PLAYING DETROIT: Primer Crafts Goth-Pop Gems on Debut LP Novelty

photo by Alex Buks

We’ve all heard the cliche – “some of the best songs are written in ten minutes.” Think of the story behind pretty much any early Beatles song and you’ll land at some iteration of that. But what about the songs that unravel like a slow burn, painstakingly dragged along until they finally emerge from the ashes of rewrite after rewrite, evolving in meaning along the way? Detroit-based artist Primer (Alyssa Midcalf) took the latter path when crafting her debut album, Novelty, a heart-numbing goth-pop album that serves up heartbreak and catatonia in pink cellophane wrapping paper.

Midcalf began writing Novelty long before moving to Detroit just over a year ago. The Palm Springs, CA native made her way to Detroit by way of Grand Rapids, where she ended up by happenstance – “I fell in love,” Midcalf explains. She was playing in another electronic band in Grand Rapids, called Parts, where she honed her skills as an electronic producer. Prior to that, Midcalf had gotten by as an almost entirely self-taught musician. “I went through a lot of problems as a teenager and I think, for some reason, there was this time in my life where I was like [music] is what I’m going to spend my time doing.”

She experimented with drums, bass, and synth, but not before establishing her first musical love – singing. Midcalf’s background in musical theatre and singing competitions is clear even in Novelty’s muddled vocal production. Instead of feeling cloudy or lost, Midcalf’s subtly mixed vocals act as a pleasant surprise to the close listener drawn in by ’80s-inspired synths and captivated by Midcalf’s infallible, haunting performance.

The entire record feels like Midcalf threw a huge party in a haunted house but deliberately didn’t invite any guests. I can see it as clear as day when listening to “My House” – a ghostly woman, standing in the middle of a dark empty room, a disco ball radiating light on the walls and her face. It’s this knack for creating a mood that makes Midcalf’s songwriting particularly enchanting. There’s a uniformity throughout the record partly due to Midcalf’s main instrument of choice, a Juno GI synth, but also to the blaring emptiness that permeates throughout her lyrics.

“Lyrics are always the last thing,” says Midcalf. “So, I’ll have melodies and sometimes I’ll have songs for years that don’t have lyrics until some sort of meaning comes to it. Lyrics breathe life into something that’s otherwise a corpse.” Paired with new-wave dance beats, Midcalf’s devastating verses disguise themselves in a happy home. The dichotomy is irresistible and so is Novelty.

Novelty is out now via Young Heavy Souls Records. Give it a listen below.

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