The Looking Glass Singles Series Reflects the Best of Brooklyn Imprint Mexican Summer

There’s no question that one of the best things to come out of this absolute shitshow of a year has been Bandcamp Fridays; the first Friday of every month, the music streaming platform waives its revenue share to provide an extra boost to struggling artists who use it to promote their music. Though the difference in percentage of profits that goes into the artists’ pockets is somewhat negligible given its already artist-friendly pay structure (a recent post updating the schedule for 2021 puts it at 93% versus 82% on any other day of the month) the crucial aspect of Bandcamp Fridays is that it boosts visibility for the most essential workers in the music industry – musicians and labels themselves.

No doubt equally inspired by Bandcamp Fridays as it was by indie label 7″ subscription clubs of the ’90s, Brooklyn imprint Mexican Summer is going the extra mile to shake things up with a Bandcamp-centric series they’ve dubbed Looking Glass. It’s a virtual treasure trove of unique, previously unreleased singles, by everyone from label stalwarts like Ariel Pink and Connan Mockasin to more obscure psych, folk, and drone artists like São Paulo’s Sessa, Tokyo’s Kikagaku Moyu, and Chicago’s Matchess.

The first series ran from April 2020 to late July 2020, featuring beautiful, mysterious cover art by Bailey Elder (at one point, Mexican Summer offered a free download of her clip art-esque illustrations as a “coloring page”). After a brief lapse, the series started up again in October with “Love’s Refrain,” a gorgeous instrumental Jefre Cantu-Ledesma song with all-new vocals by Julie Byrne (Elder reprised her role as cover designer, this time with watercolory collages in muted hues), and has gone on to feature the likes of hip hop upstart Nappy Nina alongside celebrated dub duo Peaking Lights and avant-country singer Dougie Poole. So far, the series boasts over thirty entries that represent the label’s penchant for supporting adventurous sounds, whether the contributors are officially signed or not.

The label posits that the project “focuses on the human condition as reflected through chance and destined encounters” and is “a portal for creative exploration and community to resonate through all versions of reality… to encourage discovery, diversity, and collaboration.” While that’s a pretty heady sentiment, Looking Glass somehow more than accomplishes the task.

It’s an ethos that’s especially in line with that of Los Angeles-based minimal wave synthpop artist Geneva Jacuzzi. “Maybe I’m a person who was destined to be miserable but who refused destiny and the only way to alter the cosmic DNA was to hack the matrix,” she riffs. “That is pretty much what music is. It hold secret codes to alternate universes.” She likens music to a secret, primal language. “That is how communities of people come together over music. They are all part of the same alien tribe and the music is more alive than they are.” Her entry into the singles series, “Dark Streets,” was originally part of an ongoing conceptual performance and video play called Dark Ages that spanned from 2011-2015; she created a stand-alone video for “Dark Streets” in 2012, but the song was never officially released.

“The inspiration came one evening when I was recording and wanted to encapsulate the feeling of driving aimlessly into the night… looking for something but not knowing what… and then encountering certain dark forces that guide you into oblivion. Almost like looking for trouble, or meaning, or an adventure but finding yourself lost and a little scared. Pre-GPS you know?” Jacuzzi explains. “In a way, it seemed fitting for the time we are all in. It’s been a little scary and uncertain. Me being an optimist, I thrive in times of uncertainty because I know there is always an interesting surprise waiting in the unknown, even if it feels dark or freaky.” This, she says, made it a good fit for Looking Glass.

Though closely associated with some of Mexican Summer’s marquee acts, Geneva Jacuzzi has remained staunchly DIY, rarely putting out traditional releases in the nearly twenty years she’s been actively making music. But her experience with Looking Glass might change all that; though still tight-lipped, she says she and Mexican Summer have “some fun things planned for the future.”

“If we don’t change, we die right?” she jokes. “Or at least get depressed and bitter.”

Madison McFerrin channeled some residual bitterness into her piano-driven single for the Looking Glass project, “Hindsight.” Though it sounds like a typical ballad about love gone wrong (“How should I let you go/With nothing left to show/Was it right for you to stay?/Was it wrong to walk away?/Could’ve said we went for it…”) but rather than a romantic partner, McFerrin says the track was inspired by disillusionment with the Democratic primaries, in which Joe Biden won the party nomination over the decidedly more progressive Bernie Sanders. “Sonically, ‘Hindsight’ is like going through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I like to think that, like the song, we’ll be leaving 2020 on a hopeful note,” McFerrin says.

