When Sami Perez and Spencer Hartling met at a Ventura, CA dive bar where they’d both performed in 2014, they had an immediate connection that was both romantic and artistic. It turned out the latter outlasted the former, but this didn’t put a damper on their band, Harry the Nightgown. In fact, it fueled it; their self-titled debut album is dedicated to this very experience of making music with your ex.
Perez and Hartling had already written much of the album’s music while they were still together — then, after their breakup, they were tasked with the challenge of writing the lyrics. “Pretty much all the songs are about each other or how we were feeling trying to pursue working together while also managing separating romantically,” Perez explains. “It’s kind of like a representation of our commitment to working together as musicians, because I think as musical partners, we really click.”
Though both members wrote the lyrics, they often did so on their own, then came into the studio and shared them with each other. This meant that the process of making the album initiated some big post-breakup conversations. “There were many times where one of us would be in the live room recording vocals, showing the person the lyrics for the first time, and the other person would be in the control room, kind of panicky, freaking out, or appreciative — it was such an emotional process,” says Perez. “It’s taken a year now, but we’re finally at a place where we can comfortably work together and not feel so much tension that you feel with an ex-partner.”
You might not surmise the album’s heavy subject matter from the fun sound, and indeed, many of the songs put a humorous spin on breakups. In “Pill Poppin’ Therapist,” Perez reflects on her desire to help her partner while using him to self-medicate her own issues: “Rocky Horror sleepover/I needed you/Seemed so healthy from a distance/Something new/I made a pill out of you.”
In the duo’s first single “Ping Pong,” Hartling sings about making peace with the breakup and feeling confident in he and Perez’s ability to move through it and stay friends: “I’m a decent friend at best and I know you see it/But you don’t want to sound uptight/I’m a careless ex, I know, so don’t waste time here/Yeah, you’ve got better things to do.” The video keeps up the silly tone of the song, with Hartling singing and strolling around with a lampshade on his head — a “runaway lamp” getup inspired by his most recent Halloween costume.
With both members on guitar and bass and Hartling on drums, the L.A.-based duo has mastered an aesthetic encompassing a variety of indie rock styles. Perez’s saccharine voice has earned the band comparisons to Deerhoof, while the use of electric guitar on songs like “Ping Pong” is a bit reminiscent of The Strokes. The band cites Kate Bush, Raincoats, XTC, and Rosalía as major influences behind the LP. Both had played in various bands before forming Harry the Nightgown; Perez started the band The She’s with several of her friends in middle school, then began playing bass for L.A.-based rockers Cherry Glazerr in 2013. Currently, she balances these two projects with Harry the Nightgown, while Hartling’s focus is more on sound engineering.
Harry the Nightgown — a name that stems from Perez’s nickname for a tree outside her childhood window — also made use of electronic techniques on the album. As sound engineers, both Perez and Hartling set out to push the bounds of what they could do production-wise. Recording at John Vanderslice’s all-analog Tiny Telephone studio, where they both worked, they’d spend entire days messing around with old Moog and ARC synthesizers and create harmonies through vocal layering. In “Babbling,” which Perez remembers struggling to record right after the breakup, her voice slowly, hauntingly soars above a choir created by multiple recordings of her own voice, while “In My Head” adds discordant arcade-like instrumentals to a similarly multi-tracked vocal.
“[An all-analog studio] sets limitations, but in a way that forces you to be really creative,” says Perez. “For example, there’s only 24 tracks, so how do we make a song sound interesting and complex without just adding a million tracks? That’s a challenge.”
The duo plans to donate a portion of their singles’ proceeds to the Summaeverythang Community Center, which brings organic produce to South Central L.A. and works to empower Black communities. After processing their breakup in the studio, their professional relationship is still flourishing – they’ve got two more singles and a new album on the way. And, along with Vanderslice, they’ve established a modest backyard studio in Los Angeles called Grandma’s Couch. With a knack for deconstruction that extends from their own romance to their sonic aesthetic, Harry the Nightgown may have created the experimental indie equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours – without sacrificing their creative kinship.
Follow Harry the Nightgown on Instagram for ongoing updates.