Izzy Heltai Finds Authenticity in Letting Go with “My Old Friends”

Photo Credit: Emma Kate Rothenberg-Ware

Izzy Heltai can be a bit impulsive. “I hate in-between spaces and I hate limbo and I hate non-concrete things,” he admits on a phone call with Audiofemme. Of course, over the past year, we’ve all found ourselves in pandemic limbo, unable to make any kind of plan at all. And Heltai was right there too, as lockdown set in – after living and playing music in Western Massachusetts for years, his lease was up, and he wasn’t sure to do. Leaning on that impulsivity as a cure for his anxiety, he moved back to Boston to live with his mom, but quickly realized that the natural landscape and the freedom of Western Mass was vital to his creativity and mental health. He returned as soon as he was able, and at the start of this year, began the process of recording a series of one-off singles, one of which, “My Old Friends,” arrived last week; today, Heltai premieres a lyric video for the song, which he says is essentially about “searching for a sense of home and physical space that feels good to you, where you feel comfortable.”

Over swirling keys, “My Old Friends” sees wanderlust setting in as Heltai learns to let go. It begins with a realization: “There’s a part of me that always wants the answers/I should just try living in the moment for a change.” By the track’s end, Heltai’s mindset is one of acceptance: “I’m just trying not to lose myself most days/I’m delusional if I think there’s an answer ’round the corner/If it’s there it’s miles away.” In a blush-colored puffy coat, Heltai dances along an isolated forest path, the barren trees and the camera his only audience. But as the viewer, it’s easy to get a sense of how carefree Heltai feels when he’s in his element, and that he doesn’t take himself as seriously as a simple read of the lyrics might suggest. “I’m really trying to be okay with being uncomfortable a little more, though it’s hard,” he says. “I think the song is grappling with that, and not making decisions just because I think a decision needs to be made.”

Along those lines, Heltai’s music is in the midst of an evolution as well. He released his debut LP Father in September 2020, a culmination of folk songs he’d written from his late teens through early twenties and had performed in mostly acoustic iterations in coffee shops and breweries, “wherever anyone would let me play music,” he says. “No one was listening ever; I don’t really know why I had this inclination to do it – I just loved playing songs for people.” Heltai finished writing the album in the summer of 2019, on a “glorified roadtrip” tour that took him through Wyoming and Colorado, where he slept in his car in Walmart parking lots and showered at Planet Fitness.

The album was recorded mostly live-to-tape by Heltai’s longtime collaborators – multi-instrumentalist Micah Katz-Zeiger, bassist and engineer Andy Cass, producer Max Shakun, and drummer Garrett Salazar – retaining a rootsy, roomy vibe as Heltai ruminates on his relationship to the past and future, to his family and friends, and to his identity as a trans man. Even in its more weighty, personal moments, Heltai speaks with a universal sensibility, and earmark of the folk traditions he was first attracted to when he started playing guitar and writing songs in earnest (around the age of 14, after his father took him to Newport Music Festival).

But “My Old Friends” – as well as “Day Plan,” a single Heltai released in February – is altogether different. For one thing, Heltai has expanded his sound in terms of genre, in the vein of indie artists like Andy Shauf and Del Water Gap. “I have been listening to more music, and more different types of music, than I ever have in my life and really being inspired by contemporary songwriters in the indie genre and really wanting to build that way more into my songs,” Heltai says. “It’s not a super intentional thing, it’s more an organic product of what I’ve been listening to – what is coming out right now and what’s exciting me in songwriting.”

Part of that comes from to having more downtime during the pandemic; living alone has been difficult at times for Heltai, but the upside has been a period of huge creative growth, particularly, he says, when it comes to “learning about production on my own and really getting obsessed with that over the summer. And learning how to be super meticulous when it comes to building songs and paying attention to each specific sound and instrument and what creates this amalgamation sonically.” Though he’s recording with the same team that worked on Father, they’re tracking instruments separately rather than playing live, honing in on the exact sonic references Heltai has laid out for each song. “Day Plan” and “My Old Friends” were recorded in January, and the band spent last weekend recording two more in the same fashion; these, along with another single Heltai says leans toward Modern Baseball’s brand of pop punk, will comprise a five-song EP he plans to release this summer, after putting them out as stand-alone singles over the next few months.

“It’s really cool going into the studio just thinking about singles and specific songs, instead of with an album in mind, because it allows us to be so particular and intentional about every sound,” Heltai says. “Every song has different references. And I don’t care about them really lining up in any sort of genre because I’m just gonna take every specific thing for what it is and get excited about that.”

