IVY LEVAN ON TEENAGE REBELLION AND CREATING HER ‘SWAMP POP’ SOUND – EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Ivy Levan – The Untitled Magazine #GirlPower Issue – Photography by Indira Cesarine. Ivy wears a black top by Skingraft.

“Any time you put me in front on a stage, that I can perform for people, Im fucking happier than a pig in shit. Thats what I love to do. Im more comfortable on stage than in any other aspect in life. It’s a fucking blast!” -Ivy Levan

That’s Ivy Levan – cheeky, Southern, drop dead gorgeous, and born to perform. She grew up in Bentonville, Arkansas, which she describes as “the home of Walmart, this weird combination of lots of money and straight-up rednecks,” and moved to Los Angeles at the age of sixteen after getting kicked out of high school. “I was a little naughty in high school, but in this case, I was actually being tame. I had been sick the week prior, I had gone over to a sleepover and taken cough syrup just in case I was coughing during the night. It was prescription. It was under my name. But this girl at my school had it out for me. She told on me and said I was selling it. In the Deep South, they have to make an example of ‘no tolerance.’ I tried to fight it, but I didn’t win, and I got kicked out. I was like, alright, that’s my cue to leave and go to LA! I packed up all my shit, and my mom put everything in the truck and I fucking did it. And never looked back.”

Her classic beauty kept her in demand to be in front of the camera, but now as a musician she can enjoy it on her own terms. Her dark whimsical style crosses over to her music, which she describes playfully as “swamp pop.” She is inspired by the likes of legends Whitney Houston and Tina Turner combined with the moodiness of 80’s goth bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Depeche Mode

Her most recent EP, Introducing The Dame, was released in January 2015, followed by her cheeky single, “Biscuit,” where Levan tells us to “Kiss it!” The video, which features not only a red-hot Levan, but also a dancing biscuit with pipe-cleaner legs and googly eyes displays her wicked sense of humor. Levan goes from songs like “Biscuit” and “Hot Damn” to “Oh Christmas Tree,” with the release of a set of Christmas covers last season. “I don’t have to constantly be this dark ominous thing all the time,” she explains. Just when you think you have her figured out, she throws you for a loop.

Her forthright, offbeat personality infuses not only her music, but also her attitude towards life. On Ivy’s debut album, No Good, released this past August, her soulful sounds are uninhibited, as she bares all with lyrics that are at once mischievous, flirtatious and genuine. “I’ve always been a little, either held back or trying to go totally against my roots,” she admits. “Because basically that’s what you do when you’re a kid; you rebel, or you’ve got that teenage angst. This is the first time that I just chilled the fuck out, put down my wall, and said “Alright, this is me, this is the real me, unscripted, this is what it is, goofy, southern, dangerous, you know, just all over the place!” We are looking forward to a string of provocative “swamp pop” performances from Ivy in the near future.

Read The Untitled Magazine’s full interview with Ivy Levan below, and grab a print edition of the #GirlPower Issue on stands now!

Ivy wears a black bodysuit with lace-up sides by Georgine, layered with a leather black vest by Maggie Barry for Epson Couture.

Indira Cesarine: So I have a million questions for you. I just wanted to start out with the stuff that I’m sure you’re sick of talking about, but tell me what it was like growing up in Oklahoma and Arkansas? You were from a really small town, right?

Ivy Levan: Yeah, it’s not like it was a hoe-down, middle-of-nowhere, kind of town. It’s Bentonville. It’s the home of Wal-mart… this weird combination of lots of money and then like straight-up rednecks. I had a really strange upbringing, being surrounded by people who have money, but then I also have that redneck side of me.

IC: Tell me about your background as a model and actress and why you decided to switch focus more on music instead?

IL: Well, it’s been a lot more difficult of an industry to make a name for yourself in. I was signed to Virgin and I was making a record, but then left the label and kind of gave up for a few years. All the other stuff I was doing around it was basically a paycheck. I needed to survive. The modeling and the acting and anything else that’s in a creative medium that I could get my hands on, I would do it. But I hate modeling. When you’re so anal and you have so many creative ideas of your own, it’s almost like being put in a straightjacket, and you can’t do anything about it.

IC: Yeah, it’s true. I mean definitely in modeling, you don’t have as much creative input, do you?

IL: I mean I love modeling now for myself and having my own creative direction, doing my own makeup… it’s my concept. That’s a way to express myself. I kind of just get to use everything that I’ve learned on myself now. Two birds, one stone.