Though not specifically written for the series, McFerrin adds that she was “really drawn to how Mexican Summer were making the Looking Glass project Bandcamp-focused” when the label reached out to her over the summer asking if she would participate, and she made the decision to self-produce the track. “I wanted to push myself. Quarantine afforded me the time to really work on production and I felt confident enough to share that next phase of my artistry,” she says. “This was the first time I had been in a studio since the start of COVID, so my biggest challenge was feeling one-hundred percent comfortable. There’s always this neon PANDEMIC sign flashing in the back of my mind these days. But when I actually started playing and singing, it made me feel much more relaxed.”

As for the political work still to be done, McFerrin says, “We have to make sure that we continue to engage, especially locally. Mutual aid groups like Bed-Stuy Strong in Brooklyn are doing great work providing food and cleaning supplies to those most vulnerable to COVID-19 in the community. Through grassroots movements, hopefully we can continue to grow the progressive movement and push the people at the top.”

As it turns out, the Looking Glass series can help with that, too – some of the artists, like Texas-born, L.A.-based folk singer Jess Williamson, have opted to donate the proceeds from single sales to various organizations. Williamson released 2018’s Cosmic Wink and this year’s stunning Sorceress via Mexican Summer after self-releasing two previous records and an EP; as their titles would imply, Williamson has a bit of a witchy streak, and is donating proceeds from her swooning, dreamy “Pictures of Flowers” to Harriet’s Apothecary, an “intergenerational Brooklyn-based healing village led by Black Cis Women, Queer and Trans healers, artists, health professionals, magicians, activists and ancestors… rooted in the wisdom of our bodies, our ancestors and our plant families.”

“I wanted the proceeds from the song to go to them because I really admire the work they’re doing,” Williamson says, which includes expanding access to health and healing resources that support Black, Indigenous and PoC communities.

The song itself was directly inspired by Williamson’s quarantine experience, which was compounded by both the end of a significant relationship and being unable to tour to support her new album. “I spent most days walking around my neighborhood, and I was struck by how different it felt to me at that time versus when I first came to the neighborhood over four years ago,” she says.

She sent a demo of the song to Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy, who plays slide guitar over Williamson’s contemplative acoustic guitar and lilting vocals. “Meg was the first person to hear the song, and I was really nervous they wouldn’t like it. Thankfully, Meg responded positively, and I got the courage to ask if they’d be down to lay some guitar down remotely,” Williamson says. “Normally I’d be afraid to ask, but we were all sitting around doing nothing so I think I had that working in my favor, ha. Meg recorded everything from their home studio, I recorded from mine, and then I sent everything to Jarvis Taveniere who laid down drums, bass, and mellotron, and mixed it.”

“Pictures of Flowers” is a heartbreaking time capsule, juxtaposing the freedom Williamson felt pre-pandemic with what seemed like the end of the world. “Taking vitamins/Calling all my friends/Momma’s feelin’ calm/She trusts the president/Don’t wanna get a gun/What if I move in with someone?/Grow a garden in case the stores all run out,” she sings, ending the track with the trail of a dangling thought: “I had a dream we were in Japan…”

Similarly, experimental composer Lucy Gooch let dreams inspire “We Carry,” her contribution to Looking Glass – though hers was a recurring dream she’s had since childhood. In it, she and her sister are at school and the playground tarmac turns to glass, revealing “a deep, dark ocean in which enormous sea-creatures weave and dive.” Gooch says “We Carry” was “one of those rare songs that appears quickly,” though it was already recorded when label co-founder Keith Abrahamsson reached out to her about contributing something. “I’ve always been a big fan of the label so it was pretty amazing to hear from him,” Gooch says. “I see the song as being a kind of hymn to blurry memories, and to childhood.”

The UK-based synth artist represents an emerging name in ambient music, her sound akin to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (who, incidentally, contributed a track called “Lagoon” to Looking Glass). Gooch released her debut EP Rushing in May of 2020, which “comprised looping and more labored arrangement,” she says. “‘We Carry’ was the first song I wrote without any looping and it reminded me that sometimes it’s better to lean into more traditional songwriting methods, rather than trying always to subvert them. I like music that has enough space in it, but that still plays with more intricate ideas.”

