Heartbreak can cast your heart in stone and send you careening through dark depression and self-reflection. Hailing from Richmond, Virginia, lo-fi pop band Cheap Kisses ─ composed of musicians Aubrey Kay and producer Justin Black ─ observe a former relationship and the journey out of the mental muck. Originally written almost five years ago, “as a relationship was falling apart,” Kay says, their debut single “Love Myself” reconfigures Kay’s pain as a provocative bow. It’s the first single and title track from the band’s forthcoming EP release.
“During that weird time, I needed songwriting to use as a tool to get me through it and keep my depressive tendencies from taking over,” she tells Audiofemme, premiering the video today. “The lyrics really read as my own diary entry from that time. It’s about how self love can be a lonely process and falling out of love can be, too.”
Kay latches onto such influences as Angel Olsen and Waxahatchee, keeping the arrangement straight-laced, yet emotionally textured, with a healthy coating of Teen Suicide, Frankie Cosmos, and Flatsound for good measure. Most-known in the local scene as frontman of alt-country group Saw Black, Black twists the production with an Americana spritz.
Cheap Kisses’ debut soaks in the heartache’s aftermath, owed largely to Kay’s soft spoken performance. “Will I ever learn to love myself again?” she asks herself over and over again. That self-love tug-of-war stems from a very raw place in Kay’s feminist identity. She explains, “I resist that we are so heavily taught as women that we aren’t good enough in one way or another. For me, it’s important to love myself first and accept the complexities of me before I can approach being loved by another person. Loving yourself is an ongoing struggle, but it’s an essential one.”
The video, directed and co-produced by Kay’s girlfriend, Kathryn Ray, moves between intimate, bedroom confessions to performance-style snapshots backdropped with bright, shimmery curtains. The juxtaposition is aesthetically pleasing and gives further weight to the song’s message. “[Kathryn] wanted to create scenes that looked like they could be fun but also appeared somewhat artificial. We wanted to evoke feelings of loneliness for the viewer, because loving yourself is a difficult and lonely process sometimes,” says Kay. “We started with the concept for the album art where I was literally loving myself by kissing the mirror and built the rest of the video from there.”
She adds, “We wanted to show something that referenced my songwriting process, using my actual lyric journal, and further reinforced the emotional vulnerability I’m displaying through the song.”
Equipped with an arsenal of gear, including two mics on the drums and a Holy Grail guitar pedal, Black fully embraces the DIY spirit. “Love Myself” cuts with a hazy wash of guitars and a steady percussive kick. Paired with Kay’s rosy vocal tone, the duo entice the listener into a freeing expedition.
Most of their work begins through “really focusing on the song structures,” offers Black. “I was playing along on drums while Aubrey would play guitar and sing the songs. We’d work them to a point where they were interesting and fun to play. Once we had the songs ready, we spent four or five days recording the upcoming EP onto 1/4 inch tape using my 8 track (Tascam 388). We’d start by recording the guitar and drums live together in the same room. Then, Aubrey would track the vocals, and I’d start trying bass lines or little lead parts. When it was working, typically, Aubrey would be like, ‘Oh I like that, do that!’”
“To be honest, it was a really laid back environment being in my house and just having no pressure or money involved made it unique,” he continues. “I love the tape hiss and the bleed that we embraced. It’s been a very easy and fun project for me. Aubrey is a great songwriter and a good friend, so I hope to play a ton of house shows and parties this summer.”
Kay chimes in: “I’ve always been shy to show my own songs to other musical creatives, but Justin was always so supportive of my ideas and valued my input every step of the way. He has helped me feel more confident as a musician all around.”
Even a moniker like Cheap Kisses exudes a specific, low-key sensibility. “[That] was a phrase I just misspoke one day during practice with Justin. We immediately agreed that it’s a perfect band name for our twee pop sound,” admits Kay. “Aside from the cutesy vibe it gives off, I also like to think that ‘cheap’ kisses are the kisses you get from a lover or partner when you’re trying to pretend it’s all fine when your relationship is falling apart around you.”
Kay builds much of her work around such a thematic landscape, sifting through various ash piles of a long-dead relationship for inspiration. She adds, “A lot of my songs are about that exact moment when it’s falling apart.”
Identifying as queer-femme, Kay finds that while her identity doesn’t overtly play into the songwriting, it specifically “plays into how I experience the music scene and our representation in it,” she says. “My goal for this band is to boost femme representation in the Richmond scene. I’m sick of seeing cool bands play shows here and then seeing that the singer is the only one who’s not a dude. I hope that after this single drops, we are able to attract some rad femmes to play in [this band] with us, as it is only Justin and me making everything at this point. Representation matters.”
While Kay and her girlfriend both share ambitions to move to Nashville “when this pandemic is over,” she is more than happy with her life in this moment. “Richmond is a really great place to live so I can’t complain too much,” she says. From her show choir roots in high school to a solo project called Murabess, everything has led to this moment. But it took time, more than anything, for the pieces to fit together as they should. “Collaborating with someone else, especially someone so talented as Justin, has really helped me grow musically in a way I couldn’t on my own,” praises Kay.
Cheap Kisses display a sharp, soul-driven style, and given the right avenue, they will surely soar.