SPELLLING is a Conduit of the Divine on Orchestral Pop Concept LP The Turning Wheel

Photo Credit: Aidan Jung

“It’s never just a love song.”

So says Chrystia Cabral, the Bay Area-based creative lifeblood behind the critically acclaimed experimental pop project SPELLLING, of what drives her songwriting. “I’m always striving to insert these spiritual questions because that’s what fascinates me to make music,” she adds. On June 25, she released her third full-length album, The Turning Wheel, via Sacred Bones.

Known for her sparse, synth-based musical aesthetic and repetitive, incantatory lyrical style, her quest for spiritual growth has informed her artistic style all the way down to the SPELLLING moniker itself. “I really love theater,” she continues. “The idea of theater, ancient Greek theater, and muses, and all that drama. I’m so into that, I really romanticize it. It goes into my project as SPELLLING, and ideas of rights and rituals and bringing that through the music.”

Thematically, the record deals primarily with “human unity, the future, divine love and the enigmatic ups and downs of being part of this carnival called life.” The title itself evokes the concept of karma, or what Cabral refers to as “the life cycle, and just accepting that reality is this constant transformation.” She had this in mind when she made the intentional creative choice to release the album as a double LP,  split down the middle into stark, separate halves that serve to emulate this constant cosmic balance: “Above” and “Below.”

While Below rests on the dark and eerie tone SPELLLING is best known for, Above takes us to another dimension of Cabral’s artistry with warm, jubilant acoustic elements and pleasantly surprising, ballad-like lyricism. “When does reality stop circulating around itself? When do we reach this angelic state?” she asks, before continuing: “The Above and Below part makes sense with the mood of the songs, but also to communicate the idea of circulation, transformation, odyssey.” 

The elegant collection of twelve songs builds on the bewitching synth-based sound she’s consistently refined since 2017’s Pantheon of Me, evolving in terms of lyrical complexity, sonic richness and conceptual depth. Born largely of the past year spent in isolation, these shifts all serve to signal the exponential potential of Cabral’s creative capabilities. The pandemic forced her to abandon an ambitious September 2020 release date, frustrating in the moment but ultimately a blessing in disguise for how it allowed her the time to grow artistically and transform her demos into layered narratives. “I was forced to listen deeper, and I really focused on lyric writing, and I think that’s been the greatest transformation from my previous work,” she explains. “All the songs on this record are pretty long, over three to four minutes – there’s even a seven minute song. I didn’t ever think I would be writing music this way.” 

While the introspection of lockdown surely contributed to this lyrical growth, Cabral had begun to experiment in her writing for other reasons as well. When I point out the theatrical, choral expansiveness of tracks like “Always” or “Turning Wheel” on the Above half, she reveals that she wasn’t so sure about including some of these tracks on the record, so different they were from her previous work. “That song was written in mind for someone else. I was starting to experiment – I love songwriting, and what about later in my career, what if I wanted to write for other people? Over the summer, alongside working on The Turning Wheel, I was writing songs for other people, like hypothetical other people,” she says. “I started writing ‘Always,’ and I’m like, okay, this is not something I would sing, but I just went with it, and then I got so attached to it, and I was like, well, who else is gonna sing it? I have to.”

She explains that when she writes, she imagines the song as the soundtrack to a scene in a movie. “I try to not get in the way of what the song wants to do, and not insert myself. It helps me to start to create a story in my mind,” she says. “With ‘Turning Wheel,’ the first note I [struck] on the piano, it definitely felt like it was striking something kind of musical, like The Sound of Music or something like that. I just ran with that and that song ended up being about the urge to escape, like leaving the city and living away from all the concerns and demands of living in the city.”

In addition to growing in her songwriting, Cabral took on the ambitious and unprecedented challenge of collaborating with an ensemble of 31 musicians, which helped to build the album’s orchestral hugeness. The resulting record defies categorization. It combines elements of her unique influences, ranging from soul to psych to pop to noise. Ultimately they coalesce into something else, an eclectic auditory adventure that seems to channel the divine. Having written her previous two records almost entirely on her own with just a synth, this fell way outside her creative comfort zone. “Personally I’m a really introverted person, so this process took a lot of courage. It was a big challenge for my personality,” she shares. She notes with humor the irony of taking on such a task right as this period of isolation began, and reveals that the additional challenge of having to conduct so many of these collaborations remotely over Zoom was both a blessing and a curse. 

“It was a lot of back and forth, and that became so hard, where I was like okay, I don’t know if this is gonna happen the way that I envisioned it, which was this ‘in the moment’ kind of thing where we can all be together and improvise, so I had to let go of that and just work with this new mode,” she explains. Ultimately, though, “it kind of played to my strengths where I could work with people more one on one instead of this huge orchestration of people in the same room together, so I’m really happy with how that came together,” she says. 

As she begins the preparations for a live show to accompany the songs, she is exploring how to play with interpretive movement and conceptual art as a way to deepen the thematic experience, citing fellow Sacred Bones artist Jenny Hval as a specific inspiration. Incorporating this exploration of conceptual art into both the live show and the structural organization of the album itself adds another layer of beauty to an already beautiful record, surprising in the depths of its complexity. But then again, with SPELLLING, it’s never just a love song.

Follow SPELLLING on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Elizabeth Hart and Iván Diaz Mathé Turned a Studio Experiment Into Their Daughter’s First Album

In the fall of 2019, Elizabeth Hart, best known as bassist for the band Psychic Ills, was pregnant and looking for a project that reflected this moment in her life. “I was interested in finding some way of collaborating with my physical state in a way,” she says on a video call from Buenos Aires, where she and her New York-based family spend a few months of the year. 

Hart is also a dancer, and earlier in her pregnancy, she had worked on some dance projects, but by her third trimester, the changes in her physical experience presented the most intriguing creative possibilities in that particular moment. “Luca was already moving a lot. My body was very full,” Hart recalls. So, she and her husband, producer Iván Diaz Mathé, experimented in the recording studio. 

Mathé had been working with bionsonic MIDI technology, which translates movement into sound, for a few years. In the studio, they connected the device to Hart’s stomach and recorded the resulting music. That led to the album Sounds of the Unborn, which will be released via Sacred Bones on April 2. The album is credited to their daughter, Luca Yupanqui, who was born in November 2019.

Hart says that she found the recording experience to be meditative. “I just wanted to soak in the sounds in a way and the experience and just see what happened,” she says. “Sounds would come in. Things would come in unexpectedly or the tracking would take a turn, and it was really interesting to hear the sound as it was happening. “

She describes the MIDI as working similarly to a polygraph, picking up information from both Hart’s body and Luca’s. “That technology is essentially writing the score,” she explains, “so it’s choosing which notes and the duration of time that the note is playing.”

Hart and Mathé recorded the album over multiple sessions that were an hour to one-and-a-half hours in length and Hart describes that method as an “organic” process. “We were just seeing what sounds came out of this,” she says. 

In fact, an album wasn’t the end goal when they began the project, but they came out of the recording sessions with hours of material. “After it was all said and done, we had a bunch of material recorded. We realized that we thought that we had an album there,” she says. Then Luca was born and it wasn’t until months later that the couple returned to the studio with their daughter to mix the album. They opted not to add any additional playing to the recordings. “There was some processing, maybe effects or things like that,” says Hart, “but we wanted to be true to what was recorded.” 