Across the Looking Glass series, that balance can be found in spades. Whether based on alien languages, or a dream within a dream, or hope in the face of an epic letdown, music’s ability to connect all of us – especially in a year of such jarring disconnect – transcends genre and remains its most enduring quality. After more than a decade of releasing soul-stirring records, the folks at Mexican Summer have learned to celebrate this wholeheartedly, and the Looking Glass singles reflect their mission brilliantly.

Follow Mexican Summer on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Why You Should Always Go To A “Secret” Show

Last minute, some friends and I decided to grab tickets to Ariel Pink’s Webster Hall show.  TEEN was opening and I hadn’t seen Ariel Pink in roughly two years, the last time being at Irving Plaza when I was going through some major melodrama that kind of ruined the whole thing for me.  So despite the hefty ticket price and less than ideal venue, I logged on to Ticketmaster, rolled my eyes at the ‘service’ surcharges, and was just about to click on “Submit Order” when I heard a familiar gchat ding.  My roommate was informing me that Holy Other had announced a secret show at 285 Kent via a Twitter message that had already disappeared.  All that remained was the following cryptic tweet from the venue:

Todd P’s reply tweets seemed to confirm that it would all go down after Ariel Pink finished the Webster show.  Holy Other was opening for Amon Tobin at Hammerstein, so that also seemed to make sense.  285’s facebook dangled a 3am set time like a carrot on a stick.  The matter was discussed with friends; it simply made more sense to skip Webster on the chance that Ariel would play later, cheaper, and in a rad venue instead of a lame one.

My brain was buzzing while I excitedly coordinated a new game plan for the evening.  Sure, I’d been excited to see TEEN, but had no doubt they’d play a CMJ showcase somewhere.  Holy Other was a more than suitable consolation prize.  And I was curious about R. Stevie Moore’s set as well.  But something about the prospect of seeing Ariel Pink at 285 seemed so epic, even though it was nothing if not the scaled-back nature of this alternative venue that made it that much more appealing.  There was something else at work here – the rumors, the hush, the knowing wink (or in this case, knowing retweets).  The magic of the ‘secret’ show.

What is it that makes a secret show feel so magical?  By its nature, even indulging the rumors means you are part of a club that is “in-the-know” and from there you have two options: play the part of the cool skeptic, or go all in on the chance that whatever happens might be spectacular.  It’s not like buying a ticket for a bill announced well in advance; while the anticipation might be just as acute there is the added glamour of uncertainty.  The venue could be jam-packed!  The ensuing show could be mayhem!  It might not even happen until the wee morning hours!  There could be insane special guests!  Suddenly, I was starring in a saga that had yet to unfold, knowing that if any one of these grandiose scenarios came to fruition, there were major bragging rights to be had.

After all, it was only about a month ago that Pictureplane and Grimes infamously took over 285, aided by surprise appearances from araabMuzik and A$AP Rocky.  I had been at that show; I got tickets before they sold out without thinking about the fact that I was supposed to work that evening, but it ended up taking place much later than expected so I just went afterward.  I’d had some friends in town that weekend so by the Sunday evening on which the show took place, I was exhausted, ready to keel over.  I was quite enjoying Arca’s DJ set but also feeling impatient and super-annoyed by the underaged seapunks populating the crowd.  Pictureplane didn’t go on until after midnight, as though enacting some backwards Cinderella clause.  I was simply too worn out to stick around for Grimes and her gaggle of buzzy artists, but the next day I admittedly kicked myself for not sticking it out a little longer.  A very well-known ‘journalist’ infamous for his over-use of superlatives tweeted: “Seems clear @285Kent will one day be regarded as a legendary NY scene.  Easily the wildest + most creative I’ve witnessed in my 5 years here.”

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Grimes DJs 285 Kent. Photographed by Erez Avissar, photo courtesy of Pitchfork.