IC: Yeah exactly—it’s your personal style, your own direction, you’re not somebody else’s dress-up doll. You have a really distinct personal style. It’s really gothic. Where did that develop from?

IL: I’ve always been really into the goth, kick-your-ass kind of look, but also making it classy and chic. I’ve always been drawn to that. I always admired the villains in Disney movies more than the princesses. 

IC: That’s cool. So, how did you get started in music?

IL: Well, it was my first passion when I was 7. I idolized people like Whitney Houston and Tina Turner, and everyone from Depeche Mode, to Siouxsie and the Banshees—all over the place. I knew that’s what I wanted to do since I was a young child. I was just enamored by it. It’s the next step you take when you’re 15 years old and you get kicked out of high school, and nobody understands you and you’re not like anyone else. You know, that whole thing... I packed up all my shit, and my mom put everything in the truck and I fucking did it. And I never looked back.

The Untitled Magazine GirlPower Issue - Ivy Levan - Photography by Indira Cesarine 3

IC: You got kicked out of high school?

IL: I got kicked out of high school!

IC: For what?

IL: I had cough syrup in my bag.

IC: Oh my god. And they thought you were abusing cough syrup?

IL: Well, that’s the funny thing. I was a little naughty in high school, but, I was actually being tame. I had been sick the week prior—I had gone to a sleepover and taken cough syrup just in case I was coughing during the night. It was a prescription under my name. This girl at school had it out for me, she was on the cheerleading squad I was on, and she told on me and said that I was selling it. So I was made an example of no tolerance. I tried to fight it, but I didn’t win and I got kicked out. I was like, ‘Okay that’s my cue to leave and go to LA.’

IC: Well, yeah. I mean it’s very traumatic. I’m sure all your old high school friends must be blown away by what you’ve done.

IL: Yeah it was funny, but I’m a big girl now. It’s hard to even have a conversation about what I do because I don’t feel like anybody’s going to get it. They really try, and I do have true supporters, but they’re kind of just starry-eyed about it, I guess.

IC: Yeah. And your mom came out to LA with you. Has she been a big supporter throughout your career?

IL: Yes, she has been, needless to say how troublesome I sounded, and all that drag. My mom has really been so open-minded, so supportive. She’s a wild, free spirit and she was ready to go. We’ve always been kind of the black sheep of the family so it wasn’t a hard decision, which is wonderful.

IC: That’s cool. And so you have a lot of Southern influence in your music. It’s an interesting mix. Tell me a little bit about that?

IL: Well, this writing process has been very unique against all the other writing processes in teams that I’ve worked with. I’ve always been a bit held back in trying to form an identity. Basically, that’s what you do when you’re a kid, and you rebel or you get that teenage angst. This is the first time that I’ve been like “chill the fuck out”, and have put down my wall, and have said ‘Alright, this is the new me, this is the real me, unscripted, this is what it is, ditzy, southern, dangerous’… just all over the place. I’m really happy about that.

IC: Yeah, well it gives you more of an identity as well. So, how would you describe your sound in your own words? I’ve heard it described as “swamp pop”. Where does that come from? 

IL: Well, it just felt natural. I’m from this swampy South: the creeks, the swamps, the woods, and all that shit, so “swamp pop” felt natural. By the swamp, it’s very dark and there’s this certain texture, but there’s also a kind of life. I felt like that encompassed my sound and my writing. 

IC: Who do you consider musical inspirations?

IL: Oh man, that list is unreal. The top ones I would definitely say are Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, then you go to my darker side, which is like Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Depeche Mode, and then the classics like Sting, Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks…I’m all over the board.

IC: Your song “Biscuit” is so fun, can you tell me about the inspiration?

IL: Well, being in the industry that I’m in, I get fed a lot of bullshit. I get a lot of shit thrown at my ass, and also just people in general are assholes. Fuckin’ Haters. So, I just wrote a song about it. I should probably write an anthem about it. I used my own Southern upbringing, and imagined what my grandmother would’ve said. And she would say, ‘kiss my biscuit’ all the time.”

IC: That’s so funny! “Kiss my biscuit.” I love it. It is very southern. What about your song “Hot Damn?” That has a Southern sound to it too.

IL: Oh yeah, that one is based on being tired of people nagging and wanting things from you all the time. I got that a lot. It’s like when you’re trying to work on yourself and do things for you for the first time and work on your career, and how people are constantly with their hands out, reaching—doing that whole shit, is really annoying. So, I wrote a song about it.