Heltai’s approach to writing lyrics has also evolved in a way that’s evident on “My Old Friends,” with its plain-spoken sentiments couched in Heltai’s own ultra-specific context. “I’m really done with abstraction in my music. I think for a long time, especially as a young artist, I was trying to pander to universals in a way that led my lyrics to be abstract, trying to get at concepts that were big,” Heltai says. “What I’ve leaned into and what I love about songwriting is actually just writing about specific things in my life and allowing other people to tell me if they think they’re universal or they relate to them, instead of me trying to tell anyone what they should take away from my music.”

“Take me out to see the country/My old friends in Western Massachusetts know/It’s the only place I’ve ever called home,” Heltai sings, expressing a certain feeling of being hemmed in, but also, in a way, proudly repping the scene that’s essentially validated his work (like Cambridge folk venue Club Passim, the “first real place that ever took me seriously… brought me into this incredible community of local singer-songwriters… and are such champions for a lot of wonderful musicians in that area that are all now my dear dear friends,” Heltai says. “It feels like coming home every time I get to play there.”)

But Heltai’s favorite line in the song is perhaps even more specific: “I’ve been thinking ’bout my constant need to change/Every month it seems I’m wearing different outfits/And my fashion sense reflects my mental state.” Most of us do this to some extent, but for Heltai, there’s more to it; it’s born out of “this constant unrest, but also my need to be the most authentic me in the moment and be present with that,” Heltai says. Though the practice is presented in the song almost flippantly, there’s no question that Heltai’s trans identity plays into it. “I think about that all the time; for so long, I was told by the world that I could not be authentic in such a big way. Once I realized I had the tools to do that I became obsessed with finding what felt the most present and good in the moment whenever I could.”

In the lyric video, Heltai’s fashion choices were dictated more by warmth than anything, though. “I parked my car on the side of the road near what I’m sure was a state forest or some shit, just like a path in the woods, and it was freezing. I set up the camera on a tripod, and blasted the song for three hours straight through my car speakers and filmed a bunch of shit,” Heltai remembers. He got odd stares from passersby, and at the end of a very cold day thought, “I got nothing good, this was a waste of time, this must look ridiculous.” Fellow musician Sean Trishka, who also does design work, edited the footage down to a charming clip just shy of four minutes. “I know zero things about video, so thank God I had an editor, but also, I just did not realize how hard sending footage through the internet was,” Heltai laughs. “I was like, why is there a hundred gigabytes of footage and this takes eight hours to upload?” Luckily, Trishka lived close enough that Heltai was able to drop the SD card at his house.

Heltai plans to make lyric videos for each of the singles coming out this year, as he has with “Day Plan” and now, “My Old Friends,” inspired by a particular niche of DIY creators. “All these pop guys in LA have been making these weird videos, and I don’t know why but I really like watching them, so I’m like, okay there’s something kind of appealing to this,” Heltai says, citing Jeremy Zucker, Alexander 23, and Quinn XCII as examples. Based on their work, he decided, “I’m just gonna let whatever comes out come out. I was like, I’m doing lyric videos, what about doing a dancing video? I mean, I’m a terrible dancer, so I thought it was great.”

However silly Heltai may have looked to strangers who saw him filming, the end result offers a self-portrait of an artist who is open, confident, and at a creative zenith. “Obviously the pandemic was horrible and was also really hard for me mentally in a lot of ways, but I’ve never been happier creatively in my life; without this growth I really don’t know where my songs would be,” he says, adding that his ultimate goal is to “just be the most authentic person I can be.”

“My Old Friends” is an extension of that philosophy. “What I think you’re seeing show through here is me really trying to do that in my songwriting at this point, because that’s what I love in lyrics,” Heltai says. “I love when they’re fun and concrete, because it’s reflective of what life is to me. I’m not a serious person. I think so much of life is so hard for most people most of the time that you can’t really be that serious all the time. When you can have fun, just do it. I love having fun. But I also love thinking and growing and reflecting and changing.”

Follow Izzy Heltai on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Ruby Mack Premieres “Jane,” a Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community

four members of Massachusetts folk band Ruby Mack
Photo Credit: Gianna Colson

Massachusetts-based folk quartet Ruby Mack, consisting of Emma Ayres (Vocals/guitar), Abbie Duquette (bass uke), Zoe Young (guitar/vocals) and Abs Kahler (fiddle), are on a mission to redefine the sacred in a way that encapsulates all people and all aspects of life. Their music shines a light on those demonized in religious scripture, particularly women and LGBTQ people, to honor and celebrate their identities. Their latest single, “Jane,” is a beautiful example of this aim, soulfully capturing the love and loss associated with the LGBTQ experience.

“Jane” was written by Ayres in response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, with a past partner of hers in mind. “It’s just kind of our love song to anyone who feels like they can’t openly exist as their true selves in this world,” says Kahler. “I think the world can sometimes be a pretty inhospitable place to queer folks, people of color, any kind of minority, or anyone that’s treated as other.”