Photo Credit: Naomi Fisher

That nearly hands-off approach to making the album is an important conceptual decision in the project. It’s music made without the decisions of musicians. “It was not necessarily something that we may have chosen, had we been deciding what was being played,” says Hart. 

Instead, they were flexing their curatorial muscles. “That process was listening to a bunch of material and selecting the bits or the moments that we felt were interesting to us,” says Hart of working on the mix. “Those parts are what became the songs on the album.”

And, in re-listening to recordings, they made some interesting discoveries. “We would find things that we hadn’t even remembered hearing at the time it was recorded because there was so much material,” says Hart. “Towards the end, when we felt that we had everything, we went back through and listened to some more material and then we found something in there that we had passed over.” Some of those sounds ended up on “V2.2,” the video for which was released in late February. “It ended up being one of my favorite songs on the album,” she says. 

Sounds of the Unborn flows like a movie score, building and releasing tension over the course of ten tracks. It’s full of whooshes and gurgles that give off the feeling of journeying into space or deep underwater – or perhaps, coursing through the human body.

“It definitely felt like material that I wasn’t so used to working with,” says Hart. “It wasn’t intellectually chosen by us. It was really fascinating to work with. You don’t go in there with a preconceived idea of what it’s going to be. That was the really fun part of the process.”

Hart and Mathé brought in various artists to help visualize the music. Martin Borini, who made the video for “V2.2.,” also provided the album cover art. Artist Victoria Keddie used Super 8 film footage from the recording sessions to make the video for “V4.3 pt2,” which was released earlier this year. Hart, who is currently finishing work on an album made in the honor of her late Psychic Ills bandmate Tres Warren, says that she and Mathé are in the early stages of follow-up to Sounds of the Unborn with various collaborators. “It would be kind of like a remix album, but not technically a remix album,” she says. 

As for Luca’s reaction to the music, Hart recalls one moment in the studio when they were mixing the album. “She just made some face to us, looked to us, and we were like, does she recognize this?” Hart says. “She looked at us so knowingly.” 

Hart laughs, though, when she thinks of how Luca might respond to the album as she gets older. “She’ll probably just feel like, you guys are so weird or something,” Hart says. Still, she says, she’s looking forward to her daughter’s reaction. 

Follow Elizabeth Hart on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Indigo Sparke Surrenders To Time With Debut LP Echo

Photo Credit: Adrianne Lenker

There’s a powerful scene in The Haunting of Hill House when Nellie (played by Victoria Pedretti) talks about how time is not like dominoes, tumbling in linear fashion, but rather like confetti falling down around us as rain or a blanket of snow. Instead of us moving through time, time moves through us. For Indigo Sparke, time is a great cosmic shift we can only witness, not truly comprehend – an understanding that finds a proper vessel with her debut album, Echo, a nine-track journey through the human condition and the inevitability of life’s impermanence.

“The landscape of the record is very much based in the landscape of me not only pulling and stretching myself out really thin and looking at myself but also stretching out my history and time ─ the days, hours, and minutes,” she tells Audiofemme. 2019 saw the Australian musician traveling across the Southwest United States, from Taos, New Mexico to Topanga, California, and along the way collecting together “different planes and spheres of consciousness” that feeds directly into her music’s timeless aura.

Echo ─ co-produced with Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and Andrew Sarlo and released via Sacred Bones on February 19 ─ is her way of expressing every possible emotion, entrenched in deterioration of the human condition, and placing these within a haven “outside of my body,” as a way to extricate and observe. “Everything is dying,” she speaks within the ethereal layers of “Everything is Everything.” Such a statement is confrontational, tearing down long-constructed taboo barriers around even the mention of death itself.

Sparke wanted Echo to mirror the transitions as time wears us all down, stripping away everything we once were, so she kept the arrangements largely raw and bare. “I definitely had moments where I just wanted to fill the space with more sound and texture and tone,” she says. “Maybe I was, in those moments, feeling more full and more intense, so naturally my first impulse was to put more in. I realized that taking more away and stripping it back made the feelings I wanted to transmit more accessible. I could feel them more. They became these monumental sculptures, and you could see them better because they were standing alone in a desert instead of just another tree in a jungle of trees.”

“Carnival” is perhaps the most monumental in this way. “I have pulled apart the cosmos/Trying to find you,” Sparke sends her voice like a flair, a lung-choking smoke emanating around her. She clings to her parents and their teachings, as her earthly form slides from childhood to adulthood, and a “level of grief around separation” swells in her body. “We all have that period in time when we have to transition, and there’s a level of letting go of your parents and the role they play in your life, depending on the relationship you have with them,” she says.

“It can be difficult to step away and reconcile that. A lot of the time, it’s easy to do a bit of transference with that deep sense of attachment we all feel at some point when we’re young with our caregivers and shifting that to a partner in some ways,” she adds. “Or, it’s longing for that depth of connection and symbiosis with another human being in a love relationship. In some way, we come from this cosmic, unknown place and we’re birthed into the world. Our caregivers look after us or they don’t. But there is some level of attachment we have, even through the umbilical cord. We all have that as a reference point.”

Sparke reaches deep within herself to firmly grasp what it means to be a human being in the world, constantly at the mercy of time with no way out. Now, as she nears the end of her 20s, she’s noticed a clear, perhaps quite cosmic, shift in her relationship to time. “I feel that time has become one of the strangest things to me. I feel time exists less and less for me. However, it also speeds up in some ways,” she muses. “My understanding of it has become really obstructed, and I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what changed. The world is always changing, but there is some kind of transcendental shift that’s happened or happens when you start to age.”

Academic journal European Review released a paper in 2019 in which Duke University professor Adrian Bejan proposed “the misalignment between mental-image time and clock time” as the culprit behind such an enormous change in how we relate to and process time. Essentially, as we grow older, our ability to sort stimuli (physical, visual, aural, etc.) slows down, so time seems to clip at a brisker pace.

But it can also feel as though time is moving slower, as Sparke argues from her own experiences. “I feel it’s become very stretched out. That’s what it feels like. It feels like it’s become very nonlinear. It’s become more like a landscape, almost like a canvas in my mind and body. It’s like a canvas that’s been stretched in every direction,” she says, “until it becomes very thin, almost quite translucent in a sense. Then I feel like I’m peering through time from different angles and points on this stretched-out landscape ─ looking not only at myself but almost from a bird’s eye perspective at life and how everything is connected.” 

Imagine a crossroads, an all-consuming void, and out of that needlepoint, birth, destruction, creation, and death meet and exist as one. “It’s very difficult to understand where to plant yourself in that. It’s like it’s spiraling out and up,” she adds.

Sparke trails off for a moment ─ and one particular memory floods her senses. “I remember being in Minneapolis, standing in the middle of the snow on a street, and the snow is falling so heavily. But it was just profound. It was all in slow motion, and it was the strangest feeling,” she recalls. “I lost sense of time and myself, in a way. I was witnessing it in these huge snowflakes falling all around me. I felt suspended. We have this idea of the present and how time is moving around us, behind us, and in front of us, and it gives us the gift of things ─ but also takes it away.”

Perhaps buried in innate curiosity, she turned to love as an antidote, which allowed her to “just be and find immense worlds of deep transcendental love and connection.” But she soon fell prey to the notion that “nothing ever stays the same,” she says. “You have love, but love leaves, too. You can have a person, but a person can leave and die and decay. Everything changes and flies away and dies. The only thing we can hold onto is the impermanence of everything. The record is in many ways an exploration of my own journey in reconciling that.”

