In April, Emerge Impact + Music comes to Las Vegas, bringing with it agroundbreaking new approach to the traditional festival. Its innovation isn’t in the way it will be complementing its musical acts with thought leaders and social impact — that sense of purpose is slowly being adopted by a number of festivals across the world — but more so in the way it’s curating these acts into a series of showcases that interweave the music and dialogues.
The festival was originally scheduled to debut in the fall, but its organizers chose to postpone in the wake of the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas. In doing so, Emerge lost some acts, but gained some others. Now, with the new lineup revealed, we thought we’d dig into it and speak to some of the artists about which we’re most excited. The five you’ll read about below — Madame Gandhi, Starcrawler, Lauren Ruth Ward, The Palms, and Lower Dens — span myriad genres and styles, but they all have one thing in common: They’re all on the verge of something big.
Kiran Gandhi’s life could’ve gone anywhere. Growing up, she oscillated between New York City and Bombay, India, while nursing a pair of passions that aren’t often mentioned in the same sentence: Music and mathematics. She studied the latter at Georgetown and, upon graduating, became Interscope Records’ first-ever digital analyst. A few years later, she scored an MBA from Harvard. Simultaneously, Gandhi drummed with the likes of Thievery Corporation and M.I.A., with whom she toured in support of 2013’s Matangi. Her future was a bright, sprawling breath of diverging paths.
Things began crystallizing in 2015 when Gandhi made headlines for free bleeding while running the London Marathon on her period. “There were two things that helped my decision to run free. Firstly, I thought, Oh god, I really don’t want to run a marathon with a tampon in, as it’s something I’ve never done before,” she told Buzzfeed at the time. “But it was also the fact I had to think about what other people would think of me that helped me make the decision. You shouldn’t have to worry about how you look for others on a marathon course. To me, that shed light on the fact there is no global conversation about periods.”
What came with that virality was what Gandhi describes as an “enormous responsibility” to embrace her sudden rise in influence. Soon, she debuted Madame Gandhi, the “vessel” by which she seeks to impart her message in ways that both provoke and inspire. “I have a very clear message as to what i think fourth-wave feminism is,” she tells me. “Therefore, it had to be my own project.”
In 2016, Gandhi released Voices, a five-track EP combining pop, trap, and hip-hop sounds with Gandhi’s bold, unapologetic feminism. The EP’s closer, “The Future Is Female”, serves as a fine primer for the striking ways in which she speaks truth through music.
Below, Gandhi elaborates on that message, the new music she’s gearing up to drop this year, and how her education continues to impact her career. She also discusses her upcoming performance at Emerge, which will mark the debut of a new collaboration with visual artist Dejha Ti that finds Gandhi inviting the audience into her in-studio process.
I hear you’re in the studio tomorrow. Can you share with us what you’re working on?
Yeah, I’m definitely working on new music. This time it’s gonna be a full-length album, though I shouldn’t — every time I say it’s gonna be a full-length, I waffle between other alternative ways of releasing some of the songs. But the idea is to try over the next couple months to finish off a lot of material we started in 2017 and put together the next body of work. I released my first record in 2016 at the end of the year and ended up just touring really aggressively on it throughout 2017. I was thinking I would be able to put out the second record last year, but the time just didn’t allow. I was in India, we were in Mexico City, we were all over the world. So, this year I’m aiming to put it out.
What can you tell us about your upcoming performance at Emerge?
We’re doing something we’ve never done before. I’m gonna be solo this time, and I’m gonna be focusing more on showing the live production of things. I often focus more on connecting with the audience — performing live, being on the drums, playing percussion — and I trade off being behind a laptop and, like, triggering all of the sounds on a very molecular level, or, like, demonstrating live how I created some of the sounds in my studio.
But that’s one of the biggest conversations I’m seeing in the industry right now, which is that when you are a producer and you are making really interesting, cool sounds in your studio, how much of that process do you wanna show in the live show? How much will that actually connect? For this show at Emerge, the focus is to recreate a version of my studio for the live show where, for 15 minutes, I’m going to be creating an electronic soundscape that will use midi to control lighting and live projections behind me through LED screens.
