Earth Girl Helen Brown Explores Greed and Life on New EP

There’s no shortage of problems on Earth, but, when Heidi Alexander conceived of an EP named for our planet, she looked to the issues lying beneath the surface. Earth, the sixth installment from Earth Girl Helen Brown‘s series of EPs inspired by planets, taps into the intersection of greed and life.

“I wanted to deal with what I saw as the most significant social problem plaguing Earth,” Alexander says on a video call from her home in the Southern California Mojave Desert city of Yucca Valley. “If you think of humans as the biggest problem for Earth, what is the biggest problem for humans?”

For Alexander, greed is at the top of the list. “But,” she adds, “at the same time, there’s a biological aspect to that, where greed is a necessity of life. It motivates us to feed ourselves and to do the things that need to happen to keep all lifeforms alive. There’s an element of greed inherent to growth and life.” 

It’s in that juxtaposition of greed as a problem and greed as a necessity that Earth thematically takes shape. Released May 21 via Empty Cellar Records, Alexander describes the EP’s themes as “how to move in the space to where we can think about changing something that is so fundamental to our nature.”

Alexander first inhabited the character of Earth Girl Helen Brown over a decade ago. At the time, she was living in San Francisco and had been invited to take part in musician Sonny Smith’s 100 Records project, which featured music made for 100 fictitious bands. “I really didn’t quite know what the deal was,” recalls Alexander, who now splits her time between Los Angeles and Yucca Valley. Still, she agreed to take part in the large-scale, collaborative art project and enjoyed it. “They were really demanding songs,” she says. 

After 100 Records, Earth Girl Helen Brown briefly spun off as a real band. They recorded a handful of songs and released an EP. When Alexander’s old band, The Sandwitches, toured with Smith, they played a few Earth Girl Helen Brown songs at their shows. A few years later, after Alexander had moved to Los Angeles, they opened for Shannon and the Clams in San Francisco. Still, not much was heard from the group. “There was not a lifespan for that project,” says Alexander. “It was just a thing that happened.” 

Meanwhile, Alexander had gone to graduate school to study architecture and became involved in projects like UCLA Grand Challenges, where she looked at energy infrastructure and stability in Los Angeles. “I think the discipline and grind of grad school for architecture certainly gave me some more muscle to approach a large project,” she says. “It also gave me so much discipline that I was wanting to do something undisciplined.” 

Once she completed her studies, Alexander decided to give Earth Girl Helen Brown a different spin. “The original project was about love and the trials and tribulations of getting along, which is all good and well, but I wanted to talk about some other topics,” she explains. “I tried to take the same approach and involve a lot of folks and be really fast and collaborative, but do it in a slightly different way.” 

In the process, the character had to evolve. “I guess the character changed in the sense that I had to embody her more,” says Alexander. 

This incarnation of Earth Girl Helen Brown reemerged in 2017 for a series of EPs inspired by the solar system. Each EP thus far is named for a planet and takes on a different theme, with sales benefiting charities reflective of those themes. Each EP also delves into a different musical style. “Sometimes, it’s really specific, like house,” says Alexander. “Sometimes, it’s looser, like Sade.” 

Previously, Earth Girl Helen Brown would enter the studio with songs written and it was during the recording that they would “try to infuse them with a genre.” This time around, though, Alexander and the band had an idea to make their own version of house music. “We just jammed,” she says. “We used about half of the tracks that we did and then I wrote over them.” The EP includes contributions from Eric Bauer, Lisa Boldyreva, Emilee Booher, Bradley Caulkins, Bjorn Copeland, Bart Davenport, John Dwyer, Tahlia Harbour, Doug Hilsinger, Warren Huegel, James Finch Jr., Graeme Gibson, Emmett Kelly, Enrique Tena Padilla, and Mikey Young.

Alexander described this process as “liberating” for her. “I’m kind of reluctant to get out of my shell in that way so it was invigorating in that sense for me personally,” she says, “but everybody else had so much chops. It’s the best kind of musical alchemy to just throw a stone out there and see what happens.”

Three of the five tracks on Earth came out of this process. “Fountain of Life,” a collaboration with Lisa Boldyreva, and “Pay to Play,” which was produced by Bjorn Copeland, were made outside of those sessions. 

Like previous EPs, Earth will be released on “100% post-consumer recycled” tapes. In other words, the hard copy of the EP is recorded over pre-owned cassettes. It’s a solution to the issue of making physical releases without adding to a growing pile of waste. “There’s waste inherent in any activity and any purchase or product, and music is no exception,” says Alexander, adding that she had searched for cassettes made of recycled materials and records made out of material other than vinyl. “This is the best thing we came up with,” she says, “but we’re always looking for a better alternative.”

Follow Earth Girl Helen Brown on Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Grace Sings Sludge Keeps Creepin’ On in “Friend to All” Video

Photo Credit: Nic Russo

Recently, Grace Cooper officially became a children’s book author – by accident. For the physical release of her fifth solo album (and first recorded in a studio) as Grace Sings Sludge, Cooper illustrated a 32-page booklet, which, she explains, wasn’t deemed long enough to be registered with the Library of Congress unless classified as a children’s book. It is, perhaps, one of the most cryptically-titled children’s tomes in history: Christ Mocked & The End of a Relationship. Its illustrations are both grotesque and delicate: drippy demons and sinister saints; nude figures twisted in ecstasy, or misery, or both – it’s hard to tell which. Cooper’s lyrics are printed out, too, and they’re also a mishmash of the tender, the surreal, the horrific, and the humorous. “I’m either horror or comedy,” Cooper says. “I’m kind of a goofy person, but when I’m making anything, there’s no question it’s going to be creepy.”

