PREMIERE: Mountainess Eulogizes Songs Ruined by Bad Break-Ups With “Soundtrack”

Photo Credit: Sasha Pedro

It feels almost like a cruel fate for anyone who cares deeply about music: we tend to build entire relationships with like-minded individuals around the songs we bond over. From attending concerts with loved ones to sharing mixtapes that say what we can’t, or even just putting on a record while making dinner (or making out), music helps us build stronger connections. It’s not until those relationships deteriorate, souring memories and ruining those songs in the process, that we see just how disastrous this can be. When a song brings back the memory of love lost, sometimes it’s too painful to ever listen to that song again.

Emily Goldstein, who releases her solo work under the moniker Mountainess, has experienced this all-too-common scenario firsthand. Her latest single, “Soundtrack,” premiering today via Audiofemme, unearths the artist’s long-buried aversions to Sam Cooke and Mount Eerie, artists she couldn’t listen to for years following a bad break-up with a former bandmate. “‘You Send Me’ had been our song. It wasn’t even just that song – I couldn’t listen to Sam Cooke, who has one of my favorite voices ever. It just brought me back immediately,” Goldstein remembers. She started writing “Soundtrack” years later, when she was finally able to revisit that music, and could reflect on its effect over her without the residual pain of the break-up. “I recognize that some of that power – well, all of that power – is kind of given in a way, but it can feel like [an ex can] take the things you love,” she says. “You don’t just lose them and the relationship, you lose anything that you associated with the relationship.”

She felt immediate validation when she shared “Soundtrack” in a songwriting workshop at Brown University, and the other attendees said they’d been through it, too. “That was a very lovely feeling to have. It’s really easy to write stuff and feel like other people are gonna connect to it because they share your experiences, but then they don’t all the time,” Goldstein confides. “I feel like when you have that moment with a song that becomes such an important form of connection.”

Over warbly synth, with crystal-clear delivery, Mountainess expresses relatable nuggets of wisdom: “I let you build the soundtrack/I wish I hadn’t done that/You claimed and gave those tunes with a reckless abandon/Now even when they’re droning low in some department store/You’re there insisting the songs are yours.” A visualizer by longtime Mountainess co-conspirator Hope Anderson scrawls Goldstein’s poignant lyrics across the label of a cassette tape, the perfect hit of heartfelt nostalgia for those pre-streaming days, when personalized mixes stood in for love letters.

“Soundtrack” is the third single from Goldstein’s second Mountainess EP, out February 12. Its five tracks center on the empowerment she felt after moving from Boston to Rhode Island and completing her first EP as a solo performer, which she released in 2017. The ambitious self-titled debut saw her exploring a lost family history over a backdrop of swooning string arrangements, a decision she pursued in an effort to differentiate her musical output from the “dramatic, sort of theatrical rock” she played with her previous band.

Striking out alone was exciting, but scary at first, she says. “I’d always had collaborators – and they’d always been male collaborators. And I just didn’t feel very confident in my ability to produce anything without their feedback,” she admits. “Ultimately, [Mountainess] has grown to have collaborators in it, but it started out just as me playing keyboard in the various folky venues around Providence.”

Though proud of her debut and what she’d learned from the process, the emotional weight of the material and the belabored process of adding strings prompted a shift in direction. “After doing it, it was like, oh wow, I wanna write things that feel a little more pop,” Goldstein says. “I wanted to move toward [themes of] empowerment, cause I think I was a feeling more empowered after writing that [first EP]. I had to get that out of my system, but it was very heavy and emotionally raw.”

Goldstein’s hard-won confidence is apparent from the first track on the new EP, which kicks off with “Attention,” a single she released in September. Her straightforward, triumphant vocal emphasizes her background in musical theater, while she sings clever turns of phrase about the travails of performing for a living: “For every guy who thought I’d die without his bland suggestion/To be less or more or something for his dubious affection/Well, I won’t apologize/for chewing the scenery/Your attention, please!”

“I had this experience a lot, but playing alone kind of amplified it: every time I played, I would get unsolicited feedback, always from white dudes. I actually started keeping a little journal of it. Sometimes it was even positive, but none of it felt good to receive,” Goldstein says. “Being a performer, being also a bit of an introvert in my private life, I am asking for attention – that song is about exploring what I want out of that attention and setting my boundaries within that.”

