When Justine Bowe picks up the phone, she’s sitting in Mike’s Pizza in Davis Square with experimental pop musician Anjimile. Bowe likes the place because there’s counter space, so she feels like she can take her time, even if she grabs a bite that’s quick to finish, like a single slice of pizza. “Sometimes I’ll just grab chicken fingers for one,” she says, half-laughing at herself. “That’s pretty much a pinnacle of treating myself.” That craving for unhurried surroundings makes sense when paired with her work ethic. Bowe has always done things her own way as a musician, and under her Photocomfort moniker, she plans on letting her own timetable pick up the pace in 2018. She needs all the calming fuel she can get.
Bowe began performing as Photocomfort back in 2010, and save for a year or two where she was joined by two other members, it’s always been her solo project. The 27-year-old musician has been writing, recording, and producing the music herself for as long as she can remember. That type of control gives Bowe the perfect grasp over how Photocomfort’s music is interpreted. Through headphones, that means it’s evolving, introspective, electronic indie pop. She describes it as partly confessional, partly experimental, without sacrificing that pop gratification.
That translates into songs that are deep in both layers and personal meaning. She stews on songs for a while, then tracks basic sketches acappella or through keyboard. After that, Bowe works ruthlessly on perfecting the songs, but frees herself from airtight constraints by not abiding by a typical release schedule. Back in 2011, she released an EP and then hastily took it off the internet. Since then, she’s been slowly uploading singles. Songs like “More,” which she recorded with former writing partner Gabe Goodman, pairs over-the-top production with clingy, dramatic lyrics. “Rose Colored Glasses,” a song about a defunct relationship and its surprising-yet-needed dissolution, merges the troubled undertone of Fever Ray with the smooth drive of Alt-J. Elsewhere in her music, a bit of early St. Vincent—back when she focused on chamber-like vocal acrobatics—and glossy, astute production akin to Grizzly Bear floats to the surface. Her singles are united in richness, but they stand on their own for a reason.
“Singles are what interested me. I like the idea of creating a stand-alone concept,” says Bowe. “A lot of artists feel pressure to put out records in a way that’s artificial. You end up throwing filler in that you don’t love as much as the other tunes. I’ve found that songs get better the more honest they get, and that let me do so. I think the confessional aspect of things feels more compelling to me at this point, and I don’t quite know why.”
Creative diversity seems to be embedded in Bowe’s DNA. Her side projects are just as fascinating as Photocomfort, from scoring work to starting a nonfiction paranormal podcast, This American Afterlife (Watch your back, Ira Glass). One of her favorite outlets, however, is producing other musicians’ work. “I don’t think we have a lot of women who are being lifted up for doing their own production work. It’s perplexing to me,” she says. “I’d rather find an artist whose concept I find to be wonderful and then lend to it.” So Bowe pushes herself by producing music that varies from hers, be it in studio for folk artists like Sam Moss or at live shows for Anjimile.
Now, she’s working on a proper EP, due out this spring. The EP, tentatively titled Understudy, takes its inspiration through Bowe’s alternate life on TV. She’s been projecting herself onto characters like Mickey Dobbs on Love because she bears an “uncomfortable similarity” to the actress, Gillian Jacobs. “I’ve been going vaguely insane watching, relating to the way she suffers on screen and deals with problems,” says Bowe. “It was a trip, so I wrote a lot about that.”
To help bring that to life, Bowe is bringing Photocomfort’s live sound to the studio. Onstage, she plays synths, a tiny OP‑1, a looper, and a drum machine, with hired musicians joining her on drums, guitar, and synth. Before Converse Rubber Tracks shut its doors, Bowe recorded new Photocomfort music there with Andy Fordyce—a drummer getting his doctorate in improvisational music from New England Conservatory—playing live drums, a decision that she’s proud of as it keeps her on her songwriting toes. His drumming replaces the usual sample kits and programmed pads. His dynamic delivery makes for a compelling listen, and Bowe wants to use the unavoidable human error that comes with live drumming to close the gap between electronic music’s traditionally cold delivery and the warmer tones of indie pop.
Bowe knows what she wants out of Photocomfort, and she will hit those goals in 2018 no matter what gets in the way. Right now, the electronic scene at large hasn’t welcomed Photocomfort warmly, in part because Bowe doesn’t know if it’s aware she’s out there. As much as she wants to juggle work on her own, she’s still looking to work with others in the area. Most days, that doesn’t come easy. But that won’t stop her from trying.
“It feels so fragmented here sometimes,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like there’s a ton of cross-collaboration or people to rally around an act to become a national act. So I’ve clawed to try to meet artists I can work with around here. I haven’t always gotten that back. But that’s something I hope to see change. Maybe this year that will happen.”
PHOTOCOMFORT, PARKS, MINES FALLS. THU 1.4. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 8:30PM/18+/$10. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM
Due to the blizzard, this show is being postponed until SAT 1.6 and Photocomfort can no longer play.