When I play the drums live, those are also going to trigger the lighting and the visual experience of the show. I rarely use visuals because I really like to connect with my audience, and I find that visuals can be distracting. But in the case of me being behind a laptop and focused on triggering something at a really precise level, you need something to supplement the show to create more of an audio visual experience. So that’s what we’re going for at Emerge.
Will you be improvising during the set?
Some of it will be improvising and some of it will be live remixing songs of mine that people may already know. I’ll be, like, processing and messing with the stems and the more minute parts of the actual track a lot.
Music, for me, is a means to an end. Music is the vessel by which I deliver my message. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been very passionate about gender relations, gender interactions, gender constructs, gender roles, hierarchy, equality. When I was young, I would watch the Power Rangers and understand that the men of the Power Rangers were given more roles than the girls. Or I would watch Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast and pick up on these constant themes of the princess being saved. And, even as a kid, I understood that that wasn’t the way I envisioned my own femininity. I thought women were amazing.
My mom is not being saved by my dad. My mom is the current breadwinner in the house. It just didn’t map. I went to an all-girls school where it was, for the most part, all female teachers. So the best mathematicians I knew were women. The best scientists, the best athletes I knew were all women. I would watch pop culture and just feel this problematic disconnect where all the women represented were oftentimes oversexualized or objectified or made to be this commodity that needed to be saved. That was what has motivated me my entire career to change some of those archetypes and stereotypes because they do influence younger generations and they do influence society. The music is one of several ways in which I think I do my work, but it’s currently my main focus.
Every day I feel like I try to use whatever my current means of communication is, whether it’s number-crunching at Interscope, whether it’s giving a speech, whether it’s writing either on my Instagram or writing proper, long-form essays for different publications, whether it’s speaking to a journalist like you, or whether it’s performing music. And, obviously, of all those different types of media, music is the one that caters to the emotions. Music is joyful, music is fun, music is uplifting, music based on a melody can shift someone chemically to be more open to receiving a message than if we were just having a debate that felt more politically charged and personal. These are the ways that music and activism are intertwined. I think music is the most effective way to create change and to generate empathy.
You’re also speaking at the festival as part of its Impact component. What will you be discussing? How does it tie into your music?
Part of my message, which is deeply intertwined with my feminism and not just for women but people of all genders, is that we have to invest in ourselves and educate ourselves in order to never be exploited. I went to Interscope for two years and worked my ass off to learn as much of the industry in that short period as I could. And then I went to business school at one of the most rigorous academic institutions you can imagine and learned the ins and outs of the business side so I can never feel exploited. Over the past four years, I’ve amplified my own production skills, creating sounds and making sound design and songs so that I would never feel this need to feel dependent on others.
How has #MeToo and #TimesUp helped to impact and evolve your message?
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Starcrawler’s dreams are coming true. What began as a two-piece experiment fueled by the sweat and fake blood of teenagers has blossomed into a peerless, practiced glam-rock quartet that’s too loud, too weird, and too goodto ignore. Less than two years since playing its first show, Starcrawler’s appeared on Elton John’s BBC 1 radio show, Dave Grohl’s inaugural Cal Jam, and probably a stage in your neck of the woods. They’re currently touring North America and will soon be bringing their show to Japan and this year’s SXSW festival. Last week, they took the stage at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, the same venue drummer Austin Smith used to sneak into when he lived in the Windy City. Their dreams are coming true.
In January, the band released its self-titled debut, a 10-track maelstrom of power chords and fuck-all theatrics that evoke that pre-grunge era when MTV and parental advisory labels still meant something. Their music is unabashedly vulgar, both lyrically and sonically, and singer Arrow de Wilde’s combative, arachnoid stage presence is designed to milk it for every ounce of sleaze. It’s a wild thing to watch, this seesawing gaggle of arms, legs, and eyeballs, enough to make you remember that music like this used to terrify your parents.
Starcrawler will soon storm the Vegas strip as part of the Emerge lineup. In advance of their performance, we talked to Smith about the band’s new album, what producer Ryan Adams brought to it, and the origins of their glamtastic name.
How’s the tour going? You’re in Philly right now?
It’s pretty good. We just had our first night two nights ago in Boston. Played to a pretty good room.
You’re well-established in LA, but how do crowds outside the city tend to respond to your sound and stage show?