Another single from the EP, the doo-wop infused “Vacation,” was written during a residency in Martha’s Vineyard, which Goldstein spent creating an as-yet unproduced musical based on Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “It was such a surreal experience. It was February [2019], I was completely alone for that whole week, and being around that kind of wealth created this character that could just vacation [on a whim],” Goldstein explains. Normally composing on keys, “Vacation” was the first song she’s written on guitar, which she says freed her up to go in a different direction with it. The kitschy, light-hearted lyric video was shot by her partner, Anthony Savino, who also plays on the EP alongside drummer John Faraone and producer Bradford Krieger.

The EP was recorded at Big Nice Studio in Lincoln, Rhode Island, right before the pandemic hit. It just so happened that around the same time, Goldstein moved again – this time to Los Angeles, to work in animation. As surreal as it was settling into a new city during lockdown, in some ways it mirrors the escapist fantasy baked into the sun-kissed verses on “Vacation”: “Do you even miss me?/Everything is new here, but it’s somehow dreary/I sent you a postcard with no return address/I haven’t heard back yet…”

What’s clear across all three singles is Goldstein’s gift with words. “It’s just the way I’m most comfortable expressing myself; I think I’m more comfortable writing my lyrics than I am talking! It feels very natural,” she says with a laugh. “I have an English teacher mom, so I do have a family that’s big on expressing yourself with your words. I have a pretty non-musical family, so music was definitely like a second language, and I think that’s why lyrics come first – that’s the first path towards expressing myself.”

However wise Mountainess sounds as she dispenses her cautionary tale on “Soundtrack,” she recognizes that certain pitfalls are hard to avoid. “I have not followed my own advice at all! I had this idea that I was just going to maybe pursue people whose lives didn’t revolve around music, but I have not been successful in keeping that,” she laughs. “If music is what you love, it’s really one of the major driving forces towards connection. I do think, just like the break-up itself, it takes time – but eventually you will be able to come back to the songs. They’ll maybe hold a little bit of an ache, but sometimes, that ache is good. Maybe it actually ends up adding some good weight to those songs.”

Follow Mountainess on Facebook for ongoing updates.

L.A. DJ Francesca Harding Spins Sam Cooke’s Legacy

Photo Credit: Sarah Taylor

Los Angeles-based DJ and music supervisor Francesca Harding had been wanting to dive deep into her favorite artists’ discographies. “This is a perfect time,” she says on a recent phone call; while clubs and bars in L.A. have closed and the people who frequent them are staying at home, Harding went to work, digging into the catalog of her favorite singer, Sam Cooke.

“I’ve been falling down this Sam Cooke rabbit hole,” Harding says. “He’s always been this large figure for me in terms of what it means to be authentic, what it means to hold space,” she says. “I really feel that what he did is still an example that we can all look to, even today.” That’s something we can all appreciate thanks to Harding’s latest mix, “Francesca Presents: Sam Cooke,” premiering today on Audiofemme. She intends this to be the first in a series of listening sessions dedicated to specific artists.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, Cooke wrote and recorded hit singles like “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” He was an innovator, often considered to be one of pioneers of ’60s soul music, and even started a record label focused on releasing other artists’ music. Cooke was also a civil rights activist; his song “A Change Is Gonna Come” became an anthem of the era. Although his life was tragically cut short in 1964, his music has endured in the decades that followed. His songs have been frequently covered and his recordings sampled. All of that presented Harding with a challenge: “How do you do a best of mix when someone has shifted culture with their music in such significant ways?”

Harding, who wrote an artist statement about the mix that describes her personal connections to Cooke’s music, recalls hearing the singer as a child, when her mom would listen to his music. “It stays with us,” she says. “It forms us and we end up returning to it and loving it.”

As a DJ, Harding became known for playing Afro-Latin music and global bass with parties like Bodega and CULos Angeles. About two years ago, she began working in music supervision for film and television. “Luckily, for me, I have to sit down and go a little bit deeper in music just for the job description,” she says. But, through this mix, Harding gives listeners a chance to dive into Cooke’s repertoire with her.

Initially, Harding thought about organizing the mix like a more traditional club mix, starting with slower tempo songs, building up and then slowing down again. When she first recorded it that way, though, it didn’t work for her. “In doing this Sam Cooke deep dive, I kept coming across audio with him speaking and I’m like, this is perfect,” says Harding. “I was able to use Logic to chop up that audio to break up some of the segues of the mix.” She adds, “I like listening to him chit-chat and talk about soul music or what it means to be an artist.”

