“It’s not easy, just being human, and the lights and the smoke and screens,” sings Sam Herring on Future Islands’ latest record, The Far Field. It isn’t. Our lives are a sloppy amalgamation of highs and lows, love and hate, obsession and apathy. In essence, this record faces this reality head on: it’s a devastatingly beautiful case study on love and infatuation, the thin line that separates them, and the sting that comes close behind.
Musically speaking, this is the Baltimore band’s final descent into straight indie-pop. With five albums under their belt already, it’s difficult to find anything else to reinvent, audibly speaking. And so they dig deeper, doing what they do best even better – pairing impossibly catchy tracks with deeply moving, emotionally insightful lyrics. Yet the catchiest songs on the record – “North Star” and “Shadows” (featuring Debbie Harry!) – are not the most compelling. It’s because they lack the sheer emotional depth and the stark truth of the other tracks that hammer home the difficulty of our humanity. We fall too easily; we fail to stay neutral by our very nature, and oftentimes that hurts us.
This becomes apparent right off the bat with opening track “Aladdin,” on which Herring sings “I built a ship for two / It waits for me and you” before he asks “Is it real?” He wants, he builds the ship, he projects the relationship he wants onto whomever “you” is before he can even really know what “you” thinks or feels. And don’t we all do that? It’s the way we idealize situations and people; we imagine the reality we’d like to live in, all the while forgetting that’s not how life works. And when actual reality crashes down upon us, it hurts.
This obsessive imagination touches on nearly every track of the record, opening scab after scab while you realize you’ve felt every feeling he describes. “Beauty of the Road” captures the way it’s sometimes hard to remember the last time you saw someone because you never imagined it could possibly be the last time, boiled down to one wistful line: “I never thought you’d really go.” On “Cave” he sings “All I hold is all I own,” one of those rare moments on the record where he removes his rose-tinted glasses to face the stark reality of our solitude. We can’t make anyone do or feel anything, and our suffering is often a direct result of refusing to accept that. It’s those light and smoke and screens he mentioned earlier – life is by nature uncertain, and this uncertainty is uncomfortable to live with. But he acknowledges our ability to let go of this, to accept the fact that we can’t control anything but ourselves. On “Ancient Water” he sings “Too many wasted days and nights, obsessed with the flickering moments of my life, forgetting what giving and living can be–what it can mean, first forgiving myself…” It’s the moment we realize rumination doesn’t serve us, that we aren’t chained to the memory of what was and that we’re “strong enough to be free.”
After all of this – the idealization, the denial, and ultimately the self-realization and forgiveness – the greatest irony of all is that the last word on The Far Field is “stay,” leaving us to wonder what it would be like if life actually worked that way. It’s a moment of terrifying realization: that no matter how much we say we’ve gotten over it, our past is still a vital aspect of who we are and it’s nearly impossible to truly let anyone go. It may seem as easy as asking them to stay, but Herring’s lyrics remind us that life’s beauty resides in the complications.
The Far Field is out now via 4AD. Check tour dates here.
Before Jana Hunter became the woman behind the Baltimore-based Lower Dens, she was a solo singer-songwriter from Houston, TX. After releasing her 2005 debut Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom and two follow-up albums through Devendra Banhart’s label, she started her current dreamy, psychedelic project. We talked to her about the band’s latest video, their upcoming album, and got some advice for shy musicians.
Escape From Evil, the band’s third release, comes out March 31.
AF: I read that you’ve coached at the Girls Rock camp in your hometown, Houston. Did teaching kids about music give you any creative insights?
JH: Definitely. That was one of the better experiences I’ve had as a musician, and as an adult. You want to teach them something about their instrument, but the most important thing to focus on is not being so afraid about impressing other people, or perfecting their craft, and to remember to have a good time. And kids, once they see that is a possibility, they’re quick to embrace it, and that is really refreshing to be around… kids can really throw themselves into something and lose their sense of self-awareness that prohibits them from enjoying and developing their creativity. That was really cool and I feel like I learned way more from them than they possibly could’ve learned from me.
AF: I think sometimes girls, especially, need that push of self-confidence from a mentor.
JH: Yeah, and they said as much. Throughout the week we were working with them on a little video documentary and they would say, ‘This environment helps me feel like it’s ok for me to do whatever I want.’ I imagine that had something to do with being around a lot of women, and people who were not… um… men (laughs). And not having to worry about impressing boys or anything like that.