IC: And you sound like you have a ton of holiday songs too. I was checking out your song list, and you have “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, etc. Tell me about all these holiday songs that you’ve released? Because it seems so off and so unusual compared to the rest of your sexy, crazy, rebellious songs. I was like ‘woah’—that’s so interesting.

IL: Well, I don’t really have anything to prove. I don’t have to constantly be this dark, ominous singer all the time, ‘cause I’m such a well rounded person, there are things I personally like more than other things, like the color black and fur—the darker things in life. But I love holidays. I have no problem sharing with people that I fucking love the holidays. I mean I may not be a religious person, but I just love the attitude and the songs and the way they make you feel. So I felt it would be natural to do that.

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Ivy wears a patent leather coat and earrings by The Blonds.

IC: It’s so fun and an interesting take on them as well. So you performed at SXSW this year. Do you have anything, first of all, that you’d like to say about your South-by performance? 

IL: At South-by? Any time you put me in front, on a stage that I can perform for people, I’m fucking happier than a pig in shit. That’s what I love to do. I’m more comfortable on stage than in any other aspect in life. It’s kind of scary. One of the best shows of my life was one that I did for Perez Hilton. He had me come and join all these other amazing artists and it was so insane. That was like the first time that I’ve seen people singing the lyrics to my songs, so it was very overwhelming. Like, ‘Wow, this is what it feels like at this level?’ I’m set. I’m just sold. I want to do this for the rest of my life. Seeing people connect with you be and excited and you have the control over the whole room and they’re looking to you to lead them and guide them and they’re having fun. It was amazing. I had a fucking blast. 

IC: And are you going to do a tour for the new album?

IL: We’re trying to find one to jump on. I don’t know what’s going on, but I really would like to. I would really like to get this record out and then hopefully jump on a tour soon.

IC: That’s cool. Are there any social causes that are close to your heart? I know you’ve done a ton of performances in support of the gay/lesbian community. Is that something that you feel is important to support?

IL: Yeah, of course. I think supporting equality in general and no judgment is a huge thing for me. The fact that people even judge each other is besides me. I don’t understand it, because none of us are the same. None of us are perfect and none of us are identical. But why on earth is there a standard to which we have to compare someone to? It’s bizarre. It blows my mind. So anytime that I can be a bodyguard for that or an activist, I will jump on that opportunity.

IC: I like that attitude. This is our “Girl Power” issue. Would you consider yourself a feminist? 

IL: I don’t like people calling me something. I just call it being a decent human being. Everyone has to be on a team or a side or a this or a that. Can’t we all just be a fucking decent human being to each other? I’m always gonna support that you’re a feminist—that’s great, and you have that cause and you’re doing good. But then sometimes people use it for other reasons that aren’t so positive or aren’t so productive. So yeah, I would say I’m a supporter of it. That’s all.

IC: And what do you think about some of the stereotypes surrounding male and female roles. Do you think that society should react differently towards women than it does now?

IL: The fact is that people who judge will judge. That’s just what they do. I mean, it’s always gonna happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it other than to just be a decent human being and work on yourself. You can’t change those people. The only person you can change is yourself. So, I mean it’s like beating a dead horse. If they want to be angry at everybody else, than that’s their shitty life.

IC: I agree. Exactly.

IL: I think we should just all empower each other. Woman, man, unicorn, whatever.

IC: I like that. Let’s empower the unicorn…So, do you have words of wisdom that kind of get you through the day?

IL: I always say ‘Live each day like you’re at school. You’re open to learn, and you’re open to growing.’ It’s that simple. We don’t need to know the answers all the time. Thinking you know all the answers, and thinking that you are some sort of prophet is ridiculous. The mind never tires when it’s burning. It never exhausts. It’s constantly being open-minded and exploring other avenues and being creative. Life is too short, why not have fun? Don’t be so serious.


Interview and Photography by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine #GirlPower Issue
Fashion Editor: Indira Cesarine
Hair by Anthony Joseph Hernandez
Makeup by Roberto Morelli

Pick up a copy of the issue in our online store!

Go behind the scenes with Ivy Levan on our shoot for The Untitled Magazine’s #GirlPower Issue:

IVY LEVAN BEHIND THE SCENES VIDEO – THE #GIRLPOWER ISSUE 8
Photography and Video Direction by Indira Cesarine

This article originally appeared in The #GirlPower Issue of The Untitled Magazine (2015).


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