A month before the release of her debut album, Lowell is feeling pretty good about where her career is headed. "I have a lot of admiration for people like Kanye West and Madonna and David Bowie," says the Canadian artist, 22. "Those are the people that I look up to, and I feel like there's no reason why I can't achieve what they've achieved and more – because I know that I'm really gifted in a very unique way."
It's the type of bold statement you'd expect to hear from, well, a young Kanye West. On a sweaty summer afternoon, Lowell is curled up on a couch in her publicity firm's air-conditioned New York office, taking refuge from the brutal heat outside and telling the story behind her album, We Loved Her Dearly – a "completely autobiographical" 12-song set packed with irresistible pop hooks, dreamy synth textures and pointed feminist commentary.
As a kid growing up in Calgary and Western Massachusetts, Lowell dreamed of being the next Britney Spears. At 18, looking for a way into music, she moved to Toronto. "I tried university for a couple months, but it didn't really work," she says. She dropped out of college and started dancing at a local strip club under the stage name Sara Victoria. "I guess I was manipulated by certain people to get into that whole thing," she says. "Then I found my feet and started doing it on my own to make money so I could make music."
Lowell spent only a small part of her life working as a stripper, but the experience has stayed with her. "It's a really sad industry," she says. "Seeing the number of disorders that came in there – the addiction to money and to sex, and the greed, and the horrible abuse to the women that are working there..." She trails off. "It's easy for everyone to ignore, because we don't see it. It's a world that we keep super-taboo and hidden under a carpet."
At the same time, she adds, "There can be something really empowering about it. It doesn't have to be bad. But by making it taboo, we alienate these girls and allow this victimization to happen. These women do these things for men instead for themselves. There are very few girls that strip for themselves, from what I saw in Canada at least – which is really sad."
All the while, Lowell was writing and recording songs with whatever money she could save from her job. When she was 19, one of her demos made it into the hands of a well-connected member of the music industry, who invited her to London. Soon she was working alongside professional songwriters and producers like Sacha Skarbek (whose credits include Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" and James Blunt's "You're Beautiful"), Martin Terefe (Train's "Hey, Soul Sister") and others. "It was really exciting, but also scary," she says. "These are very, very prestigious writers – they all have Grammy after Grammy. I remember feeling like, 'If I don't nail this, I have to go home, and I don't wanna fucking do that.' So I just went in and wrote the best songs they had heard in 10 years."
Lowell ended up with a few solid credits to her name, including a co-write on a song for the Backstreet Boys; she also recorded a 2012 EP with Apparatjik, a group composed of Terefe, Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman and members of A-ha and Mew. But the goal was still a career of her own, and she continued making music for herself even while writing songs for other artists in an environment that could be challenging. "It's hard for a female to walk into a songwriting room," she says. "It's easy for people to assume that you have nothing to say for some reason. Sometimes I feel like I spend two hours trying to prove that my ideas are legitimate, and then the other five hours trying to get the person to stop apologizing to me for being so reluctant to listen to my ideas."
Her hard work paid off in August 2013, when she inked a recording deal with the prestigious Toronto label Arts & Crafts and followed through with five-song EP called I Killed Sara V., titled after her old stage name. "I was killing the stripper side of me and moving on from that," she says. "That was my sort of congratulations to myself that I'd overcome a darker time in my life and accomplished something more intelligent than being a sex object."
Lowell says that the name of her full-length debut, We Loved Her Dearly, is meant in part as a nod to a more complicated reality. "That's me maybe realizing there was a little bit of Sara V. still in me, and I should be proud of that," she says. "Maybe Sara V. wasn't all that bad. I don't think there's anything wrong with using sex to empower yourself, if you are comfortable with that."
Her complex thinking about sex and gender roles comes through on album highlights like "I Love You Money." "That's about the part of stripping where you're on top of the world," Lowell explains. "There's something creepy but enjoyable about taking things from people. I was just like, 'Money, yay! You'll give me all your money, 'cause you're an idiot, and I'm not doing anything. I'm just standing here.' It's supposed to be humorous."
She cites the highly charged anthem "Cloud 69" as her favorite song on the new album. "It's a little bit of a commentary about men and their weird fantasies," she says. "It's that feeling just after you watch porn, when you're like, 'I'm so filthy!' And then it's also exploring threesome fantasies. It's just a little tease, like, 'I know what you're thinking.' That can be empowering."
Lowell says she's looking forward to celebrating her 23rd birthday the week of the album's September 16th release. After that, it's anyone's guess where her music will take her. "What drives me now, more than the pop star spotlight bullshit, is trying to be a positive influence in people's lives," she says. "I want to share a story that hopefully somebody somewhere can relate to and feel stronger because of it." She smiles knowingly. "Is that egotistical to say?"