Megan Louise of Desire on the Evolution of Escape

Photo Courtesy of Desire

Earlier on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Megan Louise and Johnny Jewel, of the duo Desire and record label Italians Do It Better, decamped to Palm Springs from Los Angeles. They settled into what Louise describes as a “perfect little mid-century gem” with their daughter and got to work on what would become their latest album, Escape

“We really isolated, me and him and our daughter,” says Louise on a recent Zoom call. “We were in the house and from 9 to 5; we had all this time, suddenly, where we were making sound banks and going through every single keyboard we own.”

They combed through dozens of analog synthesizers, banking the best sounds they found and started building songs. Meanwhile, they were also watching movies nightly, digging deep into horror, like 1981 slasher flick Happy Birthday to Me and Italian giallo films. They found aesthetic inspiration in Dario Argento’s work. “When we were developing our music videos, they were a massive influence from the coloring to the styling to the makeup,” says Louise. 

All of that coalesced into Escape, released May 3, which melds eerie, cinematic atmospheres with pop song hooks and club-friendly dance beats. “We like to say there’s one foot in the cemetery and one foot on the dance floor,” quips Louise. The album is augmented by a collection of eight music videos, the last two of which will premiere in New York on May 27 as part of a screening/live performance event at Roxy Cinema, which has already sold out. 

As a teenager in Montreal, Louise dove into various behind-the-scenes music pursuits. She was 17 when she helped launch a jam space and recording studio inside an old textile factory, 19 when she opened the club Zoobizarre. The club was popular — Peaches, James Murphy and Justice were just a few of the artists who came through the venue — and, through her promotion work, she met Jewel. Louise was also playing with friends in a tribute band who focused on the work of French prog rock musician Jean-Pierre Massiera. When Jewel saw her perform, he suggested that they play together. “After falling in love and creating Desire, he wrote ‘Under Your Spell,’” Louise recalls. “Under Your Spell” became Desire’s most recognizable track after it was featured in Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 movie that went on to be a musical and aesthetic touchstone for the next decade. Meanwhile, Desire started to tour and Louise took on much of the business responsibilities for Italians Do It Better, becoming the indie label’s president. 

“I guess there are two sides of me. One side is really creative and one side is really business-oriented,” she says. That duality has given her a very specific vantage point in seeing the shifts within the music industry as the streaming era took shape. “I remember being like, what is this new thing called Spotify? We were still selling a ton of CDs back then,” she says. 

“Seeing the shift has been the most interesting thing, which has affected us in terms of not taking things too seriously,” says Louise. “For us, it’s still all about the art. We are making records that we want to do that we make for ourselves first.”

She adds, “The way that streaming is going, the way that artists are being paid out, it’s just really difficult and it can be kind of demoralizing in some ways, but that’s not why I’m doing it. It’s truly the deepest passion that I have and I want to keep going and keep doing it as long as I can.”

While working on the album, Louise landed a DJ residency at Palm Springs’ Ace Hotel. She describes her DJ sets as “sugary” and eclectic. She might bring together a cover of “Barbie Girl” from duo Mothermary, who are associated with Italians Do It Better, a Donna Summer disco jam and an African tune that’s been flying under the radar on Spotify. “I’ll jumble it all up and have one big party vibe going,” she says. 

Louise’s DJ sets went on to influence Escape as well. “It really brought a lot of depth to adding dance music elements, having so much music around us and having to do so much research for DJing for five hours,” she says. 

Desire also squeezed in a few collaborations while working on the album, including a cover of “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” with Guy Gerber that was released this past January. 

Escape includes a few collaborations as well, like contribution from Ether, the musical alias of model Soo Joo Park, who sings on the cover of the Korean song “Haenim.” The collaboration began as part of a television project Louise had previously been developing. Another featured artist on the album, Mirage, who appears on “Love Is a Crime,” is actually Jewel’s solo project. “It’s the last track that we finished because we couldn’t put the finger on what was missing,” says Louise of the song. “Johnny got on his vocoder and recorded the lyrics and I was like, oh my God, this is it.”

Another key collaboration was with Vaughn Oliver, who mixed the album. “We’re obsessed with what he’s done with Kim Petras and Chromeo, so we really wanted that sound,” says Louise. “I don’t even know what he does, but it’s genius. We were delivering stems and it was taking weeks for him to finish each song, but we were very patient and beyond happy with the result of what he brought to the record.”

Included in the collection is a cover of the theme from the long-running soap opera Young and the Restless. “That was a really special song for us,” says Louise. She recalls her response to hearing the instrumental that Jewel had initially made. “He presented it to me. I was like, oh my God, you have no idea how much this means to me,” she says. “Me and my father, we watched soap operas. He passed away when I was 12, so I’ve been very marked by soap operas.” 

Louise then showed Jewel a live performance of the song with David Hasselhoff, who played Dr. Snapper Foster on Young and the Restless in the 1970s, singing. “That inspired our version of adding the lyrics,” she says. 

By the end of recording, they had 24 tracks to choose from, whittling that down to the 13 songs that appear on Escape. She says, “We just made the best album that we could possibly assemble with what we had at the moment.”

Follow Desire on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Jorja Chalmers Follows Sophomore LP Midnight Train with Sexy, Sax-y Madonna Cover

Photo Credit: Caitlin Mogridge

Justify My Love” was one of Madonna’s most candid, sexy, dark songs. It’s yearning, it’s lustful – all the things women are not expected to demonstrate publicly. On the 20-track compilation of Madonna Covers out via Italians Do It Better, 19 artists from 19 countries contributed their own take on the pop icon’s work. Behind the wonderfully airy, dubby version of “Justify My Love” is the Australian-born, UK-based saxophonist, keyboard player and vocalist Jorja Chalmers.