“Golden Ages” lies at the polar opposite of her emotional journey, a far more “liberated and joyful” space than contemplative. Spending some time in Joshua Tree, feeling the wind and desert on her skin, she yielded herself to “wide open spaces and the excitement of being in a new environment,” she says. “I was feeling the sparks of love but also feeling the edge of possibility of its demise.” 

“We are just children trying to deconstruct this fucked-up illusion/Sinking moon and the burning ground,” she coos over a dusty rattle. “It’s a tiny voice that took me down/It’s high hot wind that swept us out.”

She questions that unsettling edge-of-a-cliff feeling, sifting through “all the doubts we can have and the small voices inside our heads” to find a way to “be present in the world and enjoy things. I felt there was this young version of me dancing wildly in the middle of the desert when I wrote this song.”

When all is said and done, Sparke says the only thing we know for certain is “that we’re all going to die at some point.” Death and decay spring up like daffodils across the new record, as well, a reference to her ongoing journey with both natural elements for as long as she can remember.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I always felt so much grief in my chest and my being. I’m quite a sensitive person, so I experience the world in a particular way. I’m sure I see it through the lens of my own experience and history of love and trauma, like we all do,” Sparke explains. “I had a particular level and depth of experience of feeling a certain awareness around grief and decay.” 

Across Echo, Sparke wallows in the stillness of such sadness but is simultaneously stricken by “the joy and the surrender of that reconciliation and recognition that that’s the reality we’re living in,” she remarks. “What else are you going to do with it? There’s so many feelings around that. Sometimes, it’s difficult to feel so much in the human body. We’re all so fragile and feeling all these huge things.”

Western culture has an especially strange and detached relationship with rituals and ceremonies, so perhaps it’s not too surprising we turn our backs on death and grief. It is ingrained within us to “look away from death ─ to keep being in life and striving toward this particular point of what it means to be happy in the world, and to obtain, to have, to consume,” Sparke says. “In the pursuit of those things, we lose track of everything else and the meaning behind the small moments. Life is happening in every moment.”

Tibetan Buddhists believe life is a preparation for death, and that awareness opens up our entire beings to transition more easily to the next stage of existence. “It’s probably just incredibly frightening. Nobody wants to face the reality that we’re all going to die,” Sparke says. “There’s this slight belief we’re immortal in some ways. When we start to age, and we realize that we’re mortal beings… there’s not much deep connection to it.”

When Sparke took a trip to Varanasi, India, she quickly noticed a vast difference in relationship to death and the circles of life. “I was walking around, and I was in such a serene state of surrender to existence as it was happening. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they really have this down.’” She was staying in a hotel along the banks of the Ganges, about 20 meters upriver were the burning ghats where the community would bring dead bodies and cremate them. “They’d be dumping ashes in the river, and someone on the other side, 100 meters down the other way, would be cooking a meal from using the water. It was this total recycling of life happening. There was no question about it.”

Indigo Sparke distills nearly the entire human experience into only nine songs. Death and grief rub right up against joy and love ─ life markers that resonate far beyond any concept of time and space. “We are subconsciously processing all these things anyway,” Sparke points out. “It’s just that they’re quite confronting. I hope the album could be some kind of safe home for the fragility of the human condition.”

Follow Indigo Sparke on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

AF 2017 IN REVIEW: The Best Live Shows of 2017

Austra @Warsaw

This was my first show of 2017, unless you count sets by Janelle Monae, Alicia Keys, and Indigo Girls that dotted the Women’s March on Washington days prior. I may have been late to the game regarding Austra, a beloved Toronto band already two albums into their career, and it wasn’t even their music that first grabbed my attention. It was the striking artwork for their third record, Future Politics. On its cover, a woman leads a handsome mare, cloaked in Austra’s signature shade of red. As it turned out, the album was as slick and strong as its imagery.

I sought out this strength one night at Greenpoint’s Warsaw, where Austra moved the whole room to dance with abandon. Lead singer Katie Stelmanis was captivating, her soaring voice sounding miraculously better than on the record. If it weren’t for her obvious talents as a pop star, Stelmanis would have an easy time making it as a stage actor or Broadway diva. The band plowed through the new album’s heavy hitters like “We Were Alive,” “Future Politics” and “Utopia,” sprinkling older favorites throughout the set.

Just days after Donald Trump had been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, Austra made the Warsaw crowd believe that if we sweat hard enough, we could construct our own utopia right there on the dance floor.

Girl Band @Saint Vitus

Girl Band, Dublin’s all-boy noise foursome, rarely leave the stage without first inciting a small riot. They’re one of the few bands I’ve seen that can touch something primal in audiences, waking them from their New York, no-dance comas. This spring show at Saint Vitus was no different. The crowd was a little rigid initially, but once Girl Band slammed into “Paul” off of 2015’s Holding Hands With Jamie we all went wild. Daniel Fox’s warbled bass line whipped us into a swirling frenzy. We attempted to scream along with lead singer Dara Kiley, but our sweat and thrashing limbs did most of the talking.

Perfume Genius @Brooklyn Steel

This gig was without a doubt my favorite live performance of the year – and I almost didn’t go. Audiofemme’s own Lindsey Rhoades, who could not make it that evening, asked if I would go in her absence. “Sure,” I said, having no clue of the treat in store. I’d listened to the record, and was of course proud of the Seattle band’s success being from Washington myself, but the sheer magnetism of PG mastermind Mike Hadreas blew me away. He slinked and slithered through each song, howling like a hellhound one minute and whispering like seraph the next. In those moments onstage, Hadreas seemed to be Bowie’s heir apparent. He certainly had a Ziggy Stardust-worthy outfit.

Blanck Mass @RBMA/Sacred Bones

It didn’t hurt that as Blanck Mass’ Benjamin John Power was whipping up beats, Björk was head banging by the PA system… in a hot pink clown suit. But even without Our Lady of Iceland publicly endorsing the set, Power’s gut rattling music had me enraptured. Power always performs in total darkness, giving shape and weight to his intense soundscapes. You can almost feel his songs wrap around you like a python beginning to squeeze. When he cued up “Please” – my #2 favorite song of 2017 – I suddenly understood what it’s supposed to feel like when you get the good MDMA. I’d only ever had the bad shit.

Aldous Harding @Park Church Co-op/Baby’s All Right

I saw Aldous Harding twice within a week at 2017’s Northside Festival. The first time was at Park Church Co-op in Greenpoint. Harding wore an all-white suit, conjuring the combined spirits of Tom Wolfe, David Byrne, and Jerry Hall. She was otherworldly, contorting her voice to reach the vaulted ceiling, then summoning it down low, to rattle the wooden pews we sat on.

The second time was at Baby’s All Right, a far less romantic locale. Still, Harding bewitched me with her strange posturing and mythological voice. As she sunk into the lovelorn depths of “Horizon,” I was near tears. I closed my eyes. I mouthed the words, “Here is your princess/And here is the horizon.” And then a sharp splat cut through the room. The crowd parted like the red sea, and there at the center was not Moses, but a 60-year-old, portly man, barfing all down his t-shirt. After a period of bug-eyed shock, Harding laughed and returned to her set. I went outside to breathe better air.

Bing & Ruth @Basilica Soundscape

There was so much to see at Basilica Soundscape this summer, and yet the first band that played on the festival’s opening night is what stuck with me the most. Bing & Ruth’s David Moore seemed to be painting with his piano keys, while the accompanying cellist and clarinet player extracted color from their own instruments. They invoked a staggering beauty that went unmatched for the remainder of the weekend, in my opinion. Bing & Ruth make music that’s incredibly difficult to describe, but I feel lucky I was able to hear and feel it in person.

