It was around the release of Midnight Sister’s 2017 debut album, Saturn Over Sunset, that Juliana Giraffe and Ari Balouzian began working on the follow-up. They wrote and demoed material on their own time before heading into the studio with a band to record. Though the duo had worked with a band live, this was the first time that they would bring one into the studio with them. The initial recording came together quickly – over a period of about two weeks – but it would take another couple years of honing arrangements and heading back to the studio when possible to add more instruments. The result is an eclectic and lively 12-song sophomore album, Painting the Roses, which came out January 15th.
“For myself, it’s tough when you overdo stuff, redo stuff too many times. I don’t think you can get it as well as, sometimes, when the idea is fresh,” says Balouzian on a recent video call from his home in Burbank. “We tried to keep that as much as we could.”
“I do tend to like the first take of my vocals usually, at least lead vocals,” says Giraffe, on the same call from her home in North Hollywood. “I get really attached to the rawness of whatever comes out first, so we try to capture that.”
The time that lapsed over the course of making the album, though, was helpful. “We were going on tours and playing shows in L.A. through the time of writing Painting the Roses,” says Giraffe. “I think that helped and informed the vibe of what the actual record sounds like.”
Painting the Roses effortlessly bridges styles – a little modern indie, a good dose of ’70s glam rock and a helping of funk and disco – with Giraffe’s chameleon-like vocals evoking a variety of characters. On opening cut, “Doctor Says,” she recalls Kate Bush on “Waking the Witch.” With “Foxes,” she takes a turn towards Marc Boland and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie.
Giraffe and Balouzian met back when they were attending high school in Los Angeles; the latter was friends with the former’s sister. Later on, they began collaborating. Both work in film. Giraffe and her sister Nicky run “all-inclusive imagination emporium” Giraffe Studios, which encompasses commercial video and photography, production design, and costume design. Balouzian is a composer, recently scoring 2020 Pepe the Frog documentary Feels Good Man. Initially, they came together to work on a short film. Then, over email, the future bandmates shared bits of music they were making for fun. “Something about it seemed to click,” says Balouzian.
Their musical and visual influences come together in Midnight Sister’s videos. The clip for “Doctor Says” is a particularly personal one for Giraffe. She had visited Argentina, where her mother was born, for the first time, and that influenced the video, which Giraffe co-directed with her sister. “We were exploring our heritage,” she says of the clip.
“Doctor Says” also gave Giraffe an opportunity to flex her special effects makeup skills. “I have always been a huge special effects make up fan and one of my idols is Rick Baker,” she says, referring to the artist best known for his work on films ranging from Videodrome to Maleficent. For the video, Giraffe wears her own prosthetics as she plays different characters in the video, made from live casts of her sister, mom and dad. “That video is very close to home and ties with that song being about change and letting things go and evolution as being and growing and shedding, maybe, old characters of yourself,” she explains.
Midnight Sister has already released three more videos for songs from Painting the Roses – “Wednesday Baby,” “Foxes,” and most recently, “Satellite.” The duo’s mutual background in film shines through in the songs as well. “Creating images is where my creative brain feels most comfortable,” says Giraffe, who studied cinematography. She adds that her visual art side impacts her lyrics and singing, in that she’s expressing characters and stories. “I think there’s a little bit of a crossover in my process and my approach and that way,” she says.
“When you’re writing instrumental music, sometimes it is interesting to have an emotional context of something that’s going on,” Balouzian adds, noting that working with Giraffe lends context to the music. “She’s writing based on film or visual things, so it came together in a way that made sense.” There are echoes of French composer Alain Goraguer’s La Planète Sauvage score in “Satellite.” Meanwhile, “Sirens” begins with the screeching strings of a horror film before the disco beat kicks listeners into a dance floor tale.
“That’s what we like,” says Balouzian of incorporating elements more common in film music. “I always was interested in stuff that related to function or related to real life in some sort of way, as opposed to just being purely about music.” On Painting the Roses, that approach makes for an imaginative, captivating listen.
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