And it is kind of true.  If there’s a venue in Brooklyn that’s really taking the reins as far as booking avant-garde artists and quirky parties, it’s 285.  While it’s no doubt benefited from its proximity to neighborhood DIY stalwarts Glasslands and Death By Audio, it has also had to set itself apart from these institutions.  It does so by catering to subcultures so specific to an ever-fleeting moment that, while the general populous tries to come up with a searing punchline to describe it, the nature of the ‘scene’ has already morphed into something else as explosive and as vibrant.  As with any scene there are downsides and caveats, but boredom isn’t in the vocabulary.

So when a place like this announces a secret anything, be there with bells on.  These aren’t just stories to tell your grandkids, these are stories that will make your relatives believe you are starting to go senile, because what you’ve described seems so fantastical.  No, you’ll insist: these are things that happened.  To me.  And they will either commit you to a geriatric care facility right then and there, or their shining eyes will widen and they will beg you to regale them with more tales from your debaucherous twenties.  You’ll play them a Grimes record, they will make strange faces.

Last Friday wasn’t quite so legendary as I’d hoped it would be, but Holy Other played an absolutely killer set.  His features were totally obscured by fog-machine sputter and pitch black lighting save for a mesmerizing laser projector cutting through the darkness.  Now, don’t go thinking I’m some stoner who could spend hours in Spencer gifts staring goggle-eyed at lava lamps and blacklight posters, but this laser thing was incredible.  It had a presence, like you could reach out and touch it, and it made geometric shapes and waves in myriad colors.  When I was living in Ohio, we had a regular karaoke spot and the DJ, Dave Castro, was the main reason behind our repeat attendance.  From time to time he’d have contests and give away this DVD he’d made for cats.  It was literally called Cat DVD and it was looped footage of goldfish swimming around or birds hopping through a forest or… that’s right, lasers.  The idea was that when you had to leave your cat at home alone, you could put on the DVD and then instead of napping the whole day away it would watch and be stimulated.  It was also really good for backgrounds at parties – much better than a lava lamp and much less likely to short out and cause a fatal blaze.  Watching Holy Other and his magical laser box was like getting sucked into Cat DVD in the best way I can describe.  When I talked about the show with friends afterward, the laser was the focus of conversation.  We wondered where we could get one, then decided that you had to know a wizard or a unicorn who could hook you up with it.

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Holy Other’s latest album Held makes good on all the promises of his early demos, singles and EPs.  Right at home on label Triangle Records, Holy Other is often associated with witch house, but he’s a front runner and a creator within that genre, not an imitator or piggy-backer.  He invented the sound that would define that movement, in all its sinister glory – skeletal beats marred by thumping bass, syrupy samples, seemingly random bleeps which emerge after repeated listens into blissful sonic fractals.  It’s hard not to be moved even during a subway ride with headphones over the ears or via computer speakers while you’re supposed to be casually checking email.  But with the volume up as loud as eardrums can handle, letting every pulse wash over you, the experience is truly one of holiness.

His set was plenty satisfying, but we had to know if Ariel Pink would show up so we stuck around, breathless from the experience.  What we got instead was bizarro pop Ariel Pink protege Geneva Jacuzzi, whose live performance I was surprised to learn just consists of her leaping barefoot around the stage in questionable attire while she howls over iPod tracks.  Since it was by that time close to 3AM if not well past it, and because grilled cheese from Normaan’s Kil was calling my name ever so faintly, my friend and I reluctantly left.  The reluctance was mostly mine and mostly only a byproduct of that uncertainty still reverberating through my psyche – what if Ariel Pink did show and I missed it?

While we waited for our cheeses (Solona + Vernice for LIFE!) I checked twitter for any news, mostly to no avail.  Finally someone posted an Instagram of a blurry, nearly obscured R. Stevie Moore backed by a band which may or may not have been Bodyguard and may or may not have included Ariel Pink, but there was no definitive account of who was actually onstage.  The person who posted the picture said they stayed at the venue until six in the morning.

In the end, the takeaway is this: the experience as a whole was totally worth it.  If I’d really wanted to see Ariel Pink I could’ve gone to Webster Hall, and for that matter I’m sure I’ll have another opportunity to bask in his weirdness.  In return for giving the promoters the benefit of the doubt, I was witness to an absolutely majestic Holy Other performance that I’m sure would have been nowhere near as intimate or haunting at Hammerstein.  It’s a great reminder that there is only one moment, and it’s the one you’re in.  You’re only a sucker if you stay home.