Sean Nicholas Savage and Dinner @Baby’s All Right

This was not my first Sean Nicholas Savage rodeo, but it was by far the finest, largely due to opening act Dinner’s inspiring performance. Danish singer/songwriter Anders Rhedin knows how to work a crowd, and does so with a divine combination of goofball and deadpan tactics. He had us sitting on the ground like school children, clapping like a gospel choir, and dancing like disco wildcats. It was a nice round of cardio before Sean Nicholas Savage began his vocal calisthenics. We swayed for Dinner, but we swooned for Savage.

Diamanda Galás @Murmrr Theater

I couldn’t have imagined a better Halloween. After walking a mile through Fort Greene, squeezing past trails of children in Halloween costumes, candy spilling from their cloth sacks, I approached Prospect Heights’ Murmrr Theatre. The stage and pews were cloaked in red light, and the baby grand piano was the requisite black. It was a fitting atmosphere for Diamanda Galás, the singer, composer, and pianist I recently crowned as the Queen of Halloween.

Galás was bewitching. Her piano seemed to awaken the ghost of Thelonious Monk and Satan himself, while her voice was alight with several spirits; some crooning, some growling, some downright shrieking. Galás is a medium above all else, and this last Halloween, she seemed to communicate with other worlds.

Swans @Warsaw

This was another show I almost didn’t attend. I’d already seen these noise dinosaurs two summers ago, and didn’t plan on showing up for their goodbye gig at Warsaw last month. But when a good friend got the flu and offered up his ticket gratis, how could I pass? I got to the venue in time for a plate of pierogis and kielbasa, and through some fortunate twist of fate, had a pair of earplugs in my purse. This was a very good thing considering Swans were playing at decibel levels strong enough for sonic warfare. As Thor smashed his gong, I felt like I was inside of a tank as it unloaded ammunition. Even my feet were vibrating.

Animal Collective @Knockdown Center

Nothing could’ve prepared me for how mesmerizing Animal Collective’s set at Knockdown Center was a couple of weeks ago. The evening’s objective was for Avey Tare and Panda Bear to perform 2004’s Sung Tongs in full. I entered Queens’ Knockdown Center full of skepticism; how exactly, were they going to summon that wall of sound with just two dudes?

I still don’t know the exact answer to that question, but the task was accomplished. After ample fiddling by roadies (one of whom sported a biker jacket and looked like he was named Butch) the stage was set, and the travel-sized version of Animal Collective settled into their chairs. What transpired over the next hour plus was a village of sound supplied by two men, four microphones, and some expert pedal work. Whatever their process was, it blew me away. I was wrapped in surround sound, every blip, crack, and whir massaging my body with the tiniest pulses.

LIVE REVIEW: RBMA Celebrates 10 Years of Sacred Bones Records

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Jenny Hval performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Ysa Perez.

Who says witchy things don’t go down in daylight? The event designer for Sacred Bones’ 10 Year Anniversary bash certainly wanted us to feel the darkness, despite the concert’s sunny 4pm start. The Brooklyn-born record label teamed up with the Red Bull Music Academy Festival on Saturday for seven straight hours of music. The impressive lineup boasted the best of Sacred Bones’ alumni, including sets from Genesis P-Orridge (of Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle), Uniform, Marissa Nadler, Psychic Ills, Moon Duo with Jim Jarmusch, The Men, Jenny Hval, Blanck Mass, and Zola Jesus.

Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse was a sight last weekend– bathed in white smoke and thoroughly branded with Sacred Bones’ occult insignia. Blazing neon triangles were the focal point of the room’s two stages, and if anyone has seen the new horror film The Void, they may have found these symbols a touch unsettling. Columnar black cages rose to the ceiling, filled with red and blue light – I crossed my fingers for cage dancers, but sadly, none appeared. Perhaps the most noticeable detail was the massive fabric moon that hung above the center of the audience, illuminating different colors throughout the night.

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Atmosphere at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan

It was an intense tableau to enter; I was so overwhelmed by the fog machine and the imposing triangle shrines that I thought I saw a large raven out of the corner of my eye. It was a mic stand.

Time for a beer. As I ordered my 4pm libation I noticed that even the cocktails were cultish in theme, as one of them was called a “Ritual.” Very metal.

Genesis P-Orridge was the first to take stage, backed by percussionist Edely Odowd and Benjamin John Power of Blanck Mass. It was perhaps the most unsettling set of the evening, as Power knows well the discomfort buttons on his synthesizer, and P-Orridge reserves only the worst words for her anti-humanist poetry. It wasn’t a humorless performance however. After a scathing indictment of people who live in “Williamsburg…in the apartment your dad paid for,” and who “look like everyone else,” she warned us: “that was the nice song.” Looking around I saw dozens of people in motorcycle jackets like my own, and wondered if she was singing about us.

Three acts in, Marissa Nadler’s dreamy set was a welcome respite from P-Orridge’s vitriol and hardcore duo Uniform’s unbridled rage. The Boston-based folk singer added a hushed beauty to the evening; her weightless voice floating towards us on beams of purple smoke. She seemed especially fragile framed by the neon geometry and stark cages, but her dark melodies were nourishing after two harsh, a-melodic performances.

[/fusion_builder_column][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”]

Marissa Nadler performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Ysa Perez.

New Yorkers Psychic Ills continued this melodious excursion with an atmospheric set that merged psych rock, stoner metal, country, and soul. However it wasn’t atmospheric in sound alone; someone was having a bit of a field day with the fog machine. The band became so enveloped in smoke that I was unaware how many people were onstage. I seemed to hear a pedal steel being played – but no pedal steel player could be found. At one point, I could see literally everything in the room…except for the band.

Despite Moon Duo’s alliance with filmmaker/guitarist Jim Jarmusch (making them, undoubtedly, Moon Trio), their droning set was the night’s most snooze-able. Maybe I just wasn’t close enough to see the nuanced facial expressions under Jarmusch’s sunglasses as he did his best Thurston Moore impression, or perhaps it was a matter of sound quality. “The singer’s mic wasn’t even on in that first couple songs,” a friend said to me after the band unplugged. I was mystified. “There were vocals?” But then again, this could have been part of Moon Duo’s plan, as the lengthy “About” section on their website points out that “the root of the word occult is that which is hidden, concealed, beyond the limits of our minds.” And our ears.

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Jim Jarmusch performs with Moon Duo at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan.

Five bands, three hours, and two beers in, it was time for a cigarette. It was also time for the lady in pink to arrive. Just as I stubbed out my butt on the warehouse wall, a woman gingerly approached the venue in a hot pink puffy blouse and trousers to match. Her black hair was twisted around her head, and a sheer, flowered fascinator partially concealed her face. She looked like Pagliacci the clown dipped in Manic Panic. Intrigued, I followed her in – but she dissolved in the crowd awaiting Jenny Hval.

Hval took the trophy for most visually arresting set that night. Light beamed down in fine, white-hot needles, forming a pyramid shrine around the singer. Beacons of purple and blue smoke billowed like storm clouds trapped in a prism, and strobes of broken halogen stripes radiated around the stage. As much of a performance artist as she is a songwriter, Hval orchestrated some potent images for us. She and her entire band sported shiny, black wigs and dark velvet tunics, making them look like Druids against all the iconography. At one point, a bandmate crept up behind Hval with a pair of scissors in hand and cut her “hair” while she continued to sing. Hval clutched the cut tendrils and occasionally threw them towards us.