It’s a mixed bag sometimes. It’s either, like, people love it and they’re feeding off the energy of the crowd and going wild, or they’re interested but not doing anything because they’re kind of in awe of what they’re seeing. People were crazy for a few songs in Boston, but then for the rest of the show, after each song, it was almost silent. There was this sense of, like, “What did i just see?” It was so cool for them to be there, but at the same time I’m always wondering what they’re thinking.
You just released your debut LP. How would you say it all came together?
There were a few songs ready to go, and then we did demos with a friend of ours, Steve McDonald from Redd Kross. After we did that we had enough leeway to go to a label, figure some stuff out, and then once we had a bit more traction with label stuff, we went in the studio with Ryan Adams.
We had about four or five songs written, and, after that, we had some more time to sit down, write a few more songs, go in to record, think about them, go in and write a few more songs. It was that process over the course of five or six months, because we were only recording on days that he had off. It was like, he has one day off in February, so we’d go and record, like, four tracks or something like that.
And then he’s on tour for a month and then, in, say, March, we go back and record. It was all very spread out, but in a weird way it really helped us because we were able to record, listen — like, really listen because we had a lot of time to — and then go, oh, ya know, maybe we need to change this or do something like that and then go back and really hone it in. It was a labor of love, I guess.
What would you say Ryan Adams brought to the album? What about his production style suited your band?
I think it was about simplicity. “Simplicity” was the word and the idea he was trying to help us understand. A lot of the parts we had written, whether it be drums, guitar, bass, they were very complicated, and he was like, “Look, people don’t actually wanna hear that. They just wanna hear something simple.” We were like, okay, let’s try to break this down, and, once we did, the songs actually came to what they are today. I think that’s where he helped us the most.
How did you all come together? And how in sync were you in terms of your sound right off the bat?
How the band formed was that Arrow and I met each other through mutual friends, and we started the band just as drums and vocals. We were hanging out, trying to mess around for a while, and we had, like, one song written. Then she met Henri at her high school, and he came in about three or four months after it was just Arrow and I.
We started to write some more songs, did some demos, and then played two shows with a friend of Arrow’s on bass. She couldn’t stay with us because she was in another band but Tim, our current bassist, came in and now he’s a permanent member. It’s weird. We have very similar music tastes, but then sometimes very different music tastes. Really, I think it’s just because we’re all good musicians we were able to come together and work really well.
How did the name Starcrawler come about?
Me doing some random word association in my room one night. I remember sitting with Arrow for probably an hour, like, maybe one of the first or second times we hung out, just going through weird, hippie spiritual books trying to find weird words that sounded cool together. I’m sure every band’s done that. And then a month went by and nothing happened and right before our first show in 2016, like, a week before, we realized we needed a name. So, for six hours straight, I just sat down and started writing down names I liked. Starcrawler came up and I showed it to Arrow and she was like, “Oh, that actually sounds not terrible.”
The meaning remains a secret, though. We can’t tell anyone the meaning.
What names didn’t make the cut?
Starcreeper. Some that you’re just like, “Dude, no.” Everyone has that moment where they’re like, “I’ve got a cool band name: Demon Smoke.” And it’s like, no. No one would name their band that.
How did your stage show come together? Was it wild from the get-go? Do you see it evolving?
In one way, it’s always evolving. Arrow always had this idea to have a stage show and have a stage presence. I mean, the first show we played she had, like, fake blood and a hospital gown on. We always had this idea that everything should be getting someone’s attention, and we’ve invited new stuff in — like, Arrow’s got new costumes and new props, so just look at us in a year and we’ll probably have rhinestone swords or something crazy.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
LAUREN RUTH WARD
“I think all of us humans are definitely going through the emotions of being genuinely terrified all the time, and to not let the bad guys win is to move forward and not let it affect you. Right?” Lauren Ruth Ward stretches out that last word, hesitance in her voice. We’re talking about September’s deadly mass shooting, Emerge’s postponement and revival, and the ways in which we as a society struggle with reclaiming that which has been tainted by tragedy. What she’s saying is that the narrative of moving on unaffected is a myth, that to move forward is not to move on but to persevere. Perseverance, it turns out, is a running theme of her life and career.