Harding cleverly follows various threads of Cooke’s career in a way that makes it easier for listeners to pick up. While it began as research project for herself, she’s hopeful that others might hear it and want to dig into Cooke’s work on their own, especially now that traditional in-person channels for experiencing music are on hold for an indefinite period of time.

“There is so much music to ingest and digest. If there’s ever a time for us to do that, I think it’s right now,” Harding says. “We’re in our homes. A lot of us aren’t working and we want the music. We’re hungry for the music. There’s so much music and so many genres out there.”

She’s curious to see how this extended period of listening to music at home will impact nightlife when it reopens. “I’m kind of excited about what will come out of this in terms of listeners, audiences, shaping their tastes because they’ve had more time to consume different types of music. What will it look like after this?” she says. “If I play Sam Cooke at midnight, maybe people will be more receptive to it because of this time. It will be really interesting to see how this all translates to the dance floor, for sure.”

It’s a mix made for anyone, but also one that comes from a very personal passion. “He’s such a gift and has been since I was young,” she says. “I just wanted to honor that gift.”

Follow Francesca Harding on Instagram for ongoing updates.

ONLY NOISE: Love Songs

If you were lucky enough to get them, you must admit: by now the chocolates have been eaten, and the roses are beginning to droop. Maybe there are a few once-bitten, raspberry cream rejects left in that heart-shaped box of truffles your main squeeze gave you, but they will retire to the trash can only a few days before the flowers. Valentine’s Day was this week, and if you couldn’t guess by my tone (and annual, grumpy V-Day column), the only thing I did was my laundry. Afterwards, I ate a shrimp Panang curry for one, and listened to the stories of my one true love: NPR.

I know what you must be thinking, and you’re right. Being a single human in New York is thrilling. Despite all of my sarcasm, it really can be. You don’t have to answer to anyone outside of work. You get to take yourself to dinner and read a book instead of forcing conversation or watching your date scroll through his Instagram feed. You can travel spontaneously, flirt at will, and cat-sit for your married friends with better apartments. But societal constructs and the bulk of pop culture are not here to make single people feel better. Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional star of TV’s Sex and the City and patron saint of single ladies for years, gets hitched in the series’ first film adaptation. In the Fifty Shades trilogy, what’s disguised as a taboo romance ultimately ends in marital normalcy, including the overbearing husband, kids, big house, etc. Off the top of my head, I can probably think of two romantic comedies (and I’ve seen a surprising amount of them) that ended realistically, with the lovers in question going their separate ways.

But music, as a medium, is far more honest about the harsh realities and banalities of love. The love song does not promise a happy ending. In fact, converse to romantic comedies, I can barely think of a love song that ends well. The most memorable ones end horribly, or at the very least, unresolved. Some convey longing for a relationship that never was and never will be. Others pick at the untidy details of a failing one, as if plucking wilted petals off a flower until only its bald center remains. The former yearning can be found in classic pop songs like Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” which, despite its blissful melody, is about the most extreme version of unrequited love. “I love a girl who doesn’t know I exist,” Cooke sings, which seems as hopeless as it does impossible. How can you really love someone when you’ve never had an interaction, let alone a date?

Cooke’s song maintains a promise reinforced by decades of film, television, and (some) pop songs: that if you could only get the person you desire to look at you, to kiss you, and to eventually love you, that everything will be ok. The movie ends with the first kiss. The TV show draws out and dramatizes the dating ritual for seasons on end. The song, however, has only so many minutes to tell a story, and nothing – not even a kiss – is ever guaranteed. To me, love songs have always felt like snapshots documenting individual phases of a relationship, or lack thereof, rather than the broader perspective visual storytelling can offer.

One master of these snapshots is Elvis Costello. Costello’s breakup songs are so biting I often wish he worked on commission to pen vengeful letters to exes. But he’s also capable of conveying the most vulnerable aspects of monogamy. Tracks like “Little Triggers” (from This Year’s Model) and “Different Finger” (a song about infidelity on an album called Trust) strip the varnish from matrimonial bliss. Costello succinctly captures the spiteful side of relationships in the first few lines of the former, when he sings of “Little triggers that you pull with your tongue;” if you don’t know exactly what he means, I suspect you have never dated, and had parents who hid their arguments well.