The mischief didn’t stop there, however. Hval’s wigged tuba player-cum-barber eventually snatched a woman from the audience – a woman, with REAL hair – and readied their shears. “We should have some more light for a haircut, don’t you think?” Hval cooed.  She serenaded her victim as the barber snipped away.

[/fusion_builder_column][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”]

Jenny Hvala performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan

If Hval’s set got the blue ribbon for optical titillation, then Benjamin John Power’s one-man-army Blanck Mass took the prize for audible precision. Blanck Mass’ abrasive set felt like a new gospel baptizing us in rage and mayhem. Power’s music is so densely packed, it behaves as an ecosystem of sound, home to numerous species: metal, R&B, EDM, soul, and noise.

Blanck Mass’ prowess at electronic composition has become irrefutable with his most recent LP World Eater, but now I know how well it translates live – something I was concerned about at the start of Saturday. The relentless hour of glitchy, weaponized noise felt oddly soothing, yet incited a series of dance-like convulsions that were no more within my control than the music itself.

As it turned out, I was not the only audience member enraptured with Blanck Mass; to my left, the woman in pink was rocking back and forth, shouting “wooh!” and occasionally sipping her Ritual. She occupied the space right next to a gargantuan monitor – a place too loud even for me. Within minutes, a man standing close by noticed my blatant gawping at the neon jester, and playfully nudged, “The girl in pink is part of the show, eh?”

I looked back at him. “That’s Björk,” I asserted.

[/fusion_builder_column][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”]

Blanck Mass performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan.

After being effectively knocked out by Blanck Mass and a Björk sighting, I wasn’t entirely sure how the evening could be topped – which is perhaps because I’d never seen Zola Jesus live before. Lead singer and dark mastermind Nika Roza Danilova was fiercely energetic as Saturday’s headliner, bounding back and forth onstage and engaging in some serious fist pumping.

A truly dynamic performer, Danilova was panting and shrieking one moment, and blowing us over with her arena-reaching vocals the next – all the while maintaining a severe air of seduction. The theatrical performance was grounded by Zola Jesus the band, whose minimalist violin brought to mind a more foreboding Arthur Russell.

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Zola Jesus performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Ysa Perez.

Throughout the evening, there was one consistent remark made by artists onstage (or at least the ones who spoke): “I’d like to thank the Sacred Bones family.” On the label’s website, Sacred Bones bill themselves as “a family affair,” too. At first the notion freaked me out a bit with its cult implications. What kind of family we talkin’ here? Manson? Addams? But at the night’s close, after running into more people I knew than any other concert in the past nine years, I realized that maybe “family” is the best word. After all, a good record label does tend to bring people together. With such a talented roster – and fans like Björk and Jim Jarmusch – Sacred Bones’ RBMA Festival anniversary show is one reunion I’d gladly attend again.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

VIDEO REVIEW: Marissa Nadler “Janie In Love”


Though the message comes in the form of a lush song, Marissa Nadler shows the dark side of love in the video she directed and animated for her song “Janie In Love.”

Nadler turns the concept of love into an unnatural force, one that breaks its target into pieces. “You’re a natural disaster,” she croons. “You touch and the earth will crumble/ You speak and hurricanes attack.” The black and white video includes stop-motion footage that is both beautiful and unnerving: a winged doll with its parts scattered across the ground, faces of sand and dirt that appear and dissolve, a snake-like creature made of clay that pulses and changes shape. We see clips of the singer walking in a desolate forest, but her face is mostly obscured by shadows, or blocked by her arms. Animated leaves fall and collect at the bottom of the screen, and the video ends with snow falling in the forest.  The love referenced in “Janie In Love” does not end with flowers blossoming or the sun shining, but cold and darkness, making her message clear: This love was doomed from the beginning.

Marissa Nadler’s Strangers is out now via Sacred Bones. Order the album here and listen to “Janie In Love” below.

Catch her on her North American tour, dates below:

July 8 – Salt Lake City, UT – Kilby Court ^* (tickets)

July 9 – Denver, CO – Lost Lake Lounge ^* (tickets)

July 10 – Omaha, NE – Reverb Lounge ^* (tickets)

July 11 – Minneapolis, MN – 7th St Entry ^* (tickets)

July 12 – Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle ^* (tickets)

July 13 – Detroit, MI – El Club ^* (tickets)

July 14 – Toronto, ON – Drake Hotel ^* (tickets)

July 15 – Montreal, QC – La Sala Rossa ^* (tickets)

July 16 – Hudson, NY – The Half Moon ^*

July 19 – Boston, MA – Great Scott ^* (tickets)

July 20 – Providence, RI – Aurora ^* (tickets)

July 21 – NYC – Bowery Ballroom ^* (tickets)

July 22 – Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brenda’s ^* (tickets)

July 24 – Washington, D.C. – DC9 ^* (tickets)

July 25 – Raleigh, NC – Cat’s Cradle Back Room

July 26 – Atlanta, GA – The EARL ^* (tickets)

July 27 – New Orleans, LA – Gasa Gasa ^* (tickets)

July 29 – Austin, TX – The Sidewinder ^* (tickets)

July 30 – Dallas, TX – DADA ^* (tickets)

August 1 – Phoenix, AZ – Valley Bar ^* (tickets)

August 2 – San Diego, CA – Casbah ^* (tickets)

August 3 – Los Angeles, CA – Echo ^* (tickets)

August 4 – San Francisco, CA – The Chapel ^* (tickets)

August 5 – Big Sur, CA – Henry Miller Library ^* (tickets)

August 7 – Vancouver, BC – Cobalt ^* (tickets)

August 8 – Seattle, WA – Barbosa ^* (tickets)


VIDEO REVIEW: Marissa Nadler “Firecrackers”

Marissa Nadler

Marissa Nadler

Though it was released back in February, Marissa Nadler’s stunning sixth album July (on Sacred Bones/Bella Union) is very much rooted in the month it was named for. As she explained during an interview with AudioFemme, the record deals specifically with her personal experiences, lived from July of 2012 when her romantic relationship dissolved as she self-destructed, through her regret and pain to a place of healing and rekindling lost love in July 2013. The record’s emotional centerpiece, “Firecrackers,” deals with that fallout and subsequent recovery with stoic grace, its simple guitar chords nonchalantly lilting around what sounds like a dead-eyed challenge to unnamed “attackers” – it’s me, it’s me, it’s me you’re lookin’ for – but, for Nadler, was more of an admission of guilt on her own part for the troubles she found herself in back then.

Just in time for Independence Day, Nadler has released a haunting, black-and-white clip directed by Ryan Hamilton Walsh. Over the brutal opening lines July Fourth of last year / We spilled all the blood / How’d you spend your summer days? Nadler’s ghostly image performs destructive, if inconsequential actions – smashing glass bottles, throwing her guitar to the forest floor, pouring water from buckets. Everything happens in rewind, the grainy footage recalling home videos, or how we might imagine our memories would look if others could view them. The symbolism lies in Nadler “undoing” her ruinous behavior, and as the clip progresses, overlays of oozing liquid wash away her pointless sins and obscure her devious past. We’ve all been the kid sticking a bottle rocket in our neighbor’s mailbox, and we’ve all been the adult committing crimes we felt were victimless that lead to our own demise. Nadler puts the two on par by juxtaposing the innocuous imagery in the “Firecrackers” video with her real, lived experience in the song’s lyrical content, reminding us that no matter how calamitous our lives, there is no rewinding or rewriting history – all that’s left is to forge ahead.