Influences like The Wailin’ Jennys and The Highwomen are evident in the band’s sweet, gentle vocals and minimalistic instrumentals. The slow, mellow single consists of melancholy fiddle, acoustic guitar, a simple rhythmic bass track, and emotive vocal harmonies. “It became a powerful thing for us to all be singing the harmonies together,” says Kahler. “The parts where it’s one voice and then the other voices join kind of echoes that sense of community that we were trying to express.”

The instrumentals start off simple and build as the track picks up, with the vocals getting increasingly loud and passionate toward the end, mirroring the intensity of the emotion in lyrics like “Oh they can keep you from fresh water/You’re the cold rain set me free.” Then, you can hear Ayres’s voice crack with emotion as the song returns to her stripped-down vocals. “The goal is to make people who may not have felt that pain have empathy,” says Duquette.

“When we’re performing that song, I always feel like there’s a lot of space for silence and softness, and it feels very holy,” Kahler adds. “I feel like that was kind of a theme that ran through some of the pieces in this album that we’re releasing — just really holding space for the sacredness of life and of queer life.”

The album they’re referring to is Ruby Mack’s debut LP Devil Told Me (out October 23), which explores feminism and social justice through the lens of religion and mythology as well as modern life and recent events. The soothing folk tune “Machine Man” is an ode to blue-collar workers, and the a cappella “Breadwinner” is “a thank you to all the badass momma figures out there” who support their households, as Kahler puts it, “but also about ourselves as well: We want to be your breadwinner. Let us have that role. We can take care of you. We don’t need men to do that.”

Several songs were written by Ayres, incorporating her interest in oral tradition and storytelling. “For Icarus” retells the Greek myth of the man who flew too close to the sun, commenting on the ways people get carried away with their imaginations, and “Odysseus” is a passionate plea to the mythical hero to return home and avoid the temptation of the sirens.

Overall, the band considers the album a reclamation of the story of Adam and Eve, celebrating female curiosity and knowledge. Accordingly, the album art features a serpent wound around an apple. “Eve ate an apple because she had curiosity, and without curiosity, what is anything?” says Kahler. “We all deserve the things we need and desire, and we shouldn’t be punished for going after those things like Eve does.” This attitude is best summed up in the lyrics to “Milktooth,” an angelically sung track about challenging gender roles learned in childhood: “Holy woman said I deserve what I want.”

Given the album’s overarching themes, it’s appropriate that it was recorded in an old converted church, with the help of Ghost Hit Recording engineer Andrew Oedel. The members, who originally met through the Massachusetts folks scene after each making their own music, consider their friendship a central part of their music and aim to capture their chemistry and authentic emotion in their recordings. Nine of the ten songs on Devil Told Me — with the exception of “Milktooth” — were recorded live to achieve this.

“I feel like that sacredness and that holiness was something that space already held,” Kahler says. “And we are at our most raw and most ourselves when we’re all playing live, and I feel like that definitely translates.”

Follow Ruby Mack on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Ciarra Fragale Premieres Sentimental Video for Album Teaser “Too Good (For You, Baby)”

Life is about change, and it’s often as abrupt and erratic as the seasons themselves. Whether it’s breaking the county lines for a new life, or a breakup you could not have anticipated would hurt so much, transitions can be merciless. Alt-pop singer-songwriter Ciarra Fragale stamps out the last of her heart’s coal-stoked flame with her song “Too Good (For You, Baby),” finally moving on from a heartbreak.

Within such desperation, she also navigates murky waters to self-acceptance. Fragale confronted the reality of a relationship that was falling apart to begin her journey – and makes it look much easier than it was. “It took me a long time to find that acceptance after the unfortunate ending of a relationship,” she says. “It takes a lot to pick yourself, pat yourself on the back, and say, ‘I can finally move on from this, I deserve better.’”

She was feeling quite depleted, creatively speaking, at the time, too. After weeks of songwriting and nothing sticking, she was tinkering around with what would become the song’s groovy open chords when something clicked. “It all just came out. That same night, I wrote another song, which will also be on the upcoming record, that was more somber,” she recalls. “Both ends of the spectrum were there. I felt like I did all of the mourning I never had the chance to do in that writing session. Writing ‘Too Good’ definitely gave me closure.”

Premiering today, the song is paired with an appropriately quirky, off-beat lyric video to punctuate her new-found self-worth. “This song is a celebration. It’s hard not to feel that when you hear it,” Fragale tells Audiofemme. “It is about something ending, sure, but it’s also about finding a new beginning with yourself, which is definitely something to be celebrated.”

Long-standing collaborator and dear friend Louise Bartolotta pieces together B-roll footage from previous videos to give the lyrics a needed jolt. “I approached her about this video right when social distancing restrictions were starting to be heavily enforced. I knew that it wasn’t possible for us to get together to make a video for this,” explains Fragale.

