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The opening bars of “Call Me” are a beckoning finger before a kick to the teeth. That’s the seductive power of Troi Irons, from songwriting to guitar-shredding to a voice so gorgeously sick she’s developed a pet peeve about being seen as just a singer.
“Call me bipolar, call me bitch, go and call me crazy—you want to/But don’t call me friend ’cause you ain’t no friend of mine,” she snarls from the art deco stage of Harrah’s Cabaret, opening an April 7 showcase at Emerge Impact + Music in Las Vegas.
Her set highlights 2016 EP Turbulence. “Worst Habit” slow-burns into warrior wails à la Brandi Carlile or Imogen Heap. “Lawless” has the alt-rocker going acoustic, wild emotion carried on a breathless tempo. “Today” is both heavy and rapturous in its look at transformative despair, as Irons curls impossible high notes around the air like smoke rings.
Her talent is the kind you can’t believe you’ve never heard, especially when you learn she’s a scarred-up veteran of the music business at age 23. That she’s had major-label record deals. Troi Irons is not emerging as much as metamorphosing on her own terms.
The daughter of musicians—Dad is Eddie Irons, the drummer for ’70s rock-funk outfit Brick, and Mom is ’80s pop songstress Anne G.—she taught herself to play guitar at 12 and had a record deal with RCA by 14 (Interscope offered double, Irons says, though she favored RCA’s “smaller roster and less fluff”). But that record never got released.
She’s been featured on tracks by Grammy-winning rapper/producer Lupe Fiasco, Australian mega-DJ Will Sparks and Finnish electronic duo Tom & Hills, but 2016 EP Turbulence is her only solo release through what seemed like a dream deal with Def Jam.
“I created this body of work that I thought would change my life. And that body of work sat on my hard drive for about a year. And you might imagine that after seven, eight years, like highs and lows of the industry, I was a little disheartened. More than a little disheartened. I basically gave up,” Irons said during a February TEDx talk on “making it” at the University of Nevada, Reno. “I stopped caring about a lot of things. … Most importantly, I stopped caring about whether or not I was gonna be successful. And because of that, an interesting thing happened. I started playing the guitar again, like just for fun.”
The songs she wrote without worrying how they would play to executives are what got those executives to finally move on her music, Irons says. Still, she is working to leave the label.
“It was old people in suits looking at me like, what is it? Is it Tracy Chapman or is it Rihanna? And I’m like, it’s neither—it’s Troi. Just put me on tour and the people will tell you. … People understand it, ’cause we’re here out living, not thinking in numbers. And all [labels] can do is think in numbers.”
Irons thinks about numbers to the extent that she has watched friends flourish doing music independently. If you fail you fail, but if you succeed it’s without the company siphon. “I really just want to be happy and do my thing and be able to live entirely off music and just tour for the rest of my life. We are in litigation with Def Jam trying to get the fuck out. Hopefully in the next couple weeks we’ll wrap it up, and then I’ll release music and then I’ll be touring.”
Her Emerge set highlights Turbulence. “Worst Habit” slow-burns into warrior wails à la Brandi Carlile or Imogen Heap. “Lawless” has the alt-rocker going acoustic, wild emotion carried on a breathless tempo. “Today” is both heavy and rapturous in its look at transformative despair, as Irons curls impossible high notes around the air like smoke rings.
A tour would tap the band backing her: bass player Jimmy Novocaine, guitarist Connor Doyle and drummer Danny Yost. Music director Max Bernstein—who has worked with pop stars like Ke$ha and Demi Lovato—will help craft the live show.
New album Lost Angels is finished, with single releases planned for summer and the whole shebang by October. “I have a message and a storyline and art package idea that I want this to be seen with,” Irons says. “It’s a whole world.”
That world is Los Angeles, where she lives and grew up, a home that never really felt like it. Irons was homeschooled, went to Cal State at age 13 (earning a B.A. in psychology), and by 18 had been kicked out of the house and was living in her car. Crash-and-burns ensued.
“I feel like a lot of my fans, a lot of new listeners, will relate to this. Everyone’s coming of age. We’re always coming of age.”
In this moment, it means Irons is driving for Uber while living in limbo. She’s fleeing that party in the LA hills where nobody knows the host and everybody’s dressed slutty and doing coke trying to get discovered (that situation inspired the song “Money” on her forthcoming album). And she is at a brand-new festival playing music that makes you understand what happens when System of a Down and Sufjan Stevens both plant flags in a young musician’s head.
Mostly, she’s slaying the audience. She explains the intense eye contact with a story about looking up to Tyler the Creator back when his stuff was less R&B and more caustic.
“He just had these lyrics that were my story … and if he had looked me in the eyes I would have known that he knew,” Irons says. “Because I wanted that so much, now I want to give that: I know you, you know me, here we are in the same place making the same journey.”
Your connection might not be so direct or potent. But Irons says that when everything in a song clicks, the whole room feels “the orgasmic yes.”
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