Cooper grew up just outside Oakland in the East Bay Area. Her father is a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, but she says she was “too shy” to perform around the house and didn’t start making music until her twenties, after getting a job at Amoeba Records. There, she met Tim Cohen, who asked her to sing backup in the early days of The Fresh & Onlys, which got her used to performing in front of others; Cohen introduced her to Heidi Alexander, and eventually, the two formed whimsical garage-pop band The Sandwitches with Roxanne Young, playing their first gig in a bookstore. But all the while, Cooper recorded solo songs in secret. “After the Sandwitches, I just kind of went back to what’s a little more natural for me – recording at home by myself,” she says. That changed when The Sandwitches’ label, San Francisco imprint Empty Cellar Records, offered to put out her next record, and suggested she record it with Phil Manley at El Studio. Manley is well-known in the Bay Area for playing in bands like Trans Am, Feral Ohms, and The Fucking Champs, and Cooper says, “Something just felt right when his name was brought up.”

Though she’s more comfortable recording at home, she took studio prep seriously. “When I record myself, [the songs are] just skeletal sketches, they’re kind of a template and I find it as I go,” she says. “But this time I tried to map out some idea of what instruments I heard in my head, and I had the songs arranged in the order that I thought they should be in. We recorded them from start to finish in that order. We recorded pretty quickly, but somehow the record ended up being something that, in the time that’s gone by since recording it, I’m still completely happy with and I don’t have any regrets.”

Cooper has reason to be proud – she played every instrument on Christ Mocked, save for drums handled by Nic Russo, who also played piano on “Horror For People That Don’t Like Horror,” a nonchalant tale about the devastating embarrassment that comes along with first forays into physical intimacy. Though Cooper says she’s in her “comfort zone with buzzy, shitty sounding stuff,” this album brings out the peculiar beauty of her voice in ways previous DIY affairs didn’t quite capture; threaded with sparse guitar, meandering basslines, or dissonant piano, Christ Mocked is a bit reminiscent of early Cat Power, if Chan Marshall had somehow been more awkward (and obsessed with horror movies, religious iconography, and sketches of nude women). It’s set for release July 17th.

Whatever the professional process brought out in the music, it did nothing to temper Cooper’s weirdo aesthetic. Two of her favorite tracks are spoken-word recollections of vivid dreams she had, describing the travails of an undercover woman and and undercover man who are slowly disappearing (“Borderlands”) and “a condemned Disneyland/a perverted Swiss Family dream” (“The Hackers”). The latter ends with the veiled origins of Cooper’s early appreciation for horror films – she says she remembers watching Texas Chain Saw Massacre with her dad, also a horror buff, when she was just six.

That obsession surfaces again in the video for the album’s second single, “Friend To All,” Cooper’s “hokey noir take on disillusionment and disassociation.” She enlisted old friend Wesley Smith to direct and Jeff Williams to assist; though she hadn’t seen them in nearly fifteen years, it was a natural extension of their old delinquent ways, making gross, darkly funny short films as “Bad Habit Productions.”

“We were all very gothed out,” Cooper remembers. “We would skip school and go steal alcohol from Safeway and hang out on Monument Boulevard in Concord but we would always be doing something creative together. We might have been doing drugs and loitering but at least we were making really bizarre little movies.”

For “Friend To All,” the trio filmed in an garishly orange Motel 6 room and an abandoned incinerator building in Sacramento; Cooper looks put together with pin-up curls, red lipstick and vintage monochromatic suit sets, but in the ominous details, things begin to unravel. She smokes a cigarette, sprawled on a hideous bedspread, barely acknowledging the body wrapped in a sheet in the corner. And then suddenly, she’s naked in a bathtub smearing what looks like shit all over her face, dancing and weaving drunkenly in the street, and wearing a rather nightmarish mask as she tiptoes over trash in stilettos.

“Yeah, I don’t know what inspired that,” Cooper says of the mask. “I needed a last minute Halloween costume one year, and I just cut my pantyhose up and kept it in my underwear drawer. I still have it.” It made for a fitting prop – the song itself is about the disguises we put up in interacting with others, a riff on the old saying “A friend to all is a friend to none.”

If the mask represents someone pretending to be something they aren’t, the derelict buildings where the video was filmed are an astute parallel to the deterioration of those false relationships, crumbling into forgotten ruins. But the layers of symbolism may as well have been incidental – Cooper says she routinely puts on YouTube videos of urban explorers searching through abandoned structures to watch as she falls asleep. “I was very charmed by Sacramento and I really hope it keeps that old school sort of dilapidated feeling,” Cooper recalls. “I was happy as a clam being in this place, just trying to not step on needles and diapers, and there was nobody around. It was right next to apartment buildings too, that’s why there was so much garbage spillover. But it didn’t seem like anybody was really squatting there. The light was beautiful.”

Cooper usually works on her own videos, mostly alone in her apartment, like she did with the video for “Falling in love with him again was the most exciting time of my life,” because “It’s very low budget and I have complete creative control,” she says. Still, she manages to evoke something heartfelt and haunting, always remaining within her own eccentric aesthetic.

“I’m an odd duck – it’s just a culmination of who I am, how I grew up,” Cooper says. While she admits that forging her own path can be isolating at times – especially when it comes to booking shows in Oakland – she’s fine with defying comparisons. “I can’t do anything else,” she says. “I’m gonna keep keeping to myself because I’m happier doing it that way. But I want to be there for the weird outsider ladies.”

Who knows… maybe her odd children’s book will find its way to the right type of kids – ones that film darkly funny movies in abandoned spaces, write strange little songs, and go all-in on their most outlandish tendencies.

Photo Credit: Faith Cooper

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