Madonna, The Sims and ‘bro-country’: Exploring the genre-bending world of Underscores

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Madonna, The Sims and ‘bro-country’: Exploring the genre-bending world of Underscores

Words by Cait Emma Burke

“I think something I really wanted to do with this rollout is take all of these different things that you have to do to get your music out there and package them all into this one really cohesive world.”

In the leadup to my interview with April Harper Grey, the New York-based producer and singer-songwriter known to many as Underscores, I found myself perusing multiple ‘fake’ websites.

Each had been created for the fictional American town of Wallsocket, Michigan, a town that sits at the centre of her ambitious concept album of the same name released in September last year. 

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The scope of April’s worldbuilding is enough to make the mind boggle – there’s a fake mum’s board, Moms of Wallsocket, a government website for the town, an online newspaper, Waterworks Weekly, and even an alternate reality game.

For someone who loves easter eggs and lore, the world she’s built scratches a particular itch. Speaking to her over Zoom, I tell her The Sims came to mind when exploring the Wallsocket world and the characters that inhabit it. While she’s never played the game herself, “Some of the music was actually inspired by the soundtrack,” she says.

But when you’re engaging in worldbuilding at this level, how do you keep track of everything? “I had a tonne of flowcharts and a Notion board. I had a physical whiteboard that I would write on stuff. It was all very, like, mad scientist,” she says.

“Eventually I had a couple of consultation calls with someone who’s done a lot of this kind of stuff before and he helped me make sure there was an incentive for people to go through all these different websites and that there was a kind of a path you could, you know, play almost. Originally, I just wanted it to be pure world-building, but I realised that not everyone was going to just dive into all this stuff so I had to provide a little bit of a game.”

April grew up in San Francisco and spent her free time holed up in her bedroom making music on GarageBand. Heavily inspired by Skrillex, she started releasing music as Underscores in middle school, sharing it to Soundcloud where she cultivated a particularly dedicated fan base.

Her initial releases evolved from DIY dubstep into hyperpop, a genre she told NME last year is “officially dead”. Wallsocket is her first release on the independent New York-based label Mom + Pop and the project has been lauded by critics – The Atlantic, Fader, The Rolling Stone and The Guardian, to name a few – who have declared it an innovative post-hyperpop masterpiece.

Genre-wise, it runs the gamut from garage rock and Midwest emo to industrial pop and pop punk, with the occasional dash of hyperpop still making itself known, albeit in an unexpected, subverted manner.

When I ask her what she was consuming content-wise while creating the album, without hesitation she brings up Madonna’s iconic Music album, describing it as “kind of the thesis statement” of the project. “I think it was the first album that I remember being like ‘Okay, I really like this album’. The song Don’t Tell Me – essentially every song on Wallsocket can be routed back to that a little bit.”

The country music her parents played in the car when she was younger and “a lot of alternative country and a lot of bro-country” also heavily influenced the album. Film-wise, Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, which came out while she was writing the album, “changed everything and became my favourite movie”.

In fact, road trip movies as a genre proved influential, in particular the 2017 thriller Thoroughbreds and Thelma & Louise, arguably one of the greatest road trip films of all time. 

This cinematic quality seeps into the world of Wallsocket on tracks like Cops and Robbers, the opener and one of the first songs she wrote for the album, telling the story of a bank teller who flees town after it’s revealed that he’s been embezzling money.

Another standout track with a similarly high-energy feel is Locals (Girls Like Us), featuring experimental American musician Gabby Start and an infectious, anthemic chorus that brings to mind Bikini Kill and Olivia Rodrigo. It’s one of April’s favourites to play live and was “engineered so that there would be a moment for people to open a moshpit”.

At its core, Wallsocket is a concept album, with each track being told from the perspective of three girls – Sonny, Mara and Old Money Bitch – who reside in the town and are navigating young adulthood. With artists like Ethel Cain and Taylor Swift releasing recent concept albums, I ask April why she thinks listeners are so drawn to these types of releases.

“I think it’s like a mix of two major things. I think the first one is if you look at Gen Alpha right now, or even just like, younger Gen Zers, they’re kind of brought up on all this YouTube content like Five Nights at Freddy’s and all of this ridiculous kind of stuff. It’s this ridiculous, completely unnecessary world-building. There are so many layers to all the lore so I think that’s why it’s resonating with a lot of younger people right now,” she says.

But she also puts it down to the increasing number of tasks an artist has to do to make music these days. “Being a musician now is kind of doing like 20 different jobs. You have to promote your stuff, you probably have to edit videos and think about the rollout, you have to make TikToks and read up on how the algorithm works and you have to look into your audience.

“But I think something that I really wanted to do with this rollout, and especially with signing to a label, is take all of these different things that you have to do to get your music out there and package them all into this like one really cohesive world, you know?”

In June, she’ll be touring Australia for the first time and is set to play shows in Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne, as well as featuring on the lineup for Vivid Sydney. Her live shows have earned a reputation for being an invigorating, immersive experience, so I ask her what fans can expect from her Australian tour.

“I’m definitely incorporating some new songs. The visuals are a very important part of the show. There are a lot of interludes to just have people look at the screen and stuff. For the original tour, I commissioned a bunch of like-minded people online to do visuals for different songs, so it’s a really fun show to watch.”

Now, seven months after the release of Wallsocket, April says the intricacies of the fictional world feel long behind her. “At this point, I can’t believe it was a thing we went and did. It was always a bucket list thing I wanted to do so I’m very grateful I had the people and resources to do something like that.”

But with that said, she’s not quite ready to say goodbye just yet, hinting at new music on the way soon and letting us know she’s not “fully done with Wallsocket”.

Catch Underscores live in Melbourne at the Corner Hotel on June 4 – tickets here.