When she talks, Ward weaves in and out of the past and present, telling stories of her own evolution that can’t be separated from what came before. Her lyrics are similarly unmoored, with her rich, raspy voice cycling between evocative imagery, anguished pleas, and direct addresses to both the subject and the listener. All of it, her conversation and her music, unfolds with a sense of urgency that’s anything but static. There’s a sense of momentum to Ward that’s infectious and optimistic.
Though her early music was spare and plaintive, often just her and a guitar, Ward’s music began to take on a new dimension when she paired up with multi-instrumentalist Eddie Rivera. Together, the pair crafted her current brand of swinging, bluesy pop-rock, the kind that you’ll see Ward shouting atop bars at her raucous live shows. In February, Ward released her cathartic debut LP, Well, Hell, as well as a Noisetrade EP of b-sides.
In advance of what’s sure to be a wild set at Emerge, we spoke to Ward about the growth she found in collaboration, her side gig as a hairdresser, and the freedom to be found in a wireless microphone.
So you just dropped Well, Hell, your debut LP. How would you describe the journey towards its release?
It was really about coming into myself as a musician. I moved out here in January 2015, and I wasn’t doing music other than writing in my room and singing songs at house parties and stuff. I hadn’t really healed certain wounds of wanting to start a band back in Maryland and people dropping off the face of the earth right when I get a cool show or want to record a couple songs.
Once Eddie and I started writing together, it was very emotional for me, just realizing that I now had this person that I wanted to depend on. I’m very independent so dependence is a scary thing for me. I was like, “Eddie, I’m gonna let you in.”
How did you two meet?
We actually met at my EP release party in 2015. He was dating this chick, Mary Alice, who’s a good friend from DC, and I actually saw Eddie’s band play a bunch of times there. He was in this psych-rock band called Paper House, and was super shy. We never met. Now, we talk about how we’d been to, like, 20 parties together. But, yeah, Mary Alice moved out here right around the time I did, and she was, like, “You know what, Eddie’s about to move out here. He’s quitting Paper House and he really wants to be involved in music, but he needs a buffer.” And so we met at my EP release show, and I needed a bassist at the time because I was playing guitar on everything. So he was my bassist for a few shows, and then one day at practice he was noodling around on guitar, and I was like, “How dare you let me guitar in front of you?”
So would you say the album is the culmination of you trying to find the right collaborator? Like, you wanted a band and now you have it?
Well, I don’t like to want anything. It’s not powerful. I got lucky because I didn’t get to the point of need. There’s two reasons I wanted a band: One, I was getting bored with myself, with my guitar capabilities. Two, I wanted to play bigger venues. As a baby band, you are a permanent opener if you are of the “folk” persuasion. And I wanted to play louder and really let go.
The one thing about my live show right now that was totally not planned was me eventually just being like, “Eddie, I don’t even wanna play guitar on this song.” I just wanna put the guitar down. I love to dance. I’m animated when I speak. My girlfriend, (singer and songwriter) LP, gave me her spare wireless microphone in December of 2016.
It was December 20th, 2016, and she gave me her wireless mic, and I was up on that bar within a song and was just having so much fun. I had told Eddie, “I’m scared. We’re not even anybody and I’m already bored.” Like, I was finding myself doing the same dance moves to the same lyrics, and, at certain moments, I was getting bored. I needed something, and then the cordless mic like…
It unleashed you.
Yeah. It just happens. It’s fun and then all of a sudden the blogs are like, “She’s running around on the bar.” I was, like, “Holy smokes, I’m a frontwoman. This is neat.” So, that’s been like the past year of my life.
Would you say your live shows are spontaneous? Each night’s a little bit different?
Yeah, totally, and that’s very purposeful. You gotta mix it up. I would go crazy if we did the exact same thing every show. When I’m on tour, I’m gonna plan, like, three setlists.
You moved to LA from Baltimore. What drew you to the city? Opportunity?
I was never one of the people who’s like, “One day I will move to California.” It was a culmination of things. Wanting a change in general in life. I felt really guilty, being bored with my life because my life was really fucking awesome. I was making killer money, I had more than enough clients. I was thriving in the career I had worked for in my teenage years into adulthood.
