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Meet Jessica Winter, the experimental pop musician exploring love and limerence

The rising UK songwriter discusses her upbringing in Portsmouth, moving to London at 16 to pursue music, and fitting ‘weirder messages’ into the pop song form on her new EP, ‘Limerence’

By Selim Bulut

Jessica Winter (Picture: Nan Moore)

‘Limerence’ describes a state of obsessive infatuation, where the intensity of one’s feelings for a person can become intrusive, all-consuming, and downright agonising. The psychologist Doroty Tennov, who coined the term with her 1979 book Love and Limerence, likens it to an addiction, with limerent people doing unusual and out-of-character things in order to get closer to the object of their affections. In recent years the concept has exploded — you can find Reddit communities full of self-appointed coaches and experts who are devoted to helping limerent people get over their crushes.

The UK musician Jessica Winter explores this theme across her new EP, Limerence. “There are three stages of limerence,” she explains, speaking over a Zoom call from her current home in east London. The first is infatuation, where you start to notice a person and feel they’re special; the second is crystallisation, the obsessive response; and the third is deterioration, where you begin to accept that the idealised object is a human being with flaws and the all-consuming feelings start to abate. “The EP’s five songs go through those stages.”

Winter grew up in Hayling Island, Portsmouth. She was born with hip dysplasia, a condition where the hip joint does not properly form. Going in and out of hospital for hip operations from 11 months old, the only place where Winter could only adequately sit with her brace was at a piano stool, and with little else to do but to play the instrument and follow her imagination, she began to cultivate her musical talents. When she was 16, she left Portsmouth and moved to Brixton, where she began to pursue a music career of her own, though a series of bad management arrangements during that time left her feeling pulled in different directions. 

It was only when she formed the band Pregoblin with fellow musician Alex Sebley and concurrently began developing her solo project that she refined the musical identity she has today. It’s pop music, and unashamedly so (musical theatre and Barbara Streisand are key influences), but Winter often deals with far stranger subject matter (it’s not for nothing that she previously toured with Death Grips). “I’m obsessed with pop music,” says Winter. “I want to see how far I can take certain sounds, and how I can encapsulate weirder messages, in a pop song.”

She explored those weirder messages on 2020’s Sad Music EP (and its accompanying ‘Chambermix’ piano version) and its follow-up, 2021’s More Sad Music. But outside of her solo songwriting, Winter has built a career as a producer for other artists, recently working with Phoebe Green and The Big Moon (not to mention producing a rework of Metronomy’s ‘I Lost My Mind’, due for release on the UK band’s special edition of Small World later this month). “I feel like I can make people calm in a studio,” Winter says. “I have such a crazy bunch of characters in my family that I know how to deal with people who are up and down, which most artists are.” 

We caught up with Winter to learn more about the EP and her upcoming plans for the year ahead.

How did growing up in Hayling Island influence your relationship to music and creativity?

Jessica Winter: Hayling Island is quite a small, depressed town. It’s where people go to die. It’s a bleak atmosphere, and I think in the bleakest atmospheres, you need some kind of imagination to enjoy life. Being surrounded by the sea, too, is something you can’t escape. When I came to London I really missed the sea — maybe there’s a natural rhythm to it.

Your uncle was a local punk hero, and your mother was a glamour model. What impact has your family had on the music you make today?

Jessica Winter: There’s a big punk scene in Portsmouth and Hayling Island. My uncle is in a punk band, so growing up I saw him play. My mum was a glamour model; my mum’s brother is also an artist — Uncle John, he’s called — they all inspired me visually and lyrically. That’s probably where all my sad songs come from.

What sort of things did you hear around the house growing up?

Jessica Winter: My dad was a New Romantic. My mum loved S-Club, Kylie, and Madonna. But my biggest influence was probably the Sex Pistols and 70s punk bands from my uncle. And musical theatre, obviously! I got really into musical theatre and wanted to be a dancer from when I was born, but I couldn’t dance as I’d had so many hip operations and was always in and out of hospital.

I guess punk-rock and musical theatre are both big expulsions of energy, although theatre is choreographed whereas punk is spontaneous.

Jessica Winter: But they’re both very dramatic.

Jessica Winter (Picture: Grant James-Thomas)

When you were in and out of hospital, you played the piano a lot. But did you pick up any other instruments during that time?

Jessica Winter: I picked up the guitar. I tried a bit of violin; that was really bad. It was the piano that stole my heart. When I was about 11 months old, I couldn’t do anything, as I had a back brace that put me in the splits, so my mum would fix me onto the piano stool with each leg through the hole so I was really secure to this chair, and that would be my entertainment. My only entertainment, really, because I couldn’t walk or crawl. So I’d tinker away for a few hours, and she’d be able to get some chores done.

You moved to Brixton aged 16. That’s quite a mad thing to do at that age.

Jessica Winter: I knew I wanted to be in London. It wasn’t that brave of me, because I went to move in with my uncle. I went up there to try it, and I never left. Brixton was full of interesting sights and smells and culture. Now everyone is being moved out — it’s horrible. But it was such a culture shock going from Portsmouth to Brixton. You’re so in a bubble in a small town.

