On stage at the Bowery Ballroom, Lizzy Plapinger, the enchanting frontwoman of the New York-based pop band MS MR (pronounced “Miss Mister”), has the crowd eating up her every hip shake, stomp, and soulful wail. Lit by a collection of flickering candelabras, Plapinger is dressed in a white tank and magenta spandex pants and is accompanied by Max Hershenow, a blond-haired bundle of kinetic energy who, every so often, abandons his keyboard in favor of dancing with Plapinger.
Plapinger’s look, those magenta pants and a head of fiery orange curls that change to purple and blue at the edges, is decidedly glam rock. But her smoky croon sounds somewhere between the soaring ebullience of Florence Welch and the melancholic purring of Lana Del Rey.
Though raised in London, Plapinger, 25, has no trace of a British accent since her parents are American, “although I suppose that the Florence Welch comparisons would be literally off the charts if that was the case,” she jokes. “But the comparisons are more flattering than exhausting. It’s like, ‘You’re crazy, but I appreciate it!’”
In person, Plapinger and her band mate, Hershenow (also 25, and the MR to her MS) couldn’t be further from their brooding musical personas. They’re charming, funny, and incredibly self-effacing.
“I think we’re quite bubbly and down-to-earth people, but the music allows us to become the most dramatic versions of ourselves,” says Plapinger. “We found a place to direct that energy and high drama.”
The day before, MS MR’s debut album, Secondhand Rapture, had been released. On this night, May 15, they’re playing to a sold-out crowd, and on the following night they would make their TV debut on Late Show with David Letterman.
“We appreciate that people are buzzing and hyping about it, but we’re just scratching the surface of what we’re capable of,” Plapinger says.
The musical duo both attended Vassar College, but it wasn’t until after graduation in 2010 that their paths crossed. Hershenow, who had studied to be a classical pianist but abandoned it out of boredom, was attending the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and had begun dabbling with music production. When he reached out to Plapinger via email to see if she could put him in touch with any artists who were interested in collaborating, Plapinger had already been flirting with the idea of singing, even though she had never done so in front of anyone.
Plapinger had played saxophone in a middle-school band and learned to play drums in college. During her sophomore year, she started the boutique music label Neon Gold with a friend. The record label specialized in releasing limited-run, seven-inch singles and helped launch the careers of Passion Pit, Ellie Goulding, and Marina & the Diamonds.
“Max was so nice and open about his level of experience [and] his genuine curiosity in making music,” says Plapinger. “It felt like a safe place to get honest feedback and learn if this was worth pursuing.”
In December 2010, the two finally met at Hershenow’s old apartment in Brooklyn. The first song they played together was a rendition of Patrick Wolf’s “Time of My Life.” That evolved into writing and recording music. The sessions, he says, felt like “a perfect mesh of our two inherently compatible skill sets.”
“Bones” was the first track they recorded, which Plapinger says, “set a tone for the rest of the project.” (HBO recently used the song in its Season 3 trailer for Game of Thrones.) By spring they had a solid collection of five songs, and by the following winter they had recorded an album’s worth of material. Going into hiding until they emerged with a wealth of material was a conscious decision on the group’s part, owed in large part to Plapinger’s experience dealing with nascent musical acts at her label.
“The danger with music right now is often a new artist will come out, release their new song, it will grow overnight, and then they have this unbelievable pressure and don’t have the time to build the music around it because they’re so beholden to this one item,” she says.
They let a few initial EPs trickle out: “Ghost City USA” for free on their Tumblr, then “Candy Bar Creep Show.” Soon the group’s songs were being featured on television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the catwalks of New York Fashion Week.
Shortly after, they were signed by Columbia Records—which also has a deal to release music by Neon Gold—and enlisted mega-producer Tom Elmhirst, who had helped produce albums for Amy Winehouse and Adele, to help mix their debut LP. The two describe their debut album as a “pop record” with “DIY foundations.” Plapinger’s layered vocals are accentuated by Hershenow’s swirling, swelling electro-pop production replete with synths, drums, and electronic beats.
“The messages in the songs are very pure human emotions, but it’s about bringing them somewhere,” says Plapinger. “My ultimate dream for this band would be to headline Glastonbury. If you headline Glastonbury, that means you have to play a two-hour set of just hits, so it means you’ve released a series of records that have consistently connected with people over time. When you’ve reached that point, you’re untouchable. That’s what we’re reaching toward.”
“But slowly, gradually,” adds Hershenow.
From our June 7, 2013, issue; Meet Ms Mr.