Here’s a quick list of things that have inspired L.A.-based pop duo POWERS in recent months: found recordings of ancient Peruvian tribal music, a centuries-old Swedish hymn, a PBS retrospective on the making of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a 1993 Baywatch episode titled “Island of Romance.”
“Songs can spark from anything,” says Crista Ru, who co-founded POWERS with co-vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Mike Del Rio in 2014. “It’s just like love — it hits you out of nowhere, you can’t ever predict it. But when you feel it, you need to do whatever you can to hold onto that feeling and follow through and bring something good to life.”
For POWERS, bringing songs to life means tapping into their own eclectic backgrounds — which span from playing in punk bands in New York City to co-writing for the likes of Kylie Minogue and Icona Pop — and taking a collage-like approach to constructing crystalline pop. Citing the cut-and-paste art of Robert Rauschenberg and Terry Gilliam among their longtime influences, POWERS piece together chopped-up live instrumentation, synths, samples, and beats into a sound that’s intricately composed but graced with timeless pop simplicity. And on their debut EP Legendary (praised by Nylon as “rich with disco-funk pop that revels in its own genre-bending light”), the duo deepen that sound by infusing each track with potent feeling, from effervescent self-assurance on “Hot” to epic lovesickness on “Loved By You.”
Now at work on their full-length debut, Del Rio and Ru first crossed paths in the New York music scene in the mid-’00s after devoting much of their lives to exploring and creating music. Both POWERS members also have dance music in their DNA: Del Rio’s parents made the scene at Studio 54 in the ’70s and raised their son on Bee Gees records, while Ru’s uncle introduced her to the music of outré-leaning artists like Grace Jones when she was still in elementary school. “My uncle was always throwing crazy parties, with all these drag queens and musicians from the ’80s club scene in New York, which was a huge inspiration for me from a very young age,” she says.
At first, Del Rio and Ru had no clear goal for their collaboration. “We were mostly just making music together because it felt good,” Ru says. Then, in 2011, Del Rio moved to L.A. after teaming up with British producer Alex da Kid (Nicki Minaj, Dr. Dre, Imagine Dragons) and inking a production deal with his record label KIDinaKORNER. A year later, Ru followed, and the two began penning songs for pop artists. After building up their songwriting resumé — which included landing the track “Birthday” on Selena Gomez’s 2013 album Stars Dance — the duo decided to refocus on their own music and began creating under the name POWERS.
In 2014, POWERS had their breakthrough with “Classic” (a collaboration with New York City-based electronic duo The Knocks), which drew major attention from record labels. But instead of signing a deal right away, the duo stepped back and retreated to a middle-of-the-woods cabin hours outside L.A. to clear their heads and reset their intentions. “We went back into the hole and were really honest with ourselves about what kind of music we wanted to make,” Del Rio says. During their weeklong retreat, that meant channeling their fascination with what Del Rio calls “these pockets of strangeness that exist everywhere” into an endlessly shapeshifting, pastiche-like take on pop. Also making use of the songcraft they’d sharpened through their work as pop songwriters, POWERS ended up with a new batch of songs that included the tracks featured on the Legendary EP (their debut release for Republic Records). Among those tracks: “Beat of My Drum,” which topped Hype Machine and Spotify’s Viral Chart, in addition to earning more than 20 million plays on Spotify.
In creating songs for their forthcoming album, POWERS continue to embrace their oddball inclinations and exercise their pop instincts while shaping a more lavishly arranged sound. Along with working from a musical palette now filled with world-music-inspired rhythms and tones and textures, the duo have achieved that bigger sound in part by building off their recent experiences touring with bands like DNCE and X Ambassadors. From the brilliantly warped vocals and gospel-like harmonies of “Sunshine” to the soulful grooves and spacey psychedelia of “Man on the Moon” to the life-affirming and anthemic feel of “Real” (featuring X Ambassadors), the new songs match POWERS’ natural magnetism with an arena-ready grandeur. “Whenever we have an idea, we always ask ourselves, ‘How would this feel for a live audience?’” Ru says. “If something feels really good to us and we’re excited and it’s all flowing, it usually translates that way to people’s ears and turns out to be something special.”
Trusting intuition also goes a long way in POWERS transforming their kaleidoscopic sensibility into purely melodic pop songs. “We have so much fun creating together, and that’s really the core of everything,” Del Rio says. “That feeling of being a kid and playing with blocks or painting a picture for the first time — that’s what the two of us are constantly trying to give back to each other with this project.” The fun is palpable, but the music serves an even deeper purpose, with POWERS radiating an unabashed, infectious joy that makes even the sad songs feel celebratory. “For us making music is about being open to letting yourself feel everything, and trying to make stories about these little moments in time,” Del Rio says. “We want to feel all the feelings, good and bad, then capture that magic and build our own world for it to live in.”