“We had to be very delicate with the way we did it because it’s such a classic.],” Chalmers says. “My husband [disco producer Ali Renault] and I produced it, and we’ve been talking about it for years. We’d been trying to recreate it in the other stuff we’ve been doing individually. When the label came to us and asked us for our favourite track, it had to be that. The label gave us free reign, complete freedom. It was a bit scary doing the vocals for it, because it’s kind of sensuous. My husband had to leave the room!”

Chalmers usually produces all her own music; “Justify My Love” was the first thing the couple have created together. “It was a real buzz – we’re probably going to write an EP together next,” she hints. “We both have our own studios in the house. You go into a bit of a wormhole, where you can listen to something on loop for an hour because you’re trying to produce and refine it. It works really nicely to have two producers in a relationship because you understand the madness of it.”

Chalmers, currently in France and away from her Margate home, has been on a creative streak. She released her second album, Midnight Train, in May, only two years after her debut Human Again.

The extended time at home, without the solid schedule of on-off touring she is normally committed to, drove Chalmers to set herself a deadline of making an album in four months. It was her therapy, in a way, since her work as a touring musician with Roxy Music had been shelved due to COVID.

How did a Sydney Conservatorium-trained saxophonist, piano-teaching Australian end up on stage with Roxy Music for a decade? In her mid-20s, Chalmers left for London and spent a few years working temp jobs and playing in bands. Then in 2007, three years into her London life, she was performing in new wave band Hotel Motel when Bryan Ferry’s personal assistant saw her and recruited her for corporate gigs. “His PA picked me from obscurity and the next thing you know I’m going to his studio for an audition. It’s such a twist of fate,” she recalls. Proving her mettle, she was invited to tour with Roxy Music in 2011, solidifying her career as a full-time session musician.

In a world where being a full-time artist of any discipline is a rarity, it’s even more special to be performing alongside pioneers of synth pop to audiences old and new. “It’s so difficult to be a successful musician – it’s all about right place, right time,” Chalmers says. “I get to work with some of the most seasoned session musicians and Bryan is an incredible musician. He knows exactly what’s going on with every track. Soundchecks can go on forever because he wants it to sound as amazing as possible. He’s an absolute perfectionist.”

Chalmers herself is perfectionist too, though too humble to admit it. It must have been a relief to offset the pressure of touring with perfectionist musicians by working with Italians Do It Better, a label that gave her the trust, time and space to create on her own terms.

“I wrote a load of demos while I was on the road and spending a lot of time in hotel rooms while touring with Bryan [in 2017]. I was taking a mini-studio with me on the road so on my days off I’d walk around the city, then write for the rest of the day,” she remembers. Upon hearing what she’d been working on, friends recommended she send it to Johnny Jewel at Italians Do It Better. She did, and Jewel responded almost immediately with an invitation to put music out via his label.

“They’re a great label to work with. They don’t interfere with what you’re doing writing-wise. Johnny executive produces so he’ll sprinkle a bit of magic at the end, but there’s no messing with the actual creative process,” she says. “They don’t make you go out and tour, they really work with you on your own terms. Major labels feel like you’ve got to go out on the road, touring all the time, and I do that with Bryan all the time, so touring just to pay a label doesn’t work for me.”

The creative trust put in Chalmers paid dividends. Human Again was vibrant, strange, exploratory and referential all at once. “Human Again was very much a prototype or an idea of the films I’d seen as a child: Blade Runner, Terminator, all the John Carpenter films. [It was also about] getting to know the analog setup, and trying to flex my compositional muscles really,” she says. “I wanted it to be instrumental, though I did add vocal tracks. I wanted it to sound beautiful, majestic, and nostalgic all at the same time.”

For Midnight Train, Chalmers says she wanted to focus on her potential as a songwriter. “It still has the compositional take, but I wanted it to sound like an ethereal journey through various rooms of a house, with a healthy sense of drama,” she explains. Chalmers was aiming for a David Lynch-ian beautiful nightmare – a dark, moody club filled with velvet couches, intoxicating opium smoke, murderous women in blood red lipstick and conniving men in sharp, double-breast suits. Romantic warm machines embrace listeners from the very opening seconds of “Bring Me Down,” before the futuristic synth-pop of “I’ll Be Waiting,” cinematic and anthemic in scope. The disconcertingly disembodied saxophone seems to emerge from a deep, cavernous nothingness, satin-smooth and gothic.

It owes more than a nod to Alison Goldfrapp’s trip-hop, dubby synth-pop. Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain (2000) was considered too weird and eclectic two decades ago, but it opened doors for the generation of women synth-dance experimentalists to come.

“Funny you say that,” muses Chalmers. “Felt Mountain was the sound that I wanted to always create. Felt Mountain was an odd album for then, and they’ve never created anything like it since. It’s so ethereal, a masterpiece. It was so clever and the whole thing – the production – was amazing on it. Bjork and Fiona Apple were a huge influence too… What I love about that music is that it has depth. I try to create that too – that you play the album more than once, and not in snapshots. I want you to be able to listen to it and hear something different each time.”

Follow Jorja Chalmers on Instagram for ongoing updates.