: Angelina Cantú
Music editor: Erica Campbell
Cover type: Jewel Baek
Story: Michael Cuby
Interview: Gottmik
Publisher: Brian Calle

Before we dig into the ins and outs of Governors Ball 2024, let’s get the brass tacks out of the way. I love The Killers. And I need you to understand that I don’t mean that in the know every word of “Mr. Brightside” (I mean the second verse is the same as the first; it’s not that hard guys!) or casually see them when they play Madison Square Garden ’cause they are objectively one of the world’s biggest bands way. I mean it in the lyric tattoo, first article ever commissioned was about their sophomore album, blew up my life to become a music journalist after seeing them live sort of way. So, obviously, I was thrilled when I saw their name at the top of this year’s line-up — but also there’s more to it than that.

2018 was my first Gov Ball. I was still living in Atlanta, Georgia at the time on a completely different timeline (see: kitchen with double oven, full-time job at a tech company, a whole backyard… a whole husband… etc., etc.). However, it was during that trip to Randall’s Island — where the fest was held at the time — that I made the decision to someway, somehow make New York City my home. This may cause you to wonder if I’d had some magical experience, some crystal ball moment that made it super clear that making the leap to a new place and new career would be worth it! But nope, quite the contrary.

It was all in all a chaotic trip. I was an unpaid freelancer at the time, knew nobody attending the festival and basically slumped around from stage to stage when I wasn’t trying (and failing) to lock in interviews. The photographer I was working with seemed less than pleased to have a Southern nobody tagalong shadowing them for the weekend, and on the last day the heavens opened up and drenched us all in rain.

Still, underneath it all I knew music journalism and the bustling city, both places I had no clue how to navigate, were calling me home. I had no evidence, nothing to show for it, no proof it would work out. But six years ago, despite all the reasons not to, I made the decision that made this review you’re reading right now possible. Chills!

Okay, now let’s come back to present-day New York, just a 20-minute drive from my apartment, to a place called Flushing Meadows Corona Park where I spent the weekend working as PAPER mag’s music editor (an honor!) with a celebrated photographer in tow (lucky us!) grabbing interviews with headliners (like Peso Pluma and Rauw Alejandro) in their trailers and noshing on catering while a green-hued pop star the table over talks about how much she hates the song playing over our heads in the tent (it was “Jack and Diane.”) But to circle back on our first topic, the weekend kicks off on Friday, as I, the multi-tasker I am, somehow balance six interviews with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see The Killers play a last-minute surprise show at a 600 cap venue.

I’d started the day on stage with Alex Chapman, asking him about his favorite afterparty DJ set, then spoke to Mimi Webb who was all smiles before her set. We also had a moment with Qveen Herby in the artist lounge (I’m still coveting her platform red boots) before a short chat with Rauw. I caught glimpses of sets in between interviews as is my tradition (a little Goth Babe here a little Flo there) before we were back to the artist area to grab our last interview. When we got there, we immediately noticed P1Harmony, and because of their ridiculously stylish outfits, we had to ask for a photo, which then, of course, led to them picking up the PAPER mic so they could tell us about their aptly titled track, “Killin’ It.” It was around that time that my stomach started to shift. Doors for The Killers’ Bowery Ballroom show were in one hour, and our final interview with Flo hadn’t happened yet. But then, at the exact right time, Flo, dressed like a Destiny’s Child “Survivor,” daydream, emerged from their last interview and blessed us with their takes on songs of the summer and who they’d love to vacay with from the lineup (see: SZA).

After that, it was off to the races, or to the Long Island Railroad more specifically. The ride from Queens to Manhattan was a blur, as I checked the time and updated my Google Maps as if by some magic I’d be able to time travel. It had been forever since I’d been worried about missing a show, nervous that I wouldn’t get a good spot, and the whole thing was humbling and giddying at the same time. Once I made it into the venue and slid my way into the balcony with a perfect view of the stage, I could breathe again. What followed was a blissed-out memory of why I do all this in the first place. Never forget that my first ever published (unpaid but published) music article was written so I could get a festival pass to see The Killers. Sweaty, delirious from what I’d seen and with a little less of a voice than I came to the gig with, I called it a night and prepared for another robust festival day.

