Janine Rostron wears many masks. For one, there's her stage name: the somewhat inscrutable (or maybe just whimsical) Planningtorock. She's an emigré of Bolton, England, and has donned Berlin like a favorite coat: "I think it suits me really well." Onstage and in her videos, she swoops around wearing stunning combinations of retro-futuristic headgear, facepaint, long bangs and prostheses that hide her identity to a degree approaching total.
Where is the human inside all these aggressively fantastic trappings? Why doesn't she want us to see her? Actually, Janine says,"It's never about hiding; it's always about, sort of, adding to what I already am, or what I've already got." Even the mask of fuzz and hiccups, gathered in the mysterious electronic struggle of reaching Manhattan over thousands of miles of ocean from Berlin, can't keep the bold enthusiasm out of her voice. Her unassuming confidence is at once deeply convincing and thoroughly disarming.
"It's not really hiding because when you wear these sort of masks and when you wear these extra elements, you really get more attention than you would if you didn't—so it's actually quite the opposite."
Rather than feeling hemmed in by the extra scrutiny, though, the mercurial artist treats her dress-up routine as a ticket to creative freedom in an industry where a performer's appearance and sex always threaten to upstage musicianship. Sheathing her face and body in mysterious gleaming contraptions puts control of Rostron's public image back into her own mischievous hands. She says it lets her "...play around a bit with my gender, which is really liberating..."
But Rostron's disguises take her a step beyond the kind of gender-bending that's been a tried and tested tool of rock 'n' roll provocateurs at least since the 70s brought us glam punk and Prince. More like a Björk or a Fever Ray, her costumes are animal, otherwordly, sculptural. They take her "...beyond gender, like, just purely being, maybe—what?—I don't know...something else, I'm not sure."
Rostron's connection to Fever Ray, Sweden's Karin Dreijer Andersson, goes beyond a shared taste for pageantry in performance: Last year, they collaborated, along with Karin's brother (and fellow member of The Knife) Olof Dreijer and Mt. Sims to score an opera based on Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species. The result, Tomorrrow, In a Year, was a new kind of project for Rostron: "It was a full-on collaborative experience—and Planningtorock is quite fundamentally a solo project." It was in getting mixed up with The Knife on such an intriguing premise, though, that she exposed her own act to a wider audience.
So will 2011 be the year the world gets to know Rostron's elusive face in a big way? "I guess, if it happens! But no, [fame] is not something that I think about. It's more that making music makes me very, very happy. It gives me my purpose, and it helps me grow, and I love that. So if I can live off it I feel very lucky, and I'm honored."
A lot more than just being deliberately bashful, she's kind of describing the moment where music becomes art. This is the inebriating vivacity of a person who needs to make something, as opposed to someone who just wants to. It's what animates Rostron, and it's what lives in W, her newly released second album. This creative energy churning just below the surface is what makes the record sound saturated and heavy and complicated, like wet wool, even after you've been playing it on repeat for a week (who, me?). Like that damp sweater, it's also enveloping and warm, but a bit itchy and confrontational, too.
But plugged-in audiences are lusting for aggressive and abrasive new records this year; witness Odd Future's adolescent jitteriness inciting pricked ears in the hip-hop world; observe the range of novel weirdo sounds, like tUnE-YarDs' pugnacious chirp-rap, nosing the boundaries of indie rock in new directions. This could be the year that Planningtorock's electronic barbs start to feel oddly like hooks. Cautiously, Rostron speculates as much: "It feels like people are ready for this record, to be honest. I mean, something that maybe is a little more—I mean, I'm not blowing my own horn here—but maybe a little more challenging."
Sure, W throws some challenges our way: On "Milky Blau," which Ronstron says is her personal favorite, the singer's voice is distorted to a bleary moan, naggingly delivered just a shade flat. Frantic strings urge the vocal track forward, which balks sleepily. The confusing standoff feels manic, stressful.
But for every track that demands a bit more patience, the album offers a song that is immediately stirring, gripping, ferociously catchy. On "The One," the slowed-down effect on Rostron's voice no longer sounds lazy—here it's a cottony warble, like someone pleading with one hand clamped over her mouth. Now she succumbs to the hurrying staccato strings and lets herself get swept forward—"I don't want to fight it/I want to love it," go the lyrics—before tumbling into a thrillingly indulgent two-minute sax outro, opulent and oblivious as falling in love: "You are meaning a lot to me." It's a rare unmasking for the singer who isn't accustomed to showing us her face: "I'd never written a love song before," she told me. "It's quite a personal song...That was an achievement for me."
W is out this month on DFA.