Marissa Nadler heads to Europe in the fall; she’ll be playing throughout the US this month (see dates below).

Jul 8 – Rock N Roll Hotel – Washington, DC
Jul 9 – Pinhook – Durham, NC
Jul 10 – The Earl – Atlanta, GA
Jul 12 – The Beatnik – New Orleans, LA
Jul 13 – Holy Mountain – Austin, TX
Jul 14 – City Tavern – Dallas, TX
Jul 15 – White Water Tavern – Little Rock, AR
Jul 16 – The Stone Fox – Nashville, TN
Jul 17 – Mike N Molly’s – Champaign, IL
Jul 18 – Rumba Café – Columbus, OH
Jul 19 – Cattivo – Pittsburgh, PA
Jul 20 – The Ballroom at Outer Space – New Haven, CT
Aug 1 – Northern Routes Festival – New Salem, MA

TRACK REVIEW: Crystal Stilts “Delirium Tremendous”

Crystal Stilts

Crystal Stilts - New Single: Delirium Tremendous


After the September release of album Nature Noir, Brooklyn’s own fuzzy noise pop darlings Crystal Stilts have triumphantly returned– with new single “Delirium Tremendous.” But this time, there’s less fuzz, and more sun. The track begins with a deliciously upbeat, almost Krautrock-sounding tempo, built around singer Brad Hargett’s Ian Curtis-like croon. He makes a fervent plea to be understood: “Delirium/Delirium/Deliver me from tedium.” The lyric creates a dark, complex backdrop to the otherwise light and playful pace of drums and insistent, building guitar. Perhaps a bit of shadow lurks beneath the sunny veneer.

Without warning, things change direction and a bridge builds out– a slowed tempo oozing with a “party’s over” sense of resignation as Hargett himself resigns: “And after all/Is said and done/We have to go.”  But is the party really really over? No time for contemplation– as all traces of the bridge have melted away, replaced by the resurgence of the frenzied, driving pace that you were just starting to miss.

This track has the feel of  being on a spontaneous road trip; and although Hargett and Co. make a pit-stop halfway through the wild ride to get out of the car, pace around a bit and contemplate the universe, they more than make up for the break once they get back on the highway; with tires screeching, steering wheel swerving, and blissful, reckless abandon charting the course through to the song’s abrupt end. Damn right, it left me wanting more.

As it happens, this month Crystal Stilts will be rolling through a slew of East Coast (and even a few Midwest) cities with some live dates. Schedule below:


6.14.14 – Rock and Roll Hotel [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”][tickets] – Washington, DC*@

6.15.14- Ottobar [tickets] – Baltimore, MD*

6.16.14- Cattivo- [tickets] – Pittsburgh, PA*

6.17.14- Mahall’s [tickets] – Cleveland, OH*

6.18.14- Empty Bottle [tickets]- Chicago, IL*

6.19.14- The Warehouse- Ann Arbor, MI*

6.20.14- NXNE- The Garrison- Toronto, ON

6.21.14- Il Motore- Montreal, QC

6.22.14- Space Gallery [tickets]- Portland, ME

6.27.14- Baby’s All Right [tickets]- Brooklyn, NY#

*with Juan Wauters

@ with Craft Spells

# with Christines




INTERVIEW: Marissa Nadler talks ‘July’

Marissa Nadler

Marissa Nadler is too shy to do karaoke.  Despite the loveliness of her timeless-sounding lilt, Nadler turned to Twitter for encouragement before “chickening out” on a rendition of Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game”.

But that self-consciousness isn’t present on her sixth proper album and first release for Sacred Bones/Bella Union.  Entitled July, Nadler’s haunting vocals deliver brashly poetic lyrics, aggressively examining the personal change that comes about during the painful dissolution and subsequent rebuilding of relationships.

The startling work she’s produced in the past decade traces the events of her life through the lens of a storyteller, rich with recurring characters both real and imagined.  Her latest record examines self-destructive tendencies, complicated entanglements, vicious environments, and the hope that can exist within despair, each subject explored with a depth and tenderness that few singer-songwriters can match.  We talked with Nadler about how her career got started, the effect that self-releasing her last album had on her work and her psyche, and what her latest record means to longtime fans and new listeners alike.  July is out on February 4th, and you can stream the record over at NPR.

Marissa Nadler

AF: To start, I’d like to talk about your first records on Eclipse and working with Ed Hardy.

MN: Back about… it must have been 11 or 12 years ago, I recorded my first record when I was still in graduate school at RISD.  And I sent it to this guy Jeffrey Alexander who ran this label called Secret Eye in Providence.  He hooked me up with a couple contacts and I emailed Ed Hardy and Ed got back to me and he put the first record out.  He’s lovely to work with.  I actually had spent a summer living in Bullhead, AZ working for his label too.  So we’re pretty close.  I think he opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of the underground music scene.

AF: What made you decide to pursue music after so much training as a visual artist?  How did your time in art school inform what you do as a musician?

MN: Well I had been writing songs as a teenager.  And I had a little punk band in high school.  I had like a mini, a four-track recorder… probably there are some tapes somewhere in my parent’s house but… I just got more and more serious about my songwriting when I was at RISD. I don’t know if maybe it was a little bit of the disillusionment with the fine art world.  The more and more I got intimidated by being this hip fine artist, the more the honesty of music started to appeal to me and so my interests kinda switched and I think it was a way for me to deal with the stress of such a hardcore fine art academy.  So I started playing open mic nights and really digging around Providence.  I really consider Providence my first hometown.  It was where I played all my first shows.

I do think my fine arts training does have a lot to do with the way I write my songs, because the way I see the world is still as a very visual person.  I’m not an analytical thinker, I’m still a painter.  So when I write lyrics it’s a very painterly, expressive way of writing.

AF: You exercised a bit more of your left brain in self-releasing your self-titled record and The Sister EP.

MN: Yeah.  That shit really burnt me out.  I think a lot of people would be shocked to know that I’m an incredibly OCD person.  I’m very detail-oriented, but I was spending so much time in front of the computer reading my own reviews and dealing with the distributors and the post office stuff that I just got really depressed and I felt like I needed some advocates.  I stopped believing in my own music.  I just started to get really depressed, I think.  It was too much of that side of the brain and not enough of art-making.

AF: I can see how that would be a lot to deal with.  Do you still view those albums as successes from an art-making standpoint?  Or was it tarnished by the fact that you had all this other stuff to deal with on top of it?

MN: I definitely view the self-titled record as a success.  I’m really proud of that record, I’m proud of how far it reached, it being a self release.  The Sister I think of more as an EP that I, lacking a manager to tell me not to release it and lacking anybody to say you know, this isn’t ready, like… that’s what you run into when you’re self-releasing records.  Nobody told me, you know, “Hey Marissa, this doesn’t really feel like a record” and so that’s what I kind of benefit from now, having a label, having some people to bounce things off of.  But I’m very proud of the self-released record, I think it was a really good comeback for me after some hardships.  I definitely stand by that one. There’s a couple songs on The Sister I like but it wasn’t a “record” the way that July is a record.  Or the way that the self-titled is.