My day two officially started with a backstage chat with the charismatic and devilishly stylish Doechii, then a quick chat with your new favorite band Quarters of Change, before team PAPER stood side-stage for Sexyy Redd’s set (see: “SkeeYee”). Then it was back to the artist’s area to chat with Jessie Murph, who was dressed in a look I would like to describe as Christina-Aguilera-dirty-chic. Next it was off to the bar for another round of bubbly (maybe one round too many?) before watching Sabrina Carpenter’s Short n’ Sweet (see what I did there?) performance. I got lost backstage on the way to see The Killers’ headline set (did I mention The Killers?). After singing (actually screaming) along to each word of their set, I mustered all the energy I hadn’t lost while dancing to “Spaceman” to walk out of the fest and off to a less-crowded area for Lyft pick-up before eating horrible delivery diner food at home and finally falling asleep knowing I was barely prepared to wake up for day three.

But, Gov Ball is all about miracles, friends. And on day three, she rose again. This time to see the festival’s true headliner, Ms. Chappell Roan. Well, first, to chat with G Flip at the press lounge (they said their set was “really cute!”) and to grab an Aperol spritz at their VIP pop-up before plotting to get close for Chappell’s set. Plotting works, friends, because what started as a move to get to VIP at the last minute became standing in the pit, which morphed into watching Roan from the side of the stage. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the girl I’d seen in the artist lounge earlier, who I thought was dressed like an alien, was actually the main pop girl (and PAPER cover star) dressed like the Statue of Liberty. Somewhere in between dancing to “HOT TO GO” and attempting to hit the high notes in “Good Luck Babe,” it was crystal clear that we were all witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

If seeing a literal star on the rise doesn’t make you all sentimental about music and festivals and why you got into this, I don’t know what will.

The other title for this article I toyed around with was “Governors Ball 2024: I Told Ya.” First, because I saw some guy wearing the words (on the famous Challengers tee) backstage and realized it was also doubling as Chappell merch, lifting from the lyrics “I told you so” in her No. 1 song, “Good Luck, Babe!” But also because it had become somewhat of a reminder this weekend. As if me from six years ago was finally having her “I told ya” moment. She knew I’d get here somehow, someway. That I’d spend my weekend watching once-in-a-lifetime performances from my favorite band and stars that are well on their way to being supernovas (see: “Red Wine Supernova”). I take none of it for granted. This music I’m lucky enough to listen to. The tiring, sweaty festival grounds. This city with all its perfect imperfection. I can’t wait to see where we all end up six years from now.

Photography: Vincenzo Dimino

Before seeing Madonna at her “Celebration” World Tour, fans would see Jess Cuevas and Justin Teodoro.

Cuevas’ signature stretched imagery — in this case, a remixed shot of Madonna in her nun-inspired costume — was projected onto a massive curtain to hide the stage, while Teodoro’s whimsical illustrations were printed across official tour t-shirts. As much as the show was a celebration of Madonna’s decades-long career, it was also a celebration among creatives across multiple different mediums, from fashion to photography and more.

Below for PAPER, the two artists reflect on the life-changing opportunity that Madonna and “Celebration” provided them both.

Jess Cuevas: Congratulations on the work you’ve done in the past and also with this tour for Madonna. I wanted to ask you a bit about what your creative process is?

Justin Teodoro: Like anything, I get my inspiration and go from there. Working on the tour was a dream job-type situation. I came in with enthusiasm that spurred my creative motivation. I was working with the costume team and they shared all these images and references, and I helped put it together in an illustration that would sell the idea. My background is in fashion. I worked in fashion probably, like, 10 years ago. I was a designer before I made this leap into focusing more on my art illustration. So I had those muscles that I could take out and flex, and help sketch flats and everything. I don’t mind getting thrown all these things and it was very collaborative, which I like. The whole process is a moving train, it takes a village, so it was cool seeing how I could help get things going.

Jess: So you worked directly with the costume department before the t-shirt designs started?