AF: Did you take music lessons when you were young?
JH: Yeah, I started playing when I was eight or nine. My first instrument was the recorder, which I played in music class in elementary school. Then I switched to violin. I still play it, I just don’t take lessons or anything anymore. But yeah, I did a pretty rigorous study of music.
AF: The music video for “To Die In L.A.” was great, and the timing of its release- a week or so before the Oscars- seemed perfect. Was that intentional?
JH: No, I didn’t think about that at all, until I saw in our Twitter mentions a Spanish publication said something about that. That’s amazing, that we didn’t think about that at all. I wish we had. And obviously, everyone wants to know what Lower Dens thinks about the Oscars…(laughs) you know, here you go, burning social commentary.
AF: You make an appearance in that video. Is being on camera fun, or does it get tedious?
JH: I loved making that video, but there have been others that were decidedly more difficult, but this one was worth every minute of it. I think that crew was amazing, and [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][director Cody Critcheloe] is amazing.
AF: Lower Dens is starting a tour in March, correct?
JH: Right, yeah. We start touring fairly soon, but we haven’t played any shows together in a long time.
AF: Are there any favorite cities you enjoy visiting on tour?
JH: Baltimore is a place that treats local performers really well. In some towns it’s hard to get people to shows if you’re from the town. But Baltimore, for whatever reason, playing for those people is like playing for your family. People are very enthusiastic when they come to your shows; they’re also not necessarily going to hide from you when they’re not enthusiastic about what you’re doing. You have to face that honesty… There are very few places that I don’t like. If there’s one person there that’s interested in hearing you, then it’s worth it to go play there and it can be a fun and exciting time.
AF: Are there any artists or records you’ve been stuck on lately?
JH: Yeah. I did a review of Future Brown. They’re producers. They all have their own individual projects, but they got together to make a record. I was psyched about them anyway and I got to review their record for Talkhouse. I’ve listened to it definitely more than any other new record and I love it. I think it’s brilliant on a lot of levels.
AF: Do you spend a lot of time writing?
JH: I was doing more last year. This is, like, my fourth review for Talkhouse. I haven’t had as much time and I’ve also been wanting to read a lot more lately.
AF: What are you reading right now?
JH: “Escape from Evil,” which is the book we titled our record after.
AF: Speaking of your new record, what was your approach to writing new material for Escape From Evil?
JH: It’s changed for me over the years. When I was really young, the only way I really liked to write music was to walk around, or ride around on my bike, and sing to myself, come up with things spur of the moment and then match them with arrangements later. When Lower Dens started I was writing guitar loops and making up words with them at the same time, so more or less spontaneous writing. But after being in Lower Dens for a few years, we settled into an ensemble approach to a lot of things we do. We decided to write this record collaboratively. The initial step was getting together with the band, and writing instrumental stuff. I hadn’t done that with a whole group of people, and it was difficult to navigate the process at the beginning, but I think the record is a lot better for it. It’s complex in a way I wouldn’t have been able to achieve myself.
AF: When Lower Dens isn’t recording or touring, do you guys hang out, or are you sick of each other after working so closely?
JH: I think at the end of a long tour, yeah. But it’s not so much we’re sick of each other, that we miss the other people in our lives. But we’re friends, we’re all very close. We don’t have a purely working relationship. It’s easier for me to understand now why bands break up, why they can’t make music anymore than when I was a kid, and I hated people for doing that.
AF: I was looking at your recent profile in Vogue, and they described you as shy. Do you have any advice for artists who are trying to get over their shyness?
JH: Just that it takes time. What takes time is developing methods that allow you to communicate with people in a way you can showcase your vulnerabilities in a way that becomes a strength, and you don’t judge yourself for the things you’ve revealed to people. You will inevitably feel as though you’re fucking up and revealing too much. But eventually it becomes easier. Nobody ever told me that, it’s just that I went on tour, and I was miserable until I figured that out. It was just the repeated conversations nightly with people I’d never met before that made me feel comfortable being- not necessarily more of myself, but learning to present a version of myself that I felt comfortable sharing with people. And learning that I can show shades of myself instead of my entire self.