And then I made a YouTube and my first manager found me and she was in California. She got me in some writing sessions and I was like, I’ll give this a shot but none of it is feeling right. Things were getting done at a glacier’s pace because I wasn’t in California doing, ya know, anything. And I hit my moment of officially being, like, “I’m unhappy. I’m bored. I’m going to move to California.” I was also in the midst of going through a breakup so my spirit was a little worn.
You’re also a hairdresser. Has that proven to be a pretty flexible career to build around your music?
Oh yeah. I worked at Rudy’s Barbershop for almost three years, and then just recently, like a couple of months ago, I started just picking up shifts because I’ve gotten so busy. I pick up shifts for my color clients, and right now I’m cutting in my backyard underneath a couple of clementine trees, which is my favorite. I do about two to five clients a day. It’s a lot of friends. Very word of mouth.
Doing hair is a creative release. It’s the same thing that happens onstage — you’re aware of your body, you’re creating something you care about, you’re trying to make someone happy by the end of it. And what I’ve really been able to get from doing it is people skills. You know that saying that everyone should work a service job once in their life? I wish everyone could be a hairstylist for just a year. Maybe through Christmas season and be fully booked. And then you can talk to me.
Emerge is a festival centered around discovery. Are there any bands you’re stoked to see?
Is Starcrawler still on it? They’re dope. Fellow Los Angelenos. I don’t know them. We’ve just played a show together a year ago. Arrow is dope. I mean, please, can there be more marvelous female creatures like her onstage being so deliciously vulgar and making people’s wheels turn?
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If you’ve encountered the fetching, peripatetic music of The Palms, it was probably online. The LA two-piece comprised of Johnny Zambetti and Ben Rothbard are keenly aware of the state of the modern music industry, namely the ways in which streaming and video have disrupted a space that was once defined by routine album releases and exhausting tours. As such, the band is, as Rothbard puts it, “studio-focused” and working to constantly refine their “portfolio”: songs, collaborations, music videos, etc. Why play to build a fanbase with shows at empty venues when the audience is already sitting in front of their smartphones?
The Palms’ music resists tradition in much the same manner as they’re marketing strategy. While undeniably pop in terms of its hooks and sway, the duo’s tracks indulge in hip-hop grooves, bluesy melodies, and the chill strums of modern indie rock. “We played The Chronic as much as we did 40oz. to Freedom or Legends by Bob Marley,” Zambetti tells me. It’s okay if all those influences come out in your music. You don’t have to fit into one box anymore.”
Previously, Rothbard and Zambetti played in the melodic alt-rock outfit Terraplane Sun, a band that went far in helping them discover just what exactly they wanted from a career in music. And, really, what that was was freedom, both in terms of breaking from the tyranny of genre and in the roundabout album cycle. Now, they choose to operate independently, with no label or publicist. It hasn’t hurt them, either; their striking video for the single “Push Off” has well over a million views on YouTube, while the bouncy, absurdly catchy “Levitate” is nipping at the heels of nearly 5 million streams on Spotify.
Late last year, the band shared Mulholland Dr., a full-length release they call a mixtape. If you’re catching them at Emerge, however, don’t expect the setlist to be comprised entirely of those songs. Another mixtape is due for release later this year, and, as they told me when I spoke to Zambetti and Rothbard over the phone, the material just keeps coming. Read on below for more thoughts on their music, the importance of a videographer, and the benefits of being an extra in Hollywood.
I’d love to start by talking about your recent mixtape, Mulholland Dr. When you were first releasing music, you guys were really focused on singles. Why the decision to release a mixtape?
Ben Rothbard: One of the discussions that we, and a lot of the industry, have been having for years now is where the music industry is at as far as how people release music. There’s different philosophies, but it’s very singles-based still these days. We were sitting on a lot of music that we really dug, and the idea of just releasing our music one song at a time felt like we were limiting ourselves. We also wanted to show how prolific we’ve been as well, and I think that our music makes more sense as a body of work than it does in releasing it as singles. That’s the way I look at it.
Johnny Zambetti: In the early days of the band, we were also just testing the waters. Then we slipped into our own rhythm and evolved to a point where we started cranking out songs. Also, being completely independent, we have complete freedom to do whatever the hell we want. We don’t have to wait for a single to have a release and then drop our debut album and all that stuff, too. We’re pulling from hip-hop, where there’s three mixtapes in between albums. We have a ton of music. There’s no reason to sit on it. It doesn’t do it any good sitting on a hard drive.