Justin: I was brought on by [“Celebration” Tour Costume Designer] Eyob Yohannes. When I was working in fashion, he was styling the shows at the company I was working with, so that was my connection. And I remember when he was assembling the team, maybe in late 2022, he was looking for an illustrator to come on board. When I got the call I just said “yes,” right away. “I’ll do it, I’ll figure everything out afterwards.” [Laughs] Honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was cool doing stuff with the dancers and working with the team. Everyone was so nice and I made great friends. I’m sure you know, too, that always helps the experience.

Jess: I don’t think I could do this work without the kindness of a team. We have to choose our battles, and sometimes the jobs aren’t that and you’re just like, “Oh my god, what the fuck,” but it was so refreshing. Everyone is very, very kind.

Justin: Yeah, this was my first time doing this type of thing, like a world tour. I remember, I was sketching and watching, observing, taking in what I could. Everyone is so busy doing what they’re doing, you’ve got to take it in on your own and make it work to keep your part going. So that’s how I started and then the t-shirts came towards the end of last year, which is the cherry on top.

Jess: With those images, specifically for the t-shirts, were those what you chose to push forward or did they come to you with like, “Oh, we’d really love your spin on this?”

Justin: I had some sketches that I’ve always done. Big Madonna fan, so I would always be sketching her. Even as the tour started, I was sketching on my own. Luckily, I could get my artwork shared to the team and that’s how they chose them. So there wasn’t any direction, I think they responded to the pictures that I had, which is very cool.

Jess: That’s so beautiful. I’ve watched your art for so long and you’re so fast, it’s amazing. Do you ever feel a block? Are you ever inspired by something and then you’re like, “Oh, I really want to do this fast,” and then maybe it doesn’t come through? And if so, how do you push through that?

Justin: I, like anyone, get creative blocks. I’ve just learned sometimes you can’t force it and that’s the best thing. Walk away and take a break. I’m freelance, so I juggle different projects and that also helps me. If one thing isn’t working, step aside, come back to it.

Jess: Sometimes you gotta let that moment pass. Okay, so I love bootleg stuff and I’ve been watching where our [tour] artwork has ended up. How do you feel about your art being reinterpreted and put into different countries on different bootlegs? Is it flattering for you?

Justin: Honestly, it is. Madonna fans are a real diehard group. It’s been amazing, just seeing the responses. Especially in Mexico City, I could pick out, “There’s me and there’s Jess,” it was very cool. You always have the little business voice, but at some point you can’t stop the moving train. I always think art should be shared and art should be for everyone. And I liked the interpretation, like some things I didn’t even think about.

Jess: Totally, I was like, “This is so cool.” The art becomes something else. Now you’re interpreting it. Yeah, Mexico City and Rio were both like, “Whoa, these are sick.”

Justin: It was wild, almost like Warhol’s factory with the multitudes.

Jess: I know, the volume. It was so cool. What is your favorite Madonna video?

Justin: Obviously, “Vogue,” I love. “Ray of Light,” “Music,” “Cherish,” I love. After seeing the tour, “Live to Tell.” The song itself and how it was used in the show is amazing. It took on a new meaning for me.

Jess: With that, your favorite Madonna song?

Justin: That’s hard. I remember as a kid I had older sisters and cousins, and that’s how I really discovered music and pop culture and Madonna. So a special thing for me, for whatever reason, is “Into the Groove.”

Jess: Yeah, I was gonna say that too.

Justin: I just remember responding to it as a kid and the lyrics of dancing, but dancing by myself. How about you?

Jess: I graduated in ’95, so it was high time for her, and my aesthetic and my formative brain. So, for me, it’s “Justify My Love.” That video was it, for me, and it still kind of is. I reference that a lot with different shoots I might have or different ideas of examples with high contrast, black and white. Looks, everything, makeup, the whole thing. That video and song and all the remixes that came with that, it was also the first CD single I ever bought. I still listen to it and I’m like, “That is so fucking good.” It could drop today and still be so fresh. That really simple beat from a Public Enemy song, which Public Enemy is another one of my favorites.

Justin: I remember seeing the work you did for the tour when everything was announced, and I was blown away. How would you describe your signature style and how did you work that into the tour?