It wasn’t very long ago that I stumbled upon Which Magic’s bandcamp page, but it feels like I’ve listened to and loved Sara Autrey’s Baltimore-based project forever. It could be the timeless, soulful quality of her voice, or her innovative, fearless, anything-goes approach to creating music, or that inherent playfulness paired with the dreamy quality of her songs. Or it could be that I feel a deeper connection and kinship to these anthems and their maker based simply on the fact that each track somehow manages to encompass my favorite sorts of feelings – the bleary haze of relaxed afternoons, the swoon of having a new crush to obsess over, the magic of being alive.
AudioFemme was ecstatic to host Which Magic’s first-ever NYC performance at our CMJ showcase. Sara is an amazing performer, bursting with energy, busting out jokes, and battling with her temperamental guitar. Thus far, she’s recorded and released a self-titled cassette and a split EP with Wing Dam, a band in which she collaborates with her boyfriend Austin Tally. These offerings show a subtle progression from folksier sounds to beat-driven jams, but both are carried off with an earnest and artful DIY approach that makes the material seem that much more personal and authentic.
Continuing along that trajectory, Autrey’s begun to infuse her tunes with more hip-hop influenced delivery and more eclectic rhythms, obsessions she’s had since since a friend taught her how to create her own beats. “Hip-hop is so influential to my musical style. It’s badass and sexy, everything I aspire to be,” Autrey says, laughing. This fascination was clearly the impetus for Which Magic’s newest track “Electra Light”, which we are pleased to present here as an AudioFemme exclusive.
Autrey says the inspiration for the song came in part from her dual nature as a Gemini, being at odds with feelings of inadequacy on one hand and having complete confidence on the other. “Feeling like shit about anything is great inspiration to write songs” Autrey explains. But in listening to “Electra Light” it’s nearly impossible to detect any traces of self-doubt; it sounds instead as though Autrey is imagining herself as a kind of superhero who uses moonlight and breezes to bathe the world and herself in truth. It isn’t until the last verse, in which Autrey croons “Cryin’ to the moon because I dont shine like I used to / and though I speak right I know the things I do
are not always true” that we’re reminded that the singer of these verses is not invincible or beyond reproach. Ultimately, the song is “about the duality of self – the things you like about yourself, the things you hate… all at the same damn time, at the same damn time” Autrey says.
When pressed about her songwriting process, Autrey describes her rituals as a bit chemically enhanced thanks to espresso and (ahem) herbal substances. “I also make a point of saying what I need to say in a song one of two different ways,” she adds, “Either a.) as vaguely and artfully as possible, or b.) as blatant an honest as possible. No in-between. Again… Geminis…”
Autrey’s not slowing down her musical output one bit. She’s hard at work on a new project called called “Glitteris” (pronounced like CLITORIS but with more sparkle). “This is going to be my rap project. I, along with Lizz King, have been tapping into my inner gangsta… We feed off of each others’ need to be a boss bitch (in all the positive sense of the term) and put it into words.” Autrey is also collecting beats made by individuals throughout Baltimore, including beats from Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes. It will be exciting to see how the two preoccupations come together. “Stay tuned,” warns Autrey. It’s advice we’ll gladly take.
For now, check out “Electra Light” below. And continue reading for some of Autrey’s musical recommendations.
WHICH MAGIC LOVES…..
WING DAM– my other band that I’m in, as a bassist/vocalist…total grungy rock from Baltimore. I wake up every day ever with one of the songs from “Damage” stuck in my head, in the best possible way, not the annoying way.
JONAH RAPINO “Berbere Superstar”- total ethiopian ghetto beats with electric violin overdubbing and amazing sampling happenning here…DEFINITELY give “thug sign” a listen or 10.
THE AMPS – Kim Deal from The Breeders side project!! So fuckin’ good! So punk! So so so chill punk rock bad-ass… godDAMN the album PACER is amazing. The best. 1995.
MOSS OF AURA – Baltimore-based instrumental synth-hip-h’pop mega dramatic awesomeness from the keyboard genius of the band Future Islands, Gerrit Welmers. All of his songs are incredible and moody and mood-inspiring, but the song “Never” really really makes me dance like I’m possessed.
ELO – Electric Light Orchestra will never get old. The album “Out of the Blue” is truly an inspiring masterpiece full of uplifting ass shakin songs.
LIZZ KING – also Baltimore-based lady songstress of badassness and sexuality. She was my original musical mentor and she helped me get my first shows ever/introduced me to the Baltimore scene. Lizz is also the first woman I’ve ever seen perform as a total fucking boss. BO$$ as hell, check the video for “BOOTY QUEEN”.