How would you say you both approach the music business now versus when you were in Terraplane Sun?
BR: Terraplane Sun were alternative, so that’s the world we were in. We came up with bands like the Mowglis and Grouplove and the Record Company and all this stuff that kind of fit into a box. It just seemed like that in that world you had to release an EP and then an album and so on. In the hip-hop world, it’s different. You release a mixtape, some singles. Like the way Chance [the Rapper] did it.
JZ: Brockhampton now, too. There’s no playbook anymore.
So how would you describe the playbook you’re writing? When might you drop an “official” LP?
JZ: I don’t think we’ll drop an LP until it’s the right time, you know? Until then, we’re planning on dropping another mixtape hopefully within the next couple months. We’ve got a ton of songs we’ve written since [Mulholland Dr.], and we’re gonna start getting on the road soon.
Will 2018 be a big touring year for you?
BR: We hope so. It’s really difficult being independent, and touring is one of the biggest hurdles because you don’t have the backing of a label. We’re just focused on building our portfolio and content, really. I think content, in general, is the key, you know? Videos and merch and all that stuff is just as important as the music. Hopefully we’re building it up enough to where we have to get on these tours because we bring value.
You guys definitely put a lot of work into making creative, attention-grabbing music videos.
JZ: It seems like the idea of the music scene has changed. Instead of bands all getting together and helping each other out, I feel like it’s videographers and bands teaming up. That’s kind of the new scene. “Who’s your graphic design guy? Who is creative director?” Equipment is so much cheaper now that everyone can produce this really high-quality stuff from their homes, so we’re seeing these cliques of creatives coming together to boost their whole [presence]. That’s a big difference that I’ve seen come to fruition over the past few years.
BR: It’s basically like creating your own makeshift label. Labels will be obsolete. The indies will stick around, but kids coming up these days, they’re seeing how it’s being done. You form these collectives, really creative people, and you crank out super high-quality art on your own for relatively cheap. And you’re competing with the majors and there’s nothing they can do about it. They have money and promotion, but once we can figure that out, they’re pretty much worthless.
JZ: YouTube’s still the number one place people go to to listen to music, so if you’re making your own videos and figuring out how to really promote and funnel people towards that, then you can make some real money.
So the decision to not sign with a label is to ensure you stay in control of your band’s destiny?
BR: I mean, we went through it with our old band. We signed with a label, we got screwed, we got shelved. In that process, we realized what we would need from a label and what we don’t need. We’re not opposed to signing with a label that we highly respect. There’s some great labels out there, and just by signing with them you’re getting opportunities because you’re with this family, but other than that … I mean, we’re getting money through Spotify, and that’s money you would never see if you were with a label. You can get half a million monthly listeners, and that turns into real money if you actually own the music, which is exciting.
JZ: It’s about leverage. We’re trying to build it up to the point where any deal we make is favorable to what our demands are. There’s no compromise on anything until it’s exactly how we want it to be.
Emerge is a festival that’s really centered on social impact and exploring relevant ideas. Would you say that goal aligns with your own music?
JZ: We make a strong point to be pretty political in a lot of our stuff, whether people pick up on it or not. If you find that in there, kudos, but we wanna make sure we’re doing our job as artists with a platform.
Has the current political climate impacted your current material?
JZ: One million percent. It’s affected the old material that’s already out; it’s affecting the new material. It’s impossible for it not to. It’s our duty to do that. We live by the Nina Simone quote: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” It’s really stupid and selfish as an artist to not do that.
BR: If you listen to indie bands or alternative stations, you’d be hard-pressed to find one song that has any relevant substance. That’s why you just can’t touch hip-hop. They’re speaking to the times, whether it’s Migos or whether it’s Kendrick, they’ve become synonymous with culture.
Is it true you met on the set of an Allstate insurance commercial?
JZ: It’s very true, yeah.
Were you guys ever serious about being actors?
JZ: Oh, hell no. We were extras.
BR: It’s another one of those things you kind of get into growing up in LA on the west side. As an artist, it’s a great way to go make some extra cash. I still do it sometimes. I was in a WalMart commercial the other day.