AF: A big part of your ability to self-release a record came from crowd-funding and via your tremendous fan base, which was built on the continuing narratives you tend you revisit across albums.  You’re one of the few artists who has created a ten-year, career spanning narrative and it feels really unique in an industry that’s more singles-focused.  Do you ever feel like you’re struggling against that sort of mentality that craves hits and rarely has the attention span to delve into a body of work?

MN: I think I have a dual interest when I write songs.  It may seem like they’re continued narratives because I’m writing about my own life.  Our own lives are a continued narrative.  But, especially with this new record, a big thing for me was asking “Are these songs catchy?”  I’m definitely interested as a songwriter in songs that can stand alone regardless of an album and regardless of the body of work.  I think about whether each song on the record is good enough to stand on its own while maintaining my own integrity as a songwriter.  So yeah, I think there’s a lot of things that go into play with what makes the cut.

AF: Well, with this latest record it does feel as though most of the character arcs have been put to bed.  It seems like you’re less interested in mythologizing your experiences.  You’re using first person more, or addressing singular individuals directly.

MN: Yeah, definitely when I was younger I was more afraid to write in the first person.  I didn’t want to be thought of as a confessional singer-songwriter, like coffee shop bullshit.  I mean, I’ll be self-deprecating and say I was a little pretentious on my first record, like covering Pablo Neruda and Edgar Allen Poe.  And then I started listening to more and more old-time country music and my tastes changed and I wasn’t afraid to confront what I really wanted to write songs about without the mythological shroud, if you will.

AF: It seems a lot like this record specifically is more about a journey.  There are literal moments on tracks like “Drive” or on “I’ve Got Your Name” when you sing about changing dresses in a gas station.  But there’s also explorations on personal, emotional journeys, as with “Anyone Else”, where you’re coming to terms with who does and doesn’t belong in your life.  How have your journeys shaped this record?

MN: There’s so much personal stuff on this record.  “Anyone Else” is definitely about someone that ‘done me wrong’; “Desire” is about infatuation… I mean, there’s a lot of real-life details in this.

AF: The lyrics are very rich, which goes back to what you were saying about painterly songwriting.  I wanted to talk about that line in “Firecrackers” in which you reference an attacker whom you’re confronting.  It feels like an important cornerstone; the title of the record comes from this song.

MN: That’s about me being, especially during that period of my life before I stopped drinking, incredibly self-destructive.  So that song kind of speaks to the self-destructiveness ruining my relationship. My boyfriend and I broke up on July 4th two years ago.  And we got back together about a year ago, so the record has a lot to do with that.  Side A has a lot to do with the ups and downs of that relationship. And Side B has a lot to do with people in between him and… him.

AF: It’s so funny that you’re releasing a record called July when it is literally 8 degrees outside.  Do you feel like there’s such a thing as a winter song or a summer song?  Was it more that the relationship was an impetus for making the record?

MN: Yeah, I definitely don’t think this a summer record at all.  If there’s any season I have a lot in common with it’s winter.  But the reason I called it July was very specific in that I recorded the record in July and everything about the songs had to do with a year’s journey from one July to the next.

AF: I wanted to talk a little about the video for the record’s first single, “Dead City Emily.” Can you tell me more about it?

MN: Well I try only to work with people that I think are really talented artists.  I first met Derrick Belcham because he used to shoot videos for this French site Blogothèque.  I met him through  my friend Cat Martino.  I really like his aesthetic.  He’s worked with Julianna Barwick, and White Hinterland and a lot of artists.  The dancer, her name is coincidentally Emily but that has nothing to do with the song. In fact, it’s totally fictional, a make-believe conversation with a friend that was kind of a narrative device I used to write the song.

AF: If it’s not about a specific person, was there a particular city you had in mind while writing it?

MN: My own.

AF: That being Boston?

MN: Yeah well, not even that.  The feeling I was trying to evoke was the feeling of coming to terms with the place that you live and just feeling depressed and finding no joy in anything.  And then the contrast is in the chorus where it’s “oh, I saw the light today, opened up the door…”  I struggle with mood swings and ups and downs and it’s kind of about realizations you have about relationships to your city.

AF: I definitely have that sort of reaction to NYC.  I actually don’t think I ever want to live in a place where I don’t have a kind of volatile relationship with living there.  I’ve never actually been to Boston, but it seems like there’s a lot of good music coming out of that scene.  Although most of what’s getting attention is DIY-scene punk stuff – Speedy Ortiz, Potty Mouth.  Because you’re making music that’s so different – more timeless, less tied to a scene – do you ever feel like an outsider or distanced from your community?

MN: Definitely.  To be honest, I love Boston, but I have what I call a hometown curse.  I had more trouble getting a gig here on my opening record release tour than anywhere else in the world.  I’m not talking just the U.S.  I don’t know what it is.  I think maybe it’s because I’m not a networker or a shmoozer.  I would love to be embraced more, I’m hoping it changes with this new record.  It’s kind of a tough town if you’re not like heavy heavy or super folky.  I’ve always been somewhere in between.

AF: Well I think the irony of that is that while your music is often referred to as “dream-folk” or that there’s this permeating winsome quality to what you do, lyrically you get pretty dark and are a lot more aggressive and emotionally confrontational, almost more like a punk band in attitude.  Do you ever feel pigeonholed by those descriptors?

MN: Yeah, I mean, I guess people are always gonna have some genre tag they want to stick on you but my hope is just that people listen beyond the genre trappings.  My labels both asked me what genre I wanted to be tagged for on iTunes and I was like “I don’t fucking know…. I guess like, alternative rock, just don’t put folk, whatever you do”.  And they were like “okay, okay, we got it”.

AF: How did your connections with Sacred Bones and Bella Union come about?  Sacred Bones kind of has a reputation for associating with edgy projects.

MN: Well with Sacred Bones, when I finally was like “I can’t do this anymore, this self-releasing, I’m going to give up making music” it kind of dawned on me that maybe I should just try signing to another label.  So I went back through my emails and Caleb had written me years ago and I was like “Ohhhh, that’s that awesome label with Jim Jarmusch on it” and so I wrote him back and he said “Yeah, let’s do it!”  With Bella Union, I saw on Twitter that Simon Raymonde had played me on his radio show,l so my manager put me in touch with him.  It was really cool how it happened this late in my career to get signed to two really great record labels.  I feel like I’ve definitely earned it.

AF: It’s definitely been a long time coming. Do you feel like in working with the label they had any influence over the material or did you approach with the record already laid out?

MN: They definitely did not influence the material.  I finished the record and then gave it to them and they hadn’t heard any of the demos or anything like that.  It was really important to me to have 100% creative control.

AF: Was there anything about working with them that allowed you to do things you hadn’t done on prior records?

MN: No, I think I’ve always just done whatever I wanted to do.  That’s maybe gotten me into some trouble in the past.

AF: The new album is gorgeous.  I love how roomy it feels, the atmosphere built by the string arrangements.  Do you get to have a hand in the production at all?

MN: Well, no.  The producer’s name is Randall Dunn.  He’s worked with bands like Earth and Sunn O))) and he helped with that stuff.  I had written all the songs and all the harmony vocals that I sing on the record but instrumentation was a joint venture between Randall’s ideas and me saying “yes, that sounds like a good idea”.

AF: Was it hard for you to let someone else in on that process?

MN: No, because I’ve always worked with a producer on my records.  I think that word is confusing to people.  In the pop idiom the producer is very different than in the indie rock idiom.

AF: You’ve had a hand in a bunch of really great collaborations, working with Angel Olsen, and Emily Jane White to name a few.  What’s different about working on those sorts of projects?