Once a game plan was cemented, she then turned to close friends, family, and bandmates to compile footage “they had of our time together. It really turned into a scrapbook of the last few years of my life, which have been so transformative for me. I cried the first time I watched the final cut. In these weird times of being separated from people and experiences we cherish, it really made me feel connected.”

Musically, there’s not only reverence for her pain but a shedding of layers: from her throaty chirps to the soulful textures, it’s all about liberation. Upon entering the studio, Fragale wanted to give the story a dazzling, live-focused arrangement. “This is my band’s favorite song to play live and is definitely high up on my list too. I wanted it to feel as exciting as it does in a live setting. That definitely had an influence on the arrangement. My drummer and I worked together in rehearsal on this big drum part, and the rest of it just kind of fell into place.”

Recorded at Sleeper Cave Records in Western Massachusetts, fifteen minutes outside of Northampton, a wonderland of sonic possibilities opened up to her. “The challenge for me as a producer was to take all of these complex parts and make it sound seamless and lush. As a listener, I’m attracted to tracks that sound simple and tight, but when you listen closer they are actually incredibly intricate. That has transferred over into how I write and how I produce.”

In the aftermath of 2019’s Call It What You Will, which “left me exhausted in the best way possible,” she says, she wasn’t necessarily creatively zapped, but she did need to take a breather. “I’m sure many songwriters agree that the creative gears are just always turning, so I was asking myself how I could take it further,” she notes.

A native of Montgomery, New York, she grew up on a wide array of artists, but the two most influential on her own songcraft have been Pat Benatar and Peter Gabriel. “[Pat] has always been a role model for me. She’s always been my mother’s favorite,” she says, “so from a very young age I was exposed to this incredibly empowering and talented woman in an industry that has always had a gender imbalance. She really taught me the power in vulnerability, not to mention her incredible stage presence.”

Gabriel’s impact traces back to the first taped concert Fragale ever watched. “[It] was his Shaking the Tree Tour that he performed in the round. I think I was around seven or eight when I saw that. It was so mesmerizing to me. As I got older, I still had the wonderment of his ability to tell stories, but understood it on a deeper level because I was learning how to be a songwriter. He really taught me the importance of arrangement; his songs are so complex but sound so seamless.”

Reflecting on her own songwriting growth through the years, Fragale has had to remind herself that “Every song doesn’t have to be a love song!” she says with a laugh. “But really, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I should just say what I really want to say. That notion is quite freeing and opens up a world of possibilities. I’m going to make the music that I want to make, and the process should be as fun as the songs themselves.”

“Too Good (For You, Baby)” anchors what she promises to be a “bigger, better, bolder” record, tentatively expected later this year. “I’m taking more risks on this next album, and it feels so good. I don’t want to define it just yet, but I will say that choosing ‘Too Good’ as the first single was no-brainer for me in terms of giving people a taste of what this album will be. You can be vulnerable and still dance about it.”

Follow Ciarra Fragale on Facebook for ongoing updates.

ALBUM REVIEW: Winterpills “Love Songs”

Winterpills "Love Songs"

Winterpills "Love Songs"

Winterpills just released their latest full-length, Love Songs, which is aptly named because it’s a collection of songs that you’ll be absolutely in love with. The whole album is everything we’ve come to expect and appreciate from Winterpills, meaning that it’s perfect for relaxing to as well as for hosting private singing/dance parties.

The album starts out with the slow yet entrancing “Incunabala” where you’ll find yourself completely captivated by the plucky guitar chords. From there, we’re met with the substantially more upbeat “Celia Johnson.” The track sees singers Flora Reed and Philip Price matching one another’s vocals perfectly while accompanied with some slick keys and cheerful guitar riffs.

By the album’s midpoint, you reach “The Swimmers and the Drowned,” which works well to shake up the piece’s vibe. It’s the type of track where you’re the heavy bassline grabs your attention immediately. You’ll find yourself listening intently to the lyrics as soon as Price and Reed chime in together so you can figure out the story they’re trying to tell. “Bringing Down the Body Count” sees Reed leading the vocals on this slow and somber track, full of heavy guitar chords and tinkling keys. From there, it only makes sense to close out Love Songs with “Diary, Reconstructed” and “It Will All Come Back to You.” The two ballad-esque tracks feature Price’s raw and vulnerable vocals alongside tender keys, brass, and guitar.

Winterpills as a whole is full of passion and has certainly figured out the recipe for working perfectly with one another. “Love Songs” is just a testament to these facts.

Key Tracks: “Celia Johnson,” “Freeze Your Light,” “A New England Deluge,” “Bringing Down the Body County”

Listen to “We’ll Bring You Down” off their album Central Chambers below:

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