JZ: In some places, you know someone who can get you a job at the steel mill. If you live in LA, you know someone who can get you a job working in entertainment.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard much from Baltimore indie outfit Lower Dens as of late, the reason is a good one: A new album is on the way. When I spoke to the band’s Jana Hunter, they were recording in the warm confines of Los Angeles, where the songwriter’s also been enjoying a respite from the bitter Baltimore winter.
This new record will be the band’s fourth, following 2015’s Escape from Evil, itself an album that sought to shake off some of the krautrock of its predecessor, Nootropics, in favor of a cleaner, more pop-focused sound. Its airy synths and sunlit melodies cut a striking profile against Hunter’s forceful, cleaving vocals, resulting in a collection of pop songs that carry an unexpected weight.
Hunter’s pop sensibilities have continued to blossom as of late. Lower Dens played a series of ABBA covers in conjunction with Northside Festival and Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series last year, and, as Hunter tells me over the phone, they’re itching to be played again. Hunter isn’t sure whether they’ll make the setlist at Emerge, but the artist will still have plenty to offer, including a slot as one of the festival’s featured speakers.
Read on for details on Lower Dens’ new album, ABBA’s influence, and Hunter’s thoughts on music festivals.
You said you’re on the west coast right now. Are you working on some new music out there? Will we hear any of it at Emerge in April?
Yeah. We are working on a new record. I don’t know if we’re going to try and perform any of it as soon as April, but it’s tempting. We’ve been playing the same songs for a while. I’ve been working on [the new album] pretty constantly and consistently for a long time, and Nate [Nelson] and I haven’t even really talked about what we want to do at the festival, although I’m kind of inclined to throw in … we worked with a bunch of ABBA covers last year. I kind of want to put some of those in the set.
What drove you to pay tribute to ABBA in that way?
Well, we had to choose from the catalog of 33 1/3 books. [Nate and I] both individually scanned through and ABBA was one that we both pointed to. Both of us were mildly obsessed with that band when we were younger, so it was very fun, a natural thing. We both were really excited about it.
Would you say ABBA’s had any influence on the music you make?
JH: I always say with influences that it’s a cumulative thing. It’s everything I’ve listened to, not even just music. But i do think that ABBA probably had a strong influence on me. It was one of the only bands that both of my parents liked, and they would play it all the time. And it was playing at my house like right around when I was getting into music when I was a kid. They’re a band that’s really focused on putting things together in such a tight and perfect way that it becomes like a seamless thing. And I do think that that probably had a strong influence on me because that’s definitely something that I’m kind of obsessed with. It was a real joy to go back and listen to it now as an adult really carefully and realize what they were doing.
What can we expect from your next record? What sounds are you playing with right now? Your latest work has felt heavily influenced by new wave.
JH: There always will be some for me that have an ’80s influence because thats what was around when I was a kid, but then, I don’t know, there are a lot of disparate styles on this record. It’s even more synth-based than the last record was.
I was reading about how you once desired to be a political journalist, and you’ve used your platform to share your thoughts on the political climate. How would you say the rise of Trumpism in the current landscape has impacted your lyrics and music?
JH: I think it’s just impossible to not consciously be affected. We definitely have songs on this record that are more obviously political than anything we’ve done prior.
Were you drawn to Emerge because of its focus on integrating social impact with art?
JH: Yeah, for sure. I don’t see how it couldn’t appeal to musicians. We want our songs to have meaning, you know? We want them to have some kind of impact. The hope is always that it’s danceable, but also that it carries something substantial and significant for people. I’m really curious to see how that works. It’s ambitious, I think, to try to get people involved critically in art and cultural criticism.
I think for a lot of people that will be not just something that draws them in, but will be something that could potentially give them access to real community and ideas that enrich their lives. That kind of shit is more what people are looking for. People want to invest their minds and hearts in things that matter to them, more now it seems than when I was younger.
Have you played a lot of festivals?
JH: Sure. I kind of hate it, but it’s just because trying to perform in the midst of a festival is always kind of a crazy shit-show. There’s always complications with sound and everyone’s trying to get things done in a short amount of time. That’s just the nature of festivals. The only ones I’ve ever had a really good time with were typically about more than just getting wasted for four days straight. And I think that’s kind of what’s going on [at Emerge]. So I’m looking forward to it more than I would other festivals.