MN: Well, they’re really different.  With Emily it was really just background vocals.  It wasn’t as much of a collaboration as I was a guest player.  With Angel it was different, it was more of a collaboration.  We got in touch after meeting years ago, and I wrote her to congratulate her on Acrobat and she was like “Oh, we should do songs together, let’s do covers” and so we sent cover songs back and forth over the internet to record those harmony vocals.  It was really fun; I like doing stuff like that, although it’s very different than doing my own work.  It’s probably less of an emotional investment.

AF: Do you have any collaborations coming up?

MN: Not a lot right now.  I’m hoping somebody gets in touch and says “Hey, why don’t you score my film?”

AF: You want to do film scores?

MN: Yeah, that would be really fun.

AF: What kind of film would you want to score?

MN: Just some kind of sad drama.  I think that would make the most sense.

Making Records and Mudpies With Vårmakon

On Saturday night, half of New York City filed into Grand Prospect Hall for DFA Records’ twelve-year annivesary party, hosted by the aural, modern day equivalent of Jay Gatsby – Red Bull Music Academy, who have been throwing insanely well curated parties, shows and talks in far-flung venues all over the city over the past month or so.  Tickets were hard to come by, released in bunches only to sell out immediately.  So if you couldn’t get one, or if, say, you don’t prefer the glossy synths and throbbing beats of Yacht, James Murphy, or Planningtorock so much as you do Pharmakon’s heart-rending shrieks or Vår’s punishing electronic wave of noise, then you did what around a hundred or so people did instead and crammed yourself into pop-up DIY venue The Rink.


At the former (possibly current?) photo studio, there were no laser beams.  Just a built-out loft with a sweep in one corner, covered in white plastic, Anthony Naples DJing remixes of the theme from Twin Peaks, a metal tub filled with water, and a pile of dirt.  That was, until Pharmakon and Vår took the stage, together (billed cleverly as Vårmakon), just after 11PM.  They wore matching white shirts and black pants that vaguely gave them the appearance of cater-waiters, but instead of rattling off the nightly specials with the skill of a Marlow & Sons pro, they hunched morbidly over a table of gear illuminated by red spotlights and took turns playing each others songs, each seamlessly blended into the next.

The event was hosted by Pitchfork and Sacred Bones Records, the latter of which just released Abandon (Pharmakon’s debut) and No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers (Vår’s first full-length).  As such, it was meant to serve as a release party, but toward the end of the set it turned into something a little more like Spa Castle; each member of Vår doused themselves in water and rubbed dirt all over their clean white shirts, faces, arms, each other.  When Margaret Chardiet finished performing “Crawling On Bruised Knees” (her quintessential set closer) she joined the boys in literally soiling themselves, then the group played one last song as a filthy whole.

varmakon1I’ll admit that antics like this make my job as a music writer and observer of musical happenings way, way easier.  It also makes Instagrammers blow up Twitter with pictures of Elias Rønnenfelt wearing a blindfold.  And that’s probably the goal Pitchfork and Sacred Bones had in mind when staging the whole thing.  It’s not that I wasn’t expecting something slightly controversial to occur during the performance after witnessing Vår’s onstage makeouts last summer.  But honestly, it would have been better if Vår had just played their record, which is phenomenally beautiful and heavy but has these very strange, ultra-gorgeous pop inflections.

And Pharmakon?  This woman does not need gimmicks.  Her voice, and her vision as an artist, have made my pulse quicken every single time I’ve had the pleasure of catching her riveting performances.  I liked the idea of the two entities collaborating, but I had imagined Chardiet’s signature shrieks over Vår’s dark, atmospheric washes, something new created by the act of playing collaboratively.  I almost heard in my head her voice blending with Loke Rahbek’s, or with Rønnenfelt’s, or the three of them singing (or screaming, or whatever) together.

Instead, I was reminded of Johnny Ray Rucker III, a goofball kid I went to art school with.  We referred to his girlfriend as Art Boobs because he hung all these naked pictures of her covered in fake blood up in the dorm hallway (it was with her consent; she was a bit unhinged as well).  I know art school is a magnet for weirdos, but even among weirdos this kid stood out as weirder then the rest.  Once, he announced a noise show he’d be performing by himself in the fluorescently-lit student center.  During it, he screamed, he writhed around on the ground, he mauled a perfectly innocent sandwich, and doused himself in chocolate syrup.  This is what Pitchfork has reduced Pharmakon and Vår to in my mind, and both are way, way better than that.varmakon4

So what’s behind the shenanigans?   Is social media to blame?  Are record labels and blogs and booking agents so desperate to generate buzz that they’ll encourage bands to forgo any emphasis on their music and turn its live iteration into a circus?  Should we veteran show-goers be glad that someone is giving us something to comment on, whether those comments are snarky or awed or some mix of both?  It’s hard to know for sure, and that’s one of the reasons it’s a weird and wonderful time to be in thick of it.  I might have found Vårmakon’s performance piece slightly trite, but I certainly enjoyed scrolling through my friends’ Vine feeds of the lasers over at Grand Prospect Hall.


On Saturday I had every intention of seeing Gap Dream and Grass Widow but had absolutely no energy left for anything not resembling sleep. My family was still in town and while it was wonderful it was still totally draining. I did make sure to catch the Sacred Bones showcase on Sunday at Glasslands, but didn’t get there until Vår were almost finished with their set.
As a side project of Danish band Iceage’s Elias Rønnenfelt, Vår could be considered a slightly darker and more electronic-based iteration of the hardcore punk for which Iceage is known. This show was supposed to be their New York debut but only a few days prior they’d played a raucous secret set at Wierd in which Rønnenfelt and bandmate Loke Rahbek made out to an instrumental track for almost ten minutes. When I arrived at Glasslands, the place was swathed in thick clouds emanating from multiple fog machines, and Vår was performing perhaps their best known single, “Hold Me In Your Arms”. The pounding beat and pleading vocals were not unlike an arrow through my chest, with any other senses obscured as they were by the dense fog.
I was slightly side-tracked by trying to locate my own crush, and by the time I found him Rønnenfelt and Rahbek were already locked in an embrace that made ours look pretty hetero-normative and not so Scandinavian, either, so we debated instead about whether their move was “brave” or “gimmicky”. The fact is that no matter how much I want a show-stopper like that to be commonplace, we live in a political climate where it’s still challenging to some. So challenge away, you beautiful Danish teenagers you.

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I borrowed this image from nyctaper, since it was way too dark & foggy for me to get photo or video of my own. Thanks nyctaper!

Amen Dunes played next, with Crystal Stilts to follow. But Amen Dunes’ set was admittedly less interesting to me at that point than going somewhere for a burger and flirting, so after they played a version of “Bedroom Drum” that (inexplicably) did NOT feature the essentially titular bass drum we took off.

Sacred Bones does a pretty awesome job forwarding the interests of the bands they represent; I think I’ve seen every band on that label play somewhere in Brooklyn or beyond at least once with exception of, I don’t know, Slug Guts? And maybe Pop. 1280 because I’m just not that into it. It’s not all that strange that label stalwarts Crystal Stilts headlined the show. But with all the buzz surrounding Vår, not to mention the fact that the band needed passports to get here, makes putting Amen Dunes above them on the bill a somewhat questionable move. After all, this was Vår’s official debut, and Amen Dunes plays NYC constantly. Then again, I can also go to Dumont anytime I like, so maybe there’s also something to be said for force of habit.