The love song is in a category unto itself, but it splinters into infinite subcategories spanning countless genres. The unrequited love song; the breakup song; the disintegrating-relationship-but-not-quite-breaking-up-yet song; the song about cheating; the song about being cheated on; the you-broke-my-heart-but-I-still-want-you-despite-having-no-rational-excuse-for-that song; the song about being so hurt, you pull the emotions plug and cut yourself off from ever loving again; I could sit here for days digging heartbroken anecdotes from the crevices of pop’s past. I could also list of some pure love songs, the ones that stay true to their title and end happily ever after. But who needs to hear those right now? The people lucky enough to be in love don’t need help this week. They got their chocolates and their flowers. And what do the rest of us get? I suppose almost every song ever written is a good place to start.

ONLY NOISE: A Year In Song

Certain songs have a way of tangling themselves in our days, weeks, and months, eventually embedding themselves in our psyche, forever to be associated with the particular time and place in which they meant the most to us. Here, Madison looks back on 2017 by recounting the songs that dominated each month of the year – sometimes because of the anticipation of a live show, sometimes after crate-digging yielded a new discovery, and sometimes, maybe too often, because they helped mend a broken heart. – Ed.

January: Austra, “Future Politics”

This song represented two facets of optimism at the start of a bleak year. One was that my generation, once so blasé and apolitical, was finally mobilizing and becoming informed. The second was that pop music felt like it would be radicalized in 2017. Austra made me feel like dancing was an act of dissent, and while I know intellectually that is an illusion, it was a welcome notion after the election of Donald Trump. It’s difficult to resist this track’s rubbery drum pads and laser beam synths, qualities that made the title track from Future Politics seem like the anthem for an era of awareness when it came out. While I can’t say it solved anything, at least Austra’s lead single had us looking to the future in time when the present seemed unbearable.

February: Sam Cooke, “Get Yourself Another Fool”

Ah, February: a month synonymous with frigid weather, annual depression, and Valentine’s Day. The latter has always been the bane of my existence, though this past annum has been slightly less miserable now that I am no longer designing lingerie (a cruel profession as a single woman). In February 2017, I was feeling bitter and slighted, and so I nursed my wounds with Sam Cooke’s “Get Yourself Another Fool” from 1969’s Night Beat. Its dry piano and walking bass line provided the perfect poison for a biting break up song. Just what I needed to hear come February 14th.

March: Xiu Xiu, “Wondering”
Solomon Burke, “I’ll Be Doggone”

March was a bonkers month. I got laid off from a job that would rehire and fire me within the next two months. I met a dream man who would break my heart in the next three. I ate frankincense at a drag queen party. The freedom, romance, and fear of March 2017 can only be summed up with two songs, the first being the irresistible pop cacophony of Xiu Xiu’s “Wondering.” The lead single off of this year’s Forget LP was a perfect combination of wild fury and glittering disco melodies to get me through an unmoored month.

Mid-March I found myself jobless and smitten in the dream man’s dining room. He handed me a beer and cued up Solomon Burke’s 1969 recording of “I’ll Be Doggone,” a song that despite its age, followed me for the remainder of 2017. I played it while cooking, tidying, and getting ready for a night out. Sometimes I would blast it when no one was home just so I could sing along. It was without a doubt the best old song I discovered this year. The fact that its discovery can only be attributed to one person in my life is unfortunate, but that’s just the joy and danger of music and memory.

April : Happyness, “Falling Down”

I’d been anticipating Happyness’ sophomore LP ever since I heard their debut, so when this year’s Write In was more somber than expected, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. After about a billion plays however, the record clearly fell under the “grower” category. Throughout Write In’s many rotations on my turntable this spring and summer, I fell in love with its opening track “Falling Down.”

“Falling Down” sounds like a late night observation, seen through too many layers of smoke and booze. Its hazy build of rhythm guitar is lulling, and remains so even when the drums finally kick in. It is a song that takes its time, and when bassist Jon EE Allan unleashes his half-awake croon and the squealing synths take over, the wait really pays off.

May: Blanck Mass, “Please”

“Please” is not only the sonic outlier on Blanck Mass’ third LP World Eater – it might just be Benjamin John Power’s magnum opus. This song dominated my May (and the remainder of 2017, truthfully) after I saw Power perform it at the Red Bull Music Academy for Sacred Bones’ 10-year anniversary gig. I was bewitched by his set, and though I loved the abrasive, blood-curdling songs in Power’s repertoire, “Please” was a dose of calm and beauty amidst the chaos – its gorgeous vocal melodies conflicting with shrapnel soundscapes and a choir of AI angels. “Please” is at once sorrowful, joyous, and frightening, which suited the state of 2017 all too well.