Did you have a plan in London?

Jessica Winter: When I first wrote a song at 16, it all suddenly clicked into place. I’d love creative things but didn’t know what I wanted to do — I thought I wanted to do acting or dancing or art. But as soon as I wrote something, I was like, ‘This is the best feeling in the world.’ With dancing you have to learn a piece, and with acting you have to learn someone else’s lines, but with a song, you’re creating from the heart.

I got a driving licence, and I had a keyboard and drove everywhere to play gigs. I played in Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Southampton, and London. I got spotted. I thought, then, that that’s how you did it — you get spotted by a man with money. I signed with this manager who ended up trying to get me into the porn industry. That was for five years, and I never put any music out. The management company itself was good — they gave me money every few months so I could spend it crafting, writing, rehearsing, and gigging, but never actually putting music out — but this specific manager… He tried to get me to do something like that, and I thought, ‘That doesn’t seem right.’ My mum had taught me all about that, as she was in the glamour industry and knew all about it. I’ve had a few incidents with people I’ve worked with in studios, producers, people in famous bands, and there was a moment where I felt enough is enough. Now, I’ve put a team around me which is not like any of that and it feels right and nice and like a family. It’s a shame that it has to take these experiences to realise. I’d love to start something for young girls getting into the music industry to recognise the warning signs, like an HR programme.

“‘Limerence’ means an addiction to love. The EP also covers addiction in a different way, with drugs, and being addicted to bad patterns of behaviour and doing the same thing over and over again and never learning from it”

— Jessica Winter

How did you go from being inside this nightmarish part of the music industry to where you are today?

Jessica Winter: I just stopped working with everyone. You have to do a reset. You get told so many things — ‘You need to do this,’ ‘You need to be like that,’ ‘What about this?’ — so it was good doing that. I met Alex Sebley from Pregoblin at a Harry Merry concert, this German avant-garde artist. Alex is also from Hayling Island [although we didn’t know each other beforehand]. He told me how terrible his music career had been, and I was really angry, and we said ‘Let’s just write a song.’ And then we had Pregoblin. That gave me some confidence. I started my solo artist project around the same time, so it was nice that we could do it at the same time.

What were you wanting to explore as a solo artist at the time?

Jessica Winter: It sounds really self-indulgent, but I’d been influenced by so many people up to that point and I was very lost, so it was really about trying to say, ‘OK, what is it I actually like?’ What do I want to look like, rather than what outside forces [want me to look like]? It was a conscious decision to say ‘Yeah, you can wear glasses, you can wear a suit, you don’t have to show your arse all the time’ Even though sometimes I enjoy doing that. It was about putting up more boundaries, rather than being open for the world to take a piece from you.

Your new EP is called Limerence. Why did you choose that title?

Jessica Winter: The name of the EP came after the songs had been collected. I realised there’s a similar message between all of them. It covers addiction, of sorts. ‘Limerence’ means an addiction to love, or being obsessed with the idea of love. The EP also covers addiction in a different way, with drugs, and being addicted to bad patterns of behaviour and doing the same thing over and over again and never learning from it. ‘Funk This Up’ is about that, and even though ‘Clutter’ is a fun song, it’s still about picking up all these bad romances — when are you gonna do a spring clean and not do that again? With ‘Choreograph’, that’s the only one that’s not to do with addiction; it’s more a comment on love itself.

The EP’s lead single ‘Choreograph’ has a nice line about how “real love can’t be choreographed”. Can you go into the background of the song?

Jessica Winter: That was a comment on a few things I have seen. My brother is gay and says there’s a [perception in dating that] you have to look a certain way to get a guy, and everyone’s doing everything they can [to look this way]. It’s so visually based that it’s difficult to get through the layers of who this person really is. I felt sad for my brother; he’s really upset by it. Everyone’s upset by it.

Then I went on a date with this person. You could tell that he was just wanting to be in love, whatever love looks like [to him], rather than actually communicating. He was saying the ‘right’ things, choosing to go to the ‘right’ places, leaning in for a kiss at the ‘right’ moment — everything was so textbook. It was a bad date.

These things made me angry and upset, and then that song was born. I wanted it to sound [choreographed] like a Broadway or theatre production.

Another song on the EP, ‘The Love Song’, is sort of like the opposite of ‘Choreograph’.

Jessica Winter: That’s more manic. That’s more like a stream of consciousness. It’s all the feelings you might feel when falling in or out of love, just constantly being unsure. I made a point of having no one help me at all on that song, which is why it sounds so unhinged: I wrote it, produced it, and engineered it. But that’s OK, I can have a nuts song.

What are you working on now that this EP is finished?

Jessica Winter: I have a few support slots this year and a tour next year. And I’m going into album mode soon, which is quite daunting. I never thought I’d have a vision [for an album] but I feel like it’s coming. The songs I’ve been writing recently have a theme and I want to hone in on that. I’m excited to even be given the opportunity to do it.

Jessica Winter’s Limerence EP is out 10 February 2022.