Music

Scotland’s Newest Export, ONR., Is Pop Music With a Purpose

What draws listeners to ONR.’s music is that it sounds like a great day in an absolutely terrible year

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For Robert Shields, something clicked in that old, beat-up, battered van. There was no iPhone hookup. The van only took CDs, which in the summer of 2016 felt like relics of another time, old-school, and Shields had only one of them. So, for the entire summer, as he drove to gigs around the United Kingdom, he listened to The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning album from 2010. He listened to it on repeat again, and again, and again. “A masterpiece,” he calls it now. “It was a real sort of wake-up, a key moment for me — listening to that album, it became really sort of obvious that this was going to become an important thing for my life, my next step.”

A couple of years later, rebranded as ONR., Shields is carving out a new lane in pop music that’s unapologetically emotional and personal. He grew up in the lowlands of Scotland — a place, he says, so small that people still point at helicopters — on a farm that his parents ran. In Glasgow and Dumfries, he’s been a staple in the local music scene for almost a decade. Shield’s previous band, Finding Albert, was a local sensation, but its songs tended toward the generally indie, with a moody Joy Division vibe that was much slower and much less personal than what he’s doing now. Now he’s something else. When Nate Albert, executive vice president of A&R for Capitol (who has worked with stars like the Weeknd and Florence and the Machine) saw Shields perform a year and a half ago, Albert was blown away. “I was in a band and toured for years. I’ve seen so many people perform over the years,” Albert says. “We flew [Shields] over from Scotland to play and it was just stunning. To have someone able to play at that caliber out of the blue was absolutely nuts.”

Since leaving high school almost a decade ago, Shields, 27, had been trying to grow up: to find the kind of artist he wanted to become. He wrote songs, and toured with various groups, but it was that summer of 2016, when everything was tense and sunny and changing, that Shields finally figured out what he wanted to do. “It’s as close to a road to Damascus kind of experience as you can get, I guess,” he says. “I started writing really honestly, writing only to please myself.” 

He named the new venture ONR., pronounced “honor,” but shortened to an acronym “like R.E.M,” he says. The name is intended to connote the dignity, the truth, he wants his music to hold. The Suburbs was, in Shields’s words, “only true to what [Arcade Fire] wanted to achieve from it.”

He gave up deliberation, gave up going into songwriting with a mission, gave up anything that wasn’t exactly what he wanted. “Ironically, that ends up being what people like the best,” he says. Specificity — in a world that feels so often like it is in upheaval, where so much conversation snuggles into grand propositions and universal truths — feels more relatable than ever. Maybe, even, more relevant.

“He’s going against what’s currently popular, and stepping out of this place where everything is cool and calculated, and creating something less interested in performance and more interested in emotion,” Albert says. “His songs definitely have political commentary, but it’s not heavy-handed.”

Pop music, made to be consumptive, to lift spirits, to bring joy, is often dismissed as irrelevant in a political landscape as divided as this one. Pop songs are supposed to provide escapism. They are supposed to give us license to let our hair down and have another drink and breathe for the first time all day, even when the world feels like it’s crumbling all around us.

ONR.’s third single, “AMERICAN GODS,” out last week, certainly doesn’t sound like a resistance anthem. When Shields talks about artists he admires, he always circles back to David Bowie, and the sonics of his music are much closer to that kind of bombastic theatricality than to a resistance band like the Clash. Shields’s work at times sounds like the Killers, like New Order, like U2. There’s more subtlety there, an arena-pop beat with a stealthy message. It’s pure pop, high BPM, a perfect dance number. “It’s like he synthesized all those records he grew up listening to into a performance,” Albert says.

“Empires fall/when we move the unmovable,” Shields sings on “AMERICAN GODS.” It’s a subtle, direct hit at revolution, at challenging the status quo. “AMERICAN GODS” sounds like the backdrop to an indie movie where the teenage protagonist dances in the living room, a red cup in hand, the night before everything changes. But behind that big American production and finessed British songwriting is something a little bit darker. It’s in that darkness that ONR.’s music sounds like it particularly belongs in 2018.

“I’ve been very conscious of trying to maintain a sort of relevance to the world around me without sounding preachy, or even overly considered,” Shields says. “I think writers should reflect the world around them. [The songs] don’t have to be about those topics, but they do have to be set against that background to be truly relevant.”

Shields refuses to explicitly state the politics of his songs. For example, he says that fans are always explaining the meaning of his single “Five Years Time” to him, saying it’s about the average length of time before a couple gets married, or the amount of time until the next U.K. election. In the two years since Shields began ONR., the world has certainly changed. Britain voted to leave the European Union. North Korea began testing nuclear missiles. The United States elected Donald Trump. What draws listeners to ONR.’s music is that, in particular in songs such as “AMERICAN GODS,” it sounds like a great day in an absolutely terrible year. Those days still exist, when the light is gold and the air is brisk, and we put our phones down for an afternoon, or an evening, but they are rare, and they are personal. We know on those too-warm winter afternoons that the world is not entirely good even if it is good for us in that instance: the personal more palpable than the universal.

“The stories that really hit home with people the most are personal stories about love and about loss set against backgrounds of political and cultural upheaval,” Shields says. “There are these huge political agendas across the world, and ever-changing landscapes, but it’s the small issues that really affect how you pay your rent, and how you’re going to make some kind of difference in the world.”

When ONR.’s first two songs, “5 Years Time” and “Jericho,” came out in the fall of 2017, reviewers branded them as political missives. But Shields is right, they aren’t. There’s something more subtle in their despair and joy, something more complicated than just a stance. He’s not an established voice yet. But with a mind and an ear for the nuance of our age, he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on.

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