Jess: I started seeing images and thinking about how to take what’s already there and reinterpret it. I was doing that a bit with the brand I work with, Willy Chavarria. One of the first ones I did was I took a coat, called the “monster coat,” and I made it really giant. I really like the idea of using imagery that’s already there and that may be relatable, and pushing it in a different direction. But it’s still recognizable, and it’s still cool and sexy.

So with these images, I have such a memory. I used to illustrate a lot in high school and I would draw that corset image. We all, as Madonna fans, have this relationship to these images, so I wanted to make sure that I was still honoring the originality. That you could look at it and be like, “Oh my god,” but maybe I’m having a weird dream. That was my approach, and also making sure that they remained as sexy as they were back then and, ultimately, that Madonna was into it.

Justin: You kept its essence, but the elongation, the exaggeration. There’s something still kind of high fashion.

Jess: Thank you. I was always obsessed with those nine-headed figure model drawings. So taking that love and moving it to photographs, elongating the body. Also, the comment of where we are right now in a society of filters. Moving the work through that is my inspiration.

Justin: Do you have a favorite among them?

Jess: I love the “Erotica” one because that was the first one I did and that I had shown her. I did that a long time ago, so when they approached me about doing the art work it was referenced again. And I was like, “Oh my God, this is so crazy.” I can’t believe I took a chance in sending this art and now it’s the thing.

Justin: So that was the first one?

Jess: “Erotica” was one of the first ones I did referencing the ’90s for her. There was a selection of images given to me and then I would interject ones that I thought could be a cool addition. Those made the cut, as well, so that was really amazing.

Justin: Even the costume side of this tour was very collaborative. You could do what they asked, but then it was open and they encouraged you to put your own spin on something.

Jess: Totally. For both of us, we’ve created this world of imagery and we’re lucky that people can come to us for that. We have this moment in time for this tour, so why not just go for it? What’s the worst thing they can say? “No?”

Justin: It was nice to feel that respect. Like, “Do your thing and let’s see what happens.” So, obviously, your image was shown before every show started. What was that like? What was your first reaction?

Jess: I had been working with them a bit before and [Madonna’s stylist] Rita [Melssen], months and months ago, sent me that image and said, “I think you could do something cool with this.” I don’t know if it was a universe thing, but I had put it on the backburner. I didn’t even think about it for a while. When the tour was about to start, it came to me and I thought, “I should make something and I’m just gonna send it to her as a ‘thank you,’” completely separate from any tour imagery. And I did, it came to me really fast. The image was a screen grab, so it wasn’t intended to be that. So I had sent it and, you know, “Thank you, love it, moving on.” When the tour was about to start, Ricardo [Gomes] asked if they could use it for the beginning. And things move fast, next thing I know that was up. It became the most shared image of the tour out of the work that I did. I do not have words for that.

Justin: Where were you when you first saw it?

Jess: A friend of mine was going to London for the opening and sent me a photo of the curtain. I was like, “Oh my God, no way.”

Justin: You didn’t know it was going to be that scale?

Jess: Everything was moving so fast at that time because there was the pause while Madonna was getting better. With this whole thing, I did not understand the scale. I’ve never worked like that, where something goes from zero to boom. It’s a first for me, so I didn’t realize what was going to happen. And then when I was able to see it for myself in LA, I was like, “Wow, I’m so grateful.”

Justin: That’s major. It sounds like it’s full circle, how you were looking at all those iconic images and doing your twist. Now you’ve made an iconic image of Madonna, yourself. That’s a major honor and very well-deserved.

Jess: Thank you, and same to you. Another thing I wanted to say, as far as artists, I really appreciate that you and I shared each other’s work. We met through this and I think in a world that can be so competitive, I just wanted to say I’m super grateful.

Justin: Now that the tour has ended, how do you feel? Bittersweet?

Jess: I do feel bittersweet, but I also love that this project hit such a big climax and was such an amazing journey to be a part of. Watching the show from Rio and to see it all end in that way, looking beautiful and perfect. 1.6 million people, that is everything that the tour and that woman deserve.

Justin: Totally. That was such an amazing show to watch and see that’s how it ended. And yeah, I agree. It’s bittersweet, but something always ends–

Jess: And something else begins.

Photo via Getty