PLAYING SEATTLE: The Spider Ferns Talk Grief and Creativity

The Spider Ferns, the Seattle-based band of couple Kelly and Alton Fleek, never felt more alone and isolated than during the latter half of last year, when they cared for Kelly’s terminally-ill mother until her passing in late 2019. During 2019, the Fleeks’ entire lives were put on hold, their priorities shifted, and the tarot deck was shuffled. In the little downtime they could find, The Spider Ferns wrote their newest single “Who Stands Alone,” which, with its intense vocal crescendos, plodding synth base, gritty electric guitar and lightning synth, is like an unpredictable cosmic event.

“Who Stands Alone” would’ve been a good song without the coronavirus pandemic—but little did they know that just a few months later, the entire country—and world—would meet them in the same liminal space that informed its theme. There’s even reference to the houses we’re all trapped in right now—“There is noise in my house/Hear the thunder,” Kelly sings. “You must get out/You must go farther/And, who will suffer most?/Who stands alone?”

In this way, “Who Stands Alone” has heightened resonance. The emotional journey so many of us are collectively on right now to some degree parallels the tumultuous mental space that Kelly and Alton just walked through. For that reason, “Who Stands Alone” is the sort of song that answers a timely need, that fills a void. With its slow mount to a triumphant chorus, The Spider Ferns gently guide the listener through rage, mania, anxiety and grief—and towards release.

Below, Kelly tells Audiofemme more about creating through grief, assessing what is most important in life, and about The Spider Ferns’ forthcoming album, Blossom.

AF: Tell me where you were emotionally when you wrote “Who Stands Alone.” 

KF: “Who Stands Alone” was written in 2019 when my mother fell into a deep health crisis —multiple terminal diagnoses being heaped on, one after the other over a series of months. The stresses compounded with us rushing to reconfigure our lives so I could step in and help my mom with everything from doctors appointments to washing her hair. I felt so isolated, emotionally chaotic and alone. I became really angry at my extended family for a time because though I was 100% dedicated to making my mom’s final months and days comfortable and peaceful, it was tearing me apart to be head nurse and more. Suddenly, it was all in my face —she was dying and no matter who helped me or supported me, and this was going to be a painful, lonely journey.

“Who Stands Alone” is about love and acceptance of those we hold dear during our most vulnerable moments. Under times of incredible odds and external stress, we may fall apart, or maybe we take on the role of cooking food for someone in need, or we become the person isolating, or the one who manages chaos well. We never know what hat we’ll end up wearing. Crisis is a journey of self-discovery as much as it is navigating the actual crisis. We each experience trauma individually. “Who Stands Alone” is about loving and accepting one another through it all while still honoring our own needs. I’m seeing this expansion of love and acceptance around me everywhere right now.

AF: This song happens to work well, conceptually, for the pandemic going through right now — was that coincidence?

KF: Completely coincidental. The timeliness of this release is really profound for both of us right now, however. Alton and I lived with my mom for her final months, we were isolated from our friends and family 95% of the time—stopped playing shows, stopped recording our album, stopped working. Our regular life just stopped. That’s exactly what we are all experiencing together in this moment of pandemic crisis. My mom’s home was full of hand sanitizer, face masks for folks who stopped by who might have the sniffles, vetting people who’d like to visit via phone as to whether they’ve been sick lately or had had their flu shots, my nightly wipe down of door knobs, countertops, and more with Clorox wipes—all this mirrors the invisible stresses of this time in society.

During our isolation from the world, we had had to get really creative without our standard social, musical and artistic outlets. Alton tried to work on new music via laptop and headphones, but it was really hard to get into that creative zone under so much stress. I drew cancer cells like 1960s inspired dancing abstractions for months, just to keep my creative mind flowing, but nothing felt real for the longest time. We’re good at being hermits, so we’re certainly never bored, but we both find these external stressors make accessing creativity difficult for us both. I feel that’s a common theme I’m hearing right now in the creative communities in general, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s okay to not be creating some magnum opus right now. I’m sure we’ll adjust at some point and find our flow.  We’re focused largely on mixing our album at the moment, which is keeping us moving forward.

AF: What has this recent time in your life taught you about creating through grief and with grief? I’m talking both losing your mom and this pandemic we’re living through.

KF: I personally have had to be far more patient with myself than ever before. Alton is having similar struggles. We’re both highly productive people, but this level of stress is really incredible and just keeps tumbling out of the universe unchecked. I am forever changed by losing my mom. I feel that I’ll be processing that for the rest of my life really. I don’t really know how to talk about it all yet to be honest. I’m sure these past months will infuse themselves into future tracks in myriad ways. For Alton, the process of dealing with all of this has been about accepting loss of control. That’s a perfect way to put it actually. We have no real control over when anyone dies, or whether some new virus will pop up and wreak havoc. Ultimately, we’ve had to turn inward and deeply assess what is most important to us in life. I take a lot of photos right now and field recordings, I jot down thoughts like little poems on paper or in my phone as ideas trickle in. I don’t have that rush to hop into our practice space and create something immediately like I’ve had in the past. I feel more contemplative in general and more relaxed in many ways. I’ve learned to step back more and to relieve my mind of that pressure that I should be using this time ‘wisely’—I think right now it’s wise to breathe, to contemplate, to take my time.

AF: This song is one single off a forthcoming album, right? Tell me a little bit about that album and what drives it thematically?

KF: “Who Stands Alone” is the first single off of our forthcoming album Blossom due out later this year. The album has a phoenix rising from the ashes vibe —both of us rising above the struggles of the past few years, both personal and societal, finding a deeper groove together musically, channeling a lot of sorrow into dance music lyrically and sonically as well. Blossom reflects the heaviness of our current political climate and the heartbreak we’ve shared. It’s also the solution—we’re transcending all of this shit we’ve endured and taking you on the journey with us. In typical Spider Fern form, we’ve made heartbreak you can dance to.

AF: Assuming you won’t be able to tour with the album (welp), have you lined up any virtual performances or tour dates?

KF: We’ll create some living room shows soon that we’ll announce on our socials. Stay tuned there. We can hardly wait to tour again. We’re hoping for fall or winter. We had plans to tour Europe again this fall…. who knows what the future holds for now. We’re hoping to use this downtime to get some new music videos in the works as well.

Follow The Spider Ferns on Facebook for ongoing updates.

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