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TOPS’ Breezy Indie Pop Brings the Party Inward

Montreal band TOPS brings the party inward on their new EP, 'Empty Seats.' Frontwoman Jane Penny breaks down their process for Audiomack World.

This article previously appeared on Audiomack World.

Montreal’s TOPS stands at the intersection of thoughtful writing and danceability. The indie-pop band—made up of members Jane Penny (vocals), David Carriere (guitar), Riley Fleck (drums), and most recently Marta Cikojevic on keys—has been jamming together for the last decade after the end of a “naive synth pop” project brought longtime collaborators Penny and Carriere into Fleck’s orbit. TOPS was born out of a passion for live instrumentation and DIY sensibilities.

“I got into songwriting by singing songs that David had written, so when I started writing myself it was within the same context that I was already becoming formed as an artist,” Penny shares with Audiomack World. “He really encouraged me to write, which is a real gift, to not be possessive of the creative process. David is someone I’ve known since I was 12 years old. He was my first kiss! So we have a long history.”

Within TOPS’ history is a series of records focused on the messiness of being a person. On their latest EP Empty Seats, released May 10, the band brings the party inward. Single “Perfected Steps” is an epic two-parter that attacks antiquated views, while “Party Again” is a wistful tune that yearns for a post-pandemic springtime. Empty Seats encourages dancing and consideration.

“When we wrote the songs [for the EP] it was very much at the beginning of all the lockdowns, in springtime, and we were all really missing parties and friends,” Penny says. “A lot of the songs are about yearning for a more carefree, fun time. The EP is very aspirational in that way. We were aspiring towards this imaginary future where things were better.”

A year-long battle with long COVID taught Penny the limits of her body, and the importance of not pushing through burnout—though according to her there’s still a struggle to slow down. Thankfully, making music with TOPS is one of the more restorative things in Penny’s life. Blue Gatorade is a nice boost, too.


What’s the TOPS origin story?

Our guitarist David and I had already spent a couple years making music. We had this somewhat embarrassing project, extremely naive synth pop. The recordings were all computer-based. We didn’t actually rehearse as a band until it came time to play shows.

When that band dissolved we decided we wanted to write songs together, in a room, on instruments. At that time, Riley was spending hours a day practicing drum rudiments at the loft where we rehearsed for our shows with our other band. No one was dedicated to drumming the way Riley was, and we all seemed to have a similar taste, so TOPS was born.

What do your bandmates pull out of you in terms of writing?

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While we were writing the EP everyone was stuck in Montreal except Riley, who did the drumming from LA. We had all of this time and couldn’t see anyone else for fear of getting sick so we ended up writing the songs in a very collaborative way. I take a lot from the mood that the music holds as inspiration and go from there.

Lately, I’ve been really pushing myself to write the entire song in the moment, while we’re jamming them out, and when that happens it’s a huge relief! The songs also end up being some of our stronger ones. I managed to do that with “Perfected Steps,” for example.

What’s the key to not overthinking a song?

There are a couple aspects. Sometimes a song is worth overthinking! We have this song “Petals” that we spent months arranging, then completely re-wrote several times until it finally became what it is. Most songs just aren’t worth that kind of effort, and usually, when a song is becoming a problem child it’s your sign to let it go.

When I write songs I try to chase a feeling deep in my mind that the music sends me. It really does feel like dipping into some kind of unconscious soup full of these kinds of cinematic images. I find the less I properly “think” about it the better, but there always comes a time when you really go over the details to make sure it will translate.


How do you avoid burnout?

I truly don’t avoid burnout, to be honest. I got very sick at the beginning of the pandemic and had long COVID for about a year after. It taught me a lot about the limits of my body and what I need to do to take care of myself, but I still really struggle with that. Something that has made a huge difference in my life is to be a lot more conscious of how much energy I put toward my emotions, and how much emotion I put toward certain situations.

It can be so easy to get lost in anxiety, to be hard on yourself about fucking up, or totally wrapped up in frustration with someone else’s actions. But at this point in my life, I just don’t have time for it. When you realize how much of the thoughts and feelings in your own head are just like, optional, you unlock all of this energy for what you actually care about.


How much pure fun is baked into your process as creatives, and how much active work do you have to do to remember to enjoy the process itself?

I would say we’re one of the more fun bands. We’ve had a lot of different people join our tours and they say that we’re the most fun band they’ve toured with. It can be hard because touring can be extremely depleting, but the times I spend with TOPS are generally guaranteed to be some of the most fun times possible. And actually making music is all of our absolute favorite thing to do. We’re very lucky that way! Also, blue Gatorade!



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