June: Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians

Summer is a strange time to seek out no wave compositions while everyone else is listening to “Despacito,” but I did so out of pure necessity. June was the beginning of a hellacious summer, one that commenced with heartbreak and culminated in underemployment and family catastrophe. I needed a break from evocative music, from songs that reminded me of a specific person, place, or time. I was on a quest for a song that made me feel nothing, and I found it in Steve Reich’s lauded hour-long piece. Its wash of polyrhythms and blips of human voice made a mosaic of sound – something that let me focus on every individual tile and the whole picture simultaneously, creating a calm that is the closest I’ve ever come to meditation.

July: Ocean Music, “When I Went to California”

This song was unfortunately stuck in my head for most of July. It isn’t unfortunate because it’s a bad song – it’s a good song – but one tied to an ill-fated evening. It was the kind of night typically reserved for rom-com screenplays, only with a far worse outcome.

It was a Tuesday. I thought it’d be nice to take myself out to a neighborhood club I’d never been to before. A date with myself, the sad last stab of a single lady nursing heartbreak. I wore lipstick. The headlining band was called Ocean Music, and their name sounded vaguely familiar, though I could not figure out why. I particularly enjoyed their sleepy ballad, “When I Went to California” as I listened to their Bandcamp offerings. It was enough to get me out of the house midweek.

I sidled up to the bar, ordered a Tecate, and before I could take a sip a man said my name. Only, it was my name with a question mark behind it, like, “Madison?” This is never a good sign. It was the man who’d just dumped me, and he was the opening act. I had, though accidentally, gone to his show, a mistake made even more comically tragic considering my profession. I stayed for the entire gig out of politeness and then left without saying goodbye. This song played as I walked out the door.

August: Leonard Cohen, “On the Level”

I spent most of August in the kitchen of my sister’s Washington farm. As reciprocity for feeding, housing, employing, and entertaining me all month, I thought it was only fair to do the goddamn dishes. The wooden shelving across from her kitchen sink is home to a Bose CD player, which has been occupied by Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker since he died in 2016. “On the Level” is one of my favorite songs on that record, and I now directly associate with my sister’s doublewide cast iron sink. When I was alone on dish duty I would crank the volume on the Bose and belt, “They oughta give my heart a medal, for lettin’ go of you,” scrubbing our coffee mugs to the beat.

September: Benjamin Clementine, “Phantom of Aleppoville”

This stirring piece of music was on heavy rotation during my late summer walks. The only problem with listening to Benjamin Clementine’s avant-pop-jazz masterpieces while shuffling around in public is that they inspire immense urges to dance. I cannot tell you how many spontaneous bursts of limb thrashing I resisted while listening to “Phantom of Aleppoville” beyond the walls of my apartment. It was difficult to remain disciplined, especially midway through the song when Clementine bursts into tango piano flair and spirited shouts. I managed to keep it together in public, but if you looked close enough you would see my hips twitching ever so slightly.

October: Diamanda Galás, “Pardon Me I’ve Got Someone to Kill”

I can’t imagine a better artist to listen to throughout October than the High Priestess of Darkness herself, Diamanda Galás. Before I even thought of naming her the Queen of Halloween, I was just excited to see Galás’ Halloween night set at Brooklyn’s Murmrr Theatre. In the lead-up to All Hallows Eve, “Pardon Me I’ve Got Someone to Kill“ was the perfect song to sing at the Weinsteins of the world – a kind of feminist power anthem cloaked in black magic.

November: Animal Collective, “Leaf House”

In the weeks before Animal Collective’s Avey Tare and Panda Bear reunited at Knockdown Center, I needed a refresher course on their 2004 record, Sung Tongs, which they would be playing in full for the first time live. I must have listened to opening track “Leaf House“ a hundred times in November, following its dizzying rhythms through subway tunnels and side streets en route to and from work. During the rush hour grind this song seemed to mirror and quell the chaos of the city simultaneously.

December: Bill Evans Trio, “Come Rain Or Come Shine”

I bought Bill Evans Trio’s Portrait In Jazz LP as a birthday present to myself in mid November, but I didn’t really get around to listening to it in full until late November and December, during which time it never left my turntable. It would seem from these blurbs that I am partial to opening tracks on albums, and the same applies to this record. Its first song, “Come Rain Or Come Shine” is exemplary of Evans’ diverse, elegant, and downright gorgeous playing. Watching this video of his trio performing the song in 1965, Evans’ facial expressions make it plain to see his immense passion for the music he so effortlessly makes.